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Talking Location With author Joe Thomas – SÃO PAULO

26th June 2021

Joe Thomas#TalkingLocationWith … Joe Thomas author of Brazilian Psycho

I lived in São Paulo for almost ten years, but only started writing about it after I left.

My novel, Brazilian Psycho, is an occult history of the city from 2003 – 2019, told through the lens of real-life crimes. It reveals the dark heart at the centre of the Brazilian social-democrat resurgence and the fragility and corruption of the B.R.I.C economic miracle; it documents the rise and fall of the left-wing – and the rise of the populist right.

São Paulo’s vibrancy and excitement, the daily grind of traffic and pollution, the vast, sprawling, hot-headed, concrete megalopolis seemed to me a fine subject for a series of novels. I wanted to make sense of the place, of my experience there, and it feels like I needed the remove of returning home.

But how to tell the story of a city?

The idea for Brazilian Psycho was born over the Mothers’ Day weekend of 2006.

A weekend I won’t forget in a hurry.

On the Friday afternoon, there were reports of trouble across the city, rumours and gossip shared by the staff at the international school where I worked.

It seemed there was some sort of attack going on and though its nature wasn’t clear, there was, apparently, city-wide disruption. The ex-pat teachers speculated that it was terrorism, or some sort of insurrection; the Brazilians were simply worried.

As a precaution, we were all told to leave early.

The drive home along the Marginal – one of São Paulo’s traffic arteries – was eerily quiet. I spotted two buses parked and empty at the side of the road. Further away, I could see smoke.

Joe Thomas

Photo: Wikimedia

I spent Saturday and Sunday behind my condominium gates, playing tennis and drinking beer with middle-aged men who had lived their whole lives in São Paulo – a restaurateur, an ex-cop, a businessman, a Formula One TV sports personality, a high-class drug dealer – and who were not going to let a little thing like this get in the way of their weekend.

This is what happened:

The PCC crime syndicate – the ‘First Capital Command’ – is the biggest criminal gang in Brazil. Its leaders run São Paulo from prisons dotted across the state. They are very organised. And they generally get what they want.

In 2006, the PCC decide they want to watch the World Cup on wide-screen TV sets. Alongside this request: more frequent conjugal visits. Both are denied.

For three days, São Paulo experiences some righteous, PCC-brand chaos.

Gangbangers attack the police. They hijack buses. They evacuate them. They set them on fire and leave them on major highways. There are rumours of raids on public buildings. Over a hundred and fifty people are killed – police, gang members, and the inevitable bystanders: the stray bullets flying about in poor areas, the city’s favelas.

São Paulo goes into lockdown.

Using the cover of the chaos, scores are settled between Military police and gang members. A rumour circulates that the army has been called in. The violence intensifies.

The authorities throw in the towel on Sunday evening.

The PCC get their TVs and their conjugal visits.

Joe Thomas

Photo: TAP Air Portugal

The Chief of Police’s son studies at the international school where I work. The officers who were shot at over the weekend are receiving danger money, substantial pay outs. Trauma and whatnot, he tells the headmaster.

Hearing about this, a number of officers have been shooting at their own police stations, the bullet holes proof they’ve been attacked.

They too, the chief of police says, are claiming danger money.

The peculiarity of the crime, the brazenness of the requests and the response, and the implied police behaviour seemed distinctly Brazilian to me.

This is only one story from that lawless weekend; the causes and consequences are very murky indeed. And, of course, it turns out it wasn’t just the bad guys that were acting lawlessly.

The weekend is a key part of the first half of Brazilian Psycho. What really happened, and why? It wasn’t a shoot-out between corrupt Military police and drug dealers, but a major political scandal.

The beloved Brazilian musician Tim Maia once said: ‘Brasil is the only country where – in addition to whores cumming, pimps being jealous, and drug dealers being addicted – poor people vote for the right-wing”. Maia’s quotation seemed another excellent starting point for the novel, a decision brought sharply into focus with Bolsonaro’s election victory after years of left-wing rule.

The question at the heart of Brazilian Psycho is: how did it come to this?

Brazilian Psycho by Joe Thomas is out now in hardback by Arcadia and you can buy it on this tab:

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