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The City and the Writer—In Rio de Janeiro with Alberto Mussa

By Nathalie Handal

If each city is like a game of chess, the day when I have learned the rules, I shall finally possess my empire, even if I shall never succeed in knowing all the cities it contains.
Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities

Can you describe the mood of Rio de Janeiro as you feel/see it?

Irreverence. Violence. Cordiality. Adultery. Gambling. Confrontation. Improvisation. Creativity. Eroticism. Africanity. Frenchism. Mischievousness. Import. A great sense of irony. No sense of tragedy. And the streets, the culture of the streets.

What is your most heartbreaking memory in this city?

The genocides, which began with the Tamoio (indigenous people that inhabited the city at the time of the European invasion), went on to the massacre of the capoeiras (slaves and freed black men who practiced the fighting art of capoeira) in the beginning of the Republic, culminating with the contemporary extermination of people living in the favelas (ghettos).

What is the most extraordinary detail, one that goes unnoticed by most, of the city?

The complete destruction of the founding landmark of the city, the place from where it was built up: Morro do Castelo (Castelo Hill) that had an undeniable historical and archeological value. Rio de Janeiro is probably the only metropolis in the world that erased all the vestiges of its origins. 

What writer(s) from here should we read?

So many. Here, just a brief selection: Manuel Antônio de Almeida, Machado de Assis, Lima Barreto, Olavo Bilac, João do Rio, Marques Rebelo, José Geraldo Vieira, Cecília Meireles, Nelson Rodrigues, Vinicius de Moraes, Otávio de Faria, Nélida Piñon, Antonio Callado, Ana Maria Machado, Sérgio Sant’Anna, Rubens Figueiredo.

Is there a place here you return to often?

The Centro Histórico (historic downtown) of the city, more specifically the botequins (bars) of the Centro Histórico.

Is there an iconic literary place we should know?

Rio has a number of literary places: Centro Histórico, Tijuca, Copacabana, the favelas in the suburbs. But the iconic place by definition is the Passarela (carnival venue) where the Escolas de Samba (samba clubs) parade: it’s there that the poems and epics characteristic of the city are chanted, the only epic genre created in the modern age: the sambas de enredo (narrative-based samba songs). It’s undoubtedly the biggest show on earth.

Are there hidden cities within this city that have intrigued or seduced you?

Intrigued me, no. But the favelas and the suburbs, which I have always visited since I was a teenager. These are places unknown to the official city. But they are not exactly cities within the City. They are the City itself.

Where does passion live here?

In botequins, where the passion for soccer and samba circulate and pulse.

What is the title of one of your works about Rio de Janeiro and what inspired it exactly?

Compêndio Mítico do Rio de Janeiro (Mythical Textbook of Rio de Janeiro), a series of five crime novellas, one for each century of Rio’s history: A primeira história do mundo; O trono da rainha Jinga; A origem da espécie (to be written); A hipótese humana (forthcoming in 2017); and O senhor do lado esquerdo (The Mystery of Rio). My inspiration, like in all my novels, is mythology: Amerindian, African, Carioca (related to people from Rio).

Inspired by Levi, “Outside Rio de Janeiro does an outside exist?”

It does exist. Rio de Janeiro has always been outside of itself. 

Translated from the Portuguese by Flávia Rocha.

Alberto Mussa was born in Rio de Janeiro in 1961. After studying mathematics, he received his master’s in linguistics and wrote his dissertation on the role of African languages in the history of Brazilian Portuguese (O papel das línguas africanas na história do português do Brasil). He was a professor and lexicographer before becoming a writer in 1997. His novels and short stories include Compêndio Mítico do Rio de Janeiro, a series of five crime novellas, one for each century of Rio’s history. He recreated the mythology of the ancient indigenous people Tupinambás; translated pre-Islamic Arabic poetry; and wrote, with Luiz Antônio Simas, a history of samba enredo. Among other awards, he has received the prizes Casa de Las Américas; Academia Brasileira de Letras; Oceanos; Machado de Assis, from the National Library and the Sao Paulo Association of Art Critics. His work has been published in sixteen countries and in thirteen languages.

Published Jul 12, 2017   Copyright 2017 Nathalie Handal

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