SPQR – A History of Rome – Mary Beard

For his First Catilinarian speech, and especially for it’s famous first line (‘How long, Catiline, will you go on abusing our patience?’), still lurks in twenty-first century political rhetoric, is plastered on modern political banners and is fitted conveniently into the 140 characters of a tweet. All you need do is insert the name of your particular modern target. Indeed, a stream of tweets and other headlines posted over the time I was writing this book swapped the name ‘Catilina’ for, among others, those of the presidents of the United States, France and Syria, the mayor of Milan and the State of Israel: ‘Quo usque tandem abutere, Francois Hollande, patientia nostra?’

So, back to Rome. I am one of the multitude that is fascinated by the Empire and it’s rise and fall. Only this time I would be hitting the heavyweights, Mary Beard: world renowned and respected historian. But how would it compare with Mike Duncan’s history of Rome podcast, still my benchmark for a quality podcast and for Roman History? Should I even try to compare them? Well it’s my blog so I’m going to say yes.

Mary Beard doesn’t so much peek as lift up and shine a bright light under the sleek veneer of Roman History, revealing tidbits such as the word candidate coming from the latin word candidatus, meaning whitened, regarding the special white toga’s worn by the Romans. This is revealed while Beard pulls apart Cesare Maccari’s painting of Cicero denouncing Catiline, the powerful moment in Rome’s early history that Beard picks up her history before she zips back to the beginning of the beginning and the real life / mythical tale of Romulus and Remus.

Beard spends a lot of time picking apart the myths and legends of Rome, the founding of the Republic, the rise of the plebians, from earlier scholars, themselves based on the prism of the Roman’s version of their own history. As the city expands, as the empire expands, as the Emporer’s come (and go) the idea of Rome, of what it was to be Roman, was constantly evolving, the Roman’s incredibly adept at rewriting their own history retrospectively, so that it suited the times that they were in. It i.s also particularly relevant today, looking at how the Roman’s dealt with the influx of people from all over their empire moving to the city with their own fashions and customs and the impact this had on ‘Roman-ness’

There is a treasure trove of information in this book, and Beard effortlessly combines fascinating facts with wry observations that prick through the pomposity of the subject and the Roman’s themselves. Using a chunk of Cicero’s letters and those of Pliny the younger, as well as archaeology and other research, and even previous histories, SPQR looks at the lives of ordinary citizens of the city, who became the centre of an incredible and diverse empire and so had to constantly evaluate themselves and their role within it. Highlighting that the city started properly with the effective kidnapping and raping of women from the next village, there are elements of the Romans that are as backward as they are enlightened, with some ideas and laws existing today in the same or slightly evolved form.

If Caesar really did advocate life imprisonment in 63 BCE, then it was probably the first time in Western history that this was mooted as an alternative to the death penalty, without success. Relying on the emergency powers decree, and so on the vociferous support of many senators, Cicero had the men summarily executed, with not even a show trial Triumphantly, he announced their deaths to the cheering crowd in a famous one-word euphemism: vixere, ‘they have lived’ – that is, ‘they’re dead’.

A look at the succession of Emperors it is not, although when they arrive, through the mighty yet conservative Augustus, to Caracalla, who gifting of citizenship which Beard finishes her history with, their actions with regards to management and succession is looked at through it’s impact on the empire and the city. Despite his greatness Beard points out that Augustus never really formalised the relationship between the Emperor and the Senate, and while he cleverly enveloped them into part of the empires civil service, to the extent that when he died they were incapable of trying to grab the power to run the empire back, the lack of demarcation caused issues for his successors further down the line. When Pliny was in charge of a province, it appears he corresponded directly to the Emperor  to ask questions regarding matters of office, which he more often than not received a reasonably prompt response.

It’s not all politics though, there are gambling on dice in the ports, barbarians and the exotic on the fringes it was interesting to note that a woman did not take her husbands name after marriage, or fall completely under his legal authority. When her father died an adult woman could own property in her own right, but and sell, inherit or make a will and free slaves. Beard points out that many of these rights women in Britain did not receive until the 1870’s.

SPQR is an incredible piece of work, over 500 pages of fascinating history, dollops and dollops of further reading and even a timeline (if that’s your thing). Beard has meticulously researched this, over a lifetime, has collated and organised and has also written in a wonderfully flowing, easy prose. Pointing out the obvious inaccuracies, or where it is impossible to know something for sure. But there is lots we can be certain of, and for lovers of Rome and the Romans, this is a fantastic read, and probably reaches details that Mike Duncan’s podcast doesn’t, but he goes right to the end of the western empire, so it’s swings and roundabouts. I tell you what, listen to that and read this. Everyone’s a winner.

After his long familiarity with the Romans, the king no doubt expected a rather civil meeting. Instead, Laenas handed him a decree of the senate instructing him to withdraw from Egypt immediately. When Antiochus asked for time to consult his advisors, Laenas picked up a stick and drew a circle in the dust around him. There was to be no stepping out of that circle before he had given his answer. Stunned, Antiochus meekly agreed to the senate’s demands. This was an empire of obedience.



The High Mountains of Portugal – Yann Martel

Eusebio coughs a little. “You haven’t been sharing these insights with Father Cecilio, have you?”
Father Cecilio, is their local priest – and the subject of much eye-rolling on Maria’s part. In her presence the poor man always looks like the chicken in the coop that hasn’t laid enough eggs.
“What, and have us excommunicated? That dimwit is the very hammer of literalism that insults my faith. He’s as dumb as an ox.”
“But he means well,” Eusebio suggests smoothly.
“As does an ox.”

I will confess this is my first return to Yann Martel since the Life of Pi, and it came mostly down to the fact it was part of an offer in Waterstones and partly that it was based in Portugal. I read the blurb on the back but didn’t quite realise what it meant, as I was expecting a rolling novel but instead the High Mountains of Portugal is in fact in 3 parts, connected by a longing for home, and chimpanzees.
Up first is Tomas, a man crushed by grief who walks backwards. What is there to say about that? He has some good arguments for it as well.

In response Tomas has come up with good arguments in defence of his way of walking. Does it not make more sense to face the elements – the wind, the rain, the sun, the onslaught of insects, the glumness of strangers, the uncertainty of the future – with the shield that is the back of one’s head, the back of one’s jacket, the seat of one’s pants? These are our protection, our armour. They are made to withstand the vagaries of fate. Meanwhile, when one is walking backwards, ones more delicate parts-the face, the chest, the attractive details of ones clothing-are sheltered from the cruel world ahead and displayed only when and to whom one wants with a simple voluntary turn that shatters one’s anonymity.

By chance finds the diary of an old priest which leads him on a journey to the high mountains of Portugal (see what he did there), which, it turns out, aren’t very high at all.
Tomas travels there in one of Portugal’s first motor cars, something that causes him no small amount of grief and anxiety in itself and which Martel uses to create one of only jarring moments in the whole book, towards the end of part one.

In Father Ulisses, Tomas finds someone who he feels suffering mirrors his own. His journey, which he likens to the old priest, is where he tries to cope with his suffering, almost imitating the priest, giving up his job, and not washing as he reaches the end of his mission.

Maria Luisa Motaal Lozora, who is introduced in part two, is my favourite character in the book. Who puts forward the most compelling explanation of Jesus using Mrs Marple and Poirot, no mean feat, and who places Paul of Tarsus as the originator of Christianity after he solved the whodunnit of Jesus’s death. Her part is small though, as the second part focuses on her husband, Dr Eusebio Lozora and his experience with another Maria, Maria Dores Passos Castro and her husband, who she has packed in a suitcase and brought to the hospital. It is here that you feel the echoes of the Life of Pi, with the magical island and Martel’s game of see just how far he can push your imagination before it snaps. Mine didn’t and it is a poignant, if not fantastical look at losing a loved one.

Lastly we meet Peter Tovy who meets, and feels so instantly connected to Odo that he quits his job and moves to, can you believe it, the high mountains of Portugal. Nothing odd there at all, except maybe that Odo is a chimpanzee. He settles down in a sleepy town and lives carefree days with the excited if not perplexed community, much to the consternation of his son, but much to the delight of Odo.

The High Mountains reminded of Saramago, for location and manner of the storytelling. Tomas’ uncle the aloof aristocrat who Saramago would have subtly scorned, but this was less Saramago, the prose far too punctuated for the Portuguese master. Even so, I think I completely missed the moral of the story, and just soaked in Martel’s Portugal and  it’s characters. Before I realised they were 3 separate yet interrelated stories, as part two carried on I kept thinking, this is all well and good Maria, but where is Tomas? As my brain caught up with my eyes it started to look for the themes that slide through the story. The three parts are tales of grief, about home and where to find it when your anchor has been ripped from you, yet all three are tender and shot through with some wonderful comic moments that make the High Mountains a place worth visiting, particularly if you have a chimpanzee.

“The horn. To warn, to alert, to remind, to coax, to complain.” His uncle squeezes the large rubber bulb affixed to the edge of the automobile, left of the steerage wheel. A tuba-like honk, with a little vibrato, erupts out of of the trumpet attached to the bulb. It is loud and attention-getting. Tomas has a vision of a rider on a horse carrying a goose under his arm like a bag pipe, squeezing the bird whenever danger is nigh, and cannot suppress a cough of laughter. 



The Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and his years of Pilgrimage – Murakami

When he felt hungry he stopped by the local supermarket and bought an apple or some vegetables. Sometimes he ate plain bread, washing it down with milk straight from the carton. When it wasn’t time to sleep, he’d gulp down a glass of whiskey as if it were a dose of medicine. Luckily he wasn’t much of a drinker, and a small dose of alcohol was all it took to send him off to sleep. He never dreamed. But even if he had dreamed, even if dreamlike images arose from the edges of his mind, they would have found nowhere to perch on the slippery slopes of his consciousness, instead quickly sliding off, down into the void.

So I was straight back in the wild weird world of Murkami from page one, a world in which all of his characters live in a world that is tilted slightly off from our own but that Murakami makes normal by his minimal functional prose and touches of everydayness (think I’ve just made up that one).

Tsukuru Tazaki is one of the most normal characters I have come across in a Murakami novel, except maybe his slightly odd passion for railway stations, and maybe the way he observes where people have colour in their names, contrasting with his own colourlessness, which is a reason he believes he’s a nobody. However, after forming an incredibly strong bond with four other people in the formative years of his life, he is suddenly and inexplicably cast out from the group and left on his own.

After coming to terms with his sudden isolation Tazaki has few friends and even fewer girlfriends, but one convinces him to go back to his old friends and find out why he was so cruelly expelled from of their lives.

It actually sounds like a normal story, and it very nearly is. Except it’s Murakami, so it’s all slightly kooky, but a good if not weird kooky. The thoughts and experiences of the characters sometimes verge on borderline horror, and I do wonder if this is normal for Japanese people, or if it’s just Murakami, or if it’s something hidden with the Japanese psyche that Murakmai has tapped into. I didn’t want to guess at the reason why his friends broke off contact from Tazaki. I knew I would never be able to guess, but I think also I was scared that I might guess right, and that would mean I’d be in Murakami’s world.

This isn’t a dream, Tsukuru decided. Everything is too distinct to be a dream. But he couldn’t say if the person standing there was the real Haida. The real Haida, in his actual flesh and blood, was sound asleep on the sofa in the next room. The Haida standing here must be a kind of projection that had slipped free of the real Haida. That’s the way it felt.

Tazaki spends considerable time thinking about the reasons he doesn’t hold down friendships, and his theories touch upon universal feelings of belonging and friendships that Murakami explores in his own slightly abstract way, without becoming sentimental or mawkish. Driven by his girlfriend who correctly spots that in order for him to fulfil his life he needs to clear out the debris of his past, Tazaki resolves to find out what prompted the exile that had so far defined his life.
So in his own methodical and understated way, Tazaki finds and meets up with his friends to try and understand what happened to their incredible friendship.

I don’t want to reveal too much, and Murakami resists tying up all the loose ends, seems to even resist giving the story an ending. It is Tazaki himself that seems to reach a milestone, and it’s a good place to stop. At the end what makes colorless Tazaki such a great character is not the fact that he’s a nobody, but that in fact, he’s everybody.

He thought about Sara, her mint-green dress, her cheerful laugh, and the middle-aged man she was walking with, hand in hand. But these thoughts didn’t lead him anywhere. The human heart is like a night bird. Silently waiting for something, and when the time comes, it flies straight toward it.
He shut his eyes and gave himself over to the tones of the accordion. The monotonous melody wended it’s way through the noisy voices and reached him, like a foghorn, nearly drowned out by the crashing waves.


Elephant Complex – John Gimlette

Of all the sudden, unexpected spaces, my favourite was Galle Face Green. It was slap next door to the ocean, and was so long that the far end often vanished into the spray. Although never quite the hub of Colombo (nowhere is), it’s always been through of as the natural place to fly a kit, display an army, or walk off a dish of mulligatawny. In the evening, half the city would be here, crunching up roasted crabs, or tottering into the waves, saris hoiked up to the waist. Alice would have loved it. One of the gypsy’s monkeys was always dressed as an Englishman, and, up by the lighthouse, all the anti-aircraft guns wore little quilted jackets.

I’m going to say it, John Gimlette is now officially my number one travel author. Sorry Paul Theroux, you held on for a good while. But while Mr Gimlette will no doubt revel in his new found glory, I will concede that for me, Elephant Complex was not as enjoyable as his romp around Paraguay or the Guyana’s and Suriname. Why did I bother reading it I hear you mumble, as you flick onto the next blog. For those of you who stay, I want to say I was hoping my love of Gimlette would pull Sri Lanka into the orbit of my interest.

Travel Writing can’t just be about the author, which sounds obvious, but reading this drove the lingering doubt out of my mind. It seems I’m not much of an armchair traveller, I have to have an interest in the place, almost care about it, and while I thought I might have an interest in Sri Lanka, I don’t.

Gimlette’s own interest in Sri Lanka came from local Tamil’s who lived near him in London, and after months of planning he dives headfirst into this complex land drenched in the history of racial violence, incursions from Portuguese, Dutch and the stubborn buffoons of England. Gimlette travels this history, meeting all types of Sri Lankans, both native and historical interlopers as he traces the story of this remarkable and historically important island and detailing the savagery both past and more recently present of the foreign powers who coveted Sri Lanka and the natives who despised each other enough to drown it in blood.

He meets people from all sides, as he marvels at the native Elephants, the gigantic reservoirs, the mysterious kingdom of Kandy, the awesome passion for cricket and the wildmen of the east.  All the while Gimlette observes characteristics of the people, flora and fauna, and how they are coming to terms of a recent peace after decades of brutal civil war, which somehow left the country’s tourism unscathed. Using a mix of local transport and hired drivers there is little of the land that he does not scrabble around in. He treks in the wild with guides and stays in dilapidated hotels, all the while poking under stones and into matters and issues that form the strata of this complex country.

It is a credit to Gimlette that he stays objective in his retelling of the history, despite his friendship of Tamil exiles in London. He recounts the atrocities and absurdities from both sides in the civil war that barely bumped into the news around the world except very occasionally, before sinking without a trace. The episode of India stepping in, which eventually ends up uniting the two enemies is something I was completely unaware of. It’s not all warfare though, although after such a long, horrific and recent period of conflict it is always there, just bubbling under the surface. Gimlette’s family come out to spend some time with him during his three months on the island, and he visits the tea plantations and the more hidden locations to properly inject himself into this physically beautiful island.

Sri Lanka was somewhere I was thinking of visiting a few years ago, and indeed a friend of mine had been recently and commented on how amazing it is. However, Gimlette’s thorough exploration has sated any lingering interest I had. Maybe I am an armchair traveller after all.

Sanath never got to inspect the half-eaten man, and was unfazed by this brush with eternity. He still drove like a fighter pilot and blamed the English whenever the road wasn’t there.
In a sense he was right. A lot of these roads were English, many of them engineered by a single man: Thomas Skinner. He began building highways in 1820 at the age of sixteen. ‘Ceylon,’ the governor had said, ‘needs firstly roads, secondly roads and thirdly roads.’ For the next forty-seven years, Skinner worked to this brief, covering the island in over three thousand miles of road.


Spain – The Centre of the World 1519 – 1682 – Robert Goodwin

His complaint would have resonated with the stereotypical Spanish hidalgo with a preference for poverty over labour, honour over trade, and an obsession with purity of blood. Worse still, the Netherlands seemed a naturally heterodox land, so flat ‘it affords the people one commodity beyond all the other Regions: if they die in perdition, they are so low, that they have a shorter cut to Hell…And for this cause, perhaps all strange Religions throng thither.’

Starting with Charles V becoming King of Spain and the first treasures from the America’s docking on Spanish shores, Goodwin charts the incredible journey of the Spanish empire, as, fuelled by the riches of the Americas, and it’s monarchy, driven and weighed down by destiny and dynasty, became the centre of the world.

Goodwin’s pen merely touches the new world, with an early view of Oviedo and Las Casas, advocates of very different views on ruling the burgeoning empire in the Americas. Charles however had pressing concerns, as he secured the crown to the Holy Roman Empire and had to suppress the increasing irritable Dutch, culminating in Charles declaring Luther a heretic and creating a slight schism within the Christian church. One of my early favourites, leaping of the page in a flourish of both sword and wordplay, mostly on the back of good press, is Garci Laso de la Vega, or Garcilaso as he was known by the common folk.I would like to read more on him,  and his life has Netflix original series written all over it.

During it’s golden age Spain had famous artists flowering amongst it’s opulence, such as Titian, whose painting of Dona Isabella of Portugal, the mother of Philip II was, and still is highly lauded, and who was a yard stick who time and time again was claimed had taught many followers, including El Greco, who came to Spain from Italy and took up residence in Toledo. Cervantes wrote Don Quixote, which is subjected to a thorough discussion in the book, about it’s relation to the life and times into which the windmill fighting warrior trots on his battered horse.

Following the abdication of Charles, came the succession of Philips, starting with the bookish and beareaucratic Philip II, who commissioned and built the magnificent Escorial palace, from which he ruled the far reaches of the empire using paper. Goodwin manages to paint Spain in broad brush strokes while at the same time colouring in smaller details of it’s rulers and more humble residents.

At Lisbon, Philip was in melancholic mood: following the death of Elizaberh of Valois, he had married his niece, Anne of Austria, and fallen deeply in love; but she died suddenly, in 1580, and soon afterwards he lost his son Prince Diego to smallpox. Stoical in his sadness, he could gaze out from the windows of the Royal Palace and mediate on the massive sweep of the great harbour, watching the drama of the Indies fleets arriving battered by the Atlantic storms and the massive galleons coming home from the Far East; he saw them leave, filled with old hands, the merchants’ factotums and thousands of would be colonists.

Philip III and IV sat back and little interfered in the decline of the mighty empire, as their favourites ruled in their name and stead, often putting their own interests above that of the Empire. Still there was glitter as Goodwin points out, and the arts flourished even as the empire began to crumble.

And crumble it did. Throughout all this there were ongoing wars with the troublesome French, the sinking of the armada by the English, who ironically had built up their navy on the advice of Philip the II, the explosion of litigation through the law courts by all parts of Spainish life and the flourish of religious festival and tradition in Seville. Abroad Henry the VIII embraced Protestantism after Catherine of Aragon failed to provide him with an heir, the Ottomans pestered the edges of the Hapsburg empire and the America’s slowly slipped from the Spanish grasp. It could be argued that maybe the empire would have not have lasted so long if not for it’s King’s, but the line from Charles to Philip IV all had a hand in the eventual downfall of one of the most crucial Empires in the world.

A definite if you’re interested in Spain or it’s history, and even if you’re not. Goodwin makes the life and times of an incredible number of people accessible, highlighting the greatness as well as the pettiness and even ordinariness of Spain in it’s greatest period, shining a light on the glitter and the gold.

And so, the city fathers of Seville celebrated a papal ruling about the immaculacy of Mary’s conception with a grand fiesta involving plenty of gaily dressed noblemen, the sacrifice of a handful of bulls, a few dead horses, the odd gored human, a bullfighting dwarf and some very tall Africans. That is the world in which the protagonists of this story learnt to think and live.



A Strangeness in My Mind – Orhan Pamuk

An hour later, when the train stopped at Afyonkarahisar station, Mevlut jumped off the carriage and bought some bread, two triangles of cream cheese, and a pack of biscuits. A boy was selling tea from a tray. They bought some to have with their breakfast while the train made it’s way along the river Aksu. Mevlut was happy to watch Rahiya as she looked out of the carriage window at the towns they passed, the poplars, the tractors, the horse carts, the kids playing football, and the rivers flowing under steel bridges. Everything was interesting; the whole world was new.

A story about a boy growing into manhood in a city that embodies his entire life, a love letter to a city that has steeped it’s authors soul, a love story or a story about family, all of these, or none of them at all? I’m not sure it really matters, A Strangness in My Mind is a beautiful long soak in Istanbul through the life of Mevlut the Boza Seller and his family.

I have been putting off writing this for so long, Pamuk’s masterpiece (that’s my humble opinion, I’m just throwing it out there) left me struggling to work out how I could write what I want to write without just rambling on (like normal really). I listened to an interview with Pamuk on Open Book on Radio 4, to better write this review. I’m at the point now where writing this seems more insurmountable than the book seemed when I first dipped into it’s seven hundred odd pages.

What do I want to write? That after reading Istanbul, I thought Pamuk was a bit weird, but after reading this I want to read more of his fiction (for me he’s the opposite of Paul Theroux, who’s travel books I prefer to his fiction). I love Mevlut. While reading the book I kept thinking that if more people in the world were like him, it would be a better place. Yes there’s a certain lethargy, a lack of ambition, but he thinks of others, he feels, he has a strong sense of family, loyalty, just the right amount of optimism, and above all, hope. His situation at the beginning borders on ridiculous, but his placid acceptance of his fate belies someone who knows himself and knows when perhaps it’s better to quit while you’re winning, and that, deep down, he knew he had in fact won.

They were having a cup of tea at the Mountain View way station, where their bus had stopped for a quick break in the middle of the night, when she finally asked him, “For God’s sake, what’s the matter?”
 “There’s a strangeness in my mind,” said Mevlut. “No matter what I do, I feel completely alone in the world.” “You will never feel that way again now that I’m with you,” said Rahiya wither maternal feeling. As Rahiya snuggled up to him, Mevlut watched her dreamlike reflection in the window of the teahouse, and he knew that he would never forget this moment.

I loved the gentle laying out of the story. It is not rushed, allowing the reader, and perhaps Pamuk himself, to linger and savour it. I loved the other characters interrupting the narrator to offer their side of what happened and why they did it. Yet the focus, although sometimes zooming out to Istanbul, never falls far from Mevlut. Out of all them in the end, apart from Mevlut it was Vediha that I loved, that was perhaps the strongest character in the story, who despite being very much in the background, eclipsed both her sisters and did what was best for the family, even if it was not the best for her personally. I will also mention Rahiya, who knows the misdirection but who pours herself into their marriage and children and who supports Mevlut as he moves from job to job, always dreaming of a good income and a nicer house.

A Strangeness in my Mind is a tale of the city through it’s food, kitchens, habits, and it’s street vendors, the yoghurt sellers, Boza sellers, Chicken or rice sellers.

Into a pot of boiling water, he would throw a spoonful of margarine and whatever was left in the fridge, such as carrots, celery and potatoes, as well as a handful of the chilies and bulgur they’d brought from the village, and then he would stand back and listen to the pot bubbling away as he watched the infernal tumult inside. The little bits of potato and carrot whirled around madly like creatures burning in the fires of hell – you could almost hear them wailing in agony from inside the pot – and then there would be sudden unexpected surges, as in volcanic craters, and the carrots and celery would rise up close to Mevlut’s nose.

Starting off as a short novel about a street vendor, Pamuk was soon questioning about where Mevlut had come from, how had he come to Istanbul? The story mushroomed out and while wandering (and wondering) on his Boza rounds, Mevlut is aware of the city changing around him. His stubborn love of tradition offering others a way of maintaining their past, as he calls out his refrain through the night. It is the ideal job for someone who’s mind constantly ponders. The dark empty streets of Istanbul gives Mevlut time to retreat into the strangeness in his mind and to try and make sense of it, sometimes he does, sometimes it eludes him, but for him the enjoyment comes from the wondering, not the knowing.

It’s almost as if while walking his rounds, Mevlut and Istanbul become entwined, and although Mevlut can’t live without Istanbul, he is aware that it will carry on without him.

Their story is the deeply personal story of one person, told through their community, told through their city that will still resonate with any person in any city in the world that has grown through from migration and modernisation, and Pamuk has woven a deeply personal yet also universal story about a street vendor, a city, a family or a love, or all of them, or none at all.

On the nights when the clouds gathered low, they would reflect in the city’s lemon-colored light, like strange lamps illuminating it from overhead. Amid this tangle of lights, it was difficult to distinguish the Bosphorus unless some ship’s spotlights, like the navigation lights of far away planes, briefly flickered in the distance. Mevlut sensed that the light and darkness inside his mind looked like the nighttime landscape of the city. Maybe this was shy he’d been going out into the streets to sell boza in the evening for the past forty years, no matter how little he earned from it.


Rio De Janeiro – Extreme City – Luiz Eduardo Soares

‘I can’t believe this. It’s been over an hour, and no one’s said anything about health, education, unemployment. They only want to talk about the police.’
‘You know why that is, Lula?’ I reply. ‘For these people, the police are a question of life or death. Their lives, their children’s lives, are in the hands of the police. They never know if their kids are going to make it home in one piece at night: the police are so unpredictable anything could happen. Our democracy will continue to be shitty until the day something radical is done about the police and criminal justice system, and everything else that goes with it – all those issues long ignored by politicians, and which you, too, have not really taken seriously.’

If there was one thing that I was worried about more than anything else when travelling in Brazil the first time, it was the police. Even back in 2002, as little as I knew about Brazil (the same as everyone else, sun, samba, football) I knew that the police had a bad reputation. When being driven round by a random dude who was renting us a flat he double parked his clapped out car and took my mate up to see the flat while I remained in the back seat. While waiting a police officer came up to the car and tapped on the window, he wanted me to move the car. I pointed out using gestures and extremely limited Portuguese that it wasn’t mine and that I didn’t have the keys, while staring at the rifle casually resting in his hand, pointing nowhere in particular. He ended up helping me push the car out of the way.

That was my only encounter with Rio’s law enforcers, and after reading this I’m glad that it was. I love Rio, it’s my favourite city in the world despite it’s mountain of problems, which you can’t help but become aware of when you’re there, and which are relatively easy to follow up on when you get home, which is what I did.
With Rio just finished hosting the Olympics and about to host the Paralympics, this is quite the timely reminder that the Rio that we see in the Lonely Planet and in brochures, and that we experience is just a small slice of the whole picture.

Using Soares’ own experiences and that of accounts he has collected and pieced together, Extreme City provides a harrowing account of Rio, that I digested in a day. Starting from his childhood, just before the coup that brought in the military dictatorship, through his time in Lula’s government to the present day, Soares describes life in Rio from the favela residents to the entrenched elite who will stop at nothing to make sure they maintain their grip on the marvellous city.

For me there were really three main threads in the book, the military dictatorship and the effect this had on a generation that it controlled or persecuted, sometimes horrifically, as the chapter No Ordinary Woman painfully describes. I was going to put a paragraph in from the chapter to illustrate, but I couldn’t do it. It felt tactless and disrespectful to reduce that chapter to a few lines, I instead will say it is a chapter that should be read and digested.

From the ashes of that seeps the all pervading corruption, from the bent police who seem to have emerged with absolute belief in their impunity to act and kill however they like, to the money makers and politicians who turn a blind eye to the abuses of the police and who line their own pockets with kickbacks and deals. Not mentioned here, but the Lavo Jato scandal currently dissecting the country is this corruption on an epic scale.

Lula’s disbelief that all people wanted to talk about at one of his rallies were the abuses that the police perpetrated against them, without any fear of reprisals highlights the roundabout situation that the residents of Rio, and other Brazilian cities are in. The politicians lack the nous to understand that education, health and employment are an irrelevance if you can be routinely killed by a cop without a second thought, and certainly without any hope of justice for your relatives. While diffusing a near riot from favela residents Soares expresses disbelief when a police helicopter hovers just above the angry residents, while an officer manning the machine gun pretends to gun everyone down while laughing, to serve and protect it is not.

The more you read the more you start to despair for anyone in Rio who is not in the police or a crooked businessman or politician, while Soares points out that there are plenty of good cops and politicians, his picture is one where they are definitely in the minority. The story of Luciano Barbosa da Silva, ‘Lulu’, while in some ways utterly predictable left me sitting there with the book dropped onto the table while I took a break, trying to enjoy the innocent sunshine and people around me.

But. There is humour there, the story about the Swedish people partying at his house, about the Norwegian who actually followed up a Carioca’s invite to their flat show the character of the residents of that city. And there is hope, the rally at the end of the book, along with the demonstrations before the World Cup and Olympics show that Brazilians are tired of the system, and that they do want change, and despite everything in Extreme City, I finished it with hope, because there are the good in there amongst the corrupt, and when people like Soares are willing to quite likely face reprisals for bringing the dark underside into the sun, but do it anyway, there is hope that it will change for the better.

War is part of the business, but for the police war is business by another means. The list of services rendered by the corrupt cops includes nightly rentals of the armoured cars used to storm the shanty towns, the famous caveirao (skulltruck), an imposing symbol of police brutality. Designed to protect the police, all too often it’s used to humiliate the locals with insults blared over the loudspeakers, peppered with random gunfire that spreads panic and chalks up tolls of innocent victims. Rental of a caveirao costs about 30,000 dollars a night.