Granta’s Brazil Issue Tells the Country’s New Story

Thanks to Britain’s premier lit mag, readers can experience the range and styles of Brazil’s 20 top young writers. By Mac Margolis.

Like most societies with a competitive itch, Brazilians love prizes. And from the soccer pitch to the Grammys, they’ve collected plenty of them. The written word is another story. For three years running, the country’s highest literary honor, the Prêmio Jabuti, has been clouded by scandal. The latest was last month, when an obscure debut novelist took the grand prize, thanks to one rogue juror who trashed legacy authors (like famed children’s author Ana Maria Machado) to tout the newcomer.

All this has kept the native lit crits in sound and fury for weeks, but bodes ill for new voices in Brazilian fiction trying to draw attention the conventional way—with talent. The good news is that there is no dearth of emerging authors out there, who are winning praise and building a following in Brazil with a variety of finely turned prose. And now, thanks to the British literary journal Granta, a select few of them are getting their day in the global sun.

Granta, an international curator of new writing, has just launched its first edition dedicated to Latin America’s biggest nation, The Best of Young Brazilian Novelists. Several of the anthology’s authors have embarked on a road show for a series of readings in Britain and the U.S. It’s a handsome volume—Brazil aficionados will recognize the wave motif from Ipanema’s beachfront walkway—with the ambitious goal of showcasing the best of a new and largely unknown generation of writers. Clearly the 20 names gathered in these pages are just a sampler of the rising craft, and undoubtedly some sensibilities were trampled in the final cut. But it was worth the wait.

More than Brazilian letters are in play in this 268-page volume. Granta prefaces this special edition, published in Portuguese and English, with a mission statement about tapping the global current of enthusiasm over all things Brazilian. This mirrors official strategies to get the word out on the new Brazil through programs such as the National Library Foundation’s recent initiative for the “translation and publishing of Brazilian authors abroad.”

Enthusiasts go so far as to hail the new wave of writers as part of emerging Brazilian soft power, betting that competitive culture can capture hearts and minds just as mining moguls and agribusiness conquer market share for Brazilian beef and soybeans. The effort appears to be paying off. Next year, Brazil will be the theme at the Frankfurt Book Fair. A recent edition of the Polish literary magazine Plav is entirely dedicated to contemporary Brazilian fiction. Booksellers are already tapping into the zeitgeist. “I sense an enormous amount of curiosity out there about Brazil, and not just as a market for imported consumer goods,” says Mauro Palermo, executive director of the publisher Editora Globo. “This is translating into business.” Palermo said Editora Globo recently reissued an anthology by classic early-20th-century author Monteiro Lobato in Germany, Portugal, and Spain.

Granta felt the vibe. The Brazil writers were culled from a pool of 247 applicants, all of them under 40 and with at least one published short story to their name. Starting in October 2011, seven judges—novelists and critics among them—pored over the manuscripts, each producing a short list. In February 2011, they cloistered in a hotel in Rio de Janeiro to select the final 20.

It was worth the effort. Some of Granta’s elect are quite young. Luisa Geisler, 21, is still in college. A handful of them hail from Rio Grande do Sul, in the deep south, where Brazil meets Argentina and Uruguay. Carola Saavedra was born in Chile, spent time in France, Germany, and Spain, and now lives in Rio. São Paulo–born Julián Fuks’s family fled Argentina for Brazil during the dictatorship. Not all of these are surprises. Tatiana Salem Levy, Michel Laub, and Daniel Galera are all accomplished novelists, with nearly a dozen published titles and a handful of prizes between them.

They cut a sharp contrast to their literary godfathers who constantly, often obsessively, looked inward for inspiration. Jorge Amado spun tales from the languid customs and musical idioms of his native Bahia, in Brazil’s tropical northeast, while Erico Verissimo mined the rugged gaucho culture of the windblown pampas. “Brazil is a big, complex place where writers were constantly asking formative questions of who we are and how we came to be that way,” says Brazilian author and critic Silviano Santiago. This self-searching country was the Brazil that the international readers came to know.

But that was then. Don’t look for leitmotifs in the Granta anthology, much less magical realism. The younger generation represented here is tethered neither to flag nor fatherland, never mind priapic dictators and flying grandmothers. Many of the stories zoom in on family dramas or conflicts with neighbors. All seem grounded in urban reality, though in strikingly different ways. In “Before the Fall,” by J.P. Cuenca, Rio is a faux paradise, its violence barely contained by “an armed peace.” And yet Levy’s “Blazing Sun” is a tone poem on Rio, a city her narrator, a returning native, revels in as a sublime assault on the senses, even as it severs her from the lover she left behind in chilly Europe.

Granta’s writers stray far beyond Brazil. One story unfolds in a remote village in Romania, another in Nazi Germany. In Ricardo Lísia’s “Evo Morales,” an obsessive world chess champion slowly comes unhinged as he jets from São Paulo to Moscow and Buenos Aires to Paris in a tale that finally leaves you wondering whether the whole whirlwind was not a delusion.

In this way, these young authors are riding a cultural countercurrent. The country’s most celebrated contemporary artists are going the other way, drawing accolades by plunging into Brazilian culture and retooling traditions in innovative formats. Think Vic Muniz, the graphic artist who rifled a Rio landfill for bits of trash to create giant pixelated portraits, or conceptual artist Adriana Varjeão, who builds haunting building-scaled installations with colonial wall tiles. It’s the same at the multiplex, where neo-realist filmmakers have won plaudits worldwide with hard-edged pictures like Elite Squad, about rogue cops, and City of God, about Rio’s drug thugs.

But writers want something more than an enhanced tropical postcard. If there is any thread at all to the diverse of tale it is in their vast and striking diversity, “a mosaic of styles and themes,” in the words of Granta’s editors. If earlier generations asked over and again what makes Brazil Brazil, the new wave is looking aggressively outward. “Today’s authors are less interested in who they are than in how Brazil fits into the rest of the world,” says Santiago. “This is a cosmopolitan generation that wants its place in the world.” Whether the world is ready to hear Brazil’s new story remains to be seen, but this slim anthology is a fine way to start.