Brazil is an epic 800-page historical novel written in English by Errol Lincoln Uys, a South African author based in the US. Unusual as this may seem, the book amazes the reader by the depth of the research put into it, by the skilful writing and by the creativity used in blending history with storytelling. The way the author manages to condense five hundred years of history in just one book is downright amazing. The story orbits around the tale of two families, one in Pernambuco, in the Northeast of Brazil, and the other one in São Paulo. In parallel, and sometimes interwoven by fate, both dynasties participate directly in events that would shape the country. Despite the book’s length, at no point does it get boring; Uys’ obvious fascination and passion for the subject ensure that the read is a gripping roller coaster. Its characters are very “alive” and adventurous, providing a rich insight into how life was during the many phases of Brazil’s past in its many different regions.
Beyond its great entertainment value, Brazil is also a great resource for those studying the country’s history. I learned a lot by reading this book; it increased my knowledge and understanding of the Paraguay war, the pre-Portuguese indigenous practices as well as the life of Antonho Conselheiro, and the war of Canudos. Uys’ book has also made the names of many streets of Rio de Janeiro – and throughout Brazil – come alive to me. These small examples and many others have made it clear that Brazil is one of the best, if not the best, historical novel about the country written by a non-Brazilian. To it’s great advantage the book has a refreshing neutrality and an objectivity which is sometimes difficult to find with Brazilian historians.
In addition to my praise and awe I will put forward the following remarks: History is a slippery subject and the vastness of Brazil and the complexity of its past may cause academic objections regarding the choices of the Uys’ focus. Other historians would – and have – focused on other events and regions to describe Brazil’s past, however one must recognize that any author undertaking such an enormous task would attract similar comments. In my case, the privileging of historical events and of big names over a more “sociological” and a more the “man-in-the street” perspective caused some reflection. Another point that stuck out was that most characters in the book either belong to the powerful and wealthy elite or belong to the very poor and oppressed layers of the Brazilian society – a necessary expedient for this kind of narrative, but also a decision that may have caused a certain “flatness” in some personalities. These choices may also lead to the misunderstanding of the dynamics of some sectors of the country’s population although by no means do they diminish the book’s brilliance.
Brazilian history is widely unknown throughout the English-speaking world. Perhaps because of this, as a Bandeirante, or an explorer/settler, conquering the unexplored vastness of the country’s fascinating past, Uys has produced a fascinating, cinematographic and ground breaking piece of work. The fact that he is not Brazilian and that he wrote this book in English has allowed for a lightness and for a creativity that one normally does not find in similar books written in Portuguese by Brazilian authors. Uys’ historical novel is undoubtedly a trustful and enjoyable portal for anyone – beginner or advanced – seeking to understand Brazil and to know its past. Brazil is also a great read for those who simply want to enjoy a great book and I can see it becoming a top rated TV series. I hope it does. Anyhow, this is a definite five star book!