The land where everyone's a poet
Liz Calder celebrates Brazil's hidden talents
Saturday 22 July 2000 22.53 BST
Unless you have been locked in a darkened cupboard since January, you can hardly have missed the explosion of Brazilian music, theatre, dance, art and film which has marked the celebrations for Brazil's 500 years of history as a nation. Yet among this torrent of creative energy there has been only one literary event. One of the reasons for this is that very few Brazilian books have been translated into English, while the impact of those that have is slight. Yet there is a storehouse of literary riches there; indeed, the country has produced some of the greatest writers of all time.
In Brazil the word for poet is sometimes used as a term of endearment, as in "How are you, my poet", although the person addressed may never have written so much as a couplet. Yet there is a long line of magnificent real poets, from Manuel Bandeira and Carlos Drummond de Andrade to Vinicius de Moraes and João Cabral de Melo Neto, who are up there in public esteem with Pele (well, almost).
However, there are two writers who tower above the rest; neither was a poet. The first of these is Machado de Assis (1839-1908), who is held by many to be not only Brazil's greatest writer but on a par with Henry James, Flaubert and Hardy. While his enchantingly digressive style, sly humour and merciless exposure of hypocrisy and pretentiousness have endeared him to Susan Sontag, Salman Rushdie and Louis de Bernières, among many others, his own work stems directly from Tristram Shandy.
Of mixed race, epileptic, an orphan, half-educted and myopic, Machado never left Rio de Janeiro, but worked as a civil servant while writing an enormous amount of every kind of literature. His output included four masterpieces of fiction, Don Casmurro, Philosopher or Dog?, Counselor Ayres' Memorial and, perhaps the most captivating, Epitaph of a Small Winner. The first chapter contains the jaunty announcement: "I am a deceased writer not in the sense of one who has written and is now deceased, but in the sense of one who has died and is now writing." Shades of Will Self? Elizabeth Hardwick declared that "in the sureness of pace, the ingratiating swerve, Machado is peerless", and that he shares with Borges that "wonderful musky perfume of the library". But no dust.
The other literary giant is Euclides de Cunha, whose epic Rebellion in the Backlands has been compared to the Seven Pillars of Wisdom. It tells of the year-long resistance of the backlands people to a brutal army campaign against the religious mystic Antonio Consolheiro and his followers in the interior of the state of Bahia. It is filled with drama, humanity and spiritual wisdom, together with dazzling descriptions of people and place. Picador has it in the excellent Travel Classics series.
At a different level, but recognised as outstanding writers internationally, are Graciliano Ramos, whose cinematographic version of Barren Light can be seen at the NFT at the moment, João Guimãres Rosa, the Brazilian equivalent of James Joyce, and Clarice Lispector, who is often compared to Virginia Woolf and Katherine Mansfield. Two other names can be mentioned in the same breath: Mario de Andrade, author of Macunaima, and Lima Barreto, author of The Patriot.
The two writers best known outside Brazil are Jorge Amado, the hugely popular chronicler of life in Salvador in Bahia (Gabriela, Clove and Cinnamon and Dona Flor and her two Husbands), and Paulo Coelho, a worldwide bestseller. Other superb writers available in English are the darkly brilliant novelist Rubem Fonseca and the master of the short story Dalton Trevisan, plus Darcy Ribeiro, João Ubaldo Ribeiro, João Gilberto Noll, Chico Buarque, Ana Miranda and Patrícia Melo. Many more are not available but should be: Raduan Nassar, Moacyr Scliar, Milton Hartoum and Bernardo Carvalho foremost among them.
It is surely now time for more publishers to step forward and bring these and many other writers to the attention of the English reading public, so that we can share more of this extraordinary country's riches than its music and its football.
Liz Calder is publishing director of Bloomsbury.