Our readers trust our book recommendations. We have been asked to recommend important novels that, for some reason, might not be on our followers’ radar. Therefore, I’m sharing with you five gems of Brazilian Literature, from different times and regions of our vast country, all beautifully translated into English. I hope you enjoy them as much as I did.
The Alienist by Machado de Assis (Originally published in 1882)
What is madness? How can you differentiate mad people from sane minds? These are the questions this timelessly hilarious novella puts forward. Readers will meet the psychiatrist Dr. Simão Bacamarte, an academic luminary of the fictitious city of Itaguaí, near Rio de Janeiro. Having studied in two of the best universities of Europe, Coimbra, and Padua, Bacamarte turns down the Portuguese king’s invitation to remain in Europe as a court physician, deciding to go back to Brazil to conduct experiments and scientific studies in the field of mental health. The plot, however, is only a pretext for Machado to, sarcastically, criticize the theories of positivism, scientific racism and social Darwinism, prevalent at the end of the XIX century. The story takes place a century earlier, though, when Brazil was still a Portuguese colony. After committing 80% of the town’s inhabitants to the special asylum, the Casa Verde (The Green House), erected with public funds, Bacamarte realizes that, statistically, there must be something wrong: maybe it was the remaining 20% of the people, kept outside, who were crazy after all! But the development of new insights will take him a step further…
The last book by acclaimed writer Clarice Lispector, published shortly before her death, is the moving account of the life of a poor migrant woman, Macabea, who leaves her hometown in the state of Alagoas, in the northeast of the country (the region in which Clarice Lispector herself grew up, after arriving in Brazil from Ukraine in the 1920s) in search of the elusive dream of a better life in the metropolis of Rio de Janeiro. In addition, the novel is also an insightful reflection on the act of writing, as the fictitious narrator, Rodrigo, in quite a few asides, analyzes his own skills as a writer. According to Clarice Lispector, who summarized the book during a famous TV interview, this is “the story of a girl who was so poor that all she ate was hot dogs. The story is about a crushed innocence, about an anonymous misery”. The book was made into an award-winning movie directed by Suzana Amaral in 1985.
The holy icon of Saint Barbara (or Yansan, the goddess of thunder and lighting, as she is known in the Afro-Brazilian religion of Candomblé) is taken by boat from her original site, at the Church of Santo Amaro, to be part of a religious art exhibition in Salvador. When the boat docks, the saint miraculously comes to life, smiles, winks at her fellow passengers and simply walks off through the quay market, raising Cain in the city of Salvador. Her mission is to liberate the young and beautiful Manela from the repressive grip of her aunt and guardian Adalgisa. The plot, however, is only a pretext for the author to take the reader on an unforgettable and hilarious 48-hour tour of the city of Bahia during the oppressive years of the military dictatorship, introducing us to a series of colorful characters, savory foods and sensual religious rites. Mixing fact and fiction, where references to real musicians, singers, artists and political figures of the time abound, the narrator makes hilarious digressions, discussing, among other things, the nature of his narrative and making self-deprecating comments about his writing in a delicious conversation with the reader. This is undoubtedly one of the most accomplished and subversive books ever written by the author.
Not many books in Brazilian literature tell stories that take place in the north region of the country. So The Brothers (Dois Irmãos, in Portuguese) will probably sound rather fresh to many readers. Besides having the exotic city of Manaus, in the heart of the Amazonian region, as its backdrop, the novel explores the life of a range of characters who are also singular in our literature: members of the community of Lebanese immigrants who live in that region. This is the family saga of the tradesman Halim, a muslim, his beautiful wife Zana, a Maronite christian, their identical twin sons, Yaqub and Omar, and their enterprising daughter Rania. The plot focuses on the rivalry and hatred between the twin brothers: the dissipated Omar, who lives at home, wasting his nights on drinking and prostitutes, and the ambitious, goal-oriented, Yakub, who, after being sent to Lebanon at the age of 13, where he lived for 5 years, comes back home only to leave again for Sao Paulo to become an engineer. This conflict between brothers is, of course, an archetypal motif, reminiscent of the biblical tale of Esau and Jacob, or Cain and Abel. Despite its universality, the plot is effectively localized in Hatoum’s fascinating Brazilian tale. Told by a peculiar narrator, Nael, the illegitimate son of the family’s native in-house maid, fathered by one of the twin brothers, the ill-fated story of passions, hatred, and revenge has unpredictable turns and a surprising end. The story also works as a metaphor for the contrasts within Brazil, especially between the underdeveloped North and the more progressive and industrial South.
What does it feel like to find out that your firstborn has Down syndrome? This Jabuti prize-winning autobiographical novel by Cristovão Tezza tries to answer the question, as we follow the difficulties of a young father to come to terms with his son’s disability during the 1980s – when this condition was still called mongolism! Finding out that Felipe – the only character given a name in the book – has Down syndrome comes a terrible blow to this twenty-eight-year-old writer, who feels he himself has yet to become a full adult. He still doesn’t have any published books, his wife is the family breadwinner and his uncertain future becomes now even more complicated with the devastating arrival of this special kid. The description of the conflicting emotions the father goes through on his long journey towards the acceptance of Felipe, who lives in an eternal present, can at times make us uncomfortable, as the narrative – written in the third person – is brutally honest, letting the reader into the father’s most intimate thoughts and feelings, while avoiding any trace of sentimentality or self-righteousness. As a bonus, readers who might not know much about Down syndrome, are offered a great deal of information on this debilitating genetic condition.