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Volume 60 / Humanities



REGINA IGEL, Professor of Spanish and Portuguese, University of Maryland, College Park

SEVERAL THEMES HAVE EMERGED in Brazilian fiction this biennium, including memories of pain and suffering under the military regime (1964–85); exploitation of rural workers by established forces; early experiences of immigrant groups; pressure and stress caused by urban environments; conflict between indigenous and nonindigenous peoples; and historical events in general. Stimulating works in literary criticism were also published recently, though more should be expected given the abundant production of fictional works.

Although the authoritarian period officially ended two decades ago, it still echoes in much of the fiction in Brazil today. One example is the autobiographical work by Augusto Boal, Hamlet e o filho do padeiro: memórias imaginadas, in which the renowned creator of the Theater of the Oppressed recounts his painful experiences during the dictatorship through reminiscences of his life as the son of a baker, then as actor, stage director, and theater professor (item #bi2002002273#). Another work that depicts the effects of that regime is Liv e Tatziu: história de amor incestuoso, by the psychiatrist Roberto Freire, himself a victim of the military period (item #bi2001004419#). Definitively less subtle is the narrative Liberdade para as estrelas, by Cleonice Rainho, which describes the atmosphere of the military administration that curbed the natural growth of young dissidents (item #bi2001004424#). Frei Betto, although not known as a novelist, wrote Hotel Brasil, a mystery that metaphorically incorporates stories of political dissidents who ended up in cemeteries and military dungeons (item #bi2001004428#).

Rural workers and their struggle against both repression and oppression are represented in Deonísio da Silva's whimsical novel Os guerreiros do campo, which involves an odd encounter of spirits of landless workers killed by the police in Brazil (item #bi2002002266#). The novel incorporates many other characters, all involved in some way with the perennial conflict between landowners and workers. Sassafrás, by Vicente Ataíde, is a pungent story of another oppressed group (item #bi2001004437#); the novel describes the atrocious working conditions of planters of sassafras (a flavoring/thickening agent of the laurel family) in the southern region of Brazil.

Descriptions of descendants of European immigrants to Brazil suggest that their lives were disturbed by the transatlantic relocation. Historian Largman, herself the descendant of an immigrant, in Tio Kuba nos trópicos presents an extensive view of the journeys of her predecessors, two European Jewish families (item #bi2001004416#). Forced to emigrate, these families selected the state of Bahia to restart their lives as free citizens in a free country. Also addressing difficulties encountered in new territories is the novel O migrante, by Frota Neto, which is a fictional rendition of life for migrants traveling from Ceará to the depths of the Amazon forest from 1920–70 (item #bi2002002275#). A region not far from the Amazon provides the main landscape of Saraminda, a novel by José Sarney, former president of Brazil. The novel is set in French Guiana, where the protagonist, a sensuous, black prostitute, is highly paid by gold diggers who exult in watching the magic tricks she performs during sexual acts (item #bi2001004440#).

Set in the backlands of Brazil, the novel A noite do maracá, by Marcelo Barros, recalls the indigenous claim for recognition of their identity, in the midst of a mystical atmosphere replenished by the kayapós spiritual rites (item #bi2001004436#). Another work with indigenous peoples as the main characters is Um lugar para Mayra, by Tadeu França, which is based on real conflicts between the Kaingangue Indians and white explorers in Santa Catarina during the last quarter of the 20th century (item #bi2001004414#). Continuing with the setting of the backlands, yet not involving indigenous peoples, is Fera de Macabu, a novel that was thoroughly researched by author/journalist Carlos Marchi (item #bi2001004423#). Centering on white people and their manipulations, spirit of vengeance, and corruption, the novel conveys one of the major judicial mistakes in Brazil during the Second Empire, which resulted in the hanging of a man accused of a crime that he did not commit. Since that shameful event, in which even Emperor Pedro II was unable to separate lies from truth, the death sentence has been abolished in Brazil.

Urban environments are not exempt from conflict. While rural concerns for land possession do not exist in cities, here conflict stems from the desire for recognition of feelings, emotions, and ultimately, personal identity. These concerns are observed and narrated in O ponto cego, by Lya Luft (item #bi2001004433#). The novel's main character is a boy who tries to understand, through games of imagination, the drama involving the adult members of his family. Also set in a city is the novel Lição da noite, by Esdras do Nascimento, which offers a panoramic view of "carioca" society in the 1990s (item #bi2001004430#). In Subsolo infinito, by Nelson de Oliveira, São Paulo's underground is explored through the voice of a former teacher who, after losing his memory, lives under a bridge with thieves and vagabonds who pass the time in lofty discussions (item #bi2001004432#).

War, both in Brazil and elsewhere, inspired novels such as Anita, by Flávio Aguiar, which is a semifictional account of Ana de Jesus Ribeiro's life and passion for Giuseppe Garibaldi, the Italian fighter for the establishment of a republican regime in Brazil (item #bi2001004443#). Also set in the southern region, the narrative A lenda do centauro, by Antonio Santos, is an epic novel about the Guerra dos Farrapos, one of the many struggles forged by Brazilian gauchos to separate their state from Brazil and inaugurate an idealized República Farroupilha (item #bi2002002255#). In the northeastern region, the well-known Antonio Conselheiro is the main subject of the novel Os mal-aventurados do Belo Monte: a tragédia de Canudos, by Eldon D. Canário, which deals mostly with personal aspects of the leader (item #bi2001004420#). Very few novels have been written about wars outside Brazilian borders. One example is Um herói catarinense, by João Steudel Areão, which is set in Italy and told through the memory of a former Brazilian soldier who served in World War II (item #bi2002002265#).

Emotional and sentimental interludes permeate recent literary production: Clarice, by Ana Miranda, is a delicate description of some aspects of Clarice Lispector's biography, told in 75 short chapters that inform one about Miranda's poetic nuances. (item #bi2001004413#). Similarly, Adélia Prado's Manuscritos de Felipa is a recollection of thoughts and observations by a present-day woman somewhere in Brazil, who tries to understand her own love and submission to God's will, her love of and boredom with her husband, her faith, and her fear of death (item #bi2001004445#). A female protagonist and voice also appears in A mulher que escreveu a Bíblia, by Moacyr Scliar (elected to the Brazilian Academy of Letters in 2003), who puts a pen in the hands of a woman and recreates the Bible from her viewpoint (item #bi2001004441#).

Among the many works of literary criticism that filled Brazilian bookstores, three should be recognized for their innovative contribution: the first two volumes of História da literatura brasileira, organized by Castro (item #bi2001004411#); and the short essay by Mário Maestri, Por que Paulo Coelho teve sucesso (item #bi2002002278#). The collection of Brazilian literature (a third volume has come out since this essay was written) compiles essays by recognized literary critics in Brazil and Portugal, including Castro (the organizer), Fábio Lucas, Gilberto Mendonça Teles, and Samira Mesquita. The approach of most of the essayists to the history of Brazilian literature differs from conventional thought because they do not simply discuss concepts and theories of literary historiography. Rather, they examine fictional, poetic, and theatrical trends and works over the last 500 years of Brazilian literature from a sociocultural perspective. Controversy may surface about some observations regarding the notion that medievalism was the cultural tutor of early Brazilian literature, since most Brazilian scholars believe that those beginnings were the fruits of the Renaissance and baroque movements. Lucas' article on the birth of literature in Brazil is fundamental in clarifying the tensions credited to these different perspectives. Reading this article first will help clarify the thoughts and wise observations of the other critics, such as Castro and Tonini in their study of the testimonial literature by Portuguese chroniclers and travelers, and Teles on the influence of Camões in Brazilian poetry. Castro also contributes two seminal essays in volume 2 on Euclides da Cunha and Machado de Assis. Both volumes—and most likely the third, not yet examined here—are of the utmost importance in re-examining Brazilian literature and its pertinent criticism.

Maestri's essay on Paulo Coelho analyzes the works of one of the most controversial Brazilian writers of the 20th century. Polemics about Coelho stem from his extreme popularity juxtaposed with his extreme shallowness. Maestri delicately deconstructs Coelho's immense verbal web in his esoteric novels with a cool, refreshing, and almost neutral standing. While devoid of bitter criticism, the essay is nevertheless a strong indication that literary critics are correct in determining that Coelho, who is not a writer by profession, is at best a good narrator, and that his novels, which are not examples of literary masterpieces, are at least a good source of solace for those who have faith in his esoteric formula for reaching happiness on Earth.

In general, Brazilian literature at the beginning of the 21st century has yet to distinguish itself from earlier years. Most topics represented here were included in novels written over the past two decades. Those that appeared more recently still resound as echoing past grievances, like the memories of the suffering and losses under the military regime. The same can be observed of fictional works dealing with the stress derived from rapid urbanization, and about the callousness of members of social classes above the poverty line. With violence as a natural result of these conditions, some writings have begun to explore this aspect of Brazilian society, which probably will be the main topic of the next essay on Brazilian novels.

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