World Cup fiction
By TOBY LICHTIG
One of the happier corollaries of a World Cup – away from the depressing corruption scandals, escalating costs, violent demonstrations, hideous tales of worker abuse, and aside from the actual football itself – is the chance it gives the world to scrutinize the host country, in all its cultural colours.
Those already bored by the endless books and documentaries about Brazilian history, politics, cookery and Amazonian derring-do may wish to stop reading this blog now, but despite a certain scepticism regarding the current Brazilian zeitgeist (are we to start ignoring the world's fifth largest country once the referee blows the final whistle on July 13th? Given the neglect South America is generally accorded by the British media, the answer is probably yes), I've enjoyed seeing the recent slew of Brazilian fiction in translation to have arrived on my desk at the TLS.
It all really began a couple of years ago when a selection of newly translated novels by Clarice Lispector was brought out by New Directions Press. Landeg White reviewed four of them for us, finding Lispector to be “a bafflingly elusive writer. But her images dazzle even when her meaning is most obscure, and when she is writing of what she despises she is lucidity itself”. Penguin Modern Classics is now reissuing several of these Lispector novels and the current edition of Music & Literature is partly dedicated to her, including a translation of her last interview, conducted a few months before her death in 1977. In the “Summer Books” special in the current edition of the TLS, Lispector is Alex Clark’s beach choice. “I am undaunted by reports of Lispector’s somewhat mystical style and suggestions that it is often hard to tell exactly what is going on in her work”, writes Clark. “What, after all, is summer for? And reading the story of a woman alone in Rio’s poorest neighbourhoods will be an interesting counterpoint to watching contemporary Rio on the television during the World Cup.”
Not long after the original New Directions Lispector translations, Granta dedicated its 121st issue to Brazil in a “best of young Brazilian novelists” special. Reviewing the collection for us in the Christmas issue of 2012, Brian Dillon was pleased to see that “some of the stories shine”, though he perceived a certain amount of Brazilian bandwagon-jumping in this “talent show”: “The Best of Young Brazilian Novelists is not a thrilling collection, betraying a lack of structural and stylistic ambition and a tendency towards sentimentality”.
But it was not until this year that the books from Brazil really began to arrive thick and fast, partly thanks to the Brazilian government, and its various cultural arms, which have been ploughing money into translation projects. (Dispiritingly enough, even this aspect of World Cup fever didn't escape a whiff of financial mismanagement. I was told by two different sources that publishers were having a hard time extracting the promised payment for their translators. The money had been delayed several months and people were getting agitated – though it is my understanding that matters have now been resolved.)
One of the trickier propositions has been rendering the playful and provocative prose of the experimental novelist (and poet) Hilda Hilst into English. Often compared to Lispector, Hilst was the heir to a lucrative coffee dynasty who rejected the polite society of her family in favour of São Paulo’s bohemia. Reviewing two new Hilst translations – With My Dog-Eyes and Letters from a Seducer – in the paper last month, Michael LaPointe delighted in a “joyfully wicked writer” and “a modern master of disturbance” whose characters “constantly rage against the strictures of language”. LaPointe drew particular attention to the translators, noting that Adam Morris (With My Dog-Eyes) “deserves the highest praise; the constant shifts in perspective call for tremendous agility. A typical passage of the novel will move from the third person to the first and back again, or else to a stranger perspective, in which [the protagonist] in the first person, observes himself in the third.” Meanwhile, John Keene (Letters from a Seducer) “must be applauded for the not insignificant feat of capturing Hilst’s countless slang words for genitalia”.
Alongside the experimentalism of Lispector and Hilst, I have also received a stack of thrillers – political, psychological, literary, crime – mostly set in Rio de Janeiro, including Hotel Brasil by Frei Betto, The Mystery of Rio by Alberto Mussa and His Own Man by Edgard Telles Ribeiro. Nick Caistor, one of our most prominent and prolific translators of literature from Portuguese, will be rounding up the current crop later next month.
But perhaps most exciting of all is the recent revival of Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis (1839–1908): a master of the short story who also wrote nine novels. Peter Robb, who writes about Machado de Assis in his superb book A Death in Brazil (which I highly recommend to anyone with an interest in the country, renewed or otherwise) will be writing a long piece on three newly translated collections of the author’s short stories, many of which have never before appeared in English. This review is unlikely to be published before the end of the World Cup, but I have faith that our readers – no slaves to the mode – will still have plenty of spare capacity for all things Brazilian long after the World Cup Trophy has been raised.