September 1998

The Best
Pages of
Our Lives

Which are the best books produced by the Brazilian literature this century? A panel of experts prepared a list of their 50 favorite novels.

Elma Lia Nascimento

Inspired by similar lists of movies and books in the United States, Rio's weekly magazine Manchete asked a group of eight experts from Rio and São Paulo to present their 50 favorite novels produced this century by Brazilian writers. Grande Sertão: Veredas by João Guimarães Rosa came in first with 315 points out of a possible 400, just slightly ahead of Mário de Andrade's Macunaíma. with 300.

Born June 3, 1908 in Cordisburgo state of Minas Gerais, Rosa, the greatest Brazilian author since Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis (1839-1908), came from a wealthy patrician family. He earned a medical degree and worked as a doctor and a diplomat before publishing in 1946 his first book, Sagarana, a collection of short stories. Grande Sertão: Veredas (Big Backlands: Pathways, The Devil to Pay in the Backlands in the American translation) was published in 1956.

Rosa was responsible for inventing a new language mixing regional slang to Indian dialects and modern and archaic Portuguese and foreign languages. Grande Sertão: Veredas is the pinnacle of this accomplishment. The novel's story is an endless monologue told in the first person by Riobaldo, an ex-bandit, who with unfinished sentences and invented words recalls what happened to him and sexually-ambiguous character Diadorim in the backlands, starting at the end of the nineteenth century.

He died at his home in Copacabana, Rio de Janeiro, on November 19, 1967, of a heart attack just three days after being formally received at the Academia Brasileira de Letras. The author, who had a nearly fatal heart attack in 1962 was chosen in 1963 to become an "immortal", but refused to join the other 39 members of the Academy of Letter fearing "the emotion of the moment."

A sample from Grande Sertão: Veredas extracted from the episode known as the "Slaughter of the Ponies," which was eliminated from the US translation:

"I can't remember how many days and nights it was. I'd say six, but I may be telling a lie. And if I hit on five or four, I may be telling a whopper. I only know it was a long time. It dragged on for years, sometimes I think. And at other times, when I consider the problem, in a different light, I think it just flitted by, in the whiz of a minute that seems unreal to me now, like a squabble between two hummingbirds.... We were trapped inside that house, which had become an easy target. Do you know how it feels to be trapped like that and have no way out?... I can tell you—and say this to you so you'll truly believe it—that old house protected us grudgingly: creaking with complaint, its dark old rooms fumed. As for me. I got to thinking that they were going to level the whole works, all four corners of the whole damn property. But they didn't. They didn't, as you are soon to see. Because what's going to happen is this: you're going to hear de whole story told."


Mário de Andrade (1893-1945) was the most important representative of the modernist movement in literature at the first half of the century in Brazil. After studying at the São Paulo Conservatory of Music and Drama he dedicated himself to learn about Brazilian myths and folklore. His book of verses, Paulicéia Desvairada (Insane São Paulo), came out in 1922, the same year of the Week of Modern Art, a mark in the Brazilian culture. Macunaíma, the book elected as second in this list, was published in 1928. The "hero without a character" as Andrade calls Macunaíma, was inspired by an Amazonian folk hero. The book is a patchwork of Brazilian myths and legends including those from Indians, Blacks and European immigrants, written in an invented language. The title character's motto: "Oh, but I feel so tired." While the book is now hailed as a masterpiece, when it was first published at Andrade's expense, critics and the public alike dismissed it as too hermetic and obscene.

Completing the list's top-ten literary works we have:

3. Triste Fim de Policarpo Quaresma (Policarpo Quaresma's Sad End) by Lima Barreto (283 points)
4. São Bernardo (Saint Bernard) by Graciliano Ramos (271)
5. O Tempo e o Vento (The Time and the Wind) by Érico Veríssimo (247)
6. Memorial de Maria Moura (Maria Moura's Notebook by Rachel de Queiroz (242)
7. Menino de Engenho (Sugar Mill Boy) by José Lins do Rego (238)
8. Fogo Morto (literally Dead Fire, means a mill that stopped working) also by José Lins do Rego (208)
9. Memórias Sentimentais de João Miramar (João Miramar's Sentimental Memories) by Oswald de Andrade (192)
10. Vidas Secas (Barren Lives) by Graciliano Ramos (180)

Policarpo Quaresma, who gives name to the third book in the list, is a tragicomic ultranationalist hero. Lima Barreto (1881-1922) initially published the story in 1911 in installments in Rio's Jornal do Commercio, as a feuilleton. The book would only appear four years later.

Internationally-renowned Baiano (from Bahia) writer Jorge Amado is the champion of appearance in the list with his works mentioned five times although he first appears on 25th place with Capitães da Areia (Sand Captain). He is remembered again from 29th to 32nd places with Terras do Sem Fim (Endless Lands), Jubiabá, Gabriela Cravo e Canela (Gabriela, Clove and Cinnamon), and Mar Morto (Dead Sea).

The list covers the whole century. The oldest book chosen is Euclides da Cunha's Os Sertões (Rebellion in the Backlands) from 1902, and the most recent Quase Memória (Almost Memory) by Carlos Heitor Cony, published in 1995.

Oversights and overratings are de rigueur in such lists. Two of the more conspicuous are the absence of Machado de Assis, Brazil's greatest writer ever, from the top ten, and the low rating (a 24th place) given Euclides da Cunha's Os Sertões, which is considered by many the best book written in Brazil this century. There is an explanation for both cases though.

Machado de Assis (1839-1908) published the majority of his books and the best ones like Dom Casmurro (Dom Casmurro) and Memórias Póstumas de Brás Cubas (The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas) in the 19th century. The only two released this century were Memorial de Aires (Aires's Notebook) and Esaú e Jacó (Esau and Jacob). The latter, published in 1904, obtained a 12th place and was the number one in three of the lists presented to Manchete by the jurors.

As for Os Sertões it seems that critics still don't know how to classify the masterpiece, presented as an extensive news report by some and as fiction by others. And how to explain that a genial author like Curitibano (from Curitiba, capital of Paraná) Dalton Trevisan who only writes short stories found a place among the chosen with Vampiro de Curitiba (Curitiba's Vampire)? No explanation there. The juror just wanted to recognize a great writer. And they probably will contribute to divulge authors that few people know nowadays, people like Dionélio Machado, Cornélio Pena, Octavio de Faria, and Armando Fontes.

By the way it would be hard to find a more qualified jury, which was composed of eight recognized writers and critics from Rio and São Paulo: Ivan Ângelo, Ignácio de Loyola Brandão, Carlos Heitor Cony, Roberto Freire, Leyla Perrone-Moysés, Eduardo Portella, Silviano Santiago, and Antônio Carlos Villaça,

Cony and Ignácio de Loyola, who were judges, have their books in the list. An odd situation to be in. Or the authors are too modest and omit their work hurting their chances or are too eager to win and overrate their literary contribution. How to ask for total exemption in this case? For your information, the number one choice of each judge received 50 points, the second place 49 points, and so on.

The Top 50

1. Grande Sertão: Veredas, Guimarães Rosa
2. Macunaíma, Mário de Andrade
3. Triste Fim de Policarpo Quaresma by Lima Barreto
4. São Bernardo by Graciliano Ramos
5. O Tempo e o Vento by Érico Veríssimo
6. Memorial de Maria Moura by Rachel de Queiroz
7. Menino de Engenho by José Lins do Rego
8. Fogo Morto by José Lins do Rego
9. Memórias Sentimentais de João Miramar by Oswald de Andrade
10. Vidas Secas by Graciliano Ramos
11. Angústia (Anguish) by Graciliano Ramos
12. Esaú e Jacó (Esau and Jacob) by Machado de Assis
13. O Coronel e o Lobisomem (The Colonel and the Werewolf)by José Cândido de Carvalho
14. O Quinze (1915) by Rachel de Queiroz
15. A Bagaceira (Husk Pit) by José Américo de Almeida
16. Quarup (Quarup—Indian ceremony for the dead) by Antônio Callado
17. O Encontro Marcado (The Date) by Fernando Sabino
18. O Amanuense Belmiro (Clerk Belmiro) by Ciro dos Anjos
19. A Menina Morta (The Dead Girl) by Cornélio Pena
20. Os Ratos (The Rats) by Dionélio Machado
21. Crônica da Casa Assassinada (Chronicle of the Murdered House) by Lúcio Cardoso
22. As Meninas (The Girls) by Lygia Fagundes Teles
23. Serafim Ponte Grande (Serafim Ponte Grande) by Oswald de Andrade
24. Os Sertões (Rebellion in the Backlands) by Euclides da Cunha
25. Capitães da Areia (Captains of the Sands) by Jorge Amado
26. Incidente em Antares (Incident in Antares) by Érico Veríssimo
27. Recordações do Escrivão Isaías Caminha (Recollections of Clerk Isaías Caminha) by Lima Barreto
28. Perto do Coração Selvagem (Close to the Savage Heart) by Clarice Lispector
29. Terras do Sem Fim (Endless Lands) by Jorge Amado
30. Jubiabá (Jubiabá) by Jorge Amado
31. Gabriela Cravo e Canela (Gabriela, Clove and Cinnamon) by Jorge Amado
32. Mar Morto (Sea of Death) by Jorge Amado
33. O Vampiro de Curitiba (Curitiba's Vampire) by Dalton Trevisan
34. A Pedra do Reino (The Kingdom's Stone) by Ariano Suassuna
35. Maira (Maira) by Darcy Ribeiro
36. Ópera dos Mortos (Opera of the Dead) by Autran Dourado
37. Avalovara (Avalovara) by Osman Lins
38. Mundos Mortos (Dead Worlds) by Octavio de Faria
39. Canaã (Canaan) by Graça Aranha
40. Memórias de Lázaro (Lazarus's Memories) by Adonias Filho
41. Galvez, o Imperador do Acre (The Emperor of the Amazon) by Márcio Souza
42. Os Corumbas (The Forgotten) by Amando Fontes
43. A Paixão Segundo GH (The Passion According to GH) by Clarice Lispector
44. Zero (Zero) by Ignácio de Loyola Brandão
45. A Estrela Sobe (The Star Rises) by Marques Rebelo
46. Quase Memória (All But Memory) by Carlos Heitor Cony
47. O Púcaro Búlgaro (The Bulgarian Mug) by Campos de Carvalho
48. A República dos Sonhos (The Republic of the Dreams) by Nélida Piñon
49. Sargento Getúlio (Sergeant Getúlio) by João Ubaldo Ribeiro
50. A Grande Arte (The Great Art) by Rubem Fonseca

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