Tuesday, January 3, 2012

The Fantasy Literature of Brazil

In 1869, Joaquim Manuel de Macedo wrote a novel entitled A Luneta Mágica (“The Magic Spyglass”). It was about a shortsighted man who met an Armenian wizard and received magic glasses, which allowed him to see the good and the evil in all people. Since then, Brazilian literature has always been flirtatious with the fantastic. Only few authors, though, accepted a "fantasy fiction" label to their works. Even during the boom of Latin American "magic realism," it was easier to find writers who would explicitly reject the genre than those who openly embraced it.

There are, of course, genre productions. The last few years have bred ongoing series about vampires, zombies or witches, sometimes with the occasional hat tip to Brazilian legends or a hint of sci-fi themes. Also, following Grahame-Smith’s mashup trend, the classic Machado de Assis novel Epitaph of a Small Winner (1881) was recently turned into a zombie story. Unfortunately, the more typically genre authors (Eduardo Spohr, Giulia Moon, André Vianco and others) most of the times restrain themselves to copy American or European clichés.

Probably the fear of falling into a “minor” category is what made many authors avoid fantasy. Even those who had no reason at all to worry.
Let’s look, for example, at Guimarães Rosa, the most important Brazilian author in the 20th century. His masterpiece Grande Sertão: Veredas (“The Devil to Pay in the Backlands,” 1956) features a man who wants to make a pact with the devil. He goes to a crossroad at midnight to seal the deal, but he is never sure if it was made or not. He isn’t even sure if the devil exists. And that doesn’t really matter in the end. The evil inside each one of us is the real devil, so Rosa dismisses the supernatural as superfluous.

The same neglect was the fate of Rosa’s first short stories, heavily influenced by Edgard Allan Poe. Those “sins of youth,” originally written for magazines, were only published in book form in 2011, 47 years after the author’s death.

Fantasy was denied, regarded as a minor genre. But it was there nevertheless, a ghost lurking in the attic, haunting a family that pretended it did not exist. Often under the disguise of mysticism, or folklore, it played an important role throughout the works of Jorge Amado, João Ubaldo Ribeiro, and Érico Veríssimo, to mention but a few.

Even when they gave in to the fantastic, they simply made it a means to express their views and concepts, not much different than any other writing tool available. They would say something through fantasy, maybe despite of it, but not within it. A rare exception was Murilo Rubião, who wrote no more than six volumes of short stories - among them “The ex-magician” (1947; Harper & Row, 1979).

Rubião told stories of dragons, wizards, angels or shapeshifters, all of them living in present days, bringing their strangeness to everyday life. The awkward feeling that emerges from his pages is an uncomfortable nail in the surface of Brazilian typically realistic literature. And his regard of fantasy as a voice in itself left an influence on more recent authors.

Moacyr Scliar, who died in 2011, was one of them. Take his novel The Centaur in the Garden (1980; University of Wisconsin Press, 2003): it tells the story of Guedali Tartakovsky, a centaur born to a family of Jewish settlers in southern Brazil. He hides from strangers, meets a female centaur and falls in love with her, and finds a surgeon who will “fix” them both. But even the surgery won’t make him feel “normal”; if anything, it makes him even more neurotic, to the point of searching for the surgeon again in order to be turned back into a centaur.

The Centaur in the Garden looks like (and is often described as) a fable or allegory about prejudice and the hard choice between keeping one's identity and merging in society. And it could be simply that, but it is more. In the end, Guedali’s indecision between the “normal” world and the difference he carries from birth reflects the author’s own desire to bring enchantment to a world that won’t accept it. His protagonist is a centaur turned human who dreams of a winged horse, intertwining layers of different realities.

A reading of Scliar’s work must take in consideration that imagery - fantastic or otherwise - was always his strongest suit. His ability to conjure a powerful, moving picture, able to speak for itself, often obliterated his other literary skills. That's what happened, for example, with the kid castaway in a raft with a tiger, from Max and the Cats (1981; Plume, 2003), appropriated by Yann Martel in Life of Pi. It’s too easy then to stop in a superficial, allegorical view, and not see the subtler questions he poses.

Among younger writers, Andrea del Fuego is perhaps the one who deals most successfully with the fantastic. After publishing a handful of short stories, she won the Jose Saramago prize in 2011 with her first novel, Os Malaquias (available only in Portuguese so far).

The story of the Malaquias children, whose parents are struck dead by a lightning, begins in a tone that could not be more realistic. In fact, it seems to follow a tradition of raw narratives about the hard life of peasants in the country. Slowly, some strange elements begin to crawl inside - first, in the figure of a ghost who observes everything but never intervenes. Halfway through the novel the weirdness begins to grow. And it blooms from the seeds of what had just a few pages back been perceived as the most banal scenario. As the reader approaches the end, an onyric whirlwind takes over.

Another prize-winning author is Alberto Mussa, who plays in a completely different key altogether. The Riddle of Qaf (2004; Aflame Books, 2008) is a Borgian puzzle. With the pretext of telling the story of a scholar and his quest for a lost pre-Islamic Arab poem, Mussa blurs the boundaries of reality, myth, literary theory and legend. He asks us to imagine Scheherazade as an evil genie, trapped by the hero Aladdin in an infinite loop of storytelling; or another Ali Baba, who betrayed the 40 philosophers that hid in a cave because of their heretic beliefs.

There is a bit of treachery here. Mussa actually wrote a book about language and literature, more than anything else. His genies and mages simply mirror what he poses as the real magic - the power of words and stories. But in the end, both Qaf and Os Malaquias represent different approaches by authors who are not afraid of being diminished for relying on fantasy themes for their books.