The Perks of Cannibalism

Carolina Alves Magaldi

One of the most defining traits of Brazilian culture remains, unfortunately, virtually unknown to most gringos: our taste for sarcasm. To us, nearly anything can acquire a double meaning, which is a fortunate coincidence, since and we live for a good innuendo.

Such national hobby has even propelled a cultural and literary movement that redefined our artistic landscape. Such school of thought, called Anthropophagy, was created by writer and essayist Oswald de Andrade (1890-1954) alongside other prominent names of the Brazilian Modernism, such as poet and diplomat Raul Bopp (1898 – 1984), novelist Mário de Andrade (1983-1945) and painter Tarsila do Amaral (1886 – 1973).

What started as a dinner joke about being nearly anthropophagic for eating frogs evolved into an entirely new perspective on our colonial roots. Even the date registered on the Anthropophagic Manifest represents quite clearly the intent of the document: instead of the dull chronologically accurate mark of February, 1928, Oswald de Andrade chose the now iconic mark of 374 years since the tasting of Bishop Sardinha, Brazil’s first bishop, devoured by the Caeté natives in 1556.

It was perhaps literary critic and translator Haroldo de Campos (1929 – 2003) who better defined the movement, describing it as an inside-out indigenism. It was meant as both a reaction to Rousseau’s good salvage mentality, which had permeated Brazilian literature since its birth during the Romanticism, and as a radicalization of a previous movement, Poesia Pau Brasil, in its aim to join forces with both the primitive and the technological as an expression of modernity.

The choice of Pau Brasil as a symbol is greatly justified: it is the red wood that named the country, a species of tree that barely still existed at the time of the poetic movement, given the exploitation carried out by the Portuguese and the Dutch because of its textile potential for dying fabric.

On that note, the movement that began as a connection between primitive and technological aspects became also a link of European influences and national references, once again summarized by the sarcastic Anthropophagic motto that brought together Shakespeare’s most famous quote – kept in English – and our most populous indigenous tribe: “Tupi, or not tupi”.

One of the simplest ways to comprehend the anthropophagic aesthetics is through the mixing of specific and universal, national and foreign references. However, as Pires (2009: 58) points out, by that logic any and all Brazilian writers are anthropophagic candidates.

The anthropophagic movement is, therefore, a radicalization of a national characteristic, of combining references in a quasi-chaotic manner that does not tend to follow any specific pattern or logic. Nonetheless, one distinction needs to be made within the movement, regarding a Pac-Man mentality: in the tasting of foreign and native, of universal and particular, who is the diner and who is the dinner?

One example of how such distinctions were not always clear is in the work of Monteiro Lobato (19982-1948), perhaps the most renowned children’s writer in Brazilian history. In his stories, elements of Greek mythology and other European allusions are usually found side by side with characters and themes from Brazilian folklore, as in the case of the Chimera and our Headless Mule. Most critics agree, however, that the author’s positions towards our ethnic and cultural background – which are borderline racist – reflect his intent to borrow legitimacy from more traditional and well-accepted literary environment and incorporate Brazilian references, keeping our narratives as an afterthought.

Going back to the true intent of the Anthopophagic movement, it is mandatory to present the book that epitomizes it: Mário de Andrade’s Macunaíma. The novel was first presented as having been written in six days of non-stop work in December of 1926, rewritten in January of 1927 and published in 1928 (Souza, 2003, p.09). It was, therefore, seen as a creative explosion of sorts to Andrade’s companions in the Modernist movement. As time went by, critics took a great interest in the short novel, and with those readings, more and more symbols, references and sophisticated puns came to light, most of which involving the variety of costumes and ethnicities that constitute the fabric of Brazilian culture.

The protagonist, after which the novel is named, is defined as a “hero without any character” – pun intended – given his lack of identity and absolute absence of a moral compass. In fact, Macunaíma does not even have a specific ethnicity, being caucasian, black and indigenous in different parts of the story.

His main catchphrase, “Ai, que preguiça!”, refers to how lazy he feels, a conveniently untranslatable expression that incorporates an indigenous expression, though that particular reference is one of the sophisticated puns usually left for the few lucky ones. Among the novel’s most recognizable references, is the mixing of religious narratives, both European and African imports, from Catholicism to Judaism, from Umbanda to Candomblé.

The narrative itself does not follow any chronologic order or follow any pattern in terms of location, jumping randomly from place to place. Andrade’s lack of subservient respect to both Brazilian and imported European traditions also finds its way to his use of the Portuguese language, with several made up words, most of which reflect its oral and colloquial use. The narrator even states at one point that the aristocratic vocabulary is so fantastic that they cannot help but speak in one language and write in another.

More than embodying a series of sarcastic and contradictory traits that represent our culture so well, the greatest hero of the Anthropophagic movement reveals the concern that the movement should not to split our collective subjectivity from our individual experience (Monteiro, 2008, p.03). The final result was intended to destroy the foreign notion, swallowed whole by early-20th century Brazilians, that we had a fixed identity. When interpreting the movement, gringos will hopefully understand that, more than a creative choice, such focus comes from our undeniable inability of keeping personal boundaries.

Works Cited

Monteiro, André. A Subjetividade Antropofágica. In: Verbo de Minas Vol. 07 N.13, Juiz de Fora, 2008. Available on:

Pires, Anderson. Mário e Oswald – Uma história privada do Modernismo. 7 Letras: Rio de Janeiro, 2009.

Souza, Gilda de Melo e. O Tupi e o Alaúde – uma interpretação de Macunaíma. São Paulo: Editora 34, 2003.

Carolina Alves Magaldi is Brazilian writer and researcher. Graduated in Portuguese, English and Italian languages and respective literatures at the Federal University of Juiz de Fora in Brazil. Has a master’s and a doctor’s degree in Liberal Arts from the same university. Both degrees were dedicated to the study of Romantic epics, mythology cultural identity. Has published short stories at Crioula Magazine and in a compilation of Guemanisse Publishing house, as a finalist in their flash fiction prize. Is currently a visiting professor at the Brazilian Open University and a junior supervisor at the Master’s degree in education management at the Federal university of Juiz de Fora.


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