Critical Context

Mário de Andrade wrote Macunaíma during a six-day frenzy and underwrote its publication. The literary establishment was perplexed by the work and gave it a bad reception. The leading critics of the time called it barbarous, outrageous, disconnected, fragmented, and excessive. Most failed to see the unity of the interwoven motifs, and some reacted negatively to its flamboyance and obscenity. Macunaíma was indeed one of the most forceful affronts to literary decorum of the 1920’s. This was the decade of Modernism in Brazil, an iconoclastic and nationalistic movement of literary renovation that sought to break sharply with the past, to challenge the influence of Portuguese letters, and to make national reality the focus of literary endeavor. With his rhapsodic novel, Mário de Andrade made a major contribution to a radical literary faction known as “Anthropophagy,” which used the practice of cannibalism as a metaphor for their project of modern Brazilan writing.

It was not until 1955 that Macunaíma began to be fully appreciated by critics and the reading public. In that year, a detailed explanation of Mário de Andrade’s sources, cultural references, and allusions was published, showing the thematic unity of the work and its complicated background. This critical defense acknowledged that Macunaíma was frightening and astounding, but for its erudition and craft and not for its supposed incoherence or immorality. Other reevaluations and lengthy studies of the work have followed. Macunaíma is now regarded as one of the most representative and influential works of Brazilian Modernism, and a foremost example of literary srebellion and nationalism in Latin American literature in general. In 1969, Macunaíma was made into a film, one of the most successful productions of Brazil’s New Cinema. Significant English-language commentary on the original novel is found in film criticism.