Love for Brazil and the Expat Experience
Four Books by:
1) Juliana Barbassa
Dancing with the Devil in the City of God: Rio de Janeiro on the Brink, Touchstone (Simon & Schuster), New York, NY 20215 ISBN (e book) 978-1-4767-5627-1
2) Richard Klein
Lost Samba: Memoirs of Brazil, Create Space Independent Publishing Platform, 2nd edition (November 13, 2014) ISBN-978-1503218538
3) Julia Michaels
Single in Rio: The City of Love: A Partially Disguised Personal Journey, Prepublication Copy in English. The Portuguese version is: Solteira no Rio: As Aventuras de uma Gringa Cinquentona na Cidade Maravilhosa, Editora Alfa, 2013.
4) Simone Torres Costa
Deconstructing Brazil: Beyond Carnival, Soccer and Girls in Small Bikinis, Springtime Books, 2015, UK, ISBN: 978-0-9932377-4-4
Brazil is always something of a mystery. It attracts and repels, you love it and you hate it. It grows on you and then drives you away.
The four books reviewed below provide personal interpretations and experiences about Brazil. I like them as they all seek to deepen our understanding of Brazil while being entertaining and providing useful interpretations at the same time.
A common theme in these books is an explicit and sometimes implicit attempt at self-understanding by authors who are formed by and reflect a degree of being outsiders in Brazil. As I have a similar background, I always find these interpretations fascinating.
Juliana Barbassa is a journalist, born in Brazil, but effectively raised abroad. Her personal journey includes Europe, the Middle East and the USA where she worked for AP before relocating to Brazil to cover Brazil as it prepared for the World Cup and the Olympics. She has the reporter’s eye for detail and hits all of the topics of journalistic interest: violence, inequality, rigid stratification, poverty, crime, urban planning and the struggle of individuals on an unequal playing field, the growth of Brazil’s emerging middle class, the environment, soccer, the Olympics, sex and liberation. Interestingly, her narrative also contains pithy descriptions of Lula, Dilma, and other not so famous personages who nevertheless provide interpretive substance to her story. As a transplant coming from the USA, she is shocked, surprised, amused and distressed as she relearns Brazil. The intimacy (maybe promiscuity), tight personal space, its cavalier attitude toward poverty and inequality, its inherent unfairness all shake her first-world sensibilities. Juliana however is a quick study and an excellent writer and interpreter. Her concern is how can a city and country of such potential always be frustrated and thwarted on a path to a more sustainable and egalitarian form of development. Her answer is that we are trying but….history, tradition, class structure and the recalcitrant elites won’t cooperate.
Richard Klein’s Lost Samba is lovely elegy of time past and youth lost. It is not so much a remembrance of a golden age of Brazil (70’s and 80’s which were difficult times in Brazil) but instead the record of growing up as a jeunesse doree in Rio’s Zona Sul and its upper middle class. Klein (born in 1963) nicely captures Rio’s beach scene, the divisive private school system, the “tribes” and the difficulties of being a nice Jewish boy always striving to find the girl, the song, the place, the group and the fit in a society where he should belong but fails partially both because he is Jewish and because he renounces family pressure and rebels just as youth are wont to do. The best part of Klein’s book is the focus on the 70’s and 80’s as well as his teenage and young-adult years. Richard portrays nicely the music scene, the pot consumption, the introduction of cocaine into the favelas and the wealthier regions and most importantly his vision of Brazil’s ongoing accommodation, rejection, conflict and struggle between the an asphalt (short hand for people in Rio with access to urban infra-stucture and wealth) and the hill where the slums are located. Klein notes the grudging respect of the middle class for favela members and continues a common middle class theme of the 80’s by giving credence to the notion that the black and poor dance better, have cooler music, more rhythm and better sex and perform better in sports. Another aspect that rang true was the sexual revolution that took place in this period where young Brazilian women “emancipated” themselves from the artificial dilemma of having to marry as virgins or be considered bad libertines. Finally, Klein had the early opportunity to explore prime sites in Brazil’s northeast, Trancoso in Bahia for example, before they became the traditional and standardized tourist destinations of the wealthy and the aspiration of the middle class.
Julia Michael’s Solteira is a delightful romp and a semi autobiographical description of how a smart, attractive US expat divorcee adapts to Rio, its sensual background and the difficulties of finding one’s personality and new life in her late 40s and early 50s. She married a Brazilian, moved from New York to Sao Paulo, had children who grew up and then she divorced and reinvented herself in Rio, where after decades of slow decline, new hope seemed around the corner due to offshore discoveries of oil and the commodity boom of the first decade of the 21st century. As a newly minted Carioca and a liberated lady, Julia set off to discover the romantic possibilities Brazil is reputedly offers. Her book, while describing trysts and romps both imagined and real, comes down to an essay in self discovery in the Brazilian context. Julia speaks excellent Portuguese and after years in Brazil (albeit comfortably married in a bourgois setting), she is familiar with the wiles and whims of Brazilians, especially the men and their sexual proclivities. Michaels, like Klein and Barbassa, had to make reference to violence in Brazil but she also shows how Cariocas live with or accept and attempt to avoid the possibility of being mugged, shot or raped. Her comments on other customs of Brazilian fame are certainly more amusing. Of the four books, hers is the only one that features the famous Brazilian waxing. Her description of the process and the views of women on the subject are funny. As she reports, Brazilians reputedly have the world’s best sex and so she had to get waxed (ouuchh) and once done was as anxious as a 14 year old for new discoveries. Along the way, she explores Brazilian love motels, which come in all shapes, styles and fashion as well as having price ranges that can accommodate any Brazilian budget or lifestyle. She notes “Love, lovers and loving are part of the Brazilian identity.” She also educates foreigners as to the subtleties of Brazilian Portugtuese as related to sex, among them the words, ‘comer’ and ‘transar’. Yet, the emphasis remains on the search for romance and the occasional lover. So like in most places in the world, in spite of reputations, neither love nor sex are particularly simple.
Julia’s description of relationships explore class, urban geography, race, fidelity/infidelity, food, carnival, gender, gender bending, stratification, the semiotics of style all in the context of Rio and its lovely natural sites. And oh, did I say crime and sex? Marvelously almost all of her observations are right on without being too cliché.
Simone Torres Costa’s book – Deconstructing Brazil – is probably the most ambitious but somewhat problematic in facing the challenge. Simone’s objective is to present a non-academic but useful manual for foreigners who might live and work in Brazil. Rightly she subtitles her book “Beyond Carnival, Soccer and Girls in Small Bikinis”.
Like Klein, she pays homage to history and makes much of Brazil’s genetic indigenous history. She also dedicates a chapter on race relations and the African heritage, noting correctly the resilience of Brazil’s African descendents. While she points out the role of Brazil’s native peoples, she also has to confess that their influence is invisible. It would be easy to criticize both Klein and Torres for genuflecting to political correctness but this is a trap that hardly can be avoided. Of course, they are right in resorting to history but, in the end, the stories they need to tell demand more research and more insight and it is probably better to refer to Darcy Ribeiro on Indians and Abdias do Nascimento on Brazilian blacks. The best parts of Simone’s book are her questioning of the usefulness of the models taught in business school. Her critique of Hofstede and his cultural dimensions comes to mind. She is also excellent at questioning interpretations that stop only at small bikinis and carnival. The challenge, however, that I find in her work is that she delves into many interpretations but fails to provide a more unified and coherent alternative model for understanding Brazil. She questions and brings some answers, which only partially address the very issues she raises and at times creates something of a mishmash of ideas.
What I enjoyed in all four of the books is that they are essentially attempts by expats with deep experience in Brazilian culture and context to understand their own lives in the country. As Simone points out, Brazilians have a love-hate relationship with Europe and the US, but there is also a love hate relationship with Brazil itself. The country is much like a lover and Julia’s book can be read as an analogy of this. There is an immense erotic, sensual and romantic attraction but at the same time there is frustration. Klein can look back to his youth but all are a bit fearful for Brazil’s future. Things should be better and with the help of Barbassa, Michaels, Klein and Costa they eventually will be.