Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis, who wrote at the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of this one, is often considered the greatest figure in Brazilian literature. He was a mulatto who rose from the lower classes to become the first president of the Brazilian Academy of Letters. The narrators of his novels, middle-class Brazilians, often distort what they tell you to serve their own ends. You start off believing them, but their interpretations of social signs and gestures become strained and paranoid. For instance, in Dom Casmurro (1900), Bento Santiago tells of his childhood with Capitu, whom he later marries and then spurns, accusing her of adultery. From the beginning, he portrays her as a crafty manipulator and himself as her victim, but the evidence of her adultery is flimsy, and Santiago's coldness to her seems to spring solely from his own neurosis and cruelty.
Machado was heavily influenced by eighteenth-century English novelists, particularly Laurence Sterne. Sterne's Tristram Shandy has a witty narrator, subtle (one might say British) humor, graphic devices such as entire paragraphs of asterisks, and long digressions. Machado uses all these devices. For instance, Epitaph of a Small Winner (1881) has a chapter of nothing but ellipses, and another chapter, "The Venerable Dialogue of Adam and Eve," contains only ellipses, question marks, and exclamation points.
Some say Machado was shamed into denying his African heritage in his life and literature and valued only his European heritage. But in recent years others have said Machado writes a lot between the lines. He sometimes seems to suggest certain topics by downplaying them. In Memorial de Aires (1908), the narrator goes into the street in l888 and sees a crowd celebrating the end of slavery. A friend invites him to join the parade, and though he approves of the end of slavery, he cannot bring himself to participate. After two paragraphs, the narrator moves on to "more important things," the romance of two of his friends.
In the 1 920s, Mario de Andrade presented another way of creating Brazilian art. De Andrade, a folklorist, professor of musicology, and poet, combined Amazon Indian mythology, Portuguese traditional stories, African folklore, and popular culture into an absurdist narrative called Macunaima. The character Macunaima was at times a hero and emperor, at other times a rogue or buffoon. The novel's characters romp all over the continent in Bunyanesque fashion and perform superheroic feats. Macunaima interacts with traditional Indian and African gods and goddesses, often roguish themselves, and with characters representing urban Brazil. The novel was not only an amalgam of influences but a linguistic amalgam: the characters speak in the styles of all different classes and regions of Brazil. De Andrade wasn't fully appreciated until the '60s, when absurdism became widely used in dealing with social problems in literature.
More widely recognized in the 1920s and 1930s were other attempts to address social problems in literature. This was an era of worldwide depression during which Marxist authors like Graciliano Ramos and Jorge Amado wrote about Brazilians who were left out -- blacks and poor Brazilians from the interior. Ramos' novel Barren Lives (1938) had a topic similar to that of Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath: migrants forced by drought to move in search of work, food, and a better life. The novel follows a year in the lives of one mixed-race family as they migrate. In a lean style reminiscent of Hemingway, Ramos shows you how the family looks at the world. Oppressive economic and social conditions have brought them close to the level of animals. Fabiano, the male head of the family, even refers to himself as an animal, sometimes to show his low self-image and sometimes out of pride in his instinctiveness. The family members' speech is animalized, consisting of grunts and monosyllables. Fabiano fatalistically accepts his subordination, and I think this is realistic: You don't expect an uneducated person brought up in this system to suddenly say, "Marx is right, let's have a revolution."
Jorge Amado's novels at this time were more openly ideological than Ramos', talking of strikes and revolts. Amado also took great pains to extol the contributions of Africans to Brazil, in novels such as Jubiaba (1935), about an orphaned black male growing up on the streets of the city of Salvador. However, in Jubiaba he relies somewhat on racial stereotypes -- blacks are more instinctive, have more musical talent -- that were commonly held by white defenders of Afro-Brazilians.
Amado rejected Communism after the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956, and his work changed course. He became a satirist of Brazilian society, with character types reminiscent of Dickens. The lower-class characters often prevail over their upper-class oppressors through guile, superior intelligence, or the aid of the gods and goddesses of candomble, an AfroBrazilian religion. In Tereza Batista: Home from the Wars (1972), police who try to break up a circus-like prostitutes' strike are punished by the women's supernatural protectors. Some have identified Amado's use of supernatural forces with "carnivalization," a technique going back to de Andrade, in which the workaday world is inverted and social and political lines are blurred. These novels of Amado's are often wordy and Rabelaisean, with the sort of excess that marks Brazil's Carnival. Although Amado's type of satire has its roots in European literature, he stresses the fusion of African and European cultures in Brazil.
The writer Clarice Lispector, another Brazilian author, was heavily influenced by European thought, and as a Jew and a woman was something of an outsider. Plot is of little importance in her works; more important are the feelings of the usually middle-class characters and the author's metaphysical speculations. In the short story "Love" (1960), the protagonist is daydreaming on a trolley when she sees a blind man and begins to see everything in a new light. Dazed, she wanders into the Botanical Gardens, where she rethinks her existence. She then goes back to her life seemingly as if nothing had happened. Her experience is like that of nausea in French existentialism: a frightening realization that things in life are not meant to be the way they are, but are constructs that people can change.
From 1964 to 1985, Brazil was under military dictatorship, and many writers handled its social problems with a great dose of the absurd, using carnivalization as de Andrade and Amado did. The outside influence that the authors are concerned about during this period is North American mass culture. The United States generally supported the military dictatorship, so there was a reaction to American mass culture and the dictatorship as one and the same. You see that in the title of Roberto Drummond's novel Coca-Cola Blood (Sangue de CocaCola, 1981), which the author calls "a tale of hallucinations on an April Fool's Day that reeked of Carnival. " One character in this novel describes Brazil as "A Great North American Circus" in which Brazilians are the animals. The novel's events are seen through radio and TV reports, music lyrics, commercials, drug-induced dreams, candomble prayers, and so on. The resulting picture is a grotesque, farcical view of ; popular culture with a recent Brazilian history, mixing magical atmosphere.
The debate about what is Brazilian has been around at least since the 1920s. Should you take away all the American influence? What is Indian, Portuguese, or African? Aren't those also the result of other influences? This debate becomes absurd: Everything in culture is made up of something previous, even the languages themselves. What many Brazilian writers have done is to say: Brazil is bound to receive the dominant cultures from Europe and the United States, so instead of welcoming it uncritically, let's satirize it and accept what pertains to us. And that's a healthier way of assimilating imported culture than outright rejection.