Paulo Scott writes for PEN Atlas about the need for Brazilian authors to move away from stories about ‘white guys, living in the big urban centres’, and how a vain desire for durability has stunted the literature of his country

Translated from the Portuguese by Daniel Hahn

Anybody would advise caution to a critic of narrative fiction who claims that a work has successfully used recent historical events as a vital component (and also as a backdrop) of its unfolding plot, in particular those events that relate to political positions. Books of this kind run the risk of becoming quickly dated – and there are few things considered worse for a work of literature.

It is undoubtedly the case that historical events, particularly recent political events, are inevitably susceptible to re-readings and mutations. It does not, however, follow that a novelist ought to worry that his own personal – and therefore decisive – reading of a certain socio-political landscape (even if it is a barely examined one, and whether or not he is writing a predominantly realist narrative), might perhaps be capable of jeopardizing the durability of his story.

A concern about the durability of a piece of literary production even before it has come into existence – as though such things could be reduced to an engineer’s calculations – is not something that can be taken seriously. Durability is a condition that is disconnected from a writer’s efforts and from his control, though I admit that a misreading of a given political landscape can substantially shorten the life of a novel with settings of a socio-political nature. Readers tend not to waste their time on narrative premises that are flagrantly incorrect (or, even worse, which are exposed by an about-turn in recent events). What I do not see as credible is that the writer should become fearful and run away from any kind of risk, which sometimes is an inescapable dimension of the creative process.

The period of recent Brazilian democratisation (following the dictatorship that started in 1964), a period already within the gaze of Brazilian history, a period whose conclusion, depending on the criteria you use, ended in the second half of the 1980s, has so far failed to produce an even moderately impressive number of novels that manage to get away from the reality of white guys, living in the big urban centres, belonging to a middle class that is modernised and advantaged. Nor has it produced novels that risk a more substantial (and also more vertically-oriented) and challenging weighing-up of the social impact of recent political choices. There are, of course, people who claim that the country is still in a transitional phase towards true democracy, especially taking into account the demonstrations in June 2013, which triggered political repression that various levels of government considered perfectly acceptable in view of the greater freedom existing today as compared to the exorbitant restrictions in place during the years of the military dictatorship.

These contemporary novels describe the reality of a social class with access to education and culture in general, which the overwhelming majority of Brazilians do not possess. There is a certain modesty in the choice of narrators, of characters, of plots, of settings and spaces. There is a need to correspond to a contemporaneity dictated by literary production in Europe and North America, as though by reflecting them we might attain some of our own authority or greater visibility or even durability. There is a short-sightedness that is entirely unproductive and anti-literary, if we accept that literature is an important means of getting closer to the other. There is a fear of taking a frank look at Brazilian reality.

Of course, there are some contemporary writers (I shall not risk naming them) who do not deny the full breadth of Brazil’s culture, and who do not refuse a hard look at Brazilian identity – something that is undeniably interlinked with current events as well as with recent conflicts, with the period of democratisation (which for some people is still incomplete and is not being completed), with a tremendous difficulty in learning from our own mistakes – but they are names not present in any quantity that is reasonable and desirable; they are, in other words, few and far between.

From this perspective, contemporary Brazilian literature – even keeping in mind those writers producing literature that is original and facing outwards to a Brazilian social reality of relevance, though one as yet little explored – is still quite timid compared to what is being produced in the rest of Latin America, from Mexico to Argentina. Brazil is vast (so vast that whenever it responds as a State, as a Nation, it’s frightening), it has a plurality that is almost impossible to bind together, but this is no excuse. To my mind, taking on a bit more risk and being unafraid to write about what are actually the most pressing concerns within the seriousness that is today’s Brazil would not be a mistake.

Cultural expression, literary expression, can become dated for countless different reasons, so arranging things in such a way as to avoid the label of becoming dated, whether in theme, in the profile of the characters, in the events that propel the narrative, in whatever it may be, might be an unforgiveable error. Someone once said, and it is worth remembering, that if you are going to write governed by fear, even just with an eye to the little aspirations and vanities related to the illusion of durability, then you would do better not to write at all.