In general, the poetry of the turn of the century was imitative and stuffy. Renewal did not come until the early 1920s, when a group of intellectuals from São Paulo, led by the unrelated Mário de Andrade (1893-1945) and Oswald de Andrade (1890-1954) began the movement known as modernism. This is conveniently supposed to have begun in 1922, the centenary of political independence, with a Week of Modern Art in São Paulo; in fact it began earlier, and took until the mid-1920s to spread to the provinces. In great part, modernism’s ideology was nationalist, and though the word spanned the political spectrum, at its best it simply meant the discovery of a real Brazil behind stereotypes. Mário travelled throughout the country, attempting to understand its variety, which he embodied in his major prose-work, the comic ‘rhapsody’ Macunaíma (1928), which in its plot and language attempts to construct a unity out of a complex racial and regional mix. Also in 1928, Oswald launched the ‘anthropophagist’, or cannibalist programme, which proclaimed that Brazilian writers should imitate their native predecessors, and fully digest European culture: a new kind of Indianism, perhaps.
The most enduring artistic works to have emerged from modernism, however, are poetic – two of Brazil’s major modern poets, Manuel Bandeira (1886-1968) and Carlos Drummond de Andrade (1902-1987) were early enthusiasts of modernism, and corresponded at length with Mário. Bandeira, the older man, made a slow transition to the new, freer style; his poems, often short and based on everyday events or images, nevertheless have a power and rhythmic accuracy that are deceptively simple. Drummond’s poetry is more self-conscious, and went through a complex intellectual development, including a period of political enthusiasm during the Second World War, followed by disillusionment with the beginning of the Cold War. His themes, including some remarkable love-poetry addressed by a 50-year-old to a younger woman, and a lifelong attachment to Itabira, the small town in Minas Gerais where he was born, are very varied. Readers without Portuguese can best approach Drummond, widely regarded as Brazil’s greatest poet, through an excellent anthology, Traveling in the Family.
The 1930s were a crucial decade. With increasing political mobilization, the growth of cities, and of an aspiring middle class, literature began to look to a wider audience; however, at first, it still reflected the dominance of rural life. The realism of this period, which often had a strong regionalist bias, had its raison d’être in a society still divided by huge social and/or geographical differences, and indeed played its part in diminishing those differences. Many of the first group came from the economically and socially backward northeast. José Lins do Rego (1901-1957) is perhaps the most characteristic figure. He was highly influenced by the ideas of Gilberto Freyre (1900-1987), whose Casa grande e sensually (The Masters and the Slaves), published in 1933, was one of the most important and readable of Brazilian books. It is a study of the slave-based, sugar- plantation society, and one of the first works to appreciate the contribution made by Blacks to Brazil’s culture. It remains, however, very paternalist, and Lins do Rego’s fiction, beginning with the semi-autobiographical Menino de engenho, reflects that, commenting on the poverty and filth of the (ex-)slave-quarters as if they were totally natural. His ‘sugar-cane cycle’ sold in large editions, in part because of its unaffected, simple style.
A greater novelist belonging to the same group is Graciliano Ramos (1892-1953). His fiction is much more aggressive, and in later life he became a communist. His masterpiece, turned into an excellent film in the 1960s, is Vedas secas, which returns to the impoverished interior of Os sertões, but concentrates on an illiterate cowhand and his family, forced from place to place by drought and social injustice; it is a courageous attempt to enter the mental world of such people. Memórias do cárcere, published after Ramos’s death, is his unflinching account of his imprisonment for a year during the Vargas regime.
The essential novelist to read for anyone visiting the south of Brazil is Érico Veríssimo (1905-1975), especially his epic trilogy collectively entitled O tempo e o vento (O continente , O retrato , and O arquipélago ) spread over two centuries of the turbulent history of Rio Grande do Sul.
Gradually, in the 1940s and 1950s, a subtler and more adventurous fiction began to be published alongside the regionalist realism that was the major heritage of the 1930s. Three writers stand out: João Guimarães Rosa, Clarice Lispector and João Cabral de Melo Neto. João Guimarães Rosa (1908-1967) published his major novel, Grande sertão: veredas in 1956. Almost Joycean in its aspirations and linguistic innovations, it is a kind of mixture of a cowboy story and a modern version of Faustian pact with the devil. For those without stamina (and excellent Portuguese), the translation (The Devil to Pay in the Backlands) is unfortunately not an adequate alternative. Rosa is best approached through his stories, those of Sagarana (particularly A hora e vez de Augusto Matraga) being perhaps the best.
The stories and novels of Clarice Lispector (1920-1977) now have a considerable audience outside Brazil, as well as a huge one inside it. Her stories, especially those of Laços de família (1960), are in general set in middle-class Rio, and usually have women as their central characters. The turbulence, family hatreds, and near-madness hidden beneath routine lives are conveyed in unforgettable ways, with a language and symbolism that is poetic and adventurous without being exactly difficult (she said she fought with the Portuguese language daily). Some of her novels have over-ambitious metaphysical superstructures, and may not be to some readers’ tastes – A paixão segundo G H, for instance, concerns a housewife’s confrontation with a dead cockroach in her maid’s room, and her final decision to eat it, seen as a kind of “communion”. When at her best, in some of her journalism, in her late, deliberately semi-pornographic stories, and above all in the posthumous novel, A hora da estrela, which approaches the poor in an utterly unsentimental way, Lispector can stimulate and move like no one else.
The greatest poet of this generation is João Cabral de Melo Neto (1920-1999), whose best poetry concerns his home state, Pernambuco. The drought-ridden interior, the lush but oppressive landscape of the sugar-plantations, and the city slums are all present in the verse-play Morte e vida severina (1956), and his tight, sparse poetry often returns to the same places, or analogous ones in the several countries (most importantly, in Spain) in which he has resided as a diplomat.
The 1964 military coup, and the increasing use of torture and censorship in the late 1960s and early 1970s, had profound effects on literature, especially as they were accompanied by vast economic changes (industrialization, a building boom, huge internal migration, the opening up of the Amazon). At first, censorship was haphazard, and the 1960s liberation movements had their – increasingly desperate – Brazilian equivalents. Protest theatre had a brief boom, with Arena conta Zumbi, about a 17th-century rebel slave leader, produced by Augusto Boal (born 1931), being one of the most important. The best fictional account of those years can be found in two novels by Antônio Callado (born 1917), Quarup (1967), set in the northeast and centred on a left-wing priest, and Bar Don Juan (1971), whose focus is on the contradictions of a group of middle-class guerrillas; and in Ivan Ãngelo’s A festa (1976), set in Belo Horizonte, a funny and hard-hitting account of a varied set of people, which chronicles the impact of the ‘sex and drugs’ revolution alongside its political concerns. A remarkable documentary account of the period is ex- guerrilla (subsequently leader of the Green Party) Fernando Gabeira’s O que é isso companheiro? (1982), which chronicles his involvement in the kidnapping of the American ambassador in 1969. Poetry at this time went through a crisis of self-confidence, and it was widely thought that it had emigrated into the (marvellous) lyrics of such popular composers as Chico Buarque de Holanda and Caetano Veloso, who were also the foremost standard-bearers of political protest in the 1970s.
It is impossible in the space available to give more than a few suggestions of some of the best work published in recent decades, concentrating on books which have been translated. A brilliant satirical novel by Paulo Emílio Salles Gomes (1916-1977) about the São Paulo upper middle class is Três mulheres e três Pppês (1977); Darcy Ribeiro (born 1922), an anthropologist and politician, took time off to write Maíra (1978), an updating of Indianism, but with real indígenas and a threatened Amazon environment; Rubem Fonseca (born 1925), whose story Feliz ano novo (1973) created a scandal because of its brutal treatment of class differences, has dedicated himself to the writing of hard-nosed thrillers like A grande arte (1983); Caio Fernando Abreu (1948-96) is a short-story writer of considerable talent, dealing with the alienated urban young in such books as Morangos mofados and Os dragões não conhecem o paraíso; finally, Milton Hatoum’s Relato de um certo oriente (1989) is a vivid novel set in Manaus, amongst the Lebanese immigrant community. He followed it with the highly acclaimed The Brothers. Patricia Melo has devoted her writing to exploring social problems in her native Rio. Several of her books have been filmed; most notably O Matador (O Homen do Ano or Man of the Year), the story of a man who accidentally becomes a ruthless hired gun. The country’s leading literary export is without a doubt the popular mystical novelist, Paulo Coelho, most famous for his whimsical novel, The Alchemist.