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Mário de Andrade

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To purchase Macunaíma

Title: Macunaíma
Author: Mário de Andrade
Genre: Novel
Written: 1928 (Eng. 2023)
Length: 310 pages
Original in: Portuguese
Availability: Macunaíma - US
Macunaíma - UK
Macunaíma - Canada
Macounaïma - France
Macunaíma - Deutschland
Macunaíma - Italia
Macunaíma - España
from: Bookshop.org (US)
  • The Hero with No Character
  • Portuguese title: Macunaíma, o herói sem nenhum caráter
  • With 'Mário de Andrade's Prefaces and Explanations'
  • Translated and with an Afterword by Katrina Dodson
  • With an Introduction by John Keene
  • Previously translated by E.A.Goodland (1984) and Carl Engel (2023)

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Our Assessment:

B+ : a remarkable and wild mix

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Nation* A 20-27/7/1985 Paul West
The NY Times Book Rev.* . 3/3/1985 Alexander Coleman
Sunday Times^ . 27/11/1988 .
The Telegraph A 4/4/2023 Pablo Scheffer
TLS . 2/6/2023 Stephen Henighan

(* review of a different translation):

  From the Reviews:
  • "Sly, ribald and opulent in a hardheaded, buoyant way, the book is a classic (.....) A hallucinative poet suckled on Apollinaire and Laforgue, de Andrade takes in everything, ancient and modern, African and Italian, and creates from it a chirping icon, cosmic and undusty. (...) What an amazing supple text it is, woven together from songs, curses, obscenities, tall tales, erudite letters and primitive improvisation. It is almost beside the point to note that the book's content is just as varied as its manner" - Paul West, The Nation

  • "E.A.Goodland's translation brings the language across with descriptive passages of considerable eloquence. However, he cannot make Mário de Andrade's folk speak in English as they should. (...) Nonetheless, I am almost ready to forgive anything from Mr.Goodland, who has obviously taken pains to bring such a nutty and happily unserious exercise into English." - Alexander Coleman, The New York Times Book Review

  • "(A) hilarious folkloric novel (.....) The language, exuberant and vulgar, lifts off the page, creating a huge, richly textured slice of Brazilian life, oozing with rapturous malevolence and peopled by blackguards, victims, paramours and assiduous ticks and ants." - Sunday Times

  • "Ostensibly, the book follows its roguish titular hero as he travels from his homeland in the northern Amazon to 1920s São Paulo and back, in quest of a talisman which has fallen into the hands of a giant. But digressions are the sunshine, and the book’s principal pleasure lies in Andrade’s meanderings through Brazilian myth and legend. Macunaíma’s adventures often read like a series of short folkloric vignettes. (...) Dodson’s translation captures all the playfulness of the Portuguese text. The Brazilian colloquialisms are transposed to a fizzy American vernacular, but flora and fauna maintain their original names, inviting a surrender to the story’s strange, defamiliarising atmosphere." - Pablo Scheffer, The Telegraph

  • "(O)ne of the most original novels in Latin American literature, and the work that established the terms of debate for the forging of a distinctive Brazilian aesthetic of modernity. (...) Katrina Dodson’s translation, employing a colloquial American diction with palpable African American and Deep South overtones, gives Macunaíma a consistent, credible voice in English. She inhabits and breathes life into the novel as though she were a revenant from the Brazilian jungle of a century ago. Her afterword is the most complete short account of Andrade’s achievement available in English; her notes on each chapter’s word choices, the result of five years’ research, exceed in their insights even Portuguese-language critical editions such as that co-ordinated by Telê Porto Ancona Lopez, published by Unesco in 1988. (...) It is not only Brazil’s complexity that Mário de Andrade captures, but that of the Americas as a whole, and to some extent that of the entire modern world." - Stephen Henighan, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Macunaíma opens with the birth of its titular hero, described not as 'the hero with no character' of the subtitle but rather:

     In the depths of the virgin-forest was born Macunaíma, hero of our people.
       As to his hero's 'lack of character', Andrade explains, in the second preface he wrote to the novel, it is: "Lack of character in the double sense of an individual with no moral character and with no set characteristics" -- and he certainly shows these throughout the story.
       Macunaíma is often referred to simply as 'the hero' in the rest of the story as well, though he mostly seems out for his own pleasure and fun. If, ultimately, a man of action, at least in the sense of a great deal happening around and to him, he is only reluctantly so -- as is made clear by his oft-repeated catchphrase (or, indeed, motto): "Ah ! just so lazy ! ...".
       Macunaíma is also no ordinary man, but, in this novel filled with the fantastical, a shapeshifter: already as a young child he transforms into a full-grown adult "ardent prince", so he can have his way with his brother Jiguê's "gal". He comes to play around with her more, too:
Macunaíma stayed home alone with Jiguê's gal. Then he turned into the quenquém ant and bit Iriqui to cuddle with her. But the girl hurled the quenquém far away. So then Macunaíma turned into an urucum tree. The lovely Iriqui laughed, gathered its seeds and dolled herself up painting her face and distinctive parts. She was ever so lovely. And Macunaíma was so delighted he turned back into a person and shacked up with Jiguê's gal.
       Macunaíma also takes up with the beautiful "Ci, Mother of the Forest", a warrior-queen with a: "body ravaged by vice and painted with jenipapo". When they part -- Ci ascending "a vine up to the sky", where she becomes Beta Centauri -- she gives him "a famous muiraquitã amulet". Macunaíma loses this tempetá, and to the extent that Macunaíma has a plot it can be called a quest tale, as he tries to retrieve it, leading him also to the big city -- São Paulo.
       Macunaíma is a quick-fire tale, a tour through the jungle-depths and cultures -- indigenous and colonial -- of Brazil, covering both the natural (and the supernatural ...) world as well as urban modernity. As Andrade writes in his second preface to the novel: "Legend, history, tradition, psychology, science, national objectivity, the participation of adapted foreign elements all pass through it".
       Macunaíma's experiences and adventures -- and there are very many of them -- often mirror or are variations on local tales and myths, especially of the Tupi. (In prefatory notes he prepared for the novel but never published Andrade goes so far as to suggest: "In the end, this book is no more than an anthology of Brazilian folklore".) There's also a constant engagement with colonial history -- with, for example, one chapter entirely in the form of a 'Letter to the Icamiabas' which, as translator Katrina Dodson explains in her endnotes, is clearly: "a parody of the founding document of Brazilian history -- scribe Pero Vaz de Caminha's 1500 letter to Portugal's King Manuel I recounting the "discovery" of Brazil".
       Central to the novel is this idea of being 'without character' -- neither with moral character nor with 'set characteristics'. As Andrade explains in his first preface, he came to such a depiction because he finds that the Brazilian, in general, has no character:
He's just like a twenty-year-old kid: we might observe general tendencies more or less, but it's still not time to affirm anything whatsoever. I believe, optimistically, that it is from this lack of psychological character that we derive our lack of moral character. Hence our none-too-clever chicanery (the elasticity of our honor), the lack of appreciation for true culture, our improvisation, the lack of an ethnic sensibility in families. And, above all, an (improvised) existence living by our wits (?), while in the meantime a wildly imaginative delusion -- following the lead of Columbus as its figurehead -- searches this land with eloquent eyes for an El Dorado that can't possibly exist, amid cleaning rags and climates that are good and bad in equal measure, colossal hardships that can only be weathered with the frankness of accepting reality. It's ugly.
       Macunaíma, and especially its hero, reflect this view very well, in Andrade's very creative portrayal.
       Language -- or languages -- are also central to the novel, beginning with Andrade noting, at one point, that: "Macunaíma made the most of waiting around by honing his proficiency in the two languages of the land, spoken Brazilian and written Portuguese". Macunaíma is also full of indigenous term -- especially of flora and fauna, which often play a major role in the story -- and there is a great deal of dialect as well. The foreign enters too, if often playfully twisted -- not just Latin but, in Dodson's translation:
     "Tell me something, do you speak Igpay Latin ?"
     "Never heard of it !"
     "Well the, my foe: Ogay eatay itshay !"
       With all its language- and word-play, the book is clearly a great challenge to translate. Dodson's Afterword addresses this in some detail, including the interesting explanation of part of her approach:
     One major challenge was figuring out how to convey Macunaíma's peculiar effect on Brazilian readers, for whom the novel feels alternately close to home and impenetrably foreign. My solution for approximating this correspondence was to make the translation seem irrevocably Brazilian and American at the same time. Just as Andrade "deregionalized" Brazil, I collapsed North and South America, displacing what we in the United States insist is the America. Macunaíma needs an American English translation because the novel is so deeply American.
       With many of the terms -- especially the flora and fauna -- also left untranslated, as well as many references and allusions, Macunaíma does require annotation, and Dodson chooses to present it in the form of; "endnotes as chapter summaries with key terms in bold". These work reasonably well -- including the separate section at the end of many of the chapter-summaries focused specifically on the mentions of "Selected flora, fauna, and food" -- with Dodson arguing:
This format allows for the heady pleasure of reading the novel straight through, letting the music of unfamiliar words disorient you as Andrade intended, without the constant interruption of numbered footnotes droning like a swarm of mosquitoes.
       Fair enough, though I must say I would have much preferred on-site footnotes, page after page, given just how much there is on each that is unfamiliar.
       Fast-paced, raucous, and often raw, Macunaíma is also full of the beautifully surreal ("Then he turned Jiguê into a telephone machine, called up the giant and cursed his mother"). It's a whirlpool ride of a read, with its mix of Brazilian folklore, myths, and history, practically leaving one breathless. John Keene's Introduction, Dodson's Afterword, and Andrade's own prefaces help give a fairly good sense of all that Andrade tries and manages to do here, but it's still a lot to chew on and swallow.
       Multifarious, and with a very dubious hero, Macunaíma is certainly a text of considerable interest -- and good, if often very strange fun, a fascinating take on national epic.

- M.A.Orthofer, 24 May 2023

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Macunaíma: Reviews (* review of a different translation): Other books by Mário de Andrade under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Brazilian author Mário de Andrade lived 1893 to 1945.

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© 2023-2024 the complete review

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