August Willemsen

Brazilian Letters

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.

Flawless observations of daily life.

NRC Handelsblad

His stylistic sensitivity is apparent in every detail.


Brazilian Letters is one of those rare books in the proverbial un-put-downable class.


São Paulo, 2 June 1967

Dear Paul,

For almost four months now I’ve been asking myself what I think of it here, and I still can’t say. There’s a lot I like, and a lot I don’t, all at the same time, which makes it difficult to “think” anything. We arrived here with our ears ringing with the pre- dictions of ex-Brazil voyagers (voyagers being a misnomer – they all take planes): it’ll be fantastic, you’ll see! But we still haven’t seen: nobody else came here the way we did, and besides, having enough money tends to affect people’s way of seeing. At first it was easy enough: everything struck us as equally rotten. But now that we’re living somewhat cheek by jowl (though congenially enough) with other people sharing our “place”, whenever I make up my mind about something I realise that the opposite might be just as valid. It’s the same everywhere, of course (the notion is actually an old favourite of mine termed “the simultaneity of contradictory sentiments”, formulated ages ago during long nights of drunken philosophis- ing in the company of Ype Bekker and Johannes Boer, with girls from school falling asleep on our chests, or we on theirs), but over here it’s all so blatant. Everything’s out in the open. A city without pretense. A city without an “aesthetic criterion”, where rich and poor, old and new, beauty and ugliness jostle side by side, where nothing at all is done either to preserve fortuitous beauty or to mitigate ugliness. What I mean is that the archi- tectural mess is something you actually, miraculously, get used to. Why should we be in the right, anyway? Why are old things attractive by definition, and new ones off-putting? I’m having doubts about the aesthetic criterion, anyway, and am beginning to find that the anarchy of this urban constellation compares favourably with the kind of codified culture we have in Amster- dam, where there’s an outcry whenever a bank opens next to a canal-side house, and official permission must be obtained for the realignment of an off-kilter building brick.

(Excerpt translated by Ina Rilke)


August Willemsen

August Willemsen (1936-2007) was a leading literary translator and man of letters. Among the major Portuguese and Brazilian writers he translated are Fernando Pessoa, Machado de Assis and Carlos Drummond de Andrade; he also published essays, diaries and letters. His books include Language as a Pair

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Braziliaanse brieven (1985). Non-fiction, 283 pages.

Sample translation available


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