Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Literary Guide to Brazil

Jorge Amado, Brazil's most celebrated novelist, was, like the country, larger than life. His novels ("Gabriela, Clove and Cinnamon" and "Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands" were reissued this past fall by Vintage; "Tent of Miracles" and "Tieta" in 2003 by University of Wisconsin Press) burst with energy -- rollicking, robust, earthy tales from the northeast port cities of Ilheus and Salvador, of worker strikes, rubber booms and busts, and mulatto beauties. (The film versions of "Dona Flor" and "Gabriela," incidentally, are classic '70s softcore fare, starring the sumptuous Sonia Braga.) Amado, embraced in the U.S. during the Latin boom era of the '60s and '70s, had been pumping out hardy, proletarian-style novels since the '30s, though by the '50s they had turned more comic, lighthearted and bawdy.

The late-19th-century author Machado de Assis wrote stylish, whimsical portraits of modern bourgeois life that made him a literary phenomenon of his time (his novels were often first serialized in popular women's magazines). Machado de Assis is an original -- witty, erudite, deft and acrobatic, and endlessly inventive. You'll be won over instantly by his "Epitaph of a Small Winner" (1881), republished in 1997 as "The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas" by Oxford University Press, and translated by Gregory Rabassa -- a titillating, quasi-philosophical reckoning on a life of missed opportunities, narrated from beyond the grave by the eccentric Brás Cubas himself. De Assis' novels cleverly anticipated the mental games and mazes of major 20th-century writers like Borges, Cortázar and Kafka.

Speaking of Kafka, equally bewitching is the Brazilian-Jewish writer Clarice Lispector, whose modernist, heavily metaphysical works have often been compared to those of the Czech master himself. Lispector, who immigrated to Brazil from a Ukrainian shtetl in 1920 when she was just 2 months old, wrote some of the most lively, raw and dizzying internal soliloquies of the past century. "I shall be as light and vague as something felt rather than understood, I shall transcend myself in waves, oh God, and may everything come and fall on me, even the incomprehension of myself at certain blank moments," she rhapsodizes in her first novel, "Near to the Wild Heart," "for I need only fulfill myself and then nothing will impede my path until death-without-fear; from whatever struggle or truce, I shall arise as strong and comely as a young colt."
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