Snakes in Paradise

Kenneth Maxwell
Kenneth Maxwell; drawing by David Levine


Ever since the Huguenot pastor Jean de Léry recorded his impressions of the Tupinamba Indians in 1578,1 Brazil has proved to be a source of wonder and fascination to foreign observers. A land of captivating beauty and baffling contradictions, it has always eluded simple classification. Tropical paradise or the tristes tropiques of Claude Lévi-Strauss, who arrived in Rio de Janeiro in 1934 with a copy of Léry in his pocket only to discover that all too few remnants of the Garden of Eden had in fact survived? In any event, admission to the paradise, if it ever existed, was never universal. Already by the later seventeenth century Brazil was described in a popular Portuguese refrain as “a hell for blacks, a purgatory for whites, and a paradise for mulattoes.”2 Tickets for entry may have been reallocated since then, but, as Kenneth Maxwell reminds us in his Naked Tropics, the income disparities in modern Brazil are among the worst in the world, with perhaps some 40 million of its 160 million inhabitants living in poverty on incomes of below $50 a month. For all the advances of the 1990s, the cherubim—in whose employ?—still guard the gates, flaming sword in hand.

In the autobiographical opening to his engaging and beautifully written collection of essays, Maxwell, who holds the Rockefeller Chair in Inter-American Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, tells us how he came to join the ranks of foreigners who fell captive to Brazil. It began as a long-distance seduction, when, as an undergraduate at Cambridge University, he saw Marcel Camus’s Black Orpheus at a movie theater much frequented at that time by students. By way of Lisbon and Princeton he eventually reached Rio de Janeiro, and, in contrast to Lévi-Strauss, he was not disappointed. Always something of a romantic rebel with a hard realist streak, he seems to have found in the Brazil of the 1960s exactly the right combination of euphoria, murk, and melancholy to suit his temperament. After that, unlike Orpheus, he never looked back.

His first book, Conflicts and Conspiracies: Brazil and Portugal, 1750–1808,3 the outcome of his doctoral research in the Portuguese and Brazilian archives, was a probing examination of a conspiracy hatched by prominent lawyers, writers, and intellectuals in the gold-mining region of Minas Gerais in 1778–1779 to foment an uprising against the Portuguese crown and to establish an independent constitutional state. The group of conspirators included a part-time tooth-puller, Tiradentes, who paid with his life and was later to become a national hero of republican Brazil. Dentists are not normally noted for their revolutionary enthusiasm. Maxwell set his story firmly against the background of eighteenth-century Portugal and its colonial policy, and in the process made his book a study in Luso-Brazilian history. Even today, as he points out in one of the essays in Naked Tropics, Portuguese historians are still capable of writing…

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