How To Read Brazil
On 5 July Granta announced the first ever list of twenty Best of Young Brazilian Novelists. The collection is currently available in Portuguese to be translated into English and published in November by Granta and in Spanish and Chinese by our international partners next year. Here we asked three Best of Young Brazilians – Daniel Galera, Vanessa Barbara and Chico Mattoso – for their own list of three essential books by Brazilian authors to find out which writers of past generations inspire them the most.
Many Brazilian authors played an important role in my life as a reader, and curiously two of them, João Gilberto Noll and Hilda Hilst, write in a prose style that is very lyrical, sensual and full of metaphysical weight, whereas my own style is more straightforward, realist or merely physical. I would mention A fúria do corpo by Noll and Fluxo-Floema by Hilst as two particularly intense works.
A fúria do corpo (The fury of the body), by João Gilberto Noll
In this novel an unnamed character moves aimlessly around a seedy Rio de Janeiro facing unusual and sometimes shocking situations. There’s almost no plot and the unifying element is the human body, which goes through a journey of pleasure and decay. Noll’s nameless, drifting kind of characters sometimes appear in my own writing. In other books he describes my home city Porto Alegre in a personal way that appeals to me.
Fluxo-Floema (Flux-Phloem), by Hilda Hilst
This was Hilda Hilst’s first book of prose after establishing herself as a poet. Her narrators see death, mystery and eroticism in the world’s simplest details and rant beautifully about it. The flow of her sentences never fails to impress me. The metaphysical probing and the rejection of plot in her work are more radical than Noll’s, but somehow she’s able to go on and on and keep the book gripping and readable. I never tried to imitate her – that would make no sense – but she inspired me to develop my own style to the limit.
Grande Sertão: Veredas (The Devil to Pay in the Backlands) by João Guimarães Rosa
Finally, I can’t help mentioning Grande Sertão: Veredas by João Guimarães Rosa. I was already twenty-two years old when I read it – already a self-published author – and the experience went way beyond my highest expectations. I´m not sure I can say anything really new about this which is considered by many the greatest Brazilian novel ever published. It´s a Faustian epic of awe-inspiring scope. In terms of language and mythical quality, it stands for the Brazilian inland of the ‘sertão’ as Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian for the American West. A difficult, weird, true and timeless novel.
All three books are written in one single, long section without breaks or paragraphs (in the case of ‘Fluxo-Floema’, each of the five ‘stories’ is a section of its own), which may or may not have to do with the effect they had on me as a reader. I really can’t tell. They didn’t directly influence my own writing style, but their fearlessness left a mark on me. They remind me to try to go all the way.
Memórias Póstumas de Brás Cubas (The Posthumous Memoirs of Bras Cubas), by Machado de Assis
This is a memoir written by a dead man with a good sense of humour and mediocre character, who may be dead but is still the narrator, so you have to respect him. After all, ‘frankness is the prime virtue of a dead man’. Considered a serious classic author in Brazil (you have to read him at school), Machado de Assis wasn’t as serious as it seemed. His novel is strangely amusing and has a subversive style, unusual chapters and a unique voice. It is dedicated ‘to the worm who first gnawed on the cold flesh of my corpse’ and is wonderfully written. I always laugh out loud in some passages, even knowing them by heart. He’s my favourite Brazilian writer, often compared to Lawrence Sterne, Kurt Vonnegut and Samuel Beckett.
Excerpt: For some time I debated over whether I should start these memoirs at the beginning or at the end, that is, whether I should put my birth or my death in first place.
Grande Sertão: Veredas (Great Backlands: Tracks), by Guimarães Rosa
If Machado de Assis is our Lawrence Sterne, then Guimarães Rosa is our James Joyce. Grande Sertão is a difficult novel, full of neologisms and a peculiar rhythm, situated in the remote and arid backlands of Brazil. The main character is Riobaldo, an urban middle class man who ends up as an outlaw, and his concealed love for Diadorim, another ‘jagunço’.
Excerpt: The hours were endless. The sun was pouring down on the back of our necks. The sun, the burning sun, under which I sweated; my hair was wet, and the inside of my clothing, and I had an itch in the middle of my back; parts of my body were numb. I kept on shooting.
A Lua Vem da Ásia (The Moon Comes from Asia), by Campos de Carvalho
This is a relatively unknown novel from a relatively unknown writer. A Lua Vem da Ásia is narrated by a man who thinks he’s in a concentration camp that he formerly thought was a luxury hotel. ‘I cannot tell whether it is in Europe or in Asia, or even in Polynesia.’ He seems obviously crazy and is actually locked in a mental institution, but there’s logic in his insanity. The prose is satirical, pessimist and yet profound. In a quick and eccentric style, he describes his pathetic attempts to make sense of his life, a random succession of absurd events. It’s a fragmentary shattered novel, constructed by a chaotic mind.
Excerpt: At sixteen I killed my Logic professor. Claiming self-defense – and what defense might be more legitimate? – I was found innocent by five votes against two and went to live under a bridge over the Seine, even though I was never in Paris. I let my beard grow full in my mind, bought a pair of glasses for short-sightedness and spent the nights stargazing, a cigarette between my fingers.
Contos (Short stories), by Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis
Machado de Assis is best known for amazing novels such as Memórias Póstumas de Brás Cubas and Dom Casmurro, but few people outside Brazil are aware of the greatness of his short stories. He could easily be placed on a level with masters like Chekhov, Maupassant, or Hemingway. Machado had a great eye for detail and was a sharp and sophisticated observer of the human condition, and these qualities somehow seem to be refined in his short stories. They are funny and sombre, delicate and cruel; to read them is a constant delight. Machado is always giving me lessons on style, intelligence, subtlety and wit. His wild inventiveness knows no boundaries. I can’t recommend him enough.
Angústia (Anguish), by Graciliano Ramos
Angústia is one of those novels that not only moves or compels you, but can make you physically sick. Graciliano Ramos is a master of post-modern realism. Some critics have described this book (which was published in 1936) as ‘existentialist avant la lettre’. Graciliano brings us to the hell of subjectivity, to its most dreadful demons. Everything in this unsettling novel exudes pain and misery – but there is also space for moments of surprising lyricism. The book’s brilliant use of stream of consciousness amazes me every time I read it, and the last pages’ monologue is one of the most beautiful – and sad – pieces of fiction I have ever read. There are no wasted words in Graciliano’s books. All of his sentences are like daggers that stab you directly in the heart.
Três Mulheres de Três PPPês (Three Women of Three P’s), by Paulo Emilio Salles Gomes
I don’t think this book has had proper recognition in Brazil yet. To me it is one of the most brilliant works of Brazilian fiction in the second half of the twentieth century. Paulo Emilio was a film critic who started to write fiction in his late years. This book – his first novel – was written when he was in his 60s, and is a masterpiece. Its apparent simplicity hides a kaleidoscopic – and hilarious – investigation of São Paulo’s snobbish and vulgar upper class during the 1940s. The book is comprised of three novellas whose protagonists – all named Polydoro, hence the title – are men who suffer in the hands of powerful and manipulative women. Três Mulheres has an amazing freedom of style and yet it sounds miraculously composed. It’s the kind of book that makes you want to start writing immediately. ■
You can read the full list of Best of Young Brazilian Novelists here and an interview with the editor of Granta em português and one of the seven judges for the selection process, Marcelo Ferroni here.