di Gabriele Ottaviani / by Gabriele Ottaviani
foto di Oliver Holms / photo by Oliver Holms
Joe Thomas è l’autore dell’ottimo Paradise City: Convenzionali ha il grandissimo piacere di intervistarlo per voi. / Joe Thomas is the author of the excellent Paradise City: Convenzionali has the great pleasure to interview him for you.
Why did you feel the need to write this book?
São Paulo – what a city: rich in culture, dripping with cash, undermined by political corruption, marked by a rich / poor disparity which fuels desperation and a life-is-cheap criminal ethos. The idea for my novel Paradise City was born over a weekend in 2006. It was the lovechild of organised crime, the construction industry, and Cazuza, the counter-culture musician and poet. I’d been in São Paulo three years and it was the first time I thought: ah, OK, I get it. This is Brasil. The PCC (Primeiro Comando da Capital) gang runs São Paulo crime – mainly drugs. The men that run the PCC run it from prison. These men want to watch the 2006 World Cup on large, flat, wide-screen TV sets. The PCC is like a corporation – none of the flip-flop / assault rifle shtick of the Rio gangs. They are very organised. And they generally get what they want. So the PCC leaders ask for large, flat, wide-screen TV sets. They pitch for more frequent conjugal visits. These requests are nixed. In response, the PCC leaders tell the authorities that they will: ‘cause some chaos.’ For three days, São Paulo experiences some righteous, PCC-brand chaos. Gangbangers attack the police. They hijack buses. They evacuate them. They set them on fire and leave them burning on major highways. There are rumours of raids on public buildings, that schools and hospitals are next. Over a hundred and fifty people are killed – police, gangsters, and the inevitable, unfortunate bystanders. The stray bullets: the bala perdidas. The city goes into lockdown. The authorities throw in the towel. The PCC get their TVs and, I believe, their conjugal visits. On the Monday, at the British school where I teach History and English, I speak to the headmaster. The Chief of Police’s son studies with us, and his father dropped him off that morning. The officers who had been shot at over the weekend are receiving danger money. Trauma and whatnot, the chief of police tells the headmaster. Thing is, hearing this, a number of officers have shot at their own police stations. The bullet holes can be used as proof they’ve been attacked. They too, the chief of police said, are claiming danger money. That weekend, the gap between the have-nots and the elite seemed to close a little. The peculiarity of the crime, the brazenness of the requests and the response, and the implied police behaviour seemed distinctly Brazilian to me. Paradise City opens with a favela and a stray bullet. In the novel, the city’s construction industry is the connecting backdrop. I lived in Morumbi, close to Paraisópolis, the favela. Paradise City is set low, in a sort of crater, like a settlement built in the hole of a great explosion, an apocalyptic, concrete and brick village, the rough houses pillboxes like machine gun posts. Morumbi is representative of the new São Paulo suburbs. It can feel dangerous outside the condominium gates. As we drive past Paraisópolis, I clock the harried faces, the slouch of rubbish and mess, the half-naked children and the condensed, improvised houses, like an approximation of a home, at least in our narrow conception of one. From my balcony, I can see an impressive tower block with helipad and gardens. At night, only a couple of the apartments are lit up. My friend Mario laughs when I put it to him that they must be prohibitively expensive. ‘Expensive?’ he says. ‘Mate, they’re knocking them out, cut-price. There’s a swimming pool on every balcony. Thing is,’ Mario goes on, ‘they forgot to factor in the extra weight of the water. When they filled them all up, the supporting pillars cracked.’ It turns out only a few people will invest over a million reais in a dodgy structure. Still. A few do. One of the epigraphs to Paradise City is from a Cazuza song, O Tempo Não Para – time doesn’t stop. Cazuza remains the poet of the disaffected. His work is discursive and profane, preaching inclusivity and tolerance. The political protests of the last few years recalled one of his songs, ‘Brasil’: Brasil, mostra tua cara, quero ver quem paga para a gente fiche assim / Brazil, show your face, I want to know who pays for us to end up like this. Many Brazilians have had enough of the endemic corruption, the widening inequality: general passivity in the face of societal injustice. There’s a recurring slogan: O gigante acordou. The giant awoke. The country stirs. Cazuza’s lyrics find an echo in Paradise City. One couplet was a refrain: Transformam o país inteiro num puteiro / Pois assim se ganha mais dinheiro, or rather They turn a whole country into a whorehouse / Because that way it makes more money.
What kind of country is Brasil now?
The São Paulo of my novels Paradise City and Gringa has a lot in common with contemporary London, I feel. There is gentrification and social cleansing; there is a political elite deaf to the plight of the disenfranchised; there is the tragic collapse of a social housing project; there are acid attacks; there is the dichotomy of a thriving construction industry, and yet a deepening housing crisis, luxury buildings inhabited by ghosts. Yet, São Paulo is so full of life you feel energised, politicised, important. As Ellie – an English journalist and the Gringa of the title – puts it in the novel’s opening: 21 million people, 7 million cars, 900 street markets, 350 theatres, 54 parks, 4 Tiffany stores – My city now – My new home. Paradise City and Gringa are about three interconnecting and all pervading things: the city’s construction industry, the social cleansing of central São Paulo in preparation for the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics, and the corruption and barbarity of the Military Police. All three were an everyday part of my life in São Paulo. All three are sanctioned by the government, the law, the political structure of the city. Brazil, I think today, is divided, and triste, sad. This is the overwhelming feeling I have from my Brazilian friends.
What’s the truth about Lula and Rousseff scandals?
In the end, I think the only truth is that honest, hard-working Brazilians suffer. The third part of my São Paulo triology, Playboy, looks specifically at the fall out from the Lava Jato corruption investigation.
Who are Bolsonaro and Haddad?
The two remaining candidates in the nastiest, most toxic, most bitter presidential campaign I think Brazil has likely seen. Bolsonaro holds deeply abhorrent views on women, race, the LGBTQ community, Brazil’s former military dictatorship, the use of firearms; his popularity is based on a feeling that he will sort out crime. Haddad is the leader of the PT, the Workers’ Party, which has been damaged, perhaps irreparably, by corruption. If he is to stand any chance at all, he must unite all other parties in a coalition against Bolsonaro. The problem is that, in the past, coalitions have been sustained by corruption. A plot line in Paradise City is based on this, and specifically, the Mensalão scandal.
Which is the biggest problem now in Brasil?
Bolsonaro has made crime, undoubtedly a problem, into the problem. Brazil’s problem of corruption, I believe, has the furthest reaching consequences, which makes it the biggest problem. The economic difficulties that have occurred in large part are due to this, the investigation of Petrobras in Lava Jato, for example. The biggest consequence of corruption is a continuing of the appalling poverty and social inequality that exists. I can speak only for São Paulo, really, and only with the perspective of an insider/outsider, but it strikes me that the status quo can be beneficial for some. My novels, I think, are about this: interrogating the discourses of power and looking at the consequences.
How can poverty and social inequality be overcome?
If I knew the answer to this… See answer above. That is the closest I can get to understanding it, let alone offering a solution…