Footing it in Brazil (1989) (from Brazilian Tequila)I first see Pedrinho Diaz in the lobby of the Cumberland Hotel, holding a large parcel wrapped in brown paper. A shambling panda of a man, clothes crumpled from the tour group treadmill. He looks lost. His wife, Suzanna, sleek and watchful as a fox, catches my wave. And Pedrinho lumbers over. Could this imploded figure be the author of ten years of letters, ornate in feelings, eloquent in ideas?
The correspondence had begun with an Oxfam project in Brazil - colleagues working together for the good of humanity. It went well enough, a few showpiece projects. The dispatches diversified. I precured offprints for Pedrinho’s doctoral thesis. Pedrinho responded with chocolate box photos of his two daughters. His style grew flowery. Opening with ‘Revered colleague’, closing with ‘warm embraces’. In between Virgil, Unamuno, Emily Bronte and matters of life and love. ‘All things are possible if the heart is big enough’.
It’s a stuffy July evening and my flat is a humidor. Over steak and kidney pie the talk is not of higher things. ‘Tipico’ English dishes, cost of living comparisons, ways around inflation and the dustbin strike in West Hampstead. Until I open the French window and the wild life drones in. Pedrinho dispatches a dragonfly and, at home at last, unwraps the parcel.
‘A carranca’. He places the head of a dog carved in wood it on the window ledge. ‘Back to the light, front to the living. Otherwise it brings bad luck. Your house now is under the protection of the evil eye.’
As a boy my Brazil was dusty Victorian tomes with tissue over the prints. Jungle art and wilderness studies. Richard Burton and W.H. Hudson. Over-ripe fruits and bread and butter facts. Then I came upon the literary adventurers. Theodore Roosevelt and Ian Fleming, with their pipes, hairnets and plus fours, exploring the unknown in dugouts, living on capybaras and grasshoppers. At university I learned that Montaigne’s essay on the cannibals of Brazil was a witty polemic against the Inquisition, not a hymn to the noble savage. Rockette Pinto and Claude Levi-Strauss introduced a reality beyond The Jungle Book into my quest for the exotic. But it was only in my late twenties that Euclides da Cunha, the great chronicler of the backlands of Brazil - Darwin crossed with Balzac and Goya - made me realise that this reality could be understood in terms other than The National Geographic Magazine. I plundered the shelves of libraries for the literature it inspired.
Brazilian authors wrote mostly about the impoverished North East. Graciliano Ramos’s tales of the backlands, barren lives briefly flowering like desert plants, begot Jorge Amado, Ubaldo Ribiero, Mario de Andrade, Mario Souza and that Peruvian cuckoo Vargas Llosa, whose War of the End of the World remade Brazilian history into Fenimore Cooper for the twentieth century. But most intriguingly a peasant literature emerged in parallel to the Brazilian renaissance which, despite mass migration, still flourishes in the cities. Popular pamplets, called cordels, versify contemporary life, and are sold at markets in their millions. It is as though the serfs had a say in pre-revolutionary Russian literature. Sociologists and novelists draw unashamedly from their vitality, not least because they are the primary inspiration of Brazil’s rolling stock of telenovelas, horse operas for the mechanical age.
In my forties I discovered the operatic grandeur of Brazilian cinema. Glauber Rocha’s Antonio das Mortes especially, with his real life recitatives. Peasants with nothing in nowhere places rising against invisible forces (the devil, Rio and drought). Bandits and saints ganging up in revolt against fate and reaping arias of slaughter, the poetry of hopelessness ritualised in redeeming dance and jangly music, political parables formalised and helplessly abandoned as the New Brazil trucks past on state highways, arterials to Sao Paulo and its alien industries and wealth, nothing to do with the poor of the Northeast, another world.
Brazilian culture is a riot of pardoxes. Aleijandrinho, the humble artist in wood, whose carvings outshone the colonial gold of the royal city of Ouro Preto in Minas Gerais, the province that brokers the European south and the Indian north. Tiradentes, dentist and doomed republican hero, Getulio Vargas, efficient administrator and inexplicable suicide. Kubitschek, the last big spender for Brazil, not just for himself, creating the capital Brasilia in the desert. Crazy modernist architects, Oscar Niemeyer, Lucio Costa and Burle Marx, built a Walhalla for the people (where there were no people). The swooping optimism of Villa Lobos’ concert hall cadenzas and the chopped up social satire of street samba co-exist in a musical marriage. Beauty and the beast. Generosity of spirit embraces both.
But I only saw cheap contradictions in the Rio carnival. Thongs, bum-bum, Copacabana, barrio floats put together once a year by the poor given a week off to display their finer points in a firework display of flesh and tropicalismo while drug barons toss loose change, the comfortable middle classes join in and the eyes of the world leer at the hoopla on TV. These flimsy symbols of the good life are stripped to their component tinsel at the end of an orgiastic week. Once the papier-mache trappings are soaked with rum and bon-fired out to sea, the blacks and other exotics return to their slums. Tomorrow is another year. Carnival is the cultural equivalent of fast food, I thought, you throw up what you can’t digest and start again. I knew the real extravagances of Brazil were elsewhere.
I always thought football could be played with a Turing Machine. It’s a robotic sport ruled by military discipline designed to reach a goal without understanding how or why it got there. This blinked plodding often results in a nil nil draw, and a penalty shoot-out. But Brazil defies the mechanical when it comes to a round ball. It has reinvented the sport the British Army lays claims to be the onlie begetter. Lack of facilities and equipment doesn’t bother Brazilians. They get on with the game on beaches and forest clearings, fabricating handmade alternatives when leather balls are not affordable. The purpose of the game is better understood than the rules. It has come down from pre-Columbian times.
Roosevelt came across a footballing tribe in the wilderness of Brazil in 1913. The same Nhambiquara chronicled by Rochette Pinto a few years later and that Levi-Strauss studied just before they went extinct in the 1940s. Amiable people who pilfered shamelessly and could turn nasty without apparent reason. Nasty meant they would kill you. The ball, a rubber-coated coco-nut, was headed between the teams. They seemed to Roosevelt to be able to play for days without the ball touching the ground. He learnt that the sport had been with the Nhambis as far back as the elders could remember. Albert Camus, as a goalkeeper, could mock his teammates as morons with abbreviated careers because of brain-damage due to headers. The Nhambi’s believed the exercise hardened the pole to protect them in battle.
The improvised Brazilian game is available to the poor everywhere, and it’s catching on. You can see the same anarchic skills in the back alleys from Outer Mongolia to Bali to Dundee. The gulf in winning power between the Tutonic sharks (England and Germany) and the Asian and African minnows (Korea and the Cameroons) has narrowed significantly in my lifetime. This no doubt can be attributed to the tribal game (back alleys are not safe anymore in the so called advanced nations).