As South America’s largest city and unquestioned financial capital, not to mention the cradle of Brazilian Modernism, São Paulo makes for fascinating subject for such a wide-ranging and comprehensive study as David William Foster’s São Paulo: Perspectives on the City and Cultural Production. Focusing each of its ten chapters on a different author, artist or text, from poetry and photography to cinema and graphic fiction, Foster’s study charts São Paulo’s rise from early 20th century agricultural hub and industrial backwater to early 21st century megalopolis through the eyes and ears of artists and travelers (both foreign and Brazilian) who have attempted to make sense of the city’s seemingly chaotic surface and meteoric growth. His aim, therefore, as he explains in the book’s introduction, is “to place emphasis on forms of cultural production that are somehow unique to the city of São Paulo” (11).
The diverse cultural artifacts examined by Foster shed considerable light on the city’s institutions, social history and physical landscape. Though oft en written off as Rio de Janeiro’s ugly stepsibling, São Paulo, Foster maintains, has been largely misunderstood. In a chapter dedicated to Claude Lévi-Strauss’s urban photography, for instance, we learn that the French anthropologist, who lived in the city for several years while teaching at the Universidade de São Paulo, found São Paulo’s contours and contrasts strikingly beautiful. Foster even suggests that Levi-Strauss’s binary concept of the “raw and the cooked” may well have found inspiration in the city’s stark juxtapositions of underdevelopment and rapid progress, subtropical greenery and modern architecture.
The book is strongest, however, when it focuses less on canonical authors and texts. In his analysis of the photography of Hildegard Rosenthal and Madalena Schwartz, for example, Foster blends insightful analysis with reflections on São Paulo’s evolving urban topography, while also illuminating the struggles and resistance of the city’s marginalia: from anonymous working-class immigrants and Afro-Brazilians, to the gender-bending troupe Dzi Croquettes, whose outrageous, satirical performances in the 1960s and 1970s challenged the moral orthodoxy of the military dictatorship. In a chapter about Regina Rheda’s book of stories Arca sem Noé (1994), meanwhile, and another dedicated to Fábio Moon and Gabriel Bá’s edgy graphic fiction (focusing on the translated collection De: Tales: Stories from Urban Brazil, 2006), Foster examines the fictionalization of daily life in contemporary São Paulo from two very different, but equally compelling, angles.
Perhaps the book’s most innovative and accomplished chapter, though, is “Trekking the Urban,” an examination of Eduardo Emílio Fenianos’s 1998 travel narrative Expedições Urbenauta: São Paulo, uma aventura radical. By contrasting Fenianos’s subversive, subjective and highly personal dissection of the city with the “imperial gaze” of such works as Teddy Roosevelt’s Through the Brazilian Wilderness (1914), Foster convincingly argues that Fenianos’s book [End Page 154] ultimately constitutes a more accurate (if less “authoritative”) reflection on São Paulo’s unstable, decentralized spatiality than those found in international travel guides such as Lonely Planet—the direct descendants, he suggests, of Through the Brazilian Wilderness. As Foster notes, the power of Fenianos’s account lies not in its authoritativeness (besides being an unassuming, even perplexed, narrator, Fenianos hails from Curitiba, and therefore approaches São Paulo as a relative outsider) but rather in the author’s stated purpose “to engage the city as someone who does not know it and as someone who comes to it with a decidedly unprivileged frame of reference” (127).
São Paulo: Perspectives on the City and Cultural Production would have worked better as a whole, it seems to me, if Foster had organized his analysis thematically rather than generically, and engaged more consistently in the type of lively, comparative analysis undertaken in “Trekking the Urban.” He might have examined Kemeny and Lustig’s 1929 “city-symphony” documentary São Paulo, sinfonia da metrópole, for...