Sunday, June 21, 2009


Boa Vista is not far from the site of Arthur Conan Doyle's "Lost World," and at times it feels that way. The capital of Roraima State in Brazil's far north, near the border with Venezuela and Guayana, is a tropical backwater.

Down by the Rio Branco, the river on whose banks the city sits, there is a small complex of restaurants, bars, and cafes, but even on Saturday night half of them were closed and the other half were almost empty. Two solo guitarists, singing Brazilian popular hits, competed for what little attention that there was. A few couples lounged around, either at the outside tables or on the benches of the park alongside. A small child running around provided what little life that there was.

Earlier in the day there had been some kind of festivities on the other side of town, part the "Festa Junina," celebrated throughout Brazil in honor of the Summer Solstice and the Saints Anthony and John. Stalls and playgrounds had been set out, and loud music blared. But by five o'clock things had already wound down, tables were being cleared and chairs stacked.

The architecture, and the history that that architecture reflects, probably doesn't help. Boa Vista is quite clearly a planned town, with wide avenues radiating from a large (but quite unfrequented) central park. From above, or rather from Google Maps, it looks rather like the "arched window" from Play School.

Though there are a few older buildings down by the waterfront, mostly (with the exception of a beautiful church, painted in strident yellow) in a state of some disrepair, the town is now characterized by broad expanses dotted with the occasional modernist monument. The cathedral, for instance, is composed of sweeping concrete curves. A stadium further out shows similar attempts to make an architectural statement. The tallest structure in town (and no doubt the only one from which a "good view" can be found) is a concrete tube whose purpose is not immediately evident. Overall, it's as though Boa Vista had been envisaged as some kind of mini-Brasilia, a means to impose order on an otherwise dauntingly vast landscape of forest and plains.

But Boa Vista's history goes back further than Brasilia's. The small cluster of older buildings has been supplemented by a concrete, three-dimensional mural commemorating the pioneers and their "courage and hope" that founded the city back in the early to mid nineteenth century. It depicts a mounted settler who is leaping out of a canoe, his arm thrusting forwards, only to land on the shoulder of an oversized, naked indigenous youth.

For this is also the territory of Macunaíma, and so in some ways of some of Brazil's founding mythology. Macunaíma, here represented as the first inhabitant of the Rio Branco, is the eponymous subject of Mário de Andrade's 1928 novel, which traces the young man's journey from the jungle to Rio and São Paulo and back again, in the process uniting ancient and modern, indigenous and white, interior and coast in the image of a single if diverse national culture.

In such narratives (and there are many other similar ones--the successful film Central Station comes to mind, for instance) backwaters such as Boa Vista are recreated less as the site of a lost world than as the place where Brazil finally finds itself.

Perhaps no more. When I asked at my hotel's reception how to get to the town center, I was directed neither to the historic nor to the modern centers, but to what turned out to be a huge supermarket some blocks from either. Are Brazilians, too, now lost in the supermarket?

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