Friday, 28 June 2013

Mário de Andrade: Macunaíma

Macunaíma, published in 1928, was written in just six days. The mean side of me would add that it shows. I should immediately declare that I consider this novel a failure. But there’s plenty of time for that.

First and foremost we need to understand what Macunaíma is about. I leave that to a passage Mário de Andrade wrote in a preface to the novel that was not published in his lifetime:

What interested me in Macunaíma was undoubtedly the concern I live in of working and discovering as much as I can Brazilian people’s national identity. Why, after much struggling I realised something I think is certain: Brazilians have no character. (…) And with the word character I don’t determine just a moral reality, no, instead I mean the permanent psychic identity, manifesting through everything, in the habits the external action the feelings the language the History the gait, for good as well as evil.

If national identity is the novel’s theme, one has to admit, first and foremost, that the author has a remarkable idea of what constitutes the Brazilian identity. Macunaíma is a black Indian born into an Amazonian rain forest tribe; he’s a liar, a bully, a coward, a schemer, a whoremonger; he’s proud, vain, greedy, treacherous, ignorant. There’s another novel I read recently, João Ubaldo Ribeiro’s An Invincible Memory, that is also about Brazilian identity. It radically opposes Mário de Andrade’s thesis, so the matter is all but settled.

All literature is full of ironies, and an irony about this novel is that the author, to put his subject under the microscope, found inspiration in a German naturalist’s narration of an expedition up the Orinoco river, namely Theodor Koch-Grünberg’s 1917 book Vom Roraima zum Orinoco. One has to find at least amusing the fact that the Brazilian novel that breaks with Portuguese and European literature, has its starting point in a German book. But literature also changes literature, and I write this review in light of Ribeiro’s novel, and I realize something. The Brazilian educated class of 1917, “Europeans in exile” to borrow from Borges, despised the culture and history of blacks and Indians so much, a book about Indian myths, language and folklore could only have been written by a curious outsider, a role that, much as it may bother some people, was often played by white Europeans.

From the German naturalist’s book Mário de Andrade procured legends and gods to form the adventures of the protagonist, writing in the process a proto-magical realist novel. The novel also reminds me at times of Mario Vargas Llosa’s The Storyteller, a novel split in two narratives: one about a man narrating a person he knew who disappeared in the Amazonian jungle and became a tribal storyteller; and another narrating the tales this figure tells. I liked the first narrative; I found the second one totally incomprehensible and unlikeable. So perhaps I just don’t understand this type of storytelling. I also see a similarity with Voltaire’s Candide. Italo Calvino, in Why Read The Classics?, has an interesting essay about it that brings attention to the novella’s lack of substance, the neglected details of time and space, the events compacted and subordinated to a narrative that moves at a breakneck pace. I noticed the same technique in Macunaíma, but far more unbearable.

I think the main reason that explains my disgust with this novel is that it’s not written in any language I recognise. Not just that but I have no sense of references in the book, as if I dropped into an unknown country without a map. The novel mixes Portuguese, Kimbundu and Tupi words, coins neologisms, and draws incidents, characters, names and episodes from Amazonian and Ioruba myths and legends, some of which, thanks to the plays of Wole Soyinka, I proudly recognised. But I confess I didn’t understand the novel on a simple episode-to-episode basis. Things are described, things happen, characters move, do things, etc., but I couldn’t visualize anything in my mind. Another similarity: Benjamin Péret’s La Brebis Galante, an abstruse and I’d argue worthless surrealist book about, I think, nothing. To Mário de Andrade’s credit, his novel is about something.

From what little I could gather, Macunaíma has two brothers, Maanape e Jiguê, names a handy footnote tells were taken from old Indian myths. The hero falls in love with Ci, who one day soars to heaven and turns into a star. Macunaíma and his brothers go after a muiraquitã, a talisman she gave him, only to discover it’s being kept by a man-eating giant. The novel, after many episodes where the hero mocks modernity, foreign fashions, technology, etc., becomes the Great Bear constellation in the sky. Macunaíma performs super-human feats, like kicking something from one country to another, and is constantly credited with inventions of supreme importance to Brazilian culture, not least of which football. He’s also constantly bedding women; the novel is full of sex, which is a main feature of Brazilian literature. It’s everywhere: in Jorge Amado, in Dalton Trevisan, in João Ubaldo Ribeiro, in Rubem Fonseca. A lot more than in any other literature I know of. Apropos of his incredible powers, he even dies and comes back. From time to time a fragment of interest. Macunaíma to his red-skinned son: “My son, grow up quickly so you can go to São Paulo earn lots of money.” After arriving at a city and enumerating several technological wonders. “They were machines and everything in the city was just machine!” And his definition of money – ‘Civilization’s curriculum vitae’ – is one for the books.

For many years this novel excited my imagination because I had read that it was a precursor of magical realism, a type of literature I confess I used to like more than I do now. Even so I find it problematic to rank Mário de Andrade amongst Juan Rulfo or Gabril García Márquez, writers I think were truly possessed of genius. Nowadays it’s also considered important to the formation of the Romance Nordestino (Northeast Novel) of the 1930s, practiced for instance by Jorge Amado, and later by Guimarães Rosa. Mário de Andrade put the spotlight on Brazilian themes, regionalism, and Brazilian grammar and orthography. It’s a novel with a true Brazilian flavour and content. That alone makes it an historical landmark.

And I think this is a case where the historical importance has overshadowed the actual merits of the book. The novel is famous for its linguistic rupture with Portuguese from Portugal. According to the introduction, “Mário de Andrade defended the imposition of this ‘Brazilian speech’ as a form of expression that demonstrated the singularity of that country’s modernist literature in relation to Portuguese literature.” It is curious, or maybe not, that Brazilians have a long tradition of accentuating the differences between their Portuguese and Portuguese from Portugal. Paradoxically, both countries have over a century’s worth of spelling agreements to unify the spelling of the Portuguese language worldwide. As late as 1911 Portuguese, in Portugal, did not have a standard. Writers chose their spelling depending on the criteria they preferred, phonetically or etymologically. Some words were written the way they sounded. But Fernando Pessoa, for instance, wrote símbolo as symbolo (probably because he had had an English upbringing: symbolo/symbol). There were also those who favoured the Latin roots of Portuguese, so inscrição was inscripção (inscriptĭo). But the Republic, in 1911, decided to pass a spelling reform that established rules on how Portuguese should be written. One of the problems is that Brazil was not consulted and people on the other side of the Atlantic continued to write with different rules. Throughout the 20th century the two countries tried to establish agreements to harmonize the spelling, but they always fell through because the Brazilian refused to adopt them. One of them, in the 1940s, was because of something as simple as a stress mark. The Portuguese write António and the Brazilian write Antônio, and they wanted to keep their circumflex mark, or as we call it, the hat.

Most probably won’t know, but the two countries are currently in the final stages of a new agreement, one that has been causing a lot of polemic because the majority, in Brazil and Portugal, are against it. Brazil, a rising world power, thinks it’s time the UN adopts Portuguese as one of its official languages, and believes the main obstacle to that goal is a double spelling. Never mind the fact the UN has shown no signs of wanting to adopt Portuguese as an official language. The masterminds of the agreement also believe that this double spelling is what’s been holding back the Portuguese language from an important place in world culture. That’s right, because of a few cees and pees, publishers and translators across the world have been too confused to give Portuguese/Brazilian literature the attention it rightly deserves. This is only comical until the moment you remember people in positions of power – presidents, prime-ministers, ministers, ambassadors, MPs, editors, teachers, journalists, linguists – actually believe this tripe. And you have a sudden epiphany: maybe this is why Portuguese/Brazilian literature doesn’t have the attention it arguably deserves. And so we reach the current situation when two thirds of the Portuguese don’t want the new spelling agreement and the Brazilian have gathered signatures to delay its implementation. The reason, however, is what I find interesting. Whereas we see it as a former empire submitting to a former colony, the Brazilians want to retain the differences in order to accentuate their identity against their former masters. There are Brazilians so proud of their linguistic differences they not longer even speak of Brazilian Portuguese, but of an actual Brazilian language. And who’s to say they’re wrong? So they pervert the language to give it its own mark, its own identity. This is not too different from the motives that led Mário de Andrade to write Macunaíma in 1928.

His great innovation was writing phonetically, the way Brazilians speak the words, like para to pra, se to si, etc. But when he starts building neologisms from Tupi words, I’m treading unknown territory, at night, with a broken compass. To mark the difference he goes beyond mere phonetics, he plumbs into the languages of Brazil before the arrival of the Portuguese. The Portuguese reader trudges through a bizarre language that is neither Portuguese nor anything recognizable to him, that is, other Latinate languages. When Mário de Andrade starts enumerating things then I was truly lost. And there are lists for everything: fruits, fishes, birds, animals, plants. The book is summa of botany and fauna to rival Euclides da Cunha’s masterpiece. According to my glossary at the end, many of those words come from Tupi, an indigenous language of Brazil, what you could call true Brazilian. Then there were the African words. The only time I didn’t feel disoriented was during a chapter written deliberately in Portuguese from Portugal. Ironically the chapter is an attack on, according to Mário de Andrade, the arcane and precious literary style of Portuguese, although I think the parody was off by a few centuries, since he seemed to be writing a bad imitation of 18th century Portuguese, nothing similar at all with Eça de Queiroz or Aquilino Ribeiro, and certainly not with the neorealist revolution of the 1930s. Still, I think the use of Tupi in itself is interesting if only to show how far he was willing to go in his rupture. Imagine if an American written had written a novel half in Hopi just to spite the English. You can’t imagine it because it doesn’t exist, to my knowledge. Curious, then, the different relationships these former colonies had with their former metropolises’ languages.

At the same time I think it’s a novel that would be defeated by a translation. This novel was written to be misunderstood in Portuguese. Changing it into another language would make it too comprehensible and so ruin the desired effect. João Guimarães Rosa’s novel Grande Sertão: Veredas, compared to this, isn’t anything special. It’s dull, but at least it’s written in a language I understand. His neologisms aren’t anything I haven’t encountered before in a Mia Couto book. It is to Macunaíma what Alice in Wonderland is to Finnegans Wake in terms of difficulty. Macunaíma is basically impenetrable.

It’s a book I regret I didn’t like, since I had high expectations for it, but it’s a book I had to read anyway. I think it’s a failure, but at the same time it’s a failure that had to exist. If the novel had to be so bad, I don’t know, but a Brazilian book had to exist that caused a rupture with Portuguese from Portugal. I just wish it had been good while it was doing it. But let us feel glad that another piece in the jigsaw of Brazilian literature has found its place. More enjoyable pastures lie ahead.


  1. Wow, you're really handing out a beating to all the 20th century Brazilian "giants" these days. I feel like you've just smacked down the equivalent of Faulkner, Hemingway, and Wharton or something in the last month or so! I'll still be reading this some day, but you've at least encouraged me to be careful about which translation I choose--I guess it wouldn't make sense for me to learn Portuguese to read this book unless I was also planning to learn Tupi simultaneously!

    1. I wonder if a Spanish translation wouldn't be better than an English one. The problem is if the translator, in any language, decides to make the Tupi parts clearer, defeating their purpose. I think this is a book that can't escape its language, and much like Finnegans Wake is pointless in translation (well, more pointless than FW already is).

  2. Miguel - I love the way you've written around Grande Sertão: Veredas in these posts on Brazilian literature, a way of commenting upon it through its absence - or near absence. The differences between Brazil's experience with colonialism and that of the United States are beginning to intrigue me, and the one you highlight here - on the linguistic level - is fascinating. I'm reminded of the battle to keep Anglicisms like "le snackbar" and "le weekend" out of French - a whole different kind of colonialism. Oh, and I so wish there were a U.S. novel written half in Hopi and half in English!

    1. Yes, writing about this novel I was also struck at the different relationship between the colonies and the metropolises. Brazil has a grievance with Portugal down to the language, something that was never an issue for Americans. At the same time, in order to build up their national identity, they did not go back to the Native Americans, who continued to be a marginal people unlike the Brazilian Indians, who are revered as the first Brazilian. Perhaps the difference is that Brazil was a bigger product of slaves than America, which remained a white and segregated society for many years.