Welcome to Via Brasil (with Reading Suggestions)

Sep 18, 2012

Tudo bom? [This traditional, all-purpose greeting might be translated as “How’s it going?” or “How are you?”]

Now that fall is here, it’s our great pleasure to inaugurate Via Brasil, our multiyear project devoted to Brazilian art, cinema, and culture. Perhaps you’ve already heard the bells ringing out in The Box this month as Pablo Lobato’s captivating and celebratory video Bronze revirado brings a baroque Brazilian church belltower to our lobby. Via Brasil film screenings and concerts have already started appearing on our schedule and will continue regularly into 2014. This initiative will provide our audiences with an extraordinary opportunity to have extended encounters with the art, people, and landscapes of this fascinating—and increasingly important—country.

We’ve got the perfect entry point for you to discover Brazil with our screenings of Neighboring Sounds on September 13–14. NPR film critic John Powers reviewed it recently on Fresh Air and said, “this isn’t merely the best new movie I’ve seen this year; it may well be the best Brazilian movie since the 1970s.” The film is a clear-eyed and grippingly tense portrait of the complicated social dynamics of modern Brazilian urban life (or urban life around the world, for that matter) and will open up great discussions that could set the tone for much of our upcoming Via Brasil programming. To that end, we’re particularly excited to be bringing Kleber Mendonça Filho, the director of Neighboring Sounds, to Columbus to introduce the screening on September 14. It’s safe to say that if you come to check out the film and hear its filmmaker speak, you’ll be eager to start finding out more about Brazil and the unique place it holds in the contemporary global landscape.

Seventy years ago, the Austrian writer Stefan Zweig called Brazil “the country of the future.” The quote was often augmented with the quip “…and it always will be.” But Brazil’s recent trajectory might indicate that the future has arrived. With the World Cup heading to Brazil in 2014 and the Olympics to Rio de Janeiro in 2016, now’s a great time to start exploring the world’s fifth largest country (in both size and population) and sixth largest economy. The sheer size of the country—it borders every South American country except Chile and Ecuador—means that it contains multitudes. The touristic Brazilian cliches of coffee, soccer, and Carnival were never accurate but are now especially outdated. European, African, South American and North American influences mix and mingle in a way unlike anyplace else on Earth. We can’t wait to start sharing the work of the contemporary artists that are exploring the complexities of Brazil’s past, present, and future.

If you get inspired by any of our Via Brasil events, here are some recommended books for further reading. You might find that once you start learning a little about Brazil, you’ll start wanting to learn more and more.

Brazil on the Rise (Larry Rohter, 2010)
Perhaps an outsider’s ideal introduction to the complex context of historical factors that created modern Brazil, the very readable Brazil on the Rise is neither a simplistically boosterish portrait of the country nor a dry political text. Larry Rohter is a former New York Times bureau chief for Rio de Janeiro, and he writes with decades of on-the-ground experience, as well as a foreigner’s curiosity. He starts off by asking three pertinent questions: Why is Brazil so tolerant? Why is there so much inequality? Is there racism in Brazil? These questions will come up over and over again in many of the Via Brasil artworks that we’ll be presenting, and Rohter’s book provides a helpful survey of surrounding issues and potential answers to these ongoing questions.

The Posthumous Memoirs of Bras Cubas (Machado de Assis, 1881)
Literature has historically held a prominent place in Brazilian art, and its rich traditions remain primary inspirations for contemporary artists of all media. The undisputed titan and progenitor of Brazilian literature is Machado de Assis. Some people will sigh a knowing sigh when they read that name. If it means nothing to you, go read one of his books and you will have discovered one of your favorite authors. After I read my first Machado book, I thought, “this is one of the great writers of world literature, how is he not better known?” It turns out that this is the common line on Machado. Susan Sontag called him “the greatest writer ever produced in Latin America” and Harold Bloom surpassed that by saying Machado was “the supreme black literary artist to date.” It’s hard to say exactly how many decades ahead of his time Machado’s writing seems (even as he is very much of his era). The only equivalent to his savage irony and mordant wit that I’m aware of is Lawrence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy. Woody Allen included The Posthumous Memoirs of Bras Cubas on a list of his five favorite books, and the novel offers a great entry point to Machado’s writing. After reading that, you’ll likely quickly devour his related—and equally essential—novels Quincas Borbas and Dom Casmurro. And then you’ll want to move on to his seemingly endless body of short stories, some as good as any ever written.

Oxford Anthology of the Brazilian Short Story (K. David Jackson, editor, 2006)
In addition to ten Machado de Assis stories, this ceaselessly revelatory volume contains discovery after discovery for those unfamiliar with Brazilian literature. With historical and contemporary works, there’s something for everyone’s tastes. Noir-ish stories of urban life (Rubem Fonseca), tales of obsessive sexuality (Paulo Emilio Sales Gomes), satirical perversion (Dalton Trevisan), and more. Multiple stories are included by the most significant literary figures including Clarice Lispector (more on her in a bit) and João Guimarães Rosa, who is often described as Brazil’s equivalent to James Joyce. The spectrum of voices and stories in this anthology might provide the most appropriate entrance point to Brazil’s rich literary history.

The Hour of the Star (Clarice Lispector, 1977)
This final novella by one of Brazil’s most remarkable modernist writers is an utterly unique literary achievement. A character study of a utterly awkward girl who moves to Rio from the rural northeast, the book shifts from describing the streams of consciousness of its two main characters to somehow becoming the stream of consciousness of the book itself. It’s a ruthless novel that I would consider to be unfilmable if I hadn’t seen classic 1986 film adaptation (although the film offers a much more conventional, but still powerful, experience). Clarice Lispector is a curious, eccentric figure in her own right. An often referenced quote described her as “that rare person who looked like Marlene Dietrich and wrote like Virginia Woolf.” I’m eager to read Why This World, the recent biography of her by Benjamin Moser. From my encounters with her writing, she’s one of the most fascinating authors of the 20th century.

There are countless other vital books that I’d love to recommend but I’ll save some for another list as the Via Brasil project continues. Novels, poetry collections, cultural studies, or books on Brazilian film, music, and art. And there are important works being translated and published with each passing month. If you’ve got Brazil-related books that you’d like to recommend, leave them in the comments field. In the meantime, the Wexner Center bookstore will be setting up a Via Brasil section with books, music, and DVDs. We hope you join us over the next few years as we work to bring Brazil to Columbus!

Áte mais! [See you soon!]