A Death in Brazil by Peter Robb

A land of charm, corruption and murder
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The Independent Culture

Peter Robb is a tough customer. In a bar in north-eastern Brazil, he recognises a suspected leader of organised crime - someone linked to the murder of an opponent by cutting off his arms and legs with a chainsaw, and hammering nails into his head. The man is a Brazilian federal congressman and has control of his murdered brother's billion-dollar fortune. He is also the prime suspect in arranging the fatal shooting of his brother.

Peter Robb is a tough customer. In a bar in north-eastern Brazil, he recognises a suspected leader of organised crime - someone linked to the murder of an opponent by cutting off his arms and legs with a chainsaw, and hammering nails into his head. The man is a Brazilian federal congressman and has control of his murdered brother's billion-dollar fortune. He is also the prime suspect in arranging the fatal shooting of his brother.

Loaded with nothing more than several shots of cheap whisky, Robb suggests they get together for a chat about this death, and various other intercontinental criminal activities. When Robb is confronted by a dozen nervous military policemen with their weapons trained on him, he asks them casually how they feel about not being paid for months because their local authority is falling apart.

But then Brazil is a tough place. Robb doesn't pull his punches in this knotty, muscular, frequently brilliant memoir of 20 years of Brazilian life. He begins the book with a maniac holding a knife to Robb's throat, while the mugger tells him his life story.

Robb's engagement with Brazil is very much a love-hate affair. On the surface of its social life, from the personal to the political, there is an avoidance of confrontation: "an endless elasticity of evasion and spurious amiability". Behind the carnival flamboyance, however, the killing rate falls within the UN definition of a low-intensity civil war.

Brazilian society has never developed the sense of the common good. Power and money has always been personal and dynastic. The ease with which the public purse is lifted is starkly illustrated by P C Farias, the money-man behind President Fernando Collor de Mello, who was elected in 1989.

Three years later, having spirited away a billion dollars, Fernando resigns and is impeached; Farias is jailed for multiple charges of fraud and embezzlement. The narrative of this downfall is riveting. They are eventually undone by their chauffeur. "You mean you are doing it all out of patriotism?" asks the inquiry, incredulously. "Isn't that enough?" he replies.

The "death in Brazil" that forms the backbone of this book is that of Farias, apparently shot in a crime of passion by his lover. Everyone suspects his brother Augusto is behind the murder and Robb, appalled by abuses of power, doggedly pursues the man, leading to that stand-off in the bar. Augusto, slim and sinister in black designer jeans, refuses to look him in the eye.

This must be the only recent book about Brazil that barely touches on the subject of football. Robb's enthusiasms are too singular and aesthetic for the brashness of crowd euphoria. His is a remarkable, unusual and deeply personal account of a country of passionate extremes, of privilege and deprivation, of sensual beauty and dire injustice. Robb brings the country thrillingly alive with a vision that is individual, robust and unforgettable.

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