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QUESTION:

A reader asked earlier about your depiction of "communist-style" governments in some of your stories. Since you were a missionary for two years in Brazil during a long period of political turmoil in that country, I would like to know whether you had any interesting experiences that were a result of the situation in Brazil. You use the Portuguese language in a couple of your novels, and the colonists on Lusitania are descended from Brazilians. Are there other examples of your experiences in Brazil that you include in other stories?

-- Submitted by Robert Henderson

OSC REPLIES: - April 26, 2000

Actually, Brazil was in the midst of a military dictatorship while I was there from 1971 to 1973. Compared to Pinochet or the Argentine military dictatorship, the Brazilian one was downright benign -- but even so, there were a couple of incidents that made it clear that I was not in a free country.

The people I dealt with were ordinary folks -- I met no public officials, no politicians, and nobody with serious money. So I heard people mouthing off quite freely about things they didn't like about the government or the economy, and never saw anyone hush anyone else when they became too outspoken. This gave me the impression, at first, that Brazil under the dictatorship had fairly free speech. The censorship in the movies didn't seem political - it seemed to be about decorum. (Thus in "True Grit," when John Wayne says, "Fill your hands, you sons-of-bitches!" the Brazilian translation was, "Pick up your guns, you dummies!")

There were Policia Militar everywhere, but as far as I could see they were just traffic cops, and nobody seemed to be resentful of them. I got a sense from most people that the government was trusted to "do the right thing." Nor did I see a lot of propaganda -- though given the fact that as missionaries we were urged not to spend time reading newspapers, I might have missed some or simply been too unsophisticated to recognize propaganda. Most cynicism and anger was directed against corruption (the bribe-demanders) and the wealthy (who manipulated and continue to manipulate Brazilian government to ensure that those with money remain obscenely wealthy at the expense of the people). But even with that, nobody seemed interested in Communism -- though, again, I may simply have not been trusted enough to be told what people "really" thought.

Then a couple of incidents happened that let me know that this was not U.S.A. Lite. First, one night after a late supper with three other missionaries at a Chinese restaurant in either Araraquara or Ribeirao Preto, we had walked about six blocks back toward our apartment when one of the missionaries realized he had left his scriptures in the restaurant. We were tired, and weighing that against our ironclad rule that missionaries always had to remain in twos, we decided that since we could see the restaurant from where we were, the three of us would wait for him while he ran back and got his scriptures.

Well, it took him a long time, and realizing we had probably made a stupid stupid mistake, we started walking back. Then we saw him, with the scriptures, and figured it had just taken him longer than we thought. When he rejoined us, he told us that he had indeed had something of an adventure. Coming out of the restaurant with his scriptures, in the short passageway where he was outside but not yet visible to us up the street, he was stopped by a couple of Policia Militar. Who are you? What are you doing out so late?

I'm a Mormon missionary, he said.

No you're not, they said. They always travel in twos.

Only when he led them to the street and showed them the three of us walking toward him did they believe him.

What did they think? In that era (as now, probably), the assumption was that these norteamericanos in white shirts and ties were all CIA spies -- as if the CIA would be so dumb as to put their guys in an obvious uniform and send them out spying in poor and middle-class neighborhoods, door to door. The PM knew that Mormon missionaries were definitely not spies -- but when somebody didn't act like a Mormon missionary, the suspicions flooded in. And we realized: They're watching us, they know who we are, and when we don't keep to the rules, they notice and are prepared to take action.

That was minor. Later, when I was working in the mission office in Sao Paulo, I and a few others in the office staff had the custom of going for ice cream or a milkshake or vitamina to a diner a block or two away. We struck up a friendship with the counterman, joking that as long as we mentioned the Church to him, we could count our time there as proselyting hours on our weekly reports. After a couple of months of this, suddenly he wasn't there. We asked the manager what happened to our friend -- the manager didn't know. The guy just stopped showing up at work.

Then, a week later, there he was again. Where had he been?

He bought a watch from a street vendor. Then he was stopped by the police, found to have a stolen watch in his possession, and arrested.

No phone call. No lawyer. Just jail. And even though he had a witness who had been with him when he bought the watch, he could not even make his case until a magistrate got back from vacation. So he languished in jail for several days before he even got a hearing of any kind.

He didn't regard this as anything unusual. Annoying -- but to be expected. However, I must point out that this experience had more to do with the fact that Brazil's legal code is not based on English common law but on a far-less-rights-centered legal tradition from Portugal.

Third incident. A couple of missionaries in the mission office were caught in a traffic tie-up. From a passerby they learned that the police had just caught a "terrorista" near a city bus and there had been gunfire. The terrorist was dead. The missionaries didn't see it -- that's just what they were told. And the way it was told to them, the fellow seemed to be in no doubt that the guy who was shot was in fact a terrorist and the police were acting properly.

And that, my friends, is the full extent of my knowledge of what the relationship between the military government and the people was. In that era, they were beginning to hold elections for municipal offices. But there was no election while I was actually in country. I saw nothing of Brazilian politics, and only those few hints of what the hand of the law felt like to Brazilians. Whether those experiences are remotely interesting to anyone is impossible for me to guess. Let's just say that nothing traumatic happened to me that would influence my depiction of authoritarian or totalitarian governments.

When I do depict such governments, my knowledge of them comes from my reading -- especially the foundational book "Rise and Fall of the Third Reich" by Shirer, which I read at the age of ten and which was emotionally devastating to me. I have since read biographies and histories that have given me a fairly clear picture of how vicious governments come to power and remain in power. And how many of them, like Clinton's vicious administration, remain in power despite flagrant abuses of law because of the complicity of interest groups that perceive the "good" they do as being more important than "trivial" abuses. Hypocrisy is the root of such governments, the cynical manipulation of the aspirations, ideals, fears, and prejudices of people who think of themselves as good. And dictatorships can be in power for many years without the people getting angry enough to do anything about it. If I learned anything from Brazil, it was how to maintain a dictatorship that does not provoke strong sentiments of opposition among the people.

Everything in my life shows up somewhere in my fiction. This is as close as I can ever come to charting exactly what aspect of my life might or might not have influenced a particular aspect of my fiction.

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