A few years ago SBS - if I am correct - tried to attract viewers to its foreign language movies with the slogan “See what the rest of the world has to offer”. When it comes to the written word, I can recommend literature lovers do the same.
For me a life without books is unimaginable. It is not just the stirring of the imagination or the great ideas and images they provide; books have also brought me to territories and societies that I have been unable to visit so far. I have never been in the American South, but I have the idea I get a grasp of it through Faulkner’s novels. Nor have I ever been to Chicago, but the city lives for me in Saul Bellow’s magnificent work. And this weekend, hearing Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie in conversation at the Sydney Writers Festival and reading her wonderful prose, brought me to an as yet unknown Nigeria.
But it’s not just the unknown English speaking regions I discover through books. The warm and beautiful account of childhood in Deep Rivers by Jose Maria Arguedas takes me to the Andes in Peru, and Colombia comes to life in Garcia Marquez’s amazing world, just like I can smell and see the streets of Cairo through the works of Naguib Mahfouz.
Novels by Yukio Mishima, Nasukari Kawabata and Junichiro Tanizaki have given me an insight into the at times bizarre, yet always fascinating, Japanese mindset and the works of Bohumil Hrabal - one of the European greats of the second half of the 20th century - take me to the little streets of central Prague where their beer-soaked evocative language gives me an idea of the subdued but wonderful Czech humour. The list is endless.
Being a book lover with a never-ending curiosity, I consider it a big advantage to have a relatively “minor” language as my native tongue, as this seems to lead to a much more “outward” perspective on many things. The amount and quality of literary translations available in Dutch is amazing. Of course, most of the writers I refer to are available in the English speaking world - I come across Garcia Marquez and Mahfouz in most quality Sydney book stores - but it often takes more effort to get hold of something interesting or new - Amazon or other web-based providers are usually the best resource. Translations don’t seem to be as widely available in Australian book stores as they are in the Dutch, Scandinavian, German and even the French speaking world. That takes away one of the most satisfying of activities for book lovers: browsing through the book stores before you finally make up your mind and take home your new treasure.
At the same time I get the impression that many great non-English speaking writers are less familiar to British or Australian book lovers - I know little about the situation in the US, but I can imagine it’s the same in the whole English speaking world.
Even though I haven't yet found the opportunity to visit Brazil, I have some idea about the country, its people and its character. That may be partly due to my Brazilian friends and the ability to hold a simple conversation in Portuguese, but I think the most important factor here are books. For me Brazilian literature is one of the most magnificent - and as yet undiscovered in terms of numbers of readers. The novels and short stories of 19th century writer Machado de Assis breathed a modern attitude that came to full fruition via the several directions modernism would take in the 20th century.
Euclides da Cunha’s monumental novel Rebellion in the Backlands, about a defining moment in Brazilian history - the uprising of a religious sect - is an epic masterpiece that stands on equal par with Tolstoy or Stendhal.
In Guimaraes Rosa, Brazil found its own James Joyce as his The Devil to pay in the backlands is one of the rare novels in world literature that - stylistically - comes close to Ulysses, and the novel Barren lives by Graciliano Ramos is written in a style that is as dry as its title, but so strong, so beautiful and magnificent that you get a perfect idea of the gruelling living conditions the inhabitants of the “sertao” had to endure in the dry inland regions of Brazil in the first part of the 20th century, all this in the barely 100 pages of this little masterpiece.
Last, but not least, I mention Autran Dourado, whose Opera of the dead - a most intriguing character study/family drama in an impressively solid style - is the most magnificent Brazilian novel of all the works I’ve read: it has figured in my imaginary list of “ten best books ever” for years.
But it is not just the prose writers. I think Brazilian poetry also offers the best world literature has to offer, a judgment that is based on the two Brazilian poets I know and adore: Carlos Drummond de Andrade and Manuel Bandeira. Both are considered to be among the best poets Latin-America ever produced, but for me they are more: they are among the best poets ever, full stop.
Drummond was a prolific poet who produced a high number of poetry volumes between 1923 and the year of his death in 1985. Only after he died, his final volume was found; a collection of death-related poetry with the title Farewell (English title, but all the poetry is in Portuguese), not only showing that he kept his best work till last, but also offering a sample-card of his poetic brilliance: from the lyrical to the observant, from down to earth to emotional and from sonnet to free verse - Drummond covered the whole range.
The world of Manuel Bandeira has many affiliations with the world of the child, particularly a child’s never-ending ability to be amazed by new things. Bandeira’s poetry is known as “poesia da ausência”, poetry of absence, evoking the lost world of his childhood, like in his long poem Evocation of Recife. Another theme is the continuous presence of death lurking round the corner; Bandeira suffered from tuberculosis, which meant that death was always close at hand (a feeling not diminished by the fact that he reached an honourable 82 years). Both elements find a perfect synthesis in this beautiful poem, for me one of the best ever:
In a profound sleep
When I fell asleep yesterday
It was Saint John’s Eve
There was gaiety and noise,
Rumblings of fireworks, Roman candles,
Voices, songs, and laughter
Around the lighted bonfires.
In the middle of the night I woke up.
Heard no more voices, no more laughter
Were blowing over
In great silence;
Only from time to time
The clangor of a streetcar
Cut the silence
Like a tunnel.
Where were those who just now
Around the lighted bonfires?
They were all sleeping,
They were all lying down,
In a profound sleep.
When I was six years old
I could not see the end of Saint John’s Eve
Because I fell asleep.
Today I no longer hear the voices of those days.
Where are they all?
They are all sleeping,
They are all lying down,
In a profound sleep.
World literature is rich, interesting and mind-stretching. There is so much on offer; I can only advise all book lovers to broaden their minds and start a trip around the world in their lazy chair. And Brazilian literature is a very good starting point.