Book reviews, Comments, Culture, In Focus

Brazil: a biography

A big biography – heading towards 800 pages – for a big country, written with elan by Lilia Scwarcz and Heliosa Starling.


Sean Sheehan


The land known today as Brazil came into existence as a commercial enterprise by Portuguese entrepreneurs, beginning in1500. Just like Michael Corleone in The Godfather it was strictly business: if 40% of the slaves brought from Africa had to end up here and if natives died on a genocidal scale it was never personal.

The country’s mercantile and racist origins and the creation of a landowning class, many of whom continue to own ‘immense estates, each the size of a city’ the authors remind us, continue to blight and threaten Brazil’s civic identity.

It was a land waiting to be exploited and early engravings depicting the natives as lazy and lustful, liking  nothing better  than lounging on a hammock, became emblematic – ‘as if the Americans had awaited the arrival of the Europeans lying down.

Sugar cane was the first source of wealth for Portuguese investors but it was the hope of finding gold that led to them to explore and conquer the interior.

Brazilian Indians. Photo Wikimedia Commons

The chapters on the country’s early history are rich in detail and the story of Portugal’s Crown, fleeing from Napoleon and transferring itself to Brazil in 1808 would be a piece of magical realism if it wasn’t fact: a colony becoming the capital of the empire that created it.

After independence, Brazil’s basic values remained unchanged; slavery and rule by landowners remained intact.

The chapters covering the nineteenth century and the war with Paraguay tell a sorry tale and those dealing with the period under the presidency of Getúlio Vargas, from the 1930s and to the early 1950s, make compulsive reading.

The violence that embedded itself in the ruling class’s DNA was ruthlessly on show as opposition to twentieth-century dictators gathered pace.

The last general to govern Brazil, Figueiredo, departed in 1985 but violent state power rules OK; in 2017, it was recently reported, fourteen died at the hands of the police every day.

The blatantly racist discrimination against blacks and mestizos of the past flows unspoken as an undercurrent in the country’s class structure.

A Brazilian family in Rio de Janeiro. By Jean Baptiste Debret. 1839

The 1988 Constitution, concludes the authors, is imperfect but it lays the groundwork for a democratic future.

The Workers Party signed up to it and Lula, a factory worker and trade unionist, remains its charismatic – though imprisoned – representative.

Brazil’s history, remark Scwarcz and Starling,  is not a destiny and this basic truth is worth holding onto.

There is an imminent crisis, a fraught presidential election looms, and it’s frustrating that this hugely readable book comes to an end at the very point that a chapter is waiting to be written.

If Jair Bolsonaro – labelled a ‘tropical Trump’ with good reason – becomes the next president the future is bleak; if Ciro Gomes becomes president, the future is bleak.

“Brazil: a biography”, by Lilia Lilia Scwarcz and Heliosa Starling, is published by Allen Lane.


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