The Beginning of an essay by Benjamin Moser in Bookforum, April/May
The city of Petrópolis, in the mountains above Rio de Janeiro, is a suggestive place. It suggests, first of all, a benevolent nature, not the wild, threatening mass found elsewhere in Brazil, with its disease-bearing insects and its swarms of cannibalistic fish, but a carefully tended tropical nature of the kind found in the better Hawaiian or Balinese resorts. Here, nature means gentle streams lined with colorful, bushy impatiens. It means broad sheltering trees, and cute little monkeys playing in them. In Petrópolis, the weather is cooler, the breezes are softer, than in Rio de Janeiro, the heaving port below. Petrópolis is a harmonious place for people: especially compared with the alternative that immediately presents itself – Rio, with its stifling traffic jams, its ugly cement apartment blocks, its drug barons, and its stray bullets – Petrópolis seems an ideal place to live. Here reigns an almost Bavarian tidiness, and a welfare and tranquility virtually unknown elsewhere in Brazil.
Named for the bookish, self-effacing Emperor Pedro II, the city was built around his summer residence, a pink palace that is now the Imperial Museum. To walk through its rooms, to see the beautiful old furniture, to read about the marquises who once strolled through the gardens, is to enter a romantic world unimaginably far removed from the modern Brazil of the coast. Among the palms and bougainvillea, this place of great tall windows and wide polished floorboards, strikingly modest for an imperial residence, suggests the difference between what this country might have been and what it turned out to be – between aspiration and achievement, between hopes and reality.
But human prosperity and natural harmony are not the predominant suggestions of Petrópolis. Petrópolis, like no other place I know, is heavy with suicides and exiles and defeats. The lives of the famous people who, lured by the trees and the flowers, have sought refuge here have been disappointing and bitter. The gay millionaire Alberto Santos-Dumont, who invented manned flight in the hopes of creating universal brotherhood and then saw his invention, in World War I, used to bomb and smash innocent lives, came here, only to die by his own hand. In the splendor of her modernist mansion, the American poet Elizabeth Bishop (“Oh, tourist / is this how this country is going to answer you / and your immodest demands for a different world”) lost her great love and turned bitterly alcoholic.