A survey of Brazilian novels by Annabel Gaskell, with help from Stuart Allen
I don’t know about you, but I’m distinctly underwhelmed by the World Cup, and football in general. However, given that a large proportion of the world’s attention is currently directed at Brazil for the tournament, I thought that we booklovers could offer some support to the footie fans in the form of a Brazilian reading list.
I don’t speak Portuguese, so I set out to survey what Brazilian literature is available to read in English. The answer is not a lot, but the amount is growing. In 2012, the literary quarterly Granta went so far as to publish a list of the twenty Best Young Brazilian Authors(1) and that issue contained short stories by each of them. Of that twenty, however, only three have novels available now or soon translated into English at a certain online store named after a South American river.
In the UK, the author from Brazil who comes closest to being a household name, is mostly famous for a short novel which I really didn’t like, but millions around the world adore. He’s Paulo Coelho and, of course, that book was The Alchemist. Much better that you should read Veronika Decides to Die or Eleven Minutes instead, both of which I enjoyed a lot and are unmired by the mystic fabulism that so got my goat.
Amado, who died in 2001, was a modernist writer and several of his novels are available in English. The Two Deaths of Quincas Water-Bray is said to be a comic classic, newly translated by Gregory Rabassa for Penguin in 2012 to celebrate Amado’s birth centenary. In the book, the titular character, a bum, is found dead one morning and his friends and family compete over his body, walking it around and taking it on a fishing excursion…
The glamorous Lispector (left) was born in the Ukraine in 1920, but taken to Brazil as an infant. She enjoyed early fame with the publication of her first novel when she was 23, then she became a diplomat’s wife and spent her next years in Europe and the USA. Upon her return to Rio, she began writing again. The novel of hers that I was drawn to is The Passion According to G.H. from 1964 about a woman sculptress who half-kills a cockroach and then has a crisis of conscience and eats it. It sounds rather disturbing, certainly a bit mystical and definitely Kafkaesque, but upon reflection I think Lispector’s style is probably not for me…
Yesterday, however, I lost my human setup for hours and hours. If I have the courage, I’ll let myself stay lost. But I’m afraid of newness and I’m afraid of living whatever I don’t understand – I always want to be sure to at least think I understand, I don’t know how to give myself over to disorientation.
It may be for you though, and several Lispector novels have been newly translated for Penguin Classics and New Directions in the USA. (The Passion According to G.H. was translated by Idra Novey).
Joaquim Machado De Assis, who died in 1908, is, however, widely regarded as the greatest writer of Brazilian literature; Brazil’s foremost literary prize created in 1941 is named in his honour. Several of his novels are available in English, including Epitaph of a Small Winner, (trans. William L Grossman) – a fictional memoir by a dead man.
One Brazilian author whom I have read is Milton Hatoum. All four of his novels are available in English translations and the fourth, Orphans of Eldorado (trans. John Gledson) is part of the Canongate Myths series of new retellings of old legends. Set upriver from Brazil’s major internal port of Manaus, life at faraway trading posts in the 1930s is vividly brought to life as a rich young man, Arminto, who is love with an Indian girl, searches for his private Eldorado.
Other Brazilian authors on my shelves include:
Bernardo Carvalho, who has a couple of novels available in English. I have a copy of Fear of De Sade, (trans. John Gledson again), a short novel in which an imprisoned Baron has a conversation in his cell with a Voice, which may or may not be the infamous Marquis – it sounds intriguing and a bit ‘Beckettian’. A quick glance at the text tells me it’s very readable and likely to be good and quirky.
Rodrigo de Souza Leão’s novel All Dogs are Blue (trans Zoë Perry & Stefan Tobler) is brought to us by the wonderful subscription publisher And Other Stories, and is a comedy of life in an insane asylum in Rio de Janeiro. The narrator of this novel thinks he has swallowed a chip which makes him do things he doesn’t want to do. Sadly the author died in a psychiatric clinic the year his book was originally published in 2008.
And Other Stories’ newest addition to their catalogue published in June is also by a Brazilian author. Nowhere People by Paulo Scott (trans. Daniel Hahn) won the aforementioned Marchado de Assis prize in Brazil.
Blogger Stuart Allen, who champions translated fiction at Winston’s Dad(2), highlights a trio of other contemporary Brazilian novelists new to me that you may wish to explore:
- Michel Laub – who is on that Granta list. His fifth novel, Diary of the Fall is his first to be translated (by Margaret Jull Costa). It reminded Stu of Laurent Binet’s novel HHhH, written in that ‘choppy short paragraph style’ in the form of diaries and notes.
- Crow Blue by Adriana Lisboa (trans. Alison Entrekin) is the story of a young woman leaving Brazil after her mother’s death to go to the USA with her stepfather. She wants to find out about her real father. Stu says. ‘Vanya and her stepfather are treading a path that many people from Latin America do, trying to find a better life. I found the feel of the two looking in at the rich American world of the perfect house and lawn just right.’
- Luis Fernando Verissimo’s novel The Spies, again translated by Margaret Jull Costa, is a comedy about ‘middle aged men trying to be spies and not always doing it well,’ says Stu. ‘It has echoes of classic noir with the mysterious women, and Ealing comedies in the great ensemble bits. So if you fancy a book like The Maltese Falcon done by Ealing films with a few bottles of rum and a jazz album on in the background, this is the book for you.’ It certainly sounds like my kinda book!
My quick tour of Brazilian literature available to read in English is over, but I’d recommend visiting the Granta archive for further inspiration. There are bound to be authors I’ve missed and titles you’ve enjoyed – please do leave a comment. ‘Come on England!’ she said hesitantly…
(1) Granta: No 121, July 2012 – The Best of Young Brazilian Novelists http://www.granta.com/Archive/121
(2) Winston’s Dad blog – Books from Brazil http://winstonsdad.wordpress.com/category/books-from/brazil/
Annabel is one of the Shiny New Books editors, and comes from a family of Crystal Palace FC fanatics, but has managed to remain nearly immune to football.