Dancing with the Devil in the City of God: Rio de Janeiro on the Brink - Juliana Barbassa

Disclaimer: ARC via Netgalley


                For me, as for many people in the world, Brazil means football.  Further thought brings to mind Carnival, and then comes the favelas, then drugs, then the beaches, then pollution, and that’s it.  And that’s rather unfair to Brazil in general and Rio de Janeiro in particular.


                For most people outside of Brazil, Brazil is either rainforest or Rio.  It’s like the East Coast of the United States being New York or Washington (or the United States being New York or LA).  While Barbassa’s book is about Rio, in particular about a Rio in a state of change as it prepares for the World Cup and Olympics, she does note that Brazil is far more than Rio, that Rio itself if far more than what makes it into the movies or the nightly newscast.


                Barbassa starts her book with a newscast, one that shows the naming of Rio for the 2016 Olympics.  This compels her to journey back to her city after years away.  The book chronicles the city as it undergoes changes in getting already for both the World Cup and the Olympics.  It ends with; well I don’t really see how it is a spoiler anymore but anyway, with the World Cup and the Brazilian National Team’s fate in that tournament.


                Barbassa paints the city, not just by chronicling the events that made international headlines, such as assault on the favelas or the mudslides that wipes out smaller communities, but also her own struggles in the city – such as her quest to finding living space.  The use of a personal story, but one that most people moving to or living in Rio go through, actually gives more to the book than leaving it out.  It also allows a closer and more intimate look at what living in the city entails, not for someone who is rich or poor, but in the middle.


                The most interesting and engrossing sections are not the parts about the war on the drug gangs or the invasion of the favelas; they are the sections about the mudslides and the environment.  In the section about the mudslides, Barbassa captures the feeling of the people, as well as her reaction to the events, but also pulls the reader along with her.  Her descriptive writing is so vivid that sounds and smell are there even if you are reading it a nicely air conditioned room as I was.


                The environment appears not only in the chapters about the dumps and sewage, but also about the struggle of living in certain areas of the city as well as the cataloging of animals.  And Barbassa looks are more than the human animal. 


                If you are reading this book expecting to see a detailed analysis of Carnival, nope.  While there is one description of one Carnival, Barbassa uses it more as an introduction to changing views on homosexuality and transgender issue.  The device work very well, and it also extends to looking at prostitution in the city – which Barbassa does in some depth, offering some good analysis, while focusing on how even this is changing with the passage of time.


                The book is timely not because it comes out a year after the World Cup and a year before the Olympics, but because it gives context to those events.  Too often we only look at the major sporting events though a lens of the event – be it the idea of a success or a failure – Barbassa’s book allows us to see both the human element as a success and as a loss.  The question is, as always, what is the price of success?  Does success come with a brilliant televised event or with the fulfillment of the lives of the people who live in the area?  How does a city keep moving, growing, changing, and fighting when the solutions don’t work or aren’t even considered?  Such struggles are not just central to the fading American city, such as Detroit, but are more global in impact.


                I feel I must apologize to the publisher who approved the ARC for a reader who loved the book, but whose area of expertise and study is not the urban city.   I can’t recommend this book highly enough, however.  In many ways, it makes the perfect work to use in a class simply because there is enough coverage of various topics to promote conversation and debate.