My interest in A Death in Brazil was piqued when Roosh listed it as one of the books that changed his life. An experienced travel writer, Peter Robb journeyed to Brazil from Sicily over a decade ago and recorded his observations and research in this memoir, which traverses Brazilian history from the country’s founding up to the present day, weaving together politics, sex, and religion in a tapestry of drama and intrigue.
Is A Death in Brazil a life-changing book? No, but I see how it could be for some people.
Don’t get me wrong; this is a great book. But what keeps it out of the highest echelon of travel memoirs is its lack of a personal touch. A Death in Brazil is more history lesson than story, with Robb himself little more than a fringe observer to the anarchy and chaos of this nation. If you’re looking for another tale of sex, sleaze and self-discovery, this book isn’t it. If you’re looking for a twisting and gripping novelization of Brazilian history and culture, A Death in Brazil is a great read.
And to his credit, Robb knows Brazil. Starting with the Indian cultures that inhabited the country before the Europeans landed, Robb analyzes the circumstances that make the place unique. What separates Brazil from the U.S. and Canada—and indeed, the rest of Latin America—is its racially fluid and sexually charged culture. Where the color lines are policed heavily in America and Canada, Brazilians fucked each other with enough abandon—whites with blacks, blacks with Indians, Indians with whites—to create a sort of egalitarianism that persists in the face of the country’s class inequality:
What linked the masters and the slaves was sex. In Freyre’s intricately documented study, every matter of life on the sugar plantations led subtly back to sex. The sex was so deeply present in his material that Freyre hardly needed to be explicit about it. It was sex enhanced by the gorgeousness of the climate and the sweetness of the sugar, and also sex made perverse by the cruel relationship of masters to slaves, of the Roman Catholic Church to African practices and indigenous forest life. Every new theme he turned to became an aspect of sexual life. It was a very seductive picture of a slave society, a lot more complex in its reciprocities than I had ever imagined. The Brazil of the sugar plantations was, in Freyre’s account of it, profoundly influenced by the values and practices the captives had brought with them from West Africa, so that in time the culture of the Portuguese masters had been subtly but radically transformed by the ways of the people they had used as chattels. Brazil had turned into a society vastly different from that of the slave-owning states of North America through the intimacy that existed at all levels between masters—and mistresses, and the children of the Portuguese masters and mistresses—and their slaves and their slaves’ children. If in Protestant North America sex with slaves had been nasty, brutish, short and a matter of profound shame, particularly when the children were born, in the lax Catholic Brazil of the tropics, sex across the divide of race and ownership seemed to be at the very center of plantation life. Sometimes, reading Freyre, you wondered how they ever got the cane harvested and crushed and the juice boiled down.
While at times difficult to follow, as Robb buries the reader in an avalanche of dates and names, A Death in Brazil is never laborious to read thanks to his writing style. His prose is calm, collected and powerful, like waves crashing against the beach on a hot day. Robb also expertly conveys the violence and lust of Brazilian society through his accounts of events such as the War of Canudos, a civil war that occurred in the late 19th century between the government and monarchists in the northeast resistant to the changes the elite was foisting on them:
But there were too many dead. Fifteen thousand or more from the last days. Clouds of carrion birds hung in the air over Canudos and dogs howled for their fallen owners on the ground. For years afterward, whenever rains came, corpses washed up, mummified in the desert air and still dressed, some of them, in their officers’ blue republican uniforms with the red stripe. Year after year after year, every little drylands shower brought up skulls and bones that the hooves of the oxen and the mules slowly ground back into the quartz and granite. The frenzy of extermination did not allow the Counselor to lie in peace. Two days after his community was razed, the army discovered where Antônio Vicente Mendes Maciel was buried and they dug him up and photographed the corpse. The picture of the dead and bearded Counselor anticipated the postmortem photographs of the bearded Che Guevara taken in Bolivia seventy years later. They hacked off the decomposing head with a knife and carried it on a pike in civilization’s victory parade through Salvador, much as Zumbi’s had been after the destruction of Palmares two hundred years before. Then, this being the age of science, his head was taken to the Medical Faculty of Bahia to be studied for abnormalities.
The one element of Brazilian culture and society that Robb conveys in the book that stuck out to me—though he himself might be unaware of it—is Brazilians’ desire to belong. Since independence in the early 19th century, Brazil’s elite has desperately wanted the country to be considered part of the West, to be on par with America and the nations of Europe. Robb writes extensively on how this desire to belong led to a massive upheaval in Brazilian society in the late 1800′s: the country abolished its monarchy and became a republic, ended slavery (the last nation in the Western Hemisphere to do so) and disavowed its genuinely multiracial heritage in line with pro-white eugenics beliefs. This caused a massive rift between the wealthier, whiter southeastern portion of the country and the northeastern part, which is poorer and blacker.
Among nations, Brazil has always been the equivalent of the little kid who desperately tries to emulate his cooler big brother and never succeeds.
This constant longing, to the point where Brazilians will upend everything to fit in, extends all the way to the present day. The true protagonist of A Death in Brazil isn’t Robb himself, but Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, whose rise from poor laborer in the northeast to Brazil’s presidency forms the book’s story arc. Even if you’re not a leftist, reading about Lula’s struggles and triumphs against the military and his political opponents will make you want to cheer. Nonetheless, with Lula’s election to the presidency in 2003, Robb is oddly optimistic. My view? Given that the West is in the throes of an ideology that denigrates whiteness and masculinity, it’s not surprising that the Brazilian elite would try to fit in by electing a brown leftist as their leader.
It also explains why Lula’s successor as president, Dilma Rousseff, has gone completely ovaries-to-the-wall in insane feminist reforms.
Like I said before, Robb’s relative absence from A Death in Brazil’s story and action knocks the book down several pegs. While he shares anecdotes of his experiences and observations from time to time, he’s never involved in the action itself, constantly remaining on the outside looking in. While he’s skilled at turning what could have been a boring history lesson into a thrilling and dramatic tale, the lack of his presence in the book makes it less interesting than it otherwise would have been.
Aside from this, A Death in Brazil is a grand and epic achievement, a must-read for anyone interested in Brazil as a country or just looking for an intriguing true crime-type story.
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