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The best books on Brazil

recommended by Larry Rohter

The former Rio de Janeiro bureau chief for the New York Times, Larry Rohter, discusses five books that explore the strain of tragedy lurking just beneath Brazil's 'happy' image.

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Larry Rohter

Larry Rohter served as a correspondent in Rio de Janeiro for 14 years for Newsweek and later as The New York Times bureau chief. He is widely considered a top expert on Brazil. Currently he is a culture reporter for The New York Times and a commentator for Brazilian media. He lives in Hoboken, NJ.

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So, we’re starting with Child of the Dark.

Yes, but first I just want to say how glad I am that we’re talking about Brazil. We’re all very focused on India and China these days, so I’m glad to see Brazil get its props, as we say in New York. I should also say something about the lamentable state of translation from the Portuguese. Some really wonderful books have not been translated at all, and that limits our knowledge of Brazil.

I chose the Carolina de Jesus in part because it’s a sentimental favourite. It was the first book I ever read in Portuguese, and there was a reason for that. It came out in 1960, but I read it a decade later, and it really marked the first time the voice of the Brazilian lower class, the oppressed, was heard. It gave Brazilian readers a glimpse into a world that was all around them but that they didn’t know or even think about. Carolina de Jesus lived in a favela, but she wrote simply and elegantly, so much so that people thought that it must have been polished by the journalist who found her, which wasn’t true. It has been enormously influential and started a whole style of testimonial literature in Latin America. There is a very direct line between this book and City of God, which became a hit film and was based on a memoir in a similar style, and even Rigoberta Menchú’s famous autobiography. In Portuguese the book is actually called ‘the junk closet’ or ‘the garbage room’, the place for people consigned to the margins of society, whose lives have no meaning or value. It was quite revolutionary.

Tell me about the Nelson Rodrigues book.

I acknowledge that I’m cheating here, because this is two volumes, containing 12 of the 17 plays Rodrigues wrote. He is one of the great figures of modern Brazilian literature, best known as a playwright, but also a novelist and essayist. His plays are constantly shocking and were considered so vile when they came out, beginning in the 1940s, that he was nicknamed ‘a degenerate in suspenders’. Some are comedies, others are melodramas or tragicomedies, but they are always about the middle and lower-middle classes in Rio de Janeiro. Machado de Assis wrote a novel in the late-19th century called Dom Casmurro, all about sexual jealousy, and Rodrigues modernised that and brought it into the mid-20th century in a very effective way. As a novelist, he wrote on similar themes of sex and jealousy – exposing the judge, the lawyer and the businessman, the cream of society, by writing about what they get up to behind closed doors. He could be Pinteresque and there are also elements of Eugene O’Neill and Tennessee Williams in him. He is very Brazilian, but he would be a world figure if he had only written in English.

If you could choose just one of the plays?

I’d probably choose The Kiss on the Asphalt. It’s from 1960 but it speaks to us in 2010 – it’s about both media culture and a society embroiled in homosexual panic. A man is run over by a bus and a passer-by cradles him to comfort him, and gives him a farewell kiss on the lips as he is dying. This is turned into a scandal by the sensationalist press, and it ruins the man’s life. It says a lot about our global cult of media and celebrity today.

The Canudos Campaign.

Euclides da Cunha was a military engineer turned journalist who, in the 1890s, covered a rebellion of pro-monarchist settlers in Canudos, in the Northeast of Brazil, led by a religious fanatic called Antonio Conselheiro, who thought that Brazil becoming a republic meant the end of the world. The army was sent in to crush the rebellion five times and 15,000 people were killed. This book is about the campaign but it’s also about Brazilian society, about Brazil and religious fanaticism.

What I took away from it as a journalist was that if you’re looking for the heart of Brazil you have to get away from the large cities and out into the hinterlands, into the countryside. It has been of great practical use to me personally that way. It’s specifically about a Christian kind of messianism that has to do with the end of the empire in 1889-90 and the sense of dislocation the peasantry felt.

The real power and vitality of fanaticism and where it can lead is, of course, relevant to us a century later, and it’s what led Mario Vargas Llosa to write The War of the End of the World, also about Canudos, in which Euclides da Cunha is a character. The version I’m used to seeing is called Rebellion in the Backlands, but Penguin has just put out a new version called Backlands: The Canudos Campaign. It’s a beautiful translation but I don’t much like the title. This is reportage that becomes literature and transcends the limits of journalism, to create something that is still powerful and still being read. A lot of Brazilians would argue that this book marked the beginning of modern Brazilian literature.

Roberto Da Matta next.

With this one the issue of translation plays a big role. Robert Da Matta is a brilliant writer, an anthropologist who has a column that is syndicated everywhere in Brazil. He is perceptive and funny and, as the title of the book suggests, it’s about carnival and the people who live by their wits in urban Brazil. He has written other books that are equally good and I hope someone translates all of them. He is really fun to read, and since he taught at Notre Dame University in the US for 17 years, he sees things as a Brazilian but is also capable of viewing things dispassionately, from the outside. He knows how to choose anecdotes that bring you into the story – portraits of petty criminals who run the Brazilian numbers game and finance the carnival.

What is the Brazilian numbers game?

It’s called the Animal Game and you bet on the number that corresponds to your animal. So, if you have a dream about an alligator you bet on…it’s 57, I think. It’s existed in Brazil for over a century and it’s really a form of petty crime that’s quite respectable. The men who control it have influence in the areas where they live and they traditionally finance the samba schools. There are eagles, donkeys, butterflies, ostriches. Da Matta has written another book that is an anthropological study of the numbers game that is also very good.

Your last book is Tristes Tropiques.

My original intention was to choose only Brazilian books because it’s good for us to hear Brazilian voices, but this one is so good that I had to throw aside my Brazilian choice and give you this. It’s mostly but not entirely about Brazil. Levi-Strauss was in São Paulo, which is now the world’s third largest city, in the 1930s. He draws a lovely, fascinating portrait of the city, but then he also goes off into the Amazon and that’s where he’s at his best. He stays with four different indigenous peoples and he does a portrait of each. I’ve been doing the same since the 1970s, and even though he’s writing in the 1930s he really captures the dilemma of these people who are being overwhelmed by the modern world, and also the perplexity of being a foreigner plopped down among them and the adjustments he had to make. So, in a way it’s a guide book and in a way it’s a novel.

What adjustments do you have to make with indigenous people?

The most fundamental one is that you can’t think that they are primitive and that you are so utterly different. You have to have an open mind and be attentive. Characteristics that are true here are true in advanced societies as well.

What do you mean?

Well, in late 2006 I had to go into an area where the Cinta Larga tribe lives. This particular group had recently killed 40 or 50 miners who’d invaded their land looking for diamonds. I was a little bit concerned, even though the Cinta Larga had invited me in. Levi-Strauss had, in fact, been in this area 70 years before. I was sitting in a car, talking to a chief, and he suddenly asked me: ‘Why are your people so war-like?’ He knew I was American and it was just an amazing moment.

What did you say?

I turned it around and asked him why he thought we were so war-like. He was referring to Iraq, Vietnam, Afghanistan. He had ordered the killing of the miners and he said he had been complaining to FUNAI, the government’s National Indian Foundation, and he’d got sick of telling them and not being listened to.

Did he go to prison?

No. But there are complicated reasons for that.

Why are the tropics tristes?

Originally it was going to have a different title. I think it’s triste not because of what he saw in São Paulo but what he saw further north in the Amazon, people whose ways of life were doomed to disappear. There’s a tribe called the Nambikwara, and in Tristes Tropiques he predicts their demise as a people. In 1978 I got to where their homeland had been and a huge unpaved highway had just been built right through it. I would sometimes see the Nambikwara moping by the side of the road, drunk, morose or just passive. It was a sad prophecy and it did occur. This is a country that’s supposed to be so happy but there is a strain of tragedy below the surface.

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Larry Rohter

Larry Rohter served as a correspondent in Rio de Janeiro for 14 years for Newsweek and later as The New York Times bureau chief. He is widely considered a top expert on Brazil. Currently he is a culture reporter for The New York Times and a commentator for Brazilian media. He lives in Hoboken, NJ.