Wednesday, February 15, 2006

A Death in Brazil by Peter Robb

A review of Peter Robb's A Death in Brazil

Robb's time in Brazil is mostly spent in Recife, capital of Pernambuco, where the view is most often from his table at his favourite restaurant. Robb is such a good food writer that he makes even simple bar snacks sound sublime. The pleasure he takes in food is matched only by his inquisitiveness about its origins and social context, and these passages are some of the best in the book.

As well as dissecting Brazilian cuisine's tastiest morsels, Robb savours some of Brazil's greatest writers on his way to PC's demise. Machado de Assis, Euclides da Cunha and Gilberto Freyre are all expertly filleted and presented. He also digests landmark events in the country's history: its "discovery" in 1500, Zumbi's republic of escaped slaves and the war of Canudos. The book is as good a portrait of Brazil as anything else I have read.

The main narrative of A Death in Brazil concerns the Collor years. The book feels especially relevant because of the election, at the end of 2002, of Lula as Brazilian president. This is a blessing and a curse. Lula's victory - it was his fourth attempt - gives Robb a happy ending and neatly brings everything up to date. Yet it also reinforces a sense that the book is politically naïve.

Lula is over-romanticised as the perfect working-class hero. We learn of his impoverished upbringing in the Pernambuco drylands, his truck journey to the urban south as a child and his emergence as a union leader in the 1970s. Collor is a cardboard cutout of greed, incompetence and outrageous privilege. Yet Brazilian politics has more shades of grey than in Robb's bipolar world. Less than a year and a half into Lula's presidency, facts are emerging about the unscrupulous links between his own campaign finances and organised crime. North-eastern power structures may underpin Brazilian politics, but they are not the full account.

Still, it is very Brazilian to be passionate, idealistic and opinionated. This Robb does well. I found myself agreeing with almost all his insights into Brazilian life, such as when he remarks on the "avoidance of confrontation of any kind, an endless elasticity of evasion and spurious amiability". Robb, who wrote the successful Midnight in Sicily as well as M, a biography of Caravaggio, has a reputation as an Italy hand. His contact with Brazil has come from regular visits over the past two decades. Yet he has managed to capture the country's spirit and paradoxes in a way few other writers have.

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