Reviewing SPARE: PRINCE HARRY’S MEMOIR – A Brazilian Perspective


Why would a Brazilian, without a drop of British blood flowing through his veins, choose to read “Spare”? Well, stories of privileged but unhappy people managing to escape their gilded cages, spreading their wings and flying, as sings Elton John – one of Lady Di’s closest friends – in the song Skyline Pigeon, has always fascinated me. Rebels are my kind of hero. Besides, I couldn’t miss all the buzz surrounding the launch of the book.

I lived in the UK for almost two years, ages ago (a very happy time in my life). It shouldn’t come as a surprise for those who know me that I simply love the English language (in all its variants), its literature, movies, and music. I also learned to like Marmite – an acquired taste! The National Gallery, Saint Paul’s Cathedral, and the Tube are also very close to my heart, as are the London parks and the colors of the land: green and gray. I paid three visits to Salisbury, just to experience Stonehenge in different seasons. Cornwall is a dream: The place I would love to grow old in. 

Stonehenge

As for the British Monarchy, I never considered that institution something relevant to my life – I felt it was just an alien and outdated British cultural trait (although we did have something similar in Brazil for almost 400 years too). It fits into the same category of rugby, cricket, or EastEnders, the soap opera which had been running for centuries when I lived there.

I only began paying attention to the dysfunctional royal family, when Netflix’s The Crown started streaming – and, being told time and again by people who feel very strongly about it that it’s mostly fiction – I watch it as mere entertainment.

Years after I had come back to Brazil, the death of Lady Diana Spencer woke me up to the fact that the British Press was a weird and dangerous animal, but it did not really affect me – after all, I had never bought or even read a single page of a tabloid while I lived there, so did not even feel guilty. On the other hand, the image of a young Prince Harry walking behind his mother’s coffin left a painful and lasting impression: Actually, I never forgot it. As he grew up before the world’s eyes, contrary to what was portrayed in the media, I always considered him a normal boy, doing average stuff and making the same stupid mistakes we all did when we were young. Besides, he seemed rather lonely. I decided I liked him. 

This long introduction is just to say that, Spare, his memoir, is a lot less whiny than I thought it would be. As a matter of fact, there’s quite a lot of humor, and I did enjoy it. The third and last part of the book is less exciting. After all, we all have heard about “When Harry met Meghan” – minus the hilarious fake orgasm scene in the restaurant,  an iconic moment performed by Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan in the 80s movie with a similar title – more than we cared. However, I found it quite illuminating and sobering to know more about Harry’s education at Eton, the various palaces and estates the family owns, how the houses of the different members are distributed and allocated, his years in the Army (especially the boot camp passages), his trips to Africa and to both poles, and how the death of his mother traumatized him. The closeness and friendship that Harry seemed to share with his “granny”, the deceased Queen Elizabeth II, was also moving and unexpected. 

It was also juicy gossip to find out how Charles, Camilla, and even his brother William, and their respective staff, are engaged in fiercely backstabbing each other to gain popularity in the media. The rivalry is so brutal that each camp gets to the point of leaking fake stories to the press to be seen as the good guys in the family. 

Even if it’s all fiction, it’s well-written fiction, and makes for compelling reading. I recommend it.

Jorge Sette

10 Inspiring Quotes by Pelé


Pelé, considered the best soccer player of all time, has died today at age 82. There’s nothing much to say about a celebrity who’s known worldwide and that has elevated Brazil, soccer, and his hometown team of Santos to the level of luxury brands. Those, like me, who had a chance to watch Pelé play (at least on live television) are very lucky, as they had the unique experience of seeing a real superhero at his best perfomances. Pelé was a genius. This can be translated as a combination of talent (genetics) and preparation (exercising, discipline, effort, persistence). The lesson here is that even those who do not have an overdeveloped inborn talent in the field they become professionals can improve hugely if they decide to focus on hard work and practice.

Here are 10 quotes I collected, summarising some of Pelé’s thoughts and perspectives:

1. If you don’t give education to people, it is easy to manipulate them.

2. I sometimes lie awake at night and wonder why I am still so popular and, to be honest, I don’t know.

3. I’ve come to accept that the life of a frontrunner is a hard one, that he will suffer more injuries than most men and that many of these injuries will not be accidental. 


4. You must respect people and work hard to be in shape. And I used to train very hard. When the others players went to the beach after training, I was there kicking the ball.

5. Success is no accident. It is hard work, perseverance, learning, studying, sacrifice and most of all, love of what you are doing or learning to do.

6. The more difficult the victory, the greater the happiness in winning.

7. If you are first you are first. If you are second, you are nothing.

8. Everything is practice.

9. The ambition should always be to play an elegant game.

10. Great teams are not made up of many well-rounded players. Great teams are made up of a variety of players, each having their own strengths

Do you know any other quotes by Pelé you would like to add to this list? Use the comments section below, please.

Jorge Sette

Review: Perfume – The Story of a Murderer, by Patrick Süskind


I have just finished one of the most fascinating books I’ve ever read. I can’t wrap my head around it, though. I don’t really know what it meant. One can interpret it in a number of ways, and I have been doing that for the past few days. The meaning the author wanted to convey can be as elusive as the book’s subject matter: SCENT. 

There was a copy of Perfume: The Story of a Murderer, by Patrick Süskind, at my mother’s house when I was in college. I never touched it. I’m glad I didn’t, as I’m sure I wouldn’t have liked it then, being too young to deal with its abstractions. Now I read the English translation from the German by John E. Woods: The language is amazing, a pleasure in its own right. I wonder what it sounds likes in the original. There’s a movie based on the book, but most of my friends told me it wasn’t nearly as good as the novel. So I guess I won’t see it.

The content of the book wafts from the page in its mixture of aromatic words, fragrant images, perfumed beauty, pungent corruption, and putrid evil. What does it mean to be human? What can satisfy a person? This is what the story seems to ask. Read this masterpiece and let’s discuss it. 

However, after reading the book, you will never think of scent, odor, perfume, and stench – or France in the 18th century for that matter – in the same way again.

Have you read the book? What are your thoughts about it? Let us know.

Jorge Sette

Six Stunning Houses in Literature


I have always been fascinated by certain houses in novels. They exert a strange power over me, especially if they are part of gothic stories. Maybe because I have been living in apartments for more than half of my life now, I am somewhat jealous of the large spaces, yards, porches, gardens, the lack of noisy neighbors, and maybe the safety of the proximity of the ground those houses provide – despite the fact that I was never in an earthquake, and, as a consequence, never experienced the trauma caused by these events, which causes most people who have been through them to wish not to live far from the ground.

I lived in a house for some time growing up in Recife, and those were some of the best years of my life. Of course, living there as a distracted child, then as a sullen and hormone-crazed teenager, and finally as an ultra-busy college student, I never fully appreciated what I had back then. I took it for granted. Then, I left the city, came to live in São Paulo, and, presently, my mother sold it and bought a huge apartment, which I fell in love with too, while I went there on vacation. 

Well, all this is beyond the point, however. What I want to do in this post is just to list book houses that I felt particularly close to or fell in love with. Not all these books are classics, but they have always been popular and famous.

The houses in this post are not listed in order of preference. The list is random to a certain extent, as I wouldn’t be able to actually rank them in terms of the impact they had in my imagination. Here they are:

  1. Wuthering Heights (Wuthering Heights, by Emily Brontë): Rustic, uncomfortable, subjected to the rough weather conditions of the Yorkshire moors, this was the house that brought Cathy and Heathcliff together – two of most beloved and passionate characters in literature. Becoming orphans at an early age, they grew up like savages, free and wild, running and playing around the dreary surroundings of the house, and eventually falling in love with each other. Cathy was the daughter of the place’s owner, Mr. Earnshaw,  who died when she was still a child, and Heathcliff was a gypsy boy her father found in the streets of Liverpool on one of his business trips, and brought home to live with the family. The house mirrors all the brutality and violence of the novel’s plot. In addition to that, Cathy became the ghost that, in the future, would haunt Wuthering Heights forever, driving Heathcliff crazy.

2. Manderley (Rebecca, by Daphne Du Maurier): Owned by the wealthy Mr. Maximilian de Winter, the house is described in all its beauty. I love houses by the sea and this, located in breathtaking Cornwall, is one of them. Besides, there’s the mystery surrounding the widowed owner’s first wife, Rebecca, who seems to have drowned. She was rumored to have been on top of her game, beautiful, sophisticated, well-connected, adored by the sinister housekeeper, Mrs. Denvers,  who would later give Max’s second wife (who remains nameless to the reader throughout the novel) a hard time. However, signs abound that there was something off about all that perfection during the first marriage. Did Rebecca’s personality really match the architectural magnificence of landscaped Manderley?

3. Thornfield Hall (Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Brontë): This is a different case altogether from the houses listed before. The main attraction is the mystery that involves the place. I lived in the UK for almost two years, but never had the chance to visit Yorkshire or see heathers. However, both Wuthering Heights  and Jane Eyre, novels written by two sisters, fascinate me. Who wouldn’t become excited reading about a house with a mysterious attic, hiding a crazy woman? That’s the most important thing about gothic Thornfield Hall: Mr. Rochester, the romantic lead, has his first wife locked up in the attic, mad as a March Hare, while Jane knew nothing about it.

4. Gatsby’s mansion in Long Island (The Great Gatsby, by Scott Fitzgerald): The green light at Daisy’s dock, which Gatsby stares endlessly, signaling how close and yet so far the woman he has always loved lives with her wealthy husband Tom Buchanan, makes one of the attractions of the book. The green light is a powerful metaphor for ambition, desire and the struggle for great accomplishments at any cost. Gatsby, the man, personifies the American dream: from a poor background, he rose to acquire a mansion, expensive cars, and a glamorous lifestyle. He also constantly gives popular and orgiastic parties, but he still needs to get the ultimate prize: Daisy herself. The parties were the means he used to call attention to himself and attract her, but only when he befriends her cousin, Nick Carraway, the story’s narrator, and persuades him to orchestrate a meeting between him and Daisy, does he have a chance to try to rekindle her love. In the novel, the house is described as a nouveau-rich paradise,  with all the extravagances and bad taste of these kinds of places,. Yet,  it does not lack its allure. The green light, seen from his side of the bay, is the strong symbol that stays with the reader long after he finishes the novel.

5. The Dakota Building (Rosemary’s Baby, by Ira Levin): This is an exception, as it’s a condo and not a proper house. The building itself is the setting of one of the most disturbing movies I have ever seen, Rosemary’s Baby, directed by Roman Polanski. Later, it was the place where John Lennon and Yoko Ono had an apartment and lived, at the time he was shot and killed right in front of it in 1980. As for Rosemary’s Baby, neither in the movie nor in the novella that inspired it, the Dakota building is mentioned by name. In the book, the location is not even where it’s seen and recognized in the movie by those who are familiar with the Upper West side of Manhattan. However, most people who both read the book and saw the movie agree that the power of the story is Polanski’s credit. He turned what could pass for a simple and not very sophisticated thriller into one of the most successful movies of the 1960s, catapulting actress Mia Farrow, who played the main character, into worldwide fame. One interesting comment I read somewhere was that Polanski, a non-believer in religion, did not want to make it clear that the baby was the devil (or his son). He claimed that this would go against his beliefs. After all, if you don’t believe in God, you can’t believe in the Devil. So, he turned the plot into a more ambiguous and interesting story –  there’s the possibility that Rosemary could be delusional and paranoid, imagining that she was in the clutches of a coven whose leaders are her neighbors in the dark building, and that her own husband and her trusted gynecologist were in on the conspiracy. 

6. The House on Matacavalos Street (Dom Casmurro, Machado de Assis): That is the setting of one of my favorite Brazilian novels. Today, this street, in the district of Santa Teresa, has the name of Riachuelo. When the main character, Bentinho, starts narrating the story of his life, already a middle-aged man, resentful and a recluse, the house he spent his childhood in had already been demolished, but it held such a symbolic reference to him that he had it rebuilt, in exactly the same way, only in another neighborhood. And that’s where he lives in the present, nursing his traumas and pains. The original house was next door to Capitu’s, the main female character of the novel, and the love of his life.  Those neighboring houses witnessed the birth and blossoming of a sweet and romantic love story between teenagers  growing up together. The story is told subjectively from the point of view of an unreliable character, Bentinho, so, as a result, the reader can never be sure whether his estranged wife Capitu was really unfaithful to him, having had an affair and got pregnant by his best friend, Escobar.

What are your favorite book houses? Let us know by leaving your choices in the comments section below.

Jorge Sette

Top 30 Quotes on Technology by Famous Writers


When writers talk about science, science fiction, technology, the Internet, social media and gadgets, they may sound visionary, clever, insightful, funny and original. However, some of them may also sound clueless, conservative, ordinary or naive. The marked difference between writers and non-writers regarding the topic of technology – or any other, for that matter – is that the former group gets their ideas across much more clearly and precisely. They are great at language and style. Yet, most of them lack scientific training or knowledge. So should we expect anything deeper from their views? Please read the following quotes by famous writers on science, innovation and dystopias and decide which ones work for you.

1. Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. Arthur C. Clark. Profiles of the Future: An Enquiry into the Limits of the Possible.(1973)

2. Anything that is theoretically possible will be achieved in practice, no matter what the technical difficulties are, if it is desired greatly enough. Arthur C. ClarkeHazards of Prophecy: An Arresting Inquiry into the limits of the Possible: Failures of Nerve and Failures of Imagination. (1973)

Writer Arthur C. Clarke

3. It is only when science asks why, instead of simply describing how, that it becomes more than technology. When it asks why, it discovers Relativity. When it only shows how, it invents the atom bomb, and then puts its hands over its eye and says, ‘My God what have I done? Ursula K. Le Guin. The Stalin in Soul(1973).

4.Science and technology multiply around us. To an increasing extent they dictate the languages in which we speak and think. Either we use those languages, or we remain mute. J. G. BallardIn the Introduction to the French edition (1984) of Crash. (1974).

5. You know the formula m over naught equals infinity, m being any positive number? [m/0 = ∞]. Well, why not reduce the equation to a simpler form by multiplying both sides by naught? In which case you have m equals infinity times naught [m = ∞ × 0]. That is to say, a positive number is the product of zero and infinity. Doesn’t that demonstrate the creation of the Universe by an infinite power out of nothing? Doesn’t it? Aldous Huxley. Point Counter Point (1928).

6. If you hide your ignorance, no one will hit you and you’ll never learn. Ray Bradbury. Fahrenheit 451. (1953)

7. Nature never appeals to intelligence until habit and instinct are useless. There is no intelligence where there is no need of change. H.G. Wells. The Time Machine. (1895)

8. The choice for mankind lies between freedom and happiness and for the great bulk of mankind, happiness is better. George Orwell1984. (1949)

9. Words can be like X-rays if you use them properly — they’ll go through anything. You read and you’re pierced. Aldous Huxley. Brave New World. (1931)

10. Freedom, like everything else, is relative. Margaret AtwoodThe Handmaid’s Tale. (1985)

Writer Margaret Atwood

11. Only people who are afraid of the water want to understand it. Other people jump in and get wet. Michael Crichton. Sphere. (1987)

12. It’s hard to kill a creature once it lets you see its consciousness. Carl Sagan.Contact. (1985)

13. You are allowed to feel messed up and inside out. It doesn’t mean you’re defective – it just means you’re human. David MitchellCloud Atlas. (2004)

14. Nature’s creative power is far beyond man’s instinct of destruction. Jules VerneTwenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. (1870)

15. We don’t want to conquer the cosmos, we simply want to extend the boundaries of Earth to the frontiers of the cosmos. Stanisław LemSolaris. (1961)

16. Time is an illusion. Lunchtime doubly so. Douglas Adams. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. (1979)

17. I guess I always felt even if the world came to an end, McDonald’s would still be open. Susan Beth Pfeffer. Life As We Knew It. (2006)

18. The saddest aspect of life right now is that science gathers knowledge faster than society gathers wisdom. Isaac Asimov.

19. Man is an artifact designed for space travel. He is not designed to remain in his present biologic state any more than a tadpole is designed to remain a tadpole. William S. Burroughs. The Adding Machine – Selected Essays. (1985)

20. I still love books. Nothing a computer can do can compare to a book. You can’t really put a book on the Internet. Three companies have offered to put books by me on the Net, and I said, ‘If you can make something that has a nice jacket, nice paper with that nice smell, then we’ll talk.’ All the computer can give you is a manuscript. People don’t want to read manuscripts. They want to read books. Books smell good. They look good. You can press it to your bosom. You can carry it in your pocket. Ray Bradbury.

21. I don’t think humanity just replays history, but we are the same people our ancestors were, and our descendants are going to face a lot of the same situations we do. It’s instructive to imagine how they would react, with different technologies on different worlds. That’s why I write science fiction — even though the term ‘science fiction’ excites disdain in certain persons. Kage Baker

22. Change happens very slow and very sudden. Dorothy Bryant. The Kin of Ata Are Waiting for You. (1976)

23. Language exists less to record the actual than to liberate the imagination.Anthony BurgessIn the introduction to The Best Stories of J.G. Ballard. (1978)

24. Do you ever wonder if–well, if there are people living on the third planet?’ ‘The third planet is incapable of supporting life,’ stated the husband patiently. ‘Our scientists have said there’s far too much oxygen in their atmosphere.” Ray Bradbury. The Martian Chronicles. (1950)

25. We need to re-create boundaries. When you carry a digital gadget that creates a virtual link to the office, you need to create a virtual boundary that didn’t exist before. Daniel Goleman

26. There’s a danger in the internet and social media. The notion that information is enough, that more and more information is enough, that you don’t have to think, you just have to get more information – gets very dangerous. Edward de Bono. In an interview for news.com.au. (2011)

27. Distracted from distraction by distraction. T.S. EliotFour Quartets. (1936)

28. First of all, I know it’s all people like you. And that’s what’s so scary. Individually you don’t know what you’re doing collectively. Dave EggersThe Circle. (2013)

29. The more time we spend interconnected via a myriad of devices, the less time we have left to develop true friendships in the real world. Alex MorrittImpromptu Scribe. (2014)

30. Any teacher that can be replaced by a machine should be! Arthur C. Clark. Electronic Tutors. (1980).

Do you know any other quotes on technology you would like to share with us? Please use the comments space below.

Jorge Sette

Euphoria (HBO): second season (review)


Now that Zendaya won a Best Actress Emmy for the role of the drug addict Rue in the successful HBO series Euphoria, I’m rewatching the second season. I want to check out her performance and decide if the show is as good as I thought it was when I first saw it.

The series is definitely not for the faint of heart. The story, set in the fictitious town of East Highland in California, is about a group of High School teenagers, most of them still living with their highly dysfunctional middle-class families.

Drugs, sex, and cell phones abound. These characters are portrayed in all their rawness, brutality, and emptiness by an extraordinary cast of young and mature actors.

The highlight of the second season is a play within the show (“Our Lives”), created and directed by one of the students, Lexi, who seems to act as the moral center of the story. The play – stunning in itself for us, the home audience – helps the characters sitting in the school theater see themselves as they really are, with all their flaws and inconsistencies (rather than the fake personas they try to create and project), therefore stirring strong emotions, and leading to a huge unscripted fight on the stage. “Art should be dangerous”, says an assistant to the devastated director to soothe her. But the show must go on.

Most of the relevant current themes are discussed in Euphoria, to some extent: friendship, loyalty, love, the opioid crisis, fluid sexuality, transsexualism, pedophilia, toxic masculinity, feminism, sexual orientation, the breakdown of the traditional family and its values, the difficulty to communicate real feelings or develop an authentic personality.

There’s a lot of physical and verbal violence too. Keeping in mind that the objective of ambitious shows is not only to entertain but also to discuss controversial issues and provoke change, Euphoria is a great show, if you can manage to watch the frequent uncomfortable scenes.

Have you had a chance to watch the show? Please leave your comments in the section below.

Jorge Sette

The Rolling Stones drive 70,000 Brazilians wild during their last show in São Paulo


This text was first published on February 28, 2016. I felt I should republished it now after the death of Charlie Watts this week. This is for him.

Feb 27th, 2016: Rolling Stones Latin America Olé Tour. After the competent and traditional paulista band Titans, who opened for the Rolling Stones in their two São Paulo shows, completed their participation, the stage began to be cleaned up and prepared to receive rock’n’roll royalty. 

The atmosphere of anticipation was almost unbearable; you could sense the electricity in the air. The Stones’ clever choice of Jumpin’ Jack Flash to kick off the evening struck the unfailing spark to detonate an explosion of historic proportions. The crowd went crazy. It may be only rock and roll but we love it!

For the next two hours, some 70,000 fans, composed of grandparents, parents and kids, rocked, sang and responded, as if in a trance, to Mick Jagger’s antics, which, besides great singing and dancing, included greetings, swearing, and jokes in clear, yet heavily accented, Portuguese – he introduced the circumspect drum player Charlie Watts as Rainha da Bossa Nova (Queen of Bossa Nova). I hope poor Charlie did not get the joke.

In certain moments, the show just felt like some sort of ritualistic exorcism, with people jumping up and down, yelling, sobbing and pulling at their hair – I hadn’t seen this kind of fan hysteria since the worn-out footages of the Beatles arriving in the USA in the early 60s.

As the Stones were not promoting any new record, the show was a dizzying succession of classic hits (Wild Horses, Brown sugar, She’s a Rainbow, Miss you, Paint it Black, Honky Tonk Women, You Cant Always Get What You Want – the latter accompanied by the members of the Coral Sampa – which both moved the older guys who packed the Morumbi stadium, and drove the teenagers and 20-somethings wild. I don’t think the younger generations had ever experienced anything as good in terms of a rock and roll concert here in Brazil. Even better: the band seemed to be having the time of their lives: playing like fiends, smiling widely, being nice and friendly to their adoring Brazilian fans.

The show was indeed iconic, offering the public, at least, two sublime moments:

1. Mick Jagger and the beautiful black vocal singer Sasha Allen took the stage catwalk, which jutted into the audience, and sang what will surely become a legendary version of GIMME SHELTER while the light rain that began to fall shone against the bright spotlights, providing a wonderful and unexpected cinematographic context to the song. As the singers danced, embraced – and even simulated copulation on the stage – I noticed people’s eyes welling up at the exquisiteness of the performance. The rain lasted for the entire number and felt like a momentous gift from heaven to enhance the show. See the unedited, raw video clip below:

2. The audience was also awarded a historic 10 min long rendition of MIDNIGHT RAMBLER, electrifying the crowd, who either sang along or just stared wide-eyed at that mysterious 73-year-old sage, a force of nature, with the face of an old and battered seaman who’s been exposed to the harshest elements, yet carrying the body of a supple teenager, serpentining across the stage with his trademark moves, and slyly raising his t-shirt now and then to show off his well-defined six-pack abs!

But when we hear the first chords of Sympathy for the Devil (three-quarters into the show), and witness Mick Jagger stepping onto the stage in a flaming red boa (repeating an act he had already performed in Martin Scorsese’s documentary SHINE A LIGHT – with the difference that, in the movie, they used real fire!!) everything falls into place: we get confirmation of what we have known all along and yet refused to believe. Mick Jagger is either Faust, having struck a pact with Satan, or an alien dropped by mistake and forgotten on this planet!

To say the concert was perfect would be accurate, if only Keith Richards had refrained from singing two songs half-way into the event. Embarrassingly out of tune, he must abandon this recurring fit of narcissism and stick to what he does best: playing the guitar like a god.

The concert finished with the anthemic I can’t get no satisfaction, followed by a discreet display of fireworks. To its credit, the whole show keeps visual effects and pyrotechnics to the barest minimum. What we get is two hours of solid, raw, and uncompromising rock and roll. Worth every cent you may have spent on the ticket!

On a final note, let’s just point out that, although Mick Jagger avoided making political comments on the situation of the country during the show, whenever the movie crew who was registering the event trained their cameras at the audience, small groups would spontaneously break into offensive chants against President Dilma Rousseff.

Jorge Sette

Highlights from the book Machado de Assis: A Literary Life, by K. David Jackson


In his in-depth work, K. David Jackson, Professor of Portuguese at Yale University, focuses on the oeuvre of Machado de Assis, rather than on more personal aspects of his life. If, on the one hand, you wish you’d get to know more about the man behind some of the greatest works of the Latin American literary canon, Jackson’s choice is understandable. Machado was a very private person, who led a rather uneventful and quiet life, totally devoted to his artistic objective: the construction of a philosophical and fictional world.

This detailed work by K. David Jackson isn’t, therefore, your typical biography, but a fascinating study of Machado’s output, illuminating unsuspected aspects of his fiction and acquainting the reader with hidden facets of his creative process.

Here are some of the most engaging points made in the book:

1. Biographical landmarks: Machado de Assis, known as the Wizard of Cosme Velho (the neighborhood in Rio de Janeiro where he lived), was the co-founder and first president of the Brazilian Academy of Letters (1897). His most famous works are the Carioca Quintet (a set of five novels published from 1881 to 1908: The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas; Quincas Borba; Dom Casmurro; Esau and Jacob; Counselor Aires’ Memoirs). He died in 1908 at the age of 69. His image was used on a Brazilian banknote in 1988, and he was the featured author at the International Literary Festival Party of Paraty (FLIP) in 2008, to celebrate the centenary of his death.

Brazilian academy of Letters

2. His importance: According to Jackson, Machado’s writings ought to be placed alongside the works of Dostoevsky, Gogol, Hardy, Melville, Stendhal, and Flaubert.

3. Innovation: Having started off as a romantic writer and progressively become associated with the Realist artistic movement in Brazil, Machado is said to have anticipated the modernist narrative features found in Proust, Joyce, T.S. Eliot, Camus, Mann, and Borges.

4. Features: Machado’s work is hybrid and cannibalistic (intertextual). Through extensive reading, he assimilated and digested an incredible amount of information on Western culture as a whole (arts, music, philosophy, and literature), and based on these sources produced a very original body of work, using the social context of the city of the Rio de Janeiro during the Empire as a means to discuss and represent, mainly through parody and satire, universal truths and human dilemmas.

5. His most important works (such as The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas and Dom Casmurro) feature unreliable character-narrators, whose hallucinations dreams and obsessions are said to anticipate Freud’s psychoanalytic theories.

6. Theater and opera: These are among the main influences in the construction of the fictional space of Machado de Assis. Rio de Janeiro hosted a great number of European theater and opera companies in the 19th century, which allowed Machado to be exposed to a lot of comedic operas (opera buffa) and plays, which are not only frequently referenced in his fiction, but are also woven into the fabric of his works.

7. Shakespeare’s Othello: the classic story of the Moor who kills his wife Desdemona out of jealousy is reflected in the feelings – if not the actions – of important protagonists of Machado’s fiction. Othello is, for example, one of the main inspirations of Bento Santiago, the character-narrator of Dom Casmurro, whose insecurity and obsessions prompt him to write his memoirs as a way of persuading himself and the readers that his wife, Capitu, had an affair with his best friend Escobar, bearing an illegitimate son, Ezequiel.

Desdemona and Othello, Théodore Chassériau, 1847.

8. Social Darwinism and Positivism – dominating scientific theories at the time – were strongly criticized and ridiculed by Machado, especially through the fictitious philosophy of HUMANITAS, summarized by the motto To the Victor, the Potatoes, created by the mentally unstable character Quincas Borba, who first appeared in The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas. He later made a comeback in the novel Quincas Borba (although, in typically oblique Machadian fashion, he’s not the protagonist of the book).

9. Main themes: Machado’s work is a profound depiction of Rio de Janeiro society during the Empire. This microcosm, however, is used by the author only as a familiar context for the highlighting of universal themes, such as legitimacy, chastity, honesty, hypocrisy, adultery and cruelty, which receive a modernist treatment in his hands.

If you haven’t had the chance to read Machado de Assis yet, K. David Jackson’s book will surely whet your appetite. For those, like me, who have read and reread Machado on a regular basis, Jacksons’ work was a surprising and welcome source of new interpretations of the familiar novels and short stories the Brazilian author is most famous for.

Jorge Sette

Tent of Miracles, by Jorge Amado: Racism and Parochialism Against the Backdrop of a Mythic Bahia


Jorge Amado (1912-2001), one of the most popular and internationally known Brazilian authors, started his career writing realistic books that carried a biting criticism of the economic elites and their exploitation of the working classes and the poor. This Marxist phase characterized the first of his works. After the publication of Gabriela, Clove and Cinnamon in 1958, however, his novels became more populist and satirical, with a stronger focus on the sensuality and picturesque aspects of the afro-Brazilian culture of the author’s native state of Bahia, located in the northeast of the country. The author was harshly criticized by many for having changed his tone.

With Tent of Miracles, first published in 1969, one could say that Amado managed to strike a fine balance, providing a serious examination of Brazilian socio-economic issues and highlighting the hedonism and colorfulness of the Bahian culture, with its stunningly beautiful mulatto women, the freewheeling sensuality of its people, their lively songs, and dances and the prevalence of African-originated religions and cults.

The Themes

Tent of Miracles is a strong satire on the parochialism of the Brazilian intelligentsia – which needs validation from developed countries, especially from the US, before appreciating local talents in all areas of art and knowledge. The novel is also an inspired ode against racism, praising the power and beauty of miscegenation. In that respect, we can say that the themes of the book are more relevant than ever in today’s global context of generalized xenophobia, racism, and prejudice against diversity.

The Plot

The story kicks off when a Nobel Prize-winning North-American scholar, D.J. Levinson, comes across some forgotten books in the library of Columbia University and decides that their author is one of the best anthropologists he’s ever read. The racial considerations and the detailed description of the customs and “folkways” of the racially-mixed people of Bahia found in those four dusty volumes deserve to be known and discussed by the global academic community. The author, a black Brazilian called Pedro Archanjo, lived in Bahia for 75 years (1868 -1943), doing menial work in the streets of the city of Salvador (called Bahia at the time), destitute and unrecognized by his upper-class contemporaries. Levinson then comes to Brazil to experience first hand the theories put forward in the books and to promote their author.

Of course, the announcement of the arrival of the US luminary makes headlines in the biggest newspapers of Brazil. This arouses the interest and greed of the local authorities, intellectuals, and politicians, who wish to advance their own personal agendas, tapping into the newly-elevated status of Pedro Archanjo to scientific prodigy. It’s decided that the centenary of Pedro Archanjo’s birth – about to take place at the end of the year – deserves a fitting and official celebration in the city after all.

At this point, the lesser writer and poet Fausto Pena is hired by Professor Levinson to do research into the life and times of Pedro Archanjo, spanning more than 70 decades. In reality, Levinson’s main objective is to get Pena out of they way so that he can enjoy the pleasant company of the poet’s girlfriend, the journalist Ana Mercedes, an unashamedly social climbing mulatto beauty.

As a result, it is through Fausto Pena’s eyes that we get to know the story of Pedro Archanjo, despite all the gaps, incongruences and half-truths he gathers in his notes. We learn about Archanjo’s popularity among women, the innumerable children he fathered out of wedlock, his work as a runner for the School of Medicine and, finally, his rising awareness of the social conditions of the underprivileged people of Bahia, subject to all kinds of oppression, violence, and prejudice. Archanjo then decides to self-educate, write about race relations, and become a political militant.

Despite its important and political undertones, the story, of course, unfurls against the backdrop of a poetic and colorful Bahia, with humorous anecdotes and detailed descriptions of the rituals of the local afro-influenced religions, the local foods and spices, the dance and music. Jorge Amado kept many original African words in these passages – wisely kept in the translation into English – presenting a complete glossary in the back of the book.

The Characters

The characters of Tent of Miracles are not entirely realistic, but ironic representations of specific types that populate the Brazilian collective imagination. We can split them into the powerful (corrupt politicians, controlling newspaper editors, arrogant college professors) and the disenfranchised (the malandros, bon vivants, ruffians, drunks, gorgeous mulatto women, old wise men, and gold-hearted prostitutes). 

Most of them, however, come across as a bit underwritten; they are not fully rounded characters. Pedro Archanjo, of course, personifies all the contradictions of a typical popular hero, as all his facets are praised in the Carnival celebration held in his honor at the end of the book: minor candomblé priest, vagabond, striker, runner of the School of Medicine (where he started his more formal education), heavy drinker, womanizer, teacher, sorcerer and writer! 

The Style

Although the book has strong elements of magical realism, especially in the scenes that take place in the candomblé terreiros, the space where the afro-religions and cults have their rituals (devotees embarking in trances; divinities taking possession of their bodies; supernatural events occurring; myth and reality getting intertwined), most of the plot develops in a fairly realistic and straightforward way.

The Relevance of Tent of Miracles Today

Jorge Amado

Written during the first years of the Brazilian military dictatorship, the passages depicting the brutal repression by the police of the Afro-Catholic cults, the bloody raids against the terreiros, and the beating or killing of their members – which happened especially during the 1920s and 30s – can be interpreted as a fitful metaphor of the times.

The novel, however, does not feel dated at all, as its themes are still universal and very concrete. The irony made explicit in the story is that miscegenation deeply permeates the whole of Brazilian society, and, thus, the bigotry and racism of people whose mixed-race blood is either carefully hidden in the family past or even naively ignored are laughable and hypocritical. It’s time for Brazil – and other countries in the world – to bury the myth of white supremacy and come to terms with the fact that we’ll carry on living in an irreversibly multicultural, mixed and diverse society.

Jorge Sette