By Dom Phillips
Wobbling atop a stand-up paddle board may not be the most conventional way to view a literary festival. But it’s certainly the most scenic. I attempted to paddle genteelly, determinedly banishing mortifying images of me toppling into the river as we headed down the river beside which FLIP – the International Paraty Literature (Festival Literária Internacional de Paraty) – is staged.
My host Michael Smyth, an adventure tour guide in this beautiful, costal town of Paraty where FLIP is staged would argue that boats and beaches are what most people come here for. Apart from the 25,000 FLIP had brought in for its annual five-day festival, which ended Sunday.
He’d tricked me into taking an alternative route up a river on our Sunday afternoon stand-up paddle trip, and suddenly we were heading past the festival’s riverside marquee, cafes and bookshops and out to sea, in front of thousands of erudite Brazilian literary buffs, hanging out in the sun with their cameras, and suddenly brightening at the sight of two skinny, aging gringos in grubby lycra T-shirts and swimming trunks, grimly paddling towards them.
Paraty is the sort of bucolic Brazilian beach town for which words like ‘picturesque’, ‘colonial’, ‘charming’ and ‘ambling’ could have been invented. But it buzzes with life, ideas and conversation for FLIP when writers are the stars and Brazilian names like Luís Fernando Veríssimo get stopped on the street for photographs. It’s awfully civilized and more than a little posh, but it’s also a lot of fun.
And by Sunday, the last of FLIP’s five days, I’d seen it from every other angle bar the stand-up paddle board, so what the hell. I’d seen it from inside the main authors’ tent, with a couple of thousand literary buffs chuckling at the wry witticisms of English novelist Ian McEwan, or the acute observations on the nature of family from Portuguese writer Dulce Maria Cardoso – a star of new-generation Portuguese literature.
From outside on the grass by the port, watching men in medieval costume on stilts perform an inexplicable theatrical routine. And from the town’s main square, where the words of great Brazilian writer Carlos Drummond de Andrade were being projected onto the side of an old church, along with photos and his old identity cards, while a group played chorinho, the sweetly melancholy pre-samba music and a crowd around them smiled, swayed and sang along.
There were films, art exhibitions, shows and children’s events spread around the town. But the real action was in the authors’ tent, where during mesas, or ‘tables’, in TV chat show style, a mediator tries to get writers to open up and spill their deepest creative secrets. Novelists by nature not being the most exhibitionist of creatures, this can be a hit and miss affair. A little like balancing on a stand-up paddle board.
But the mesas also fill your head with the ideas, revelations and the words of extremely clever and interesting people who spend their lives inventing other worlds for a living, which can frequently be a richly rewarding experience. As John Freeman, editor of British literary magazine Granta, in town to launch its first collection of New Young Brazilian Writers, observed: “Here the ideas are the entertainment.” FLIP, in short, is for anyone who loves books. “The bookstore is insane,” Freeman added. “It’s like a beehive.”
For instance American novelist Jonathan Franzen revealed during his session that for him, writing was the mental equivalent of the Greek Myth of Prometheus (you remember, Prometheus is chained to a rock while an eagle eats his liver on a daily basis). But Franzen also flummoxed both mediator and audience with his endless pauses and oblique flights of imaginative fancy.
Asked about how characters dealt with freedom in his books, Franzen awwwwed for an awfully long time then observed that there were many different types of freedom. For instance, a visitor to American department store Bed Bathroom & Beyond would find so many varieties of shower curtain it would be impossible to settle on one. That’s a kind of freedom too. I thought he was hilarious, honest and profound. But many complained afterwards that he was chatíssimo – dull as death.
This is perhaps where FLIP’s laudable internationalism ran aground. Heard delivered laconically in English, in Franzen’s dry mid-West tones, the shower curtain thing is funny. But Anglo-Saxon irony does not translate well to Portuguese – trust me, I’ve researched this thoroughly on innumerable disastrous dinner dates with Brazilian women. It just sounds rude or, worse, irreverent. And Brazil is a conservative society where great writers and a sort of esoteric intellectualism are revered, and pithy irreverent jokes are not.
As was illustrated last year when a young Brazilian woman complained to me after a mesa by American novelist James Ellroy. Ellroy had got a laugh when he said he had never read the great Russian novelists like Tolstoy and shrugged. Like, so what? How dare he joke about not having read the greats? That, essentially, was her beef. He’s James Ellroy, he can say whatever he likes, was my reply. It didn’t go down very well either.
Brit Ian McEwan and American Jennifer Egan, who were on together, did go down well though: they were funny, honest and intelligent. Charming. Humble. And they avoided long pauses. The crowd gave them a standing ovation afterwards.
A mesa with Dulce Maria Cardoso and Brazilian writers João Anzenello Carrascoza and Zuenir Ventura began slowly, but finished with a bang when Ventura read out a passage from his new book in which a shocked child inadvertently stumbles in on his aunt having sex in a pharmacy. Sex. Now there’s one subject all Brazilians love to have a good laugh about – even the posh, intellectual ones.
As well as, obviously, the site of two bony, graying foreigners edging past them on the river, heading out to the sea, precariously balanced on two stand-up paddle boards, eyes fixed firmly to the front, like models on a catwalk. Pleading silently with every God in the universe: ‘Please, please, please don’t let me fall off…’
The Gods answered my prayers. We did not fall off, and headed serenely out to sea and out of sight. Only problem is now I have to spend the rest of eternity chained to a rock while an eagle eats my liver on a daily basis.
(Note to Brazilian readers, that’s a joke. Seriously, I love Greek mythology, I’ve read all of them… I just can’t remember the names right now, cause I’m balanced on a stand-up paddle board.)