In Brazil, an unlikely literary mecca

Parati's second annual international literary festival drew Booker Prize winners and autograph hounds.

On the cobbled streets running alongside one bank of Parati's charming estuary, US author Paul Auster strides through the crowds like a rock star. Nearby, Booker Prize winners Martin Amis, Margaret Atwood, and Ian McEwan sign autographs for packs of fans. And across the stone bridge that spans the Pereque-açu River, bestselling Brazilian author Luiz Fernando Verissimo overcomes his famous shyness to pose for pictures with admirers.

Walking around this charming colonial town and seeing the frenzy, it would be natural to assume that Brazil was a hotbed of world literature, an Ireland of the tropics or a Russia with magical realism. The second annual Parati International Literary Festival (FLIP), held last month, brought 12,000 visitors from around the world to hear authors read from their works and debate "speculative fiction," "novels within novels," and "social exclusion: fact and fiction."

The success, however, was an unlikely one. Brazil may have produced Machado de Assis, perhaps the most original novelist to come from South America; and Paulo Coelho, the mystical storyteller esteemed from Boston to Baghdad. But this is a country in which almost half of adults own fewer than 10 books, according to the Brazilian Chamber of Books.

"Though few people read books here, Brazil is big, and so in absolute terms that is a lot of people," says Mauro Munhoz, a festival organizer. "FLIP was a success."

Outside the private parties and book launches, literate environments are hard to come by in a country where soccer stars and musicians are much more revered than wordsmiths. Although Brazil boasts the world's eighth-largest publishing industry, the market is limited because 38 percent of Brazilians are functionally illiterate and many of those who can read cannot afford to spend on a book what it costs to feed a family for week.

Ironically, it is the lack of an established book culture that is behind FLIP's success, ventures Ms. Atwood. Parati, a small coastal village about halfway between Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, serves as a magnet for people starved of literary company, she says. The lack of a book culture in Brazil "probably means that those who do read feel beleaguered," she says. "Here they feel part of things."

One thrill for the writers was seeing how welcome they were in a foreign land. Colm Toibin, the Irish author who gave an inspired talk on James Joyce's Ulysses, says he was pursued by TV cameras and fans even on the short walk from his hotel to the author's auditorium. "They follow you along the road...." Mr. Toibin says with a smile. "It's like Mick Jagger has come."

The inspiration for the Parati festival came from Liz Calder, the English owner of Bloomsbury Publishers and a frequent visitor to Brazil. When she saw how the Hay-on-Wye festival in Wales had brightened up the tiny town since its inception in 1988, she decided to produce something similar in Parati, where she has a home.

Ms. Calder set up FLIP last year, inviting mostly Brazilian and British authors. This year's five-day event was longer, bigger, and more corporate, with larger tents, more authors, free feature films for locals, and a children's entertainment jamboree.

"Parati was great," said Morgan Entriken, an editor with the New York publisher Grove/Atlantic. "Good things will come out of it for me."

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