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The novel follows a young man, Macunaíma, "a hero without a character," born in the Brazilian jungle and possessing strange and remarkable abilities (Mostly Shapeshifting), as he travels to São Paulo and back again. The protagonist is often considered a representation of the Brazilian personality. The novel employs a composite structure using elements of what would later be called magic realism and a number of dialects of both interior Brazil and São Paulo. It is based on Andrade's research in language, culture, folklore, and music of the indigenous peoples in Brazil.
Macunaíma was an attempt on the part of Andrade to write a novel which represented pan-Brazilian cultura and language.. The author desired to write Macunaíma in the spoken language of Brazil. Macunaíma's catch phrase "Ai, que preguiça!" is a pun in both Tupi language and Portuguese as "Ai" is a Tupi word for sloth and "preguiça" is Portuguese for sloth. This is an example of Andrade using a fused language to write this text, which begins with a simple description "In the depths of the virgin jungle was born Macunaíma, hero of our people. He was jet black and son of the fear of the night".
Considered a "rhapsody" by Andrade, Macunaíma is a melding of the cultures of Brazil. Most of the folk lore contained within the text is taken directly from native stories; and, as Lucia Sá has shown, Andrade's novel draws heavily on the narratives of the Pemon people that were collected and recorded by Theodor Koch-Grünberg.
In the tale, Macunaíma travels from his home tribe in the jungle to São Paulo to Rio de Janeiro and back again to his home in the jungle with chase scenes that go all over the country of Brazil in between. His purpose in traveling to São Paulo is to retrieve an amulet which he lost. The amulet had been given to him by his lover, Ci before she ascended into the sky to become a star. He encounters all sorts of folk legends and orixas along the way. The interactions which Macunaíma had with most of these characters was imagined by Andrade, though the essence of the folk lore remains true.
In 1969, the Brazilian production company Filmes do Serro made a film based on the novel, but with a substantially different storyline. The story takes place in Rio de Janeiro rather than São Paulo, and is set at more or less the time the film was made.
- Macunaíma: The main protagonist and Tapanhumas youngest child. A shapeshifting anti-hero born in the fictional indigenous tribe of Tapanhumas (that as the same name of his mother), who is well known for his hedonism, self-centredness and general laziness (his most recurring feature). After he accidentally slays his mother Tapanhumas, he, along with his brothers Jiquê and Maanape, leave their tribe in shame, but he soon finds his true love Cí, who gives him a child. Unfortunately, the child dies of poisoning, and a grief-stricken Cí gives him an amulet before she literally ascends to heaven. However, Macunaíma loses this amulet in a fight against a supernatural snake and has to travel to São Paulo, as the giant who stole it, (Piaimã), lives there. After several misadventures in São Paulo, Macunaíma eventually slays the giant and retrieves the amulet before he and his brothers return to their tribe. However, in an argument with his brother Jiquê, Macunaíma literally curses him, but his spell backfires as he himself becomes ill and both his brothers become a shadow-like monster that eventually bonds with the king vulture. To make matters worse, Macunaíma has previously angered the sun goddess, "Vei" when he rejects her daughters sometime before (or a little after) he retrieves his amulet, and in revenge, she tricks him into making out with a monstrous Iara who steals his amulet again and literally tears him apart. He survives, but knowing that he has no true reason to live without his amulet (and that his chance to find it again is slim at best), Macunaíma also ascends to heaven and becomes the constellation Ursa Major. For most of the rhapsody, Macunaíma is a figure of fun and, despite being described as ugly, he's a quite successful ladies' man, which is evident by the relative ease with which he dates (and makes out) with almost all women that he encounters.
- Jiquê: Macunaíma's older brother, Maanape younger brother and Tapanhumas second child. Described as loyal and hard-working, Jiquê despises his younger brother's immature and selfish nature as he makes no effort to help his family. Worse, Macunaíma frequently cases some sort of hard-time or humiliation for Jiquê himself in both direct and indirect ways, having for example, stole Jiquê's dates and girlfriends even since he was a 6 years old child (indeed, a recurring gag in the book is that any woman that express the slightest sign of romance or attraction towards Jiquê almost invariably ends up having sex with Macunaíma, much to Jiquê's chagrin). For the most, Jiquê is loyal to his family and makes his best to help his brothers, but grows increasingly annoyed at Macunaíma's antics, and after he twice lost magical objects that Jiquê stole to help to find food, Jiquê gets mad at him and refuses to bring any food to their house. Macunaíma, in response, curses Jiquê so potently that he, his Brother Maanape and another lover of Macunaíma, jaguataci, are turned into a kind of Shadow-like demon that decides to get revenge on Macunaíma by eating anything before Macunaíma himself can, but he eventually bonds with the king vulture and becomes his fearsome shadow.
- Maanape: Tapanhumas's eldest chid. Already quite old at the beginning of the tale, Maanape has a supportive role and serves as a mediator between Macunaíma's immaturity and Jiquê's short temperament, and while not approval of the former's hedonism, he is always willing to defend him from the latter's angers and do his best to help his younger brothers. The narrator often says that he is a sorcerer, but Maanape's magic is seldom seen, though he has twice resurrect Macunaíma when he was inadvertently killed during the story, and the narrator often notices that Maanape already knows something before his brothers themselves notice or have the chance (or interest) to share, implying that Maanape has some sort of divinatory/telepathical ability. in the end, he gets turned into the shadow creature cited above by Macunaíma, and eventually gets bonded to the king vulture.
- Piaimã: A cannibalistic Peruvian giant and commercian and the novel's primary main antagonist. Also known as Venceslau Pietro Pietra, Piaimã founded Macunaíma's amulet in the woods and takes it with him to São Paulo. Macunaíma make several attempts to retrieve his amulet from Piaimã, but no attempt to trick or to kill him worked well (even a powerful Macumba only make him heavenly, but temporally ill). Eventually, though, Macunaíma becomes stronger and, through clever tricks, makes Piaimã falls in the same pot in which he intended to cook the protagonist, and his last words before dying were "Needs salt...". His exact height wasn't said, but he was tall enough to use a normal human as an earring.
- Ci: An Icamiaba (Brazilian equivalent of an amazon) and nature spirit, Ci, "mother of the forest", was Macunaíma's main and true love of his life. When he first saw her, he became horny and, with the help of his two brothers, successfully overpowers the strong woman and has sex with her. Despite (or perhaps, due to) the rape, Ci actually became infatuated with Macunaíma, and they soon marry and come to love each other genuinely. She also eventually gives birth to Macunaíma's first (and only) son (in whom Macunaíma takes great pride) who already make economical plans for him. Unfortunately, Ci's breast was poisoned by a snake and when she was forced to breast feed him, he dies. In grief, Ci leaves Earth to become a star, but not before she gives him a magical amulet as a reminder of their love. this will set in motion the main events of the novel. Macunaíma gains the title of "The King of the Virgin Forest" (Rei da Mata), which grants him the status of nature spirit/deity.
- Vei: The playful, but also vengeful sun goddess and second main antagonist. Vei appears very early on the story, "gently" warming the backs of Macunaima and his brothers as they leave Tapanhuma's tribe, but she gains pivotal importance during the middle of the book in the chapter Vei. During an incident (before or after he retrieves his amulet) in which Macunaíma becomes trapped on a small island, Vei, in mortal guise and along with her daughter, rescued and bathed Macunaima. As they browse in the river, Vei proposes to Macunaíma to married to any daughter that she has (even more than one if necessary), under the condition of respect the marriage and to never have sex with any other women. It is never reveled why she makes such offer (possibly because of his status as the "king of the Virgin Forest" and the playful affections that she already as for him), but Macunaíma soon breaks his promise, and so Vei angrily revels that, if he had married any of her daughters, he would become immortal. This revelation surprises Macunaíma, but he remains indifferent to Vei's anger as the damage was already done. Vei gets her revenge, though, in the final of the book as she tricked Macunaíma into having sex with a monstrous Iara that quickly rips him apart and takes away his amulet, this time for good.
- Macunaíma's parrot: The last main character to appear, but the very first to be heard as he's also the story's narrator. He "first" appears in the very end of the book, when he finds a sick and lonely Macunaima in his hut some time after he has turned his brothers into shadow. At first, Macunaíma finds him to be little more than an annoyance, but soon (possibly out of loneliness) warms to him and even tells him one of his "famous" fairy tales. On the next morning, though, Macunaíma discovers that the parrot has stolen his amulet and, after a short but heated chase, soon finds the bird and forces him to give his amulet back. However, Macunaíma quickly notices the presence of an attractive woman in the river, unaware of the fact that she was an Iara sent by Vei to get revenge upon him. Sex-crazed as he is, Macunaíma can't help but try to make out with that woman, only to have his amulet stolen and be torn apart by the river monster, while the parrot is powerless to do anything but witness the brutality. After Macunaíma recovers most parts of his body (except his leg), Macunaíma tells the parrot his story and, knowing that there was not point or hope to find his amulet again, Macunaíma plants a magical seed that grows into a giant plant that takes him to the sky where he turns into Ursa Major. Out of sorrow and respect, the parrot decides to tell Macunaima's story to the readers so his legend will not be forgotten.
- Sá, Lucia, Rain Forest Literatures: Amazonian Texts and Latin American Culture. University of Minnesota Press, 2004. pp. 35-68.