US writer, beloved in Brazil, tests bond with country

Staff Writer
Columbus Monthly

PARATY, Brazil (AP) — Texas-born writer Benjamin Moser moves slowly along the uneven cobblestone streets of Paraty, the colonial city that hosts Brazil's biggest literary festival, barely managing to move a few yards forward before he's accosted, in true rock star-fashion, by gaggles of adoring fans.

The author of a critically acclaimed biography about Brazilian novelist Clarice Lispector, Moser has become something of a national hero in Brazil — beloved for bringing international renown to an enigmatic writer who'd long been regarded as a treasure in her homeland but was barely known outside its borders.

But seven years after the publication of his Lispector biography, "Why This World," Moser is putting his golden reputation on the line with a new collection of harshly critical essays about Brazil — the country which, despite currently living in the Netherlands, he considers his adopted home.

Launched last week in Portuguese, "Autoimperialismo" — which roughly translates as "self-imperialism" in English — is a clear-eyed look at how Brazil's colonial past has help shape its starkly socially divided present, viewed largely through the lens of the country's monumental architecture.

Moser doesn't pull his punches, dismissing much of Brazilian architecture as "oppressive," and reserving particularly harsh words for the hallowed figure of Oscar Neimeyer, the late architect behind the futuristic capital, Brasilia, which was built from scratch over four years and inaugurated in 1960.

"The ostensibly 'original' creations of Oscar Neimeyer look like something that Kim Il Sung would have commissioned after flirting with Scientology," Moser writes in a particularly acidic passage.

Moser argues that both Brazil and the United States were fueled by similar expansionist impulses, except that while the U.S. looked to conquer external enemies and territories — Texas, California, Alaska, Hawaii — Brazil has been locked in a crippling, centuries-long battle with itself. This theory, Moser argues, helps explain everything from Brazil's seemingly eternal boom and bust cycles to its endemic corruption and even its now-notorious water pollution problems.

Moser acknowledged the book might prove a bitter pill for many Brazilians, whom he said tend to suffer from an excess of patriotic zeal and are often loathe to tolerate criticism from foreigners. But the Houston native — who says he considers himself "almost Brazilian" — insisted his harsh words came from a good place.

"It's in the spirit of contributing, not of criticizing," he said at a news conference at the Flip literary festival, where he was awarded a prize for "cultural diplomacy" by Brazil's Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Addressing the journalists in immaculate Portuguese, perfected throughout two decades of research and travels in Brazil, Moser added, "It's an attempt to see this country. It's not a negative thing... I see lots of Brazilians worried about the same things."

In the essays, Moser pokes his fingers into some of Brazilian society's longest-festering wounds, batting down the widely held myth that slavery in Brazil was somehow less atrocious than in the U.S., and its repercussions less toxic here than there. The lingering effects of slavery, Moser suggests, still permeate many aspects of life in Brazil and are particularly evident in the endemic violence that takes more than 50,000 lives in the country every year — overwhelmingly poor, black men.

Moser also rips into the decision to build a futuristic new capital in the distant interior. He dismisses Brasilia as just another costly manifestation of the nation's almost pathological impulse to erase the past — a key part of Brazil's strategy to remake itself as a developed nation and an important international player. In the book, Moser suggests Rio de Janeiro's multi-billion dollar Olympic makeover is but the latest manifestation of this impulse.

"In Brazil, there has always been a desire to kill history.... to escape from the history of Brazil," Moser said at a talk in Paraty with the British historian Kenneth Maxwell, one of the foremost experts on Brazilian history.

There's "this national phenomenon of erasing the past to implant a new thing that will make good on this idea of (Brazil as) the country of the future ... instead of looking at the present and the past," he said.

While it may be unusual for a foreigner to be tackling such subjects, the issues raised in the book have been recurring themes in Brazilian literature going back hundreds of years, Moser said.

"The basic thing that you find going back to the 18th century is the sensation, the fear that there's something wrong here ... that Brazil didn't turn our right," he said. "I don't agree with that."