A whiff of the apocalyptic surrounds the compounding crises currently afflicting Brazil. A surge in violent crime unfolds alongside a new and dangerous illness; a financial crisis begets a political crisis and the two quickly converge; an incestuous political elite forsakes investment in basic infrastructure in favor of profit-driven sporting spectacles; a president is chased out of office for being corrupt, and her successor is quickly shown to be even worse.
Here to comment on all this is Benjamin Moser, the lauded biographer, translator, and critic of Brazilian literary genius Clarice Lispector, in a book of essays dissecting Brazil’s contemporary malaise. Autoimperialismo (available only in Portuguese, in a translation by Eduardo Heck de Sá) traces the roots of Brazil’s current crises to an original national anxiety that a country settled by colonizers and the enslaved would never become an authentic nation. The solution settled upon by Brazil’s elite class, Moser shows, was an attempt to escape their gloomy roots by plunging forward into the future, no matter the cost. “While the Americans directed their energy outward—against Indians, Britons, Mexicans, against everyone—the Brazilians directed their energy within, to conquer a country that already belonged to them.”1
Moser, who fell in love with Brazil suddenly on his first visit, in 1996, has not necessarily written a guide for the outsider wishing to familiarize herself with the country. Non-Brazilian readers wishing for an engaging primer of recent Brazilian history will be better served by reading Alex Cuadros’s Brazillionaires (2016) or Juliana Barbassa’s Dancing with the Devil in the City of God (2015), the latter reviewed by Tom Winterbottom for this site last summer. Autoimperialismo speaks primarily to a Brazilian audience, which puts Moser in the position of defending the outsider’s ability to critique his host—even at the risk of being considered a colonizer himself.
Moser subjects Brazil to the same treatment he gave Lispector in his biography Why This World (2009), combining erudition with graceful observation and the occasional cutting aside. But while his estimation of Lispector only improved after an exhaustive four-year dig, the three essays of Autoimperialismo often reads as a litany of disappointments. (“In that, I have perhaps never been so Brazilian,” he writes.)
Brazil is the world’s fifth-largest country by area and ninth-largest economy, home to the greatest number of endemic animal species in the world, a major producer of oil, soybeans, and iron ore, and the last country in the Americas to abolish slavery, in 1888. Yet it occupies a strangely small place within the global imagination. Samba, surf, soccer, and sex, as the old formulation goes; adding “scandal” to that list today does not make it any less one-dimensional.
Moser argues that a sense of smallness, and a concomitant desire to become great, have long been sources of Brazilian national anxiety. In “Cemitério da Esperança” (Graveyard of Hope) the book’s first essay, he delves into two clichés used to describe Brazil—the “sleeping giant” and the “country of the future”—tracing their origin in the works of a handful of early 20th-century Brazilian essayists. Moser finds in those writers the diagnosis for a long-lasting national depression that settled in shortly after the country was established by the Portuguese monarch João VI, who fled Napoleon’s armies in 1807, taking his entire court along with him to Rio. (Imagine King George and the entire British Parliament decamping for Jamestown in the early 1700s.) Before then, the territory had consisted of little more than a few coastal trading towns, mining camps, and large slave-built plantations. The country’s strange journey from colony to independent nation was made even stranger by the bloodless 1889 coup that transformed the country into a republic.
That unusual process, Moser posits, has led generations of Brazilian elites and intellectuals to struggle to find a great mission for their country. Paulo Prado, in Retrato do Brasil (1928; Portrait of Brazil), blamed Brazilian inertia on what he saw as a vitality-draining mixing between exiled Portuguese, enslaved Africans, and displaced natives. Sérgio Buarque de Holanda, in Raízes do Brasil (1936; Roots of Brazil), found it in his country’s location on the Atlantic coast (“nose pointed to Europe, back to the interior”). One writer, the poet and essayist Oswald de Andrade, concluded in his 1928 Manifesto Antropófago (Cannibalist Manifesto) that the country should call forth the image of indigenous Brazilian’s cannibalistic rituals as a useful ideal which could “take all the parts of a foreign culture it desired, digest them, and make something useful for Brazil.”
Yet the depressed introspection expressed by the country’s thinkers, Moser writes, always contained within itself a messianic belief in the future’s promise. The country was too large, too magnificent for it to become anything other than a great nation. This was a certainty shared by Moser’s foreign precursors, who published books, he notes wryly, containing the words “Brazil” and “country of the future” in Dutch (1909), Italian (1922), Yiddish (1928), and, most famously, German, in Stefan Zweig’s 1941 essay of the same name.
Like most messianic beliefs, these dreams disappointed. The first and grandest failure that Moser confronts, in the book’s first essay, is Brasília, the monumental Brazilian capital built on a sparsely populated savannah “in 41 fevered months between 1956 and 1960” under the orders of Juscelino Kubitschek, a urologist from Minas Gerais who had ascended to the presidency after a fractured national vote. Brazil’s rulers had long dreamed of moving the capital away from Rio de Janeiro’s distracting beaches and palaces. Kubitschek hoped that a massive building project would unite a country sharply divided by class, region, and race. In a country eager to colonize its vast, underutilized interior, a new capital could catalyze an expanding economy. In a country yearning for greatness, a new capital would enchant the world.
While Moser’s estimation of Lispector only improved after an exhaustive four-year dig, Autoimperialismo often reads as a litany of disappointments.
A grand vision required a grand plan, and for Kubitschek no planners were grander than Lúcio Costa and Oscar Niemeyer, two architects caught up in the global turn to modernism, with its visions of merging form and function. Costa was in charge of the city’s master plan, while Niemeyer was granted the commission of designing the new capital’s key buildings. One long avenue, the Eixo Monumental, cuts the city east to west and contains the key government buildings on one end and an enormous football stadium on the other. The rest of the city, meanwhile—hotels, foreign embassies, gated condominiums—are located in distinct districts placed along two curved parallel avenues that from above resemble a tensed bow.
Moser is particularly contemptuous of the Eixo Monumental, the centerpiece of Niemeyer and Costa’s plan. Niemeyer’s creations, so well regarded by many contemporary architects, are dismissed as looking “like something Kim Il-sung would have commissioned after flirting with Scientology”; the avenue’s monumental design, meanwhile, means that the casual visitor to Brasília needs to hire a taxi “even to cross the street.”
But Moser’s most damning indictment of the city is that its planners refused to allow the city any room to grow spontaneously. (This decision was reinforced in 1987, when the city was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.) Brasília, a deliberately unnatural place, is circled by miles of rolling green grass, a “cordon sanitaire” that keeps the capital city’s working classes in haphazard settlements an hour away by bus. It is in one of these satellite towns that Moser finds “the real Brazil”—the Vale do Amanhecer, or Valley of Dawn, a town populated by the followers of a friendly, homegrown religious cult, “a place so nakedly exquisite, so openly friendly, and so unexpectedly fascinating” that he found himself yearning to remain. “Instead,” he writes, “I returned to Brasília, a city that appears to wish to escape completely from Brazil.”
One can safely say that Moser’s thinking on Brasília is directly shaped by Lispector’s assessment of the capital city for a 1970 newspaper column. In “Creating Brasília,” Lispector reflects on the “great visual silence” of Costa and Niemeyer’s strange shapes. The city, in her eyes, began with “the starkest of ruins,” over which “the ivy had not yet grown.”2 Lispector’s Brasília lacks an entry point or an exit, and is utterly devoid of people. Moser cites Lispector’s cryptic reflections and adds to them his own more quotidian observations. Its main avenues, he notes, are impossible to cross by foot, and its buildings and homes are full of bored, wealthy Brazilians and diplomats who have already “seen it all” and can therefore tolerate life in a flattened, rigid place.
Brasília’s counterpoint lies in the country’s former capital, Rio de Janeiro, whose streets are teeming with people, and where informal settlements sprout in the granite hills that interrupt even the toniest neighborhoods. For much of Brazil’s history, Moser writes, “the street—the multitudes—conferred power, and the street could revoke it. If Rio was all street, all multitude, in Brasília the street was often literally eliminated.”
One of the book’s strongest moments comes when Moser deftly draws a line connecting Brasília’s monumentality with the decision, in the early 1900s, to clear Rio’s predominantly black neighborhoods in the city center and replace them with the “Parisian” boulevards and beaux-arts buildings that characterize the city’s center today. In both cases, Brazilian officials sought to build their way out of an “unsightly” past and into the future—without any appreciation for the human cost. Today, Rio’s infamous favelas—which were born, Moser notes, directly as a result of the early 20th-century slum clearing—are home to some 25 percent of the city’s population.
It is no small irony that Rio’s city center is now home to the new Museum of Tomorrow, a lurching white insect designed by the Spanish starchitect Santiago Calatrava and commissioned by the city as part of a “revitalization project” in anticipation of the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympic Games. “During construction,” Moser writes, “the true relevance of the area for Brazilian and world history was uncovered”—the all-but-forgotten Cais do Valongo, a quay where nearly two million black Africans were offloaded from stinking, overcrowded ships, sold as chattel, and forced to work in service of a country’s self-domination.
As Brazil confronts a seemingly endless array of crises after a spectacular period of economic growth, the country’s builder class faces an artistic and political reckoning. The country’s biggest construction firms have all been implicated in the so-called “Carwash” investigation, which uncovered collusion between construction firms, the state-run oil company, and political parties from across the ideological spectrum. The country’s largest construction firm, Odebrecht, has pled guilty to corruption charges in the US and Brazil. The investigation has jailed dozens of top business executives and politicians, while much of the country’s political elite remain under investigation. The fallout from “Carwash,” meanwhile, is shaking governments across Latin America.
Moser, of course, is not alone in reflecting on the relationship between construction and Brazil’s entrenched corruption. Aquarius, one of last year’s best movies, tells the tale of an elderly writer, played brilliantly by the Brazilian American actress Sônia Braga, who faces off against the scion of a corrupt construction cartel in Recife. Descobri que Estava Morto (I Discovered I Was Dead), the uneven 2015 novel by acclaimed young novelist J. P. Cuenca, is a case of mistaken identity that revolves around a newly built luxury apartment building in a run-down part of Rio. Both works, while rooted in contemporary Brazil, will also resonate for anyone disquieted by the contemporary landscapes of New York, San Francisco, or London.
Moser dedicates his book to a group of students, teachers, artists, and journalists that linked arms with a poor Recife community that was in danger of being removed to make way for skyscrapers in 2013. They gathered, he writes, “in order to create a new model of resistance, a new mode of viewing the city.” For Moser, the “auto-imperialism” of the book’s title comes from the vision that Brazil’s authorities have continually imposed upon its own people. “Police invade favelas; favela residents invade city beaches; landless peasants invade large-scale farms; farmers invade indigenous reservations … the incessant invasion explains why Brazilians die in a quantity that, in most countries, would only happen as a result of a terrible epidemic—or from a fierce war against a foreign adversary. Brazil invades itself.” But in the time since Moser published the Brasília essay as a stand-alone e-book and donated its proceeds to the Recife movement, a startling array of social movements from across the ideological spectrum have emerged, taking millions of Brazilians into the streets. One of the most potent of these movements centers on poor and working-class students from the country’s social periphery who have taken command of their underfunded and often ignored schools. These students—some barely out of childhood—aren’t just advocating for better schooling. They are asking to be heard as citizens equally deserving of the rights and privileges afforded to the Brazilian middle and upper classes. They are asking to be seen, now rather than later.