Book covers


      Frei Betto: Hotel Brasil.

       Bitter Lemon Press £8.99

Back in the 19th Century the great Brazilian writer, Machado de Assis, created a philosopher, called him Quincas Borba and trapped him inside the body of a dog.  But even de Assis may have baulked at the idea of Dominican friar and author, Frei Betto, writing confidently about sex.  Hotel Brasil is more concerned with love than sex but the friar, obliged to look at the secret lives of the residents of the Hotel Brasil, survives where others have floundered.  No bad sex awards for Betto.  But that only makes him a sophisticated writer.   More important to the success of this ambitious crime novel, Frei Betto is clear headed about what love needs to succeed.  It cannot be restricted to those we merely desire and admire.  Frei Betto, may be a liberation theologian and a political activist with roots in the 70s but he rejects the hippie notion of love as a retreat from the corrupt world.  If we want to give and receive love, we need to connect to what is around us.  Some may call that God.  Either way, it cannot be ignored.   We have responsibilities and if we love properly we will make a difference.  Of course, for that to be achieved we have to acknowledge and recognise the humanity of those who are different.   It is significant that the murderer in Hotel Brasil removes the eyes from the victims.  Seeing, especially in a society as unequal as Brazil, is important.  Myopia is the first step towards sin.

In the story, The Devils Church, Machado de Assis imagines the Devil prevailing even when God allows all sin.  People sneak away to be virtuous because we will always want the forbidden.  De Assis was a misanthrope but beneath his cynicism there existed a moralist.  Only virtue brings happiness.  The tragedy for human beings is that they are clever enough to get what they mistakenly think they want and what they imagine will satisfy them.

The joy of Hotel Brasil is finding at least a couple of characters that find love and discover that what they really need will also help someone else.   Whether the morality is Christian or humanist or a combination of the two will be debated but it is affirmative and, in the context of a Brazilian society that creates too many casualties, the themes of Hotel Brasil are inspirational, deliberately so.

Those who have spent some time in Brazil are often puzzled as to how the violence and greed coexist alongside a universal amiability, the gentle manners that conceal vicious ambition.  The literature of de Assis and the tradition it inspired have been defined as ‘romantic realism’.   Elsewhere, Hotel Brasil has been described as bittersweet but that implies irony and, like de Assis, Betto is too serious for that. The plot is gloomy and the nihilistic triumphs cannot be overlooked especially as they provide a satisfying twist.  But, as well as the sly humour, Hotel Brasil insists that the route to worth and happiness remains unchanged.

By Howard Jackson