Brazil’s Rich Ban Biographies Via Arcane Law

Thanks to an arcane law, the country’s rich and famous are able to block publication of books on their lives—but the Supreme Court may be set to loosen the publishing stranglehold.

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Like torture and curfews, book banning in Brazil went out with the military dictatorship almost 30 years ago. Back then, intellectuals, artists, and politicians hailed the end of the long night of authoritarian rule (1964 to 1985) with a burst of creativity and civic commotion. É proibido proibir—“Prohibition is prohibited,”—proclaimed singer and songwriter Caetano Veloso, who was censored under the military and spent years in exile. Veloso’s slogan became the meme for the new era of democratic liberty.

Funny how things change. Yes, the generals are back in their barracks, and Brazilians are free to gather, protest, and freely elect their leaders. But book banning is still in fashion. And it’s totally legal, thanks to Articles 20 and 21 of Brazil’s civil code. The arcane pair of paragraphs are packed with the sort of yawn-provoking polysyllables that only a lawyer could love. In plain language, the 2002 law is a bombshell that essentially strangles freedom of expression by ruling out the publication of any biography that has not been expressly authorized by its subject. Remarkably, much of the support for the new wave of book banning now comes from some of the same artists and celebrities who rebelled against the official muzzle decades before, but who have grown rich and famous since, and have claimed they own their own stories.

Authors, scholars, songwriters, filmmakers and even television producers have all felt the bite of the gag order. But biographers have been especially vulnerable, as descendants of public figures have used the law to kill, disfigure or simply cash in on scores of narratives about their famous relatives. According to Roberto Feith, head of Editora Objetiva, a major Brazilian publishing house, the effect of the law has been nothing less than “a decade of obscurantism.”

Now many Brazilians are fighting back. Arguing that the lives of prominent figures—heroes and scoundrels alike—are not private property but an essential part of the “national patrimony,” writers and publishers are trying to roll back the law. Many got their chance this week as the Brazilian Supreme Court convened a two-day public hearing on the censorship law, bringing the promise that the ban on biographies will be relaxed or scrapped altogether. “We trust the democratic and republican spirit of the Brazilian congress and in the justices of the Supreme Court,” declared a group of authors in an open letter in mid November.

Given the public fury, the law may not last, but it has already caused plenty of havoc. In 2007, the wildly popular crooner, Roberto Carlos, who is to Brazilians what Julio Iglesias is to Spanish speakers, sued author Paulo Cesar Araújo for his unauthorized biography, Roberto Carlos in Details. The suit was later dropped but only after the publisher agreed to remove the title from bookstores. The fact that Carlos never named the supposedly offending passages, nor even read the book, according to Araujo, left judges and lawyers guessing. (One theory is that the book recounts how Carlos lost his leg in a train accident as a child.) Nor did he have to under the blanket law, which grants biographical subjects sweeping powers to shield their privacy as well as to “defend their honor and dignity.”

Ironically, the controversial bill, drafted in 2002, had nothing to do with books. Rather, it was meant to curb the unauthorized use of photographic images of ordinary citizens for commercial purposes, a problem that had mushroomed with the spread of the Internet. But the privacy law was so ambiguous and so poorly worded, opportunistic heirs of the rich and famous, and their clever lawyers, quickly put it to work.

Soon publishers and authors found themselves embroiled in lawsuits brought by blood relatives and their executors, frequently digging deep into their pockets to preserve their titles and sate the family feeding frenzy. Today, publishers think twice before committing to a biography that hasn’t been green-lighted by the subject’s heirs, and even then only after vetting by in-house lawyers.

Even when the biographical subject has been dead for decades. Editora Objetiva was forced to “severely” edit a book about the storied 19th-born century writer and scholar Euclides da Cunha. The problem was not da Cunha’s family but the legal barbed wire raised by the descendants of a supporting character in the tale, Dilermando de Assis, who had an affair with Cunha’s wife and shot and killed the cuckolded journalist in a duel in 1909.

Objetiva also chose to scrap a projected title on Caetano Veloso himself, out of concern that the onetime enemy of prohibition would try to prohibit his own biography. It was hardly an idle fear. Though Veloso recently modified his position after the public backlash, he was one of the leading voices of the artists lobby pushing to preserve the gag on unauthorized biographies. The name of the group, paradoxically, is Procure Saber, which in Portuguese means, Seek to Know.

Few authors know the problem as well as Ruy Castro—the author has done more than anyone to reinvent the Brazilian biography. Like the country’s oil prospectors who recently discovered a vast cache of crude oil buried miles below the Atlantic, he has led the way as a growing stable of writers and scholars has mined Brazilian history to reveal forgotten public figures. Carmen Miranda, the bards of Bossa Nova, and cult author Nelson Rodriguez all have come to life in Castro’s exhaustive portraits.

But just ask Castro about biographies and you’ll get an earful. His title, Estrela Solitária (Garrinhca, The Triumph and Tragedy of Brazil’s Forgotten Footballing Hero) is a wrenchingly candid portrait of football hall of famer, Manuel “Garrincha” dos Santos, who had the talent of Pelé but also a ruinous drinking habit. The book won Castro the coveted Jabuti, Brazil’s national book prize, in 1995. The next year it was banned and removed from bookstores following a suit brought by Garrincha’s descendants.

The footballer’s daughters (he had a total of seven) confessed never to have read the book. What provoked the court case, it turned out, was not filial indignation over an allegedly maligned patriarch, but the publisher’s refusal to pony up for what the family attorney called “the girls’ Christmas.” The court case would drag on for 11 years, but the book was finally released in late 1996, after a $1 million settlement to the family.

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That was six years before the so-called biography law, but the row over Garrincha set the tone for the battles that would ensue. Though defending the honor of loved ones is the official banner, the more powerful motive for calling in the book police is money. Now a number of Brazil’s most talented authors have declared they are finished with biographies as long as the current law stands. Under existing rules, only authorized biographies escape the gag order, a restriction that severely downgrades the genre. “Authorized biographies are glorified press releases,” says historian José Murilo de Carvalho. “I don’t read them.”

That is a pity. Now the future of Brazil’s past turns on the appetites of the next of kin, eager to extract some gain, from “the famous boneyards,” as one publisher put it. Not surprisingly, the escalating family demands for “royalties” are a key reason why independent biographies have yet to be written about many of Brazil’s best known artists and public intellectuals, including classic novelists Cecilia Meirelles and Guimaraes Rosa. “How many more public figures are condemned to obscurity?” asks Objetiva’s Feith.

Castro, for his part, keeps a sense of humor about Brazil’s book battle. “Biographies are fine,” he says. “As long as the subject is single, an orphan, an only child, sterile and impotent.” Depending on how the Supreme Court rules, he might want to add immaculate conception to the list.