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Brazil by Michael Palin, published by Weidenfield and Nicolson, Orion Group, ISBN 978-0-297-86626-8
Published in the Independent, November 13, 2012

Michael Palin does a very effective job masquerading as the man next door, an ordinary English everyman in his holiday uniform of inoffensive pale-blue shirt, gym shoes and khaki trousers. In this disguise, but breaking out into his instantly recognizable self-mocking humour at need, he mucks-in all over Brazil with a will, dancing with native Yanomami tribes, swimming with fresh water dolphins in the Amazon, parading with transvestites on a gay pride march in Rio and carrying the shopping for a celebrity chef.

He attends the all night street party of St Johnís Eve and an ecstatic Candomble service as well as meeting modern storm-troopers, rubber-tappers, soap-opera stars, miners, cattle-ranchers and shamans. Profusely illustrated with the razor sharp eye of Basil Paoís photographs it would be easy to dismiss this volume as no more than an extended National Geographic essay, a subsidized photograph album of Brazilian tourist exotica or a souvenir tie-in to a forthcoming television series. But that would be a mistake, for Palin does his job as a travel writer to the general public very well indeed. For he knows how to entertain the reader at first, resists any temptation to lecture, but instead builds up a slow-boil of interest before teasing out some answers through his skill at interviewing, so that we hear partial answers from hundreds of different Brazilians about their nation.

The resulting mosaic of opinions draws out a fascinating composite picture of a nation that through the three cultural markers of language, music and food is triumphantly self-defined and ceaselessly inventive. Brazil is also a country that genuinely seems to have no enemies, no lost provinces to redeem, with a comparatively peaceful road to independence stretched out over the 19th-century through its resident Portugese Emperors. But side by side with that famous tolerance for diversity and assimilation there has also evolved a complete indifference to the rule of law. And despite the insistent imagery of tropical forests and vast rivers, the reality is that eighty percent of the people live within 250 miles of the coast, on an undulating range of hills etched across a semi-arid plateau.

While for all the proud talk of Brazilís happy cocktail of miscegenated races (which is indeed a role model to the world) the industrial heartland of the nation was formed recently, assisted by a flood tide of 20th century European migration to the ugly, traffic-jam ridden, sprawling mass of the forty million strong Sao Paulo conurbation, home to one in five Brazilians. The real money has always been made from mining, currently controlled by a handful of powerful men, pouring mountain-loads of ore into ships bound for China. The sort of people that even Michael Palin canít get access too, though he has made an exhilarating journey getting us to know the rest of the nation.

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