Traveller with a nose for social injustice
Brazil is in the news again. Just as FIFA World Cup celebrations two years ago were marred by popular protests in Sao Paulo, Rio de Janeiro and elsewhere in response to exorbitant public spending on the event, while public services and housing fell by the wayside, so too has the leadup to this year’s Rio Olympics been marred by the outbreak of the Zika virus in Latin America.
Brazil is not a country that regularly makes the pages of our newspapers and both events, with their attendant crises, have doubtless gone some way towards complicating many people’s view of the country — a rather sunny view dominated by soccer, the Rio Carnival and, perhaps, churrasco (or barbecue) — by bringing questions of inequality, racism and poverty to the fore. Fran Bryson’s In Brazil takes such questions as its starting point.
Bryson is not related to the other noted travel writer of that name — her father is John Bryson, whose book Evil Angels, about the Lindy Chamberlain case, was later turned into a film starring Meryl Streep and Sam Neill — but does share Bill Bryson’s wanderlust. A former literary agent, she also shares something in common with Elizabeth Gilbert of Eat, Pray, Love fame, and perhaps with Matthew Thompson, the former Sydney Morning Herald reporter who threw in his day job and struck out for Colombia and other risky climes.
In Brazil is the Flinders Island-based writer’s first book, a closely observed, lyrically written, deeply empathetic account of seven years’ worth of travels though the world’s fifth largest country (by both area and population). For all its shortcomings — which I’ll get to — it heralds the arrival of a promising new talent in the travel writing field.
Fran Bryson’s greatest strength as a writer is her nose for social injustice, examples of which she uncovers almost everywhere. She is more interested in the shadow or forgotten histories of a place than the narrative peddled by those in power. Brazil’s legacies of genocide and slavery, its history of state-sanctioned violence against idealists, mavericks and heretics, and the contemporary status of women, minorities and the poor, are always foremost in her mind. (The 1993 Candelaria massacre, in which eight street children were killed by police outside a church, is but one of the stories she returns to regularly: it haunts her even during the seemingly endless street parties.)
Her concern with these aspects of the country’s history — a concern that she wisely lets simmer rather than boil, preferring the rhetorical question or wry aside to the ideological stridency of the soapbox or the grandstand — gives the book its moral weight as well as its point of difference.
“Past epochs never vanish completely,” Octavio Paz wrote of Mexico in The Labyrinth of Solitude, “and blood still drips from all their wounds, even the most ancient.” It is a sentiment applicable to Latin America generally, as Bryson’s travels through Brazil regularly illustrate. This is no casual cruise up the Amazon.
Bryson is also very good on “travel qua travel”, interrogating her impulses and reactions on the road deftly and at length. Her voluminous reading of other travel writers is obvious — Twain, Chatwin, Theroux, de Botton, Dessaix and others are all quoted at length — and gives