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Top ten Brazilian novels of the last twenty years. (Currents).

1 Rubem Fonseca. A Grande Arte 1983. (Eng. High Art, 1986)

2 Nelida Pinon. A Republica dos Sonhos 1984. (Eng. The Republic of Dreams, 1989)

3 Joao Ubaldo Ribeiro. Viva o Povo Brasileiro (Long Live the Brazilian People). 1984.

4 Paulo Coelho. O Alquimista 1988. (Eng. The Alchemist)

5 Chico Buarque de Hollanda. Estorvo (Hindrance). 1991.

6 Aramis Ribeiro Costa. Uma Varanda para o Jardim (A Verandah Onto the Flower Garden). 1991.

7 Patricia Melo. O Matador (The Killer). 1997.

8 Deonisio da Silva. Teresa 1997.

9 Sergio Sant'Anna. Um Crime Delicado (A Delicate Crime). 1997.

10 Moacyr Scliar. A Mulher que Escreveu a Biblia (The Woman Who Wrote the Bible). 2000.

11 SPECIAL RECOGNITION: Jorge Amado. Tocaia Grande (Big Ambush). 1984.

Brazil Not for Beginners

PERHAPS ONE OF the most challenging tasks to be given to a literary critic is that of compiling a list of the best works of a certain region of the world. He or she will find this to be particularly true if given an assignment to cover the literature of a country endowed with such a rich variety of regional and urban literatures as is the case with Brazil. Finding what some may call a "national" literature in a country of such complexity is almost impossible. The Brazilian composer Antonio Carlos Jobim was once asked during an interview to explain the roots of Brazilian music. After giving a very lengthy reply, Jobim concluded with the following words of wisdom: "As you see," he told the mesmerized interviewer, "Brazil is not for beginners." And if its music -- or any other form of artistic expression, for that matter is not for beginners, neither is its literature.

Although my "top ten novels" list for the past twenty years is presented in chronological order according to the year of first publication of each work, it coincidentally starts out with a writer many critics consider to be the very best postmodern representative of Brazilian literature. In the words of the American critic James Polk, "Rubem Fonseca is a writer of joyful excess." His masterpiece High Art has been translated into a rapid-fire English which seems to compensate for the work's many different rhetorical levels. High Art is a masterpiece of the mystery narrative. But more than that, it has become a paradigm of the contemporary urban novel. Its characters are like thousands of Brazilians who find in a criminal life their only recourse to fight a corrupted political system.

The second novel selected, The Republic of Dreams, which has also been translated into English, marked the U.S. debut of this most acclaimed Brazilian novelist outside of Brazil. Nelida Pinon's novel brings four generations of a family of Spaniards struggling to adjust within the complex social structure of Brazil. The Republic of Dreams is perhaps the best example of the power of Pinon's narrative. For this work, she was awarded the 1995 Juan Rulfo Prize, one of the most prestigious literary awards in all of Latin America. In the 1990s, Pinon also became the first woman ever elected to preside over the distinguished Brazilian Academy of Letters.

For Viva o Povo Brasileiro (Long Live the Brazilian People), Joao Ubaldo Ribeiro was nominated for membership in that same Academy of Letters. Ribeiro comes from a traditional line of great Brazilian writers from the state of Bahia -- the same Bahia that has inspired some of Jorge Amado's best works. With this 700-page novel, he recounts four centuries of Brazilian history in the voice of a character who passes through a series of soul transmutations and lives many lives on the subtropical island of Itaparica, the same island where the author himself was born. The result is a mesmerizing novel for anyone who wishes to get acquainted with the history of this huge Latin American nation while also enjoying the talents of a true storyteller.

Our next author is considered the second most widely read Latin American writer ever, behind only Gabriel Garcia Marquez. For that alone, Paulo Coelho deserves a place on any Top Ten list. Several critics in Brazil would deny his literary talent, attributing his success merely to an opportunistic marketing strategy. Others will argue that, despite his huge audience and sales, not usually associated with high-quality literature, he can also be regarded as a good writer, if not for capturing the imagination, then at least for capturing the soul of his readers. His recognition as a good writer is increasing now, and even the Brazilian Academy of Letters has been considering him as a candidate to fill Jorge Amado's recently vacated chair. The Alchemist was Coelho's first novel to achieve great global success and is perhaps a good introduction to his works.

Francisco (Chico) Buarque de Hollanda has long been known as one of the most important voices of Brazilian poetry and drama during the cultural counterrevolutionary years since 1964, when a military coup ushered in two decades of martial rule in Brazil. Chico is also known as one of Brazilian popular music's best lyricists of all time. Estorvo (Hindrance) is one of his earliest novels, but it already deserves some of the same praise that has been applied to his poetry and drama. Full of faceless and nameless characters living in a chaotic Brazilian metropolis, this novel conveys well the psyche of an unplanned urban society. Estorvo was also made into a film that represented Brazil at the Cannes Festival in 2000, but that version did not enjoy anything like the success achieved by the book.

Even though Aramis Ribeiro Costa is a member of the Bahian Academy of Letters and an outstanding literary representative of the state of Bahia, unfortunately for readers, he is not nearly as well known as his prominent Bahian colleague, Joao Ubaldo Ribeiro. His novel Uma Varanda para o Jardim (A Verandah Onto the Flower Garden) is a story about love and hate, deception and self-deception, that one can easily trace back to the influences of Machado de Assis, arguably the greatest Latin American novelist of the nineteenth century, and Eca de Queiros, a Portuguese master of the same period. Either way, Costa comes from a noble lineage of masters of narrative in the Portuguese language.

Patricia Melo, the youngest author of my list, wrote the carefully crafted novel The Killer in 1997 at the age of thirty-four. The story is a brilliant portrait of a common man who falls into an escalating life of violence and moral depravity despite his best intentions. The novel came at a time when urban violence in Brazil was surpassing the acceptable limits of tolerance, and it provoked considerable debate on the implementation of capital punishment. Melo is also a playwright and a screenwriter who is well on her way to becoming one of the most prominent voices of the younger generation of authors. The Killer was recast into English by Clifford E. Landers, an experienced translator of Brazilian authors.

Deonisio da Silva is another Brazilian author deserving even wider recognition than he currently enjoys with the public. Winner of several literary awards, including the prestigious international Casa de las Americas Prize, he is still viewed with suspicion by literary critics for being a professor of literature at Sao Paulo State University. For his masterpiece Teresa, which cost him several years of research in Portugal and Brazil, Silva received the National Library Prize. This biographical novel on Santa Teresa d'Avila is unlike anything written before or after it.

Recognized as one of Brazil's foremost contemporary urban novelists, Sergio Sant'Anna published what may arguably be his best novel in 1997. In the words of a scholar from Brown University, A Delicate Crime "challenges the boundaries between art and life." In 1998, Sant'Anna won Brazil's most prestigious literary distinction, the Jabuti Award, in what was perhaps one of the most competitive years since the prize's inception. That same year, four other writers included on my list were also in the running for the Jabuti, but their novels, as great as they were, did not make it to the final round. Like Fonseca's High Art, A Delicate Crime is one of the masterpieces of contemporary Brazilian fiction, except perhaps more delicate.

A Mulher que Escreveu a Biblia (The Woman Who Wrote the Bible) is a highly imaginative novel that transcends the boundaries of time and expression. It tells the story of one of Solomon's wives, who, despite her lack of physical beauty, had learned what none of Solomon's 700 other wives and 300 concubines had ever dreamed of. She could read and write, which gave her great prestige among the other wives. This novel is one of the best representatives of what is called "irreverent literature" in Brazil. It intercalates eloquent and highly complex language with sometimes some very acerbic rationalizations. Moacyr Scliar, one of the best exponents and representatives of Jewish-Brazilian literature, won the Jabuti Award in 2000 for this highly interesting novel, which clearly announces his coming of age.

Special recognition above and beyond the Top Ten listing goes to one of Brazil's best writers of all time, Jorge Amado, and specifically his Tocaia Grande (Big Ambush). Amado, who passed away in August 2000, was Brazil's leading candidate for the Nobel Prize in Literature following the death of Joao Guimaraes Rosa (1908-67). Unfortunately, the author of such classics as Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands and Gabriela, Clove and Cinnamon, like Rosa, died before he could be honored with a well-deserved Nobel. Amado is the single most widely translated author from Brazil, and perhaps the most recognized one as well. Like his previous works, Tocaia Grande also takes place in his native Bahia, a state that became symbolic of all Brazil in the minds of so many readers around the world.

There are of course several other Brazilian novelists who deserve to be on this list, but unfortunately, my space is too limited to represent more fully a country of such magnitude. An author like Dalton Trevisan, for instance, did not make the final cut, not because he is anything less than a great novelist, but simply because in recent years he has dedicated himself more to short fiction than to full-length novels. Other important names from the currently active generation of novelists include Fernando Sabino, Marcelo Rubem Paiva, Domingos Pellegrini Jr, Ignacio de Loyola Brandao, Raduan Nassar, Lygia Fagundes Telles, Autran Dourado, Osman Lins, and Lya Luft, among so many many more.

University of Oklahoma

GLAUCO ORTOLANO is a Brazilian novelist who is currently teaching in the Department of Modern Languages and Literatures at the University of Oklahoma, where he also serves as a contributing editor to WLT.
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Author:Ortolano, Glauco
Publication:World Literature Today
Geographic Code:3BRAZ
Date:Jun 22, 2001
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