Hotel Brasil by Frei Betto
Hotel Brasil by Frei Betto (Bitter Lemon Press, 2014) translated by Jethro Soutar, sees the first publication of this prolific author’s work in English — there are fifty-two other books to wait for. This modest volume is subtitled, “The mystery of the severed heads” which suggests it is either a crime or horror novel. The reality is rather different. It’s set in a rundown guest house in Rio de Janeiro. Originally, it was a private mansion, but when the owner departed, Dona Dino, the woman left behind, could not pay the bills unless she admitted paying guests. To call it a hotel would be to miss the mark. It’s rather more a collection of individuals who have come together in cheap accommodation offered by an apparently benign and supportive elderly lady (and her cat). When one of the guests, an elderly man who traded in semi-precious gemstones, is found decapitated, this provokes the police into action and, as each of the residents is interviewed by Delegado Olinto Del Bosco, we’re introduced to their lives.
The primus inter pares resident is Cândido. He’s a modern-day equivalent of Volatire’s Candide, a not unworldly man who makes a meagre living as an editor for a local publishing house while volunteering to help the street kids who get into trouble. He wants to find the best in people which is why, during the course of this book, he becomes involved in defying the military police who are dealing with a mass breakout at a juvenile detention centre. On a whim, he protects a girl who escapes, involving others in hiding her, even though it makes him even more a target for harassment and possible disappearance if he gets caught. Then there’s Rui Pacheco, a political aide and Marcelo Braga, a newspaperman. Both are, in their different ways, relatively powerful. Pacheco has networked into the political class and knows the right people to get some things done. But he’s also a contradiction. He ought to be building up wealth alongside his influence yet he lives in reduced circumstances. Marcelo could write front-page opinion pieces to castigate Del Bosco for his failure to catch the killer. This would probably lead to Del Bosco being sidelined if not dismissed. But he doesn’t think an intervention worth his while. There are few men of talent in the ranks of the local detective force and Marcelo does not believe any replacement would be any more likely to find the killer.
This leaves us with the flamboyant Diamante Negro who’s a professional cross-dressing transformista, and Madame Larência who’s reached the age when she can no longer easily turn tricks and so acts as a pimp. Rosaura Doroteia dos Santos is a young and naive fantasist who dreams of becoming a star of one of the prevailing television soaps. While Jorge Maldonado is the general factotum around the hotel and, when no-one else seems likely to have been the killer, he’s the one arrested. He’s lucky enough to have an older bother who was a notorious, if less than successful, crook. Beating a confessional out of him seems the most reasonable solution to the case. Except, while this unfortunate is locked up, there’s a second decapitation.
In a way, the hotel and the sequence of murders is just a excuse to talk about Brazilian society. Through the characters we get an insight into the social dynamics of the culture in Rio. This is not the tourist version with street carnivals and beach parties. Rather it’s a study of the progress being by the post-junta government, highlighting the problems of the disadvantaged and marginalised. The are moments of humour and equal elements of tragedy as the stories of the different residents play out. So you should not pick up this book if you are looking for a traditional whodunnit. Although the final pages do explain who’s responsible for the killings and why, that’s of secondary importance. The real thrust of the narrative is whether Cândido can find love and redeem the girl from the streets. In this, no-one is an angel. Equally, it’s hard to single out any of those who survive to the end of the book as being devils. Everyone does what they must to survive. They may be required to do some things that, objectively, they will acknowledge as illegal or merely immoral. But people will pay such prices if they emerge with their lives intact. This makes Hotel Brasil a social commentary with some satirical ambitions and relatively unflinching insights into Brazil’s current social and political problems.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.