Nélida Piñon, Provocative Brazilian Novelist, Is Dead at 85
Nélida Piñon, a trailblazing Brazilian author whose provocative writing won some of the world’s most prestigious prizes, and who made history when she became the first woman to preside over the country’s literary academy, died on Dec. 17 in Lisbon. She was 85.
Her secretary and longtime friend Karla Vasconcelos da Silva said the cause was complications of emergency surgery that she had undergone after battling stomach cancer.
Ms. Piñon is widely regarded as one of Brazil’s greatest contemporary writers, admired for her masterly use of Portuguese and her playful approach to literary form.
“Literature opened the doors of paradise and, at the same time, of hell to me,” Ms. Piñon told a Portuguese radio station in 2021, referring to the highs and lows of the writing process. “I always lived with intensity. I didn’t shy away from deeply loving the Portuguese language, which is my life’s great purpose.”
Her whimsical use of religious symbolism and her exploration of sexuality and eroticism were considered daring in deeply Catholic Brazil, which was ruled by a repressive military dictatorship until 1985. And her experimentation with the baroque and the surreal set her apart from most other Brazilian writers of her time.
Ms. Piñon wrote more than two dozen books, including the novels “The House of Passion” (1972) and her best-known work, “The Republic of Dreams” (1984), which was inspired by her family’s migration to Brazil from Galicia, an autonomous region of Spain. She also wrote short stories, memoirs, essays and speeches.
From 1996 to 1997, Ms. Piñon was the president of the Brazilian Academy of Letters, a cultural institution that acts as the country’s main authority on the Portuguese language. She was the first woman to hold that position.
“She was a pioneer in so many ways,” said Isabel Vincent, an author and investigative journalist whose friendship with Ms. Piñon spanned four decades. “And she was aware of the sort of trailblazing things that she was doing.”
Ms. Piñon’s work has won awards at home and abroad, including the prestigious Prince of Asturias Prize for Literature, considered Spain’s equivalent of the Nobel Prize. She is also a two-time winner of Brazil’s top literary award, the Jabuti Prize.
Her writing was first brought to English-speaking readers in the 1970s by Gregory Rabassa, a distinguished translator of Spanish and Portuguese literature who also worked with the likes of Gabriel García Márquez.
Although the global reach of Ms. Piñon’s work never equaled that of better-known Latin American contemporaries like García Márquez, Julio Cortázar, Mario Vargas Llosa or Isabel Allende, her writing found an enthusiastic public outside Brazil and was translated into some 30 languages.
“A stupendous work, literature of a high order,” Publishers Weekly wrote about “The Republic of Dreams” in 1991. “The Amazonian plenitude of Piñon’s imagination puts her in the category of genius.”
Nélida Cuiñas Piñon was born on May 3, 1937, in the Vila Isabel neighborhood of Rio de Janeiro. Her father, Lino Piñón Muíños, a merchant, was a Galician immigrant; her mother, Olivia Carmen Cuíñas Piñón, a homemaker, was born in Brazil to Galician parents.
As a child, Ms. Piñon was a voracious reader, enchanted by the fantasy world of storytelling. She began to write early on, selling her handwritten stories to her father and other family members for a few dollars apiece.
“I wanted to be a writer,” she told the Brazilian newspaper Estadão in 2021. “I don’t know how or why, I just knew I loved the stories. Above all, the impossible narratives and, who knows, even the illogical ones. Because the absence of logic gave the story more power.”
When Ms. Piñon was 10, her family moved to the rural village in Galicia where her father had grown up. Living there for two years, she deepened her ties to her family heritage, which she would later make reference to in her work, frequently writing about the ideas of belonging and ancestry.
After the family returned to Brazil, Ms. Piñon went on to study at the Pontifical Catholic University of Rio de Janeiro, where she earned a degree in journalism. She began her career writing for newspapers and magazines.
In 1961 she published her first book, “Guia-mapa de Gabriel Arcanjo,” a novel mimicking an extended dialogue between an archangel and a woman who wants to live outside the Christian faith. But it wasn’t until “The Republic of Dreams” more than two decades later that Ms. Piñon’s status in the Brazilian literary world was cemented.
Described by friends as dynamic and restless, Ms. Piñon traveled widely and spent time living in Europe and the United States, although Rio de Janeiro remained her base. She taught at the University of Miami from 1990 to 2003, and she was a visiting lecturer at Harvard, Columbia and Georgetown.
In recent years she spent stretches of time in Portugal, researching the last novel she published in her lifetime, “One Day I’ll Arrive in Sagres” (2020), which she wrote by hand because her eyesight was rapidly fading.
Ms. Piñon leaned on meticulous research as she crafted her novels. When writing “Voices of the Desert,” an erotic retelling of “One Thousand and One Nights,” she read the Quran twice, according to Ms. Vincent.
Her tastes in art were varied. A lover of westerns, she loved rewatching movies like “A Fistful of Dollars” and “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.” When she wrote, it was often while listening to opera by Wagner.
Ms. Piñon struck up conversations with nearly everyone she met, forever in search of a deeper understanding of human nature, Ms. Vincent said in a phone interview.
“She was curious about people; everyone fascinated her,” she said. “That was sort of her mission, trying to understand how people thought, trying to understand the human psyche.”
Ms. Piñon leaves no immediate survivors. She never married or had children, choosing to focus on her writing, Ms. da Silva said. A popular figure in elite literary circles both at home and abroad, she counted Clarice Lispecter, Jorge Amado, Toni Morrison and Susan Sontag among her close friends over the years.
“She used to say, ‘Literature owes me nothing. I owe everything to literature,’” Ms. da Silva said.
Toward the end of her life, Ms. Piñon began to dictate her work into a recorder. Ms. da Silva transcribed her words and printed them in an oversize font, so Ms. Piñon could revise her prose.
Ms. Piñon wrote one final book before her death, which is expected to be published in the spring of 2023.
“She was saying goodbye with this book,” Ms. da Silva said. “It was her farewell to the world.”