Twenty years ago in Rio, author Peter Robb narrowly evaded murder at the hands of a Brazilian acquaintance. The assailant was poor and had a knife; Robb, an Australian who had spent much of his life in Italy, talked him out of it in suddenly fluent Portuguese. Persuaded not to take Robb’s life or possessions, the man demanded a kiss instead. “It was a very charged and prolonged kiss,” Robb remembers.

Thus was one death in Brazil averted. But others—often involving, in Robb’s estimation, a similar interplay of money, violence, and eroticism—are routinely consummated. In A Death in Brazil: A Book of Omissions, Robb seeks to identify the recipe that has made Brazil what it is: a nation whose wealth disparity makes the United States look like a socialist utopia, whose murder rate approximates that of a low-intensity civil war, whose opiates are soap operas and sex. In São Paulo, Robb writes, “[t]he immensely rich hover over the city’s canyons in their own helicopters, fluttering at sunset between the corporate tower and the gated residence. São Paulo has more private helicopters than any other city in the world, more armored limousines, more armored ordinary cars, more armed security personnel and more desperate people than any other urban center on the face of the earth.”

As an observer and recorder of this sordidly fascinating scenario, Robb avails himself of myriad sources: Brazilian literature, personal travelogue, the shenanigans of a few leading politicians, and the rise of the current president, Luis Inácio “Lula” da Silva. A unifying thread is his pro-underdog ideology, which he applies to events throughout Brazil’s oppression-plagued history. In the 1600s, for example, an outpost called Palmares was established in a forested area in the northeastern part of the country. A stable community of thousands—escaped African slaves, indigenous Brazilians, and some whites who didn’t get along with the law or the Inquisition—flourished there. The Portuguese government sent armed expeditions to destroy them, but the settlers repeatedly fought these intrusions off, until, after a century, they were finally defeated. Boasting “the size and permanence of an alternative state,” Palmares, Robb vicariously gloats, “had opposed a community of the oppressed, under African leadership, to the power of the Portuguese oligarchy.”

Today’s elites don’t escape Robb’s disdain, either. He devotes a sizable chunk of A Death in Brazil to the spectacular corruption and casual violence that have long characterized the nation’s political class. “Brazilians expected little of their leaders and even less of the mob in Congress,” Robb observes. Indeed, during the Congressional session of 1999, the Brazilian legislature was, Robb notes, “put out” to discover that one of its own had cut off a man’s limbs with a chain saw—and then hammered nails into his victim’s head. As punishment, Congress voted to revoke the offending member’s mandate for “lack of parliamentary decorum.”

Democracy, it should be pointed out, is relatively new to Brazil. After decades of military rule, the presidential election of 1989 was the first one in the country’s history in which the majority of citizens were allowed to vote. Robb chronicles this race, between Lula and the right-wing Social Democratic Party candidate Fernando Collor de Mello, with not only his usual anti-authoritarianism, but also a finely tuned sense of the absurd. “Presidential campaigns,” he notes dryly, “were not really a Brazilian thing.”

Lula was a union leader who grew up hawking tapioca sweets on the streets. Fernando was a rich idiot whose main qualification, as far as his backers were concerned, consisted of not being Lula. The candidates’ respective campaign ads were telling. Viewers, Robb writes, “saw Fernando defying the sugar growers under a tropical downpour, hair plastered to his scalp. It looked like a shampoo commercial.” In Lula’s ad, due to the Worker’s Party’s impecuniousness, he arrived “wearing a borrowed suit too big for him. The studio was a rented room in São Paulo and the set was a desk against a beige wall. Lula looked around and asked, Isn’t this all going to cost too much?” Thanks to biased television coverage, Fernando won that election, then proceeded to run a corrupt administration that ended in his forced resignation. Lula finally prevailed in 2003, in his fourth run for the office.

As the history of Brazil unfolds, the book’s immediate backdrop is Robb’s own sojourn in the country. But don’t expect authorial intimacy: Other than the opening scene describing his near murder, the most Robb reveals about himself is a series of joyous encounters with lobsters and exotic beverages. Nonetheless, a character manages to emerge—a wry and unflappable intellectual hedonist à la The Quiet American’s dissipated journalist, Thomas Fowler. You can easily imagine Robb sitting in the poorly lit corner of a seedy bar, surveying the scene as he knocks back his cachaça.

Robb’s dryness is effective when he’s relating his own experiences. Here he narrates an encounter with the Brazilian military police:

He grabbed my rucksack and upended it over his battered metal desk. Out fell a plastic water bottle, spare hankie, sun hat, newspaper, a few aspirins and a collapsible umbrella. He seized on the umbrella, as hopefully containing prohibited substances or being some kind of offensive weapon. It turned out to be a collapsible umbrella.

Elsewhere, however, this knowing tone seems misplaced. Long sections of the book are devoted to reconstructing the actions and thoughts of powerful Brazilians—Fernando, his henchman PC Farias, Congressman Augusto Farias—and freely generalizing about their homeland. Which raises a question: Is Robb just another presumptuous expat, in Brazil for a good time and a few glib truisms?

In a word, no. But a fuller answer is more complicated. Robb is slippery.

Robb intimates that his goal is capturing “everything that was really human in Brazilian history and life, human in the sense of appetites, desires, pleasures, vices and consolations…as against the country’s myths, illusions, lies and rationalizations.” Yet the portrait he ultimately sketches of Brazil doesn’t stray very far from stereotype. The place conjures visions of exotic beauty, of bodies smooth and sinewy from playing on the beaches. We think of Carnival, of human masses having cast off what meager inhibitions they had to begin with. The violence, of course, is nearly as rampant and animalistic as the sex. Call it tropicalism: enduring fantasies about the region that have been with us since the colonial era.

Far from debunking this image, Robb tries to give it a factual basis and a historical context. For example, drawing on the work of early-20th-century social historian Gilberto Freyre, he proposes that sex is at the root of many of Brazil’s distinguishing characteristics. On the sugar plantations,

What linked the masters and the slaves was sex….sex enhanced by the gorgeousness of the climate and the sweetness of the sugar…If in Protestant North America sex with slaves had been nasty, brutish, short and a matter of profound shame…in the lax Catholic Brazil of the tropics, sex across the divide of race and ownership seemed to be at the very center of plantation life. Sometimes, reading Freyre, you wondered how they ever got the cane harvested and crushed and the juice boiled down.

Freyre, still one of Brazil’s most celebrated figures, is something of an idol to Robb.

To Robb’s credit, he does retain some skepticism about Freyre’s work, even as he pinpoints its appeal: “Most seductive of all was the idea that out of Brazil’s sensual and promiscuous past a new society had grown where the races flourished and racism was extinguished.” Robb knows that this is a “marvelous dream,” though he also seems a little too willing to make sweeping statements about “[s]lothful, self-lacerating Brazil” and “sweaty, chaotic, sensual Brazil.” Such stabs at pinning down an entire nation with a series of adjectives can be unseemly coming from a foreigner—and Robb is no Freyre.

What makes pinning down Robb himself difficult is how many of his characterizations ooze sarcasm: “Perverse, backward, deluded Brazil had produced a world master,” he writes of author Machado de Assis. That mockery provides ambiguous context to his reference, on the same page, to “lustful, indulgent and gossipy Rio.” The question hovers of whether he’s trying to play it both ways. Is his intention to use mockery of certain stereotypes to cast doubt on his apparent embrace of others, and thereby get away with invoking them? Or to convince readers that his dismissal of certain stereotypes lends credence to his confirmation of others?

Robb has written, as promised, a book of omissions. It’s clear that he’s made a real effort to get inside the collective mind of Brazil, to identify its essence. The problem is the futility of his task. There is no essence to which a country may be distilled, no secret formula that accounts for its “appetites, desires, pleasures, vices and consolations.” Robb knows this, of course, but it doesn’t deter him from seeking one. A Death in Brazil provides an intriguing introduction to its subject, but it ultimately conveys less about the character of a country than about a foreigner’s persistent, audacious search for that character.CP