April 2020 is the Brazilian literature month in Global Literature in Libraries Initiative. When things are falling apart in the world, we still believe in the power of literature to bond us together and provide a safe haven mentally. Throughout this month, I will present translated and untranslated works from Brazilian literature and try to contextualize them for our readers around the world. You will also find book reviews and articles written by our contributors and interviews with academics and writers. I will also share a passage from Brazilian literature each day for our daily dose of inspiration.
In her essay “Sad Brazil,” Elizabeth Hardwick defines Brazil as “the land of dreams.” This definition fits perfectly with my experience of Brazilian literature with its rich and original literary imagination. Brazil, although commonly studied together with the rest of Latin America, is unique. Its literary encounters are unique. Its sociological background is unique. The sound of Brazil is unique. Still, there is another aspect to the perception of Brazil in the world. Brazil is sometimes reduced to images, in other words, it is “imagined.” The first interview I am going to publish tomorrow will be on this very subject but for today, to explain my point, let me quote the first paragraph of a recent book about Brazil, Brazil Apart by Perry Anderson (Verso, 2019):
“Brazil today has a larger population and gross national product than Russia. Yet, against all reason, it continues to occupy a curiously marginal position in the contemporary historical imaginary. Popular images, despite increasing tourism, remain scanty: folk-villains on the run, seasonal parades in fancy-dress, periodical football triumphs. In cultural influence, while the music and literature of Latin America have swept around the world, Brazil has receded. The rhythms of salsa have long eclipsed those of the samba, and the list of headline novelists conspicuously omits the country that produced the most inventive nineteenth-century practitioner of the form outside Europe, in Machado de Assis.”
Anderson is right. I hadn’t heard of Machado de Assis ten years ago when I first started my Ph.D. in comparative literature. However, after my encounter with Machado, not only my understanding of literature and literary taste but also my life somehow changed. I found myself writing a dissertation on world literature, and Machado de Assis became one of the pillars of my research. I ended up trying to learn Portuguese and then translating Clarice Lispector’s novels into Turkish, my native language. However, as an outsider to Brazil, I always feel that I am still imagining Brazil, maybe through the lenses of Machado, Lispector and other Brazilian writers and poets I admire. In that sense, GLLI’s Brazilian Literature Month is part of my never-ending attempt to approach and understand the real Brazil. Probably once again to see how elusive it is…
A Short Overview of Brazilian Literature
To give you a short overview of Brazilian literature, let me epitomize some highlights chronologically. Brazilian literature dates back to the colonial period in the sixteenth century. Brazil was officially discovered in 1500. The letter that marks the discovery written by Pero Vaz de Caminha and sent to the King of Portugal is regarded as the first text of Brazilian literature. This said, there is a dispute among scholars about the actual beginning of Brazilian literature. Baroque poet Basílio da Gama’s epic poem “O Uraguai” and Gregorio de Matos’ satirical poetry were also regarded among the first examples of Brazil’s literary tradition. According to Brazilian literary scholar and sociologist Antonio Candido, the local literature emerged in the 18th century. The colonial period ends in 1822 with Brazil’s independence and a national culture started to be formed, in other words, nation/culture building was started.
Brazilian Romanticism (1830–70) began with the publication of Domingos José Gonçalves de Magalhães’ lyric poetry collection Suspiros poéticos e saudades (Poetic Sighs and Nostalgias). The most important romantic writer of the time was José de Alencar who wrote a historical novel titled O guaraní. Alencar also wrote regionalist and urban novels which are also defined as Romantic realism. In 1843 Antônio Gonçalves Dias wrote “Canção do Exílio” (Song of Exile) which becomes kind of a national anthem and was known by every schoolchild in Brazil. Manuel Antônio de Almeida’s satirical novel Memórias de um sargento de milícias (1852–53, Memoirs of a Militia Sergeant) is another highlight of the period.
The most important literary figure of the second half of the nineteenth-century is Machado de Assis whose works have been widely translated into world languages. Machado can be regarded as the most well-known Brazilian writer in the world and also praised by critics such as Harold Bloom and Susan Sontag. Naturalist writers Aluízio Azevedo and Adolfo Caminha were also influential literary figures during this period. At the beginning of the twentieth century, Euclides da Cunha wrote Os sertões (1902, Rebellion in the Backlands) which is regarded as the novel of the “other Brazil.”
Brazilian modernismo came later as a vanguard movement represented by Oswald de Andrade, Mário de Andrade, Jorge de Lima, Cecília Meireles, and Carlos Drummond de Andrade. In the second wave of modernismo, one of the highlights is Jorge Amado whose novels focus on the oppressed proletariat and Afro-Brazilian communities. The most well-known regionalist writer of Brazilian literature is Graciliano Ramos, who wrote Vidas sêcas (1938, Barren Lives). During the 1940s Clarice Lispector and João Guimarães Rosa who wrote not only novels but also excellent short stories secured their place in the Brazilian literary canon.
Without a doubt, Brazilian literature is not limited to the writers and periods I touched upon. Throughout the month, you will read book reviews, articles, and interviews elaborating on these names and also many other Brazilian literary figures including the contemporary writers.
I hope you enjoy reading our posts in Brazilian Literature Month of GLLI and meet new writers of world literature you were unaware of before.
I would like to thank Angela Nogueira, Luiza Franco Moreira, Lorena Sales dos Santos and Alexandre Staut for helping me to reach out the contributors for this project.
Quote of the Day:
“Then I said to myself, ‘If the centuries are going by, mine will come too, and will pass, and after a time the last century of all will come, and then I shall understand.’ And I fixed my eyes on the ages that were coming and passing on; now I was calm and resolute, maybe even happy. Each age brought its share of light and shade, of apathy and struggle, of truth and error, and its parade of systems, of new ideas, of new illusions; in each of them the verdure of spring burst forth, grew yellow with age, and then, young once more, burst forth again. While life thus moved with the regularity of a calendar, history and civilization developed; and man, at first naked and unarmed, clothed and armed himself, built hut and palace, villages and hundred-gated Thebes, created science that scrutinizes and art that elevates, made himself an orator, a mechanic, a philosopher, ran all over the face of the globe, went down into the earth and up to the clouds, performing the mysterious work through which he satisfied the necessities of life and tried to forget his loneliness. My tired eyes finally saw the present age go by end, after it, future ages. The present age, as it approached, was agile, skillful, vibrant, proud, a little verbose, audacious, learned, but in the end it was as miserable as the earlier ones. And so it passed, and so passed the others, with the same speed and monotony.”
Epitaph of a Small Winner, Machado de Assis. Translated by William L. Grossman. (Also translated as The Posthumous Memoirs of Bras Cubas.)
About the Writer:
Basak Bingol Yuce is a world literature scholar, journalist, and literary translator based in the US. She holds a PhD degree in comparative literature from Binghamton University. One of her areas of study is Brazilian literature. Dr. Yuce’s journalistic work focuses on literary and international journalism. She is a regular contributor to Turkish media outlets. Dr. Yuce translated books and articles from English, French and Portuguese into Turkish, among them the works of Clarice Lispector, Terry Eagleton, Antonio Candido, André Aciman, Ken Bruen, and Harold Bloom.