Articulate, persuasive criticism of Brazil, by a Brazilian, in English, is all too rare. But now, with the Summer Olympics looming next year, a new book about Rio de Janeiro, "Dancing With The Devil In The City Of God," by Brazilian journalist Juliana Barbassa, to be published by Touchstone next Tuesday, will be of interest to anyone seeking to understand the impact the enormous global event is having on this chaotic, tropical city of 6 million.
Foreign writers have often failed to capture Brazil, as if the subject is too big, too complex, for one book. Peter Robb’s "A Death In Brazil" is rich and sensual but loses its thread, at times, in disparate narratives. Those who zoomed in on one subject to tell a bigger story have been more successful — like Alex Bellos, with his book on soccer, "Futebol," or Scoot Wallace and his gripping Amazon adventure, "The Unconquered." Barbassa’s book, similarly, focuses on Rio as the Olympic city, yet it is as much about Brazil in general at this fraught moment in its history.
The subtitle promises a portrait of “Rio de Janeiro on the brink.” Barbassa is not interested in tourist attractions. Instead she zeroes in on the city's drug gangs, prostitutes, pollution, favela removals, rapacious real estate developers and all manner of injustice and incompetence. This is not the "Wonderful City" the Brazilian government wants you to see. Instead, in a striking phrase she applies to the pollution that stains its rivers and the Guanabara Bay, Barbassa calls Rio “beautiful and rotten.”
Her perspective derives from having lived abroad. Most Brazilians haven’t, and they sometimes fail to perceive their country in a global context -- unhelped, perhaps, by the isolating effect of their language. Very few Brazilians speak English. Outside Brazil, meanwhile, very few people speak Portuguese.
Barbassa spent much of her childhood outside Brazil – her father, Almir Barbassa, was a high-ranking executive with the state-controlled oil giant Petrobras and was later its chief financial officer. The book features a memorable passage in which the family flees Iraq during that country's 1980-88 war with Iran.
Barbassa studied in the United States and later worked for the Associated Press, winning a number of awards before returning to Rio to become the AP's correspondent there in 2010. Her American husband, Christopher Gaffney, is an academic and expert on World Cup and Olympic spending and infrastructure. The couple now lives in Zurich, where Gaffney works — about as far from Rio as can be imagined.
Early chapters in which Barbassa draws on her coverage of the 2010 military invasion of the Complexo do Alemão favela sprawl and the floods that killed almost 1,000 people in the hills above Rio are powerfully written. The horror she felt after covering the flood disaster and her indignation at the authorities' failure to do anything to improve infrastructure in the years afterward are palpable.
Returning expat Brazilians like her are often fiercely critical. They don’t indulge in the romanticism that can cloud the viewpoint of foreign writers. Incompetence and disorganization, for them, hold few charms. Barbassa is even immune to Rio’s world-famous carnival. In one scene, she stands pinned against a palm tree on Ipanema beach as a massed samba street party envelops her, before she takes off to interview a gay Frenchman about sex tourism.
Romanticism aside, anyone who doesn't like mass public events is going to be miserable in Rio, which thrives on them. Life happens outdoors in this city and if the book fall short anywhere, it is in failing to capture this spirit: the vibrant street culture, the street samba, the informality and sociability of the people and their obsession with sensuality. There is a rugged Iberian individualism in Rio and a radical political tradition that manifested itself during the 2013 protests Carla Dauden so eloquently explained. Barbassa was away when the first big demos erupted in Brazil — the biggest of all was here on June 20, 2013 — but protests continued for more than six months afterwards. Yet she zips through them in just a few pages with little feel for their color and essence.
In exchange, there are efficient explanations of the oil boom, the economy and the changes brought about by the social policies of the Workers’ Party government under President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. There is a lot about favela removals. And there are quietly revealing details of what it was like for upper-middle-class Brazilians to grow up in a crime-ridden and socially divided city that in the past was even more dangerous than it is today.
These occasional snapshots of a life behind barred windows, in shuttered condominiums, subject to a buzzing undercurrent of fear, expose a tense Rio that residents seem to feel is constantly ready to punish those who relax into it too much.
Perhaps this is the real “Rio on the brink” of the subtitle. The city, after all, has yet to fall off the precipice. Instead, as the book explains, the World Cup that so many expected would be a failure for Brazil, dogged by protests and blighted by unfinished stadiums and airports, turned out, at least at the time, to be a huge success. Even if many stadiums have become white elephants today.
An apocalypse of sorts, though, struck where nobody expected it — on the soccer field, when Germany destroyed the host country, favorite to win the trophy, 7-1 in a semi-final.
Like many, Barbassa watched the match with family -- and with increasing incredulity that, in the end, turned to bitter humor. The Brazilians she interviews range from architects to favela residents, but as she notes, they have one thing in common: resilience.
Ultimately, like Brazil, Rio is perhaps also too big a subject for anything other than a subjective reading. But this is an important book. Not only for its exhaustive detail and readable prose, but because it offers the voice of a Brazilian, writing in plain English.