Spring Books: Unravelling the Brazilian mystery

Books Unravelling Brazilian mystery

Author James Hogan upped sticks from Ireland to the UK and then to Brazil. He spoke to Adam Shaw

Brazil isn’t like Ireland or the UK. It isn’t really like anywhere else in the world. With its enormous size, diverse population and varying landscapes, no two regions are the same. Those from the beaches of Rio de Janeiro will distance themselves from the high-rise hustle and bustle of Sao Paulo. And the Gaucho practices of Rio Grande do Sul are a far cry from the Afro-influenced traditions of the North East.

There is a certain attitude, however, which unites Brazilians and can prove alluring to the outsider. A feeling of celebrating all that is around you and taking things as they come is charming and exciting in equal measure. It is this, alongside Brazil’s diversity and beauty, which first attracted Irish author James Hogan to its shores but, as he discovered, something darker lurks beneath its surface.

Books Unravelling Brazilian mystery

“One thing that has always interested me about Brazil is this philosophy of life; something a lot of people had relayed to me,” he says.


“They believe that if a problem doesn’t have a solution, then it’s not a problem. You just get on with your life and accept that there are some things you can’t change.”

James originally viewed this attitude as an utter heresy, given that he was a qualified epidemiologist who specialised in finding solutions to problems. But he also found it refreshing and was convinced that he had to meet up with regular Brazilians to find out more.

However, during his work attempting to stop the spread of cholera in the Sertão region, his eyes were opened to the other side of the country.

“Brazil is a country of astonishing beauty but, in the cities at least, it can come across as quite brutal. When I was there, it was moving into the modern world; coming from a dictatorship to a tentative democracy.

“I was taken aback by the extraordinary gulf between rich and poor and the levels of corruption, even in areas where things were supposedly more balanced.”

He explains how the cholera project was overseen by an unscrupulous Minister of Health, who overcharged the vulnerable, spent funds elsewhere and casually involved a number of his cronies.

“There was a scam, a shocking scam which, ultimately, led to the scheme we were working on being discontinued. The epidemic spread and, although it didn’t become a major problem, a number of people, particularly those who relied on the river, died.”

James learnt that the racket involved several of his acquaintances, men and women he trusted who had no qualms in engaging in dishonest practices.

Books Unravelling Brazilian mystery

“To maintain their position as part of the middle class they had to do things that I, as an Irish boy brought up by the Jesuits, would consider unethical.

“I was torn between my love of the people – my love of the country – and my moral doubts and, to an extent, outrage.”

He put his thoughts down in a book, Brazilian Tequila, where he tried to convey the surreal phenomenon of a man having serious moral concerns about things the locals give little thought to. He confesses that it originally read a little like a mad rant against the Brazilian system and the people who were complicit in it. He worried that his passion for other aspects of the country wasn’t represented.


But, after some editing from his wife, Margaret, and with a bit of tweaking so that neither side was ignored, he came up with a more balanced, and therefore accurate, portrayal of his emotions.

“My wife’s work put some pleasure back into the book. It was nice to show that I did enjoy myself but that I couldn’t completely ignore the reality of my experience. I ended up calling it Brazilian Tequila for two reasons. The most obvious is that, following my trip, a doctor had to remove some worms from my foot. He placed them in alcohol to study them and ended up coining the term.

“The second is that it represents my opinion towards Brazil. Tequila is a great drink but, as we know, it has something at the bottom.”

James still loves Brazil, and says the “life-enhancing feeling of optimism” is something he will never forget. He fondly recalls the reaction of bottle-kicking youngsters when they found out he was Irish, immediately linking him to footballing superstar Liam Brady.

Books Unravelling Brazilian mystery
Catanzaro, 1981/82. Liam Brady

“It was always ‘Liam Brady, Liam Brady’; I could understand that even when I knew very little Portuguese. Football is enormous over there, it dictates everything in life and it was great to see the delight on their faces when they could talk about a famous goal Brady had scored for Juventus. He acted as a great passport during my travels.”

He also hopes that his book, while critical at times, will paint a positive picture of Brazil’s culture, people and landscape. But he has never been able to fully shrug off the moral dilemma which struck him all those years ago.

Despite reconciling with some of those involved in the scam via email, he hasn’t felt it necessary to return to meet them again in person. Perhaps it is a result of his conservative upbringing in Co. Cork or maybe it was due to years of working as a doctor, approaching problems in a logical, systematic manner.

In any case, while he can maintain an appreciation for the Brazilian joie de vivre, he is still wary of those who seek to exploit it.

Brazilian Tequila will be launched in the UK at 5.30pm on 7 April at the Woburn Suite, Ground Floor, Senate House, Malet Street, London, WC1E 7HU. It is available to buy at amazon.co.uk.

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