During the Q&A at my author event last week, someone asked me if Brazil is a fascist country. Wow. That’s quite a question to ask. I haven’t been there for a long time, so I couldn’t possibly comment on that right now, but back then? Well, I didn’t really ever think about it – and I don’t think any of the people I knew would have thought about it. I don’t think they thought about much other than eating, getting drunk, fishing and sex . . . and not always in that order. That’s not to say all Brazilians are like that, not by any means. Here we have an image of Brazil being exotic and violent, which is probably unfair. We see Cidade de Deus (City of God), Tropa de Elite (The Elite Squad) – a couple of great Brazilian movies – and we hear about gangs and favelas and violence, and we think it’s all there is in Brazil. Of course, there’s much more to it than that. Brazil is one of the fastest growing economies in the world. It’s a diverse and beautiful place full of amazing people who love and embrace life. But here I go . . . I’m going to perpetuate the myth, just for a moment. I know I shouldn’t, not really, and I’m trying to hold back – really I am – but I have some pretty good stories and we did live in a very primitive part of Brazil and . . . ah, here goes.
We lived in the kind of place where employers burned their workers alive rather than pay them. The people who lived on our plantation were the kind of guys who worked, got drunk, shagged each other’s wives and then pulled pistols on each other. Rumour had it that our gardener, Severino, had killed seventeen men. But, you know what? They were pretty good people on the whole. All I ever saw Severino do was smile and plant rows and rows of lettuces. No, the people were great. They were fun, good natured and likeable. In fact, they were often very generous. Take Papagaio, for example. He’s the one man who has most inspired one of the characters in DRY SEASON. Papagaio (pronounced Pa-pa-ga-you) means parrot, and the man himself was so named because he talked a lot (Brazilians like nicknames, as any football fan will know). He worked on building our house – I don’t remember exactly what his job was, maybe an electrician like the character in my book – but he had a second job. Papagaio’s other job was, well, he killed people for money. Shot them, knifed them maybe, who knows, but that’s what he did. Anyway, he was so impressed with the way my Dad managed the plantation that he offered his services for free. Generous, eh?
My Dad didn’t ever take up Papagaio’s offer. No. I’m pretty sure of that. But when Papagaio left the plantation and moved on, he went to another town further up the road, maybe sixty kilometres or so, where he came into conflict with a man who was throwing his weight around town, making people afraid. But Papagaio, of course, wasn’t afraid of anyone. So Papagaio caught the man and cut out his tongue. Became the local hero.
But to me he was just a guy who made people laugh.
- World Cup 2010: Brazilian players’ nicknames explained (telegraph.co.uk)
- Favela Chic as a Brazilian cultural tourism issue (wired.com)
- Best of Brazil: tips for a first-time visitor (audleytravel.com)
- Gunmen seize hostages in Rio de Janeiro (guardian.co.uk)