Brazil: Goethe the ‘dirty old man’

From one Portuguese-language country with very few novels available in translation we jump to another that has a whole heap of them (by British standards, at least).

With so many exciting recommendations on the list, Brazil was a tough choice. In the end, I plumped for House of the Fortunate Buddhas because of the intriguing circumstances of its inception: Joao Ubaldo Ribeiro was commissioned to write one in a series of books inspired by the seven deadly sins. I was curious to see whether a novel written to order in such a way would turn out to be any good. And I wanted to see how Ribeiro handled the vice he chose to write about: lust.

As with the other Dalkey Archive book I’ve read so far this year (Francois Emmanuel’s Invitation to a Voyage), voice is this novel’s driving force. Prompted to record her story by a terminal illness, Ribeiro’s fearless narrator, a self-confessed ‘queen of lectures’, recalls her heyday in the 1940s and 50s. She focuses on her and her friends’ many and varied sexual exploits ‘at a time when everything was more difficult for women’, attacking the social mores that straitjacket desire and force people to ‘live according to rules and patterns for which no human was made’.

This disarming frankness extends to literary conventions too. Unafraid to share her opinions on any subject, the narrator weighs into many of academia’s leading lights, calling Lacan’s work ‘con games’, Goethe ‘a real fucker who died a dirty old man’ and Freud ‘the greatest waste of genius since Plato, the son of a bitch’.

Similarly forthright about her own blindspots and limitations, she questions her own utterances and literary skill with urgency and humour. ‘This testimony isn’t a novel, it doesn’t even have a plot – although the novels of Henry James barely had one, now that I think about it,’ she says at one point.

This unflinching engagement with the world and her place in it, enables the narrator to venture confidently where others fear to tread. The narrative is filled with exceedingly graphic accounts of sex in all its forms, which succeed because they are free from the coyness amd awkwardness that send other writers fumbling for euphemisms and clichés.

Ribeiro’s ability to inhabit the female universe is impressive. The voice is powerful, believable and peppered with details that will have many women nodding wryly in recognition. Only occasionally did I find some of the claims about the power dynamics between the sexes hard to swallow and sense a slight Tiresian wistfulness in the descriptions of men as ‘poor machos chained to a bunch of strange expectations’.

In general, this is an engrossing and persuasive performance by a leading writer on the world literary stage. With its narrator’s bold depiction of her – perhaps Utopian – vision for ‘a world of sex without problems’, it brims with generosity, fellow-feeling and a desire to improve the lot  of humankind. The issue, it suggests, may not lie with the unbridled expression of sexual desire, but with the concept of sin itself.

Perhaps this is simply the passionate manifesto for free love it appears to be. Or maybe, on some ‘con game’, Lacanian or Freudian level, the artist Ribeiro is protesting that the basis of his commission is ultimately flawed.

House of the Fortunate Buddhas by Joao Ubaldo Ribeiro (translated from the Portuguese by Clifford E Landers). Dalkey Archive Press, 2011

26 responses

  1. Love this book. I read 6 out of the 7 sins, from the collection. They’re all great, but that was one of my favorites.

    • Thanks – it is great, isn’t it? Thanks for your recommendation too – I’ll still add it to the list even though I can’t read it this year. Your song project sounds interesting…

  2. If we look for writers in Brazil, we can find some amazing ones. One of my favorites is Machado de Assis, with his book: “Dom Casmurro” Simply a genious!

  3. As a brazilian, and also a literature student, i think a good sugestion would be Jorge Amado, it’s considered modern literatura (40’s 50’s,60’s,70’s) but he is an author who could portrait beautiffuly the social issues of the northeastern Brazil.

  4. I loved your review, i’ll search for this book, i realy didn’t read yet, and i think you should read Ciranda de Pedra by Lygia Fagundes Telles, is my favorite brazilian book.
    Good luck with your travel in the books, thats realy great to see someone who cares to learn about diferent cultures.

  5. Dom Casmurro (Machado de Assis) is my favorite one. I also recommend the books ‘The Two Deaths of Quincas Wateryell’ and ‘Jubiabá’ (Jorge Amado).

  6. What an amazing project! Congratulations! I recommend “My Sweet Orange Tree” by José Mauro de Vasconcelos. I love this book. I also recommend “Dom Casmurro” by Machado de Assis. The character Capitu from Dom Casmurro is awesome!

  7. What a great enterprise! I’ve been trying to do that as a hobby since I was a teenager, and your list is definitely going to help me now! Here are my tips: João Guimarães Rosa (Brazil) – The Devil to Pay in the Backlands (in my opinion this is a “hors-concours” book, simply the best) and Pablo Neruda (Chile) – Memoirs.

    • The Devil to Pay in the Backlands (“Grande Sertão: Veredas” in the original) is the greatest Brazilian novel. Period.
      Alas, I believe it’s untranslatable, at least in part.
      The author (who was a Tolkien-type linguist and language savant diplomat) invented words that sound Portuguese-ish but are not “official” words. This makes for a unique reading experience, including the regionalist-ish feel of the whole account and the “concretist” initial 100 pages, simulating with words the impenetrable, unknown, thorny, dry, mysterious and harsh Brazilian backland (the “sertão” from the original title). I believe it would be a good read (it’s kind of a faustian-“western”-love-story-existentialist-crime-epic), but you need to be aware that some of the genius may have been lost in translation.

  8. Uou, congratulations! I’m literature teacher in Brazil, and one of my favorite books is “The left of the Father”, Raduan Nassar. It deals about of a novel written with some prose poetry. It worths reading!

  9. Wow! What a great project! I found out this blog and I was doing an english school test and it mentioned you and your project! I got really excited! If you may let me, as a lover of brazilian literature, I suggest you ‘Dom Casmurro’, by Machado de Assis, considered the best brazilian book of all time, written by the best brazilian author of all! And ‘O Guarani’, by José de Alencar, the most known brazilian epic novel, about the relantionship between a indigenous and a white woman the 18th century! A classic! Good luck! Best wishes!

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