I recently finished what must be the second weirdest book of fiction that I have read – Mário de Andrade’s Macunaíma. It was published in 1928 at the height of the modernist movement and which was destined to become one of the defining works of Brazilian literature. It’s a strange book that got turned into, as some say, even stranger a movie 41 years later.
Late 1920-s was a very colorful and productive period in literature worldwide – for example in Russia alone, 1927 saw the publication of a small gem Envy by Yuri Olesha, and 1928 was apparently the year when Bulgakov started writing his Master and Margarita. European literature had just recently been shaped and changed by giants such as Kafka, Hesse, Mann, Joyce, and Proust. A new surrealist movement was spreading fast, that in turn was preceded by symbolists and dadaists of the decade before.
Although Mário de Andrade (not to be confused with his contemporary and another great name of the modernist Brazilian literature, Oswald de Andrade) never left his native Brazil, he was well familiar with both the European literary tradition and avant-garde. His early poetry was particularly influenced by French symbolists. Andrade was a keen student of Brazilian folklore, especially the music, but he also collected a huge amount of traditional stories over his many years of travel in both in the state of São Paulo and in the wilder areas to the northeast.
It was against this backdrop that Mário de Andrade wrote Macunaíma.
For somebody who is used to reading books that have a clear plot and character development, the second part of Macunaíma‘s title, A hero without character, should serve as a warning. Andrade’s book is a idiosyncratic riot of different voices and influences that only loosely follows a general story-line where Macunaíma, the book’s unheroic protagonist, travels from his birthplace in Brazilian jungle to São Paulo and back. Macunaíma is a classic trickster figure, and as such he is beyond the categories of good and evil. Although he does have a quest of a kind – to recover a necklace from the hands of the evil man-eating giant Pietro Pietra – he goes about it in a decidedly unheroic manner – hanging around, deceiving and playing tricks and pranks to everyone he meets, running away from fights and copulating with every maiden and wife he comes across. Whenever faced with a decision or responsibility, Macunaímas response is to utter Aaai que preguiça! (a play of words in both tupi and portugese which was translated into english as “Aww what a fucking life”) and find a place where to crash and sleep a bit.
Strange as Macunaíma may seem, he is however not alone in the fiction of 20th century, the novel is very much part of the Zeitgeist of its time. This is not only because of drawing upon (and in many ways, parting from) some formal properties of its contemporary literary culture. It is a striking coincidence that in the very same year, in 1928, a book was published halfway across the world in Estonia by August Gailit that talks of a promiscuous vagabond called Toomas Nipernaadi, who travels Estonian countryside, telling tall tales to women he meets, only to leave them shortly thereafter. Neither did it stop in 1928 – the similar line of drifters and purposeless heroes can be traced through Tutuola’s Palm-Wine Drinkard (which, by the way, so far is the weirdest book I have ever read) and Musil’s Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften to Cohen brother’s Big Lebowski.
There is a poem in Charles Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du Mal which was a major influence for French symbolists:
La nature est un temple où de vivants pilliers
Laissent parfois sortir de confuses paroles;
L’homme passe à travers des forêts de symboles
Qui l’observent avec des regards familiers.
Comme de longs échos qui de loin se confondent
Dans une ténébreuse et profonde unité,
Vaste comme la nuit et comme la clarté,
Les parfums, les couleurs et les sons se répondent.
Nature is a temple where living pillars / Sometimes let confused words escape / Man passes there through forests of symbols / Which observe him with familiar looks. / Like long echoes becoming confused from afar / In a mysterious and profound unity / Vast like the night and like clarity / Perfumes, colors, and sounds answer each other.
Inherent in the poem is the concept of Baudelaire, which was enthusiastically taken up by symbolists, that the mundane world we all are living in is a “forest of symbols” that is speaking to us in a multitude of different ways. It is the task of a poet and writer to attentively listen to that speech, to make sense of it and render it understandable, but also to synthesize it into new realities. As such, the writer is only a medium, not a conscious agent. And this, I believe, is the key to understanding and approaching what Macunaíma is all about. Macunaíma, Andrade’s alter ego, is a hero without character and ultimate purpose – or at least whatever purpose he has is only secondary to the function he serves – to walk in the forest of symbols and let the new emerging nation and culture make itself heard.