Four Books You Should Read to Understand Brazil

Congratulations, you got a new job. You will be relocated to Rio? How exciting.  How did you manage to grab such an interesting post? You must have developed quite sophisticated “jeitinho” skills (explained in the paragraph on Brazil on the Rise, below) to deserve this promotion. Or you must know a lot about Brazil and speak good Portuguese. Or maybe you are just the only person who had the availability to move to this country. Whatever the reason,  or despite how much you might already know about Brazil, I would strongly recommend you read the books listed below to get a crash course in the country. They are all fun to read, all available in English (some in Portuguese) and will each contribute in its own way as a piece to complete the puzzle.

I’m Brazilian myself, spent most of my life here, and still profited a lot from reading these texts. Except for the last one (Backlands, Os Sertões), all the others were written by non-Brazilians, which adds to their interest, as they give us a foreign perspective on topics we are too accustomed to or, sometimes, too close to in order to appreciate their connotations and idiosyncrasies.

Enough of introductory talk, let’s get to the books:

Baía de Guanabara, Rio de Janeiro

Baía de Guanabara, Rio de Janeiro

1.The Brazilians, by Joseph Page (Da carp Press, 1995). This is one of my favorites. It’s visibly written by someone who loves the country, and despite its very objective, and sometimes hurtful, analysis, makes you feel appreciated and liked as a native. Besides, it covers many different aspects of the culture and history of the country, including the national religions and the nuances of the current power structure, all written in a light and pleasant language. I particularly liked the way it analyzes the way the different social classes interact with each other in Brazil, with all the hypocrisy and paternalism that underlies these brutal relationships. However, the book was written way before the passing of a new set of Constitutional amendments (PEC 478 – known as PEC das domésticas) in 2013, regulating  the working  life of the “empregadas domésticas” (Live-in maids; basically a very typical Brazilian institution), and therefore broadening the professional rights of these underpaid and exploited workers more than 100 years after the abolition of slavery took place in the country. Another very interesting chapter titled In Search of What makes Brazilians  Brazilian focuses not only predictably on football, but also on the very popular Rede Globo telenovelas (tv soap operas) which had their golden age in the late seventies and eighties (when there was little to zero competition from paid television, stream video or video recorders), but which, to this day, still attract a great audience and commands a lot of the conversation on the social media. Especially the soap opera that occupies the prime time slot around 9:00 pm at any time of the year, which more recently has come to incorporate themes which are still considered taboos in the country,  such as homosexuality and physical disability.

2.Brazil on the Rise, The Story of a Country Transformed, by Larry Rother, (Palgrave, Macmillan, 2010).  Written around the time when the now infamous cover of the magazine THE ECONOMIST showed an illustration of the statue of Christ the Redeemer in Rio taking off to the skies as a potent rocket on its way to a future of fully developmental glory and economic power, the book gives us the historical and economical background necessary to understand how we got to where we were by the end of the two mandates of the Labor Party under president Luís Inácio da Silva (Lula). It focuses on the economic and political aspects and the obstacles the country had to overcome on its path towards democracy and to arrive at the reasonable level of  economic stability we had some 4 years ago. Of course, things are not looking now as great as when that issue of THE ECONOMIST came out, but corrections are being made along the way and I firmly believe we will realize the bright potential we have been predicting for the past 500 years! The author also defines what is commonly known as “jeitinho (diminutive for “jeito”) brasileiro”: “In its most liberal sense, to have a “jeito” is to be adroit at something or to have an aptitude, knack or talent. It can also mean to fix things, but it’s usually use figuratively to describe the skill required to maneuver around the laws or social conventions that prevent you from achieving an objective.”  Having lived abroad, and worked for a number of multinational companies, I know that every nation has its own “jeitinho”: human nature is basically the same, despite their superficially different ways of bypassing rules and laws to get what they want. But I agree Brazilians may have a sexier way of doing this!

3. Futebol Nation: A Footballing History of Brazil, by David Goldblatt (Penguin, 2014). The English writer does not sound very sympathetic to the country and its people. The writing is a cold and dispassionate account of the importance football has grown to have in Brazil since its introduction in the early years of the 20th century and its ramifications through the history of the country. Although it became clear after the last World Cup that football seems to have lost a lot of its importance to Brazilians – given the sensible and ironic way most of the population behaved after the historic loss to Germany with a scoreline of 7×1, the book makes it clear that, especially from the 50s to the 90s, football was Brazilians’s greatest source of pride. It is also evident how strongly we identified the values of the nation with this foreign sport, allowing  and making it easy for politicians to tap into this people’s naive passion to advance their own agendas. Although the book does not take into account the World Cup of 2014, it covers the June 2013 social unrest and popular demonstrations directed mainly against the realization of the overbudgeted upcoming event. All in all, it’s a very interesting read, even for those who are not really into the sport.

4. Backlands: The Canudos Campaign, by Euclides da Cunha (Penguin Classics, 2010). Considered one of the most important books of the Brazilian canon, this text is a journalistic account of the conflict of Canudos – supposedly a civil war between monarchists and republicans at the end of the nineteenth century – which took place in the arid and difficult geographic region known as the backlands in the interior of Bahia. The official story says that a group of backlanders (sertanejos), led by a supposedly religious fanatic, Antônio Conselheiro, the Counselor, built up a settlement the size of town, constituted of thousands of huts forming a kind of overcrowded slum spreading over the valleys and hills of the region. The book reads like a novel, once you manage to get through the slow and dragging geological, topographical and climactic minutiae used to describe the region in the first couple of chapters. Then it finally gets to the action, depicting with cinematographic vigor the 4 military incursions into the settlement of Canudos, defended fiercely by the backlanders (sertanejos e jagunços, the latter considered bandits infiltrated in the community). Although in most of part of the text, the author seems to take and condone the official version of the story, in many parts he condemns the conflict as a crime against humanity, pontificating against the extreme and primitive violence against a people who were not given the same chances of achieving the level of civilization that the coastal populations of Brazil had reached at the time. Also, the reader needs to take into account the context in which the book was written, a time when pseudoscientific theories combining  determinism,  social darwinism and concepts of superior and inferior races were prevalent among intellectuals of the day.

I guess these 4 books will give newcomers enough introductory background and information on the beautiful and diverse country I’m lucky to live in. Welcome, good luck with your new job, and don’t forget to rate and comment on this post.

Au revoir

Jorge Sette.

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2 thoughts on “Four Books You Should Read to Understand Brazil

  1. Casa Grande e Senzala by Gilberto Freyre explains the very early cultural and biological formation of the people of Brazil (500 years ago). You can find good translations to English of this fundamental work. There are three volumes too, which take you up to the 20th century.

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