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Brazil Beyond Football

A book lover’s guide to Brazil

About the author

Jane Ciabattari is a journalist and book critic based in New York and California who has written for The Boston Globe, The Daily Beast, NPR.org, The New York Times Book Review, The Guardian, The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, the Chicago Tribune, Salon, and the Paris Review. She is a vice president of the National Book Critics Circle, having served as its president from 2008-11, and is the author of the short story collection Stealing the Fire.

(Peeter Viisimaa/Getty)

(Peeter Viisimaa/Getty)

Authors from Brazil have synthesised diverse influences to help forge a national identity. Jane Ciabattari picks the best reads from the World Cup host country.

Contemporary Brazil is a global economic powerhouse strong on technology and growing in cultural influence. The fifth largest country on the planet, in size and population (almost 200 million), Brazil is home to a rich mix of cultures, races and religious traditions. In the run-up to the Fifa World Cup, which begins in June, and as a prelude to the 2016 Olympics, a wave of English-language translations have emerged  that bring the work of Brazilian authors to a wider audience.

Traditionally, Brazil has absorbed cultural influences, digested them and created its own forms, as modernist poet Oswald de Andrade pointed out in his Dada-esque Cannibal Manifesto in 1928. Today’s literary generation draws inspiration from the country’s variegated past, its dynamic and rapidly changing present and the infinitely expansive internet.  

Here’s a brief guide to Brazil’s eloquent and original literary voices, beginning with two 20th Century titans and including 21st Century authors whose work has been shaped by the digital revolution.

Brazil’s Dickens and Joyce

Jorge Amado (1912-2001) populated Brazilian literature with more than 5,000 characters during a writing career that spanned nearly seven decades.  His early series of six Bahia novels (the first published in 1931, when he was 18 years old) displayed an acute social consciousness, emphasising the rigours of the cocoa plantations and inequities in his home state of Bahia, the most African-influenced area of Brazil. The “captains” in his 1937 novel Captains of the Sands are a gang of 100 abandoned children who lived by stealing on the waterfront in Bahia’s capital. The Bullet, their commander, is a scar-faced 15-year-old who has fought his way through a decade on the streets. “The scenes where the captains of the sands manage to fool the rich of the city and get away with it would have made Henry Fielding or Charles Dickens proud,” Colm Tóibín writes in his introduction to the 2013 Penguin Classics edition.

Clarice Lispector (1920-1977) used the sprawling, multi-layered metropolis of Rio de Janeiro like James Joyce used Dublin, as a canvas for her poetic images and original, deeply subjective language. Lispector was born in Ukraine; her Jewish parents fled to Brazil when she was an infant. She was not a storyteller as much as a literary explorer – of the flesh, the soul and the outer reaches of the imagination.  “Could it be that what I am writing to you is beyond thought?” she wrote in her 1973 novel Água Viva. “The word is my fourth dimension.”  

Benjamin Moser, who generated interest in Lispector in the Anglophone world with his award-winning 2009 biography, Why This World, called her  “the greatest Jewish writer since Kafka”. In an extended and disturbing scene in her 1964 novel The Passion According to GH, a woman kills a cockroach in her maid’s room and is transported in a mystical meditation, a “great and trembling vision”. ''Hold my hand tight, because I feel that I'm going,” Lispector writes. “I am again going to the most primary divine life, I am going to an inferno of brute life.”

Fact into fiction

Today’s Brazilian writers are attuned to a global audience.  They are “on the whole less interested in unusual style and language experimentation than earlier generations”, says Stefan Tobler, translator of Lispector’s Água Viva and founder of And Other Stories Press, which publishes translations from the Portuguese. ” There is closer proximity to Anglophone literature.” Brazil’s recent history is a common thread among them.

Former diplomat Edgard Telles Ribeiro chose the form of a John le Carré-style novel to write about the Dirty War period from 1964 to 1984, which was ushered in by a military coup. His Own Man is told from the point of view of a younger colleague who at first admires “Max”, a suave senior diplomat. Max collaborates with the new regime’s campaign of torture, assassination and betrayal, and stays at the top even after democracy is restored.  His Own Man won the Brazilian PEN prize for best novel of the year in 2011 for its astute take on a dark period in Brazilian history; the English translation is due out 23 September.

Paulo Scott’s Nowhere People, being published in English on 9 September, opens in 1989, as the country began to restore democratic governance. The narrator Paulo picks up Maína, a teenage Guarani Indian girl who has been living in a tent on the side of the highway, for no clear reason: “…these last three years, almost everything he’d done had been done out of a contagious inertia, a blind freedom that needed to be exercised urgently not only for himself, but for all the Brazilians who, having lived through the height of the military regime, now need to promise themselves that they can be just and emancipated and happy….” Scott captures a wide range of Brazilians caught up in the flux of rapid modernisation, as he traces the story of Paulo and Maina, and their son Donato, who grows up to become an internet phenomenon as he stands, in a wooden mask, protesting outside a Sheraton Hotel.

Rodrigo de Souza Leão’s autobiographical novel, All Dogs Are Blue, is set in a modern-day Rio insane asylum. “I swallowed a chip yesterday,” his schizophrenic narrator begins. He engages in hallucinatory adventures with Rimbaud and Baudelaire, and ponders the connection between the blue stuffed dog he had as a child and the blue doses of Haldol he swallows. Leão, who died in a psychiatric clinic shortly after its publication in 2008, engaged with the world through blogging and social media.

Slouching towards modernity

The work of many writers in this new generation is influenced by the flow of text and images on the internet. Cristhiano Aguiar, who blogs and tweets from Sao Paulo, a metropolis of 20 million, is influenced by British and American pop culture – Batman, the X-Men, Minecraft, Godzilla and the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man.  “I write about people who in one way or another are pop culture consumers,” he says. His story Teresa, featured in the 2012 Granta Young Brazilian Novelists issue, has qualities of magical realism. As Teresa mourns her husband, who has been swept away in a flood, she tells stories to her son and is comforted by a flock of birds, who rest on her shoulders and “adorn her face with a fine garland which they have carried hanging from their beaks”. In Aguiar’s story Nataneal (which you can read here), the narrator’s friend descends into the dangerously polluted river within sight of the skyscrapers of São Paulo’s financial district. Suited like a superhero, he overcomes his fear (“there might be the crocodiles, those monstrous crocodiles from the worst films in the world that terrorise the sewers”) to experience darkness, utter silence and surprising bursts of light.

Award-winning novelist Carol Bensimon, also one of Granta’s Young Brazilian Novelists, writes of 21st -century characters embarking on open-ended journeys. The twenty-something narrator of her 2013 novel We All Loved Cowboys takes a road trip with a high school girlfriend with whom she’d had a falling out. They begin the drive north on the BR-116 in Porto Alegre, Bensimon’s hometown: “We left behind the suburban streets whose beginnings are marked by the highway and which then disappear in an industrial estate or among the abandoned shacks along a stream where stray dogs crawl and rarely bark, and we carried on, on until the straight road turned a corner,” she writes.

An architecture student infatuated with a politically engaged woman narrates Bensimon’s ripped-from-the-news short story Horses in the Smoke, appearing in the May 2014 McSweeneys . She is arrested after a 47-day “occupation” organised on Facebook to protest a traffic development project justified by the upcoming World Cup. Her narrator is an innocent. As for the others, she says, “But the police are vile. The politicians are vile. And even idealists can be vile now and then.”  

This list of authors is just a sampling. The work of a growing number of writers offers insights into Brazil, its current tensions and its unfolding next steps.  We’ll be hearing much more from them.  

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