By John Fitzpatrick
When Peter Robb’s book A Death in Brazil” was published in 2004 I tried to read it but gave up towards the end as I found it to be nothing more than a dull travelogue padded out with recollections of previous trips and a bit of historical background. Behind the melodramatic title lay a collection of banal comments, the dirty mind of a schoolboy in relation to sex, unconvincing claims that the author’s life had been in constant danger and feeble attempts to create local characters. There was an element of fantasy about this persistent sex and violence, the kind of fantasy Brazil often sparks in the minds of foreign men. The death in the title refers to P.C. Farias, the financier of former President Fernando Collor de Mello, whose murder in 1996 has still not been satisfactorily explained. This is the thread which runs throughout the book and the only part worth reading although, as we will see later, how much of it Robb actually wrote is questionable.
I decided to give the book another try recently when I saw a paperback version in a bookshop. This time I was struck by the lack of references to source material in the text although Robb presents several pages of “Sources and Readings” at the end. This was particularly striking since much of the material covers private meetings, conversations and telephone calls which only an eye-witness could have provided. Since Robb is an Australian who has never lived in Brazil and is not a journalist, it showed remarkable insight. I was also surprised that the reading list did not include Joseph A. Page’s excellent work “The Brazilians” although much of the information on President Luis Inacio Lula da Silva echoes Page’s account. Nor does Robb give due credit to Veja magazine which broke the initial story which eventually led to Collor resigning as he was about to be impeached by Congress.
There were also clumsy errors, such as describing Portugal as a “Mediterranean country” whereas its coastline is entirely Atlantic or an undocumented claim that one-third of Brazilians are of Italian descent. Robb adopts an idiosyncratic style in which he refers to Indians as “indios” and calls certain people by their first name, such as the sociologist Gilberto Freyre, writer Euclides da Cunha, and ex-President Fernando Collor. This careless approach is typical of a certain kind of foreigner who takes Brazil in a way he would never take another country and shapes it to fit his fantasies and delusions.
I was not alone in questioning Robb’s sources and methods. At least two Brazilian journalists have accused him of plagiarism. Mario Sergio Conti, who was managing editor of Veja at the time of the Collor revelations and subsequently wrote a long book on the affair called “Notcias do Planalto: A Imprensa e Fernando Collor”, claimed that Robb had “stolen, plagiarized, copied and paraphrased dozens of sentences” from his book. Conti’s accusations appeared in an article in the Folha de S. Paulo. He also wrote a letter to the Times Literary Supplement. Here is an extract:
“Peter Robb invited me to lunch in Rio de Janeiro at the beginning of 2001. Robb praised Notcias do Planalto and told me of his plans to write a book about Brazil, Fernando Collor and Luis Inacio Lula da Silva. I recommended that he read certain books and gave him phone numbers for both Collor and Lula da Silva. I never heard from him again.
When I read A Death in Brazil I was rather shocked. There were nineteen passages in Robb’s book that were startlingly similar to passages in Notcias do Planalto. What we are dealing with here is not simply use of information, as is normal in intellectual work. The fact is that entire sentences, lines of reasoning and images recur with only a few words changed. I have prepared translated transcripts of the passages in question from Notcias do Planalto and the corresponding passages from A Death in Brazil.
Robb mentions my book only once. On page 313, in the section “Sources and Readings”, he says that Notcias do Planalto is a “very fluid and complete account of Fernando’s fast rise and faster fall as seen by the journalists of Brazilian press and television, not least of whom [is] the author”. This mention in no way justifies the use Peter Robb seems to have made of my book. One wonders if he would have used my book so freely had it been published in English.”
Another Brazilian journalist, Lucas Figueiredo, claimed that Robb had copied parts of his book on the Farias affair called “Morcegos Negros”. Robb mentions this book somewhat disparagingly in his “Sources and Readings”. (Ironically his description of it as being “disorganized, overexcited and skimpy” fits “A Death in Brazil” perfectly.) I have not read Conti’s or Figueiredo’s books so I cannot comment. However, Robb’s fly-on-the-wall style of presenting events makes one wonder where he got the information from.
The Guardian, which had given Robb’s book a rave review, later printed an article about Conti’s allegations. At one point, it said, “Robb isn’t talking, but an editor at Bloomsbury, his UK publisher, says she doesn’t believe it’s plagiarism since Conti’s book is listed as a source. She describes Robb’s use of the book as “accepted practice in non-academic non-fiction”. Bloomsbury has nevertheless offered Conti fuller credit in the paperback edition.” In other words, the publisher agreed that Conti’s complaint was legitimate.
The Sydney Morning Herald quoted a statement from Robb on the allegations in which he says, “This is ridiculous on one level and very serious as a legal matter.” This is a rather stuffy reaction especially as Robb describes Conti as a “canny old Brazilian journalist” who shared a cold beer with him in his book, although he does not name him. At the same time, the newspaper added that “Robb declined to comment on why he thought the plagiarism allegations had been made.”
Part 2 next week…
John Fitzpatrick 2005
John Fitzpatrick is a Scottish writer and consultant with long experience of Brazil. He is based in São Paulo and runs his own company Celtic Comunicaes. This article originally appeared on his site http://www.brazilpoliticalcomment.com.br. He can be contacted at email@example.com.
Previous articles by John Fitzpatrick on www.gringoes.com:
Brazil: Alckmin the Hare Takes on Serra the Tortoise
Patronizing Brazilians the Politically Correct Way
Brazil: Election Gives Voters Chance to Clean Up Congress
Brazil: João Pessoa – a Victim of its Own Success
No Consistency in Brazil’s Foreign Policy
Brazil: Sitting in the Shadow of Sarney and Magalhes
Brazil: Gentrification Creeps Up On São Paulo
Dirt Flies as Brazilian Parties Aim for Presidency
Brazilians Vote for Guns and Death Not Peace and Love
Brazil’s Gun Lobby Launches Hysterical Campaign Against Arms Ban
Jews and Arabs Find Success in Brazil
Brazil’s Politicians Start Looking Ahead to Next Year
Brazil: Lula Down but Certainly Not Out
Brazil’s Congress Struggles to Cope with Ongoing Crisis
Brazil: Scandal Threatens Presidential Mandate System
Brazil: If Lula is to Survive He Needs to Change His Tactics
Brazil: Many Parties – Few Ideas
Brazil Through Foreign Eyes
Helping the Helpless in Brazil
Pinheiros – São Paulo’s Best District
Growing Old (Dis)gracefully in Brazil
Canudos, Still With Us 100 Years Later
The Rise of the Brazilian Empire
Brazil and Portugal – The Samba and the Fado
Brazil – Just A State Of Mind
Brazil: For Lula, is Ignorance Bliss?
Brazil: Pay Day – or Pay Dirt?“