Brazil: a biography

Dóra Maurer, 4 of 3, 1976


Considerations based on the book by Lilia M. Schwarcz & Heloisa M. Starling

Em Brazil: a biography, by Lilia M. Schwarcz & Heloisa M. Starling, published in 2015, the country's contradictions are revealed and can take the form of tomb epitaphs. We read fundamental questions of national existence that have never been resolved even after more than five centuries of “official” history built by burying other stories.

Epitaph 1 – historical circularities

Citing the work the leopard, by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, one of the most important Italian novels in the voice of the character Tancredi, in the script by Luchino Visconti, for the 1963 film of the same name, the authors evoke a possible first epitaph: “If we want everything to remain as it is, we must May everything change.”

Having passed away one day, this biographed Brazil could receive such an honor post-mortem. This is because national history is full of circularities: the massive and cruel slavery of black and indigenous people over centuries, then mitigated with a false abolition in 1888 that left deep traces in national sociability, permeated by structuring racism, supported by social inequality. in such a way as to leave the formerly enslaved people on the streets, stigmatized and without prospects.

Perhaps this epitaph served to remember what was missing, which was a reckoning between the slave society and its past, through the creation of conditions so that the population could enjoy possibilities for social and professional advancement.

One of the lines between this epitaph could be the episode of the Paraguayan War, in 1865, more specifically the fact that it consecrated the Brazilian Army as an “elite force” in the words of the authors, then separate from the National Guard – a kind of predecessor of the Force National Public Security. After the war, this profession, that of a professional soldier, became a form of social ascension, forming an elite within the Army, opposed to the civilian elite of Brazilian society. Dissatisfaction with the country's situation and with their own position in the hierarchy of power was a defining feature of this new elite.

In fact, Tancredi was right. Everything continued as it was before. The formerly enslaved, marginalized, and the colonels, now in uniform.

Epitaph 2 – center of hereditary captaincies

Another possible epitaph, in yet another sentence cited by the authors, this time from Machado de Assis in his short story “Theory of the Medallion”, from 1881, is the following: “You can belong to any party, liberal or conservative, republican or ultramontane , with the sole clause of not linking any special idea to these words…”. The Brazilian Centrão created in the 1988 Constituent Assembly is a legacy of the times of hereditary captaincies, when the convenient took the place of an eventual project, plan or promotion of national destiny. The Brazilian hegemonic political class never had a horizon of action other than the country's international subordination aligned with the violent national submission of its fellow citizens - obviously, the most socially fragile populations such as people who were enslaved.

Another line between this national epitaph, but with the outlines of the main plot, was the episode of Leonel Brizola, then governor of Rio Grande do Sul, during the attack of that same Army of Caxias against the inauguration of constitutional president João Goulart in 1961 – vice- president of Jânio Quadros, who stepped away from the Presidency of his own free will, despite accusing “certain forces” that were putting pressure on him. Leonel Brizola mobilized the Rio Grande do Sul Military Brigade – equivalent to the military police, at that time, still faithful to republican “legalism” – and moved the Radio Guaíba to the basement of Palácio Piratini, headquarters of the government of Rio Grande do Sul. Leonel Brizola mobilized the state and the rest of Brazil in favor of defending the Constitution, on “Rádio da Legalidade”, in broadcasts 24 hours a day, also heard abroad in an unprecedented campaign of agitation and propaganda.

Centrão tries to convince us that it does not take sides, and Leonel Brizola, at that moment in 1961, took the side of an unsubmissive nation.

Epitaph 3 – national by subtraction

A possible third epitaph may arise from the literary critic Roberto Schwarz who, according to the authors of the book in question, in the text “Nacional por subtação” published in a 2009 collection, said that in Brazil everything seems to “[…] 'start over from scratch' , and that here the national is built by subtraction.”. In the last decade in Brazil, we have experienced national campaigns for the Presidency guided by the annulment opposed to the proposition. It was like this in the 2014 elections that took Dilma Roussef and Aécio Neves to the second round, then, in 2018, in the elections that consecrated Jair Bolsonaro and Fernando Haddad and, finally, in 2022, again Jair Bolsonaro, now against Lula, the winning antagonist .

The opposition towards the right represented by Aécio Neves in 2014 and the extreme right represented by Jair Bolsonaro in 2018 and 2022 consists of a nuanced progressivism, but completely opposed to radical neoliberalism, the erasure of the memory of the military dictatorship, among several other points harmful. In any case, Dilma Roussef, Fernando Haddad and Lula supported themselves by rejecting their opponents, normally rescuing old government programs, mainly from Lula's first two terms as President (2002-2005 and 2006-2009). That lack of a country project, which also affects progressivism and even the left, results, then, in this national by subtraction from which the authors rescue, and which should appear on our collective tombstone.

The final intricacies in this tomb of the nation could continue to unfold presidential comparisons, in this case, covering Jânio Quadros (1961), Fernando Collor (1990-1992), and Jair Bolsonaro (2019-2022). Despite the more than six decades that separate the first term from the last, there are some similarities in these national figures on the right, proselytizers, who evoke – possibly without having ever read – Machado de Assis and even Roberto Schwarz. Supported by an empty discourse of combating corruption, which always required finding scarecrows – made of brooms (literally) in the case of Quadros, or of the ethereal “marajás”, in the case of Fernando Collor, and, in the case of Jair Bolsonaro, of the communists (thieves), their ideological bases could be summarized in the figures of white men on jet-skis, in a ritual of fragile performance, based on a certain conception of masculinity.

The repetition is not a mere coincidence. In addition to starting over from scratch, Jânio Quadros, Fernando Collor and Jair Bolsonaro managed to be even more null than zero itself.

The final phrase on our national tombstone could be that bet made by the authors themselves, on the last page of the last chapter, back in that year 2015 (which, you remember, preceded the arithmetically next year, that is, 2016 – the year of the coup in Dilma Roussef): “in Brazil, who knows, democracy may not have an end, and the future will be good.” The authors made a mistake, but they must be forgiven because, after all, it is not every day that a biography of Brazil is written, much less that epitaphs are offered for it.

Carlos DeNicola is a member of the socio-environmental movement.


Lilia M. Schwarcz and Heloisa M. Starling. Brazil: a biography: with new postscript. São Paulo, Companhia das Letras, 2015. []

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