Letters home by a translator who used simple words to write about complex issues
August Willemsen arrived in Sao Paulo in 1967 as a Dutch student aiming to study Brazilian literature, having set sail for South America armed with a small grant and a few letters of recommendation. In his twenties, optimistic, eager (drinker and) socializer and fluent in Portuguese: Willemsen was all set for his intellectual voyage of exploration in the new world, in a city buzzing with energy. What could possibly go wrong?
Plenty, as it turned out. The corruption, the scams, the squalor, the insects, the poverty and, later on, the enclave of well-to-do Dutch expats he and his girlfriend found themselves in the midst of more or less by accident: they were all part and parcel of what the author had to contend with – the last-mentioned seeming to cause him the most exasperation, if not unhappiness.
Other, more pedestrian frustrations – the director is not available today so better come back tomorrow, no sir your luggage is not in this port of call, sorry but the stamp in your passport is not the right one – were easier to overcome. Indeed, he faced his share of setbacks with admirable stoicism, losing his temper being a rarity.
All this is vividly described in Brazilian Letters, published in the ‘Private Domain’ series of the Arbeiderspers devoted to handsome editions of authors’ letters and diaries. If there is any Dutch book deserving of the predicate ‘literary pearl’, it is this one.
Young Willemsen lived an untrammelled life, combining eagerness with a keenly observant eye and wide-ranging, sincere curiosity, as evinced by his journeys into the hinterland in search of the landscapes featured in the novels of the Brazilian authors he admired.
The accounts of his vicissitudes are, in a word, addictive: his style is pitch-perfect, erudite but never high-flown. At the end of each letter you can’t wait to read the next one. More specifically, you want to go on hearing his voice throughout, regardless of plaintive or cynical asides, to go on looking with the eyes of the man who was to become a celebrated translator and champion of Brazilian and Portuguese writers such as Pessoa, Drummond de Andrade and Machado de Assis, and whose passion for literature led him to the other side of the world.