There has been a mushrooming of literary festivals in Brazil in the last few years. FliPoA in gaucho Southern Brazil; Flipiri, deep in Brazil’s landlocked ‘interior’; FliPorto in the tropical North; FLIST in Santa Teresa, officially Rio de Janeiro’s most bohemian neighbourhood; FliZO, in Rio’s west zone – without a doubt its least bohemian and FLUPP, which roams from favela to favela with each new series of events: these are just a few, yet their names betray a common ancestor. The initials ‘FL’ stand for festa literária – ‘literary festival’ in Portuguese. Not crazy to name literary festivals so, but it took an Aussie-English publisher, Liz Calder, to come up with the name and concept when she founded the Brazilian granddaddy of them all, FLIP, the Festa Literária Internacional de Paraty.

According to the festival’s founding myth (it is now in its twelfth year), Calder’s idea was inspired by Paraty town, in which she saw something similar to  the magic of Hay-on-Wye. Like Hay, Paraty sits comfortably alone in a borderland, midway between Rio and São Paulo, on the slow road between the two dominant cities, a road that was for years hardly metalled, never mind mapped. Although the road has improved as the festival and the town’s wealth have grown, the place is still a long drive from anywhere. And also truly magical once you arrive.

Reaching Paraty late on the opening night, I had four days to navigate between high literary discussion and the more base delights of caramelised coconut toothrot, peddled from wagons of home-made sweets that stalked me everywhere, clove and ginger-flavoured doses of local cachaça, and the call of the sun on the old squares and giant cobbles.

Every year the festival has a different curator, a different focus and style. This year, I was most interested in some of the more ambitious pairings. Brazilians Eliane Brum, a hard-nosed reporter, and actor-playwright Gregório Duvivier discussed their recent turn to poetry – but in the end they could not escape banalities, and the poetry they read struck me as sentimental. Although perhaps this was partly the fault of their valiant interpreters: it’s an impressive feat to manage a simultaneous translation of poetry, never mind making it good.

More interesting were American Russianist, Elif Batuman, and Russian novelist, Vladimir Sorokin. They agreed on the wildness and the roughness of Dostoevsky, and also on spiky and difficult developments in Russian writing of the last couple of decades. But agreement is not the same as conversation. Each was authoritative and quick with arresting ideas, but they didn’t seem to be talking to each other. Similarly, French novelist Mathieu Lindon and Brazilian critic, Silviano Santiago, spoke eloquently about their books which pay homage to great friends – respectively the theorist Michel Foucault and music producer Ezequiel Neves – but didn’t engage with the questions haunting their discussion: where did their hero-worship fit into their homosexual and homo-social circles and relationships? I was intrigued and frustrated. The combination of Pakistani writer Mohsin Hamid with Brazilian cronista Antonio Prata brought more fruitful comparisons between Pakistan and Brazil, literary and political, and a sense of political urgency also animated the encounter between the Israeli writer Etgar Keret and the Mexican writer Juan Villoro.

Happily, FLIP is never only the sum of its central programme, in which big-name authors joust and tickets sell out weeks in advance. I stepped off-piste into FlipMais(‘moreFLIP’) and ‘Off-FLIP’events. I came across a trial screening of an unexpectedly punk-inflected documentary about the schizophrenic writer, painter and DJ, Rodrigo de Souza Leão, in the ancient town counsellors’ meeting house. I paused for street theatre, music and to read some literatura de cordel – traditional pamphlets printed cheaply with stories from Brazil’s under-developed heartland. I had the bittersweet experience of turning up for a debate on translation and failing to get in – why had I assumed I wouldn’t need to buy a ticket in advance? How wonderful that enough ‘others’ were so keen though! And I took some time to wander and chat to people around the town. Backstage technicians confirmed that funding was significantly down this year and there had been big cutbacks. Yet representatives from the British Council said this was their best FLIP yet: enthusiastic audiences not only for British authors and events but even for British theatre performed in English – Shakespeare, no less. I decided that the serious, appreciative audiences, watching the talks outside on big screens for free and clapping as if the writers could hear them, were enjoying the best of FLIP.

Despite the international scope and attendance, FLIP is all about the place – about Paraty. The town’s delicate dance with the sea, which regularly flows up and into the streets, turning them into canals, then sinks back to the beaches with the next tide, sustains a residual mud that makes too much elegance or gentrification impossible. The light is a confident Brazilian sun that never lasts into evening but fades in proper prelude to the evening’s dinners, drinks and parties. The multi-coloured boats, moored like a chintzy fringe around the peninsula of old Paraty, are revealed as an intrinsic part of town and festival: as ferries to beaches and islands, celebrating local poetry, holding book launches; their captains the guides who make sense of the town, providing its perspective as they put a little bright blue sea between their passengers and the concentration of literature on display.