After attending the first Festa Literária Internacional de Parati—FLIP—in Brazil in 2003, Julian Barnes wrote in the Guardian, “What makes a literary festival work? Organisation, programming, author-coddling (very important), marketing; beyond these, location, location, location.” Parati, a small town on the coast halfway between Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, is an out-of-the way, unlikely location for a literary festival—and it has produced unlikely results. Eric Hobsbawm, the Marxist historian, was accosted there so frequently by “bookish belles” requesting to be photographed with him, writes Barnes, that it was nearly impossible to walk down the street in his company. Lanky, bejowled Hobsbawm, it turns out, is something of a Brazilian heartthrob. Ian McEwan, responding to similar treatment the following year, reportedly marveled, “I’m not Keith Richards.” FLIP, Barnes tells us, with characteristic understatement, “is unlike any other literary festival I have attended.”
In Brazil FLIP has become a major media event, with daily coverage on TV and in newspapers around the country—and for Parati, the impact has been even greater. Once a major hub in the gold trade, Parati is now a pretty quiet town of thirty-five thousand, sustained by tourism, fishing, and the production of cachaça, the sugar cane–based alcohol that is Brazil’s staple drink. In the old quarter, the colonial architecture has been preserved, and there among the cobblestone streets and low whitewashed buildings, ex-pats and Brazilian transplants and Parati’s wealthy old families have homes, art galleries, and boutiques. Outside there are suburbs of working-class Paratienses, and villages of fishermen along the coast. The Bay of Parati has sixty-five islands, many privately owned and topped with looming, extravagant villas; on the mainland, high green hills of tropical jungle slope down to meet the waveless dark-blue water.
In early July, for the fifth FLIP, about twenty thousand Brazilians flooded in from around the country. Reporters and photographers and cameramen swarmed about, and a handful of American and European publishers intermingled here and there. About twelve thousand Paratienses took part, some merely to party, many to work—FLIP is the town’s biggest tourist event of the year, and provides employment when it is needed most, the off-season that is Parati’s winter. There are the two pavilions to set up: a smaller, air-conditioned one where a few hundred people can pay about US$10 to see in person the authors on the stage; and an immense, open-air one where for about US$3 you can see the authors projected on a screen, their lips moving out of synch with the dubbed-over Portuguese translation. On the streets, vendors sell caipirinhas and beer and Brazilian sweets and pasteis, deep-fried meat pockets. The pousadas (quaint, pricey inns) fill up, the chic restaurants overflow, and a massive staff is needed to shepherd the thousands of festival-goers, all heady with literary excitement. Others weave quietly through the crowd to pick up cans and bottles left behind from the nighttime revelry.
FLIP begins every year with a concert, and this time it was a big band, the Orquestra Imperial, playing classic Brazilian songs on the great stage under the main tent next to Parati’s central praça. Past years had brought stars like Gilberto Gil, Paulinho da Viola, and Chico Buarque, but this was a mellower affair. People inside sat in rows, and just outside, those who couldn’t get tickets—the event had sold out—gathered to drink beer and move their hips a bit. Afterward, in the restaurants and bars and uneven streets, other parties kept on till the hazy small hours.
Among the participants in this year’s panels were J. M. Coetzee, Kiran Desai, Ahdaf Soueif, Robert Fisk, and Lawrence Wright, as well as Latin Americans such as Alan Pauls, César Aira, and Augusto Boal. Over the next four days they spoke on favorite topics such as foreignness and belonging, language and identity, and the power of fiction, and engaged in some impassioned but polite debate over Iraq and Israel and American foreign policy. One event, however, stood out. “On Boys and Wolves” had Ishmael Beah, the Sierra Leonean who wrote a memoir of being a boy soldier, A Long Way Gone, sharing the stage with the Brazilian Paulo Lins, author of City of God, which was made into a successful feature film.
As they spoke, each wore simultaneous-translation headsets to understand the other. It was here that the festival felt meaningfully international, and at the same time, meaningfully local. For both authors, growing up, children embodied the opposite of innocence: They had guns, they had blood on their hands, they were killers. Lins, who grew up in a favela, had seen how easily kids can be brainwashed by drug-dealing gangs; Beah had seen the same up close, in government-sponsored militias. Lins said that hundreds, thousands of kids were dying in Brazilian slums, “but they don’t report it, because it’s more than can fit in the newspaper.” Beah, too, knew the problem of getting people to care. Toward the end of the event Beah said, “What violence does to the human spirit is the same everywhere,” a grandiose statement, appropriate to a literary festival—but heartfelt, and probably true. The Brazilians in the audience knew how bad the favelas were, and now, perhaps, they were able to imagine life in Sierra Leone. The FLIP bookstore sold dozens of copies of Beah’s book.
Among the Brazilians who came from around the country to see the events, the thrill at seeing these famous favorite authors of theirs—who might otherwise never set foot in Brazil—was palpable. At one event, Nadine Gordimer and Amos Oz received a standing ovation that lasted minutes; at others, I saw people in the projection tent happily taking pictures of the authors’ huge, washed out, screen-projected faces. This highly receptive crowd has, in turn, spurred another kind of life at FLIP: poets on the street hawk copies of their staple-bound chapbooks, and a whole slew of “off-FLIP” events, featuring theater and music and dance, have sprung up in response to this huge captive market with its huge cultural appetite.
The weekend before FLIP I had gone to a local fishermen’s festival, the Festa de São Pedro e São Paulo, which takes place annually on a small island near Parati called Ilha do Araújo. It begins with an all-night party in the muddy praça of the island’s only village, where about four hundred people live. In theory it’s a religious festival, but one band playing pagoda—described to me as “a kind of debased samba”—nonetheless had dancers with their rear ends half-exposed gyrating strip-style on the stage. The rest of the night was admittedly tamer, though just as energetic, and just as boozy, and on and on until very late.
The next day, after a procession of boats motored to the island from Parati’s iconic whitewashed colonial church, all festooned with streamers, some armed with fireworks, one outfitted all in pink (“the gay community boat,” an older Brazilian woman told me, “que legal!” how cool!), I spotted veteran British editor Liz Calder under the tent pitched in the praça. A cofounder of FLIP, she is most famous as one of the founders of Bloomsbury, the UK publishing house that discovered and continues to publish J. K. Rowling. Salman Rushdie, one of many authors whose careers Calder launched, has been quoted as saying, “I’m grateful to Harry Potter for taking care of Liz”—and FLIP should be grateful too, for its existence is due in large part to that windfall. In the 1960s Calder worked in São Paulo as a model and journalist, and in the 1990s, after Bloomsbury was on its feet, she was able to resume her love affair with the country, and began publishing novels by Brazilian authors. Many of them have since attended FLIP.
It is Calder’s cachet that has helped to bring so many literary luminaries from around the world. But it has not been a one-way street, and FLIP—whose programming is mostly arranged by others—has, in turn, influenced her. A couple years ago she attended a reading by a Portuguese writer named José Luis Peixoto; she loved what she heard, and signed up one of his novels for Bloomsbury. It is the first time one of his novels has been translated into English.
This is not the only business to come of the festival. At a cocktail party on FLIP’s final night, an editor at a UK publishing house told me, “For a while FLIP showed signs of becoming a place where rights people”—scouts and agents and other foreign-rights professionals—”came and deals got made.” However, this failed to materialize. The British editor had been every year, and by now he had come to the conclusion that this was mainly about Brazilian publishers publicizing and selling books. “I’ve realized that we’re just extra,” he told me. “We’re just here to have fun.”
FLIP has a more complicated relationship with the people who live in the town where it takes place. In some cases it has been used as a piggy-back to publicize other local causes. On two separate days there were two separate demonstrations: one for underpaid Culture Ministry employees, whose signs read “Culture on Strike!,” and the other for villages still without electricity despite a long series of government promises—promises alluded to in large block letters on wide, tightly-clutched banners. The protests did get some casual attention from the tourists, but neither managed to interrupt any of the events and the police did not intervene; eventually they died out.
In an effort to engage the local culture in a rather more meaningful way, a FLIP side project called FLIPINHA (“little FLIP”) buses in thousands of kids from nearby schools to participate in puppet shows and bookmaking workshops and other events and programs to promote literacy. Twenty-six Brazilian children’s books authors came this year, supported by about seven hundred schoolteachers and over a hundred volunteers. But a Brazilian who works in the tourism industry told me, dismissively, that she didn’t see a whole lot of reading going on; of her nephew, who had participated in FLIPINHA, she said, “We’ll see if he picks up a book anytime soon.” FLIP’s efforts do, however, last more than these four days in July. The festival is run in close partnership with the Associação Casa Azul, a nonprofit that supports sustainable development in Parati and sponsors creative writing programs and other initiatives in local schools throughout the year.
Another community project is the erection in the main praça of papier mâché statues of famous characters from literature: Alice’s white rabbit, Rapunzel, Gulliver assailed by Lilliputians. The most popular statue this year was a beetle on its back in bed, an abject look on its anthropomorphized face: Gregor Samsa just waking up. I saw one little girl demand that her father take her picture next to it; oddly, it was a favorite spot for family pictures. For me it was a convenient meeting point, as I had no cell phone: “I’ll meet you at Gregor Samsa at 9 p.m. tomorrow night.” Once, in response to this, a Brazilian who does business in the US asked me, “Gregor who?” Kafka’s beetle, I told him, you know. “Ah, Kafka,” he said knowingly, “the one whose plays are always on Broadway.”
The praça after dark was full with drinking and carrying on and amateur capoeira and techno music from a beleaguered little boombox, but among the crowd of locals, most in their late teens and twenties, few I spoke to had more than the vaguest inkling of what the festival was about. Francisca, a Brazilian who grew up in Parati and now goes to university in another city, suggested that there were a few reasons for this—among them, that the tickets are not free. But it’s also, she said, that “the people don’t know the writers, the books, the characters”—a failure, as she saw it, of Brazilian public education.
Still, this was far from general. An American resident of Parati, who has been involved with FLIP since its inception, told me that the festival has had a “profound effect” on the Paratienses. Alongside the statues of literary figures, he noted the traditional hut that had been built to present the local, or caiçara, way of life. For Paratienses, he said, being able to show off their traditions was “a great source of pride,” and their involvement in FLIP has apparently stimulated reading groups that continue year round. Francisca told me, “The festival, even if it wasn’t ‘born’ of Paratiense tradition, is now accepted as though it were one, because it’s Paratienses who put together the framework, it’s Paratienses who receive the foreigners, and it’s Paratienses who understand how the city runs.” She added, “In a way they’re proud to belong to a city worth knowing.”
The first time I attended FLIP, two years ago, I saw an event with MV Bill, a rapper from Rio, that filled the main tent to overflowing, with hundreds gathered around the edges to listen. As he spoke about the favela violence he had experienced firsthand, the crowd was moved. He, in turn, was moved by the crowd; at one point, he began to cry. The teenagers knew his music well, of course, but until then they didn’t know his interlocutor, the sociologist Luiz Eduardo Soares, with whom Bill collaborated on a book about favela violence and racism. Clearly, for most of the European and American publishers, almost none of whom speak Portuguese, the event was meaningless. But for many Paratienses, this was something very new.
“After the first FLIP,” the American resident told me, “my builder, a rough guy, said that he was driving by on his motorcycle one day and stopped to watch the big screen in the plaza. He was so impressed by the discussion that he brought his wife later and they attended three events. I was amazed. Now he always asks me who is coming to FLIP and they attend some of the Brazilian events. I never would have imagined him having any interest in a book festival.”
FLIP may be, for some of us, for the foreign publishers, a kind of four-day Paris Review party in the tropics; for the upper-middle-class Brazilians, it is perhaps little more than a high point on the cultural agenda. But for Paratienses, the American said, it is something much more—for at least a few of them, “FLIP has made intellectual pursuits cool.”
Copyright 2007 by Alexander Cuadros. All rights reserved.