Thursday, November 22, 2012

Brazil (Michael Palin)

Michael Palin’s latest book brought back memories of my previous encounters with Brazil.

When I was doing GCSE Geography, there was barely a corner of the curriculum that didn’t have an example from Brazil that could be quoted while answering an exam question. And there was a suspicion that writing down ‘Brazil’ in response to any question that stumped you might gain half a point.

“Está chovendo” are the only two words of Portuguese I know, courtesy of a university friend Shirley who was brought up in Brazil (and baptised in the River Amazon).

And a couple of summer’s ago I read two thirds of Fordlandia by Greg Grandin, a fascinating – if over-detailed – history of Ford Motor Company’s failed experiment in the middle of the Amazonian rainforest to develop a rubber-plantation to feed into their tyres, complete with US-style buildings and customs. One day I’ll finish the book and post a review.

Michael Palin visited Brazil to film a recently-broadcast TV series. His eponymous titled book documents his travels across the vast country, twice the area of India. Palin contrasts the forests, the mines, the beaches and the favelas. He notes the role of religion and witchcraft, carnivals, the influence of Portugal, as well as spotting many examples of minimal clothing – both on the beach and in forest tribes. And he even finds a tribe getting lessons in videography.

Basil Pao’s photographs really bring Michael Palin’s commentary to life, capturing the colour and vibrancy of the country. Sadly Pao’s name doesn’t make it to the book’s front (or back) cover. Also missing from the book is an index.

Palin describes a country where poverty and prosperity mix on the beach, and twenty years of military dictatorship are less visible than the 1950s government building distinctive architecture of Oscar Niemeyer. (In two week’s time, he’ll turn 105. Update - he died on 6 December, days before his 105th birthday.)

Included in his travelogue, Palin surveyed the remains of Fordlândia by boat. The pictures really bring Grandin’s more wordy tome to life.

What I wasn’t taught in GCSE Geography was that within 20 years, Brazil would become a superpower, leapfrogging the UK in 2012 to become the world’s 5th largest economy.

Throughout the book, the reader is gently introduced to often flamboyant individuals who guided Palin and his crew through different regions and cities: Gabby the “Beyoncé of the Amazon”; 70 year old cowboy Julio; Marjorie , a transsexual who describes herself as “a woman with a penis”; a blogger called Raul; Marlisa, a special forces publicity officer; and many others.

Before finishing in São Paulo, Palin stops over in Rio de Janeiro and discovers rising rents as foreign buyers snap up property ahead of the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics. It’s all in sharp contrast with the new city of Brasília which took over as the country’s capital in 1960 and was constructed in the unpartisan interior, away from the more dominant south east.

I missed the TV series that preceded the book. But I found the book a fascinating excursion through a country which was undersold and underexplored in those school geography lessons.

Disclosure: My copy of Brazil was supplied by Easons in conjunction with Michael Palin’s booksigning (Belfast store at 12.30pm on Friday 23 November), but didn’t have any demand or influence over the content of this review.

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