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Stories on a String

February 8, 2009

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On a visit to Recife, you are likely to encounter this local character, especially in the evening in the streets around Recife Antigo. He is selling Literatura de Cordel, small, thin books printed on cheap paper that sell by the thousands to  illiterate people who scarcely can afford to buy them.

The story of these books is told in an article by Braulio Tavares on BrazilMax. He explains that they are a central part of popular culture in Brazil´s Northeast. The name cordel (string) comes from the fact that sometimes they are are displayed, in small-town markets, hanging on horizontal strings. They are folhetos (small booklets) of around 16×10 centimeters, with typically 8, 16 or 32 pages and are always written in verse.

Tavares explains that “The cordel is oral type of literature, only a means of recording and transmitting the text. The seller, or folheteiro, is supposed to sing aloud the verses to his customers: often the same individual writes, prints, sings and sells the folheto. The cordel is cultivated among poor and illiterate people, most of them living in farms or small villages; thus, the traditional use is that somebody buys a folheto and, back home, reads it aloud while the others listen.”

They can be about almost any subject: journalistic, narrating and making commentaries about current facts; tales of the life of saint; the adventures of the cangaceiros (rural bandits); stories about cowboys and cattle; stories about hard life in the big cities (unemployment, inflation). They can be serious or satirical, moralistic or pornographic. They sometimes retell traditional tales like “Sleeping Beauty” or “Romeo and Juliet;” and there are also a great many fantasy stories.

The fantasies in the cordels are very close to the universe of traditional European folktales. On the other side, the setting is often full of typically Brazilian elements, and this gives the stories a very peculiar flavor. Like any other folk literature, the cordel endlessly retells a cluster of basic plots and employs recurrent ideas.

Tavares suggests that the importance of this form of media is hard to judge,  but says that in a country in which a good-selling mainstream novel is one that sells 5,000 to 10,000 copies (in a country of 160 million people), and a good cordel can reportedly sell over a million copies in less than a year, the cordel beats  “real literature,” in term of reach and influence.

If you are interested in more information, a very good introduction in English is Candace Slater’s “Stories on a String – The Brazilian Literatura de Cordel.” Buy Stories on a String from Amazon.com.

The author gratefully acknowledges the many sources that were consulted in the writing of this article. While they provide the foundation, the interpretation and opinion are entirely those of the author.

Paul Barnett is the Founder of Recife Guide.

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