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Populist preaching

Patrick Marnham visits Brazil’s annual festival of literature

19 August 2009

12:00 AM

19 August 2009

12:00 AM

Patrick Marnham visits Brazil’s annual festival of literature

Many years ago a wild-eyed Englishman hacked his way into the Amazon rain forest and disappeared, never to be seen again. Since then the fate of Percy Fawcett, known as ‘the Colonel’, has remained a mystery.

Fawcett, a heavily bearded pipe-smoker in a deerstalker hat, was a figure of fun to the bright young things of England in the 1920s. This was unfair since he was engaged in work of some importance; he was mapping the Brazilian frontier with Bolivia and Peru. Colonel Fawcett returned to the Amazon many times and over the years, distracted from his science, he became convinced of the existence of a Lost World in the heart of the forest. It was a land of fabulous wealth and mythical beasts and he yearned for it. Fawcett was notorious for his bullying manner and his contemptuous dismissal of those who disagreed with his views and nothing would deflect him from his delusion. In the search for his non-existent paradise the Colonel eventually met his end — possibly the victim of hostile Indians.

Paraty is a small stone town trapped between the South Atlantic and the Brazilian rainforest that was founded by the Portuguese 200 years ago and designed for the discreet export of gold and coffee. It stands today — to all appearances little changed since the day when Colonel Fawcett disappeared. For most of the year it remains a community of fishermen and artists, rather as one imagines a tropical St Ives might have been 90 years ago. But for one week in July it becomes the focus of Brazilian cultural life and the site of the FLIP, Brazil’s annual festival of literature.

The festival, devised over a good lunch in 2002 by Liz Calder, the founder of Bloomsbury Publishers, and Mauro Munhoz, a Brazilian architect, was always intended to have two identities. As a national celebration, it has come to symbolise Brazil’s drive towards literacy. This is the sixth largest country in the world with a population of over 190 million, only half of whom can read. Brazil has the potential to become a world economic power but will never achieve this goal without a literate population. In these circumstances reading has become a national passion and the book, the bound volume, is seen as an essential tool. This year at the festival bookshop I saw an Indian grandmother queuing for the till, holding the hand of a young schoolgirl who was proudly carrying what may well have been the first book either of them had ever owned. The Brazilian government subsidises the production of children’s books by buying and distributing millions of volumes every year.

Despite the high level of illiteracy, it has been estimated that 20 million Brazilians are regular book buyers, and their reading includes a wealth of translations. This explains the success of the FLIP’s second, international identity. In a huge country that has been culturally landlocked by its language for a hundred years, a small town that was literally landlocked throughout the colonial era has become an international attraction — an unexpected development. The FLIP is a small festival, 24 authors and two venues, but it is so well organised and aims so high that among writers it has become a special event. It is an airhead-free zone, with no celebrities and no superannuated world leaders to pull in the trippers. The FLIP is simply about books — in all shapes and sizes.

Past speakers have included Nadine Gordimer, J. M. Coetzee, Toni Morrison, and Orhan Pamuk, as well as Amis and Rushdie. They have been attracted by the novelty of the setting but also by the well-informed audiences and huge bookshop sales. The graphic author Neil Gaiman once signed copies for eight hours, until he refused to sign any more — insisting that he wanted to listen to Tom Stoppard. It was noticeable during this year’s English language sessions how few of the 2,500 Brazilians present chose to use the simultaneous translation headsets that were available at each seat.

One expects Brazil to inject a little fantasy into the chilly northern brain and Paraty does not disappoint. The abrupt change from 14 hours of international flight processing to a town of donkey carts, whitewashed stonewalls and terracotta roofs is a fantasy in itself. The ever-ready bottle of aguardente in the authors’ room may have helped. On my first morning, turning left out of a stationer’s shop in the back streets, the colonial street grid seemed to shift through about 80 degrees and I quickly became lost. Lurching through a labyrinth of alleys I chanced on a blue-tiled arcade that emerged from the jumble of houses. But it led nowhere. At the far end a dental surgery was protected by a window sticker that advertised ‘Armed Security Response’. Beneath the text, an emblematic guard dog bared huge teeth. As I picked my way between the boulders that pass for cobblestones in this part of the world I noticed that several of the shop fronts were advertising ‘services of beauty and charm’ of which the most popular were pedicures. The ladies sit on their front steps close to the pavement, working delicately on each other’s feet, regaining the strength to continue home. Several made imperious gestures in my direction but I had an appointment to keep and ignored their beckoning hands.

This year Edna O’Brien, António Lobo Antunes, Anne Enwright, XinRan, James Salter, Simon Schama and Richard Dawkins were among those who made the journey. We received a royal welcome from Dom João de Orleans e Bragança who introduced us to the celebrated polar navigator and author Amyr Klink — though the latter, sadly, was not accompanied by his twin sisters, affectionately known in the family as ‘Hairy’ and ‘Baldy’. Instead we were greeted by President Calder, in whose opinion a literary festival is a party or it is a failure. With this in mind she had only one key word of advice… ‘Caipirinha!’. This is a lime fruit cocktail based on cachaça, the local firewater. ‘One is not enough. Three would be too many! You have been warned,’ she cried. And with that the FLIP of 2009 was underway.

Brazil is a society riddled with religious belief. The population includes one tenth of the world’s Roman Catholics, a fast growing community of Evangelical Christians, millions of devotees of the Candomblé synthesis of Christianity and African animism, Japanese Buddhists and a solid minority of Jews. Parallel to this is the tradition of magical realism that was revealed to the Anglophone world in 1970 with the translation of Gabriel Garcia Márquez. But it was present in Brazilian literature decades earlier in the work of authors such as Machado de Asis and Jorge Amado, which took longer to emerge through the thickets of translation. This fantastical tradition continues today, and the tenuous nature of reality was a recurring theme for the Brazilians Chico Barraque and Milton Hatoum, whose events were billed as ‘Invented Truths’ or ‘The Opposite of Realism’. By way of contrast, there was Richard Dawkins’s talk — ‘God and other delusions’.

Professor Dawkins certainly gives good festival. There is the calculated impatience, the rather thin smile, the air of a man who has been sorely tried by fools. Before he begins there is a broadcast announcement. ‘After the talk he will sign books, but will only write his name’. One can only feel grateful that he has found the time.

On evolutionary biology, Dawkins is a fine lecturer. He insists on the necessity of evidence. He reminds us that ‘Revelation, tradition and authority are not evidence’. But at a certain point the eyes narrow and lucidity evaporates as the red mist descends. Dawkins talkin’ becomes Dawkins rantin’. The body language becomes both aggressive and alarmed, reminiscent of a Dominican inquisitor who sniffs heresy in th
e air. The audience in Paraty loved it. History, metaphysics, psychology and logic turned giddy, raved and died as the professorial flame-thrower swivelled across the forest, searching for the shadow army of believers hidden among the trees.

Towards the end of his sermon he started to rely on slogans. ‘I would like everyone here to wince when they hear the words “a Catholic child”.’ ‘Exposure to nuns in early life could be extremely dangerous.’ Oh dear. Glancing around to see if anyone else had noticed that science had turned into populist preaching, I realised that I was sitting at the centre of a Bermuda triangle of ex-convent girls. There was a celebrated Irish novelist to the fore and I was flanked by a Booker prize-winner and the doyenne of Manhattan publishing. None seemed too badly damaged; intelligence and humour shone from their faces as they listened to the Word.

As Dawkins thundered on it became clear that the Oxford Professor of the Public Understanding of Science cares little about the nature of religious belief and understands less. ‘Don’t waste your life,’ he cried, ‘it’s the only one you are going to get.’ Then he was carried away by helicopter, like a second Colonel Fawcett with a head full of unproven certainties.

Perhaps the professor is right. But — as other atheist biologists have pointed out — Dawkins’ opinions on the non-existence of God are not science, and they are not supported by any evidence. They are merely opinions, despite his attempts to bolster them with pseudo-scientific devices such as the ‘Meme’. And in the absence of evidence, rational people are not always obliged to agree with Dawkins.

In any event, the Dawkins’ message would have seemed a poor exchange for the magical world of belief to the fishermen who live on the island beneath his departing flight path. For the fishermen of Paraty, life is dangerous and often frightening. They say that every time they come home it is ‘like playing the numbers and winning’. Their year revolves around the festival of São Pedro and São Paolo when they sing their hearts out in honour of those saints because their one life has not yet been terminated and the shrimp are still coming. The fishermen have no doctor and no shops. Just a church, a primary school and a small library that is housed in an upturned canoe. Within the canoe, among the small collection of books that have been donated by the FLIP, there is a hand-written notice — silencio.

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