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A Death in Brazil by Peter Robb

Compelling reading that offers windows onto Brazil’s culture, history and sexual mores.

A Death in Brazil is a book that demonstrates a great writing talent with lush, florid passages that sweep the reader onto the stage of a slum in Rio de Janeiro or a barren dryland plateau in Brazil’s North East. Robb knows the country well and, more importantly, he feels the place with an empathy that allows him to assume the role of storyteller for a country.

A Death in Brazil starts out with blistering speed, recounting a night spent with a knife at his throat held by a delinquent who spends the night debating whether he should kill Robb and run for it. The author saves his own life by becoming an extremely attentive listener:

“And for the next couple of hours he held the carving knife to me in the kitchen. And talked. He laid out his life in words. The flashing eyed knife waving anger dissolved in unhappiness at his lot.”

Robb also then takes the reader on a brisk tour of Brazil’s main cities, the films made about them and the unique Brazilian culture formed by slavery, immigration and a sultry climate where sex always seemed to be on the cards – indeed, Robb explains the variety of skin colours in Brazil as a direct result of the days of sexual contact between the original Portuguese conquerors and the natives, the plantation owners and their slaves, the European immigrants and everyone else.

Brazil is seems, is a sexual melting pot where everyone has always been at it.

But then A Death in Brazil changes tone abruptly, as though the publishers insisted only on a book that would encompass various time periods, political and personal themes and cultural analysis all at once. Robb explains in detail the original conquest of Brazil and suggests that the Portuguese weren’t in fact looking for India but knew that a New World awaited them.

And then, in between describing the fascination of the Catholic Inquisition with the sexual antics and sins of the settlers, Robb then starts charting the rise and fall of Brazilian presidents, complete with the connivance of powerful businessmen and media empires, until the eventual victory of Lula of the Worker’s Party.

For an outsider interested in the culture of modern Brazil, all these insights are illuminating but the initial flow of A Death in Brazil is disrupted and the book ends up feeling like an interesting but stilting patchwork of culture, history and travelogue.

Still, there’s much to be learnt. Robb is at his best when he dances around themes like the complicity of Brazil’s dictatorship of the 60’s and 70’s with the Globo media empire that is one of the true governing forces of Brazil. He explains how the cult of the telenovelas was used to smother discontent and how their endless, unrealistic and soulless plots reflected much of the underbelly of Brazilian culture:

“Dramatic tension had only a relative interest in the television art of a society so many of whose immediate needs could be briefly resolved by a well aimed bullet of a good fuck and none of whose other needs could ever be resolved at all.”

A Death in Brazil is a fascinating book that explains much of how Brazil evolved into the elitist, multi-racial, corrupt country it is today. It’s full of subtle character studies, account of political corruption and tales of Robb’s own travel experiences in Brazil. And Peter Robb is a brilliant writer.

It’s just that you sense he could have written a book about Brazil that would have appealed less to the educated critic and more to the reader who hungers to know more about life in Brazil today.