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Mário de Andrade: Macunaíma (Macunaíma)

The blurb on my copy of this book says that it is a a precursor of Latin American magical realism. I respectfully disagree. Presumably when this book was first published in English (in 1984) magic realism was very trendy so the marketing people linked the book with it. It is, however, quite simply, a fable.

Our hero, Macunaíma, is a common hero of fable, namely he is a trickster, creating havoc and disturbance wherever he goes, and using magic to do so. After his birth, he did not talk for six years, except to occasionally say Aw, what a fucking life. He will continue to use this expression throughout the book. Eventually, he drank water from a cowbell so that he talked like everyone else. He wants to go for a walk and, as his mother, will not take him, she persuades his (much older) sister-in-law, Sofará, to take him. When out on the walk, he changes into a handsome prince and he and Sofará have sex. This is repeated several times. Indeed, both start transforming (she becomes a puma) and their sex becomes passionate and violence. However, her husband/his brother, Jiguê, follows them and finds out, so Jiguê takes a new wife Iriqui. Macunaíma soon takes her as his wife but only after he is given an adult body when a wild cavy Agouti, throws poisonous manioc juice over him.

He loses his tooth, which means his mother is going to die and, sure enough, he shoots a doe in the forest with his bow and arrow, only to find that the doe was his mother. Macunaíma, his two brothers and Iriqui then leave the village and set out together.

We follow their adventures, which include Macunaíma meeting a woman, Mother of the Forest, and having a son by her, meeting another woman whose tears create a waterfall, and Macunaíma stowing his conscience so that it is not a burden on his travels.

We eventually learn that their aim is to reach São Paulo, which they eventually do. They face two practical problems. One is the language and the other is money, given that their currency is cocoa beans. A good part of their time in São Paulo is spent in a battle with the giant Venceslau Pietro Pietra, Piaiman, Eater of Men. Macunaíma kills him at least twice (once by having him drink Chianti) and he kills Macunaíma at least twice. In all cases, they are somehow resurrected. The key issue is that Venceslau Pietro Pietra has Macunaíma’s amulet and he wants it back. His task is made more difficult by Venceslau Pietro Pietra’s wife, Ceiuci, also a giant, who wants to eat Macunaíma.

While there is a certain amount of mockery of São Paulo, the noise, the traffic, the language, what makes the book is that everything happening is so highly improbable. Macunaíma, for example, frequently uses his brother as a telephone. More than once he meets Vei, who is the sun. She even offers him one of her daughters in marriage, provided he can remain faithful but he breaks his promise to do so almost immediately, which costs him not only a guarantee from Vei that he will remain young and handsome forever, but the promised dowry of Europe, France and Bahia. Indeed, sex, particularly Macunaíma’s lavish sexual appetite, is key to the book, not least his continual appetite for his brother’s girlfriends.

Macunaíma has various magical skills but, at the same time, he is all too often seemingly normal. He gets taken in by scams. He is placed on an island in a river and seems unable to escape from it. He is often homesick. He gets lost in São Paulo. He is often hungry and thirsty and has to deal with it as any mortal would have to.

De Andrade does not seem to be making any point, only having great fun writing an entirely improbable fable which, of course, makes it entirely unpredictable. He uses it as rationalisation for various events, such as why the moon looks blotchy or how cars were invented, both of which, along with many other historical facts, are explained at a mythological level.

The book is great fun, entirely unrealistic, and veers away from traditional realism and from political references, which was certainly De Andrade’s intention, not only in this book but in his approach to art in general. In the original Portuguese, he uses a colourful language, with dialect expressions, mixing rural and urban language. Initially, the book did not have much success, but it has subsequently become a Brazilian classic, to a great extent because of its originality, its unconventional approach to sexuality, its hero who is far from heroic in the traditional mode and its focus on things Brazilian. It is not till later in the history of Brazilian literature that we will find such an original work.

Publishing history

First published 1944 by Livraria Martins
First published in English 1984 by Random House
Translated by E A Goodland