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  • Reviews for Hotel Brasil by Frei Betto
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Reviews for Hotel Brasil by Frei Betto
‘Frei Betto (born Carlos Alberto Libânio Christo) is a well-known figure both in literary and political circles in Brazil. As an activist friar in the 1960s, he was a staunch defender of political liberties during the cruel dictatorship that took control of the Brazilian government for two decades, and as a result he was imprisoned by the regime for several years. He is currently a celebrated author with more than fifty published titles, and has continued his work in favor of the poor and disenfranchised of his country. His defense of the Liberation Theology put him in odds with the Vatican especially during the reigns of the last two popes, who did everything to crush the movement. That, however, did not at all diminish his efforts - in fact, during the Lula government he led "Fome Zero," the administration's major social projects that successfully reduced death rates due to malnutrition among low-income children in the country. His stance in defense of the disenfranchised and his disagreements with church orthodoxy have also made him a target for more conservative Catholics in the country, who tend to be very critical of his proximity with the Left. On his first mystery novel (he is mostly a non-fiction writer) published in 1999 in Brazil but finally made available in English via Bitter Lemon Press, we follow a mysterious murder in a boarding house in downtown Rio de Janeiro: one of its residents is found stabbed and decapitated, and to top it off his eyes were removed. There are no leads or any evidence that his room was broken into, so suspicion falls on all the other residents: a civil rights activist, a reporter, a drag queen, an aspiring actress, a political aide, the house's administrator and her two employees. The detective assigned to the case is Olinto Del Bosco, who is an old-school kind of cop used to the harsh methods of the days of the dictatorship in lieu of the more scientific approach found on today's procedural mysteries - meaning that he will use torture to get what he wants, even if there is no evidence to back up his theories. We are then given a profile of the different characters and their backgrounds - "Seu" Marçal, the victim, was a retired widower who peddled precious gemstones from Minas Gerais and also had a penchant for younger women. The other residents of the hotel are a microcosm of Brazil itself, and we are presented with their backgrounds and the stories that led them to share that space. This being a Frei Betto novel, a lot of the current (at least as of 1999) social and political and social issues of the country are very present, going from police and political corruption to drug use, child prostitution and street violence. Hotel Brasil is not for the faint of heart: Without giving out any spoilers, just sixty pages into the book two women fall into prostitution rings, there are two gruesome murders and a brutal rape - and that is just as we are introduced to the main characters. "Postcard" Rio is barely mentioned in the tome, except for the famed Lapa Arches and the omnipresent figure of Christ the Redeemer. The action mostly takes place between Rio's City Center and the favelas - no strolls around Copacabana or Ipanema to be seen here. The novel was translated by Jethro Soutar, who chose to keep some Portuguese expressions intact. These were not untranslatable word like "saudade," but words that are easily translatable. For instance, Inspector Del Bosco is often referred to as "delegado," which means "deputy chief" or simply "investigator", while at one point one woman is accused of being a "puta" (whore). During an interrogation, one witness interjects "Pelo amor de Deus," which simply means "For God's sake." I am not sure how that would work with monolingual readers who do not understand some Portuguese - and though it is an interesting gimmick, I find it to be an extremely ineffective tool.Having said that, I found Hotel Brasil to be really gripping, and its twists and turns kept me guessing until the very end. I am a pretty frequent mystery reader, and I often guess who the murderer is - but this was not the case. All my suspicions were wrong, and when the last page came, I just asked myself, "What the..." - which makes this a must-read for lovers of the genre.' - Brazzil
‘In Rio de Janeiro, the rundown Hotel Brasil caters to singles; at least that is what proprietor Dona Dinó claims. The regulars residing in this dump include wannabe telenovela actress Rosaura dos Santos; political hack Rui Pacheco; reporter Marcelo Braga; transformed due to age restrictions from hooking to pimping Madame Larência; transformista nightclub entertainer Diamante Negro; former professor and present collaborator with anthropologist Mônica Kundali on a book (though he craves a different collaboration) Cândido Oliviera; and gemstone seller Seu Marcal. The family like camaraderie shatters when someone decapitates Marcal before removing his eyes. Delagacia da Lapa Police Chief Delegado Olinto Del Bosco sarcastically interrogates and accuses the owner, the residents and caretaker Jorge Maldonado as the murderer. Del Bosco arrests only Maldonado as the easiest for him to get away with a brutal beat down until he breaks and confesses. Although a Brazilian police procedural, Hotel Brasil reads more like a fascinating character study of a different side of Rio than typically depicted. The ensemble cast is solid with their background cleverly darkly satirizing stereotypes and as a group lampooning the Agatha Christie country house mystery subgenre in a South American urban setting. Readers who appreciate something different in their whodunits will enjoy this entertaining suspense.' - MBR Bookwatch
‘Intertwines absurdly understated violence with a reflective portrait of the city and its types so anthropologically precise that you'll mourn each new victim—and that's a lot of mourning.' In Betto's debut thriller, a killer is loose in a Rio de Janeiro residential hotel. “Rooms for single ladies and gentlemen. Family environment,” announces the sign Dona Dinó has hung outside the Hotel Brasil. And indeed her guests—political aide Rui Pacheco, aspiring telenovela actress Rosaura dos Santos, journalist Marcelo Braga, retired puta Madame Larência, cross-dressing nightclub singer Diamante Negro—feel like family in their combination of community, reserve and selective dislike. But the family comes under attack when retired salesman Seu Marçal, who still peddles the odd gemstone, is stabbed to death and relieved of first his eyes and then his head. Delegado Olinto Del Bosco, head of the Delagacia da Lapa, can think of no better approach to police work than to arrest hotel caretaker Jorge Maldonado and beat a confession out of him. And retired professor Cândido Oliviera, a hotel resident who's the logical candidate to serve as a more effective detective, is distracted by his long-running concern for the neighborhood's street kids, especially the glue-sniffing 11-year-old Beatriz, and his new professional collaboration with acclaimed anthropologist Mônica Kundali, which would surely blossom into love if only he could beat back his schoolboy shyness. As it is, no one takes the investigation firmly in hand, leaving the “Lapa Decapa” free to move on to other hotel residents, though not before first-timer Betto has provided incisive back stories for each of them. - Kirkus
‘Yes, ‘Frei' really is Portuguese for Brother (as in ‘friar') and Betto really is the same Brazilian theologian whose conversations with Castro were published as ‘Fidel and Religion'. In Havana a year ago, Betto was awarded the Unesco Jose Marti Prize for his “exceptional contribution to building a universal culture of peace, social justice and human rights in Latin America and the Caribbean”. His “contribution” had cost Betto dear. In 1964 a military dictatorship seized power in Brazil. Betto, only 20 but already a politically active Dominican friar, was jailed. He served a second jail term from 1969-73, for smuggling political dissidents into exile. Betto is unabashed at being regularly denounced as a defender of Communism. He shares with Castro, as he puts it, a proper concern for the relief of poverty and hunger. In order that spiritual hunger also be fed, he has served as a spiritual adviser to Fidel, as well as to the former Brazilian president, Lula de Silva. Hotel Brasil is, to judge by its racy cover, a far cry from Betto's previous 56 books. Yet perhaps Betto's switch from liberation theology to crime fiction is not as extreme as it first seems. The epigraph, taken from Fernando Pessoa, reads:”The novelist is in all of us, and we narrate what we see, for seeing is as complex as anything else.” And what Frei Betto sees is the world of favelas, of crime, corruption and poverty, but also the world of solidarity and tenderness. The plot is the least of it: a complex confection of serial murders in a seedy hotel. The victims have been decapitated, and the heads are found, all eerily smiling, held on their owners' laps. Throw into the mix an assorted cast of bedsit transients involved in strange relationships and even stranger religious practices, add a hefty dose of popular witchcraft and a pet cat named Osiris… and the result is a tropical fusion of ancient Egypt and modern Rio. The truth, Betto implies, lies in believing beyond what we see. Skewed investigations, the brutal settling of personal scores, reveal in a world in which any of us could be led astray. As Betto has said, we have to work hard to find a space for silence, so that our consciences can be heard. Or as he has also written: “Prayer makes us more sensitive to the manifestation of institutionalized lies.” This may be the first thriller with that as its message.' - The Tablet
‘The Hotel Brasil is an unassuming Rio de Janeiro family hotel. But when one of its residents is found decapitated with his head lying in the hotel corridor its reputation undergoes something of a transformation. The crime is subsequently investigated by Delegado Olinto Del Bosco who interviews the hotel staff and residents one by one. There is no sign of a struggle at the crime scene and it appears that the victim may therefore may have known and trusted the murderer. However, no sooner has the investigation begun than other hotel clients are also discovered murdered with their decapitated heads balanced on their knees. With pressure mounting on Del Bosco to solve the case and apprehend the killer it soon becomes apparent that he is more interested in saving his reputation than getting to the truth about the crimes. His suspects at the hotel include the flamboyant transformista artist Diamante Negro, a drag singer, Madame Larencia who works as a female pimp and a hotel maid who dreams of becoming a star in television soap operas. Hotel caretaker Jorge Maldonado proves to be a convenient individual to blame the crimes on but still the murders continue. Author Frei Betto cleverly uses his hotel setting as a means to examine the varied and disparate members of Brazilian society, its massive inequalities, systemic corruption and injustice. There is particular horror in the condition and brutal treatment by the police of Rio's favela children who suffer abysmal childhoods blighted by drugs and street crime. Frei Betto is a Dominican Friar who has also been a political activist, political prisoner and adviser to President Lula da Silva on prison policy and child hunger. With his obvious interest in Brazilian social problems it is perhaps no surprise to find that he has created a story firmly rooted in the tough streets of the sprawling city of Rio. Hotel Brasil takes a little while to build in momentum but as the cast of wryly drawn characters begins to emerge from its pages becomes increasingly hypnotic and compelling. Betto offers a view of a ravaged Brazilian society where its less fortunate inhabitants struggle for survival on a daily basis. Seamy, seedy and bloody, Hotel Brasil offers a vision of Rio a world away from the soothing strains of The Girl From Ipanema.' - Crime Time
The fiendishly clever mystery in Frei Betto's Hotel Brasil plays straight to the reader's blind spot, and the hotel provides a delightful register of guests and residents as suspects and potential victims. The heart of Betto's story is motorbike-riding Professor Candido, who volunteers at a local center to help homeless street children. Educated to be a priest, Candido ends up sheltering a runaway girl as the breakout of a hundred street kids from a correction facility collides with the investigation of a murdered hotel resident. In scrupulously lean prose, with exactly the right details, Betto--a political activist and Dominican friar jailed by Brazil's military dictatorship in the 1970s--brings to life the hotel's residents, including a political aide with a thirst for power, a madam and a pretty housecleaner who dreams of being a telenovela star. One by one, they are grilled by the pompous, determined police inspector, eager to solve the murder before the press does. But no one solves this mystery except the reader. Hotel Brasil comes at you in short little bullets of narrative, each with its own title, sometimes no more than a paragraph or two long. The odd technique works. Alternately comic, insightful and harrowing in equal proportions, Betto is a thorough entertainer, painting a Rio de Janeiro of road accidents and shoeshine boys, kidnappings and murderous neighborhood mobs, topping it all off with a horribly satisfying ending--not to mention a glue-sniffing, revolver-toting 12-year-old street girl who threatens to walk away with the story. - Shelf Awareness
‘Hotel Brasil is the first crime novel by Frei Betto, otherwise well known in Brazil as a writer and activist on political issues. The featured crime is the macabre murder and decapitation of a hotel resident, and the subsequent investigation by police Inspector Olinto Del Bosco. However, the book is less about the crime than it is about the nature of Rio society, explored through the characters at the hotel and those with whom they interact. The most sympathetic of these is Candido, a writer who lives off sporadic commissions from a small publisher and who in the course of the book falls in love with Monica, an academic working on a common editorial project. Candido also takes an interest in street children and in particular Bia, who is targeted by an unofficial police death squad after she heads a mass escape of minors from custody. The desperate life of such children, and the horror of the slums from which they come, are described in distressing detail. The role of the criminal justice system in respect of such children, and in much else, is almost wholly negative. A senior judicial figure pays off an informer from a slush fund, helping himself to a substantial mark-up. The apprehension of thieves is no more than an opportunity for a shake-down by the arresting officers. Del Bosco's efforts to solve the murder are motivated primarily by the threat of demotion, and consist of nothing more than browbeating each of the hotel residents in turn. When this fails to achieve a result, he extracts a confession by torture, the victim being saved from incarceration only when a second murder with the same characteristics as the first shows him to be innocent. Del Bosco's interviews, which punctuate the early chapters, do, however, give the author the opportunity to explore the lives of the variety of characters washed up in the hotel. These include Madame Larencia, a retired whore and procuress, raped on her 15th birthday by her father, and Diamonte Negro, a transvestite familiar with the wide range of sexual exhibitionists found locally. With the possible exception of Candido, the lives depicted are generally unfulfilled, typified by the maid Rosaura who dreams of featuring in television soaps. It is of course a characteristic of crime novels generally that the spotlight brought to bear illuminates the individuals affected, and shows certain facets of life in sharp relief. Betto works with such dramatic material that Hotel Brasil is compelling. As far as the ghoulish crimes are concerned, the perpetrator is finally revealed to the reader, but the killer's motivation remains obscure. The uncertainty seems somehow emblematic of Rio life.' - Crime Review
'…a refreshing piece of satire, with nods to Voltaire's Candide (and maybe to Sweeney Todd).' - Library Journal
‘Hotel Brasil is quietly fascinating. Looking at the front cover actually gives the wrong impression through the subtitle, “The mystery of the severed heads”. Although there are decapitations in the hotel cum guest house in Rio, they are just an excuse to meet the residents of the hotel and, through their stories, learn something of the life in Brazil's capital. This is nothing like the tourist version of beach parties and carnivals. Rather we're pitched into the underbelly of the city with a penniless book editor, political aide, and newspaper reporter and editor being the more normal. The man who makes his living transforming himself into spectacularly beautiful women, the old prostitute now pimping younger women, and the girl dreaming of stardom in a television soap complete the list of suspects. The old woman who owns the old house that was opened to guests to help pay the bills and the man who does all the work complete the cast. On the way to the end and the revelation of who the killer is, we meet the struggling police officers, the corrupt military police who cause the disappearance of the inconvenient, the street kids who survive as best they can, and the intelligentsia who keep their heads down and hope the world will pass them by. The result is somewhat satirical and an unflinching look at a society doing its best to recover from period of control by a military junta.' - San Francisco City Book Review
‘One of the weirdest (and most wonderful) of the new crop of mysteries is Frei Betto's extraordinary Hotel Brasil: The Mystery of the Severed Heads, translated from Portuguese by Jethro Soutar. Think you've stayed at some pretty rough hotels? Think again. At Hotel Brasil someone is decapitating its long-term residents. The villain could be one of the hotel's busy prostitutes, a political functionary, a journalist, or maybe even a transgender entertainer. Told intriguingly in short, titled scenes—e.g., The Prices of a Person, Reveries, The Pale Light of the Afternoon, etc.—this beautifully written novel gives us a look at a Rio de Janeiro the Olympic Committee would rather we not know about. We learn about Rio's horrific crime rate, the starving children scrounging through trash bins for food, and the appalling tactics used by Rio's thuggish police force (days of torture until a “confession” is finally obtained). Through all this horror wanders Candido, the most respectable of Hotel Brasil's residents. Candido is a former priest who now works as a freelance editor for a questionable publisher. He spends his life slogging his way through inept prose, ministering to Rio's slum children, and occasionally saving a life. When Marcal, a down-on-his-luck gemstone dealer, is decapitated in one of the hotel rooms and his eyes torn out, Candido determines to find the killer before the police frame one of the children for the murder. But Candido is no Hercule Poirot. His investigations are as ungainly as is his life, and since everyone he interviews is a liar, he becomes increasingly frustrated. And that's good, because the parts of the book describing Candido's frustration are often hilarious. This helps offset the grim pages that describe the plight of Rio's street children. Author Betto's writing is always elegant, even when describing empty eye sockets or scars formed by prolonged torture. His characters are unique, in the way that Rio is unique. One of the most strongly drawn (besides the unforgettable Candido) is Madame Larencia, who, after becoming too old to turn tricks anymore, arranges short “romances” for lonely men in search of younger flesh. She's a pimp. But so are all the other residents of Hotel Brasil. While you may not want to take up permanent residence there, you'll want to visit Hotel Brasil again and again, because one reading simply isn't enough. This is a book to be read at least twice, perhaps more.' - Mystery Scene
‘Frei Betto's Hotel Brasil is a plunge into the gritty reality of Rio de Janeiro, where ancient slave religions echo in current events and lethal pre-teen street kids shoot each other in the streets. The fiendishly clever mystery plays straight to the reader's blind spot, and the hotel provides a delightful register of guests and residents as suspects and potential victims. Though the police are utterly corrupt and the inspector determined to make someone confess isn't much better, the heart and center of Betto's story is motorbike-riding Professor Candido, a publisher's hack forced to edit a new middlebrow magazine combining sexuality and spirituality, who volunteers at a local center to help homeless street children. Once educated to be a priest, Candido ends up sheltering a runaway street girl as the breakout of a hundred street kids from a correction facility collides with the investigation of the murdered hotel resident, an old gemstone peddler found with his head severed and eyeballs missing. In scrupulously lean prose, with exactly the right details, Betto--a political activist and Dominican friar jailed by Brazil's military dictatorship in the 1970s--brings to life the residents at Hotel Brasil, including a political aide with a thirst for power, a pretty housecleaner who dreams of being a telenovela star, a madam who provides girls for nightclubs, a football-loving, beer-drinking journalist and an elegant professional sexual transformista, all of them watched over by a pockmarked, ponytailed caretaker and a landlady who believes in all religions equally. One by one, they are grilled by the pompous, determined inspector, a great fan of police films eager to solve the murder before the press does. But no one solves this mystery except the reader. Hotel Brasil comes at you in short little bullets of narrative, each with its own title, sometimes no more than a paragraph or two long. The odd technique works. The actual plot is simple, but erupts into flamboyant life in Betto's characters, on which he lavishes colorful details and continuous respect. Alternately comic, insightful and harrowing in equal proportions, Betto is a thorough entertainer, painting a Rio of road accidents and shoeshine boys, kidnappings and murderous neighborhood mobs, topping it all off with a horribly satisfying ending, not to mention a glue-sniffing, revolver-toting 12-year-old street girl who threatens to walk away with the story.' - Shelf Awareness
‘Set in a dilapidated Rio de Janeiro hotel, Betto's first novel reads like a satire of an English country house mystery, as interpreted by Pedro Almódovar. When the head of one of the hotel residents, an aging gemstone trader, turns up in a hallway with both eyes removed, the police summon bookish Cândido, who devotes much of his spare time to helping Rio's orphaned street kids, for interrogation. Other suspects at the hotel include Diamante Negro, a flamboyant, cross-dressing transformista; Madame Larência, a retired prostitute turned pimp; and Rosaura dos Santos, who dreams of becoming a telenovela star. Betto, a liberation theologian and former political prisoner, provides the backstories for each of these characters and more, at times at the expense of narrative pace. Of course, the crime solving matters less than the book's revealing look at the marginalized underbelly of Brazilian society.' - Publishers Weekly
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