Damian Platt’s Nothing by Accident: Brazil on the Edge is not just an excellent introduction to Brazilian politics generally, but an insightful exploration of the country as a whole.
‘I hope readers will understand that Rio de Janeiro is not always the tragedy described in these pages. It is also a fantastic, exhilarating, culturally exuberant city that is home to an inspiring, imaginative and welcoming population.’
So concludes the preface to Damian Platt’s Nothing by Accident: Brazil on the Edge, a compassionate, informative and hard-hitting account of life in 21st-century Brazil. The introductory chapter is titled ‘Homicidal Times’ and, whether or not this is sardonic word play, it at once reads like both a fictional thriller and grisly reportage, recounting a web of death, drugs and corruption. In fact, as Platt has presented us with a real-time account, by the end of this first page there is an update: the victim, Gabriel – ‘the son of our beloved housekeeper’ – has disappeared. Whilst the personal connection to the disappeared brings home the pervasiveness of violence, the mention of disappearances is a chilling reminder that the country is not free from terrors that characterised its Cold War.
With 15 years of living and working in Brazil under his belt, it is no surprise that Platt writes as he does. Much like Óscar Martínez covers Central America, he covers Brazil with clarity and colour; painting, narrating and informing all in single sentences. Phrases such as ‘screaming social violence and disparity’ are followed by descriptions of his abode being ‘tucked into a hillside, virgin tropical rainforest cover[ing] the slopes above the property, which looked towards a mesmerising vista of city and sea.’ Platt writes with warmth and it is his honest, experienced tone that makes the book all the more readable, in spite of the horrors it presents.
Such is the tragic reality of a country ‘on the edge’ that residents appear to exist on a seesaw of tension. For example, Platt recollects a hot Sunday afternoon in Alemão favela, surrounded by laughter, music, paddling pools and barbecue scents, not wanting to be anywhere else – yet when gunshots sound he ‘dropped [his] beer on the tiles and lay face down in it’. On other occasions, attending baile funk parties, he might become lost in the atmosphere of ‘hypnotic music, [a] light show and [an] enthusiastic throng of dancers’, from which he is awaked by the ‘sight of a thin, ill-looking child a few steps away, eyes rolling back into his head’. Indeed, so vividly is Brazil brought to life, with adjectives assigned to music and decades of history conveyed with concision, that the brutalities of daily life are all the more affecting.
Turning to these brutalities, the second chapter’s title posits ‘waging war’ as ‘a way of life in Rio de Janeiro’. This war has many fronts: corrupt police forces who – in a disturbing echo of the Colombian ‘false positives’ scandal – register those they kill as ‘deaths in confrontation’ whilst ‘extrajudicial executions’ are in fact the norm; sieges of favelas by military police special forces; assassinations of community activists; torture; and an illegal arms trade. All of this is both enabled and exacerbated by a ‘war on drugs’ which is a ‘pretext and euphemism for a war on the poor’.
Sadly, such fronts will be unsurprising to those familiar with Latin American history. However, one of the strengths of Nothing by Accident is how Platt utilises his own life story to tie chapters and themes together. One notable example of this is his determination to understand why Rio de Janeiro suffers ‘such despairing degrees of lawlessness’, which led him to learn about the jogo do bicho – a popular but illegal lottery, known as ‘the animal game’. Tracing the lottery’s origin back to 1892, he explains how, over the ensuing decades, the lottery’s inconsistent suppression by authorities led to corruption between the bookmakers and law enforcers, the latter of whom would see any such arrangements as sources of revenue. As laws tightened and aforementioned relations grew tighter, so also grew the vendors, with a number becoming ‘bankers’ who would violently clash for territory and market share, open secret casinos, fund government projects and players, and diversify their business portfolios. The untangling of this organised crime web is one of the most fascinating sections of the book which, arguably, is worth reading for this chapter alone. That said, it is preceded by investigation of the Brazilian cocaine trade; about which it offers welcome insight, given that study of the region’s drug trade usually focuses on Colombia and Mexico.
Platt’s style is a mixture of autoethnography and reportage. His personal history with the country serves as a vehicle for exploring Brazil’s political, cultural, media and military elites; their relation to, and roles in, organised crime; organised crime’s influence upon institutions such as the samba schools and Carnival; and the human cost of these interplays. Each chapter is a layer of Brazilian society, which builds upon the previous, eventually bringing us to the present day, wherein we learn of the links between far-right president Jair Bolsonaro and the 2018 assassination of politician and human rights activist Marielle Franco. As well as the protests of 2013, attention is also paid to the Cold War military dictatorship and the repression it inflicted. As a champion of the dictatorship and the police’s right to kill, Bolsonaro himself is a chilling symbol of both past and present.
Rio de Janeiro, writes Platt, is ‘contradictory’: ‘You might witness a ferocious gun battle in the morning, spend the afternoon on a beach and then dance the night away.’ The political success of Jair Bolsonaro is a ‘logical product’ of the country’s ‘systemic faults’, detailed throughout the book. Nonetheless, it is clear that whatever Brazil’s faults, Platt cares deeply about the country and its people. Nothing by Accident is not just an excellent introduction to Brazilian politics generally, but an insightful exploration of the country as a whole. In the face of global turbulence, Platt’s is a passionate eye to cut through the storm.
Nothing by Accident is available to buy on Amazon.