The Encyclopedia of the Novel - Peter Melville Logan 2014


José Luiz Passos

The Brazilian novel comes from and still feeds on the desire to make sense of the mixing of social spaces and the fate of those who have shaped moments of contact among unequals. The quest for change and fitting in is often presented retrospectively, and in many cases it results in a search for puzzling family ties. From its beginnings to recent prizewinning works, one can chart across time how plots, structures, trends, authors, and their readership have relied on an intricate interplay between displacement, troubled origins, and the possibilities for a new self. Typically, social exile—or a journey if within the protagonist's own community—is paired with the ubiquity of an absent father figure. The conflict between past expectations and the limited opportunities protagonists have to reconnect or fulfill their hopes yields the grounds for the negotiation between opposing agendas: formal and colloquial registers, highbrow and lowbrow cultures, urban and regional spaces. Time and again the Brazilian novel reinvents the quest of Telemachus as a way of probing nationality, affective loss, and social compromise.


Yet the dominant key used to frame the development of the genre in Brazil has been a combination of historical periodization (see TIME) with stylistic and geographical clustering (see REGIONAL). The novels are often described as fictional scripts about the identity of Brazil or that of its parts. The usual argument is that the Brazilian novel only comes into being after the 1822 political independence from Portugal, when the local elites began pulling together a symbolic face for a new nation (see NATIONAL). Brazilian Romanticism (1836—80) then mapped out the landscape, social groups, and cultural practices, often opposing the country to the city and the historical to the contemporary, as well as introducing Native Brazilians as a source for literary originality, as in José de Alencar's first bestselling novel O Guarani (1857, The Guarany). realism and naturalism (1880—1922) surveyed social dysfunctions and ethnic malaises, adopting contemporaneous European racial discourse in an attempt to come to terms with miscegenation and the legacy of slavery (see RACE)—which ended only in 1888 and is indicted in many important works of the period, such as in Aluísio Azevedo's O cortiço (1890, The Slum). Eventually the Brazilian novel also focused on more individualized characters and the qualms of a troubled moral psyche, as represented by the works of Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis, particularly his Dom Casmurro (1899). Symbolism and pre-Modernism (1893—1922) reintroduced spirituality and a poetic prose sensitive to the aesthetics of physical experiences and social performances (see SURREALISM), often highlighting regional cultures and the specificity of their predicaments. Nonetheless, at the beginning of the twentieth century the genre still debated conflicting ideologies about the future of a mixed-race nation against the background of more intense urban changes and new waves of European immigration as in José Pereira da Graça Aranha's Canaã (1902, Canaan) and Afonso Henriques de Lima Barreto's O Triste Fim de Policarpo Quaresma (1915; The Sad End of Polycarp Lent).

It was only a hundred years after political independence that modernism (1922—30) brought about a significant break with the literary past. The Brazilian novel diversified its lexicon by drawing on avant-garde “primitivism”; it also acquired an ironic perspective on the colonial heritage and on other canonical forms then prevalent, as in Mario de Andrade's Macunaíma (1928). The modernistic remapping of the past expanded on the nineteenth-century romantic survey of SPACE and history. An interest in political history and in cultural detail bloomed in the next generation. Following the 1930 Revolution, writers associated with the so-called Social Novel (1930—45), often grouped together under the loose rubric of Regionalism, depicted socioeconomic hubs characteristic of Brazil's intraregional disparities. Sugarcane and cocoa plantation clans are explored in José Lins do Rego's Menino de engenho (1932, Plantation Boy) and Jorge Amado's Terras do sem fim (1942, The Violent Land). Graciliano Ramos looks at migration waves from the backcountry in Vidas secas (1938, Barren Lives). Social banditism figures in the Southern gaucho saga, such as Érico Lopes Veríssimo's trilogy O tempo e o vento (1949—62, Time and the Wind). The depiction of these economic cycles and regional communities resulted in works whose style and vernacular rendered what then became a long-standing paradigm for the Brazilian novel: a truth-seeking, verisimilar representation of societal predicaments and locale (see VERISIMILITUDE).

The Social Novel also fostered and coexisted with a concern for protagonists and plots of a more deeply introspective nature. Among some of the regional novels written between the 1930s and 1940s, corruption of family lines or the ruin of social fabric is often presented through the point of view of narrators who disagree with their past or the present conditions they themselves have helped to create, as in Ramos's São Bernardo (1934) and Lúcio Cardoso's A luz no subsolo (1936, The Light Underground). They do so by writing very personal and fragmented self-portraits (see LIFE WRITING). The New Narrative (1945—64) took this perspective a step further. Now the provincial civil servant, the hit-man from the backcountry, and the urban housewife are inundated with intimations of existential uneasiness in João Guimarães Rosa's Grande sertão: veredas (1956, The Devil to Pay in the Backlands) and Clarice Lispector's A paixão segundo G.H. (1964, The Passion According to G.H.). The Brazilian novel had apparently broken free from the epistemological constraints of having to hold fast to its referent. Critics have argued it became largely about language, and attention to language for a moment seemed to overcome the divide between the country and the city as a prime national object for the genre (see LINGUISTICS). But following the 1964 military coup, the Political Novel (1964—85) underscored a reassessment of specific urban groups and their dilemmas, and protagonists now resembled or even symbolized recent political history, as in Antoônio Callado's Quarup (1967); notwithstanding some considerable self-irony, resistance and engagement became a new standard for the novel.

As Brazil finally went through a thorough process of redemocratization (1985—2000), the Brazilian novel started depicting a broader and more diverse set of social groups and experiences. New social movements gradually made their way into the national literary market. Feminist writing (see FEMINISM), Afro-Brazilian novelists, gay and lesbian issues (see SEXUALITY), and ecological fiction have always been a significant part of the Brazilian novel, canonical or non-canonical. But these discourses were rarely acknowledged as autonomous trends, nor could they claim until rather recently a formal literary identity for producers and consumers on a national scale. Since the mid-1980s these groups and practices have played a vital role in Brazil's literary system. The Brazilian novel benefited from a more varied portrayal of contemporary life, often with an eye to foreign issues and global agendas. Minority discourses, the new historical narrative, detective stories, science fiction, erotica, and cyberspace have now become a fundamental part of the Brazilian novel, as conceived in Marilene Felinto's As mulheres de Tijucopapo (1981, The Women of Tijucopapo), Rubem Fonseca's 1985 Bufo & Spallanzani, Joao Almino's Samba-Enredo (1994, The Samba), and Ana Maria Gonçalves's recent Um defeito de cor (2006, A Color Blemish). One might say that the previous focus on grand narratives about national life and identity has been displaced by a more pluralistic approach to social agendas set against the context of an increasingly urban Brazil, as clearly represented in recent works by João Almino, Bernardo Carvalho, Álvaro Cardoso Gomes, Milton Hatoum, Chico Buarque, Ricardo Lísias, Luiz Ruffato, and Cristóvão Tezza, to name just a few.

A New Beginning

The problem with the above overview is that it represents the Brazilian novel as a practice moving steadily toward greater social inclusion, identity politics, and globalization. To be sure, both the form and function of these works were locally defined by specific sociocultural situations; and as Piers Armstrong succinctly states, “the development of the Brazilian novel is inseparable from ethnic and geographic considerations” (105). Yet the assumption that local, hybrid communities will always generate documents whose meaning derives from contextual links to space and nationality is somewhat limiting. Moreover, the matching of periods and styles between Brazilian cultural history and that of Europe and the U.S. has produced a view of the Brazilian novel which is dependent on schemes created to chart other traditions, even when critics try and attempt to underscore specific practices and topoi arguably representative of the Brazilian case.

As a result, none of the works that were produced in Brazil or written abroad by Brazilian-born intellectuals prior to the 1830s are usually considered part of the Brazilian novel. To start with the earliest possible example, consider Teresa Margarida da Silva e Orta's Máximas de virtude e formosura (1752, Maxims of Virtue and Beauty). She was born in São Paulo, Brazil and published her first and only novel in Lisbon under the pseudonym Dorothea Egrassia Tavareda Dalmira. Loosely based on Fénelon's Les Aventures de Télémaque (1699, The Adventures of Telemachus), the novel was later reissued as Aventuras de Diófanes (1777, The Adventures of Diophanes). It indicts political tyranny through the perils of a royal family separated after a shipwreck in the Mediterranean. As king, queen, and princess try to return home, each believing to be the family's sole survivor, they take on different social roles ranging from becoming a slave to tutoring other rulers and cross-dressing to escape unrequited love. When they occasionally meet without realizing who the other really is, old bonds of affinity are reaffirmed despite the effectiveness of their own disguises. The Enlightenment conflation between moral character, natural law, and rationality underscores the fact that, in the end, as family ties are fully restored, individual virtues groomed at home are the source and mainstay of new social covenants and greater political fairness. The Brazilian national space proper is still absent here, but the focus on the trials of a young princess engaged to be married to someone who is connected to a distant kingdom of majestic flora and fauna reminds the reader that the education of future rulers is a task that ought to bring into the picture the New World with its colonial subjects.

The pastoral motifs that characterize Teresa Margarida's work have resonated throughout the upcoming canon of the Brazilian novel. When Joaquim Manuel de Macedo published A moreninha (1844, The Little Brunette), which most critics consider to be the first Brazilian novel, he also picked up on an interesting relation between displacement, family ties, and social predicament. In A moreninha the changeable heart of Augusto is won over by the looks and demeanor of Carolina. The most important spaces framing narrative action are the student boarding rooms in Rio de Janeiro, the festive ballrooms of a summer retreat mansion on an island, and its nearby cave. In the latter the true identity of the protagonists is prefigured and revealed, so that love, modesty, and constancy may restore family ties and engender a new union, symbolic of a pact between the country and the city. One should not underestimate the fact that traversing diverse spaces may yield social insights and restore putative parenthood by way of old pledges, dowries, and tutoring. This logic is somewhat ubiquitous in the Brazilian novel. The protagonists' intimations of loss are closely linked to wagers and masquerading; and in a context where inclusion is tied to landowning, education, and a good family name, the metamorphosis of young lovers of diverse social backgrounds presupposes the negotiation between high and low status, the ballroom and a cave, history and myth.

An analogous framework is also found in Memórias de um Sargento de Milícias (1854—55, Memóirs of a Militia Sergeant), published anonymously by Manuel Antonio de Almeida as “a Brazilian.” The novel surveys the urban lifestyle of middle- and low-class social types during the reign of King D. João VI in Brazil (1807—21), following the transference of the Portuguese Royal family to Rio de Janeiro at the time of the Napoleonic Wars. The astute rule-bender Leonardo, also an orphan, overcomes social adversity by resorting to mediators: godfathers and godmothers enable him to move forward, and find love and a job. The novel draws on the PICARESQUE form and adds a provocative Brazilian interplay between social order and disorder, which fuels much of the plot and frames customs and practices characteristic of late colonial Brazil (Candido, 1970). More importantly, the historical period depicted is presented by the narrator as collective reminiscing, a joyful lapse into the recent but already much changed values of the 1810s.

But the down-to-earth and colloquial feature of Almeida's only novel is actually a dissonant voice vis-à-vis the contemporaneous Brazilian novel. Alencar, the foremost Brazilian Romantic author, took upon himself the task of making a survey of the country's landscape and history. As Alfredo Bosi has aptly put it, Alencar's twenty-one novels represent a suma romanesca of nineteenth-century Brazil (137). Alencar himself divided his work into three parts, roughly corresponding to Native Brazilian issues, the colonial or historical legacy, and urban life with its courtship rituals in Rio de Janeiro during Brazil's Second Empire (1840—89). In his most succinct and lyrical “Indianist” novel Iracema (1865, Iracema, the Honey-Lips), narration emulates what the author believed to be the rhythms and prosody of Native Brazilian languages and myths. The novel depicts the union between Iracema and the Portuguese soldier Martim, which results in the birth of a Brazilian mestizo child. She opposes her father and leaves her own tribe in the name of a different kind of love, only to wander alone and die after giving birth. Similarly, in Alencar's urban novels his belief that the genre should engage moral sentiments and educate its readers puts forth a conflict between true love and economic interest. In this sense, Senhora: perfil de mulher (1875, Senhora: Profile of a Woman) represents the high point of Brazilian romantic irony. The underprivileged and orphaned Aurélia is abandoned by a fiancé who wants to marry up. Luck eventually makes her an heir to a large estate; she subsequently buys back her former fiancé and reeducates his heart. Aurélia sums up her sense of moral worth by reminding her old tutor and estate manager that despite being legally a minor she is actually “older” than he is, for she has been poorer than he has ever been, and now she is wealthier than he will ever be. Again, orphanhood and the transit between contrasting social positions yield moral depth.

The Inward Turn

Within its first hundred years, the Brazilian novel has set a consistent record of narratives focusing on how a seeming withdrawal from court life and its values allows for the protagonist's refashioning of identity. Beyond Romanticism proper, love in the Brazilian novel is a function of traversing boundaries that are at the same time spatial, social, and ethnic. This perception cuts across different periods and trends. The pastoral reduction of social life from the complex to the simple—from the city to the country—underscores such displacement as a source of metamorphosis and insight. It also rescues individuals and groups from below, allowing the poor countryside student, Native Brazilians, or an orphaned next-door girl to fit in, take a peek at and every so often enter society to participate in a new family life. To this end, the Brazilian novel has surveyed social divides creatively, linking opposites and at times challenging the conventional rhetoric of propriety even when it eventually reiterates the status quo.

In no other Brazilian writer is such a daring move more productive than in Machado de Assis. His nine novels focus on the conflicts found at the core of incomplete patriarchal families whose filial or parental surrogates strive to achieve control over their own lives as well as those of others. In his first works, Machado de Assis draws on the same social constellation then available for the urban Brazilian novel: shrewd heroines of humble upbringing conceal their motives in order to move forward and survive in a society that was built to exclude them. These narratives take the genre a step further by making the best of the late romantic inclination toward pretense as a door into relative autonomy. Disguise allows for greater chances of social mobility and self-fashioning. This is the lesson of Machado de Assis's first heroines in A mão e a luva (1970, The Hand and the Glove), Helena (1876), and Iaiá Garcia (1878). But following Memórias póstumas de Brás Cubas (1881, Epitaph of a Small Winner), first-person narrators and male protagonists deploy elaborate fantasies to sort out the limited chances they have to fulfill their desire to represent better pictures of themselves in the public sphere (Passos). Disenchantment goes hand in hand with self-reflexivity. In Dom Casmurro (1899), for instance, a strong drive for symmetry between the narrator's blissful origins and his troubled sense of progeny makes him doubt his wife and alienate both her as well as their only son. Bento Santiago emulates Othello only to find within his own diatribe moments of self-doubt and the avoidance of responsibility. The fragmented and unreliable narration, fickle and often allegorical, marks the moment when the Brazilian novel manages to give NARRATIVE PERSPECTIVE a nostalgic and seductive twist in order to underscore a doomed pact between different classes and historical periods (Schwartz). Love manqué brings about a paternity breakdown and it signals the end of the old order in Brazil. With this at hand, Machado de Assis keeps his pastoral interest in the dignity of the lesser privileged even when or precisely because of the fact that they are ultimately betrayed and sacrificed.

In the modernistic Brazilian novel, the same gestures probing the corners of Brazil's building blocks—relations, spaces, and time frames—are revisited as a magical journey into the so-called foundational cultures of the country. Mário de Andrade's Macunaíma; o herói sem nenhum caráter reassesses Brazil's Romantic hybridity as a key to the relationship between the experimental potential of the novel and the multiple layers of Brazilian nationality. The inward turn here is at the same time geographic and chronological: the Amazonian hero travels across the entire Brazilian territory and is able to inhabit different temporalities, engaging mythical beings, historical figures, animals, and the natural elements. The connection between the lives of Macunaíma and Iracema is clear. Both are defeated by their love for and commitment to heterogeneity. Andrade draws on lists of different regional words for the same object; together with the hero's many metamorphoses, his novel testifies to the Brazilian modernistic project of accumulating references and of cultural parody (see INTERTEXTUALITY). These transformations allow the narrative form to collect and negotiate between high and low registers; oral and written cultures; African, European, and Native practices (Souza). The fast-paced plot derives from the folktales of Northern Amazonian tribes published in German by the anthropologist Theodor Koch-Grünberg (1872—1924; see ANTHROPOLOGY). Macunaíma repatriates these ethnographic tales, but it presents them as the story of a single family exodus led by a child-minded, sex-obsessed, and unreliable hero who changes ethnicity as he engages other communities, myths, and modernity itself. In the end, MacunaImagema's fascination with the low-life side of São Paulo in the 1920s, as well as his melancholy return to the Amazon, seem to be the only possible reenchantment of modern life in Brazil through a compromise between perpetual change and exile at home.

Perhaps the only other Brazilian novel that matches Macunaíma's bold and innovative take on cultural heritage, linguistic diversity, and formal experimentation is João Guimarães Rosa's Grande sertão: veredas. In Mário de Andrade's work narration belongs to a storyteller who learns the hero's adventures from a parrot that had been Macunaíma's companion during his final days. The story of the hero's life is told as legend from the outset. In contrast, Riobaldo's confessional narrative in Grande sertão is an ambivalent self-analysis intertwined with a meditation on how bravery and righteousness, even when motivated by a right cause, might lead from one to the other side. Legend becomes the realm where one may enter a transfiguration of goodness into evil, and vice versa (see MYTHOLOGY). Riobaldo is a jagunço, a mix between vigilante and mercenary and occasional hit-man who follows nomadic bands across the Brazilian backcountry known as the sertão. In a context where the state of law is absent, the jagunços enforce traditional personalistic codes of conduct; their bonds replace both the state and family ties. But Riobaldo has a friend whom he admires, Diadorim. The intimations of a homoerotic friendship trigger an obsession with the changeable aspect of objects, people, and relations. Everything is narrated through convoluted retrospection. His metaphysical survey of the sertão leads him to search for God but also to seek a pact with the Devil. It bothers Riobaldo that the different substances that make up the world are so intermixed that a plunge into the core of anything might unleash the reverse of that same thing. Yet he also finds this feature of the world to be hopeful. In his long, virtually uninterrupted dialogue with a quiet interlocutor—a “doctor” from the city—Riobaldo reinvents language to fit his needs as a storyteller. Guimarães Rosa borrows from old, archaic Portuguese, foreign languages, and a wide variety of neologisms to create a new lexicon for his narrator's soul-searching. In the process, his hero joins Diadorim's quest to avenge his father. Riobaldo changes sides but never stops being fond of his friend. He leads the band and abandons them, but in the end, after a climatic knife-fight, Diadorim is killed. When they wash his body Riobaldo learns the true identity of his friend, and this revelation takes the unfulfilled love a step further into myth; it replays the fate of many previous protagonists for whom surrogate ties of affection feed on and enhance the unending motions of an uneasy and hybrid conscience.

With and Without a Past

Clarice Lispector's final novel A hora da estrela (1977, The Hour of the Star) is the moment of utter erasure of these bonds between displacement, double conscience, and the search for homeliness. To be sure Iracema, Bento Santiago, Macunaíma, and Riobaldo all end up losing the familial or affective ties that give consistency and meaning to their lives, but they have actually lived through and for these bonds, people, and their past; they miss a life which has been rich in self-determination, love, and even bravado. In contrast, Lispector adds a despairing twist to the fate of her heroine; and she does so by taking to an extreme the mix between the confessional form and a belligerent if subtle tone characteristic of Dom Casmurro, São Bernardo, and Grande sertão. Lispector's protagonist lacks voice; she struggles with language and reifies words as she does with a soda or the repetitive and useless messages of a radio clock. Thus Macabéa becomes the stale object of her self-indulgent narrator, Rodrigo S.M. In this doubling of authorial signatures, Lispector is able to frame the life of her heroine as an anathema and a threat to her male creator. He tells the story of a poor orphan woman from the Brazilian Northeast who migrates to Rio de Janeiro seeking a better life—someone who is an incompetent and unattractive typist, who will be cheated on by her fiancé and her only female friend. The narrator Rodrigo S.M. invents her after seeing a template for the kind of life passing him by on the streets. Yet in Macabéa's utter plainness, she becomes a challenge to him. Her passivity and commonplace epiphanies are his way into negativity; and in his personal plight with this attraction for his social opposite—a supposed non-self—one can see Lispector's superior framing of the splendor and mystery of otherness as a struggle that only exists through language (see FRAME).

The uneasy relationship between displacement, floating family bonds, and self-determination is paramount in the Brazilian novel. Even though the ultimate criterion for proper identity in the genre has historically been a function of space and DIALECT of national life as the legitimate topos, the 1960s opened up new directions in part due to Lispector's own mastery of a new language for inwardness. But the Brazilian novel time and again reminds its readers that at the core of many of its major contributions lies a thread linking the sense of distance from modern life and economic centers to a vigorous, self-critical depiction of the mix between modernity and the archaic. The appeal of such mixing is found in the best works by Lima Barreto, José Lins do Rego, Graciliano Ramos, José Geraldo Vieira, Osman Lins, Jorge Amado, Autran Dourado, Nélida Pinõn, and other important authors.

In recent years, the coming to terms with ancestry through travel or remembrance, the painful lure of the past, the pastoral logic of simplicity as insight into the greater social order have marked new trends and diverse styles, despite predictions to the contrary (Pinto, 2000). One can certainly find these issues clearly articulated along with the brother and sister incest motif in Raduan Nassar's Lavoura arcaica (1975, Primal Harvest) and Milton Hatoum's Dois irmãos (2000, The Brothers, 2002). Intricate searches for an actual father or the eloquent review of family history is also an important part of Adeus, Velho (1981, Goodbye, Old Man) by Antônio Torres, A república dos sonhos (1984, The Republic of Dreams) by Nélida Piñon, Coivara da memória (1991, The Burning of Memory) by Francisco J. C. Dantas, Nove noites (2002, Nine Nights) by Bernardo Carvalho, as well as Ronaldo Correia de Brito's Galiléia (2008, Galilee) and Chico Buarque's Leite derramado (2009, Spilt Milk). In these novels, displacement actually entails a search for family ties and self-understanding. The quest is set against the context of new and often global agendas cutting across Brazilian society and redefining its traditional values and social groups (Johnson; Pellegrini; Resende).

Yet the Brazilian enduring topos of family breakdown told as a pastoral elegy is perhaps best represented throughout the five novels of Dantas. In Coivara da memória an unnamed narrator reviews his family history as he awaits trial for avenging his father. The protagonist is a public notary under house arrest. As he prepares to face the jury, the reader is presented with bittersweet memories of his grandparents and old life in a long-gone family sugar mill (see MEMORY). Dantas pays a tribute to the tender pathos of ruins characteristic of José Lins do Rego and Graciliano Ramos. But the exuberance of his lexicon, the long and winding sentences that feed the reader's imagination of defeat, as well as the narrative sense of emotional detail, all look back to Portuguese novelist Eça de Queirós and the sagas of João Guimarães Rosa. Only a handful of contemporary Brazilian novelists are able to match Dantas's command of reminiscence in a daring quixotic mode. In his recent novels, the inability of protagonists to carry on the robust moral makeup of past generations produces a gap filled by remorse and a resentment toward both present time and powerful clans. Not surprisingly, his latest work—the picaresque novella Cabo Josino Viloso (2005, Officer Josino Viloso)—depicts the comic disenchantment of a small-town police sheriff whose ultimate embracing of corruption is but evidence that the most eloquent moments of the Brazilian novel are still linked to a heartbreaking art of perpetual loss.

SEE ALSO: Formalism, Metafiction, Narrative Technique, Story/Discourse, Time.


1. Armstrong, P. (2005), “The Brazilian Novel,” in Cambridge Companion to the Latin American Novel, ed. E. Kristal.

2. Bosi, A. (1994), História concisa da literatura brasileira.

3. Candido, A. (1964), Formação da literatura brasileira, 2nd ed., 2 vols.

4. Candido, A. (1970), “Dialética da malandragem,” Revista do Instituto de Estudos Brasileiros 8:67—89.

5. Johnson, R. (2004), “Brazilian Narrative,” in Cambridge Companion to Modern Latin American Culture, ed. J. King.

6. Passos, J.L. (2007), Machado de Assis, o romance com pessoas.

7. Pellegrini, T. (2008), Despropósitos.

8. Resende, B. (2008), Expressões da literatura brasileira no século XXI.

9. Schwartz, R. (1997), “A poesia envenenada de Dom Casmurro,” in Duas meninas.

10. Souza, G. de M. e (2003), O tupi e o alaúde, 2nd ed.