The central conundrum in Brazil’s struggle to construct a cultural identity of its own has remained remarkably constant since the first Portuguese explorers arrived in 1500 and encountered Tupi-speaking peoples: To what extent should the European components of the country’s heritage be favored, as opposed to its indigenous and African strands? Or as a group of São Paulo intellectuals memorably phrased it in a manifesto issued nearly a century ago, “Tupi or not Tupi; that is the question.” Shouldn’t a mestiço nation strive for a mestiço culture? Would that require casting off all European influences? And if a blended culture is the ideal, what are the proper proportions in the mix of ingredients?
The most accomplished member of the avant-garde Group of Five that from the early 1920s onward sought answers to those questions was the novelist, poet, musicologist, literary critic, art historian, and photographer Mário de Andrade. Along with the painters Tarsila do Amaral and Anita Malfatti, the poet, painter, and politician Paulo Menotti Del Picchia, and the poet, playwright, and essayist Oswald de Andrade (who was no relation), he advocated a rupture with the decorous traditions of Lusitanian culture and a lusty embrace of everything he deemed truly Brazilian. In putting those ideals into practice, he arguably became the most important intellectual figure in twentieth-century Brazil, with an influence that extends into our own time.
In just six syllables, “Tupi or not Tupi” distilled the main ideas of the Anthropophagic Manifesto of May 1928, which was inspired by one of Amaral’s paintings, drafted by Oswald de Andrade, and refined in Mário de Andrade’s living room. The first books Europeans wrote about the Tupi portrayed them as practitioners of ritual cannibalism, and the Group of Five metaphorically repurposed that notion. Brazil, they argued, should consume and digest foreign cultural influences, then spit them out in altered, indigenous form; only through “absorption of the sacral enemy” could Brazil’s cultural innovators hope to overcome the European hegemony that stifled their creative energy. “Down with the truth of missionary peoples,” the manifesto proclaimed. “Those who came here weren’t crusaders. They were fugitives from a civilization we are eating, because we are strong and vindictive.”
Two months later, Mário de Andrade, who at the age of thirty-four already had four volumes of poetry, a collection of short stories, various essays, and a controversial first novel to his name, self-published Macunaíma: The Hero with No Character. Conservative critics hated the book, deeming it fatuous and vulgar, but of all the projects Andrade undertook in the many fields of inquiry and expression that captivated him, none has had a more enduring effect. Required reading in Brazilian schools, where it enjoys the kind of exalted status Adventures of Huckleberry Finn has in the United States, it has also been the subject of innumerable doctoral theses, was made into an award-winning movie in 1969, and has been staged numerous times as a play and even a ballet. But its greatest impact has been on other Brazilian writers, generations of whom have found its audacity liberating.
Macunaíma begins with a declaration that electrified Andrade’s contemporaries and remains one of the best-known sentences in Brazilian literature: “In the depths of the virgin-forest was born Macunaíma, hero of our people.” Two paragraphs later comes the first appearance of one of several catchphrases that recur throughout the novel and have passed into popular speech, “Ai! que preguiça!,” which Katrina Dodson, in her capable new translation, renders as “Ah! just so lazy.” But that first page also includes references that would have confused Brazilian readers: Macunaíma is said to have been born in a maloca, a typical Indian dwelling, but the same paragraph then describes his family as living in a mocambo, a word applied to settlements of fugitive African slaves. What, exactly, is Andrade up to here? “One thing’s for certain,” he wrote to a friend on the eve of the book’s publication. “It’s not the buffoonery it appears to be.”
Inadvertently revealing just how conversant he was with the erudite European culture he wished to purge, Andrade later wrote that coming across the figure of Macunaíma while reading the German ethnologist Theodor Koch-Grünberg’s Vom Roroima zum Orinoco (From Roraima to the Orinoco), published in five volumes between 1917 and 1923, spurred him to write the first draft of his novel in six fevered days. The original Makunaíma plays a spoiler’s role in the creation myth of the Pemon people who live on both sides of the Brazil–Venezuela border: when he mischievously cuts down the giant tree that accommodates all the fruits and vegetables in the world and it crashes to the ground, the resulting deluge creates both the Amazon and the Orinoco Rivers. Macunaíma is, in other words, the sort of trickster character common to many cultures, including our own, for there are echoes of him in Paul Bunyan, Br’er Rabbit, the Coyote of Native American lore, Pecos Bill, John the Conqueroo, Jack of Beanstalk fame, and even the Warner Bros. Road Runner cartoons.
Andrade was, then, writing his own very skewed version of a picaresque novel—a genre of Iberian origin, and thus part of Brazil’s patrimony. Macunaíma is an impish rogue, self-centered and utterly without scruples, having “paddled over to the mouth of the Rio Negro so he could leave his conscience…on the tippity top of a thirty-foot mandacaru cactus.” Sex-crazed and promiscuous, he seduces the wives of his two brothers and bamboozles the goddess Ci, “Mother of the Forest,” into supporting him while he spends his days in a hammock “slurping on pajuari wine,” strumming his guitar, and “lulling to sleep the snakes the ticks the mosquitoes the ants and the bad gods.” Though he is the very personification of indolence, his sexual prowess is such that Ci rewards him with a powerful jade talisman, which he soon loses; eventually a little bird informs him that it has been recovered by the evil man-eating giant Piaimã.
In search of the misplaced amulet, Macunaíma and his brothers make their way to São Paulo, where the satire intensifies a notch or two. The visitors find the customs of the big city exceedingly odd, and in a letter to the folks back home they become indigenous anthropologists commenting on the lives of “the sons and daughters of manioc,” their term for white people. Andrade is operating on multiple levels here: the letter’s recipients are the women warriors of the Icamiaba tribe, otherwise known as the Amazons who gave the river its name, and the style he adopts mimics that of the first, foundational text of Brazilian history and literature, Pêro Vaz de Caminha’s letter of May 1500, in which he reports to King Manuel I of Portugal on all the wondrous things found by the expedition that “discovered” Brazil.
“It shall be of surpassing interest to you, most assuredly, to discover that the warriors from here do not seek out warlike damsels in epithalamic union,” Macunaíma writes. “Rather they do prefer those who are docile and easily won in exchange for volatile little pieces of paper that would in vulgar parlance be called money.” Furthermore,
this great city hath been elevated to these heights of progress and shining civilization, by dint of its elders, also known as politicians. This appellation designates a most refined race of learned gentlemen, so unfamiliar to you, that ye would deem them monsters.
Through trickery, Macunaíma recovers the talisman and returns to the Amazon to reign as Emperor of the Virgin-Forest, taking along “what thrilled him most from the Paulista civilization…a Smith & Wesson revolver a Patek Philippe watch and a pair of leghorn chickens.” But his lust and indolence once more get him in trouble, and he loses the amulet again, this time to a Siren-like river monster who rips his body into pieces he can only partially reassemble. Defeated and discouraged, he plants a magic seed that grows into a tree that allows him to ascend to heaven, where he is transformed into the constellation Ursa Major. “And that’s all,” the parrot who turns out to have been the novel’s narrator says in parting.
Andrade’s enthusiastic embrace of all these indigenous elements represented a radical break. “It is certain that Brazilian civilization is not connected to the Indian element, and has not received any influence from it,” Brazil’s greatest novelist, Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis, renowned for his elegant prose and high regard for the Portuguese language, averred in an essay in 1873. “This should suffice for us not to go looking for the titles of our literary personality among defeated tribes.” He was likely referring to the work of the novelist José de Alencar, who in books like O Guarani (1857) and Iracema (1865)—the former of which the composer Antônio Carlos Gomes turned into a popular opera—looked upon Brazil’s indigenous heritage in a highly romantic way. Andrade, in contrast, is irreverent about both the language that Machado de Assis cherishes and Alencar’s idealized vision of Indian life.
In Macunaíma, Andrade’s daring leads him to create a splendid mishmash in which every strain of Brazilian culture is jumbled together, without respect for geography, ethnicity, or history. Macunaíma is born into an indigenous society but initially has black skin, then becomes white after bathing in a magic spring. He zooms around Brazil’s vast territory, hopping from the northeast to the far south and then to the Amazon in a matter of minutes. Cacti grow in the jungle, and deities from Afro-Brazilian religions mingle with those of indigenous tribes. “The country appears to be deregionalized in its climate its flora its fauna its people, its legends, its historical tradition,” Andrade explained in an introduction he ended up discarding, adding that his intent was to present Brazil “as a homogeneous entity” that, in contrast to the reality of his turbulent time, was “permanent and unified.”
And as one would expect of a writer whose first love was always music, Andrade often delights in the mere sound of words, the more exotic their melody the better. Throughout the novel he sprinkles lists of flora and fauna with their original, mellifluous Tupi names, as when Macunaíma goes fishing in São Paulo. “He couldn’t catch a thing,” Andrade writes,
not with arrows or poisonous plants, not timbó not jotica not cunambi not tingui, not in macerá or pari traps, not with line or harpoon or juquiaí or sararaca or bobber or sinker or caçuá or itapuá or jiqui or trotline or jererê, guê…
And so on. To Brazilians, these lists were a reminder that, no matter what Machado de Assis may have thought, “the Indian element” was central to their culture.
Macunaíma can only be a bear to translate, and the first English-language version, which appeared in 1984, was rather stodgy, with much of the book’s distinctive character sacrificed. But Dodson, the winner of a PEN translation prize for The Complete Stories of Clarice Lispector, acquits herself commendably here, managing to capture the playfulness, whimsicality, and sheer derangement of the novel. As she acknowledges, “Andrade’s rhapsody revels in a confusion of tongues and deliberately emphasizes the instability and error that plague any attempt to codify systems of knowledge.” Given the chaos he induces, her endnotes provide a welcome anchor, particularly in their explanation of terms and legends from Tupi language and folklore.
At the time Andrade completed his first draft of Macunaíma, he had yet to travel in the Amazon jungle. He attempted to fill that lacuna in 1927, when he embarked on a three-month steamship journey up and down the Amazon and Madeira Rivers. Bits and pieces of the notes he took eventually made their way into Macunaíma, including an amusing shout-out that immortalizes the tailor whom Andrade, a clotheshorse, hired to make him white linen suits during a stopover in Belém, at the mouth of the Amazon. But what is most interesting about The Apprentice Tourist, the book that resulted from his trip, now published for the first time in English in a lively translation by Flora Thomson-DeVeaux, is the way Andrade makes explicit and ruminates on ideas that are implied in Macunaíma.
“I have this truly irresistible half notion that instead of using the Africa and India that it had within itself,” he writes from Belém, “Brazil has put them to waste, only using them to dress up its appearances, its skins, sambas, maracatus, outfits, colors, vocabularies, delicacies,” while “on the inside, it let itself remain that which, by virtue of climate, race, cooking, everything, it will never be able to be, will only ever be able to ape: Europe.”
To his credit, Andrade does not spare himself from this criticism, ruefully noting “the neat gray European I still have in me.” At another point, he even expresses envy of Europeans, who he argues are “backed by a multimillennial tradition that allows them to act ‘painlessly,’” as opposed to the “moral dithering” and indecisiveness that lead to “the permanent pain, the perennial misfortune” that immobilizes Brazilians: “You have no idea how this niggling little pain, the inability of the moral being to really do anything, awes me and lays me low.” Hence a “hero with no character” and “Ah! just so lazy!” and Andrade’s determination to remedy those deficiencies.
Yet it is precisely this mixture, which makes him so uncomfortable when he looks into himself, that contributes to the breadth of his cultural memory and wit and allows him to mix and match allusions throughout his travelogue, as in this waspish aside: “It’s an indisputable fact that Dante and the Amazon are equally monotonous.” Or when he buys a native hammock because it is “a Braque in its color combination” or describes the early morning sky over the Madeira as being “the color of Our Lady’s robes.” The same goes for his puns, even the bad ones: “‘The ship’s rhode it through,’ says the first mate, ‘Hellenistically’” after navigating a difficult patch.
The Apprentice Tourist was published posthumously in 1976, and I remember reading it two years later, in preparation for my first trip into the Amazon. To my surprise, what I found there was not that much different from what Andrade had encountered fifty years earlier: the pace of life was just as languorous, nature just as exuberant, and the sense of separation from the rest of the world just as complete. But the past forty-five years have brought enormous changes to the region, and Andrade’s diary now reads as the record of a vanished world: the “wooding stations” where steamships stopped to load up on firewood, the jungle “so close it often scrapes the ship,” the “flocks of frenzied butterflies” today much diminished, and the innocence of “children from the near-always invisible riverside homes [who] paddle out in their little boats—each of them has one—to catch the steamer’s wake and have the chance to ride some lively waters.”
Andrade’s journals from the trip also include jottings that he seemed to want to develop into novels or stories, and some of these had the potential to be significant, even groundbreaking, works. He envisioned, for example, “a satire of scientific and social expeditions and ethnographies” about a tribe called the Do-Mi-So, who do not speak but only sing, with the notes and keys conveying meaning and mood. Writing nearly a half-century before Buñuel’s The Phantom of Liberty, he also imagined that for the Pacaás Novos, a real tribe known today as the Wari’, “the sound and the gift of speech are terribly immoral and formidably sensuous.” While comfortable defecating or having sex in public, “they consider the nose and ears to be the most shameful parts of the body, not to be shown to anyone, not even one’s parents.” Thus “speaking, for them, is the ultimate sexual act.”
This fascination with sound was in Andrade from the very beginning. He was born in 1893 in São Paulo, the same city where he died of a heart attack in 1945, into a comfortably upper-middle-class home: his mother came from a traditional political family, and his father, of more modest origins, began his career as a bookkeeper, then became a journalist, and prospered as the owner first of a stationery store and eventually the city’s best-known theater. With Brazil’s emergence in the last decades of the nineteenth century as the world’s leading exporter of coffee, the city’s economy boomed and its population exploded, shooting from 65,000 in 1890 to 600,000 in 1920. Plantations and factories needed workers, and the city swelled with immigrants from Italy and Japan and Lebanon as well as Portugal and Spain. This resulted in a cacophony on the streets that left a strong impression on the future writer and helped shape his ideas about the plasticity of the vernacular. “The two languages of the land,” he later wrote in Macunaíma, were “spoken Brazilian and written Portuguese.”
At a young age, Andrade showed great musical aptitude and was admitted to the local conservatory, where he studied piano and music theory. A life as a concert pianist seemed assured, but in 1913 his younger brother Renato died of an injury suffered while playing soccer; this triggered an emotional crisis that resulted in Andrade dropping out of school and retiring to the family’s country home to mourn. When he returned to the city three months later, he discovered that he could no longer play the piano without his hands trembling uncontrollably. He abandoned his hopes of a performing career and resigned himself to teaching piano, voice, and music theory, a profession he would exercise, on and off, for the remainder of his life.
From a deeply Catholic family—he was later called “the pope of Brazilian Modernism,” a label he detested—Andrade at this point toyed with the idea of becoming a priest but instead enrolled as a Carmelite lay brother; he eventually broke altogether with the church and turned into a fierce critic of it. At this moment of deep personal crisis, Andrade also began consuming literature with greater attention and seriousness. We have an idea of what he was reading, because he actually wrote to church authorities asking for permission to read works on the Index Librorum Prohibitorum: Flaubert’s novels Madame Bovary and Salammbô, the plays of Maurice Maeterlinck, and poetry by Heinrich Heine, Gabriele D’Annunzio, and Ada Negri. Before long he found his way to Walt Whitman and the French Symbolists, and decided that his true vocation was as a poet.
Andrade first made his mark as a writer in 1922, with the publication of Pauliceia Desvairada (Hallucinatory City), a volume of poetry that introduced European modernism to Brazilian literature through its use of free verse and mythification of his native city. That same year he was one of the organizers of Modern Art Week, a series of concerts, exhibits, readings, and lectures conceived of as an attack on “pastism.” Andrade gave two talks without incident, but when he read from Pauliceia Desvairada, the audience booed him repeatedly, and critics included him on a list of “cretinous and moronic” futurists.
His first novel, To Love, Intransitive Verb, followed in 1927; it was awkwardly translated into English in 1933 as Fräulein, but has now reappeared in an attractive bilingual edition, with an English version by Ana Lessa-Schmidt much truer to Andrade’s style and voice. Though quite different in setting and tone, it sets the stage for Macunaíma. Taking place in São Paulo during World War I, it is an unsparing portrait of the Sousa Costas, a nouveau riche family with a German governess, a Japanese butler, and a black teenage maid. The book caused a scandal when first published because of its surface subject: though the governess, named Elza but respectfully referred to as Fräulein throughout the story, has ostensibly been hired to tutor the family’s four children in languages and music, she also has a second, secret mission. The paterfamilias wants her to initiate his teenage son sexually, so that the boy will not lose his virginity in a bordello and possibly contract syphilis.
Yet Andrade seems just as concerned with issues of race, ethnicity, and nationality, all of which are interwoven with a plot that readers of the time found lurid. If the indigenous element dominates Macunaíma, here his focus is on Brazil’s reluctance to accept the African component of its identity. Reflecting a Brazilian sensitivity to cabelo ruim—“bad hair”—as a marker of race, strategically placed references suggest that the family may not be as white as it presents itself. Of the matriarch it is said that “in times of a heat wave, suspicious curling appeared in Dona Laura’s black hair,” while a daughter has “kinky American hair curled up over the black-blue thicket.” And the Fräulein, who goes on to make a cameo in Macunaíma, keeps to herself her low opinion of the society around her. “The blood must be pure,” and those who are “of superior race, like her, Fräulein,” she muses, are by nature healthier and wiser. “Blacks are of inferior race. The Indians also. The Portuguese also.”
As usual, there is the experimentation with language that was Andrade’s calling card. In a foreword to Lessa-Schmidt’s translation of the novel, Viviane Carvalho da Annunciação, a comparative literature specialist who teaches at the University of Cambridge, likens Andrade’s impact to that of a contemporary on the other side of the Atlantic: “In the same way that James Joyce reproduced Irish neologisms and grammar, Mário de Andrade followed the paulista syntax and semantics to write his works.” This seems an apt comparison, and one that might even be extended. If To Love, Intransitive Verb can be considered Andrade’s Ulysses, then Macunaíma is his Finnegans Wake.
Inevitably, given the content of his work, speculation about Andrade’s sexuality arises. This has become something of a cottage industry in Brazil in recent years, and both John Keene’s introduction and Dodson’s afterword to Macunaíma reflect that. “In today’s terms, Andrade would be a queer Black writer,” she writes, “yet both his race and sexuality have been sources of contention and suppression.” Like Machado de Assis, Andrade had black ancestry about which he seemed ambivalent, as was common then. But he was even more reticent about his sexuality, and since he was not living in a time when “today’s terms” applied, he would undoubtedly be appalled to see himself described as a queer writer. When in 1929 Oswald de Andrade wrote that Mário, who was tall, gangly, balding, and said to be effeminate, was “our Miss São Paulo,” it led to an immediate and permanent break between the two.
Dodson and Keene seem to be stepping into quicksand with their evaluation, which may work as a marketing device in an English-speaking world unfamiliar with Andrade but is alien to Brazil’s traditional conceptions of race. There, where some three hundred words exist to describe skin color, Andrade has never been classified as black but is simply considered mestiço—a term he used himself. Indeed, any strictly binary classification seems too constricting for Andrade, who, echoing Whitman, declared in one of his best-known poems that “I am three hundred, I’m three-hundred-and-fifty.” He was clearly biracial, with a family tree that included both enslavers and enslaved, and was apparently, at least according to Jason Tércio, author of a recent biography based in part on access to Andrade’s private correspondence, also bisexual.
So while Andrade was capable of writing a frankly homoerotic short story like “Federico Paciência,” published only after his death, The Apprentice Tourist, written as a private diary, is full of expressions of desire for female bodies. It is also known that he fell deeply in love with his German-language tutor, Kaethe Meichen-Blosen, with a passion that was unrequited and may have been sublimated into the character Fräulein Elza in To Love, Intransitive Verb. “The letters reveal that Mário…was bisexual, was involved with men and women and found outlets for his desires,” Tércio said in a 2019 interview. “He was three hundred and fifty, and they want to reduce him to one.”
It is impossible to know what was in Andrade’s mind or heart, of course, but after an extraordinarily productive decade, he experienced another episode of depression upon turning forty and pivoted back to music: there would be no more novels. He had already written a libretto for his former pupil Mozart Camargo Guarnieri’s comic opera Pedro Malazarte but now resumed writing regularly about Brazilian popular music, organized a symposium about folk dance, and in 1935 became São Paulo’s municipal secretary of culture. In that capacity he organized a Folkloric Research Mission that early in 1938 departed for the northeastern hinterlands to record as many songs as possible before the influence of radio and cinema obliterated the region’s distinctive musical culture; those recordings were issued only in 2006, as a six-CD set with accompanying photographs. It was also during this period that he completed his books A Short History of Music, Aspects of Brazilian Folklore, and an expanded version of his Essay on Brazilian Popular Music, both of which were only published in definitive form years after his death.
His influence waned somewhat in the 1950s but came roaring back a decade later, when the emerging Tropicália movement looked to the two Andrades and Macunaíma for inspiration. The concretist poets Augusto and Haroldo de Campos and the artist Hélio Oiticica were early adherents of this second wave of antropofagia, and there is the movie version of Macunaíma, which was the centerpiece of a film series, “Brazilian Modernism at 100,” that Dodson curated at the Brooklyn Academy of Music last year and that had another screening there in May 2023. But Andrade’s impact was perhaps most strongly felt by young musicians trying to find a way to fuse bossa nova and less sophisticated Brazilian genres with Anglo-American rock and roll, French chanson, and European serialism. One of them, Gilberto Gil, a future minister of culture, even recorded a song called “Geléia Geral” (Generalized Jelly), in which he extolled the cultural syncretism that Andrade practiced.
Every fifteen years or so, it seems that a great Brazilian writer belatedly comes to the attention of the English-speaking world. It happened first with Machado de Assis, then with Lispector, and most Brazilian readers would agree that the polymath Mário de Andrade is just as deserving of wider recognition. Despite the rejection he experienced early on, his place of honor in the Brazilian pantheon is assured: Oswald de Andrade was off by several decades when he said that “Mário wrote our Odyssey and, with a swing of his native war club, created our classical hero and the national poetic idiom for the next fifty years.” A century later, in an increasingly mestiço world in which mash-ups and hybrids are now common, there must surely be a place for him on a larger international stage. “And that’s all,” as Macunaíma’s parrot would say.