Here at last is an exciting new edition of the Brazilian modernist epic Macunaíma: The Hero with No Character, by Mário de Andrade. This landmark 1928 novel follows the adventures of the shapeshifting Macunaíma and his brothers as they leave their Amazon home for a whirlwind tour of Brazil, cramming four centuries and a continental expanse into a single mythic plane. Having lost a magic amulet, the hero and his brothers journey to São Paulo to retrieve the talisman that has fallen into the hands of an Italo-Peruvian captain of industry (who is also a cannibal giant). Written over six delirious days—the fruit of years of study—Macunaíma magically synthesizes dialect, folklore, anthropology, mythology, flora, fauna, and pop culture to examine Brazilian identity. This brilliant translation by Katrina Dodson has been many years in the making and includes an extensive section of notes, providing essential context for this magnificent work.
Macunaíma: The Hero with No Character by Mário de Andrade, translated by Katrina Dodson and with a contribution by Katrina Dodson and John Keene, is now out via New Directions.
In the depths of the virgin-forest was born Macunaíma, hero of our people. He was jet black and son to fear of the night. There came a moment when the silence grew so great listening to the murmuring Rio Uraricoera, that the native Tapanhumas woman birthed an ugly child. That child is the one they called Macunaíma.
Even as a boy he did bewildering things. First off he went more than six years without talking. If they coaxed him to talk he’d holler:
“Ah! just so lazy!…”
and not a word more. He kept to a corner of the family maloca, perched on a platform of paxiúba palm, watching the others work, specially his two brothers, Maanape the geezer and Jiguê in the prime of manhood. For fun he’d pick the heads off saúva ants. All he did was lie around but if ever he set eyes on money, Macunaíma would toddle for a penny. And he’d perk up whenever the family went to bathe in the river, all naked together. He’d spend the whole time diving underwater, and the women would squeal in delight on account of those guaiamum crabs said to inhabit the freshwater there. Back at the family mocambo if a girl came up to cuddle, Macunaíma would stick his hand on her charms, the girl would jump back. As for the males he’d spit in their faces. Nevertheless, he respected the elders and wholeheartedly joined in the murua the poracê the torê the bacororô the cucuicogue, all the religious dances of the tribe.
When it was time for bed he’d climb into his little macuru, always forgetting to pee. Seeing as his mother’s hammock was right under his hanging cradle, the hero’s steaming piss would splash onto the old woman, shooing the mosquitoes real good. Then he’d drift off dreaming of bad-words and outrageously immoral acts, kicking at the air.
At the peak of day the women’s chatter always came round to the hero’s naughty pranks. They’d laugh knowingly, remarking, “Though you may be expectin’ a little tickle, even a pipsqueak thorn packs a prickle,” and during a Pajelança ceremony King Nagô gave a speech and revealed that indeed the hero was intelligent.
Soon as he turned six they gave him water out of a rattle and Macunaíma started talking just like everybody else. And he asked his mother to put down the manioc she was grating and take him for a walk in the woods. His mother didn’t want to cause she couldn’t just put down the manioc, nossir. Macunaíma sat whining all day long. At-night he kept wailing. The next day he waited with his left eye a-snoozing for his mother to start her work. Then he asked her to put down the basket she was weaving from gua-rumá-membeca grasses and take him for a walk in the woods. His mother didn’t want to cause she couldn’t just put down the basket, nossir. So she asked her daughter-in-law, Jiguê’s gal, to take the boy. Jiguê’s gal was very young and her name was Sofará. She came up hesitating but this time Macunaíma stayed stock-still without sticking his hand on anybody’s charms. The girl put the kid on her back and went out to where the aninga lily grew along the banks of the river. The water had lingered there to plunk out a whimsical tune on the fronds of the javari palm. Off in the distance it was a pretty sight to see, with lotsa biguá and biguatinga birds darting round where the river branched off. The girl put Macunaíma down on the shore but he started whining, there were too many ants!… and he asked Sofará to bring him up to the ridge deeper in the forest. The girl did. But no sooner did she lay the tot down among the tiriricas, tajás and trapoerabas on the forest floor, than he grew manly in a flash and became a handsome prince. They were out there walking a good long time.
When they got home to the maloca the girl seemed mighty worn out from carrying the kid on her back all day. It was because the hero had played around with her a whole lot… No sooner did she lay Macunaíma in his hammock than Jiguê came back from net fishing and his gal hadn’t done a lick of work. Jiguê flew off the handle and after picking for ticks really laid into her. Sofará weathered the blows without a peep.
Jiguê didn’t suspect a thing and started braiding a rope from curauá fiber. He’d just spotted some fresh tapir tracks and was fixing to make a trap to catch the critter. Macunaíma asked his brother for a bit of curauá but Jiguê said it weren’t no kiddie toy. Macunaíma started wailing again and it was one helluva night for them all.
Next day Jiguê got up bright and early to set the trap and seeing the kid pouting he said:
“Good morning, everybody’s lil sweetheart.” But Macunaíma sulked silently.
“Don’t wanna talk to me, huh?”
Then Macunaíma asked for some curauá fiber. Jiguê glared at him and told his gal to get some twine for the boy. The girl did. Macunaíma thanked her and went to ask the pai-de-terreiro to braid him a rope and blow some petum smoke over it.
When everything was good and ready Macunaíma asked his mother to leave her caxiri brew fermenting and take him for a walk in the woods. The old woman couldn’t on account of her work but Jiguê’s sly sweetie told her mother-in-law that she was “at your command.” And she went into the woods with the kid on her back.
When she put him down among the carurus and sororocas on the forest floor, the little one started growing and turned into a handsome prince. He told Sofará to hold on a sec he’d be right back so they could play around and went to lay a snare at the tapir’s watering hole. No sooner did they get home from their walk, mighty late, than Jiguê also came back from setting his trap on the tapir’s tracks. His gal hadn’t done a lick of work. Jiguê was mad as heck and before picking for ticks really let her have it. But Sofará weathered the beating with patience.
Next day as the dawn rays were just clearing the treetops, Macunaíma woke everybody up, bawling frightfully, to hurry! hurry over to the watering hole and fetch the critter he’d caught!… However, nobody believed him and they started in on the day’s work.
Macunaíma was very upset and asked Sofará to hop over to the watering hole real quick just to see. The girl did and came back telling everybody that in-fact there was a very big very dead tapir in the snare. The whole tribe went to fetch the critter, ruminating on the tot’s intelligence. When Jiguê came home with his curauá rope empty, he found everybody dressing the kill. He lent a hand. And while divvying it up, he didn’t give Macunaíma a single piece of meat, just the tripe. The hero swore vengeance.
Next day he asked Sofará to take him for a walk and they stayed in the woods till night-fall. No sooner did the boy touch the leafy forest floor than he turned into an ardent prince. They played around. After three go-rounds they ran through the forest cuddling each other. After the poking cuddles, they did the tickling cuddles, then buried each other in the sand, then burned each other with flaming straw, it was plenty of cuddling. Macunaíma grabbed the trunk of a copaíba and hid behind a piranhea. When Sofará came running, he whacked her in the head with the timber. It made such a gash that the girl fell writhing in laughter at his feet. She pulled him by a leg. Macunaíma moaned with pleasure clutching the gigantic trunk. Then the girl bit off his big toe and swallowed it. Wailing with glee Macunaíma tattooed her body with the blood from his foot. Then he flexed his muscles, lifting himself onto a vine trapeze, and leaped in a flash onto the piranhea’s highest branch. Sofará clambered up after him. The tender limb bowed swaying under the prince’s weight. When the girl made it up top they played around again swinging in the sky. After playing Macunaíma wanted to cuddle Sofará. He coiled his body ready to pounce in a frenzy but got no farther, the bough broke and down they went crashing all the way splat to the ground. When the hero came to, he looked round for the girl, she wasn’t there. He was getting up to find her but piercing the silence from a low branch overhead came the fearsome yowling of a suçuarana cougar. The hero keeled over in fright and shut his eyes so he’d be eaten without seeing. Then he heard a giggle and Macunaíma got smacked in the chest with a gob of spit, it was the girl. Macunaíma started chucking rocks at her and whenever she got hit, Sofará would shriek with excitement tattooing his body below with the blood she spat. Finally a rock clipped the girl right in the kisser and busted three teeth. She leaped off the branch and thwap! landed straddling the hero’s belly as he wrapped his whole body round her, howling with pleasure. And they played around some more.
Papaceia the star was twinkling in the sky by the time the girl got home looking mighty worn out from carrying the kid on her back for so long. But Jiguê, getting suspicious, had followed the pair into the woods witnessing the transformation and all the rest. Jiguê was a big dummy. He got real angry. Grabbed an armadillo-tail whip and whacked the hero’s rump with all his might. The bellowing was so tremendous that it cut short the immensity of the night and lotsa birds fell to the ground in fright and were transformed into stone.
When Jiguê could spank him no more, Macunaíma ran out to the new growth in the clearing, chewed some cardeiro root and came back healed. Jiguê took Sofará back to her father and slept easy in his hammock.