Trav­eller with a nose for so­cial in­jus­tice

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

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

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