Go Back

Brazzil - Literature - May 2004

Brazil: Of Best-Sellers and Better Reads

The crisis of literature is not only Brazilian. It is felt on the world
scale. The crisis of literature is a crisis of reading. The web is
the democratization of knowledge. But vidiots and webiots are
growing dangerously. In Brazil, where some areas have no
electricity, the technological paradox is more acute.

Cecília Prada


Picture Struggle for the word: From Guimarães Rosa to the success of the new wizards of self-help

We might be tempted to take the subtitle above as a sufficient definition of what Brazilian literature was (or better, was not) over the last 40 years. The terms of the proposition are valid, and reveal the reality of a decadent trajectory, a wave of imbecilization nourished by marketing interests that manage to put some authors on the best-seller lists, imposing them on the tastes of native or foreign multitudes.

But the generalization would be frivolous, unjust, false—it would imply a lack of consideration (a lack polarized by some mountebanks) for the great harvest of writers and poets, who in these decades have continued to be committed to the "struggle for the word / what a vain struggle!" as defined by Carlos Drummond de Andrade.

Of the two components of literary expression, prose and poetry, the latter was doubtless the most fluent, extensive and present in recent decades—by its nature poetry manages to retain more independence and immunity in relation to new communication technology.

The concretist movement of the fifties and sixties, linked to the visual arts, took a stand against the intimist emptying of the forties, took up once more some of the themes and forms of the modernism of 1922, and revitalized the genre.

Following it or repudiating, the succeeding generations were able to maintain an elevated poetic expression and overcome the inevitable trendiness of the sixties to arrive in the twenty-first century with a pleiad of talents who have been extremely encouraged by the large number of public presentations, competitions and publications done by medium-size publishers.

But, in the field of prose, especially that of the novel, the panorama is quite different. Forty years ago, Brazilian fiction was in a privileged position—an apogee, never again reached since then, since the names, among various others, that were prominent internationally were those of Guimarães Rosa and Clarice Lispector.

The author of Grande Sertão: Veredas, who only managed to be admitted to the Brazilian Academy of Letters a few days before his death in 1967, was a strong candidate for the Nobel Prize. The beginnings of the sixties brought the luminous mark of that epoch of cultural effervescence, the years of the Juscelino Kubitschek administration.

Thoughtful Literature

In literature, as in the visual arts and architecture, in popular music, in cinema and in theater, the free circulation of ideas, the high level of instruction at the universities, the economic euphoria, made up a backdrop indispensable to the manifestation of creativity.

Brazilian fiction, which had been making giant strides forward since the modernist rupture in the twenties, had exhausted its regionalist sources and had become, in the novels of the thirties and forties—with José Lins do Rego, Jorge Amado, Érico Veríssimo and principally Graciliano Ramos—a fulcrum for social thinking on a national scale.

It reflected in a conscious way the great ideological debate that was raging throughout the world, it "discovered" a Brazil that was exploited, underdeveloped, with its problems and its potential. It was a spear point, a sharp one.

To this literary current was added another, which began to create an urban novel with the psychoanalytic contributions, the stylistic ruptures and the mixing of genres which had already been long present in world literature. There were convictions: the importance of literature, the seriousness of the subject matter, the greatness of the writer, the necessity of culture, of technical and stylistic improvement.

There was, forty years ago, a clear separation between what was and was not good literature. And there was, especially, a humanistically oriented school curriculum which valued the writer. Today, after the destructive windstorm of the basic reform imposed by the military dictatorship, a devaluation of the native language and a loss of prestige for literature reigns in schools.

We are living through a very grave cultural crisis, expressed by the short-story writer José J. Veiga in a lecture delivered to an audience of young people: "Look at me closely, pay close attention to my physiognomy, to my tone of voice: I am a species that is becoming extinct—a writer."

But the crisis of literature is not, at present, a Brazilian attribute. It is felt on the world scale. It is complex and the object of study for specialists, and passes through the formal exhaustion of the novel as a genre, after the great ruptures and creations of the twentieth century.

The crisis of literature is a crisis of reading. The crisis of the written word versus the image, the domination of the visual. The loss of the reader, inevitably transformed in to a dazzled spectator, passive and stunned by the spectacle of electronic communication—with all its deadly potential of murdering dialogue, reflection, and creativity.

The web is a tool for a new type of knowledge and a true technological revolution, which demands the reformulation of concepts and processes. It is the democratization of knowledge. But vidiots and webiots are growing in threatening proportions.

In the case of Brazil and of other developing countries, the technological paradox is more acute. When Fernando Henrique Cardoso was Brazil's President it was reported that he had presented a computer to a youth who had won a competition—just that the boy could not use it, since he lived in a place that was not on the electricity grid.

As the writer Deonísio de Silva recalls, "we have 60 million illiterates—we form the largest republic of illiterates in the world. We haven't even arrived at the Gutenberg galaxy and we are already raving about the information superhighway. We are running the risk of turning into electronic Zulus. Or non-writers manipulating computers."

Politics of Writing

But another factor has had an influence on Brazilian literary production, beginning at the end of the sixties—politics. Let us remember what Stendhal said: "Politics, in literature, is the same as a gun shot in the middle of a concert."

The question of political engagement became all-important, precisely because of the force of repression which came to bear with AI-5. In literature and in the theater, everyone had to join in the struggle. Editions were censored and seized, writers and journalists arrested. In the face of the shattering of all liberties, nothing would be more important than to confront arbitrary injustice.

The so-called literary boom of the beginning of the seventies was a mobilization. It pushed the subversive element, expected to hasten the revolution, but in reality it did not amount to much in literary terms. One wrote as a protest, one read as a challenge. It was a beautiful moment, certainly, but a fleeting one—and, when it had passed, the prestige of the writers of the boom and interest of the public evaporated.

Simultaneously, authoritarian currents on the left took thinking prisoner, and put up a barbed wire fence in the dominion of literature, of the press, of the university, checking ferociously on the "political correctness" of all those who, independent, refused to put on the strait jacket of partisan ideology.

As the critic, teacher and poet Affonso Romano de Sant'Anna says: "This was the century in which one lived ideologically in the most partisan sense of the term. We had a concept of history which affected our most everyday actions and our intellectual production. Ideology marked the fascist attitude present on both sides, the Left as well as the Right, since Stalinism was just another facet of fascism-Nazism."

The execration which some of the great Latin-American writers were subject to, tarred as "estheticists", was denounced by the Bolivian writer Elizabeth Monasterios, at the 1st Meeting of Writers in Mercosul, which took place in São Paulo in 1995:

"Didn't Maria Luisa Bombal, Jorge Luis Borges, Felisberto Hernández, Jaime Sáenz suffer this kind of literary excommunication? The fact that these voices were diluted, parodied and even silence had consequences which we can now regard as unpleasant for culture, since the more concrete possibilities which these countries had of articulating the eventual existence of a Latin American philosophy were canceled."

While on the battleground of the intelligentsia the various sects were crossing swords, the "barbarians" took power. The public is given what which it supposedly wants: bloated sentimentalism, sublunary magic, pornography, violence—with the conscious fabrication, on order, of sub-bestsellers easily made into ready-made screenplays or profitable novelas for television.

The writer and critic Silviano Santiago summarizes the problem: "The lack of stable criteria for evaluating the work takes over the scene, letting mediocre producers have exclusivity to circulate their works, to the total neglect of products which seek, through the literary word, the knowledge which the debate of ideas provides."

The contamination between literature and profitable product became inevitable for a whole generation of young writers, who precociously labeled themselves as "successful"—in the same country in which, to give just one example, our most prestigious publishers took a lifetime (70 years) to discover, just two years ago, the writer of great stature, the poet, prose-writer, and playwright, that is Hilda Hilst.

Cecília Prada is a well-known Brazilian journalist, fiction-writer and playwright. Her book O Caos na Sala de Jantar, (Chaos in the Dining-room), published in 1978, has been awarded three literary prizes. She is considered a stylist and several of her short stories have been published also in Italy, Germany, Switzerland and Sweden, in anthologies. Her career as a playwright began in the 60's, in New York City, where she worked with Joe Chaikin's The Open Theater. In 1964, her play Central Park Bench Number 33, Flight 207 was staged at the Judson Poets' Theater in New York. She is also a former diplomat. She is divorced, has two married sons and three grandchildren and lives now in São Paulo, Brazil. You can email her at revistapb@sescsp.org.br.
Translated from the Portuguese by Tom Moore. Moore has been fascinated by the language and culture of Brazil since 1994. He translates from Portuguese, Spanish, French, Italian and German, and is also active as a musician. He is the librarian for music, modern languages and media at The College of New Jersey. Comments welcome at mooret@tcnj.edu.
This article appeared originally in Portuguese, in the magazine Problemas Brasileiroshttp://www.sescsp.org.br/sesc/revistas/pb.

Discuss it in our Forum

Send your comments to Brazzil

Anything to say about Brazil or Brazilians? Brazzil
wishes to publish your material. See what to do.