1. City of God by Paulo Lins
This ground-breaking novel arguably has no parallel in Brazilian literature other than the late nineteenth-century novel The Slum by Aluísio de Azevedo - which means Lins’ masterwork fills a hundred-year-old gap. A former favela resident himself, the author doesn’t patronise his characters, something which is very common in Brazilian literature when writers attempt to portray the dispossessed. City of God shows how a favela is born and how it can rapidly become dangerous through material negligence and, mostly, moral corruption. Not all Brazilian favelas are like City of God (this is the actual name of the real-life favela represented in the book) but the reader gets a pretty good idea of what it’s like to live below the radar of all public policy, or how a drug lord can easily cash in on law enforcement corruption.
2. Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands by Jorge Amado
This book is about a widow whose needs are taken care of by her two husbands, one of whom happens to be deceased. The author, Amado, is the master of prosaic Brazil. Amado’s writing, although multifaceted, includes a good deal of realism – in this specific case comic magical realism – which teaches the reader things about Brazil we don’t normally hear about in the international headlines.
3. A Chapter of Hats by Machado de Assis
Machado de Assis is a key figure when it comes to understanding the history of Brazil. This underdog of dual heritage (his ancestors were slaves) was a modernist already well ahead of the modernists in Europe. His work captured the tumultuous period of a nation in transition from a rural to an urban lifestyle, with stories that were funny, deep, sardonic, romantic, satirical, lyrical, and downright bizarre, examining every single aspect of late nineteenth and early twentieth century Brazilian life. For an English reader, Machado works very well as introduction writer to Brazil’s transition to an agricultural economy society to an urban one – “a master at the periphery of capitalism”, as a Brazilian literature scholar once said. Woody Allen and Salman Rushdie are both fans of his writing.
4. Hour of The Star by Clarice Lispector
This book could be considered the female perspective companion to Paulo Lins’ City of God, minus the drugs and violence. Lispector can roughly be described as Brazil’s response to Virginia Woolf, if Virginia Woolf were on drugs (although Lispector herself was no junkie). She brought the internal female voice to post-modernism Brazilian letters, the style of her writing being sophisticated and mundane at the same time.
5. The Mansions and the Shanties by Gilberto Freyre
Freyre is the father of modern social studies in Brazil and has become a key point of reference in understanding Brazil’s social dynamics. He was able to read the unspoken rules of inter-class and inter-racial interaction that shaped the nation in a way no other country has ever experienced. The brutal, bloody barriers between the colonial rulers and their servants were also an intimate exploit of sorts.