Today granta.com is delighted to launch The Best Untranslated Writers Series in which established writers select and showcase fellow writers from their own languages who are not yet widely translated or read. As the ongoing series progresses Santiago Roncagliolo, Edwidge Danticat, Valeria Luiselli, Etgar Keret, Miroslav Penkov and many others will illuminate a host of untranslated writers, and in doing so, blind spots we didn’t know we had. We begin with three of our Best of Young Brazilian Novelists, Michel Laub, Laura Erber and Ricardo Lísias who give introductions to the work of Brazilians Daniel Pellizzari, André Sant’Anna and José Luiz Passos respectively.
Photo by Fernanda Rudmer
Michel Laub on Daniel Pellizzari
Daniel Pellizzari’s fiction breaks away from the lineage of the literature that’s most typically produced in Brazil today – particularly the realism of terse prose – replacing it with a sometimes delirious mixture of burlesque, parody, inside jokes and encyclopaedism, among other elements.
One of his stories, Tanso, is the only story I know of that is written in a kind of dialect typical of Porto Alegre, the city in which he (and I) grew up. Dedo negro com unha (Black Finger with Nail), his only novel, is described as ‘an epic farce containing the most abstract, debatable, magical, amusing misfortunes ever to have taken place from the beginnings of time.’ It is the story of four boys who find a partially mummified finger in a sand pit. Some years later, dozens of pilgrims make the journey there to join a cult of the dismembered digit.
The translator into Portuguese of authors such as David Foster Wallace, Irving Welsh and Jeffrey Eugenides, Pellizzari wrote the text to the graphic novel Furry Water, which is being drawn by the award-winning Brazilian graphic artist Rafael Grampá and will be published by Dark Horse Comics. He has also completed a new novel, Digam a satã que o recado foi endendido (Tell Satan the Message Has Been Understood), about three immigrants and an Irishman who set up an agency running tours of the haunted sites of Dublin. The plot involves an apocalyptic sect that shelters runaway juveniles and a group of ‘poetic terrorists’ from Trinity College.
For me, the writing of André Sant’Anna (b.1964) is among the most truly exciting in the contemporary Brazilian literary landscape. Essentially he deals with vicious thoughts, with the crushing of desire, but rather than doing this with a distanced, judgmental eye, he penetrates perversely right into the mud of the character’s mind. His literary subject, is the inauthentic; that is, his favourite characters are always the product of a fanatical, insane identification with pre-established social models – whether the bandit, the playboy, or the employee at the ad agency who’s afraid of his boss. Sant’Anna shows us the madness that is in banality, and though it seems to be a paradox – that’s precisely his power. The text installs itself in the head of the uncouth, and manages to extract two things that are utterly fantastic: the wealth of idiocy, and the idiocy of wealth. Whether in the stories of Amor (Love, 1998) and Sexo (Sex, 1999) or in the novel O paraíso é bem bacana (Paradise Is Really Cool, 2006), it’s as though he were filming – but with a microscope, rather than a camera – the emerging of prejudice, at the exact moment when a thought begins to turn over onto itself, just as the protagonist starts to cleave to their worst. It’s all pretty tragic, and the laughter these narratives provoke in the reader is undoubtedly a terrible sort of laughter.
Of the Brazilian writers who have begun to be published in recent years, José Luiz Passos is one of the most compelling. His two novels, Nosso grão mais fino (Our Finest Grain) and O sonâmbulo amador (The Amateur Sleepwalker, published this year) deal with the difficult construction of memory, through a language that is always careful and original.
Nosso grão mais fino takes place in Brazil’s sugar-producing north-east, the setting of many of our finest novels. Here, however, the grandeur of physical labour is replaced by an atmosphere of decadence. Brazil is already being transformed into an urban country and the rural world is becoming debased. Obviously the blow being struck isn’t exclusively an economic one: the book centres on affecting relationships that are tense and fractured, between people who are watching the world go to ruin.
The relationship between two brothers is reconstructed by one of them, who is trying to understand the family’s past, while struggling with his own amorous dilemmas. If he is unable to assemble the pieces of his familial relationships, then love, too, is about to be smashed apart, as is the whole of the narrator’s universe. The reader is kept breathless throughout.
O sonâmbulo Amador reproduces the notebooks of a man who, as in the previous book, is trying to make sense of his memories. Here the setting is a psychiatric clinic. The historical moment has been accelerated a little, too, and we are now the midst of a military dictatorship, in a dream-environment – or a nightmare one!
Amid such constructions, José Luiz Passos’s carefully-wrought, artistically well-tended language ends up making his books even stronger. They are high-impact texts – as well as being the best pieces of work that have been in the new Brazil.