August 3: Mexico: Songs of the Aztec Nobility

This week, we head northward to Mexico and Guatemala, where indigenous cultures continue to have a major presence. Some nine million people speak one of the many indigenous languages, chiefly Nahuatl or one of twenty-one Mayan languages, often with many Spanish words mixed in. Religiously and culturally as well, Mexico and Guatemala are home to complex interweavings. Thirty years ago, I bought a striking mask in an outdoor market on the edge of Mexico City. It portrays a woman who could be a Hollywood starlet, but for her horns, adorned with ribbons in the colors of the four sacred...

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July 31: Clarice Lispector, Complete Stories

Clarice Lispector’s rise to fame as one of Brazil’s most iconic modern writers was perhaps even more improbable than that of Machado de Assis. To begin with, she wasn’t even Brazilian. Born in 1920 in Ukraine as Chaya Pinchasovna Lispector, she was brought to Brazil as an infant when her parents fled a pogrom during which her mother was raped and contracted syphilis, from which she died when her daughter was...

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July 30: Machado de Assis, "Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas"

Oswald de Andrade’s “Anthropophagist Manifesto” played on relations between Brazil’s indigenous Tupi and the European-oriented majority, but probably only a minority of that majority were of purely European descent. Some 4.9 million slaves were transported from Africa to Brazil from the sixteenth century until 1888, when Brazil finally became the last country in the Western hemisphere to abolish slavery. After centuries of intermarriage -- as well as rape and concubinage -- nearly half the population was classified as mulattos (people of mixed European and African parentage), in addition...

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July 29: Oswald de Andrade, "Anthropophagist Manifesto"

Born and raised in São Paulo, Oswald de Andrade traveled to Italy at age twenty-two in 1912. There he became friends with the Futurist Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, a leading proponent of modernist poetry and art. Marinetti’s ideas, and the explosive 1909 “Manifesto del Futurismo” in which he expressed them, appealed strongly to Andrade, who was looking for alternatives to the provincial realism of many of his Brazilian predecessors. At the same time, despite his friendship with Marinetti and then with the surrealist André Breton in Paris, he wasn’t eager to become a mere epigone of the...

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July 28: Voltaire: "Candide, or Optimism"

Sir Thomas More composed Utopia just at the very beginning of Europe’s encounter with the New World, but by the time Voltaire wrote Candide in 1759, the Americas were firmly under Europe’s sway, and the spread of global commerce and empire meant that the New World could no longer be represented as an Edenic no-place. Following in Raphael Hythlodaeus’s footsteps, Voltaire’s endlessly optimistic young Candide ventures to Brazil, hoping for a better world than he’s found in a corrupt and war-torn Europe. Voltaire’s South American scenes are purely imagined locales,...

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July 27: Brazil: Thomas More, "Utopia"

This week we cross the Pacific and reach what Europeans called “the New World.” Though Phileas Fogg went from Japan to San Francisco, our itinerary continues to expand on his, and so we proceed to South America, now in the fictionalized tracks of one of the earliest European explorers, Amerigo Vespucci.


After exploring the coast of Brazil between 1499 and 1502, Vespucci (or someone using his name) published an account boldly...

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July 24: James Merrill, "Prose of Departure"

Today we look at a remarkable contemporary use of Bashō’s haibun genre, a poetic travelogue entitled “Prose of Departure” (1986) by the American poet James Merrill. Merrill was one of the most creative poets of his generation, winner of the Pulitzer Prize, the Bollingen Prize for Poetry, and twice winner of the National Book Award. He was playful and ironic, and he loved to make use of traditional forms such as the sonnet and villanelle. In his twenty-page “Prose of Departure,” he weaves his narrative around a suite of haiku.


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July 23: Yukio Mishima, "The Sea of Fertility"

One of Japan’s greatest, and strangest, writers, Yukio Mishima had a meteoric career as a novelist, playwright, poet, actor, and film maker, producing some three dozen novels and fifty plays before his spectacular ritual suicide in 1970 at age 45. A right-wing nationalist, he’d built up a private militia, and wanted to inspire his countrymen to return the Japanese emperor to true political power, as a counterweight to Japan’s growing Westernization. Despairing of changing the...

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July 22: Matsuo Bashō: "The Narrow Road to the Deep North"

Together with Murasaki Shikibu, Matsuo Bashō (1644-1694) is the most prominent premodern Japanese writer in world literature. Starting in the late nineteenth century, readers around the world were struck by the spare, contemplative beauty of his haiku, and Ezra Pound and the European Imagists were strongly influenced by poems such as his famous haiku on a frog in a pond:

                          an ancient pond...

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July 21: Murasaki Shikibu, "The Tale of Genji"

Murasaki Shikibu was Higuchi Ichiyo’s favorite author for good reasons, not only as her greatest predecessor as a Japanese woman writer, but more specifically as a poet turned writer of fiction. Murasaki’s masterpiece challenges us today on many levels, beginning with the nearly 800 poems interspersed through her book’s fifty-four chapters. Arthur Waley, who first translated Genji into English in the 1920s, excised most of the poetry and turned the surviving lyrics into prose, making the Genji look more like a European novel, or we might say a kind...

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