Monday, March 24, 2008

Favela Snapshots 1: The White Man's Burden

O Cativeiro by Cícero Leitão and Inferno by Patrícia Melo have very little in common. Both have a cover design featuring a picture of favela and a story largely set on a morro, but other than that, they are pretty much opposites of the each other. I'll start with the worse one.

A few notes first. I read the books in portuguese, but Melo's works are widely available as translations. And O Cativeiro, on the other hand, isn't really worth the trouble. Also, contrary to my usual way, I stole the pictures for these posts from the net. I unfortunately left my tools for editing images in Rio. All the credits and honour to the creators of these photos.

White man's burden

I initially grabbed O Cativeiro just because it seemed like an easy and entertaining read, something to practice my portuguese with, and because it was displayed visibly in my favourite book store in Ipanema. Easy to read, yes; entertaining, hardly. And apparently the reason for that spot of honor at the book store was because the book has a scene set in that particular shop.

O Cativeiro is an ordinary police thriller, telling the story of a young, promising TV-reporter William Rossi. He happens to come across a suitcase containing some highly valuable secrets and soon gets hijacked by a bunch of drug trafficers. As the police, including William's cousin Giovana, get on the William's trail, they find out that the one who is pulling the strings is actually a highly powerful politician, with number of corrupt cops on his side...

Unfortunately, the one behind it all is pretty apparent to reader right from the beginning, and the rest of the suspense is based on trying to guess which of the insignificant, one-dimensional cop characters get whacked and what is the deadly secret in the suitcase. Except that reader doesn't really give a damn. The plot is full of holes, the writing is rather amateurish and the reader is always three strides ahead of the characters.

Why then do I bother to write about this book? Because it is also an interesting, though scary visualisation of the mindscape of the succesful, professional middle-class in Rio.

Professional-class heroes

The profile of Williams, a professional class hero: Williams is "handsome and charismatic", "calm, intelligent and polite". He is highly educated and was also succesful in the army: the best shooter in the class, he was begged to pursue a military career but his devotion telejournalism won. Seeing his face in television is his biggest dream. Being so good with firearms, though, proves to be a useful survival skill as Williams manages to single-handedly escape from his torturers. Also, note the pseudo-English name of the hero.

Interestingly, three most significant police characters are women, all of them "trained", "attractive" and "well-formed." All the main characters are described as highly ambitious and devoted to their work. Most of the heroes are also naturally blond. For an example Ana, Williams' ex-girlfriend and also a succesful journalist, still desperately aching for Williams, has "blue, intelligent eyes" and "a sensational body".

Monsters and losers

In O Cativeiro, there are two kinds of people in favela, the bad guys - traficantes, vagabonds, marginals - and the ordinary people.

The bad guys are either black or mulato. They are vulgar, cruel and stupid. They constantly fumble even in their profession of crime, relying solely on firepower and numbers instead of skill or tactics. Most of the young people in favela, too lazy to get an education, are more or less linked to the organized crime: "Unoccupied youngsters were talking banalities in front of the habitation. When they passed by, they shot malicious looks on the direction of hips of Luciane, which she moved gracefully." When not mongering vicious commands and barking at each other, the bad guys always talk "banalities."

Favela is a nightmare landscape of poverty and dangers. Right after Williams espaces he stumbles on a clandestine cemetary, with human skulls and bones. He feels like he's "in the middle of a Stephen King novel." Diabolic funk pulses somewhere on the background.

Later, he meets a few of the normal residents of favela. Old couple hesitantly helps him to escape. White husband Manolo manages to craft a plan to get him out of his house. He masquerades Williams as a part of a carnivalistic crew promoting an electorial candidate, mostly to safe his own covardly ass and partly because he bitterly hates traficers: he lost two of his sons to the traffic. Manolo's wife Dona Maria is "black and weights almost hundred kilos. She passes most of her time complaining about her aching feet." She is stupid and superstitious: Dona Maria watches a lot of television, so she recognizes Williams, but because Williams has been declared dead in the television she thinks that she's seeing a zombie. After all, she also saw Michael Jackson's video The Thriller on the telly.

Sadly, the cover of Williams is busted by another favelado, a silly young girl Michele. Michele dreams of a glamorous life and when the colourful electorial crew, with MCs and samba bands, rides into favela, she thinks that her chance is here. She doesn't like studying, so she puts on her better clothes and pushes herself into the glamorous group. There she meets Williams, whom she also recognizes as she too watches a lot of television. Williams begs her to help him, which she gladly promises to do. Of course, Michele immediately calls all her girlfriends and soon the whole of the favela knows - including the gangsters pursuiting Williams

Thus, we learn that the reason for all the misery in the life of favelados is mainly their lack of ambition. A lazy bunch, they spend their time watching television - whereas, we have earlier learned, the heroes just can't sit still and channel surf even when the've been ordered for a sick leave. There are those that get shown on the TV and those that just watch it: the active and the passive, the professionals and the losers. Favelados spend their time brooding, complaining and talking bullshit with their friends. They do, naturally, dream about the good life, but they do pretty much nothing about: the old couple is hoping to win in the lottery, and Michele, despising school and hard work, builds her future on a vague scheme of seducing somebody famous.

John Rambos of everyday

But the clumsy criminals of the favelas wouldn't probably pose such a threat to the white professional class, if they weren't lead by the corrupted upper classes. This reflects the growing insecurity of the middle-class: they are losing their trust on authorities who are failing to control the raising wave of violence. The corrupt politicians are clearly the target to blame, especially populists with leftist sympathies. O Cativeiro is a paranoid cry for help against these threats from all sides and a tribute to the brave vigilantes among the ordinary people. There is still need for John Rambos of everyday.

There is one imaginitive scene in the book. A crime boss is captured by the good cops and taken away for interrogation and torture. The torturer is called Dr. Mengele. He's an obviously crazy old man with a toolbox of strange, sharp medical tools and a heavy german accent. He starts his work in a rather unorthodox way and when the hardened criminal, expecting a painful torture, wonders what the hell the doctor is doing, Mengele slips that the sex-change is painless operation if the patient would just please keep still. The criminal speaks immediately and so would I. This might be funny in a film of Quentin Tarantino, but in the context of O Cativeiro, the scene is plain ridiculous. Of course "the doctor" is an actor. But the trafficers are just so simple.

These are not just personal attitudes of the author, but reflect a wider opinion of the society. As a study by Nova S/B and Ibope - published in O Globo ("Aculpa é dos otros" and "Entre os mais ricos, tortura é aceita por 42%; nos pobres, por 19%", March 9th 2008) - shows, 26% percent of Brazilians accept the use of torture as means of interrogation. There is a significant difference in the opinions between the classes: 42% of the higher income population accepts torture, where as "only" 19% supports the practise among those earning less than a minimum wage. "Rights? Human rights are for humans", sums one of the O Cativeiro's heroes it all, when capturing a black skinned, demonic traficante whining for his human rights.

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