The São Paulo of my novels Gringa and Paradise City has a lot in common with contemporary London. 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

Gringa is 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.

Gringa grew out of this context. When the eyes of the world fell on the country, and, especially, the major cities, São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, an awful lot of businessmen and politicians saw dollar signs.

In 2009 we watch while President Lula makes his speech, talking of the opportunities, the excitement, how Brazil will be a global force. This is BRIC affluence at its cash-leverage peak.

In São Paulo, my friends are unanimous: this will not end well.

As Ellie writes: ‘If you look up, you could be anywhere in a beautiful European city. Though most of the residents in Cracolândia don’t spend much time looking up.’”

Gringa is in part about the attempts to clear out and develop Cracolândia – Crackland – a lawless area in downtown São Paulo where crack cocaine is openly sold and taken. Cracolândia is a part of the old, colonial centre. You approach from Praça Julio Prestes. It smells of urine that has been baked in the heat. There are palm trees that sway drunk in the light breeze. Small groups of dark, defeated faces scurry about them, occasionally words escaping their mouths, either an offer or a request. It’s an oddity, this place. No one’s sure why it has become what it has. And you can understand why there is such interest in the land.

As Ellie writes: “If you look up, you could be anywhere in a beautiful European city. Though most of the residents in Cracolândia don’t spend much time looking up.” When you do though, you see the beautiful clock tower of the train station, Estação da Luz. You see rolling balconies, the green trees of the Parque da Luz, the colonial elegance of the buildings, graffiti-free.

And when you keep your eyes at street level, you see smashed windows and black, gaping doorways, toothless and dust-rinsed women and men. Groups of swollen-bellied women sit on the road, cackling. Dead-eyed, rail-thin men are wrapped in dirty blankets and passed out on each other on sofas underneath streetlights. Couples in rags shuffle back and across the road, arm in arm, muttering. A squat woman in a beanie hat calls out, “Quem quer crack? Quem quer crack?” Who wants crack? A shifty-looking twenty-something boy asks, “Quem tem maconha?” Who has dope?

Paradise_CityIt’s pretty grim.

And you are steps away from the Pinacoteca museum, one of the most important galleries in the city. In the cafe outside, surrounded by the trappings of art and culture, you sit and watch the overspill: hookers working the park, Korean women pushing cartloads of knock-off tracksuits and other tat to sell around the corner at the sprawling, informal, largely illegal market on Avenue 25 de Maio.

You can see why the city and state government want to clean up the place. There have been attempts in the past, and they continue. They tend toward the zero-tolerant in their methods; there are stories of residents simply disappearing, the drug gangs met with reciprocal, terrifying violence. There have been worthy efforts to help the addicts and destitute – the noias as they’re known in Portuguese, an abbreviation of paranoia – but they are rare, abandoned projects. Gringa is a fictional version of the more hardline approaches to finding a solution to Cracolândia. The current mayor – João Doria, a man who appears something of a self-styled Paulistano Trump – is a hardliner. Gringa imagines the consequences of attempts to gentrify the old centre – the forced removal of residents and the social cleansing that defines this inhumane process.

***

“Order and Progress” claims the heart of the Brazilian flag. And that’s what this is about: preparing to show Brazil to the world. But which Brazil exactly?

In 2016, on the second day of the Olympics, I receive a text from a friend:

News flash: Brasil have got their first gold medal! The police are pursuing the thieves as we speak.

Sunday, the last day of the Olympics, I get a text from another friend, the closing ceremony just hours away: it’s a photo of Lula swimming in the sea. The caption:

USA, you losers, we have a swimmer who’s a much bigger liar than yours.

That’s the American Olympian Ryan Lochte who vandalised a petrol station and claimed he was attacked and robbed to avoid criminal charges.

As the closing ceremony ends, another text: it’s a photo of a woman in a favela. She’s saying:

It’s getting to the end of the month, and I’ve only got Gold, Silver, Bronze medals in my wallet.

The photo below spells this out: Gold = a 25 cent coin. Silver = a 50 cent coin. Bronze = a 5 cent coin. She doesn’t have a single R$.

The three weeks are up and reality of life in Rio returns sharply. For my friends, the whole thing was inevitable. Once again, the lives of the many are plundered for the lives of the few. Cazuza, a musician and poet I have long admired, wrote these words, thirty years ago. They remain, it feels, relevant:

Brasil, show your face, I want to see who pays for us to be this way.

 

Joe_Thomas_290Joe Thomas is a visiting lecturer in Literature and Creative Writing at Royal Holloway, University of London. Prior to this, he lived and taught in São Paulo for ten years. Gringa is the second novel in a planned series of four featuring detective Mario Leme and is published by Arcadia alongside the first, Paradise City (2017).
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Author portrait © Oliver Holms

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