A Luso-Tropical Holy Grail

2024-06-19 18:56:38421
Meg Weeks , May 25, 2023

A Luso-Tropical Holy Grail

The ambivalence and sly wisdom of Mário de Andrade Painting of a tropical jungle scene with ample flora and fauna.Detail from The Equatorial Jungleby Henri Rousseau. | Wikimedia Commons
Word Factory W


Macunaímaby Mário de Andrade. Translated from Portuguese by Katrina Dodson. New Directions, 224 pages. 2023.

“Ah! just so lazy!” goes the catchphrase of Macunaíma, the protagonist of Mário de Andrade’s eponymous 1928 novel. This major work of Brazilian modernist fiction, first published in English in 1984, has gained a new life in Katrina Dodson’s recent translation. In this sprawling, absurdist novel, the title character’s quest to recover a cherished amulet takes him on an odyssey from the Amazon rainforest to the bustling city of São Paulo and back again, during which Macunaíma encounters all manner of figures from Brazilian history, popular folklore, indigenous mythology, and Andrade’s own imagination. Is the hero’s frequent expression of lethargy an indictment of a uniquely Brazilian indolence, a stubborn backwardness impeding the modernization that the political elites of Andrade’s time so desperately desired? Or does it suggest a sly wisdom regarding the futility of exerting oneself when sensual pleasures are closer at hand than the spoils of hard work? Dodson’s rendering of the phrase captures this ambiguity (in the previous English edition, the phrase is translated by E.A. Goodland as “Aw! What a fucking life!”), one acutely perceived by many a Brazilian who has wondered about the meaning of the positivist motto emblazoned on their country’s flag: Order and Progress.

A Luso-Tropical Holy Grail

Further clues as to Andrade’s intentions can be found in the novel’s subtitle, “The hero with no character,” which has puzzled many a reader yet was notably omitted from Goodland’s translation. In one of the previously unpublished prefaces artfully translated by Dodson and included in this new edition, Andrade explains that the subtitle refers as much to Macunaíma’s lack of moral rectitude as it does to an absence of “set characteristics.” While in a second preface Andrade insists that Macunaíma should not be interpreted as a straightforward symbol for the nation of Brazil, in the first he likens his hero’s lack of character to his country’s cultural and psychological malleability. Unlike the Yoruba, the Mexicans, and the French—civilizations that Andrade argues possess a “traditional consciousness” accrued over centuries—he asserts that Brazil’s lack of fixed character conditioned “our none-too-clever chicanery, (the elasticity of our honor), the lack of appreciation for true culture, our improvisation . . . and above all, an (improvised) existence of living by our wits (?)”

Yet he did not set out in what is widely regarded as his magnum opus to condemn Brazil as unequivocally juvenile or primitive. Rather, he offers Macunaíma as an ambivalent appraisal of a country in a moment of cultural and political transition. Invoking Whitman—as Andrade did in his poem “Eu sou trezentos”—Dodson writes in her afterword that rather than consider Macunaíma as entirely lacking in character, he should instead be interpreted as containing “a multitudeof attitudes, cultures, and backgrounds” at the service of forging a cohesive national identity for Brazil, then only nearing its fifth decade as an independent republic.

Perhaps through Dodson’s masterful work, Andrade will finally be widely read alongside Joyce, Woolf, and Kafka.

Supposedly written over six feverish days at Andrade’s uncle’s country home in 1926, Macunaíma follows its mischievous hero as he and his two gullible brothers (and their many lovers) traverse the jungles, deserts, pastureland, and cities of Brazil. Andrade inserts his characters, who range from the stoic and brave to the crafty and mercurial, within origin myths borrowed and repurposed from a wide assortment of folklore and anthropological research. Over the course of seventeen chapters and an epilogue, violent parables and raunchy parodies nestle within one another to create a dazzling and chaotic Luso-tropical Holy Grail epic. Toward the beginning of the narrative, the three brothers’ escapades in a bewitched swimming hole offer an explanation of the age-old trope that the Brazilian populace is composed of three races: Black, indigenous, and white. At its end, Macunaíma’s decision to forsake an earthly existence for one in the heavens after losing his leg and testicles to a siren accounts for the asymmetry of the constellation Ursa Major.

Much of the book’s plot is based on mythology from the Amazonian Pemon people, wide-ranging and colorful tales featuring an impish demigod named Makunaíma that were compiled and published by German ethnologist Theodor Koch-Grünberg between 1917 and 1928. British missionaries invoked Makunaíma, Dodson informs readers, to stand in for God in their translations of the Bible into indigenous languages, for in spite of his penchant for causing trouble, presumably no other cosmological figure held the same prominence in Pemon culture. Accused by some contemporaries of plagiarizing Koch-Grünberg to write Macunaíma, Andrade readily admitted to relying heavily on the German’s research, as well as many other sources, but defended his experimental techniques of recombining, substituting, and deregionalizing idioms, stories, and characters in pursuit of a uniquely and universally Brazilian pastiche. This lexicon was achieved as much through translation as it was through collage: Dodson draws our attention to “an incredibly tangled game of telephone,” in which Pemon myths were translated into Portuguese by Koch-Grünberg’s interpreter, then recorded by the ethnologist in German, and finally transposed back into Portuguese by Andrade in Macunaíma, embellished with flourishes of his invention.

In her afterword, Dodson surmises that Andrade’s decision to foreground Macunaíma’s shapeshifting nature had much to do with his own life experiences. A polymath, musicologist, poet, and professor, Andrade was, in today’s parlance, biracial and queer, although he did not publicly acknowledge his African ancestry or homosexual relations. When he self-published Macunaíma in an edition of eight hundred, he was already firmly ensconced in Brazil’s intellectual and artistic elite, as he had been one of the organizers of São Paulo’s Modern Art Week of 1922, a landmark festival of Brazilian visual art and letters comprising exhibitions, readings, concerts, and lectures. Orchestrated by the famed Group of Five, which included Andrade as well as modernist poets Oswald de Andrade (no relation) and Menotti del Picchia, and visual artists Tarsila do Amaral and Anita Malfatti, the event is now widely regarded as a harbinger of São Paulo’s rise to cultural prominence over Rio de Janeiro, which had long been the country’s political and intellectual center.

Andrade’s milieu is most notably associated with the concept of antropofagia, defined in Oswald de Andrade’s oft-cited “Cannibalist Manifesto” as the production of a distinctly Brazilian aesthetic by means of ingesting European and other sources. Oswald’s manifesto, which was widely embraced by Brazilian artists and intellectuals, took inspiration from the indigenous Tupi people’s ritually consumption of their enemies after battle. “Tupi or not tupi, that is the question,” he wrote, invoking Shakespeare to ponder the usefulness of forsaking colonial idioms for local ones. Yet despite the Group of Five’s celebration of indigenous and Afro Brazil—the latter having been rarely acknowledged for its contributions to national culture—they also held the modern, Europeanized city in high regard, which in Macunaíma is populated by all manner of ravishing machines and glamorous people.

For Andrade, however, his attraction to urban modernity belied a deep ambivalence. In juxtaposing São Paulo’s glittering skyscrapers and sleek automobiles with the thatched huts and manioc groves of Amazonia, Macunaíma reveals its author’s anxieties about modernization and Brazil’s position vis-à-vis Europe, a continent that represented both the past, in terms of the region’s colonial heritage, and the future, in terms of advancement in governance, public health, and high culture. In her afterword, Dodson writes that while Andrade believed in his country’s great vitality and potential, he recognized the obstacles to progress that its originary violence, extraction, and corruption presented. Aside from Macunaíma’s expressions of laziness, another of his frequently uttered dictums expresses this foundational anxiety perhaps even more succinctly: “Ants aplenty and nobody’s healthy, so go the ills of Brazil!” he laments, suggesting the great challenges remaining for Brazil to tame its unruly natural environment and contain disease.

Yet Dodson aptly captures Andrade’s skepticism of such commonplace handwringing about Brazilian backwardness; he satirizes not only the superfluous modern conveniences of urban life but also the pretensions of upwardly mobile Brazilians seeking to imitate European erudition. Ultimately, Macunaíma gives up on city living, the accumulation of money, and eventually even the daily grind of life itself, preferring “to go up and twinkle the useless twinkle of the stars.” In depicting a Brazil that is both cosmopolitan and tradition-bound, forward-looking yet carnivalesque and debauched, Andrade managed to produce a heartfelt ode to his country that is unencumbered by the uncritical nationalistic impulses that characterized the work of some of his contemporaries.

While the novel, or rhapsody, as Andrade preferred to call it, had previously been available to an English-language readership by way of Goodland’s serviceable translation, it may be, as John Keene writes in his introduction, “one of the greatest twentieth-century epics, and major works of Brazilian and modernist literature that many Anglophone readers have neither read nor heard of.” Goodland, though quite familiar with Brazil’s natural environment, was a retired sugar company technical director and amateur translator whose attempts to make sense of the text reinforced stereotypes about Brazilian lasciviousness and flattened its characteristic effervescence. Thanks in part to Dodson’s sterling reputation as a translator of other Brazilian literary giants such as Clarice Lispector and Ana Cristina Cesar, as well as to Andrade’s importance to Brazilian letters, this reimagined Macunaímaremedies this injustice. Perhaps through Dodson’s masterful work, Andrade will finally be widely read alongside Joyce, Woolf, and Kafka, and Brazilian modernism will be cemented in a canon that has largely excluded authors from Latin America.

With aplomb, Dodson tackles the formidable challenge of coaxing Andrade’s playful, sonorous, and vernacular prose into English. At first, some of her choices, namely the inclusion of colloquialisms and phonetic abbreviations such as “nossir,” “ain’t,” and “hunnerd,” struck me as specifically American in a way that disrupted and disoriented my imaginings of Brazil, as conjured by the novel. Yet as she explains in her afterword, Dodson set out to do just that, “to convey Macunaíma’s peculiar effect on Brazilian readers,” by making “the translation seem irrevocably Brazilian and American at the same time.” In order to fashion a such linguistic pastiche, she studied regional speech in works of literature by Mark Twain, Zora Neale Hurston, and William Faulkner, as well as noir and gangster films, compendiums of homegrown folklore, and dictionaries of regional dialects. While not all readers will appreciate the regionally and temporally specific slang Dodson chose to include, the resulting text has none of the neutral and cautious blandness of Goodland’s version.

Dodson excels in reproducing Andrade’s linguistic risk-taking, a style that alienated some critics but garnered praise from others at the time of the book’s publication. Whereas Goodland opted to add punctuation to sentences in which Andrade omitted it, Dodson follows Andrade’s lead, allowing his phrasing to unfold breathlessly as if spoken by an excited child. A description of the participants in an Afro-Brazilian religious rite conducted in Rio de Janeiro reads, “all them folks vendors bibliophiles bums academics bankers, all them folks dancing round the table were singing,” and later, when a wounded Macunaíma searches for severed body parts in an enchanted lagoon, “he found his two earrings found his toes found his ears his nuqiiris his nose.” At times, Dodson favors sonority and rhythm over clarity and sense-making, relying heavily on colorful onomatopoeia, absurd innuendos, and improvised action verbs. “Bah-doom-boom-boom,” goes the refrain of a nuptial tune; an araponga bird “screams yellow with envy”; and rendezvous, phoneticized in Portuguese in the original, is styled “rondayvoo,” along with a number of other clever renderings of Andrade’s tongue-in-cheek misspellings and misattributions.

These choices evince an astute understanding of the role of the translator. Rather than tie up loose ends or attempt to make the prose cohere more in translation, Dodson prioritizes recreating Andrade’s linguistic buoyancy and convention-flouting irreverence. Moreover, she treats the text’s racist and gendered archetypes and expressions with a light hand, refraining from sanitizing them for a contemporary readership. For example, Macunaíma denounces a doll resembling a young black girl as a pesky “nappyhead”; later on, a woman partaking in a religious ritual is described as a “Polack tart with [a] painted face,” a “hussy” whose naked body serves as a passive receptacle for an Afro-Brazilian deity to possess. Perhaps Andrade’s own expansive sexual appetites (which he pursued enthusiastically while refraining from discussing them openly) and ambiguous racial identity compelled him to discuss sex and race with a frankness that at times is jarring, yet Dodson’s translations of these passages are less indulgent and exaggerated than Goodland’s. Speaking on this particular challenge, Dodson explains that considering Andrade’s own heritage, sexuality, and his subsequent denunciations of casual racism in popular culture, the inclusions of racist language and frequent references to sexual violence were likely meant to expose the prejudices that plagued Brazilian society rather than reinforce them.

Despite its publication nearly a century ago, Andrade’s commentary on the pliability of Brazilianness is no less relevant today. 

To note her light hand is not to say that Dodson’s approach to the work of translation is casual. While the text itself retains Andrade’s offhand approach to syntax and meaning, copious and thorough endnotes demonstrate the extent and sophistication of Dodson’s efforts in this multi-year project. Her nearly fifty pages of notes provide context for Andrade’s many entangled references to Brazilian folklore, history, and mythology, not to mention definitions of indigenous words for flora and fauna, revealing painstaking archival research and remarkable attention to detail, subtlety, and pattern. Locating the notes at the end of the book rather than as footnotes throughout was intended to offer the reader an unmediated encounter with the text, whose intermittent opacity Dodson encourages us to embrace.

While I found myself often desiring the easy access of a same-page note, her decision to omit numbers and simply list the notes in short paragraphs in a separate section allows the prose to exist without the burdensome density conferred by real-time elucidation. While a Brazilian would undoubtedly recognize many of the book’s cultural and historical references, others, as well as many of the indigenous terms, may be unknown, even to the most sophisticated reader. Intimately aware of the text’s unconventional nature even within its native context, Dodson sought to provide her English-language readers with a similar experience of disorientation. Yet as I read, I felt a coherence emerging out of the chaos, a pleasure in trusting both Andrade and Dodson to escort me through a narrative that is at once foreign and familiar.

Despite its publication nearly a century ago, Andrade’s commentary on the pliability of Brazilianness is no less relevant today. Many of the culture-war issues that came to the fore in the country’s most recent presidential election are, in a sense, contentious debates over the very nature of contemporary Brazil and the people that reside within it. Is it a nation with a robust landowning class buttressed by an iron-fisted law enforcement apparatus and a Christian worldview of traditional family life? Or is it a multiethnic, multi-faith society, one that has given rise to many insurgent movements for racial, gender, and economic justice, yet still grappling with the specters of colonial and authoritarian violence?

These differences were starkly embodied by the two main candidates for the presidency in 2022: Jair Bolsonaro, a bigot and blowhard elected president in 2018 after a career as an army captain and congressman, and Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, one of the founders of the left-wing Workers’ Party and a metalworkers’ union leader during the brutal military dictatorship for which his rival has often expressed nostalgia. While Lula won the election and assumed the presidency this January, nearly half of the Brazilian electorate voted for and continues to support Bolsonaro, whose messianic appeal and penchant for fake news may remind many an American of Donald Trump. In fact, when the time came to vacate the presidential residence early this year, Bolsonaro quickly and ignominiously decamped to Florida, where he has given speeches to conservative audiences at Trump resorts and broken bread with Trump and his cronies.

While the artistic production of the modernists in the early twentieth century reminds us that indigenous and African influences have long been celebrated for their contributions to Brazilian culture (at least aesthetically, if not through concrete policy and material redistribution), the standing of these groups is still precarious. In fact, they were specifically targeted during Bolsonaro’s government for occupying land desired by agribusiness interests and for otherwise not conforming to the Christian right’s notion of prosperity, productivity, and righteousness. In particular, Afro-Brazilian religious rites such as the one that Macunaíma attends in a Rio de Janeiro temple have been denounced as devil-worship by prominent Evangelicals, and a recent study revealed that crimes of religious intolerance have risen by 45 percent in the past two years, most victims being practitioners of Candomblé and Umbanda, the two most widely practiced Afro-Brazilian religions.

Yet the Lula administration is finally addressing social and economic justice for indigenous, Afro-descendant, and quilombo(descendants of marooned slaves who live in self-sustaining settlements) communities, enacting a series of policies to protect traditional landholdings, curb environmental degradation, and resume social services that were gutted during the previous administration. In these days of acrimonious cultural and social division, contemporary Brazilians can turn to the avant-garde of the previous century, artists and writers who recognized the value of cultural heterogeneity, nonhegemonic lifeways, and harmonious coexistence with the natural world. And now, thanks to Dodson’s superb translation, so, too, can English speakers, who perhaps can learn how to better relate to our own nations, with all their confounding hypocrisies and polarizations. As Dodson writes, Andrade shows us that rather than the “poetic idealization of the nation” favored these days by the jingoistic right, we can instead recognize the contemporary nation as “an unholy amalgam of sacred and profane influences from disparate traditions that coexist within the same territory.” Pondering how these traditions may cohere was Andrade’s preoccupation in Macunaíma, and perhaps it is our challenge as well.