Boyd Tonkin: A Week in Books

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On the square in Parati, outside the colonial-era pousada where a clutch of leading authors stayed last week for the Brazilian resort town's literary festival, three defiant pigs defended their house against anyone who might want to blow it down. The pigs, along with Snow White, Puss in Boots and other legendary creatures, took the shape of papier-mâché figures crafted by schoolkids. They formed part of a vibrant children's strand that partners FLIP: the Festa Literária Internacional de Parati launched in 2003 by Liz Calder, founder of Bloomsbury Publishing, part-time resident since 1999, and a distinctly real local heroine.

But where, and who, was the big bad wolf? Even in a setting worthy of the happiest sort of fairy tale, with the old gold-exporting port on the Costa Verde flanked on one side by its island-studded bay and on the other by the rainforest-clad slopes of the Serra da Bocaina, the question haunted many events. The predations of power, war and terror - and the writer's ability, or inability, to respond - proved the serpents that slid and hissed through this particular paradise.

A festival that opened to news of the alleged aircraft bomb plot hosted one author who - in US eyes, at least - counts as a terrorist. Journalist and Brazilian Green Party senator, Fernando Gabeira joined a combative Christopher Hitchens for a debate that, typically for Parati, packed out both the main tent and an overspill marquee with a screen relay. As a leftist militant under the 1960s dictatorship, Gabeira helped kidnap the US ambassador. Now he laments the Utopian designs that left "a trail of blood" across history and wants us to draw inspiration "from the visions of Shakespeare rather than Che Guevara". But Hitchens - when not winding up the audience with his defence of US and Israeli policy - quoted Oscar Wilde to the effect that a map of the world without Utopia would not be worth looking at.

Should writers seek for that Utopia inside, or outside their art? In a lecture dedicated to Parati poet and activist Ze Kleber, Tariq Ali strode from Solzhenitsyn to Proust to Cormac McCarthy in a resumé of "the links that never go away: the links between literature and politics". Those political links can be lifelines, but they can harden into shackles, too. This year's FLIP paid homage to Jorge Amado, the Dickensian chronicler of Afro-Brazilian culture who in the mid-1940s gave up fiction for a decade of Communist commitment.

At Parati, guests agreed that a commitment to understanding the dreams and nightmares of history should start in fiction rather than beyond it. Toni Morrison - FLIP's first Nobel laureate - affirmed that the novel "can go inside - where history cannot, and should not, go". It can help us inhabit rather than inspect the horror of the past: "You can't just throw things at the reader. You have to seduce him or her into a story that has a bad beginning, a bad middle and a bad end."

American wunderkind Jonathan Safran Foer, who turned the attacks of 11 September inside out with Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, regretted that "we treat the story that an artist can tell as something like a luxury, a garnish". Yet literary narrative is "every bit as important as what politicians or journalists do". He felt "a little bit sad" that global politics had shadowed so many festival encounters. Ali Smith, his opposite number in a discussion of fiction's dark secrets, replied that "Art is helplessly political. Everything we do is in history and time."

As for the wolf, he was there on the Praça do Matriz. Skulking under a tree, he didn't look likely to blow anyone's house down. After all, he belongs in a story, the only place where force can be tamed by art. And, even in a such a blessed spot as Parati, that may be as near to Utopia as writers and their readers can ever hope to come.