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Obituary: Antonio Houaiss

WHEN IN 1964 a minor diplomatic officer, Antonio Houaiss, was arbitrarily dismissed, the Brazilian military dictatorship that had taken power that year made probably their single most important contribution to the culture of their country. The victim of this bout of ideological cleansing became also the foremost Brazilian philologist of the second half of the century.

A progressive publisher, Enio Silveira (a sort of Brazilian Victor Gollancz), decided that the newly unemployed linguist needed some economic help and grandly commissioned him to do the translation of a book difficult enough to challenge his philological reputation. Houaiss worked full-time for a year, and in 1966 Silveira published one of the best translations ever of James Joyce's Ulysses.

From then on Houaiss would become a specialist in massive scholarly tours de force. He was the chief editor of the three main encyclopaedias in Portuguese, as well as dictionaries and reference books. At the time of his death he was working on another gargantuan project, a "General Dictionary of the Portuguese Language" that would include every word used by Portuguese- speaking peoples in Europe, Latin America, Africa and Asia.

An old idea first sketched in 1986, the new dictionary became a reality as a result of the recent campaign for the multinational orthographic unification of the Portuguese language. The dictionary, which is 95 per cent finished, will have about 300,000 entries, almost twice as many as its best predecessor, and is due to be published next year as part of the celebrations of the 500th anniversary of Brazil's discovery by the Portuguese. Since his death it has been renamed the "Houaiss dictionary".

Although worn lightly, Houaiss's erudition was formidable. I remember several lunches in Rio de Janeiro in the Seventies at which staff members and contributors to his encyclopaedias - including some of the greatest Brazilian essayists, scholars and historians of the time - were present, and Houaiss presided with natural authority. If his opinions on literature or politics were sometimes disputed, everyone deferred to him as far as food and drink were concerned - he was the author of a major contribution to national gastronomy (Magia ba cozinha brasileira, "The Magic of Brazilian Cuisine", 1979), and the foremost authority on beer in Brazil (A cerveja e seus misterios, "Beer and its Mysteries", 1986).

To a large extent, Houaiss was a self-taught man. He was born in 1915, the fifth of seven children of Lebanese immigrants. His father ran a haberdashery shop in Copacabana, where he grew up, when it was the heart of Rio de Janeiro, then Brazil's capital. But as a 12-year-old he preferred the company of an anarchist Portuguese tailor who indulged his curiosity about literature and radical politics. First he studied book-keeping in an academy of commerce (graduating in 1933), and soon afterwards joined the classical studies department of Universidade do Brasil, where he graduated in 1942.

His first jobs were teaching Portuguese, Latin and literature in order to pay for his studies. He became a diplomatist by the back door: after getting a job teaching in the cultural department of the Foreign Ministry he was sent to Uruguay from 1943 to 1945 to teach Portuguese and Brazilian culture. That gave him the break to pass the diplomatic concourse in 1945, becoming a vice-consul in Geneva from 1947 to 1949; there he represented Brazil at several United Nations organisations.

His left-wing ideas soon became a hindrance to his diplomatic career. Labelled as a "Communist", although he never joined the Party, he was passed over promotion to the United States and sent instead to a diplomatic backwater, the Dominican Republic. There, from 1949 to 1951, he had his second first-hand experience of a dictatorship, under the government of the Generalissimo Lenidas Trujillo. His first had been in Brazil, under Getlio Vargas's fascistic "Estado Novo" in the Thirties.

In 1951 he returned to the mainstream with a two-year posting in Athens, and finally in New York, where he worked at the Brazilian mission to the United Nations from 1960 to 1964. Immediately after the April 1964 military coup, Houaiss was forced into early retirement and expelled from the diplomatic service, as well as being deprived of his political rights for 10 years. Already in the Fifties, while serving in Athens, he had been put into "inactive availability" - paid but not employed and unable to apply for any other post - together with other left-wing diplomatists. It wasn't until 1990 that the then Presidente Collor reinstated Houaiss in the diplomatic corps as an ambassador for the purpose of retirement benefits.

Though an open Socialist militant, Antonio Houaiss was never involved in politics proper. Under the presidency of Juscelino Kubitschek (1956- 61) he was a presidential adviser, and later, under Itamar Franco (1992- 94) he was Culture Minister. Ironically, it was as a political "non-person" during the authoritarian period from 1964 to 1989 that Houaiss, with other intellectuals, became a symbol of civic resistance.

After a brief spell as an editorial writer in the national daily Correio da Manha (1964-65), he returned to scholarly activity as editor-in-chief of the Delta-Larousse Encyclopaedia (12 volumes, published in the mid- 1960s), and the Mirador Encyclopaedia (20 volumes, 1975). As a philologist he also wrote two bilingual Portuguese-English dictionaries, including the two-volume Webster dictionary in 1982.

He was a scholarly editor, starting with the critical edition of the works of the turn-of-the-century novelist Lima Barreto (1956), as well as of other classic Brazilian writers. Houaiss was also an influential critic, from early volumes such as Crtica Avulsa ("Selected Essays", 1960) to Drummond, mais seis poetas e um problema ("Drummond, Six More Poets and a Problem", 1976), where he totally renewed the critical vision of the work of Carlos Drummond de Andrade, Brazil's leading poet.

Antonio Houaiss, philologist, diplomatist and writer: born Rio de Janeiro 15 October 1915; married 1942 Ruth Marques de Salles (died 1988); died Rio de Janeiro 7 March 1999.