Brazil: Of Best-Sellers and Better Reads

     Brazil: Of Best-Sellers 
and Better Reads

    The crisis of literature
    is not only Brazilian. It is felt on the world
    scale. The crisis of literature is a crisis of reading. The web is
    the democratization of knowledge. But vidiots and webiots are
    growing dangerously. In Brazil, where some areas have no
    electricity, the technological paradox is more acute.
    by: Cecília
    Prada

    Brazzil
Picture

    Struggle for the word: From Guimarães Rosa to the success of the new
    wizards of self-help

    We might be tempted to
    take the subtitle above as a sufficient definition of what Brazilian literature
    was (or better, was not) over the last 40 years. The terms of the proposition
    are valid, and reveal the reality of a decadent trajectory, a wave of imbecilization
    nourished by marketing interests that manage to put some authors on the best-seller
    lists, imposing them on the tastes of native or foreign multitudes.

    But the generalization
    would be frivolous, unjust, false—it would imply a lack of consideration
    (a lack polarized by some mountebanks) for the great harvest of writers and
    poets, who in these decades have continued to be committed to the "struggle
    for the word / what a vain struggle!" as defined by Carlos Drummond de
    Andrade.

    Of the two components
    of literary expression, prose and poetry, the latter was doubtless the most
    fluent, extensive and present in recent decades—by its nature poetry
    manages to retain more independence and immunity in relation to new communication
    technology.

    The concretist movement
    of the fifties and sixties, linked to the visual arts, took a stand against
    the intimist emptying of the forties, took up once more some of the themes
    and forms of the modernism of 1922, and revitalized the genre.

    Following it or repudiating,
    the succeeding generations were able to maintain an elevated poetic expression
    and overcome the inevitable trendiness of the sixties to arrive in the twenty-first
    century with a pleiad of talents who have been extremely encouraged by the
    large number of public presentations, competitions and publications done by
    medium-size publishers.

    But, in the field of prose,
    especially that of the novel, the panorama is quite different. Forty years
    ago, Brazilian fiction was in a privileged position—an apogee, never
    again reached since then, since the names, among various others, that were
    prominent internationally were those of Guimarães Rosa and Clarice
    Lispector.

    The author of Grande
    Sertão: Veredas, who only managed to be admitted to the Brazilian
    Academy of Letters a few days before his death in 1967, was a strong candidate
    for the Nobel Prize. The beginnings of the sixties brought the luminous mark
    of that epoch of cultural effervescence, the years of the Juscelino Kubitschek
    administration.

    Thoughtful Literature

    In literature, as in the
    visual arts and architecture, in popular music, in cinema and in theater,
    the free circulation of ideas, the high level of instruction at the universities,
    the economic euphoria, made up a backdrop indispensable to the manifestation
    of creativity.

    Brazilian fiction, which
    had been making giant strides forward since the modernist rupture in the twenties,
    had exhausted its regionalist sources and had become, in the novels of the
    thirties and forties—with José Lins do Rego, Jorge Amado, Érico
    Veríssimo and principally Graciliano Ramos—a fulcrum for social
    thinking on a national scale.

    It reflected in a conscious
    way the great ideological debate that was raging throughout the world, it
    "discovered" a Brazil that was exploited, underdeveloped, with its
    problems and its potential. It was a spear point, a sharp one.

    To this literary current
    was added another, which began to create an urban novel with the psychoanalytic
    contributions, the stylistic ruptures and the mixing of genres which had already
    been long present in world literature. There were convictions: the importance
    of literature, the seriousness of the subject matter, the greatness of the
    writer, the necessity of culture, of technical and stylistic improvement.

    There was, forty years
    ago, a clear separation between what was and was not good literature.
    And there was, especially, a humanistically oriented school curriculum which
    valued the writer. Today, after the destructive windstorm of the basic
    reform imposed by the military dictatorship, a devaluation of the native language
    and a loss of prestige for literature reigns in schools.

    We are living through
    a very grave cultural crisis, expressed by the short-story writer José
    J. Veiga in a lecture delivered to an audience of young people: "Look
    at me closely, pay close attention to my physiognomy, to my tone of voice:
    I am a species that is becoming extinct—a writer."

    But the crisis of literature
    is not, at present, a Brazilian attribute. It is felt on the world scale.
    It is complex and the object of study for specialists, and passes through
    the formal exhaustion of the novel as a genre, after the great ruptures and
    creations of the twentieth century.

    The crisis of literature
    is a crisis of reading. The crisis of the written word versus the image, the
    domination of the visual. The loss of the reader, inevitably transformed in
    to a dazzled spectator, passive and stunned by the spectacle of electronic
    communication—with all its deadly potential of murdering dialogue, reflection,
    and creativity.

    The web is a tool for
    a new type of knowledge and a true technological revolution, which demands
    the reformulation of concepts and processes. It is the democratization of
    knowledge. But vidiots and webiots are growing in threatening proportions.

    In the case of Brazil
    and of other developing countries, the technological paradox is more acute.
    When Fernando Henrique Cardoso was Brazil’s President it was reported that
    he had presented a computer to a youth who had won a competition—just
    that the boy could not use it, since he lived in a place that was not on the
    electricity grid.

    As the writer Deonísio
    de Silva recalls, "we have 60 million illiterates—we form the largest
    republic of illiterates in the world. We haven’t even arrived at the Gutenberg
    galaxy and we are already raving about the information superhighway. We are
    running the risk of turning into electronic Zulus. Or non-writers manipulating
    computers."

    Politics of Writing

    But another factor has
    had an influence on Brazilian literary production, beginning at the end of
    the sixties—politics. Let us remember what Stendhal said: "Politics,
    in literature, is the same as a gun shot in the middle of a concert."

    The question of political
    engagement became all-important, precisely because of the force of repression
    which came to bear with AI-5. In literature and in the theater, everyone had
    to join in the struggle. Editions were censored and seized, writers and journalists
    arrested. In the face of the shattering of all liberties, nothing would be
    more important than to confront arbitrary injustice.

    The so-called literary
    boom of the beginning of the seventies was a mobilization. It pushed the subversive
    element, expected to hasten the revolution, but in reality it did not amount
    to much in literary terms. One wrote as a protest, one read as a challenge.
    It was a beautiful moment, certainly, but a fleeting one—and, when it
    had passed, the prestige of the writers of the boom and interest of the public
    evaporated.

    Simultaneously, authoritarian
    currents on the left took thinking prisoner, and put up a barbed wire fence
    in the dominion of literature, of the press, of the university, checking ferociously
    on the "political correctness" of all those who, independent, refused
    to put on the strait jacket of partisan ideology.

    As the critic, teacher
    and poet Affonso Romano de Sant’Anna says: "This was the century in which
    one lived ideologically in the most partisan sense of the term. We had a concept
    of history which affected our most everyday actions and our intellectual production.
    Ideology marked the fascist attitude present on both sides, the Left as well
    as the Right, since Stalinism was just another facet of fascism-Nazism."

    The execration which some
    of the great Latin-American writers were subject to, tarred as "estheticists",
    was denounced by the Bolivian writer Elizabeth Monasterios, at the 1st
    Meeting of Writers in Mercosul, which took place in São Paulo in 1995:

    "Didn’t Maria Luisa
    Bombal, Jorge Luis Borges, Felisberto Hernández, Jaime Sáenz
    suffer this kind of literary excommunication? The fact that these voices were
    diluted, parodied and even silence had consequences which we can now regard
    as unpleasant for culture, since the more concrete possibilities which these
    countries had of articulating the eventual existence of a Latin American philosophy
    were canceled."

    While on the battleground
    of the intelligentsia the various sects were crossing swords, the "barbarians"
    took power. The public is given what which it supposedly wants: bloated sentimentalism,
    sublunary magic, pornography, violence—with the conscious fabrication,
    on order, of sub-bestsellers easily made into ready-made screenplays or profitable
    novelas for television.

    The writer and critic
    Silviano Santiago summarizes the problem: "The lack of stable criteria
    for evaluating the work takes over the scene, letting mediocre producers have
    exclusivity to circulate their works, to the total neglect of products which
    seek, through the literary word, the knowledge which the debate of ideas provides."

    The contamination between
    literature and profitable product became inevitable for a whole generation
    of young writers, who precociously labeled themselves as "successful"—in
    the same country in which, to give just one example, our most prestigious
    publishers took a lifetime (70 years) to discover, just two years ago, the
    writer of great stature, the poet, prose-writer, and playwright, that is Hilda
    Hilst.


    Cecília Prada is a well-known Brazilian journalist, fiction-writer
    and playwright. Her book O Caos na Sala de Jantar, (Chaos in the Dining-room),
    published in 1978, has been awarded three literary prizes. She is considered
    a stylist and several of her short stories have been published also in Italy,
    Germany, Switzerland and Sweden, in anthologies. Her career as a playwright
    began in the 60’s, in New York City, where she worked with Joe Chaikin’s
    The Open Theater. In 1964, her play Central Park Bench Number
    33, Flight 207 was staged at the Judson Poets’ Theater in New
    York. She is also a former diplomat. She is divorced, has two married sons
    and three grandchildren and lives now in São Paulo, Brazil. You can
    email her at revistapb@sescsp.org.br.

    Translated from
    the Portuguese by Tom Moore. Moore has been fascinated by the language and
    culture of Brazil since 1994. He translates from Portuguese, Spanish, French,
    Italian and German, and is also active as a musician. He is the librarian
    for music, modern languages and media at The College of New Jersey. Comments
    welcome at mooret@tcnj.edu.

    This article appeared
    originally in Portuguese, in the magazine Problemas Brasileiros—
    http://www.sescsp.org.br/sesc/revistas/pb.

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