September 3, 2014
BooksSunday, March 23, 2014
Progress rammed through, imperiously
For The Herald
It needs to be mentioned first that Argentines usually leave school knowing little about the history of their outsize neighbour Brazil. This biography, which Spanish author Javier Moro unfolds in the form of an entertaining novel, provides a good way to close some of this gap. It rounds out its narrative beyond the lifetime of its flamboyant star, the first of Brazil’s two Pedros.
There is a big cast of characters, all of them dexterously sketched, including quite a number of European royals. And a miserable lot they were, from Pedro’s Habsburg father-in-law on down. Wishy-washy like Pedro’s father, John VI, or a scheming harridan like his mother, Carlota Joaquina (the book doesn’t mention the parallel, but they emerge as a couple much in the Claudius-Agrippina mould). Of the main figures, only Pedro’s wife Leopoldine comes out of the story with unblemished nobility, though faulted with being too submissive.
The text is both a conscientious, balanced biography and a historical romance. The latter means that its prose tends to be purplish. “Pedro felt (the news) like a stab in the heart”; his life is “converted into a suppurating sore.” Women can be relied on to have round breasts. (At least, until they start having one baby after another. Also, it’s hot in Rio, and those round breasts are dewed with perspiration. Pedro likes that.) But to be fair, only once in over 500 pages does a sentence reach quite as awful a level of kitsch and cliché as “the fruit of her nights of love that throbbed in her belly.” Still, this is followed soon after by a case of unprofessional carelessness with meaning, involving another unborn baby “whose imperceptible movements (the father) could already feel.”
Then there is a howler about the water of the cascade in the Tijuca woods “falling from a height of 800 metres,” which would rank it not far behind Angel Falls (actually it’s 30 metres high).
But most of the writing is better than that, especially in all the parts unrelated to love or sex. More importantly, the text has two virtues that far outweigh its sins. It is always sensible and perceptive in its psychological analyses. And amid an unrelenting series of intrigues, decisions, counter-decisions, conspiracies, conflicting loyalties and paradoxical situations, Moro manages, virtually every bit of the way, to be perfectly clear about what’s going on and why. Believe me, that’s a big achievement.
Quite some years ago I travelled extensively in Brazil: not just the usual coastal places, but also the interior, from the old, like Ouro Preto, to the new, like Brasilia; and from the lush, like the Mato Grosso and the Amazon, to the parched, like the northeast. My regret is not having made it back more recently. The impression I got everywhere was that Brazilians were enterprising people like those of the United States; people who, faced with something that needs to be done, roll up their sleeves and get down to it.
In other words, the opposite of Argentines, who first of all demand to know what somebody else will do about it, and/or engage in endless and sterile debate, until the opportunity has long slipped away.
That the US is as described is attributed to the inheritance of settlers who arrived to distance themselves from their government, and put a premium on self-reliance. Colonists in Argentina, instead, largely looked back to Madrid for their orders. In my fresh-out-of-school ignorance, I theorized that this kind of explanation might be extended to elsewhere, specifically to Brazil. However, with more exposure to the actual facts of history — as summarized, for example, in El imperio eres tú — the theory has been undermined.
Of course, my overall characterization of Brazilians may have been too hasty in the first place. But if they indeed are the way I said, the way they became so doesn’t fit the theory. In their formative days, their way of doing things was mostly imposed from above, as in Argentina; it didn’t arise from below as in the US. (Were the slaving raids of the bandeirantes partly an exception? Anyway, they’re beyond this biography’s scope.)
Nowhere is this clearer than during the reigns of John VI and Pedro I, who modernized the country by fiat. Thinking outside this novel’s limits, one can think of other emperors who considered it necessary to force progress down people’s throats: Napoleon and, obviously, Pedro’s namesake, Peter I of Russia. Pedro essentially liberalized Brazil, but, insofar as possible, he did so because he happened to feel like doing it, not because some uppity agitators were demanding it.
A plus: the novel draws interesting parallels between the role of slavery in Brazil (coffee) and the US (cotton).
Slavery, Moro points out, helped to keep Brazil together even as it was splitting the US: its diehard slaving states, judging they couldn’t resist international anti-slavery pressure on their own, felt safer inside than out.
El imperio eres tú, by Javier Moro.
(In two print formats: Planeta, 560 pages, 197 pesos; or alternatively, under the Booket (sic) imprint, 560 smaller-sized pages, 90 pesos).