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Book Reviews Review: Misha Glenny’s Nemesis just the latest to fail to capture Brazil’s complexities

Title
Nemesis: One Man and the Battle for Rio
Author
Misha Glenny
Genre
Non-fiction
Publisher
Anansi
Pages
338
Price
$29.95

To write Nemesis, British investigative reporter Misha Glenny set out to try to interview one of the most notorious crime lords of modern Brazilian history. Antônio Francisco Bonfim Lopes, better known by the nom de guerre Nem, is an inmate in Brazil's highest-security prison. He agreed to talk to Glenny, who successfully navigated dense layers of bureaucracy to make the interviews happen. He is, I think, the first and only person to try to interview Nem since the gangster's dramatic arrest in 2011.

And that is emblematic of much of what there is to like about this book: Glenny attempts to press pause on the endless narrative of crime-violence-drugs-poverty out of Brazil, and out of the favelas in Rio de Janeiro in particular, to break down the story of one crime boss and the community he came to rule. There are no other books like this, in English or even in Portuguese.

Nem, now in his 40s, grew up in Rocinha; his parents were impoverished migrants who came to Rio seeking work and settled in one of its largest favelas. They eked out a living, his mother, like most women in Rocinha, as a domestic worker for a rich family who lived near the oceanfront, his father as a bartender. They drank heavily and fought. Nem got a patchy education, and managed to land a job distributing magazines through the wealthy neighbourhoods surrounding the favela, and did well. Rocinha was run by a dono de morro, boss of the hill, while he was growing up, but Nem knew the rules of survival. He kept away from the traficantes, got married, had a baby daughter, had ambitions.

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Then the daughter, Eduarda, fell ill, with a rare condition treatable with wildly expensive drugs and surgery. To pay for them – to keep his child alive – Nem did what people in Rocinha did, in those sorts of situations, the only thing they could do. He went to the dono and asked for the money. He got it, Eduarda survived, and Nem then owed his own life to the dono.

Since I arrived to Brazil in mid-2013, and visited Rocinha (pop. roughly 200,000) just a few days later, I have heard this story – about the drug lord who grew up straight but got into the business in a bid to save a sick baby and wound up running the favela. It was a good one, as creation myths go. Glenny has put the time and the shoe leather into establishing its truth – and charting Nem's rise from corner scout to, eventually, heading a multimillion-dollar drug empire, brokering agreements with other large criminal organizations, and keeping a rare period of peace and stability in Rocinha.

Brazil, a huge and influential country, is remarkably underserved by good explanatory or historical books (as I discovered to my dismay when I learned I was to be posted here). There are just two standard "get to know Brazil" books in English for the lay audience, a readable one by a former New York Times correspondent (Brazil on the Rise, 2012) and a somewhat more dense one by a former Economist reporter (Brazil, The Troubled Rise of a Global Power, 2014). Few of the great Brazilian writers of fiction are translated into English. Despite its economic rise in recent years, Brazil has not become substantially more accessible to the curious outsider.

But the World Cup last year, and next summer's Olympics in Rio, seem to have convinced publishers that there is room for some new books about the city. The best of these so far is Juliana Barbassa's Dancing with the Devil in the City of God, published a few months ago, which is thoughtful, comprehensive and a pleasure to read.

Nemesis is a weaker addition to the Brazil canon. It has some exciting scenes, some vivid descriptions of favela life, an admirable premise, but many structural weakness. First, it is incredibly hard to follow. Glenny makes an ill-advised decision to open the book with a high-stakes confrontation in the favela that, one senses, is critical to the story, but which involves so many different police forces and lawyers and angry phone calls that I read through it four times and still was not sure who had won. At many points in the book, I had to thumb back and forth to figure out who was doing what to whom – and I cover these issues for a living.

I can't imagine what someone coming to the book fresh, with no existing knowledge of this place, would make of it, other than a headache. Glenny is tackling wildly complex subject matter: The mess of law-enforcement jurisdictions in Rio, and the tangle of relationships between them and various criminal actors, has bedevilled this city for decades. But he doesn't succeed in his effort to spell it out for a reader.

Similarly, so much in his tale hinges on the particular geography of Rocinha, the way it sprawls up the side of a hill and creeps around a sort of valley bowl, with only two roads in or out. But reading the book, I struggled to build a picture from Glenny's words of what the physical terrain was like, where people were and what kind of ground they were covering – and since much of the story hinges on a battle for territory, this is important. And again, I've spent time in Rocinha: If I can't picture it, what's the hope for a reader in Newfoundland?

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The book picks up about two-thirds of the way in, and enough of the major characters are identifiable, to carry a reader along through the drama to the end. But that's when my second problem with Nemesis kicked in: Glenny capably lays out the problems that bedevil Rocinha, and Rio as a whole – weak governance, corrupt police, staggering wealth inequality. And yet all of this is presented as a priori characteristics. There is wild inequality because – there is. Some people live in glass-front penthouse apartments, and some live in TB-infested shacks without sanitation, on the hill, behind them. The favelas are unpoliced, and rely on crime lords for rough justice. That's just how it is here. He skips the origins of the favelas at the end of slavery, when newly freed blacks were denied the right to live down on the flat land and had to take to the hills. Glenny doesn't discuss the structural forces that have been engaged for decades in keeping Rio like this – who benefits from the vast pool of poor people located conveniently next door, penned up under drug lords?

He provides a brisk and very readable look at the political and social changes of the past 15 years, but simply presents as fact that almost everyone charged with policing in Brazil's second-largest city is entirely corrupt, and that police themselves formed militias that rival the drug lords in power. He gives short shrift to discussion of the misguided "war on drugs" that saw Brazil lock up legions of young, poor, mostly black men, en masse, for the crime of possession, sending them to prisons run by gangs, where they had to affiliate to survive, and could not shed that affiliation when they were released.

Glenny obviously intends to make Nem, whom he interviews 10 times in the prison, a sympathetic character. He repeatedly stresses that Nem eschewed flash displays of weapons, tried to minimize violence, was not himself aggressive. And yet he mentions just in passing on several occasions that Nem beat his wives or girlfriends so badly that they had broken bones. Once he describes how a wife tried to flee out a neighbour's window, carrying her small children, because of her fear of his jealousy. Glenny makes several comments about how terrorizing one's womenfolk is expected behaviour for a gangster and appears to expect a reader to discount serial domestic abuse in assessing Nem's otherwise easygoing character.

There were other omissions I found glaring. Most notably, Glenny never once raises the issue of race, even though it is as least as important as income inequality in shaping what happens here. He identifies Nem as "brown-skinned" in the first pages (but doesn't say how Nem identifies, which in this country is not a given); he never mentions anyone else's race, which might be a bit of European politesse, but is a disservice when trying to understand complicated relationships in Brazil today.

The time Glenny has spent talking to people in Rocinha pays off in some vivid details. He relates a hilarious anecdote about how police made a key break in their case against Nem when the social-media-addicted wife of one of his key lieutenants posted a message for her mum to call her – and included her number.

But other times he sinks into rank exoticization: "The uncontrollable virus of hedonism and sensuality is coursing through the capillaries of Rocinha. Quotidian life may be grimy and expensive. … The streets may still be smelly with diesel and smeared with animal shit, rotting fruit and commercial detritus. But at night, and especially at the weekends, Rocinha lights up like Broadway. The bars and clubs are packed with young people laughing, gossiping and eyeing up the talent. Inside the clubs, bodies swirl in a medusa bloom …"

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Glenny provides a quick sketch of a couple of hard-working detectives who broke into Nem's world (and almost negotiated his surrender), and of the long-suffering chief of security in the state of Rio de Janeiro. But they don't come alive as people, and I was left wondering how it is that a few badly paid cops remain committed to doing their jobs, and so many others are on Nem's payroll, keeping Rocinha secure as his lair.

And Glenny never answers the fundamental question of how a hard-working dad who assiduously avoided criminals adapts so thoroughly to running a criminal empire – except to describe how he failed a couple of times when he tried to quit. He humanizes Nem, but when I put the book down, I still didn't feel like I understood him, this mythical worried-dad-turned-drug lord – and I didn't understand his city or his country any better, either.

Stephanie Nolen is The Globe and Mail's South America bureau chief.

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