Brazil Comes Alive

One of our group members undertook the task of finding a select group of novels and nonfiction by Brazilian authors, and writing short descriptions of each work. These descriptions and the accompanying essay will be of interest to students and readers who want to dive into some of the most important writing in the country's history. 

Brazilian Novels in Translation – Literature and History in Brazil

Brazilian literature is inherently linked to the country’s history. Having come into being under the shadow of colonialism and its prescribed perspectives, Brazil has been in an ongoing struggle to find a meaningful and inclusive national identity, while withstanding political upheavals and oppressive regimes, themselves the stuff of literature. The literary expression that has emerged from this country is not only a product of its history, but also a way to reflect upon this history, to form and reform it, and to give it meaning.

“One can think of few other world literatures that exhibit such a passion for introspection and the refocusing of national ideals and myths,” wrote Robert E. DiAntonio, author of Brazilian Fiction: Aspects and Evolution of the Contemporary Narrative. Indeed, even literature by Brazilian authors who do not identify their work with a particular social or national ideology address, in their way, questions of belonging to or being alienated from a collective experience.

Fabio Lucas, a Brazilian writer and literary critic, wrote, in his essay “Cultural Aspects of Brazilian Literature,” that “it has frequently been asked whether Brazil has produced an autonomous literature with characteristics all its own…” This, he claims, is the same as asking whether Brazil, as an independent nation, has created an autonomous culture. He goes on to answer: “this autonomy is in formation, it is an evolutionary process.” The fixation on creating an autonomous culture implies the presence of an imposed culture, or cultures, from which Brazil must extract itself if it is to be truly autonomous. This could be partially explained by the legacy of colonialism, and Brazil’s status as a developing country subject to the pressures of globalization. The trajectory of Brazilian history informs Brazilian cultural development, which in turn informs Brazilian literary expression.

In recent years Brazilian literature has been receiving increasing popular and critical attention by English readership, but is still remarkably little known and studied when compared with Spanish American literature.  Portuguese is not as widely taught and spoken in the United States as Spanish, and the available English translations of Brazilian works have been inconsistent with the wealth of works produced by Brazilian authors. It is interesting that in Brazil, too, the majority of prose, poetry and reference books consumed by Brazilians are foreign, and translated into Portuguese.

Brazil’s production and consumption of national literature has been, since its beginning, intrinsically linked with and affected by its colonizing nations. The use of the printing press was prohibited in colonial Brazil, unlike in Spanish America where printing presses were established early in the colonial period. Books, manuscripts, newspapers and magazines all had to be sent to be printed in Portugal.  Universities, too, were lacing in Brazil during this period. The first Brazilian university was founded in 1932, long after independence, and until then higher education was available only in Coimbra, Portugal.

When the court moved to Rio de Janeiro, in 1808, Prince Don Joao brought the first printing press to the colony, and established European-style cultural institutions, such as the National Library, an orchestra and a theater. The Brazilian elite idealized European aesthetics, causing a proliferation of foreign literature in the country and encouraging Brazilian authors to adopt European literary styles and classical forms.  And yet, distinctly Brazilian themes and cultural contexts were developed and described.

These themes include Indianism, Regionalism, and the Social Novel, as it relates to social issues particular to Brazil. Indianism is a term used for the romantic depiction of Native Americans. In Brazilian literature the natives are often portrayed as “noble savages,” and idealized in the role of innocent victims of conquest as well as representatives of the new and “true” Brazilians. Regionalist literature refers to literature dealing with a specific region, its customs, characters, dialect, history, or topography. A common theme in Brazilian literature is that which deals with the Sertão region, the arid plains in the interior of Brazil’s Northeast, set apart from the more populated coastal areas. The social novel in Brazilian literature often deals with themes of social and racial injustice, realism, ethnic and national identities.

The following novels offer an exploration of these themes and are available in English translation: 

O Urugai by Jose Basilio de Gama, translated by Richard Burton.

Published in 1769 and based on the historical episode of the campaign by Portuguese and Spanish armies to enforce the 1750 Treaty of Madrid by expelling Jesuit missionaries from Brazilian land, this epic verse was the first literary text in Portuguese to lament the tragedy of conquest. In the vein of Indianism, the protagonists are portrayed as heroic warriors fighting for liberation and defending their natural right to the land. Da Gama was influenced by the anti-clerical sentiments of the enlightenment, denouncing the missionaries’ manipulation of the “innocent” natives.  Richard F. Burton made a meticulously researched English translation of this text in 1865-1868, which was destroyed by his wife who was offended by the anti-Jesuit sentiment. The translation, which was one of the first English translations of a Brazilian literary work, later resurfaced in a library in California and was finally published in 1982.                                                       

Iracema by José de Alencar, first translated by Lady Isabel Burton.

Published in 1865, when the Romantic Indianist movement was at its height, Iracema is a “foundational romance” about the nation’s beginnings. The plot employs the marriage of a Portuguese soldier and a native tribeswoman to illustrate the complex meeting between the Portuguese colonizers and the people indigenous to Brazil, and the “new” Brazilian culture that emerged from this union. While the romance is tragic, it results in the birth of a mixed-race son, who can be interpreted as the archetypal original Brazilian. The idea of a national identity and unity built upon miscegenation recurs throughout Brazilian literature. Iracema remains one of the most read and best known literary work in Brazil, taught in all public schools. Isabel Burton, Richard Burton’s wife, first translated Iracema into English under the title Iracema, The Honey Lips, a Legend of Brazil.

Maira by Darcy Ribeiro, translated by E.H. Goodland and T. Colchie.

Maira is another novel dealing with the Brazilian Indians’ place in the larger context of Brazilian society, but in this case dramatizing the survival of native cultures and traditions in the face of globalization and urban and industrial developments. Ribeiro worked as an anthropologist and in 1970, well before writing Maira, published a work subtitled “The integration of the indigenous populations into modern Brazil.”

Rebellion in the Backlands by Euclides da Cunha, translated by Samuel Putnam.

Rebellion in the Backlands tells the story of the civil war fought in the Northeast interior, between a community of devout Christians and the military forces of the Republican state. The Canudos settlement was founded by Antonio the counselor, a charismatic preacher who drew the following of peasants frustrated with the taxation imposed on them by the Republic. Da Cunha initially set out to document the struggle with the perspective prevailing at the time – that it was a legitimate attempt by the progressive Republic to halt a reactionary Monarchist revolt of religious fanatics. After witnessing the struggle first hand as a newspaper correspondent, Da Cunha was forced to acknowledge the initiative and resilience of the Canudos community and the brutality of the Republican forces who, in the end, massacred the entire population. Though a work of nonfiction, combining the language of scientific materialism, ethnography, journalism and political commentary, Rebellion in the Backlands nevertheless holds a place within the Brazilian literary canon and is considered to be one of the finest of its works.

The Devil to Pay in the Backlands by João Guimarães Rosa, translated by J.L. Taylor and Harriet De Onis.

Guimarães Rosa is one of Brazil’s most celebrated writers. In this novel, published in 1956, he continues the tradition of Regionalist fiction, which began with Da Cunha’s Rebellion in the Backlands. The Sertões, in this work, function as a backdrop to a metaphysical and psychological narrative, one which reshapes the mythical and cultural significance of the region.

Three Marias by Rachel de Queiroz, translated by Fred P. Ellison.

Published in 1963, Three Marias is a Regionalist novel that treats the theme of life in the Sertões from a female point of view. The novel plots out the roles of women in a male-dominated world, the limitations placed on them and the measures taken to discourage and punish them for any form of rebellion against the status quo. Queiroz’s work is sociological in nature, and draws on her own experience of being raised in the Serão in North-Eastern Ceará. In 1977 she became the first women to be elected to the Brazilian Academy of Letters.

Memoirs of a Militia Sergeant:  A Novel by Manuel Antonio De Almeida, translated by Ronald W. Sousa.

This novel is an entertaining and informative portrait of the life of the middle class in Rio de Janeiro at the beginning of the nineteenth century, when the Portuguese court arrived in Brazil and installed itself in the Capital.

O Cortiço by Aluísio Azevedo

Written in a naturalistic style, O Cortiço tells the stories of members of a community in a slum of Rio de Janeiro in the late Nineteenth century. The cast of characters range from European immigrants, former African slaves, and Brazilian born mulattos, all in some way rejected by the bourgeois. The cortiço, or slum, functions as a microcosm of Brazilian society, and is at the same time represented as a single entity or organism. In contradiction to Romanticism, this work represents people as a collective, treats themes of social injustice, and portrays the proletariat class, which until then had not been significantly represented in Brazilian literature.

Mulatto by Aluísio Azevedo, translated by Graeme Macnicoll Murray Fairleigh Dickinson.

The effects of miscegenation and the experience of mixed-race individuals in Brazilian society are common themes in all Brazilian cultural production. In this novel, a mulatto man attempts to make his way in society during the late nineteenth century, as Brazil transitions from Empire to Republic.

Macunaima by Mário de Andrade, translated by E.A. Goodland.

Mario de Andrade was the unofficial artistic leader of his generation and a main figure behind the Week of Modern Art. In Macunaima, the “characterless hero,” he challenged the ideas of national identity that had been popular at the time of the Republic. In contrast with the image of the heroic Indian warrior, or the mestiço “new” Brazilian representing the fortuitous union of Portuguese and natives, Macunaima is an anti-hero, of mixed Indian, black, and white origins, indefinable, unreliable, and subversive.  The plot follows this disturbing yet irresistible protagonist’s quest from his pre-industrial village in the Amazonian rainforest to the capitalist, modern metropolis of Sao Paulo.  Written in 1928, during a period in which Brazilian society and economy were moving away from the ‘coffee oligarchy’ and toward industrialized urban centers, Macunaima is a dramatization of the challenges Brazil faced during this transition, and a radical confrontation of the new Brazilian reality.

Industrial Park by Patrícia (Pagu) Galvão, translated by Eliz. &K. David Jackson.

Considered a “proletarian novel” for its depiction of working class life, Industrial Park is a satirical critique of capitalism in Sao Paulo during the early 1930, dealing particularly with issues working women faced. Galvão was a controversial figure, censured by and expelled by the communist party for “individualism and sensationalist agitation.”

Works Cited:
Alencar, José de. Iracema, the honey lips: a legend of Brasil. translated by Lady Isabel Burton. London: Bickers & Son, 1886.
Almeida, Manuel Antonio de. Memoirs of a Militia Sergeant:  A Novel. Trans. Ronald W. Sousa. Oxford University Press, 2000.
Andrade, Mário de. Macunaima. Trans. E.A. Goodland. Interlink Publishing+group Inc., 1988.
Azevedo, Aluizio de. Mulatto. Trans. Graeme Macnicoll Murray Fairleigh Dickinson. Toronto UP, 1990.
Coutinho, Afrânio. An Introduction to Literature in Brazil. Trans. Gregory Rabassa. New York & London: Columbia University Press, 1969.
DiAntonio, E. Robert. Brazilian Fiction, Aspects and Evolution of the Contemporary Narrative. London: The University of Arkansas Press, 1989.
Foster, David William and Roberto Reis. A Dictionary of Contermporary Brazilian Authors. Tempe: Center for Latin American Studies Arizona State University, 1981.
Galvão, Patrícia. Industrial Park. Nebraska UP, 1993.
Gama, Jose Basilio de. The Uruguay. Trans. Richard Burton California. Berkeley UP, 1983. Queiroz, Rachel de. The Three Marias. University of Texas Press, 1963.
Ribeiro, Darcy. Maira.Trans. E.H. Goodland and Thomas Colchie. Vintage Books, 1984.
Rosa, João Guimaraes. The Devil to Pay in the Backlands. Trans. J.L. Taylor and Harriet De Onis Knopf, 1963.
Skidmore, Thomas. Brazil, Five Centuries of Change. Oxford & New York: Oxford University Press, 2010.;count=10