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Macunaíma Summary

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

This unusual work is an antirealist fantasy drawn from Amazonian Indian mythology, Afro-Luso-Brazilian folklore, and the author’s imagination. Thus, much of what occurs is fablelike, magical, or illogical, with no spatial or temporal bounds. The action centers on the hero’s struggle to recover a magical amulet given to him by Ci. His adventures take him to all corners of Brazil and back in time.

Macunaíma is born an ugly black baby to a Tapanhuma Indian mother. Although he is destined to be a popular hero, his mother notes that all names beginning with “Ma” bring bad luck. The sadistic and mischievous child soon discovers magical powers, transforming himself into a comely prince to seduce his brother Jiguê’s first wife. When Jiguê distributes meat after a successful hunt, the hero receives tripe and vows revenge. During a famine, the hero’s acts show him to be vindictive and greedy. As punishment, his mother expels him from the jungle, and he must return home by his wits. Back home, he goes through several metamorphoses to seduce Iriqui, Jiguê’s new wife. Tricked by the gods, Macunaíma kills his mother. The three brothers and Iriqui then set off for “our world.” They soon encounter Ci, whom the hero rapes. An entourage of birds salute him as the new emperor of the virgin forest. The two engender a son, who is adored by women of all races from all parts of the nation. A venomous serpent causes the death of Ci and son; before ascending to become a bright star, she gives the hero a special amulet. The precious stone is lost as Macunaíma defeats the Water Mother in battle. When the hero learns that the man-eating giant Venceslau has obtained the coveted charm, he sets off for São Paulo to recover it, accompanied by his brothers and a flock of royal parrots. The hero stows his conscience before leaving and gathers two hundred canoes to carry his fortune of cocoa beans. The brothers discover the footprint of Saint Thomas filled with water. The hero bathes first and becomes fair-skinned and blue-eyed; the envious brothers come out with red and black skin, respectively.

In the metropolis, the trio trades beans for currency and discovers that money rules all. The hero picks up some white women only to discover that they are prostitutes. They explain to Macunaíma that the goblins, spirits, and animals that he thinks he sees are actually buildings and machines. Macunaíma surmises that white people are the Children of Manioc and ruminates on the monumental struggle between urban people and machines; he decides that the contest is a draw and that the two are equivalent. He then turns Jiguê into a “telephone contraption” and calls Venceslau. The hero confronts the villain for the first time but is killed, diced, and stewed. Maanape employs his powers to revive him. Posing as a French prostitute, the hero again attempts to lure the amulet from the giant, whose vicious dog pursues Macunaíma through all regions of Brazil. During this chase they encounter several figures from the nation’s colonial past. By now the hero is overcome by rancor and attends a voodoo rite in Rio de Janeiro, in which he beseeches devil spirits to punish Venceslau, who takes a terrible beating. Vei the Sun offers one of her daughters in marriage if the hero will remain faithful, but he overindulges with a fishwife and incurs the never-ending wrath of the Sun. At the halfway point of the book, the emperor writes a pedantic letter to his subjects recounting his adventures and explaining his impressions of civilization and the Portuguese language.

As Venceslau recuperates, the hero is captured by the giant’s wife, whose lustful daughter allows him to escape. The ensuing chase traverses Brazil’s varied geography and cultural landscape. After unsuccessful attempts to get a scholarship to finance a trip to Europe, the hero searches for buried treasure, purchases a bogus goose that lays golden eggs, and is tricked into a fatal smashing of...

(The entire section is 1,072 words.)