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by Mário de Andrade


An experimental work set in Brazil in mythic time and in the 1920s; published in Portuguese (as Mâcunaímã, o herói sem nenhum catéter) in 1928, in English in 1984.


Macunaima, the hero, loses a talisman his wife gave him before she died; to retrieve it, he leaves his native Amazon forest and travels to São Paulo. He kills a giant, recovers the talisman, returns home, and dies, turning into the constellation of the Big Dipper.

Events in History at the Time of the Novel

The Novel in Focus

For More Information

Born on October 9, 1893, Mário de Andrade lived in São Paulo, Brazil, for most of his life, during which the city turned from a backwater into a vibrant center of culture, industry, and commerce. Andrade participated in many of the initiatives that brought the city to cultural prominence. He was a graduate of the Conservatory of Drama and Music, an art critic, and a professor of musicology and aesthetics at the Conservatory. In 1922 he published a landmark book of poetry, Hallucinated City, and played an important role in the city’s “Modern Art Week,” a series of lectures, poetry readings, musical performances, and art exhibits that rocked Brazil’s staid literary, artistic, and critical establishment. Andrade helped found the city’s Department of Culture and the Brazilian society for Ethnography and Folklore, both of which he headed for a time. He chaired Art History at the newly established University of Rio de Janeiro, and became director of its Art Institute in 1938. Two years later Andrade returned to São Paulo, where he died on February 25, 1945. From his knowledge as a Brazilian musicologist, folklorist, linguist, and poet came his best-known work today, Macunaima.

Events in History at the Time of the Novel

Brazil in the 1920s

In Brazil, as in the United States, the 1920s was a heady, prosperous period. The city of São Paulo was growing rapidly, and new industries were establishing themselves in and around it, supported by the high prices of coffee, growing entrepreneurship on the part of both traditional landowners and immigrants, and a large population of urban, industrial workers from European countries. In 1920, 17 percent of Brazil’s workers were immigrants; the majority of them lived in the south-central part of the country, whose most important city was São Paulo (Topik, p. 173). In the half century between 1871 and 1920 Brazil received around 3.5 million immigrants, the bulk of whom went to the state of São Paulo and the city of Rio de Janeiro; Italians went mostly to São Paulo, where they formed the largest immigrant community and, by the 1920s, a significant percentage of the city’s population (Maram, pp. 178-79). The giant from whom Macunaima must retrieve his talisman is a cannibal industrialist, who is said to be Peruvian of Florentine (Italian) descent; his name and occupation seem to tap into anxiety about massive immigration and the economic modernization that equipped the city with factories and skyscrapers. (An Italian industrialist built Brazil’s first skyscraper, known as the Martinelli building; it opened in 1929 and was the highest structure in Latin America at the time.) In the novel, modes of public transportation, telephones, and other technical wonders also intrigue and frighten Macunaima when he arrives in the big city.

Regional diversity and amalgamation

Between 1889 and 1930 the Brazilian economy was to a large extent fueled by exports, 80 per cent of which were Amazonian rubber and coffee from São Paulo (Topik, p. 6). Yet the Amazonian region remained sparsely populated; though many workers had moved there to extract rubber, they tended to work alone. Some cities, like Manaus, grew and became rich, but the region remained mostly uninhabited. And though there were clashes between rubber extractors and the Indian tribes whose territories they invaded, many Indian groups continued to live in isolation. Anthropologists, however, managed to meet with and study some of these Indian groups. That was the case of the German Theodor Koch-Grünberg, whose study Vom Roraima zum Orinoco inspired Mário de Andrade to write Macunaima; its hero is named after a mythic figure of the Taulipang tribe described by the German anthropologist. Many of the stories Macunaima tells in the Amazon, and many of his adventures there as well as some in the city, derive from the mythology Andrade found in that study. Yet Andrade did not write an anthropological work. His hero is a composite of different Indian tribes and other Brazilian ethnicities; he is meant to be a representative of the Brazilian people, formed by what has been called “the most ample and profound process of miscegenation in the history of humanity” (Brum, p. 24).

In transporting Macunaima from the Amazon to São Paulo, Andrade makes him suffer an extreme cultural and geographic dislocation from the Neolithic or Stone Age to a twentieth-century city. (According to ethnographers, the Amazon tribes live in a Neolithic material culture, that is, they live as human beings are thought to have lived in the Neolithic era, features of which are the use of stone tools, a nomadic or seminomadic existence, and rudimentary agriculture, if any.) In truth, while not that extreme, the difference between Brazilian cities and most of the rest of the country, where at that time about 84 percent of the population lived, was considerable (Topik, p. 8). Most larger cities (São Paulo being an interesting exception) were ports and export centers, oriented toward Europe both economically and culturally; they did not have at the time a noticeable modernizing influence on the rural part of the country. On his way to São Paulo Macunaima travels through the rest of Brazil; he covers places in no particular geographic order, described in terms of various characters’ locations and traits, in what Andrade calls “degeographication.” In the characterization of the country, as in that of his hero, Andrade jumbles together regionalisms and nationalisms, creating an early manifestation of our own time’s “globalization.” He places plants and animals in areas where they are not native; he says Macunaima visits a farm in one location, when in reality that farm is situated in another location, and so forth.

Though the novel’s geographical mixture sacrifices strict local accuracy for a truer general image of the country, individual details are factual. Andrade provides much ethnographic information in his description of activities in Macunaima’s tribe’s daily life: the men hunt game and fish by casting timbó, a liana (or vine) whose extract paralyses their prey; the women weave mats, pound manioc root to make flour, and adorn themselves with stones, feathers, and woven and braided strips; men and women paint themselves with juices from Amazonian plants; they groom each other and clean themselves and each other of a number of insects and parasites. The novel furthermore exposes the unromantic details of living in the tropics: throughout the book the characters casually swat mosquitoes, are bitten by ants, and are attacked by ticks, lice, and other pests. Sometimes in a “natural” way and sometimes in revenge, Macunaima and his brothers are castigated by Vei, the burning, tropical Sun, who lashes their backs.

The novel’s description of Brazil’s cities, despite its mythological trappings, is factually precise. In São Paulo Macunaima plausibly encounters elevators, vehicles known as Hupmobiles, and foreign-born prostitutes. The location of the giant’s house is precisely identified and described in terms of actual locations, and, though Englishmen did not, as the novel tells us, grow guns and whisky on trees, it is true that transportation and communication systems were foreign-built and controlled (mostly by the English), and that imported manufactured goods dominated the market. The Afro-Brazilian macumba ceremony that Macunaima attends in Rio is also rendered with ethnographic precision.

On the other hand, little Indian boys are not born black, like Macunaíma, or blessed by African tribal kings. With these extraordinary shifts in place and combinations of racial and cultural traits, Andrade’s novel builds an image of Brazil and Brazilians as culturally and racially mixed, and neutralizes regional and other differences while not denying them. The novel attempts to bring all that is Brazilian into the tale of Macunaíma, the “hero of our people,” who cannot tell buildings from palm trees because he perceives modern structures according to the primitive conceptions acquired by him in the Amazon. In the process, the novel also examines the relation between the rest of Brazil and its richest and most modern city, São Paulo.

Brazilian folklore and national identity

Andrade takes the name of his hero directly from Koch-Grünberg’s account of an Indian trickster figure, Maku/naima. The name can be translated from its original language as “The Great Evil One”—though a misunderstanding led missionaries to use it as a translation of the word “God” into the languages of Amazonian Indians (Proença, p. 15). Luis da Câmara Cascudo, the great Brazilian folklorist, records a similarly named Maiua, or Maa-aiua among many Indian tribes, a “mysterious being from whom all evil comes” (Cascudo, pp. 444-45). It is easy to conflate this mischievous spirit with the Pedro Malasartes figure of Iberian folklore, who was brought to Brazil by the Portuguese. Described as “cunning, cynical, … without scruples or remorse,” Pedro Malasartes wins the reader over by his cleverness and his way of cheating the rich and the pompous, even though he is—and one recognizes Andrade’s subtitle—“a hero without character” (Cascudo, p. 445). Macunaíma also resembles the African trickster god Exu, a mischief-maker who has to be propitiated before any other African god can be invoked, whose help is invaluable and without whom nothing can be done because, unappeased, he spoils everything. In this sense too, Andrade’s Macunaíma is a composite figure, a combination of trickster figures from the three “races” traditionally conceived as the formative parts of a Brazilian national identity.

In the novel Macunaíma attends an Afro-Brazilian ceremony in Rio de Janeiro, invokes Exu, and gets his help. Andrade’s novel documents the ceremony itself and the way in which Brazilian culture takes for granted that anyone, regardless of background, may attend it and ask the gods for help in love or against enemies. These ceremonies, called candomblé in the northern state of Bahia, and macumba in Rio, combine elements of various African cultures, adapted to American climatic conditions (in which growing and harvesting seasons differ from those of Africa), and to Brazilian laws (which prescribe that the dead be buried within 24 hours instead of the three days of African ritual). They are also syncretic with Christianity: many of the African gods are worshipped under the guise and on the feast days of Catholic saints. In certain parts of Brazil African cults likewise became syncretic with Indian religious practices, a phenomenon of which Andrade was aware; the presence of his Indian hero at an Afro-Brazilian ceremony is therefore plausible. This fusion affirms a view of Brazilian identity as composite, as a combination of racial and cultural elements that themselves have changed because of their interaction.

In the forest Macunaíma encounters adventures and beings from Indian mythologies, like the Curupira, a spirit that protects game animals by leading hunters into grave danger. Curupira tries to eat Macunaíma, who eludes the spirit with his trickster’s ways and escapes because he is too lazy to follow the spirit’s treacherous advice. Macunaíma also obeys Indian rituals in the forest. When, in another adventure, he kills his own mother, who had turned into a doe, he and his brothers wrap her in a hammock and bury her, then “fast … for a time in accordance with the tribal rules” (Andrade, Macunaíma, p. 15).

Away from the forest Macunaíma consistently describes São Paulo in terms that conflate nature and modern civilization; the city is a savanna covered with palm trees that have plumes of smoke on top instead of leaves; city lights are crazy, careering stars (Macunaíma, p. 33). He applies the name “machine” not only to the mechanical and technological objects new to his Amazonian experience, but also to natural phenomena like the moon and human beings. In fact, at the beginning he asks to sleep with the Machine Goddess, in order to become the Emperor of Machines, just as he had become the Emperor of the Forest after sleeping with Ci, Mother of the Forest (Macunaíma, p. 35). The city is also described in terms of natural features associated with the Brazilian forest or countryside: the giant lives in the noruega of Pacaembu—Pacaembu being an old, elegant quarter of the city, and noruega the cool, damp, south-facing side of a mountain that does not receive the sun. The giant himself is a conflation: Italian or Peruvian, he is an industrialist, a figure of Indian mythology, and a cannibal.

Macunaíma hunts tapirs in front of the Commodities Exchange, causing a riot; he has to be told that the panthers roaming the roads are actually called “Fords, Hupmobiles, Chevrolets, Dodges” (Macunaíma, p. 34). Though Andrade destabilizes staid notions of Brazilian history, folklore, and even geography throughout the book, it is in its hero himself that he creates a new model for Brazilian identity. It is impossible to classify Macunaíma in terms of moral standards or cultural or even racial characteristics. As we follow his adventures, he displays inconsistent moral and psychological traits, and conforms to, or directly opposes, the norms of a number of cultures. The novel’s opening describes Macunaíma as “hero of our people”; if this description is taken seriously, it must be acknowledged the portrait is often more critical than patriotic. Andrade’s novel disputes the Romantic view of the Indian as heroic ancestor of the Brazilian nation (as promoted by José de Alencar’s Iracema, the Honey-Lips [also covered in Latin American Literature and Its Times]), and proposes instead an image of Brazilianness that shows resilience and inclusiveness but also incorporates uncertainty and contemplates failure. The uncertainty is a consequence of Macunaima’s contradictory qualities. He cannot be pinned down; one is always uncertain about who he really is and therefore how Brazilianness should be defined. The question of failure is raised by the way in which the novel plays out: Macunaíma fails to make a name or place for himself in the city, he loses his talisman on the way home, and his friends and family, even his heir, perish.

Modern Art Week in São Paulo, Brazil

In 1922, 100 years after Brazilian independence, a group of artists rented the posh Municipal Theater in São Paulo, and, sponsored by the widely circulating daily Jornal do Commercio, organized a “Week” in which they could showcase their works. Most had spent time in Europe, especially in France, whose cultural influence on Brazil was very strong, but also in Italy and Germany, where they had come into contact with new movements like dada, futurism, and surrealism, and with writers like Guillaume Apollinaire, Paul Verlaine, and Stéphane Mallarmé.

The “Week” aimed to jolt a provincial public into modernity, and to attack an establishment of artists and critics whom it claimed was out of touch both with the modern world and with the national and popular roots of Brazilian culture. To a full house, participants in the “Week” recited poetry that broke rules of meter and rhyme, and used colloquial words formerly banned from proper literary expression. They read artistic and political manifestoes that attacked established Brazilian cultural authorities; showed paintings and sculptures whose glaring colors and contorted shapes defied academic standards of beauty and identified with the “primitive” and tropical; and played dissonant music that incorporated popular tunes and the sounds of machines in the modern city. Together these artists set patterns that would dominate much of the Brazilian intellectual scene in subsequent decades. The public applauded and booed and was delighted or indignant and shocked, and the old guard suffered noisily this onslaught of the young. Mário de Andrade played an important part in this movement, and the preface to his book of poetry, Hallucinated City, is one of the manifestoes of this revolutionary movement.

The “Week of Modern Art” can also be seen in many ways as a continuation of previous cultural developments in Brazil. Almost a century earlier, Brazilian writers had adapted European Romanticism to their efforts to develop a literature of Brazilian national identity. Similarly, in 1922 Brazilian artists adapted European—and to a lesser extent, North American—modernism to their own efforts. They formed an iconoclastic movement, Brazilian modernism, that would last from 1922 to 1945 and include a rash of regional fiction set in northeastern, central, and southern Brazil. Like the Romantics before them, the modernists were attracted by the Europeans’ bold experiments in language and in form as well as their interest in the primitive and the non-European. These models justified and inspired the Brazilians in their attack on the local cultural establishment, and their immersion in what they saw as a more authentically Brazilian culture of native shapes and colors, music and beliefs. Andrade returns to the Romantic image of the Amerindian, which, because it was associated with nature and represented an alternative to European civilization, was so important to the earlier construction of Brazilian identity, but he changes that image radically. Unlike the “noble savages” of the widely read mid-nineteenth-century stories by José de Alencar, Macunaíma is in no way admirable. Also included in Andrade’s image of Brazilian identity is the Afro-Brazilian contribution, a factor de-emphasized in earlier definitions.

The Novel in Focus

Plot summary: an overview

The plot of Macunaíma is simple, like a fairy tale’s. The hero is born, “sired by the Terror of the Night,” and “black as calcined ivory,” to an Indian woman (Macunaíma, p. 3). He is lazy, irresponsible, and lecherous. He seduces his brother’s wife, accidentally kills his mother, and marries a warrior woman of the forest, who gives him a magic stone, called a muiraquitã, and confers on him the title of Emperor of the Amazons before she dies and becomes a star. He loses the stone, learns it is in the possession of a giant/industrialist in the city of São Paulo, and with his two brothers goes in search of it.

His adventures make him crisscross Brazil from north to south and east to west; he traverses rivers, mountains, forests, and shrub-covered plains, cities, farms, and ranches. Like heroes in fairy tales, he gets supernatural help, and sometimes he performs wonders. Unlike such heroes, he usually bungles his adventures and wastes the helpful efforts of his friends. He transforms himself and his brothers into various objects and animals, and in the course of his travails turns from a very black sprite into a handsome blond youth.

When he arrives in São Paulo, Macunaíma attempts to trick the giant into giving him the magic stone, but is too clumsy to succeed. Eventually, however, he kills the giant, recovers the stone, and returns to the forest, where, again unlike the heroes of fairy tales, he is sick, lonely and most unhappy. Finally a star takes pity on him and transforms him into the constellation of the Big Dipper. A small parrot to whom he has told his story repeats it to the narrator, who tells it to us.

Plot summary: the story in detail

At birth Macunaíma is seen as exceptional when he is introduced to the tribe, “King Nagô,” a Brazilian folk figure of African origin, states his approval of him; the combination of Indian and African sets the syncretic mode that Andrade uses throughout the book (Macunaíma, p. 2). As a child Macunaíma is remarkable for playing tricks, for showing a premature interest in sex, and for refusing to talk until he is six. One of his early tricks is to make his mother order his sister-in-law into the forest to play with him; there he turns into a beautiful prince and seduces her. Then, and throughout the book, Andrade uses “play” to mean lovemaking, but Macunaima’s play is not necessarily benevolent, and often includes violence:

Macunaíma began to pelt her with pebbles; Sofará [his sister-in-law] yelped with excitement on being wounded and in turn decorated his body with drips of blood. At last a stone split the corner of her mouth and knocked out three teeth. She leaped from the branch and landed astride the hero’s belly with a great crash. He wrapped his body around hers, and howling with relish, they made love [“played around,” in the original again].

(Macunaíma, p. 7)

Macunaima’s brother Jiguê witnesses one of these trysts and gives Macunaíma an epic beating, then returns his wife to her parents and gets himself another wife. Macunaíma arranges to “play” with his brother’s second wife, the beautiful Iriqui, as well. A famine follows. Macunaima’s clumsy attempts at hunting lead him to the Curupira, who protects animals by disorienting and sometimes killing hunters; our hero avoids his traps but kills his own mother, whom Curupira has misleadingly turned into a doe. After burying his mother, Macunaíma and his two brothers leave their village.


In ancient Greek legend, the Amazons were warrior women who cut off their right breast so it would not interfere with their ability to draw a bow. The Amazon river, forest, and region are so named because early Spanish explorers under-stood—or imagined—that somewhere in that enormous wilderness there lived a race of strong and valiant women who, like their legendary Greek counterparts, not only did without men—whom they invited over once a year for procreation—but would kill any man who came near their territory. Various Spanish explorers, particularly Cristóbal de Acuña, reported on the existence of Amazons in the Amazon, though none of them actually encountered any of these women.

In their first adventure, the hero encounters Ci, Mother of the Forest, whom he recognizes as an Amazon warrior woman by her withered right breast.

Macunaíma engages in a ferocious battle with Ci, who is about to win when he calls on his brothers for help. They overwhelm her and as they pin her down, Macunaíma “plays” with her. After that Ci and Macunaíma enjoy many hours of intense pleasure. She bears him a son. However, while Macunaíma sleeps off a drunk, a black serpent attacks the unprotected Ci and sucks her other breast dry. Since brother Jiguê has not been able to impregnate any of Ci’s Amazon subjects, there is no untainted milk for the child; he nurses from Ci’s snake-poisoned milk, and dies. From his grave the medicinal plant guaraná is born. Tired of life, Ci gives Macunaíma a green stone as a talisman, then she rises into the sky and turns into the star Beta Centauri (Macunaíma, p. 21). Macunaíma perforates his lip to carry the stone as a labret.

The brothers wander “throughout the forests over which Macunaíma held sway,” followed by a “retinue of scarlet macaws and parakeets,” eventually meeting up with a monster (Macunaíma, p. 22). In perfectly non-heroic fashion, Macunaíma vanquishes it by luck and cuts off its head. The head follows him, desiring to be his slave, but our hero is afraid and in headlong flight loses the labret, which is swallowed by a fish that is sold to the São Paulo industrialist Venceslau Pietro-Pietra, also known as the giant Piaiman. Macunaíma decides to go to São Paulo to retrieve the talisman. His brothers go with him, for he needs looking after.

Now that Ci is no longer alive, her consort Macunaíma, Emperor of the Forest, inherits a fortune in cocoa pods. (The Brazilian state of Bahia is one of the largest producers of cacao—the seeds from which chocolate is made—in the world.) With this fortune in cocoa pods, he travels to São Paulo, which he calls the maloca (an Indian word for village) on the banks of the Tietê River. On the way he bathes in a pool on a rock in the middle of a river and turns white. His brothers attempt to achieve the same effect, but since Macunaíma has used up and muddied the water, one of them turns copper-colored and the other has only enough water left to wash the palms of his hands and the soles of his feet. The three brothers are now the color of the three predominant races (white, Indian, black) in the Brazilian population.

Macunaíma is confused by the noises and the bustle of the city, but regains his bearings when he realizes that what he had taken for a cage operated by a monkey that transported him to his perch on a very tall tree, are only the “machine” called elevator in the “machine” called hotel; he learns to turn his brother into the machine telephone when he wants to communicate with someone, and into the machine taxi when he wants to go somewhere. All of that, however, uses up his resources—cocoa had made him rich in the forest, but melts away quickly to buy the fascinating machines and the women of the city, who don’t give themselves away, but have to be wooed with the lobster and champagne machines.

He does find the giant Piaiman, in whose house there is a permanently bubbling, huge pot of polenta (a typical Italian, corn-based porridge) seasoned with human flesh. Disguised as a “French” prostitute, Macunaíma successfully awakens Piaiman’s sexual interest, but cannot convince him to hand over the talisman. After several unsuccessful attempts to cheat or wrest the talisman from the giant, Macunaíma goes to Rio de Janeiro for a macumba session held by the unparalleled Aunt Ciata. The ritual begins slowly, building up to great intensity as the gods descend into their initiates, particularly into a blond Polish girl. The girl is made to embody the giant Piaiman and is mercilessly beaten by the god Exu at the request of Macunaíma. Anything done to her reflects on the giant whom she embodies. It is, we read, “horrifying” (Macunaíma, p. 58). Macunaíma becomes a “son” of Exu in a chapter that firmly links the Amerindian and the West African trickster gods. The giant is fully incapacitated by the beating, and has to look for a cure in Europe.

While he is gone, the Sun takes a shine to Macunaíma and, even though he has been defecated on by vultures and smells very bad, chooses him as a husband for one of her daughters. She bids him wait a day while they make their round, and promises immortality and eternal youth as a dowry, as well as France, Europe, and Bahia (Macunaíma, p. 64). Instead, Macunaíma wanders off, finds a Portuguese fishwife washerwoman who cleans him up, and delightedly “plays” with her. Once again he throws away proffered help and goods. In another adventure he takes over a celebration of the Southern Cross, the constellation that occupies the place of honor on the Brazilian flag, and tells the assembled crowd the real—that is, the Indian—story of the constellation, who used to be Paui-Podole, the Crested Curassow. He is very pleased with his oratory, and the reader is left in doubt about whether he is a patriot with original views on what is really national or just another demagogic windbag.

When the giant returns from Europe, Macunaíma is waiting for him, and there is a Homeric fight. Half tricked, half wrestled, Piaiman falls into his own cooking pot and boils to death. Victorious, Macunaíma recovers his talisman and starts toward home. He once more crisscrosses the country, pursued and rescued along the way, reciting folk rhymes and proverbs, carelessly losing his talisman for good, and cheating or being cheated by friends and enemies. He is protected from the vengeful Sun (for whose daughter Macunaíma did not wait around) by a cloud of parrots who follow and shade him. Finally, he finds the village of his birth and his old house; they are in ruins. One by one his brothers and his friends succumb to disease, and he is left alone, the Sun on his back, his wife and only son dead, the forest inhospitable. He tells his story to a companionable parrot, and begs heavenly bodies to take him to them. Most refuse, because of their unpleasant memories of him. Finally the Crested Curassow takes pity on him, and he is turned into the Big Dipper.

The parrot finds the narrator of the book and tells him the tale of Macunaíma, and this is how we learn about it.

The “Letter to the Amazons” and literary tradition

At the center of Macunaima Mário de Andrade placed the “Letter to the Amazons” (Macunaima, pp. 67-79), a discussion of the hero’s adventures in the big city, and a parody of every bit of patriotic exaggeration and Latin-misquoting pedantry that could ever pass for literary language and learned discourse. It mocks what Andrade implies is a pseudo-patriotism that translates the national character into foreign “science,” as in the philological discussion of the proper spelling of muiraquitã (Macunaima, p. 68). It also criticizes the replacement of what is Brazilian—imperfect as it may be—by corrupt foreign imports, as when Macunaima suggests that his “subjects” should learn how to behave from French prostitutes. And it reproaches the wasteful exploitation of natural resources for the acquisition of foreign luxuries: the purpose of the letter is to request that the Amazons send Macunaima more cocoa to spend on champagne, lobsters, and prostitutes.

In Macunaima’s letter, the novel ridicules all the traditional ways of speaking about Brazil, from the letter written in 1500 reporting the discovery of Brazil to the King of Portugal, through the Romantic novels and poems that created a national literature after Independence, through the literature and oratory that the Modern Art Week attacked. In any case, the letter’s addressees, Macunaima’s subjects, belong to a non-literate culture; they could not read this letter from their leader, who is cut off from them.

At the time it was written, the main impact of Macunaima was not political but cultural. It was shocking because it used a colloquial Brazilian idiom that had not been considered good enough for literature, and did not pay attention to language rules imposed by Portugal that were based on Portuguese, not Brazilian, usage. It was also shocking because of its casual, ill-bred excursions into the sexual and the “dirty” and because of its attitude toward enshrined literary forms like the nineteenth-century novel. It shook up the literary world and forced people to think of Brazilianness as including new elements (those derived from the African heritage) and speaking a separate variety of language. But although—or perhaps because—the novel refers more to historical processes than to specific events, it continues to resonate in Brazilian culture. Forty years after its publication, in the middle of a military dictatorship that lasted from 1964 into the 1980s, Joaquim Pedro de Andrade (no relation to the author) directed a film based on the book, in which the giant stood for the foreign and internal capital that was cannibalizing ordinary Brazilian people, represented by Macunaima. The hero’s sufferings were those of citizens oppressed by dictators and their foreign supporters; his resilience was that of the Brazilian people, and his sadness that of a nation repeatedly victimized by internal and external exploitation. In a very different vein, its rambunctious validation of popular culture also caused it to be chosen in 1974 as the theme for one of the corporations, or samba schools (associations of expert dancers and musicians), participating in the yearly Carnival parade in Rio.

Sources and literary context

Andrade says that he was so moved by Koch-Grünberg’s study of Amazonian Indians, he wrote Macunaima in a week in 1926 (Andrade, Macunaima, o herói, p. 401). He published it at his own cost in 1928. Andrade called the work a “rhapsody,” rather than a novel, and in an influential study (O tupi e o alaúde, meaning “The Tupy Indian and the Lute”), Gilda de Mello e Souza analyses it in terms of its musical structure. Critics call the work a novel because it is written in prose and has something like a plot, but, as Andrade’s classification indicates, the book’s loose structure, folk motifs, emotional charge, and roots in an individual as well as a national unconscious are meant to undermine distinctions within genres and among the arts.

In its combination of formal experimentation and probing of national identity, Macunaima carries out the program of the Modern Art Week. It appeared the same year as the “Anthropophagist Manifesto,” in which Andrade and other modernists—especially Oswald de Andrade (no relation)—proposed that Brazilian culture should, and does, cannibalize foreign influences and metabolize them into an essentially national body of works and being. Mário de Andrade’s elaborate and often scatological fabric of puns and allusions, his references to Indian and African rituals, folk motifs, Indian legends, popular sayings and proverbs, and musical forms, does not sound like anything written before it. It achieves this uniqueness by using the full resources of Brazilian Portuguese. At the same time, the work confronts head-on the Romantic conception of Brazilianness as rooted in a lush and benevolent tropical nature that gives birth, unproblematically, to a noble Indian. Andrade’s concept of a tri-racial Brazilian rakishness questions that nobility while cannibalizing artistic movements that changed the European cultural scene in the first three decades of this century.

The modernists’ interest in the problem of nationality assigned their works a political dimension many of them had not sought. A number of writers, prominent among whom was Jorge Amado (see Gabriela, Clove and Cinnamon , also covered in Latin Ameñcan Literature and Its Times), pointed out that the modernist revolution in artistic forms avoided and ignored economic and social aspects of Brazilian life, like poverty, inequality, and exploitation, which were at least as endemic and far more urgent than a perceived backwardness in literature, painting, and music. This controversy has not lost its importance. In fact, one way of defining Macunaima is to say that it is mostly about how important art is in defining national character. Macunaima attempts this definition by means of inclusiveness and its consequence, paradox. Macunaima’s “lack of character” actually comprises countless contradictory traits: cowardice and courage; sensuality and disenchantment; optimism and melancholy; playfulness and violence; innocence and perversion; cleverness and stupidity. Any “national identity” he represents is multiple and self-contradictory. In the end, Andrade even undermines the argument for considering Macunaima a specifically Brazilian character. In a letter to Manuel Bandeira, of December 12, 1930, he conceives of the possibility that the book, rather than being about a distinct Brazilian identity, might be a “more universal satire to contemporary man, particularly from the point of view of this wandering detachment, these moral notions created on the spur of the moment, that 1 feel and see so much in contemporary man” (Macunaima, oheroi, p. 412; trans. R. Wasser-man, here and elsewhere). The climate of melancholy and disenchantment with which the novel ends counters the optimism of earlier works on national identity and of the national self-glorification fashionable at the turn of the century. At the same time the novel self-consciously places literature in the equation. It is ultimately the literary element that prevails in Macunaima, the parrot who knows the story and the author from whom we learn it.

The translation

Though the English translation is careful and at times felicitous, Macunaima is probably a translator’s nightmare. One example is the hero’s refrain “Ai! … Que preguiça!” which translates roughly and literally as “Oh! … What sloth!” or “Oh! … I feel so lazy!” In Portuguese the first word, ai, is an exclamation, yet it is also the Indian word for the three-toed sloth, an animal named for its very slow movements (Macunaima, oheroi, p. 6). Considering Macunaima’s laziness, the pun becomes clear. The refrain is a bilingual pun presented as characterization of the hero. Macunaima utters the exclamation on a number of occasions when he has just been offered help or an opportunity to improve his situation—he even says it at times when he is invited to have sex. In those cases the expression becomes an ironic commentary on one view of people from the tropics as “lazy.” Since Macunaima is the “hero of our people,” a representative of “Brazilianness,” his “laziness” becomes an unrepentant acceptance of one explanation for why Brazil has not reached the level of material development of England or the United States, whose people deplore laziness without acknowledging its positive side, and who also supply many of the objects the hero needs or desires in industrial São Paulo. Macunaima’s refrain characterizes the “Brazilian” hero as dedicated to the pleasure of doing nothing, portrayed in the novel as a positive trait, except that it means he must depend on foreigners for guns and whisky, since they do not really grow on trees. Otherwise his laziness is connected to his disdain for the rat-race and portrayed mostly as cute. The translator renders “Ai! … Que preguiça!” as “Oh! What a fucking life!” which hints at the sexual appetites of the hero, but loses the other connotations.

A similar problem arises in connection with Andrade’s consistent use of “play” to mean love-making; in ordinary Portuguese the word does not have the erotic connotation, which is given entirely by the context. The translator chose the literal and somewhat technical “making love” for the playful and metaphorical “play,” and lost Andrade’s freedom with language, as well as the lack of solemnity with which Macunaima approaches the erotic.

Mário de Andrade’s use of Indian words presents another difficulty for the translator. Andrade often breaks into epic lists of Brazilian plants and animals, many of which have preserved their original Indian names. They sound familiar in Portuguese even if the reader does not know what exactly they mean, but neither the names nor the familiarity are readily available in any other language. When Macunaima encounters the agouti, an animal that throws the poisonous juice of manioc on him and makes him grow from a rickety child into a beautiful young man, he swerves away from the liquid, which washes over his body but misses his head. In the original, his head remains that of a piá, the Indian word for “child”; which is the word used in the translation (Macunaima, p. 13). The word is known to ordinary Brazilians and is used in the everyday language of certain regions; this interweaving of elements from European and non-European languages and cultures is, for Andrade, an important part of the national character and of the Brazilian difference, but it is difficult to translate culturally or linguistically.


Andrade’s letters show the interest he took in what critics were saying about the book—and many of the best-known critics wrote about it. Of Tristão de Athayde’s mostly favorable reaction, Andrade wrote that he should have been more severe, particularly since de Athayde always judged books by how Catholic they were: he thought the criticism “sort of dumb. He did not take a position. As a Catholic, he should have been more censorious. … It is an injustice to state that the language of the book is like candomblé” (Macunaima, o herói, p. 405). In another letter, he mentioned two reviews, diametrically opposed to each other, one comparing him to Rabelais, the other calling him an idiot (Macunaima, o herói, p. 421). He also heard of a Rio paper that published a wonderful review, in 1945, and asked a friend to send him a copy (Macunaima, o herói, p. 421).

By the time Macunaima was published in English, it was well established in Brazilian literature; American reviewers were aware of this fact. Paul West in the Nation called the book “a classic” (West, p. 7). Alexander Coleman in the New York Times Book Review discussed the importance of the book in Brazilian modernism, “a new wave that created a national past into which Brazilian art could be born” (Coleman, p. 2). V. B. Landers in Choice noted that Macunaima is a “masterpiece of the Brazil modernist movement” (Landers, p. 1637). The critics praised the richness of the work, and found irresistible a confessedly impossible attempt at summarizing it. The translation came in for qualified praise, but, critics noted, Britishisms (in the translation of a text that declares the independence of Brazilian Portuguese from that of Portugal), outdated slang, and “Oh! What a fucking life” do not quite convey the linguistic inventiveness of Andrade’s language.

—Renata Wasserman

For More Information

Andrade, Mário de. Aspectos da literatura brasileira.São Paulo: Martins, 1972.

_____ Hallucinated City. Bilingual edition. Trans. Jack E. Tomlin. Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 1968.

_____ Macunaima, o herói sem nenhum caráter. Critical Edition. Ed. Tele Ancona Lopez. Florianópolis: Editora da Universidade Federal de Santa Catarina, 1988.

_____ Macunaima. Trans. Edward Arthur Goodland. New York: Random House, 1984.

Brum, Argemiro J. O Desenvolvimento economicõ brasileiro. Petrópolis: Editora Vozes, 1983.

Cascudo, Luís da Câmara. Dicionáño do Folclore Brasileiro. 2nd ed. Vol. 2. Rio de Janeiro: Instituto Nacional do Livro/Ministério da Educação e Cultura, 1962.

Coleman, Alexander. “A Hero of Enormous Appetites.” The New York Times Book Review, March 3, 1985, 13.

Johnson, John Randall. Macunaima: From Modernism to Cinema Novo. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1977.

Landers, V. B. Review of Macunaima, by Mario de Andrade. Choice 22 (July 1985): 1637-38.

Maram, Sheldon L. “The Immigrant and the Brazilian Labor Movement, 1890-1920.” In Essays Concerning the Socioeconomic History of Brazil and Portuguese India. Eds. Dauril Alden and Warren Dean. Gainesville: The University Presses of Florida, 1977.

Martins, Wilson. The Modernist Idea: A Critical Survey of Brazilian Writingin the Twentieth Century. New York: New York University Press, 1970.

Proença, Cavalcanti. Roteiro de Macunaima. São Paulo: Anhembi, 1955.

Topik, Steven, The Political Economy of the Brazilian State, 1889-1930. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1987.

Wasserman, Renata R. Mautner. Exotic Nations: Literature and Cultural Identity in the United States and Brazil, 1839-1930. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1994.

West, Paul. Review of Macunaima, by Mario de Andrade. Nation 241 (July 20, 1985): 52.

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