When I heard about Nemesis: The Battle For Brazil by Misha Glenny, I was immediately interested for a couple of reasons. The first reason is that I knew next to nothing about Brazil, the second reason is that the world’s attention has been on Brazil the last couple of years what with the World Cup, the Olympics and now the zika virus, and the third reason is because it just seemed really fascinating. Everyone likes stories where the main character isn’t simply good or evil, and Nem definitely lives in a world of grey – though after reading this book I feel like you could say that Brazil itself also lives in a world of grey.
Before we go any further however we’ll get the description from Goodreads:
This is a book about a man known as Nem; about Rocinha, the slum or “favela” he grew up in and came to run as a private fiefdom; about Rio, the beautiful but damned city that Rocinha exists in; and about the battle for Brazil. Nemesis pans in and out from the arc of Nem’s individual, astonishing trajectory to the wider story of the country that he exists in.
It’s about drugs and gangs and violence and poverty. It’s about a man who made a terribly dangerous and life-altering decision for the best and most understandable of reasons. And it’s about the wider forces at work in a country that is in the world’s spotlight as never before and is set to stay there. Those forces include the evangelical church, bent police and straight police, drug lords, farmers, TV magnates, crusading politicians, and corrupt politicians.
If this book was strictly about Nem I do not think that it would have the punch that it has. The book however, is about Nem, but it is also about Brazil and it highlights the massive problems that this country has. By the time I finished reading this book I was livid.
WARNING SOME SPOILERS BELOW
Nem gets into the drug trade because his daughter becomes deathly ill. He has a full time job, but he and his family are just making ends meet. He has no money to pay for her numerous hospital visits, for the medications, or for the tests that she requires. And Brazil has no health coverage. Nem and his wife and daughter go from living on their own to living with his mother in a tiny apartment, and still it’s not enough to make ends meet. So he gets a loan from the Don of Rocinha (essentially the drug lord who runs the slum/favela. It is a loan that he would never be able to pay back with the job that he has now. But his daughter gets better, and so Nem quits his job and goes to work for the Don to pay back the loan.
The story continues from there about Nem’s rise to power, about how a favela is run and operated, and more importantly about who runs and operates the favelas because it sure as hell is not the Brazilian government. A good Don, as I’ve learned while reading this book, provides jobs for the people, utilities, keeps violence down, listens to the people when they have problems, and acts as essentially a Lord of a fiefdom. What they say goes. And the people are okay with that (for the most part) because the Dons provide for them and in a way care about them (because providing for them and caring about them is good for business. When the people are happy, the drugs flow in and our of the favela smoothly).
What was interesting to me about the favela’s is how many people live in them, how many people living in them don’t have access to running toilets or water, windows, or good food, and how the Brazilian government has known about this for decades and has done nothing essentially. They have been happy to let the Dons run the favelas, and corrupt cops be on the take from Dons and they have spent money elsewhere – like on stadiums that they will never use again from the World Cup, or $50 million to bid on the Olympics (forgetting for a second that they also now have the Olympics) and yet the people in these favela’s have just about nothing. The only people who do care about them are the Don, (and care is relative).
I didn’t realize that Brazil was such a country of the haves and have nots. And when the Brazilian army and police forces swept into favelas a couple of years ago to take them over for the Dons, the people living in those favelas weren’t too happy about it. This is a government that has ignored them for 40 years. Why on earth would these people all of a sudden be happy to see the government? Why would they trust them?
There are so many problems in Brazil in regards to trust, and corruption. It’s an incredibly tangled web that Nem is only a small part of. And this book shows a country that is in serious trouble, and has serious problems, and is uses Nem to show all of that.
I loved this book. It was brilliant and insightful and taught me so much about Brazil. I’m definitely going to be reading other books by Misha Glenny, and you should definitely pick up this one. You will not be disappointed.