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Brazil

Day 50: Rio de Janeiro

 
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Gonçalo Ferreira, champion of Cordel literature, declaims his 'Ode to a Book'.
Michael Palin - BrazilFábio Sombra is a man who lives, breathes and encapsulates Rio de Janeiro. He's a writer, artist, magician, musician and gourmet. And he still lives with his mother. A day in Fábio's company is a day spent on a very individual view of the city he loves. We start in one of his favourite parts of town, among the characterful, slightly faded glories of Santa Teresa. It's a neighbourhood, or bairro, which has seen fortunes come and go. In the nineteenth century it was a place of comfortable mansions, overlooking the city and built largely for newly wealthy coffee barons. In 1892 a tunnel was pushed through the mountains below, connecting two sleepy fishing communities called Copacabana and Ipanema with the rest of the city for the first time. The rich and successful moved down towards the newly accessible beaches and Santa Teresa's heyday was over. After years of neglect it has undergone something of a rebirth. The old timbered houses remain, some creaky and skeletal, glimpsed on the hilltops through dusty trees, together with some Art Nouveau touches on the streets lower down. Most Cariocans still ignore the area. It's overlooked by seven favelas and they don't think it's a safe place to live. But its architecture and the distance from the beach have attracted an arty interest. Santa Teresa has become cool and bohemian. Yellow open-sided trams rattle through the streets and the shops and restaurants are small and curious. It has the feel of a rambling, overgrown, free-thinking village.

It's wholly suitable then that our first port of call is the headquarters of the grandly named Brazilian Academy of the Literature of Cordel. It's in a lock-up garage halfway up a steep hill. Inside the garage, just wide enough for a single car, are shelves and tables full of books and, at the back, a typewriter, printing press and paper. Its hawk-nosed, thick-spectacled proprietor, Gonçalo Ferreira da Silva, who looks like a thin Dr Kissinger, gets up from his table and comes to welcome us. Cordel literature, a phenomenon of north-eastern Brazil, has its roots in Europe in the Middle Ages, when minstrels would travel the land singing verses to entertain people who could barely read or write. In Brazil this was taken a stage further and small books, all in verse, were produced as cheaply as possible and sold on strings in the villages of the back country. Hence the name Cordel, from the word for string. Producing these books is an old art, and Gonçalo's garage is probably the only place where it's currently practised. And practised with enormous enthusiasm. He produces his little offerings, more leaflet than book, on any subject he thinks people will be interested in – or, more to the point, any subject he thinks people should be interested in. Gonçalo has produced edifying works on Darwin, Gandhi, Newton and Copernicus, whilst keeping an eye on the popular market with 'Goodbye Princess Diana'. It's all admirably low-tech. In the back of the shop he cuts and folds sheets of the cheapest paper into thirty-two-page books. Many of the covers are made from wood blocks. It is a labour of love, but he is encouraged by figures that show that Brazilians are the biggest consumers of poetry in the world, and by his own deight in versifying. Above the garage is a balustraded terrace on which he and his fellow poets gather once a month to eat, drink and recite. Gonçalo will recite at the drop of a hat, and he gives us a fruity rendition of his own poem 'Ode to a Book'. 'Obrigado Senhor Livro...' Thank you Mr Book. Every line charged with feeling.
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PALIN'S GUIDES

  • Series: Brazil
  • Chapter: Day 50: Rio de Janeiro
  • Country/sea: Brazil
  • Place: Rio de Janeiro
  • Book page no: 206

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