By John Fitzpatrick
We continue with the second of three parts of John’s article about Peter Robb’s book A Death in Brazil”, Part 1 of which was published last week (Fooling Around with Brazilian Politics and History Part 1).
A Book of Omissions Indeed
A note on the flyleaf describes Robb as someone who “has divided his time among Brazil, southern Italy and Australia during the past quarter century.” Apart from naming two other books he has written, that is all we have on Mr. Robb. While Robb is happy to present the reader with interminable descriptions of street scenes, bars and even meals, he tells us almost nothing about himself. The book title has a sub-heading “a book of omissions”.
The book opens as follows, “Like everyone, I went to Brazil to get away.” This vacuous statement gives the impression that he was heading off to start a new life whereas he was just making a visit on a tourist visa. He claims to have spent “the greater part of the year of Fernando’s fall making three visits to Brazil”. He also says he was in Recife “four years after Fernado’s impeachment”. Otherwise he is suspiciously vague about time, using phrases like “when summer came I was back in Recife” or “Winter on the northeast seaboard was never cool” as though years had passed. The Sydney Morning Herald is taken in by this and describes Robb’s book as “partly a memoir of the 20 years he spent in Brazil”. Omitting information rather than providing it marks the book and justifies the sub-heading in one way.
It would be useful to find out how well knows Brazil outside of those parts of the Northeast he mentions. One UK reviewer praises Robb for setting the book outside Rio and São Paulo but Robb’s knowledge of São Paulo is so thin that I seriously wonder if he has ever been to the place. He depicts it as a satanic Gotham City, full of wretched Northeasterners, armored cars, armed guards and the uncaring rich. This is Robb’s view of the city where I have lived for 11 years, “The immensely rich hover over the city’s canyons in their own helicopters, fluttering at sunset between the corporate tower and the gated residence.” São Paulo also has “more desperate people than any other urban center on the face of the earth”, according to Robb.
As I write these words I can look out of my window in the lower middle-class district where I live and what do I see? A sunny sky with no hovering helicopters in sight, kids in the school opposite playing volleyball and having a great time by the sound of their laughter, a couple of women walking their dogs and a group of zeladors (janitors) playing dominoes on a tin table outside a caf. Looking in the other direction I can see a group of homeless men queuing up to get some food from a shelter. They are a ragged bunch but none of the local people is afraid of them. A girl is washing the windows of a shop nearby and a flock of parakeets shrieks past in a flash of green. Not a desperate face in sight. As for Rio, his knowledge seems to extend to the narrow strip of Copacabana with its hustlers and hookers, the only stretch of Brazil a certain type of tourist ever gets to know.
More importantly, do Robb’s travels have any purpose other than to kill time and fill his notebooks with trivia? For example, he describes a visit to Canudos, site of Euclides da Cunha’s book “Os Sertes”, in which absolutely nothing of interest happens. Thankfully he only stayed there for the day and caught the bus back to Salvador that night or who knows how many more pages of tedium the reader would have faced. He also visited Garanhuns in Pernambuco where Lula was born on another pointless trip. This time he claims he wanted to sample “buchada de bode”, a dish made of goat meat “analogous to Scottish haggis, only much more interesting” whatever that means. Does Robb really have nothing better to do with his life than visit somewhere like Garanhuns to try a goat stew? Five pages are devoted to a trip which was not worth five words.
Amazing Amazon Adventure
Another time we learn that, “Once I spent several weeks flying into the continent, hopping from city to city as far as Manaus on the Amazon”, as though he had gone on a search for Mr. Kurtz through the Heart of Darkness. I once made this trip the other way round, going from Manaus to Recife. The flight was uncomfortable and lasted about 15 hours, with stopovers in various Amazon and Northeastern towns like Santarem, Belem and Terezinha. But what’s the big deal? Flying across the Amazon with Varig is about as adventurous as flying from Frankfurt to Zurich with Lufthansa; it just takes longer. As for Manaus, it is a bustling modern city with a tax-free zone where multinational companies mass produce washing machines, DVDs players and televisions, not some isolated Indian village. Perhaps it is fortunate that we never learn why Robb was “flying into the continent”, where he went and what he did during these “several weeks”.
An Internet search reveals that Robb lived in Italy for 15 years and worked as a teacher. According to the London Telegraph, he used to make three-month forays to Brazil “as often as he could”. There are quite a lot of middle-aged foreign men who do this, visiting towns and cities in the Northeast in search of sex. I am not saying that Robb was a sex tourist but most Brazilians would probably suspect that this was the reason for his visits. Neither the Telegraph interviewer nor Robb raises this matter but Robb confirms his casual approach to research, “I’m not a great reader of history, but I like plundering books for the interesting bits.”
As this statement shows, Robb was obviously not a history teacher. This is obvious from his skimpy knowledge of Brazilian politics when he is not using other people’s material. His comments on the Fernando Henrique Cardoso years are trite. How can anyone take seriously a statement like, “FHC brought some calm to Brazilian politics but the greater monetary stability made life harder for many Brazilians.. Many felt as damaged by his measures as they had been by the freeze in 1999.” This shows Robb’s ignorance of life in contemporary Brazil. I defy him to present anyone who thinks that Cardoso’s defeat of inflation was on a par with Collor’s freezing of bank accounts.
He also says that Brazil “had burned to emulate” Argentina’s exchange rate policy. This is nonsense. Brazil had always taken a different approach to the exchange rate and, before the devaluation of 1999, traded the Real within a sliding scale whereas the Argentinean peso was fixed by law to the dollar. It was this flexibility that allowed Brazil to escape the ruin which hit Argentina when the peso finally collapsed under the strain. Robb also claims that the International Monetary Fund imposed conditions on all the candidates in the last presidential election. Neither Lula nor Jose Serra (whom Robb does not even mention by name but describes as a “surly death’s-head”) were puppets of the IMF as Robb implies. They just recognized economic reality. In fact, Brazil has just paid back its IMF loans in advance.
However, the most fanciful parts of this book are Robb’s attempts to portray himself as having been in danger of constant death. This is the standard fear of the “gringo” who thinks that as soon as he appears on the street he will be singled out as a target because of his fair skin and blue eyes. Despite the popular image of Brazil as a country of black and mixed-race people, about half the population is white and being white does not make you any different from anyone else. In the Northeast and Amazon the full-blooded whites might be in the minority but they do not stand out because they walk and talk like Brazilians. Brazilians are color blind in the sense that they will accept that anyone can be Brazilian, regardless of skin color. You might be robbed and murdered because you look like a tourist or are middle class but you will not be robbed and murdered because you are white. People like Robb do not accept this because they like to think they are taking a walk on the wild side every time they step into the street.
Part 3 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:
Fooling Around with Brazilian Politics and History Part 1
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?“