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Brazzil - Literature - March 2004

An Ambassador of Brazilian Letters

"International literary meetings are indispensable, not only so that
we can leave the provincialism of the Portuguese language since
we write in a country that hardly reads our works, but also because
we need to spend more time with other creators. We need to know
from one another without facing the limitations of national boundaries."

Glauco Ortolano

Caught Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea:

An interview with writer Deonísio da Silva

I first met Deonísio da Silva in Mexico City while attending a writers' conference in 1999. We were the only ones representing our native Brazil that year. Our delegation that was originally small, became even smaller when Rubem Fonseca was forced to cancel his participation due to health problems.

With Fonseca's absence, I felt an enormous responsibility over my shoulders, perhaps a little too heavy for a virtually unknown writer like myself. However, for my delight and relief, Deonísio permitted himself to be caught between the devil and the deep blue sea, which he did with great valor and grace, two characteristics I usually find also in his fictional characters.

At that time in Mexico, Deonísio already belonged to a very select group of writers representing Brazil at Frankfurt and the Paris Book Fairs, both occasions in which Brazil was the featured nation. He had also already won at least two important literary prizes—one from Casa de Las Américas, when Nobel laureate José Saramago (Portugal) presided over the jury that gave first prize to Deonísio's Avante Soldados, Para Trás (Forward Soldiers, Backwards), a historical novel about the controversial 19th Century war between Brazil and Paraguay, and the other for his other classic Teresa, a novel about the life of Saint Teresa D'Avila chosen by the Biblioteca Nacional, a Brazilian version of the Library of the Congress, as the best novel of the year.

Deonísio is married to poet and linguist Soila Schreiber, who is not only a great poet and linguist but a dedicated hostess with a very keen sense of observation and good humor. She is the author of several books on her field of specialization and of poetry, most notably for Narrativas do Coração (Narratives of the Heart), who in the words of John Lyons, poet, translator and scholar (Oxford and The University of London), is a collection of very short poems that "emphasizes the power of poetry as an affirmation of the being".

Deonísio is the third Brazilian author I have the pleasure to interview. The two previous authors, Ana Maria Machado and Paulo Coelho, have both become members of the prestigious Academia Brasileira de Letras (Brazilian Academy of Letters) in the last year. It wouldn't come as a surprise to me, if Deonísio da Silva becomes its newest member in the near future. He is certainly well deserved of such honor not only for the caliber of his literature but also for what he represents for Brazilian letters today.

Brazzil: Some critics regard Teresa as your most important novel to this day. Do you agree with that?

Deonísio da Silva: I do, but the public does not. And the author is always the least indicated to evaluate his own books. In Brazil, writers are usually "abandoned children", "street kids" and their temptation is always that of falling into narcissism, which is devastating. It is either that or they become isolated in an Ivy Tower eating grass, because you as a Brazilian writer, you live this paradox too. People either read your work or you become forgotten. Paulo Coelho was the one among us who better understood this fatal truth.

The Biblioteca Nacional do Brasil has selected Teresa as best novel of the year but unfortunately Teresa is, among all my books, the one that sells the least in Brazil. It was transposed to the theater and the actors and actresses came to me and said things like "I had never proffered such beautiful dialogues before", which made me cry, but it is in Avante Soldados, Para Trás (Forward Soldiers, Backwards) that I find my best seller. There have been seven editions just in Brazil. It was considered a difficult book, but thanks to Professor Flávio Loureiro who wrote a very elucidating preface it became easier to follow the plot.

Brazzil: Since you are not simply a writer, but also a scholar in the field of literature, what tendencies do you observe in the present stage of Brazilian literature?

Deonísio da Silva: Two very good ones. The woman went from character to author. Now she speaks with her own voice, interrupting that old masculine look over the feminine condition. The other one is that new writers are reading more. They are reading their older brothers like our generation did. This is as important to a new author as reading the classics, in order for him or her to establish important references.

I never wanted to be the new "I-Don't-Know-Who" but I have always been careful not to repeat others. I've always tried to make my own path under the light of those who came before me. I can't pretend that writers like Machado de Assis, Graciliano Ramos, Lygia Fagundes Telles, Loyola Brandão, Rubem Fonseca, Cecília Meireles, João Cabral de Melo Neto, Carlos Nejar, and Mario Chamie never existed.

There is a tendency I repute as the most fertile in our letters—the one that combines a strong involvement of our problems with the society, and I say, not only the Brazilian society but that of the world, although it should always be expressed under the light of Brazil. After all, we are Brazilian writers.

"We cannot express Bosnia", said once Antônio Cândido, "for us Brazilians, our literature should be the most important one, because it is the only one that expresses ourselves." Among these writers, I like to cite Manoel Carlos Karam, Marçal Aquino, Moacir Japiassu, Luiz Antonio de Assis Brasil, Adriana Lunardi, Valesca de Assis, Plínio Cabral and Márcia Denser whose ages vary from thirty-something to the seventies.

They are renovating Brazilian prose. We find among poets, Mário Chamie, Antonio Carlos Secchin, Fabrício Carpinejar, and Affonso Romano de Sant'Anna, all worth mentioning. Their works are very attentive to the Brazil of their times, not to mention the careful attention they pay to their crafted language.

I also think about the work of Paulo Coelho, perhaps because his light is just so potent as an esoteric writer that I believe the works of Paulo Coelho are generous to other writers. It is like a great net that brings readers to other writers. The opposite is not true, for obvious reasons, I suppose.

Brazzil: If you were to teach a course in Contemporary Brazilian Literature, what are some novelists you would select for your class to read?

Deonísio da Silva: Among contemporary writers, I would select novels by Rubem Fonseca, Lygia Fagundes Telles, Nélida Piñon, Valesca de Assis, Luiz Antonio de Assis Brasil, Manoel Carlos Karam, Ignácio de Loyola Brandão, Miguel Jorge, Márcio Souza, Moacir Japiassu, Plínio Cabral, Antonio Torres, Raimundo Carrero, Charles Kiefer, Lya Luft, Marçal Aquino, Rui Mourão, Patrícia Melo, Menalton Braff, Moacyr Scliar, Salim Miguel and most importantly, Betty Milan.

Betty is the writer with the greatest conscience of her calling as a writer, not only within the text itself, but also in her literary life, meaning, novels like Clarão (Great Clearing), and O Papagaio e o Doutor (The Parrott and the Doctor). Betty who is also a psychoanalyst makes her characters look deeply into one another. But the one who sees everything with a panoptic look is the narrator, and in this art, Betty is a master.

Brazzil: What if the genre selected for your course was short stories?

Deonísio da Silva: There are just so many excellent short story authors that I would first try to give students a more panoramic view to point out talented writers that are virtually unknown, before starting to give emphasis to those whose work I know better. And these would be works by Dalton Trevisan, Rubem Fonseca, Clarice Lispector, Caio Fernando Abreu, Luiz Vilela, Ignácio de Loyola Brandão, Moacyr Scliar, Luís Fernando Veríssimo, Lygia Fagundes Telles, Murilo Rubião, Aldyr Garcia Schlee, and Ana Maria Martins. And as you can see, there are great novelists who are also great short fiction writers.

Brazzil: And if the course was about poetry?

Deonísio da Silva: The difficulties in regards to inclusion would increase. Brazilian poetry is going through an extraordinary phase, perhaps similar to the short story boom lived in the seventies and eighties. For this hypothetic course I'd include works by Alberto da Costa e Silva, João Cabral de Melo Neto, Carlos Nejar, Mário Chamie, Bruno Tolentino, Fabrício Carpinejar, Joany de Oliveira, and of course, Carlos Drummond de Andrade, Manuel Bandeira, Mário Quintana e Cecília Meireles.

Brazzil: Let's say a graduate student decides to study the author Deonísio da Silva, would you help him or her by telling a few names of Brazilian and world authors who had an influence on young Deonísio?

Deonísio da Silva: Machado de Assis evidently did influence all of us, I believe. But I like to proclaim that I have been more influenced by authors that were my contemporaries in my green years while they were already walking on the path that only much later would become known to me. Among them, the poet and prose writer Guilhermino César, my dear professor from the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul at Porto Alegre. Besides being my teacher he was also a dear friend.

I particularly like Lira Coimbrã e Portulano de Lisboa. There is also a great selection of his poems in Sistema do Imperfeito. I don't know if I can evaluate the degree of influence some other writers had over me, but I like Osman Lins (especially in Avalovara); Jorge Amado (Dona Flor and her Two Husbands); Érico Veríssimo (Incidente em Antares); João Guimarães Rosa (Primeiras Estórias); Lygia Fagundes Telles (the novel A Noite Escura e Mais Eu, and the short stories in A Disciplina do Amor, and Seminário dos Ratos); Graciliano Ramos (São Bernardo); Adelino Magalhães (Casos e Impressões).

I have also felt a strong influence from Romanceiro da Inconfidência by Cecília Meireles. Among the world authors, José Sararamago who fortunately writes in my own language, Gabriel García Márquez, Mário Vargas Llosa, and Alejo Carpentier. Among the French authors, there is that name that is synonymous of a writing lesson, Marguerite Youcenar, especially with her work Memories of Adrian.

From North-American literature I've always liked Ernest Hemingway and Philip Roth. Among the Italians, I like to mention Cesare Pavese and Umberto Eco, mainly for his classic, The Name of the Rose, whose opening I know by heart because I think it's simply beautiful. And of course, there is the eternal Jorge Luis Borges.

But above all, the Bible, which is the book where I have found the most beautiful, creative, lively, imaginative and well-written stories ever. My model for a narrator, except for the opening that I find somewhat peculiar, is the simplicity of the Gospel according to Mathew combined with the sophistication and the synthesis of John, where we find the shortest verse of the Bible: "And Jesus wept."

Brazzil: I was wondering if the fact that you are married to poet Soila Schreiber has had any influence in your writings. I've noticed that many passages of your books are of a purely poetic prose.

Deonísio da Silva: I am thankful for the judgment you make of my work. I am constantly and desperately seeking to create poetic prose every single day, but I must confess that it requires much practice and an enduring learning process which will never end. As soon as the book goes off the press, I'm the first to recognize certain errors I was not able to avoid, like the awkward tone or the banal trivialities of certain passages.

However when Teresa was transposed to the theater and I heard the actors saying the dialogues, I thought they were very beautiful, but of course it is different when it is said by an actor. If they were indeed beautiful, they became even more beautiful. If they were not so beautiful, they would improve because of their talents.

I try not to comment on the poetic view Soila has of the world. She is capable of conciliating the rigors of looking at things with that of expressing the world, which is by the way, a style that I've noticed she is not capable of having on her daily life. In life, she mixes things too much to the point of working against Horace's maxim: fortiter in re, suaviter in modo (firm in purpose but soft in the way to obtain it).

It is in poetry that Soila can be her real self. I find that very beautiful and for me a recent discovery. But the greatest contribution in every single sense that Soila has given to my life is our daughter Manuela. Although she is our only daughter, it was in the condition of a mother that Soila has achieved has greatest success. My daughter is an enchanting and intelligent individual, but mostly, someone who possesses the same kind of strength as of her mother's.

I think of myself as weaker than the two, mainly because I believe women are the best part of human nature as it can be found in Avante Soldados Pra Trás. Without women, to where would the love of men go? I refer here, of course, to all kinds of love, including paternal love.

If I were not a father, I would be only half a man. The narrator in Teresa says at the end of the novel: "The darkest and saddest nights are the ones without love. The Lord has given me such nights so that I can appreciate the other ones."

Brazzil: We met each other during that memorable international meeting in Mexico. How important do you think those meetings are for the penetration of Brazilian literature abroad?

Deonísio da Silva: They are indispensable, not only so that we can leave the provincialism of the Portuguese language since we write in a country that hardly reads our works, but also because we need to spend more time with other creators. We need to know from one another without facing the limitations of national boundaries. On that occasion I met lusophone writers from Portugal, the U.S. and Africa, as well as Spanish-American writers with whom I still maintain very enriching dialogues, such as the conversations and letters I've shared with this writer and professor who is now interviewing me.

As García Márquez once said, "The main function of these meetings is that of producing the next one." We need to return to that kind of enjoyable and enriching ambiance. We and our readers can profit tremendously from these experiences, because we certainly leave these meeting more qualified and more enthusiastic about our role as writers, which according to great Érico Veríssimo, is the role of turning on a lighter into darkness.

Glauco Ortolano is a poet, novelist, essayist, translator, and scholar who is currently teaching Brazilian language, literature, and film in the Centre International des Langues at the University of Nantes. He welcomes comments at ortolanos@hotmail.com.

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