An education in the underworld

NOV brunoBruno: Conversations with a Brazilian Drug Dealer
Robert Gay
2015, Duke University Press
232 pages, plates, paperback


FROM the haunting cover to the emotional ending Bruno: Conversations with a Brazilian Drug Dealer shapes up to be a gripping read for anyone interested in the shady underworld of drug gang culture.

Despite his academic credentials the author, Robert Gay, has gained a unique insight into a secretive world in Brazil’s poorest communities and produced a piece of oral history, a story that stands alongside any of the major crime biographies of the past few decades.

Bruno, the protagonist and narrator of the story, describes his turbulent life; from a decent childhood in a large family home in the wayward rural north; through the years he headed south as a young man, the excitement of joining the navy and being posted to far flung parts of the country; to his wild years as a drug dealer in a small town on the Bolivian boarder and in Rio’s urban favelas. Yet Bruno’s story is predominantly one told through prison bars. Bruno’s story is a prison story.

Through a chance encounter in a friend’s home Robert met Bruno, unaware of his colourful past. In time, he came to learn the significance of his new friend’s place in the local community and heard his story.

Bruno’s voice comes through in the telling in a very prominent way. As he describes his fears upon first entering the prison system and finding himself under the protection of a local drug lord, the reader is transfixed, totally absorbed in the Brazilian underworld. His rise through the ranks of one of the country’s primary drug gangs is compelling reading and told with an honesty that lacks ego and pretentiousness.

Throughout the book the genuine nature of Bruno’s personality shines through. The sceptic could argue about the veracity of Bruno’s testimony, and it is an issue Robert touches upon in his pre-chapter analysis. But through the subject’s conversations with the author, retelling his life story years after the events in his Rio favela home, his experiences, while outstanding, carry a ring of discernible truth that provides the reader with vivid imagery which, even if embellished, is worth hearing.

As a prison story, Bruno has all the elements of a bestseller, with customary escape attempts, tunnel digging, and inter-gang violence and retribution. As Bruno rises through the ranks of the Comando Vermelho, one of the most notorious of Brazil’s drug gangs, he explains its history and its connection with radical politics in the sixties, where leftwing militants against the military dictatorship of the time found themselves locked in prisons with criminal elements and continued their organising activities behind bars – skills that were over time absorbed into the gang’s culture as it emerged over the following years.

Much of this oral history is astutely backed up and even elaborated on in Robert’s analysis introducing each chapter.

At times, the transcription of Bruno’s words ventures into the tedious with some language left untouched that could have been better served by judicious editing. However, this takes little away from the overall narrative and some leeway should be given for interviews translated from Portuguese to English. Above all, this is a work of academia not journalism, and attempts have clearly been made to avoid altering Bruno’s voice for the sake of literary merit.

Bruno is a fascinating account that will serve as a useful testament of life in the Brazilian underworld which will be of immense value to students of cultural studies and Latin American history for years to come. In that sense, Bruno is strictly not the sensationalised bestseller that the story has the potential to be, but something infinitely more valuable.