Aluísio Azevedo’s revelations about novel Japan

By Olivia Holloway

Aluísio Tancredo Gonçalves de Azevedo, known as Aluísio Azevedo, was a founding member of the Brazilian Academy of Letters. Distinguished as the artful storyteller of naturalist novels like O mulato (1881) and O cortiço (1890) among roughly a dozen novels and another half-dozen plays, Azevedo was highly influential in the late nineteenth century and could be called the best representative of Brazilian literary naturalism at that time. Surprisingly, he made his as a writer from 1878-1895. Anyone who enjoys today’s binge-worthy television series would enjoy his plays, short stories, and novels featuring relationship drama, suspense, and magnetic personalities. Never shy of criticism, his writings tackled uncomfortable subjects like slavery, racism, and class inequality. Few readers know, however, that the field of literature was just one of his major careers. As a diplomat, he was one of the earliest voices shaping Brazilians’ understanding of Japan.

When he began his diplomatic career, he had already published his last novel, O livro de uma sogra (1895). He was first stationed as Vice-Consul in Spain, then worked in Japan from 1897 to 1899. A significant part of Azevedo’s role was to report on Japanese characteristics, customs, and values. Azevedo’s bureaucratic duties influenced the terms initiating Japanese immigration to Brazil a decade later, starting in 1908. Beyond Azevedo’s diplomatic duties, he devoted his creative efforts to crafting a book project about Japan. However, personal limitations forced him to abandon the book which would remain unpublished for decades. Luiz Dantas’s doctoral research brought Azevedo’s book out of the archive of the Brazilian Academy of Letters in 1980 for publication in 1984 with the title O Japão, although Azevedo had originally hoped to publish it as Agonia de uma raça (Agony of a race) as he stated in letters to Afrânio Peixoto. As Peixoto explains, Azevedo needed funds to proceed with the editing and publication of this book. He had entrusted his friend and fellow novelist Graça Aranha to take funds from selling the copyright of his entire corpus to Editora Garnier to use in the publication of his manuscript on Japan, but Aranha singlehandedly changed course and used those funds to buy Azevedo property in Copacabana, an as-of-yet unpopular property of low value. Azevedo was forced to abandon the project and O Japão would remain unpublished until nearly more than eighty years later.

Azevedo’s representations of Japanese myths and history in O Japão utilize language and discourse associated with naturalism, the movement that he helped initiate in Brazil. Azevedo’s literary tradition informs our reading of his historical narrative since naturalism posits that race and organisms are products of their genetic inheritance and milieu. Increasingly disheartened by positivism and ideals of modernity and order, Brazil in the 1870s, 1880s, and 1890s witnessed monumental social changes like the abolition of slavery in 1888 and the establishment of the First Republic in 1889. This bipolar and conflicted period manifests in the dynamic of some of Azevedo’s most iconic novels. Scholars tend to agree that the influence of African and European immigrant groups on Brazilian national identity is one of Azevedo’s main preoccupations in his naturalist novels. Likewise, in O Japão Azevedo focuses heavily on racial and cultural mixing in Japan. Azevedo’s literary interest in Japan may have been motivated by more than just the coincidence of his diplomatic assignment there and the novelty it represented for a Brazilian readership; the turbulent changes and rapid modernization occurring in Japan reflected the identity crisis Brazil had been experiencing.

Azevedo’s well-known novel about a tenement house (O cortiço, translated as The slum) features several diverse characters who coexist in and around their living quarters that accentuate their class inequalities. Azevedo’s descriptions of the tenement house itself like a living character in the novel provoke vivid images of life in urban Brazil in the late nineteenth century. His lesser-known and posthumously published O Japão is a dramatic retelling of the origins of Japan and its history up to its reopening to the world after more than two centuries of self-imposed seclusion. The style of O Japão resembles that of O cortiço in the sense that Azevedo portrays the Japanese nation as a living organism that evolves based on the makeup of its population. As readers in the twenty-first century, we are at once more connected and yet isolated due to the speed and intensity of daily life. Aluísio Azevedo’s novels and plays offer poignant moments to reflect on societal change and multiculturalism in an ever-accelerating world.

About The Writer:

Olivia Holloway is Assistant Professor of Portuguese at the U.S. Military Academy located in West Point, New York and received her PhD from Indiana University. Her current research project centers on Luso-Brazilian literature and diplomacy in Japan. She is a translator and interpreter working with Spanish, Portuguese, and English.

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