Brazilian literature is sadly underrated abroad, but that doesn't mean it isn't one of the richest and most interesting in the world, and if you're looking to read more diversely and expand your "world literature" horizons beyond the same 4-5 French and Russian books everyone reads, this is for you!!
We worked super hard on this (so hard!!!) so hopefully there's something for everyone here. There's love and jealousy and madness and murder; messy real-life royals; a vengeful romantic heroine; a pact with the Devil; a dog's will; Black Jesus; and stories set in the barren backlands where it's every man for himself. There's poetry, theatre, non-fiction and prose from different literary movements.
While we were writing this post, we ourselves "rediscovered" some of the treasures of Brazilian lit, and while we're hoping that the gringos of ONTD learn that there is more to Latin American lit than Isabel Allende and Jorge Luis Borges, and more to Brazil than (overused) memes, we also hope that our fellow Brazilians will appreciate this post! <3
History has a way of being stranger than fiction. In 1807, as Napoleon's troops were drawing closer to Portugal, the Prince Regent, Dom João, had only a few days to come up with a plan. And so he did: he was going to get the hell out of there... and come to Brazil. With less than a week's time to prepare, he cleaned out the country's coffers, collected any treasure he could get his hands on, and fled to Brazil with not only the entire royal family, but the entire court and State apparatus. Over 10,000 people, pretty much everyone who was anyone in Portugal, left the country in any boat they could find, basically flipping the bird to the Portuguese commoners, and crossed the Atlantic Ocean, heading for the warmer climates of the colony.
It was a mess. In their haste, lots of stuff was forgotten on the muddy docks in Portugal, and there wasn't enough food or water for everyone on the ships. The noble ladies got lice and everyone had to shave their heads. The ships got scattered and the journey ended up taking way longer than usual. The Brazilian people, initially excited that all these grand, important people were going to live in Rio de Janeiro, soon changed their minds when the nobles kicked everyone out of their homes and comandeered the houses. Rio itself was hardly a tropical paradise, but a half-wild city with no planning, no infrastructure, huge open-air slave markets, riddled with diseases, and with an unholy stench. But now, it was the de facto capital of a whole Empire.
"1808" is a non-fiction book that tells the story of the flight of Maria the Mad Queen, the cowardly Prince Regent, the scandalous Princess Carlota Joaquina and the wildly corrupt court to Brazil, an event that changed both Portugal and Brazil forever. It's as juicy as it gets, compulsively readable, easily accessible (even for the people who can't point Portugal out on a map), yet thoroughly researched. If you like it, you might also want to check out the hilarious movie Carlota Joaquina, by Carla Camurati.
Memoirs of a Militia Sergeant, by Manuel Antônio de Almeida (1854)
This is a good follow-up after you've read about the arrival of the Portuguese court in Brazil and the deep changes that quickly transformed the city of Rio de Janeiro in "1808". "Memoirs..." is a satire of "the time of the King", a window to the lives of the free lower classes, who existed on the margins of the (absurdly corrupt) power hierarchy and relied on a mix of smarts, personal connections, favours and questionable deeds to get ahead in life. The book tells the story of Leonardo, a hellion of a boy who grows into an idler and a ruffian. We follow him through all his misadventures, various romantic liaisons and frequent scrapes with the law (represented by the fearsome Major Vidigal, a real historic figure - he was one of the first police chiefs in Brazil, infamous for the liberal use of a whip in his rounds).
It is, however, important to note that while Almeida mercilessly mocks everything he thinks absurd about Rio's society and culture in the 19th century, he also displays some of the prejudices and beliefs that were common then: slavery is taken for granted (at the time, over 40% of the population in Rio was made up of slaves), and there are some disparaging remarks about Roma people (after the Portuguese court was moved to Brazil, a great wave of Portuguese immigration followed as the commoners also decided to try their luck in the colony, and among them a great number of Roma people). The author then unintentionally bares another, uglier facet of Brazilian society to the modern reader.
José de Alencar was the greatest Brazilian Romantic author (despite the opinion of the Emperor Dom Pedro II, who once got into a very public "war of words" with the writer and ended up calling him a "son of a priest" lmao). Many of his protagonists were strong and striking women, such as the native Iracema, the prostitute Lucíola and the heiress Aurélia. Among the usual prose about true love, he also criticized women's precarious position in society. In Senhora (the title means "lady" but is also the female version of "master"), Aurélia Camargo is a poor but very pretty girl, who falls in love with the dashing but lazy and materialistic Fernando Seixas. Fernando proposes to her, but later kicks her to the curb and becomes engaged instead to Adelaide, who has a big fat dowry. As fate would have it, Aurélia receives an unexpected inheritance and becomes fabulously wealthy. The naive girl is transformed into a powerful and self-reliant woman, and decides to exact her revenge on the ambitious Fernando. Through her lawyer, she offers her hand in marriage and a dowry more than thrice the size of Adelaide's, with the condition that Fernando would not know her name or see her until after the marriage was performed. He accepts, and after the cerimony, when Aurélia is like "surprise, bitch", Fernando is overjoyed and proclaims he never stopped loving her. And thus takes place one of my favourite exchanges in Brazilian literature, in which she basically calls him a whore:
"A sold man, yes; there is no other name for it. I am rich, very rich, I am a millionaire; I needed a husband, a useless trapping indispensable to respectable women. You were in the market; I bought you. You cost me 100 thousand mil-réis, it was cheap; you sold yourself short. I would have given double, triple, all my wealth for this moment".
You just don't see romantic heroines like this anymore. She is not about to forgive Fernando for humiliating her so easily, and if he wants to prove to her that he loves her, he's going to actually have to work for something in his life. In Senhora, Alencar criticizes the custom of the marriage of convenience and the institution of the dowry, exalts the virtues of honest labour and, of course, the redeeming power of love.
Dom Casmurro, by Machado de Assis (1900)
The greatest Brazilian writer of all time was no aristocrat with a fancy European education. His father was the son of freed slaves, and his mother was a Portuguese washerwoman. Machado was a mulatto, born in a time when slavery was still widespread in Brazil, and his education was patchy, but he read extensively and became an extremely cultivated man. He was recognized as a great author in his lifetime and was even knighted by the Emperor Dom Pedro II.
One of Big M's most famous works is Dom Casmurro (it's a nickname and it means "Lord Taciturn"), the story of Bento Santiago and his childhood sweetheart, Capitu. He begins to suspect that his beautiful and clever wife has cheated on him with his best friend, and grows increasingly paranoid. It's a brilliant, tragic and darkly comic tale about universal themes like love and jealousy, and features one of the most iconic female characters in Brazilian literature, Capitu. Whether or not she was really unfaithful to the taciturn (and unreliable) narrator is one of the great debates of Brazilian literature.
“Lovers' language, give me an exact and poetic comparison to say what those eyes of Capitu were like. No image comes to mind that doesn't offend against the rules of good style, to say what they were and what they did to me. Undertow eyes? Why not? Undertow. That's the notion that the new expression put in my head. They held some kind of mysterious, active fluid, a force that dragged one in, like the undertow of a wave retreating from the shore on stormy days. So as not to be dragged in, I held onto anything around them, her ears, her arms, her hair spread about her shoulders; but as soon as I returned to the pupils of her eyes again, the wave emerging from them grew towards me, deep and dark, threatening to envelop me, draw me in and swallow me up.”
Other notable works by Machado de Assis: The Alienist; The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas (also translated as Epitaph of a Small Winner)
Lima Barreto, who was the grandson of slaves on both sides of his family, was a victim of racial prejudice, and developed a keen eye for society's hypocrisies. He also witnessed great transformations in Brazil in a short period of time: the abolition of slavery; the fall of the Monarchy; the Army coup that led to the establishment of the Republic without the people's support; the rise of the "Republic of the Sword", a bloody and unstable period of dictatorship led by the Army, who crushed the opposition with an iron fist. In The Sad End of Policarpo Quaresma, Lima Barreto employs his characteristically acerbic wit in an analysis of that time.
Policarpo Quaresma is a patriot and a naive man. He believes Brazil is the best nation in the world. He spends his entire life learning everything about Brazilian fauna, flora, geology, geography, popular culture, etc. What he doesn't realize is that everywhere, including the government and the Army, men are moved only by their own selfish interests, and that the people who get ahead in life are not the most qualified ones, but the sycophants. Policarpo is viewed, initially, as a vaguely ridiculous eccentric, but as his patriotic obsession deepens, he is labeled a madman and ostracized. During the Naval Revolt, when he witnesses the great violence and injustice of the period (forced drafts, random arrests and executions, etc), he writes a letter to the Iron Marshal, Floriano Peixoto, protesting against the situation, and is then marked as a traitor and executed. Lima Barreto spares no punches in his criticism of the baseness and corruption of Brazilian politics of the time, and turns a critic eye to other aspects of society such as women's condition and the precariousness of rural life. A tragic and brilliant book.
Although not as famous as his counterparts, Graciliano Ramos' name still has national and international recognition. Born in a middle class family from the Northeast, Ramos worked as novelist, journalist and even briefly as the mayor of Palmeira dos Índios. Like many artists of his time, he was persecuted for his socialist political beliefs, even getting arrested when he was ready to publish his third book, Anguish. This is certainly noticeable in his works, that often discuss power, oppression, and social conflicts. He lived from 1892 to 1953.
The Sertão - "Backlands", the huge places of dry land that you find if you go far enough into the country, in the Northeast - is surely a recurring theme in these Brazilian novels, and it is no different with São Bernardo. The difference in this story is that the focus shifts from those who struggle to survive the drought and poverty to one person that surely got away from all of this: Paulo Honório, an egotistical and rude man – or what ONTD likes to call, a misogynistic piece of shit – who does what it takes to be rich and powerful. He owns São Bernardo, a big farm in the backlands, and lives happily in his mancave until he marries Madalena to sire an heir. Unfortunately for him, she is a lovable, charitable woman who directly clashes with his worldview. The book is narrated by protagonist, so the writing style mirrors Paulo Honório's pragmatic personality, often dry and objective but also with blunt honesty and explicit psychological conflicts.
We've mentioned novelists and non-fiction writers, and now it's time to bring up an influential Brazilian playwright\. Ariano Vilar Suassuna was born in 1927 in the city of Nossa Senhora das Neves (now called João Pessoa) and died recently in 2014, shortly after his 87-year anniversary. The fact that he was born and raised in the Northeast of Brazil is also his biggest characteristic as an artist. Besides being a vocal supporter of the culture of the place, many of his novels are filled with popular cultural references and regional language. While it may be hard for foreign readers to fully understand these elements and even if some parts may fly over their heads, Suassuna's stories have a very popular appeal and enough charm to please anyone.
One of our literary darlings, The Rogues' Trial is a comedic theatrical play, more well-known due to its film adaptation (entitled A Dog's Will - great movie, especially if you're having trouble picturing the Northeast). It is influenced heavily by Northeastern culture but it's also a play in the Iberian medieval tradition, like Gil Vicente's Auto da Barca do Inferno (1517). Its protagonists are João Grilo and his sidekick Chicó, a duo of typically Brazilian mischievous men who fight poverty in their own creative way. The plot consists of a series of interrelated events, tied up by a main point: the baker's wife dog dies, and João Grilo, in exchange for money, offers to arrange for the animal to receive a Christian burial. In the middle of all the confusion, some cangaceiros (backlands bandits) arrive, and kill (almost) everyone. Suddenly all those rogues have to account for their sins in front of the Devil, the Virgin Mary and Jesus (who appears as a Black man). Don't worry, this is far from a preachy play (if it was, we wouldn't recommend it - it's more like a satire). It's a fun and easy read, and the film is also good entertainment, but don't be lazy and read the book. Do it.
The Devil to Pay in the Backlands is a big, complex novel that is almost mandatory in schools in the country – oh, the sleepless nights we faced, trying to write an essay about it. Cry all you want, but this may just be our country's literary masterpiece: not only it is considered one of the biggest contributions to South American literature, but it was actually voted one of the top 100 books of all time. The author, João Guimarães Rosa, was a writer and diplomat known for his brilliancy, being self-taught in many areas, and being especially well-versed in languages. Rosa was born in 1908 and died in 1967.
The Devil to Pay in the Backlands' plot revolves around Ribaldo, a jagunço (bandit) that lives in the godforsaken land of the Sertão, the backlands, and decides to tell his life story to a silent stranger. There are two main plot points: Ribaldo's homoerotic love for his fellow jagunço, Diadorim; and a pact with the Devil that the protagonist is unsure even happened, but which constantly haunts him. The book is written basically as one long chapter, has an odd writing style, and some of its themes – the tame Brokeback Mountain relationship that goes on, the discussion of good and evil, etc – shocked some people.
Even though we're recommending this book, the translated version is out of print and there are some issues with it. Guimarães Rosa is famous for his heavy-handed use of neologisms, and part of the beauty of this novel is the absurd mix of the archaic and colloquial terms. Also, the story of Ribaldo takes place in a part of Brazil with specific cultural and geographical references. All of these elements make The Devil to Pay in the Backlands a very difficult novel to translate as a whole. Still, not mentioning it while talking about Brazilian literature is almost a sin, and maybe someone out there will take on this challenge of successfully translating this incredibly unique work of art.
"The Hour of the Star" was Lispector's last novel, debuting in Portuguese in 1977 and in English in 2011. It tells the brief story of Macabéa, an unappealing and naive typist that dreams of greatness, and whose life is narrated by Rodrigo S.M. The broader theme of the book are the issues those from the rural Northeast of Brazil deal with when they migrate to the urban Shoutheast in hopes of a better life – what lead the author to use a more regional language, an unusual trait in her works. Also, the novel has a distinct metalinguistic approach, in the form of Rodrigo's reflections on writing and life itself.
Other notable works: Near to the Wild Heart, her debut novel; Água Viva; The Passion According to G.H.
Drummond's writing style is deeply rooted in modernism, with the use of the free verse, concreteness and objectivity. The simplicity and the apparent effortless way of approaching universal issues is what make his work so interesting. "Multitudinous Heart" is a big selection of his acclaimed poems, and it can become what we call "a nightstand book": something you can read over and over, or even read a little bit everyday.
the incomplete fable,
to bear the likeness of all rough things
of tomorrow with the harsh things of today?
– To wake, To live
Macunaíma (1928), by Mário de Andrade - Considered one of the founding novels of Brazilian modernism for its composite style, with elements of fantasy/magic realism, Macunaíma tells the tale of an indigenous young man who travels all over the country to retrieve a lost amulet. The narrative is heavily based on indigenous folklore researched by Andrade, who was an art historian and musicologist, as well as a novelist and poet. Other work: Hallucinated City, Fraulein
Captains of the Sand (1937), by Jorge Amado - This book follows a group of abandoned children who live in the streets of Salvador, Bahia and often resort to crime to make ends meet. Brazil lived under a dictatorship when this novel was published; representatives of the government publicly burned several copies of the book in Salvador, claiming it was communist propaganda. Amado is one of the most successful Brazilian writers, having his work translated into many languages and adapted into TV shows and films. Other work: Gabriela, Clove and Cinnamon, Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands
"The Death and Life of a Severino" (1955), in Selected Poetry, 1937-1990, by João Cabral de Melo Neto - A long poem about the life of Severino (a name that doubles as an adjective, meaning dry, difficult, as the character's life), who leaves his home in the poor, rural northeastern Brazil to look for a better life in the big city, by the shore. Some of Melo Neto's work, including excerpts of this poem, was translated into English by American poet Elizabeth Bishop, who lived in Brazil for 15 years and befriended the author. Other work: The Dog without Feathers, Education by Stone
SOURCES: Picture above the cut. #1-5 written by milfordacademy; #6-10 written by luvallthis; honorable mentions written by hotel.
Rebloggable post: part 1; part 2