March 2001

Beloved Grumpy

If Monteiro Lobato had written in English, there's no doubt that today he would be one of the great universal fabulists. He gathered all world fables together in his stories and his stories include not the oppressive fantastic but the delirious fantastic.

Lobato's biographers, Carmen Lucia de Azevedo, Marcia Camargos and Vladimir Sacchetta, authors of the book Furacão na Botocúndia (Hurricane in Botocúndia), the most recent biography of Monteiro Lobato, talk about this important personage of Brazilian life and disclose to the public at large the multiple faces of the father of the Sítio do Pica-Pau Amarelo (Yellow Woodpecker Farm).

To most people, Monteiro Lobato is the greatest author of children's books in Brazil. And he should be. After all, his books have illustrated our childhood for over sixty years with characters that are genuinely Brazilian. But his ideas go beyond his literary works and extend to various fields related to the country's development. From publishing books to prospecting iron and oil. In 1998, we celebrated the 50th anniversary of the author's death. The celebrations began in 1997 with the publishing of Furacão na Botocúndia (Editora Senac) in which the authors rescue the life of Monteiro Lobato with exclusive and never-published photos and facts. Their extensive research work reveal that Lobato was not only the "father of Emília".

What were the difficulties you faced in researching the life of Lobato, 50 years after his death?

In spite of Lobato's great stature and relevance, there is no organized collection of this work. His overall archive was lost. To this day no Brazilian institution took any initiative to try to collect everything that is scattered around. We had to go after information in São Paulo, Rio, etc. But even his family members themselves have very little. The Monteiro Lobato Museum, here in São Paulo, which is located inside the children's library, has some stuff but the rest is scattered. So it was a lot of work to gather and organize all this. Not only that, but Lobato is himself a multifaceted character. He was an editor, an entrepreneur, he dealt in oil, he was a journalist and an art critic.

You mentioned the several faces of Lobato. What were these faces?

He was a curious person by nature. He was one of these people that when they discover something they want to look into it and find out what is new about that issue. A good example of this is his interest in steel: steelmaking already existed in Brazil, it was no longer news, but he went after an economic solution for the problem. You see, Brazil was rich in iron ore, but what to do to exploit it? So he went around the world and found a new process which was able to make good quality steel at low calory levels. So Lobato tried to bring this process to Brazil and he said: "This is the way out for us. Minas [Gerais] is a crown of iron; this is the solution for Brazil." If you have the means to use elements such as the bagasse (refuse) of the babaçu nut as an alternative source of caloric energy… Another solution planned by Lobato was to use coffee as a caloric source: "See, we are burning coffee", this was in the middle of the crisis of coffee overproduction. "If you're going to burn it anyway, use it to make steel."

But why the obsession, first with the iron and then with the oil?

Lobato thought about development as translated into the image of the machine. In order to build those machines, you needed iron. To move the machinery, you needed oil. For him, the two fundamental pillars are these two things, and the third was bread, that is, food. These are the three elements of modern economic infrastructure.

Why did these other characteristics of his, such as the great nationalist, the entrepreneur, the businessman concerned with the country's future, remain somewhat hidden when compared with his stature as a writer?

First, because in the field of youth literature there was nobody else in Brazil, so he is unique. Now, the other Lobatos are polemic. He was polemic and he created controversy all his life. When he faced the modernists, which was the group coming out of the "Semana de 22" [the Week of 1922] who started to dominate literary criticism in Brazil, a complicated conflict was created. Just imagine his direct confrontation with Mário de Andrade, who then began criticizing Lobato relentlessly, trying to diminish his literature. And it all started with such a silly issue...

What is the story about that disagreement?

In 1917 Anita Malfatti opened an exhibit, Lobato hated it and said so. He particularly hated cubism. For him, imported abstract art had nothing to do with Brazilian artistic production. Now, in our research we found out that Anita Malfatti ended up doing covers for Lobato's publishers later on. So this story was not told very straight. In the end, we found texts by Monteiro Lobato pointing to another direction. There is a text dated from 1926, published in the Diário da Noite, in São Paulo, entitled "Our Dualism", in which he says that the great role of the avant-garde crowd who promoted the Semana de 22 was to renew the Brazilian cultural production which would lead Brazil to stop thinking in French and to stop speaking and writing the Portuguese from Portugal. This article would generate the famous "necrológio" by Mário de Andrade which was responsible for the symbolic killing of Lobato in the newspaper A Manhã, in Rio de Janeiro. However, and on the other side, we also found the letters documenting the dialogue between Lobato and Oswald de Andrade, who was in Paris promoting and translating Lobato into French. This dispute, therefore, was nonsense. It was a form of prejudice that was slowly invented and became true in the end. The fact is that Lobato was always a free shooter. He had no affiliations. He never wanted to head any movement.

What about his positions on oil exploration?

People used to call Lobato a xenophobe nationalist but that is one thing he never was. He never wanted to keep Brazil's oil closed. He did think that the oil issue was fundamental in terms of the nation's sovereignty. Today we hear that Lobato was the "father of Petrobras". Never! He was absolutely against the monopoly. In fact, he was a liberal in the truest sense of the word.

Aren't the ideas defended by Lobato outdated?

Monteiro Lobato is totally contemporary. He lived though the whole first half of the twentieth century, following everything that was happening and looking at the country and at the Brazilian people with tenderness. That's the reason of his concern with Jeca Tatu. The first Jeca, in 1914, was sluggish and lazy. Four years later, he finds out that Jeca was that way because he was sick. Then he embarks on a crusade for health and sanitation. He says: "Listen, Jeca, you were not born like this. Your body is a zoo for protozoa." At the end of his life, in 1947, he rethinks Jeca for the third time and says: "Jeca, you are like this because you are landless and there's something called latifúndio [large landed estate] that is bad for you." In other words, fully contemporary.

Let's talk now about Lobato the children's author. How did he revolutionize the universe of children universe through literature?

If Monteiro Lobato had written in English, there's no doubt that today he would be one of the great universal fabulists. First because he gathered all world fables together in his stories. Second, his stories include the fantastic element but it was not the oppressive fantastic, as in most imported fables, but the delirious fantastic. Lobato's formula has one foot in reality but also has an opening for fiction and dreams. Observe that Lobato, when he produces his fables, he also subverts the relations between children and adults. Suddenly children are interlocutors capable of talking with adults and the adults have to be available and to look at the child as a little human being who is intelligent and thinks. He used to say that he was a children's writer, not a writer of childish things. There is, in fact, a project behind all his children's literature. At the end of his life, when he was tired, the oil didn't work, the iron didn't work, Getúlio Vargas's dictatorship censured him, he said he was tired of writing for grown-ups. "What boring people!", he used to say, "let's see if I can help train better adults by writing for children".

And 50 years later, did he succeed in building better adults? After all, most of the people leading the country grew up reading his books.

Yes, he did. Author José Roberto Withaker Penteado wrote the book Os Filhos de Lobato [Lobato's Children] about this theme exactly. The book used extensive polling to explain the way that the values transmitted by Lobato became part of the imaginary world of those Brazilians who are now the country's governing elite. We also discovered a collection of some 400 letters written to Lobato by children. In these letters, we see first of all that Lobato corresponded with his readers and took them as seriously as he took all children, talking equal to equal, on the same level. His readers offered him ideas, discussed issues, asked to become his characters and confessed that his books had made them to learn world history, greek mythology, language and arithmetic. And many children made it clear that those values had come to them through him.

How did the Sítio do Pica-Pau Amarelo and all its characters come about?

Slowly, piece by piece. The first book he wrote for children, published on Christmas in 1920, was the story Lúcia, a Menina do Narizinho Arrebitado [The Girl with the Turned Up Nose]. Following that, he wrote a sequence, with several books. The stories are independent from each other but in the end they form a long saga. For example, everybody knows Reinações de Narizinho [Narizinho's Pranks] but that story was not born there, it was actually born with Lúcia…, so he added several stories in sequence, then he condensed them and released them as one volume. All those stories of Narizinho Arrebitado, Príncipe Escamado, Reino, etc. were born on the spur of the moment. He was playing chess with Hilário Tasso (José Maria de Toledo's pen name) in the newsroom of the magazine Revista do Brasil. Hilário told Lobato the story of a small fish who drowned and died because he unlearned how to swim. Unfortunately, this first text is lost now. But even before that episode, Lobato had always thought about writing for children, because he believed that there were no genuine Brazilian youth tales. Parallel to this, he always talked about the backdrop for the work which was part of the development project he envisioned.

How large is his volume of work?

There are thirty volumes. Thirteen for adults and 17 for children, complete works published by Brasiliense, the last publisher he worked with. Besides that, there is his work as a translator and his adaptation work. We can't forget that Lobato translated and adapted Pinocchio, Alice, Grimm, Andersen, Robinson Crusoe. In fact, he didn't translate the text per se. He said that he did a "literary organization" of the text, which meant that, since he was a talented and creative person, he could translate the work from the original into a language that could be understood by Brazilian readers. Translation specialists say that Lobato's translations improved the original. Not only in the children's books but also in the grown-up books, and he translated Tarzan, Hemingway, Einstein. In the early part of the 1930s, he practically stopped writing for adults, except for things of a propaganda nature, to sell ideas. He wrote what we call "panfletary literature". One of the most important aspects of Lobato was his work as an editor.

How significant was he in the Brazilian publishing market?

It was fantastic. Lobato created the book industry in Brazil. Before him, books were either imported or made here but always according to European models. Lobato was the first one to think of books as products. For him, books needed to be atractive, to entice the buyer. In a few words, Lobato was a first-rate marketeer. He did something very interesting: he sent letters to merchants all over Brazil saying: "You have a notions shop, how about selling books over your counter? My book is a product that may be interesting, it can even bring you a profit", and so on. "If you want, I propose to send you the boks in consignment." And this was 1918! At that time, there were only some 30 bookstores in Brazil. By using this technique, he was expanding sales points. He used to say "Someone in [the state of] Amazonas is not going to come down to Rio de Janeiro to buy a book". Secondly, he said that "books are not essential products. Rice, beans, bread, etc, yes. Not books. Books are like dessert. And just like a dessert, it needs to be attractive". So he designed colorful covers and he was concerned with the title of the book, with the typesetting. Not only that but he built the first printing concern in Latin America in the 20s, which remained big through the 40s.

When did he open the publishing house?

It's a long story. He bought the Revista do Brazil and he created an editorial section there. After that, he created a publishing house. And suddenly Lobato understood that in order to publish he needed to have a printing company of his own, so he started to buy printing presses. After that, he used the magazine to call on new writers who had work in their drawers, since at that time only known authors were published. Somebody even commented at the time that there seemed to be a sudden surge of good quality literary production. Given the initial success, he transformed the editorial section of Revista do Brasil into Monteiro Lobato e Cia., which in turn became Cia. Gráfico Editora Monteiro Lobato.

What year was this?

In 1925. He bought the Revista do Brasil in 1918. In 1924, he created Cia. Gráfico Editora Monteiro Lobato. Besides being a publishing house, the company was also a printing company which went broke in 1925. But in the same year that Cia. Gráfico Editora Monteiro Lobato closed, he opened Cia. Editora Nacional.

How did Cia. Gráfico Editora Monteiro Lobato go bankrupt?

He was a restless character. When he started to publish, things went right and he was excited. When he went public with the company to attract more money and to do more business, he made a projection expecting stability, increasing sales, etc. In the middle of all this came the revolution which destroyed São Paulo (the 1924 revolution) and the city stopped for two months. Nobody produced anything and all companies and industries stopped. After that, to hold on to the revolution, president Artur Bernardes launched an economic package. Add to this the violent draught that hit São Paulo at the turn of 1924-1925. And lastly, José Carlos Macedo Soares, who was a partner in the business, left to do the revolution and to run for city government. José Carlos ends up in jail and then in exile. Lobato gets enraged with these facts and sends a harsh letter to Artur Bernardes, detailing part of his project for the democratization of the country which included the secret vote. As a result, the government suspended the purchases of Cia. Gráfico Editora Monteiro Lobato. In fact, he was an angry little man. He followed no one, he listened to no one and he never lowered his head. That is why, I think, history erased him a little, because he clashed with everyone.

And was he already selling much in the early 20s?

Yes, a lot. While the modernist avant-garde published 200 to 300 copies per edition, Monteiro Lobato sold up to 20 thousand books per edition. Escândalo do Petróleo [The Oil Scandal], in 1937, had huge sales. His work was for the great masses. He was someone with a very keen marketing sense and he was also a natural communicator. Everyone believed him. He used to say that people were writing about a Brazil that nobody knew. He used to say that the intellectuals were afraid to go in the woods because of the "carrapatos" [ticks].

When he clashed with the modernists, did it harm his work?

The children's books, no. Because even when he was clashing with the modernists, the children's author was being born. He was damaged in literary criticism, in his work for adults and in the field of ideas. The modernist critics pictured him as this rather strange, exotic type which was swmming against the current, and a conservative, something he was not. But that was the image that stayed… It's hard to say if he really transmittted that image himself. It was a conjunction of factors. On one side, the literary criticism born from within modernism, on the other side the economic interests which opposed the great projects for modernization of the country and on third place, the [Catholic] Church. When Lobato begins to subvert and indirectly question the Church, he includes observations, answers and questions in his children's books. But it is exactly this image that the book tries to de-mistify.

How did Lobato's skirmishes with the Church take place?

In the early 50s, there was a priest who wrote a 400-page book entitled The Literature of Monteiro Lobato: Child Communism. This priest was patient enough to read, in and behind the lines, the whole work of Monteiro Lobato and identify instances when the author would be doing ideological smuggling and questioning Christian values. In fact, Lobato did not condone the hypocrisy of the clergy who played the game of the powerful. Editora Nacional received letters from the Church asking not to publish Lobato's books. The correspondence between Lobato and his child readers was used by the Church to accuse him of subverting children's minds because they wrote: "now I think with my own head; you opened me up". Deep inside, Lobato wanted to bring an end to the notions of hierarquy, order and power. Lobato used to say that when he was writing, Emília got out of the typewriter, sat by his side and told him what to write. Contrary to what this priest tried to prove, Lobato did not transmit any ideology or doctrine. He said that children had to enter his books and exit from them increasingly themselves. They had to learn to question everything, including supposed doctrines and supposed ideologies. Therefore, we can even joke and say that Lobato was a lot "worse" than they thought. He was a libertarian.

How did Lobato's stories end up on TV?

First, Lobato's stories conquered the radio, in the beginning of the 1940s. After that, he was discovered by TV, in 1952, by the Tupi station, and he was on the air for nine years. In 1968, the show "Sítio do Pica-Pau Amarelo" went to Bandeirantes [network] and around 1976, to Globo [network].

Even having reached the highest popularity on TV, today many children find it difficult to follow the language of Lobato…

It's true. Last year there was a kind of a round table in a children's classroom and one girl asked why Lobato wrote so difficult. The teacher used that opportunity and made the children create a parallel glossary to the text that each one was reading. In fact, he used words that are no longer used in our daily lives. The letters that we read during our research show 7, 8, 9-year old children reading and writing a lot. The same way that the children today know all about video game, television and computers, at that time the little ones read.

This article was originally published in Revista E, which can be seen on line at Questions and suggestions:

Translated from the Portuguese by Tereza d'Avila Braga. Tereza Braga is a Carioca working as a freelance professional translator in Dallas. Accredited member of the American Translators Association. M.A. in international management, English proficiency certificates from Cambridge and Michigan. Contract interpreter with the U.S. Dept. of State. Former trade promotion officer with the Consulate of Brazil in Dallas. Loves translating, writing, philosophy and ballroom dancing. Email:

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