The very successful oral history program begun at the Fundaçao Getúlio Vargas in the mid-1970s has produced a subgenre, so to speak—the oral history biography, of which the book at hand is a fine example. A team of researchers selected material about Getúlio Vargas from the collection, and then excerpted and organized it along the lines of a traditional biography. Altogether, 70 interviews from four political generations are represented. In addition, the book provides short biographies of the narrators and an index of names.
At first glance, Getúlio appears to be a cut-and-paste job, but in fact it is a carefully designed and crafted book, with its own interpretive framework and methodology. The chapters are balanced and drawn from the biography: family and childhood, regional background, political apprenticeship, provisional and first presidencies, Estado Novo, second presidency, and death. The last sections concern Getúlio’s relationship with the military, his legacy, and his character. Each chapter follows a thematic outline, and the excerpts flow nicely, even when they do not always agree with one another. The effect is somewhat like a roundtable discussion.
Anyone who has studied Vargas in his many phases and guises will appreciate the challenge. The rich evidence of the Vargas Era has never been satisfactorily synthesized, nor has Getúlio found his definitive biographer. Lima opted for a political account of the period, containing as much information on key episodes as on Getúlio himself. The point of view swings from private moments to public images, which heightens the enigma of the subject. The reader emerges not so much with a feel for the man as with an appreciation for the frustration he caused, even among those who knew him best. (A half-dozen narrators were family members.) Therefore, this book provides the kind of conflicting and difficult evidence that will have to be worked into a full biography.
The editorial hand, while not obvious, was guided by certain rules. First, civilian and military politics dominate, as they did in Getúlio’s life. Second, Getúlio was neither villain nor hero; our interpretation should be based on the imprint he left on the country during the long period he exercised power (1930-45, 1951-54). Third, we should hear the testimony of enemies as well as friends.
The novice will find the book confusing, because so much of the narrative is “insider” information which requires familiarity with the period. The text has no clarifying notes. The student of social, economic, or intellectual history will be frustrated by the relentlessly political focus. One wishes that some oblique points of view had been sought, for example from ecclesiastical, business, and professional leaders, or from Luís Carlos Prestes. Finally, only fragmentary evidence emerges regarding how the povo saw Getúlio; this will have to be dealt with in a full biography.
Still, the study cannot be criticized for not answering questions it did not pose. It stands as a successful, innovative approach that students of modern Brazil and biography in general should consult.