Brazil, By Michael Palin. Orion, £25


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The Independent Culture

Michael Palin does a very effective job masquerading as the man next door, an English everyman in his holiday uniform. In this disguise, but breaking out into his self-mocking humour at need, he mucks in all over Brazil, dancing with Yanomami tribes, swimming with freshwater dolphins in the Amazon, parading with transvestites on a gay pride march in Rio and carrying the shopping for a celebrity chef. He attends the all-night street party of St John's Eve and an ecstatic Candomble service, as well as meeting modern storm-troopers, rubber-tappers and miners.

It would be easy to dismiss this volume, profusely illustrated with the razor-sharp eye of Basil Pao's photographs, as no more than a subsidised album of tourist exotica or a souvenir tie-in to the current TV series. But that would be a mistake, for Palin does his job as a travel writer very well indeed. He knows how to entertain the reader at first, resists any temptation to lecture, then builds up a slow-boil of interest before teasing out some answers through some skilful interviewing.

The resulting mosaic of opinions draws out a fascinating composite picture of a nation that, through the three cultural markers of language, music and food, is triumphantly self-defined and ceaselessly inventive. Brazil is also a country that seems to have no enemies, no lost provinces to redeem, but side by side with that famous tolerance, there has also evolved a complete indifference to the rule of law. And despite the insistent imagery of tropical forests and vast rivers, 80 per cent of people live within 250 miles of the coast, on an undulating range of hills etched across a semi-arid plateau.

For all the proud talk of Brazil's happy cocktail of races, the industrial heartland was formed recently, assisted by a flood of 20th-century European migration to the 40-million strong Sao Paulo conurbation. The real money has always been made from mining, controlled by a handful of powerful men, pouring mountain-loads of ore into ships bound for China. These are the sort of people even Palin can't get access to, though he has made it an exhilarating journey introducing us to the rest of the nation.