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Där solen aldrig går ned review

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Issue number: 2021:1

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Där solen aldrig går ned: Hur världens mest sorgsna land gjorde världen syndigare

(Where the Sin Never Sets – Around the World in Portuguese)

by Henrik Brandão Jönsson
reviewed by Ian Giles

Did you know that many Africans consider the former Portuguese colonies to be among the most dynamic and attractive regions of their continent? Or that millions of Chinese tourists flock to Macao each year, keen to experience the pleasures of Portuguese life? Having struggled through huge crowds of tourists one Christmas Day in the historic centre of Macao, I can say I was recently made slightly aware of some of this. But as I chomped my yuletide pastel de nata then, I had no idea about the rampant corruption in Angola, the vicious sex trade in Mozambique, or Portugal’s role as one of the last remaining transatlantic slaving nations – still transporting humans from Angola to Brazil long after the British and French had outlawed the practice.

Given Britain’s justified focus on our own histories as coloniser, and the Swedish obsession with all matters Anglo-American, it is perhaps no surprise that so many people in both countries remain ignorant of Portugal’s role as the first global superpower. Following Vasco da Gama’s discovery of the sea route to India in 1498, it took less than a century for the Portuguese to conquer many of the most significant harbours in the world beyond European shores. As the Venetian monopoly on trade crumbled, Portugal continued its meteoric rise: at its peak, its interests stretched all the way round the world from Macao in the east to Brazil in the west. The most tangible impact left behind is language – 250 million people speak Portuguese in a diverse range of regions – yet it is often overlooked as a world language nowadays.

This absence of Portuguese on the global scene had long puzzled the Swedish journalist Henrik Brandão Jönsson, who has lived and worked in Brazil since 2002 (he is currently the Brazilian correspondent for Dagens Nyheter). Having already published book-length reportage about the city of Brasilia, and another volume (translated to English by Nichola Smalley) about Brazilian football (Jogo Bonito: Pele, Neymar and Brazil’s Beautiful Game), Jönsson felt little hesitation in turning his pen to something a little different. ‘Where the Sin Never Sets’ (pun intended) is a short history of the Lusophone world that brings together several of the key Portuguese-speaking nations in one volume. Jönsson is inspired by the work of Danish essayist and travel writer Carsten Jensen, although British readers might also sense echoes of Bill Bryson or Michael Palin in the often humorous, in-the-moment style.

Jönsson structures the book around the seven deadly sins, with seven chapters encompassing respectively Goa (gluttony), Mozambique (lust), Macao (avarice), Timor-Leste (pride), Angola (wrath), Brazil (sloth), and finally Portugal (envy). What Jönsson finds is that while Portugal ostensibly appears to have left behind little, other than its language, its former colonies serve as counterweights to the orthodox and conservative settings around them.

While the nature of the book means that it can feel a little rushed at times – Jönsson offers the reader no theories on colonialism or in-depth, on-the-ground investigation – his narrative and style, and aptitude for telling it as he sees it, make this a gripping read nonetheless. The serious issues around sex tourism in Mozambique are grim. However, it is in the Angolan chapter that Jönsson truly gets into his stride, offering the reader new insight into an African region rarely explored in European discourse. Along the way, there is a constant stream of facts that made me sit up in surprise. More than half the people of Timor-Leste have a Portuguese last name! Macao was the last European colony in Asia – handed back to the Chinese in 1999. The final chapter on Portugal itself offers food for thought. The country has been held up by some as an example of social democracy in action in modern-day Europe, but Jönsson describes Lisbon as a capital city crumbling under the weight of tourists and blighted by Airbnb, while the state more generally provides a safe haven for wealthy Brazilians escaping their own problems.

This book provides insight into parts of the world readers may know little to nothing about – but they are no less important or remarkable for this lack of knowledge. The conceit of the seven deadly sins may be somewhat contrived, but it serves to provide a cohesive thread of thought throughout the work, while Jönsson’s keen eye and ear for what goes on around him is well conveyed. Could there be more in the way of sources and further breadth? Yes. More places? No chapter on Cabo Verde… Certainly, but then the crispness would be lost. The appeal of Jönsson’s work is its very concision. It may feel personal at times, but it is well-informed, and like all good travel narratives it quickly becomes a page turner.

Henrik Brandão Jönsson in black and white
Henrik Brandão Jönsson. Photo: Dado Galdieri
About

Där solen aldrig går ned: Hur världens mest sorgsna land gjorde världen syndigare

Natur & Kultur, 2020.

282 pages

Foreign rights: Rita G Karlsson, Kontext Agency.

Henrik Brandão Jönsson was born in Malmö in 1969, but following his training as a journalist, he moved to Brazil in 2002 to work as Sydsvenskan’s Latin America correspondent. He has been Brazilian correspondent for Dagens Nyheter since 2013. He was nominated for the Swedish Grand Journalism Award in 2011. Där solen aldrig går ned is his fourth book.