Word magic and dizzying change in Brazil

Andrade, Mário de. 1984 [1928]. Macunaíma. Translated by E. A. Goodland. New York: Random House.

This is an amazing, perplexing book by a poet, folklorist and musicologist, so unlike anything else I've read recently that I didn't know what to make of it. The publisher of the translation calls it a "precursor of magic realism," but Andrade is not interested here in anything like "realism." It is more "real" than that, in another way, the reality of dreams. Most of all it is an endless inventive series of linguistic displays, so it seems pointless to read it in translation -- though I thought the translation (very fluid, very funny) must be brilliant. The story is just a device to get the game going, but there is a story: Macunaíma is a kind of monster or demigod (Andrade calls him a "Hero"), born magically into the Tapanhuma tribe in the Amazon jungle, at a time that is both the beginning of the world and the modern era. He is a trickster who loves to fuck, and does so at every opportunity. He is also a shape-shifter, turning himself into noxious insects or birds, or from a mewling infant to a strapping young man with a powerful sex urge. He is present at the creation -- and sometimes is himself the creator -- of animals, plants, constellations and pasttimes. For example, he introduces (unintentionally) the addiction to coffee, the boll weevil, and football, "three of the main pests in the country today." Stumbling into an enchanted pool, he magically turns from black to white with blond hair and blue eyes, but there is not enough magic water left for his brothers to do the same: one just turns red and the other remains black. Now of the right complexion for the city, he travels to São Paulo and discovers that he has to learn two new languages, formal written Portuguese and popular spoken Brazilian -- and, being a hero with divine powers, he does. To confront a giant, he goes to the orchard where pistols grow on trees and shakes one loose -- but it turns out to be useless against the giant's magic. He is bitten by fire ants, pursued by monsters, and killed at least twice, one time from shock after a monkey tricks him into smashing his own testicles. Along the way, you get a sense of the enormous changes occurring in Brazil in the 1920s. And you also pick up some useful information. Did you ever wonder where the sun goes at night? Why, she goes home! Her name is Vei and she has three daughters -- one of whom marries Macunaíma, but the relationship ends when on that same day she discovers him in bed with another trollop. Anyway, the sun and her daughters live in a house on Avenida Branco in Rio de Janeiro. Just so you know.

Some day I hope to be able to read it in the original. It must be amazingly funny. When I do, I may come back to this page, which has helped me glimpse what I'm missing.

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