Friday, April 11, 2008

Leighton Gage on crime and crime fiction in Brazil, Part II

Leighton Gage is the author of Blood of the Wicked and the forthcoming Buried Strangers, both from Soho Crime and both featuring Chief Inspector Mario Silva of Brazil's Federal Police. In Part II of his interview with Detectives Beyond Borders, Gage talks politics and answers a question about the state of crime fiction in Brazil. To the latter, he offers an answer similar to ones I've received about crime fiction in Tunisia and in the Palestinian territories: If you can't afford books, you can't read them, crime fiction or otherwise.

(Read Part I of the interview with Leighton Gage here.)

Brazil’s president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, has a background as a leftist and a labor activist. What difference has this made as far as police violence, land rights, and other issues that concern you in Blood of the Wicked and in future novels?

Virtually none. Unfortunately.

Parenthetically, how did Lula go from being feared as a wild man to being respected as a moderating influence so quickly? How much of this is due to even more radical South American leaders such as Evo Morales and Hugo Chavez?

To begin with, the fear of Lula was both logical and overrated. Logical, because you had this labor leader with a grade-school education. And he was threatening to take over a government owing so much money that a default could have caused a meltdown in the world’s financial system. Overrated, because Lula surrounded himself with responsible financial advisers from the very beginning and declared, long before the election, that he had no intention of not meeting Brazil’s obligations.

He’s still hated by many of Brazil’s elite, but he has clearly distanced himself from the far left. He doesn’t speak ill of Chavez or Morales or even of Castro, but he doesn’t go out of his way to strengthen relationships either. He has successfully steered a middle course, eschewing offensive rhetoric. And he continued to do so even after Bolivia’s expropriation and nationalization of the Brazilian National Petroleum Company’s multi-billion dollar assets in Bolivia. Argentina has moved closer to Chavez’s Venezuela. Colombia has moved further away. Brazil continues to follow its own course – right down the middle.

De Gaulle once said “Brazil is not a serious country.” The statement went on to become much quoted in diplomatic circles. Lula hates it. He wants Brazil to have firm recognition for its importance in South America and the world. He wants a permanent seat on the Security Council of the United Nations, and to that end he is being careful not to offend anyone. He’s even sent troops to enforce the peace in Haiti (the UN detachment is being run by a Brazilian general), and he’s sending financial and material aid to a number of nations in Africa.

By all intents, he seems to be getting his message across. And for Brazil’s poor he can do no wrong. His approval rating, even after a recent spate of corruption scandals that would have brought down most presidents in most democracies, is holding firm at about 55%. That’s pretty good for a guy who never got past the American equivalent of the sixth grade.

Police violence seems to be especially notorious in Brazil. Is it in fact any worse than in, say, Argentina? If so, why?

During the recent dictatorships, all three countries in the Southern cone were about on a par when it came to police violence, so it isn’t as if the Brazilians have a patent on it. But these days, an ordinary citizen doesn’t have to worry too much about the cops in Argentina and Chile. Their governments pay them reasonably well and keep an eye out for abuses.

Brazil, unfortunately, is different. It’s tough to raise a family on the salary of an average Brazilian cop. Many, if not most, look for other sources of income. Those sources can include evictions (as in the case of evicting landless workers from land they’ve occupied), extortion, “losing” evidence, and “cleaning up neighborhoods”. It doesn’t help the situation, either, that being a cop in Brazil is more dangerous than it is in Argentina or Chile and a lot more dangerous than it is in the United States or Western Europe. Cops are targets, often losing their lives just because they are cops. They respond in kind, dealing out death to people they regard as threats. All too often they’re wrong in their assessments. But by that time it’s often too late, and their superiors, cops themselves, turn a blind eye to the error.

You occasionally give readings in Brazil. How is your work received there? Who is your audience? Are any translation deals in the works, whether into Portuguese or into other languages?

When I give readings in Brazil, I give them mostly for foreigners, and I always give them in English. My European agent is working on foreign rights, and I expect my work to come out in French, German, Italian and Spanish before all too long. But I’m doubtful about Portuguese. And, in fact, I’m very happy with that. Most Brazilians speak and read only Portuguese. When Blood finally appears in that language, if it ever does, my Brazilian friends aren’t going to like it. I’m going to take a lot of flak for washing dirty laundry in public. Some of those friends are landowners, one is a cop, and one is a priest. All three categories take heavy hits in Blood. I’m not worried about the landless. If they can read at all, they probably don’t read books, and it’s even less likely they read fiction.

How popular is crime fiction in Brazil? Of the two Brazilian crime writers I’ve read, one is an academic who named his protagonist for a philosopher (Luiz Alfredo Garcia-Roza), and the other is a “serious” and respected writer by any standard (Rubem Fonseca). What does this say about Brazilians and their attitude toward crime fiction and mysteries?

Crime pays in Brazil. Crime writing, by and large, does not. The genre isn’t popular at all. I’ve heard a number of explanations for this, but none that convince me. One argument is that Brazilians live with crime and violence every day of their lives. So much so, that they choose to live in denial of just how dangerous their large cities really are. They want to close their eyes to crime, and they don’t want to turn to it for diversion.

But if that’s true, why do the scripts of so many local television series rotate around murder and other crimes? Is it possible that people who buy books don’t watch those kinds of shows? Maybe, but I doubt it. Another explanation, often given, is that publishers are so leery of the genre that good crime writing simply can’t get into print. Maybe. What came first, the chicken or the egg? Does Brazil lack good crime writers, or does it lack publishers who are willing to publish good crime writers? The argument goes round and round, and its defenders claim the situation has historical antecedents. They say that a number of writers started trying to imitate the English and American greats of the 1930’s and failed miserably at it. And rather than ascribe the failure to lack of talent on the part of writers, the publishing industry erroneously interpreted it as a lack of interest in the genre.

But, if that’s so, how can one explain Rubem Fonseca, Patrica Melo, Marcello Rubens Paiva, Silvio Lancellotti, Rubens Costa, Augusto Boal, Ruy Castro, Dalton Trevisan and, yes, Luiz Alfredo Garcia-Roza? They’re all in print, all of them write the genre, and all of them manage to sell books. I question, however, if any of them (with the possible exceptions of Fonseca and Garcia-Roza) can live on the income thus generated.

Fonseca, although he was a cop at one time in his life, isn’t regarded as a crime writer. Garcia-Roza, although he’s an academic and has published other kinds of works, is. His Espinosa series has attracted more readers in the English-speaking world than it has here. Overall, Brazilians read much more non-fiction than fiction. And when it’s fiction, it’s likely to be one of the worldwide best-sellers (including works by the Brazilians Jorge Amado and Paulo Coelho) or one of the “serious” writers, like Clarice Lispector. (And, yes, Fonseca.)

Remember, too, that in this country lots of people can’t afford to buy books. Many are still illiterate. In a country of over one-hundred-eighty million people less than eight million daily newspapers are sold. In books, a best-seller is anything over five thousand copies.

(Read Part I of the interview with Leighton Gage here.)

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

(Satellite photo of Brazil: © 2008 )

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April 11, 2008  

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