Themes and Meanings

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Mário de Andrade is as well-known for his work in music as for his literary endeavors. He called Macunaíma not a novel but a “rhapsody.” This classification suggests both sung epic poetry (such as the Iliad and the Odyssey) and an instrumental fantasy based on popular or traditional melodies. In literature, the term may also connote an ecstatic, highly emotional, or irrational work. All of these meanings of “rhapsody” have a direct relation to Macunaíma. Although Andrade’s fundamental approach is comic, it is clear that the saga of Macunaíma is a reflection on questions of Brazilian nationality, which is a fusion of European, African, and Amerindian peoples. The work playfully brings into question the character and psyche of Brazil as a young American nation and of her people as a diverse population. Thus, the contradictory qualities of the turbulent hero himself are central to any evaluation of the novel. Orality is emphasized throughout the work; that which the narrator relates has been learned from a parrot, and characters constantly relate deeds, accomplishments, or myths of origin. Popular, traditional, or indigenous elements inform the entirety of the novel, and linear logic is subordinated to unbridled fantasy throughout.

Andrade’s “instrument” in this rhapsody is his macaronic literary language. One of the work’s central themes is language itself, the primary vehicle of culture. The author blends, often arbitrarily, the vocabulary and structure of standard Portuguese, colorful street language, and many regional varieties into a unique and totally new linguistic style. In the original, many passages are unintelligible even to native Brazilians, but the author’s aim was to raise readers’ consciousness about the diversity of their New World language, in which thousands of indigenous and African words were added to the European mother tongue. Enumeration...

(The entire section is 790 words.)