Americas and Oceania Collections blog

Exploring the Library’s collections from the Americas and Oceania

16 October 2023

Carybé, Mario de Andrade and the Brazilian ‘hero without a character’

Rafael Pereira do Rego is the Interim Programme Manager and Area Specialist in the Eccles Centre for American Studies

In the previous blog post, I discussed the wonderful experience of hosting the 100th celebratory edition of the Bilingual Brazilian Book Club at the British Library and the exquisite publications created by the society Cem Bibliofilos do Brasil (100 Bibliophiles of Brazil) including Machado de Assis’ O Alienista, illustrated by Candido Portinari. (And I admit my pleasure at imagining the fancy gala dinners at the Country Club in Rio de Janeiro with its auctions of the original illustrations signed by distinguished visual artists to celebrate the work of the canon of Brazilian literature!)

Another publication from their collection, which was included in the Library’s show-and-tell at the Book Club event, is Macunaíma, by Mario de Andrade. Originally published in 1928, the 1957 edition was illustrated by Carybé, an artist born in Argentina, but who grew up in Rio and later in Salvador, Bahia, where he consolidated his work. Some of Carybé's work can be found in the Afro-Brazilian Museum in Salvador: 27 cedar panels representing different orixás or divinities of the Afro-Brazilian religion candomblé.

Watercolour on white paper representing Afro-Brazilian rites of Candomblé
Illustrations by Carybé for the exquisite ‘Iconografia dos Deuses Africanos no Candomble da Bahia’ (Iconography of the African Gods in the Candomblé of Bahia' with texts by Jorge Amado, Pierre Verger and Waldeloir Rego. (BL shelfmark 37/Cup.408.rr.7 )

Carybé was a versatile artist portraying many themes and motifs, but his main forte was the exploration of Afro-Brazilian culture and its influence, especially in the state of Bahia, Northeast of Brazil, which inherited much Brazilian African heritage as a result of the transatlantic slave trade. Carybé had famous literary friends such as Jorge Amado, Gabriel García Márquez and Mario de Andrade, and illustrated many editions of their work. Among his paintings, you can also appreciate the urban and natural landscapes of Bahia, as well as popular festivities and practices such as soccer, capoeira and Carnaval. And below is Macunaíma, the Brazilian modernist anti-hero – as you can see in the subtitle of the book, ‘o herói sem nenhum caráter’ (the hero without any character).

Andrade, M. (1957). Macunaíma, o herói sem nenhum caráter. Aguas-fortes de Carybé. [By M. de Andrade.] ([Publicações da Sociedade dos Cem Bibliófilos do Brasil. no. 11.]). British Library shelfmark C.106.l.11
Exclusive edition for the British Museum (British Library shelfmark C.106.l.11)

Macunaíma’s author, Mario de Andrade, was one of the instigators of the Week of Modern Art in 1922 in Brazil, an avant-garde movement that disseminated Brazilian Modernism in literature, visual arts, music and architecture. He travelled to many parts of Brazil, writing travelogues and researching Brazil’s multiple sounds, voices and dialects, which enabled him to develop an extensive familiarity with the country’s linguistic and cultural variations. As a careful listener with a great sense of musical composition (he was trained as a musician), he applied the Brazilian linguistic diversity to prose fiction within a sort of rhapsodic, speech-patterned writing he had developed previously in the poems of Pauliceia Desvairada (translated in English as Hallucinated City), his second poetry collection. This novel is his major work in the context of those experimentations, and it is our Brazilian Odyssey (or perhaps our Ulysses – a modernist response to James Joyce).

 The book is a shapeshifting novel about an Indigenous man, ‘the hero without a character’, from a tribe in the northern Amazon who crosses the country in search of his amulet stolen by a cannibal giant. He arrives in the sprawling urban jungle of São Paulo on the verge of modernisation, learns the ‘official’ languages —both Portuguese and Brazilian, as the novel says —and goes for a ‘whirlwind tour of Brazil, cramming four centuries and a continental expanse into a single mythic plane’, as stated in the beautiful new translated edition, published in the UK by Fitzcarraldo editions (2023). The book magically intertwines Brazil’s Afro-Brazilian, European and Indigenous heritage and the country’s folklore, dialects, anthropology, mythology, flora, fauna, and pop culture – thus, examining Brazilian multifaceted identity in the context of rapid urban transformations. 

Mario de Andrade gave birth to this novel over six delirious days in a state of creative trance; he famously locked himself in a remote farm in Sao Paulo in order to work continuously. But this is, of course, not an improvisational piece. It is the consequence of years of research and the process of writing was inspired by Northern repentistas in Brazil – popular spoken poets and musicians whose compositions are seemingly improvised at first glance, but in fact, nothing is unpremeditated. The form and content come from careful research and experimentation that builds up the scaffolding of patterns, sounds and ideas feeding the creative mind for the final ‘impromptu’. Mario de Andrade is then engaging with popular culture in the very process of writing the book.

Black ink drawing on whitepaper
British Library shelfmark C.106.l.11

What I find interesting about the novel is the capacity to blend dialects and urban and rural rhythms that Andrade was collecting in his research, attempting to convey in language Brazil’s conflicted racial and cultural identity. It embodies a new style of prose creating a new rhapsodic and playful language which justifies the comparison between James Joyce’s Ulysses and Mario de Andrade’s novel, both published in the 1920s: the Brazilian Odyssey is full of Amazonian gods and demi-gods and historical figures, interplayed in a musical composite, and yet preserving a narrative overturn. The novel also mixes vivid descriptions of the jungle and the sprawling metropolis with abrupt turns towards fantasy – an emerging sign of the trend towards magical realism that would be consolidated in Latin America decades later.

Following Brazilian modernist tradition, Andrade also incorporated notions of primitivism learned from European modernism embedded with the principles of indigenous cannibalism introduced here as one of the novel’s thematic forces. Macunaíma was published in 1928, the same year that O Manifesto Antropofago (The Cannibalist Manifesto) by Oswaldo de Andrade (no familial relation) released the main tenet of Brazilian Modernism, which is the hugely influential concept of antropofagia. It postulates the Brazilian culture’s capacity to ‘digest’ the coloniser, to incorporate foreign influences and to turn them into something new and ‘originally’ Brazilian (and, in many cases, into something national, and sometimes stranding to utopic nationalism – as much as problematic this course can turn out to be).

Indeed, this is the main modernist tension in Brazil: the desire to bring European values and traditions but sometimes within a nationalist framework or with the perspective of building a nation that is separate from the coloniser’s influences. And perhaps that has also been the main tension in the construction of Brazilian cultural identity since the Portuguese arrived in 1500 and encountered the Tupi-speaking indigenous people (portrayed in the first European books about Brazil as practitioners of cannibalistic rituals): an 'existential' ambivalence between adopting European cultural codes and striving for a 'unique' identity which is memorably encapsulated in the manifesto by the famous aphorism 'Tupi or Not Tupi – that is the question'. 

Black ink text on white paper. Magazine cutting with a contour line drawing at the centre of the page.
Manifesto Antropófago in Revista de Antropofagia by Oswald de Andrade in 1928 (reedited text available at the British Library under shelfmark L.45/389). Image at center is a contour line drawing by Brazilian artist Tarsila do Amaral of her 1928 painting Abaporu.

The concept of antropofagia is a good stepping stone to our next collection item, Cobra Norato, by Raul Bopp who drank from the same well as Mario de Andrade, and I will explore this further in the next blog post. Before then, I will just mention that, although Macunaíma was initially regarded as a sheer strange piece of work with a perceived untranslatable complexity for foreign audiences, it became recognised as a modernist masterpiece and national cultural icon. It is impressive to see that in 2023 alone there have been two English translations of the novel; one by Katrina Dodson, published in the UK via Fitzcarraldo Editions, and the other by Carl Engel (published by King Tide Press).  These will accompany E.A. Goodland’s 1984 version for Random House, also available at the British Library. Additionally, it is worth checking Andrade's first novel To Love, Intransitive Verb, translated into English in 1933 as Fräulein – the title alluding to a German governess in a nouveau-riche family in Sao Paulo during World War I – but now available in a new translation by Ana Lessa-Schimidt. 

I hope the new directions of this novel for an English-speaking audience will bring to life again the work of an unquiet modernist, endlessly curious about the complexities of Brazilian culture. But the novel’s importance perhaps goes beyond the country’s geographical limits to shed light on the conflicted and fragmented post-colonial subject – playful and transgressive, yet always unfinished and full of possibilities that are never quite met.