Sunday, 30 June 2013

Brazilian Literature: the wrap-up post




St. Orberose’s informal Brazilian literature event concludes for no better reason than that I’ve ran out of books to write about. The small collection I amassed during the May-June Lisbon Book Fair has been consumed, and it’s time to resume normal service. But first I’d like to explain how what I at first thought would be a theme week escalated into a two-month event.

Sometime in the final months of 2012 I realized that no Brazilian writer had yet graced St. Orberose with his presence. That was hardly a surprise since, contrary to evidence, I’m not in the habit of reading Brazilian literature. But I reasoned that, much like the unknown Portuguese authors I enjoy divulging, I was in a position to bring some attention to a couple of Brazilian writers unknown to English readers. So I decided to store reviews until I had enough to devote a week to Brazil. My ego was smaller in the past. I remember the first, and for a long time only, review I wrote was for Ferreira Gullar’s Cidades Inventadas.

Then last January Richard e-mailed me, inviting me to join the Grande Sertão: Veredas read-along. The epic story of how I acquired a copy of this illusive book has been narrated before, though not in octaves and heroic decasyllables. Anyway May was approaching and I figured I could use the weeks prior to the read-along to finally showcase some Brazilian literature. The occasion seemed perfect. The positive aspect of this is that I finally got a good reason to read Tocaia Grande and O Mistério da Ilha do Pavão, books I had forgotten in my vortical (and vertical; this redundant aside only exists because my word processor keeps correcting vortical to vertical and to redly tell me vortex does not have an adjective. [An even more redundant aside: since vortical is the adjective of vortex, I checked the dictionary to see if vertical could possibly be the adjective of  vertex; and what do you know? It is! But my word processor does not consider vertex wrong. Does that mean vertex is more popular than vortex?]) book pile since the 2012 Lisbon Book Fair.

The tragic irony is that I enjoyed reading these books better than João Guimarães Rosa’s Grande Sertão: Veredas. In fact the read-along was weeks away and I was realizing I had no interest in finishing the novel, which I had already speed-read from page 200 to 400, hoping something of interest would start happening sooner or later, let alone write a series of posts about it. I had nothing to say save that it was a waste of my time, and that important announcement I could reserve for this moment. So I just scrapped the original idea and decided to focus on Brazilian literature. My failure to appreciate this seminal novel, nonetheless, takes nothing away from the fine posts Richard, Scott and Rise have been writing about it.

So without a main book to write about, and with only a handful of reviews ready, in order to add more to the mix I hastily put together a few lines from what I still remembered of my readings of Carlos Drummond, João Cabral de Melo Neto and Euclides da Cunha. I calculated that, if I managed my time and posts well, I could keep May active with posts long enough to restock at the book fair.

More than half what I’ve written about was eventually purchased there as I looked around for books by Rubem Fonseca, Ferreira Gullar, Clarice Lispector, Mário de Andrade and the others. Save for a few disappointments, I made an excellent selection. I did not have a particular criterion except that I wanted to try several of the Camões Prize recipients. Most I blind bought. But although not looking for a direction, I was nevertheless amused to find in so many of them the spectre of Canudos and recurrent themes: utopianism, the romanticization of bandits, the view of the army as invader, the brutal process of modernizing the backlands, themes that João Ubaldo Ribeiro’s An Invincible Memory put for me in a wider historical context of which Canudos is but one side.

Although Jorge Amado and João Ubaldo Ribeiro are the heirs of the romance nordestino (Northeast novel), with a preference for the countryside, I’m glad my purchases also included some books in urban settings, like Agosto and The Vampire of Curitiba. Considering Brazil has gigantic metropolises, it’d be misleading to give the impression every Brazilian lives in a little village in the middle of the jungle. Looking back, I think I made an inclusive selection. There were novels, short-stories, novellas, a memoir, reportage, and poetry.  Poetry seldom receives its due, which is a mistake since it’s the exponent of any literature. Therefore I was happy for sharing whatever I could of Carlos Drummond, João Cabral de Melo Neto, Vinícus de Moraes and Ferreira Gullar. I noticed my post about Dirty Poem was one of the least read posts of the month; that’s understandable since I was in a bad mood when I wrote it. Regardless it’s one of the most exceptional poems I’ve read in recent memory.

These last two months were quite demanding but also worthwhile. I am, however, anxious to return to a milder rhythm in July. Nevertheless I thank everyone who followed this informal event and left a comment. As for João Guimarães Rosa, perhaps we’ll still see him in my blog one day, maybe when I’m feeling more patient, or maybeI’ll try Sagarana. But enough obscure Brazilian writers for now, it’s time to go back to obscure Portuguese writers for a while.

12 comments:

  1. I admire your commitment to reading and not just reading but not falling for the 'usual'. You provide the counterpoint to most blogs and had it not been accessibility to books, I would have benefited a lot from this blog. Be that as it may, I keep the authors in me and also keep it in mind that I am behind when it comes to Lusophonic writers. In fact I think I've read only two: Saramago's Blindness, and Bolano's Last Evenings on Earth.

    I enjoy what you do here, regardless of the lengths of the posts. You have passion for what you do.

    Aside: About the Vertex: LOL. Vertex is common to mathematicians especially in angles (geometry). It is more common to me than vortex, which I also know.

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    1. Nana, thanks for the encouragement. Don't worry, I'll continue to write about what I want, and not to be popular.

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  2. Brazil will be the guest of honor at the Frankfurt book fair 2013:
    http://www.buchmesse.de/en/guestofhonour/

    This means that all kinds of Brazilian authors will be (re)published and (re)translated in Germany this year and probably also the following years. This seems like the perfect occasion for me to tackle some of the writers you have mentioned on your blog in the last weeks, great! I will start with Lispector whose Agua Viva has just arrived with the mail (although this copy is the recent English translation from New Directions, apparently some of her books soon will get new translations into German thanks to the book fair).

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    1. That's great, I hope many good writers are translated. Although I think you could do better than Lispector, I'm curious to know what you think of her.

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    2. So, Agua Viva, yes, I can empathize with you now :D It was hard to finish that book, there was a lot of stuff that gave me headaches, that made me want to throw the book at the wall. Sentences like the following make me cringe:
      "I can still reason - I studied mathematics, which is the madness of reason - but now I want the plasma - I want to eat straight form the placenta."

      From a stylistic point of view I liked parts of the book, but man, 'mathematics the madness of reason'? - what immense bullshit. But then I read excerpts of the book to my girlfriend and she liked it (!), 'pure emotions in there', she said. We discussed it and I understood that it has to be read as an outburst of feeling, a jazz inspired (yes, jazz is the right word) attempt to capture the moment, neither a philosophical treatise, nor the stream of consciousness of a logical thinker. And yes, it works well in this respect. However, this won't change the fact that the book is not for me ;)

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    3. I can only say it's wonderful to feel vindicated ;)

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  3. Miguel - From this side of your blog, the irony of your liking GS:V less than the other works of Brazilian literature you read doesn't seem tragic at all. I found it a real treat to get to hear about some (er, most) of these authors for the first time, and as I've mentioned before, I found your comments about them obliquely illuminating with regard to GS:V. Like Nana above, I appreciate the counterpoint you provide, and even if you haven't gone into detail about your dislike of GS:V, the mere fact of your distaste for it has forced me to re-evaluate it with a more critical eye. My opinion hasn't changed significantly - I still think it's a great book - but I can also see aspects of it that one might find frustrating or even tedious. I'm curious too, since you're the only one of us to have read it in the original Portuguese, whether our more positive reactions might indicate something gained in translation.

    Anyway, if you do end up returning to JGR via Sagarana or any of his other works, I'll be eager to read your impressions.

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    1. Scott, I'm glad you enjoyed this little event.

      Since I never read GS:V in translation, I can't say if anything was gained.

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  4. Great blog!

    I've been doing a lot of research on Brazilian literature because there is a lot going on in terms of government incentives for Brazilian authors and translators (I follow this because I'm a translator myself). The Buchmesse mentioned above is a good example of the favorable times we are in.

    About GS:V, I don't think anything was gained in this specific translation. I used to have both books (English and Portuguese) and I wrote some academic pieces on them (plus the letters between Rosa and Onís). The translation oversimplifies the language, which in GR's case is so important to the story. I'm glad to know that people still like the translation, though. As to you not liking it, well, I guess that happens! GS:V is definitely not a favorite to many people.

    Now, what I really wanted to say. If you are interested, Flip (Festa Literária Internacional de Paraty) starts today and they have streaming (flip.org.br). Graciliano Ramos is the theme, but it's pretty international with the presence of authors from all over the world.

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    1. Mirna, it's great to have the input of a professional translator here!

      Thanks for the FLIP heads up, I know it by reputation only. I'll try to follow it via the link.

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  5. Miguel, thanks so much for this wrap-up, the preceding Brazilian reviews in general, and for co-hosting the GS:V group read with the rest of the gang. I have a much better idea of which Brazilian authors I hope to read next as a result of all this focus here and on the other blogs--the only problem now is the usual one: finding the time to make that happen! The few Guimarães Rosa short stories I've read/skimmed seem so much different than GS:V in terms of the "simplicity" of the writing if not the complexity of the themes; I know you hated him enough probably not to want to give him another try for a while, but--like Scott--I'll be interested in hearing what you think about his other stuff if you ever give him another try. P.S. I might follow your lead and do an informal Uruguayan literature event this month--have lots of Uruguayan authors lined up that I'd like to write about all of a sudden, but I know I don't have the writing vim and vigor that you displayed in your Brazilian bash.

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    1. Thank you so much for your kinds words and for following this event. I hope we see your informal Uruguayan event soon :)

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