As I arrived at the pousada, halfway up the lush green mountains that form the backdrop to Paraty, as I looked down the stunning valley at the tiny agglomeration of houses in front of the baby-blue bay, I wondered what had attracted tens of thousands of people, as well as a fistful of celebrated writers and literary critics, to FLIP, the international literary festival of Paraty.
Was it the reputation of FLIP and the prospect of a growing Brazilian market for their work? Or was it the attraction of spending five days or more in a quasi-paradise, to enjoy the sunshine, the natural landscapes, and the beaches of Rio de Janeiro State? After all, Ian McEwan himself, possibly the most famous of the guest-speakers at the event, was memorably grateful for having left the rainy English summer for the warm Brazilian winter.
In fact, it must have been a combination of the above, the charm of the town’s historic centre, the unfamiliar enthusiasm of a large lusophone audience that has traditionally been peripheral to the grand narrative of Western literature. The name of the festival is fitting, both exquisitely local and impressively international, with guest-speakers from the Caribbean, Hispanophone South America, Europe, the Middle East and North America, as well as Brazil.
The mix of nationalities was neatly complemented by a range of events designed to please a variety of audiences. For the literary student, there were acclaimed professors from abroad, like Stephen Greenblatt, founder of the school of thought known as New Historicism and specialist in Shakespeare and Renaissance literature; and from the host country, fascinating analyses of Carlos Drummond de Andrade by professors from the Federal Universities of Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo. For those with a more democratic taste, there were famous local authors like João Ubaldo Ribeiro, who was paired in his tribute to Jorge Amado by a creator of the popular novelas. Then there was the dry, Anglophone humour from Gary Shteyngart and Hanif Kureishi, and the hedonistic Francophone jokes from Dany Laferrière.
The debates themselves were intense, highly provocative and intelligent, with the added bonus that most were exceptionally easy to follow. Topics addressed included literature in exile, death and its representations, democracy and freedom (as expressed in the Arab Spring) and sex, treated sometimes sensually, and sometimes very lightly.
The only criticism to be levelled at the festival was the shortage of tickets for all of the events. It was impossible to buy tickets on arrival to the ‘tent of the authors’, where the debates were carried out live. The ‘tent of the big screen’, on the other hand, did not accord the same experience to viewers, as the headphones transmitting the original language struggled to compete with the booming Portuguese translation emanating from the speakers. To compensate for the lack of tickets, however, there was plenty of action outside the two main venues: clowns reading poetry for 50 cents, open writing workshops, art exhibitions, a large space with toys and books for children, an outdoor bookshop for adults, a ‘poetry boat’ ride down the river, and the constant possibility of bumping into somebody famous along the narrow cobble-stoned alleys.
The homely feel of Paraty and the literary focus were also conducive to the making of new friends, as I found out after spending a couple of days in the company of a married couple of booksellers from Bahia, and a professor/journalist from Maranhão. In fact, the event as a whole oozed informality, friendliness and good humour, like a garden party.
With all the ingredients needed to turn its visitors into regulars, this festival is definitely worth a try. It is almost impossible to imagine the event growing more, but my hope is that it does, if not in numbers, then in global recognition.
By Edwin Johan Santana Gaarder