Rags to riches without the realpolitik


The Brazilian president’s life
may read like a film script,
but Richard Bourne’s biography
of him is no cinematic


Lula of Brazil: The Story So Far
Richard Bourne
2008, Zed Books
285 pages

Reviewed by Jay Kerr

IT IS A biographer’s dream. In Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, we have a man who came from a profoundly impoverished background and worked as a metal worker in his twenties before being put forward as a union rep without any formal democratic consent.

He gradually emerged as a leading figure of the Brazilian labour movement during the turbulent times of the military dictatorship in the 1970s, and spent time in prison for organising workers.

A leading participant in establishing the Workers Party (PT), he became eventually its presidential candidate, making several attempts at the premiership until success, at last, in 2002.

But while there is no doubt that Lula, the man, is a fascinating character who, on paper, has led an illustrious life such that the publisher’s blurb on the cover of this book states that “President Lula of Brazil has a life that reads like a film script”, Richard Bourne is no script writer and this work is no cinematic masterpiece.

The author has worked hard to produce an objective portrait of Lula’s life and career, producing one of the few English-language studies of Brazil’s first working-class president. But although Lula of Brazil: The Story So Far is undoubtedly a well-researched political study, the central focus on the individual himself is not well integrated with the political changes happening around him in any given period. Although some effort is made to describe Brazil’s political development from independence to the military dictatorship, and some attempt has been made to clarify the positions that Lula has taken over the years, there is not enough to present a full and rounded picture.

Unfortunately, what could have been an interesting account of an individual’s political evolution is little more than a series of events in someone’s life, often jumping through different periods, resulting in a mishmash of facts and anecdotes without any distinctive structure.

Bourne has failed to outline who the main political characters are, how their positions interact, and what their relationships are with Lula as union leader, politician or president. Moreover, the evolution of the PT from a radical workers party to a mainstream party in opposition and then government is dealt with fleetingly. As Lula’s evolution from firebrand trade union leader to moderate centrist president is detailed, the positions of the PT and party members’ reactions are not explored to any real degree.

PT’s ideological background

The party that Lula was instrumental in setting up is, and has to be, a prominent feature of the book, yet its ideological background is not explored in detail. The existence of factions that emerged are simply stated alongside Lula’s position at any given time, and this is often proposed as the most rational or sensible position.

While the objectivity of the book cannot be questioned, Bourne’s work shows distinct elements of an undoubtedly centrist viewpoint. Many similarities are drawn between Lula and the administrations of Tony Blair and Bill Clinton, often in favourable terms, while hostility is directed at those on the left such as Hugo Chávez and Evo Morales.

Bourne’s assumptions of the public reaction to seeing Lula sat next to the Queen on a state visit to London highlights an aspect of the book where the author’s own political assumptions overrule his judgment. He states that the sight of Lula, the worker president, with the head of the British monarchy is “powerful TV advertising to [Lula’s] poorer constituency … who were witness and participants in a continuing fairytale”. This commentary refuses even to consider that Brazil’s poor may have been put off by the sight of Lula and the Queen, let alone the opinions of former unionist colleagues or leftwing PT comrades. This is one among many examples where Bourne’s objectivity fails, revealing a discernibly centrist position and an uncritical admiration for his subject.

Overall, Lula of Brazil: The Story So Far is an adequate contribution to a subject that needs much further research. This is not a great biography and, at best, is a useful textbook for student of Brazilian politics.

One day a film may, indeed, be made about Lula da Silva. His life is full of imagery that a director would die for: from poverty-stricken childhood to president of a nation, with several major personal tragedies along the way. Richard Bourne’s book is not the script for that film.

Jay Kerr is writing a book about the history of anarchism in Latin America