This is an Edward Rutherfurd/James Michener type book, telling the story of Brazil through the histories of two fictional families, the Cavalcantis and the da Silvas. My paperback copy was 1,000 pages long, so there was a lot to read, but it was worth the effort.
As with all books of this sort, everyone will have their own opinions about what should have been included and what should have been left out. There wasn’t a great deal about Brazil’s history before the arrival of the Portuguese but, unfortunately, not a great deal is known about it, and there was still enough to give the reader a picture of the traditions of some of the native tribes. The main families were of Portuguese origin, but the da Silvas also had African ancestry and, as is typical of Brazil, there were many mixed race relationships and descendants.
There was quite a strong focus on the period in which the Dutch held part of Brazil – possibly of particular interest to the author because he’s of South African origin? Complete with some rather stereotypical comments about the Dutch being better at trade and commerce than the Portuguese. Later on, in the period of the pre-independence rebellions, there were some interesting observations about how, if more attention had been paid to industry, Brazil could have become a leading supplier of cotton … I’d never really thought of that before! Anyway, to get back to the earlier colonial period, part of the book was set in Portugal, particularly in the 18th century during the time of the Lisbon earthquake and the Pombal reforms, and parts of it were also set in Portugal’s colonies in Africa, but I think that that was necessary to understand the history of Brazil, especially with regard to slavery.
Brazil becoming independent was missed out, which was rather odd! The end of the rule of the Brazilian branch of the Braganza dynasty, and the birth of the republic, was covered, but not the crucial period of South American history in which Spanish South America became several different independent countries and Brazil became an empire independent of Portuguese rule. However, there was a long chapter about the Paraguayan War. It was a tragedy from which Paraguay’s never recovered, but I’ve never thought about it much from the Brazilian viewpoint before, but I suppose it was that which really made Brazil the biggest player in South America, and which – along with British pressure to end slavery – prompted social reforms. But poor Paraguay.
The book ended with the founding of Brasilia, which was presented as a statement of Brazil’s confidence and national identity. If asked to name a Brazilian city, I should think that over 90% of people would say Rio de Janeiro and the rest would say Sao Paulo, but never mind! I’d have been inclined to write more about Brazil winning the 1958 World Cup :-). No offence to Brasilia: I’m sure it’s a very nice place!
All sorts of things were covered. Mining, sugar, the Jesuits, immigration from different parts of the world … it’s a very long book, and there’s a lot to read about. And to cover the history of any country in one book is a big ask, especially when you’re talking about a country like Brazil which is such a complex mixture of different ethnic groups. But this book tells you a lot about Brazil. It’s not easy to find novels about South America. Most of them are either about the Spanish and Portuguese conquests or else written in the semi-mystical style that seems to be popular there, so I was really pleased to find this. It took a lot of reading, but it was worth it.