State of Mind
March 2003

Dream on. This is not Brazil!

For dreamers, fantasists, fanatics or just bores, Brazil has become
a blank page on which they can scribble and doodle as they wish.
I cannot think of any other country which has this fascination for
foreigners. It is as though Brazil were a drug. For your information,
Brazilian women should come with the kind of health
warning found on cigarette packets.

John Fitzpatrick

For a number of foreigners Brazil is a state of mind rather than a physical state—more like the legendary Hy-Brazil, an Atlantis-like island believed to be located to the west of Ireland, than the country in South America1. These people are mental imperialists who sack Brazil for what they can get out of it and make it their own. Some of them do this without even setting foot in the place.

A look at the discussion thread of the Brazzil Forum shows this. While many of the contributors know the country it is obvious that some have no idea about Brazil. For them and many others—dreamers, fantasists, fanatics or just bores—Brazil has become a blank page on which they can scribble and doodle as they wish. I cannot think of any other country which has this fascination for foreigners. It is as though Brazil were a drug.

Sometimes the dream idea of Brazil is based on the actual country but selectively, so that only those aspects of the country, which prop up the dream, are used. I can think of two artistic examples—Terry Gilliam's film Brazil made in 1985 and John Updike's novel Brazil published in 1994. Is it not interesting that two Americans who have a vast country of their own to plunder for artistic purposes should choose the Brazil of their imaginations?

Gilliam's film, set in the future, is the weird account of a nobody who fantasizes about disappearing into the clouds to escape from the repressive society in which he lives. The advertising poster showed a crazed looking guy whose head is literally exploding, along with the title "Brazil. It's Only a State of Mind." That film could easily have been set in a city like São Paulo yet it never entered the director's mind to set it in the country after it was named.

Magpie Meets Magnet

In an interview Gilliam said his characters were "all trapped in a world of their own making". It would be good to detect some irony here but I do not. He added: "I work in this strange sort of magpie approach. I just start collecting things, and having an idea, a central idea, works like a magnet. Things just start sticking to it. I might end up with basically all these ideas that I start shuffling around like a jigsaw puzzle, trying to make a story or some sense out of the thing."

The magpie and the magnet. This odd combination of scattered ideas and thoughts being drawn to the Brazilian magnet is fascinating. However, why is the magnet Brazil and not Bulgaria or Belgium or Burkina Faso or Basutoland? Maybe these places would have resulted in "a story or some sense" since the film had little. I could find no reference to the origin of the name of the film, showing how the idea of Brazil as a place of fantasy is taken for granted. Unfortunately for the director, the moneymen who backed him were appalled with the result, re-edited the film and showed it without his approval. Maybe we should be grateful to them because God knows what other nonsense we would have had to endure in the name of Brazil.

New Englander Updike Goes Native

At least Updike's eponymous novel is actually set in Brazil with Brazilian characters. However, these characters bear as much resemblance to real Brazilians as a Jorge Amado character would bear to one of the Updike's more common New Englanders. Updike takes an extremely white well-off girl from Rio de Janeiro and pairs her off with—guess what—a poor black boy from a favela. The boy, called Tristão—no, the girl is not called Isolde but you get the point—gives her a ring he has stolen, they fall in love and set off on a trip around Brazil.

What follows is a trip around Updike's mind—a middle-aged man's version of Easy Rider set in the tropics. During the years of their wanderings, the couple have all sorts of adventures during which she becomes a prostitute and, at one point, they even switch colors, thanks to the injection of the magic realism which makes reading so much of Latin American literature a chore.

I accept that all writers have the right to wander around in their imagination but Updike uses Brazil in a way he could not have used any other country. Brazil gives him all the contrasting material he needs—wealth and poverty, black and white, tropical rain forests and the drought-ridden sertão. Like a tourist who behaves differently abroad than he would at home, Updike goes overboard in a way which would have led to him being burned with the witches at Salem had he written this book in the 17th century.

Foreigners have been writing about Brazil for 500 years and have often got it wrong. Since the country was actually "discovered" when Cabral was going in the opposite direction from his destination, India, perhaps this jinx has remained. The Encyclopaedia Britannica says that in the quarter of a century after the first Portuguese landings Brazil was virtually neglected and other Europeans, particularly the French, started arriving to cut down brazilwood. "Brazil became a sort of no man's land over which the Portuguese crown wielded only a shadowy control."2 Five hundred years later we can still say the country is a mental no man's land beyond any control.

Sex Appeal

One of the reasons why Brazil appeals to the foreigner is the sexual element. For most foreigners Brazil is associated with the carnival and football. Every year people all over the world see pictures of thousands of half-naked girls of all colors dancing in the streets. Unlike the po-faced, waif-like superstar models who strut around on catwalks, these Brazilian girls look happy and sexy. There is no political correctness about them or their society.

Brazil may be the largest Roman Catholic country in the world but the church obviously rules with a light hand. Compare the Brazilian carnival with the Fassnacht celebrated in Germany and Switzerland. Compare the noise and heat of Rio de Janeiro, where people are dancing to vibrancy of the drums in temperatures of 30 degree Celsius, to a carnival in Basle where brass bands wheeze out oompah music and everyone is wrapped up to keep out the cold.

I have attended both kinds of carnival and can assure you the Brazilian version comes out well ahead in every way. Knowing this, thousands of European and American men head for Brazil at carnival time in the hope of finding some sex and adventure and good luck to them. Brazil's main sex magazine is called simply "Brazil". Presumably the English word is to make local buyers feel sophisticated and attract foreign buyers through its very name which promises sexual delight.

There is nothing new about this sexual attraction. The first Portuguese sailors were astonished at the nudity and beauty of the Indian women they met. The Indian men did not seem to object to the visitors pawing their women, since the Indians themselves stole or traded women from other tribes. As for the women they seem to have gone along. As Joseph Page puts it in The Brazilians: "The sight of naked painted bodies in the midst of lush vegetation had a hypnotic effect on men who had just survived the rigors of a transatlantic crossing. The willingness with which Indian women gave themselves to the white strangers no doubt contributed heavily to the enthusiastic response of the Europeans to the native people." In time these Indian women were joined by African women and, since there were not enough Portuguese women around, the men were encouraged to have Indian or black wives and mistresses to people this new land.

Look Out—Brazilian Women on the Loose

This openness and freedom which Brazilian women show compared with European or American women is one of the reasons why foreign men are drawn to them. Just read some of the posts in the Brazzil Forum by (usually) American contributors to see the effects a meeting with a Brazilian girl has had on some of them. They read like the kind of idiotic letters you find in magazines for adolescent girls. As someone who has had some experience of Brazilian women I would warn any of these naïve foreigners to take care. The jungle may appear to be an attractive place but it is full of dangers. Brazilian women should come with the kind of health warning found on cigarette packets.

It would be better if these foreigners remained in the Brazil of their dreams where they have total freedom to think as they please. Since the Brazilians do not seem to mind having their country used as a mental escape zone the dreamers should keep on dreaming. Otherwise, grim reality might enter, as happened with the English bank robber, Ronald Biggs, who spent over 20 years in Brazil living a life which would have made most middle-aged failures envious. However, about a year ago Biggs, by then a sick old man, opted to go back home to drizzly old England where he is now a guest in one of Her Majesty's prisons.

1 This island was shown on maritime charts as late as the 19th century. Hy-Brasil - the Irish Atlantis by Fiona Broome

2 Volume 4, 1962 edition

John Fitzpatrick is a Scottish journalist who first visited Brazil in 1987 and has lived in São Paulo since 1995. He writes on politics and finance and runs his own company, Celtic Comunicações—, which specializes in editorial and translation services for Brazilian and foreign clients. You can reach him at

© John Fitzpatrick 2003

You can also read John Fitzpatrick's articles in Infobrazil, at

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