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‘They twist the message’: Brazilian writer faces ire of Bolsonaro backers

They could be elements in a terrifying novel: the putrid heart of a long-dead emperor, a controversial newspaper column by a prize-winning author, and online attacks by the sons of a far-right president.

In Brazil, though, the storylines are all too real, especially for the novelist Julián Fuks.

He was harassed, sent antisemitic abuse and received death threats last week after publishing a thinly disguised polemic against Brazil’s extremist president, Jair Bolsonaro.

The column was titled “Wanted, a terrorist capable of a subtle act that transforms history”, but the article made clear the summons was meant in a figurative sense.

Published a week before Brazil celebrates the 200th anniversary of its independence from Portugal – a celebration that includes the preserved heart of Brazil’s first independent ruler, the Portuguese regent Dom Pedro I – Fuks said a “terrorist” was required to rewrite Brazilian history.

“Not one of those violent ones, absolutely not an intolerant, brutish one, never one of those who is bloody and coarse,” he wrote on the UOL website, one of Brazil’s biggest. “Somebody who will make the country reconcile itself to its past, not in its harsh and unmerciful side, but in its vast history of struggle and resistance.”

The subtleties were ignored by Brazil’s far right, whose well-oiled propaganda machine cranked into action.

Bolsonaro’s son, Senator Flávio Bolsonaro, retweeted the piece with the comment: “The left threatening democracy, for real.”

His brother Carlos – between them they have 4.6 million followers – also shared it online. On Instagram, Bolsonaro’s former culture minister Mario Frias said: “UOL columnist cries out for terrorism against the president.”

The controversy was recognisable for Fuks, the author of eight books, the first of which, Resistance, won Brazil’s prestigious Jabuti prize in 2016.

Days after Bolsonaro was elected, he warned in a prescient Guardian article of “a dystopia taking shape in my country”.

The 40-year-old hunkered down in São Paulo in the days after the abuse started but has since hit back.

“I used the word terrorist in a figurative sense,” he said, “and starting with the opening line I affirmed that the proposal was against all kinds of violence, truculence, brutality and coarseness.”

“But I underestimated how dishonest the far right would be,” he told the Guardian. “I knew I could be criticised and I knew it was provocative but I never imagined they’d distort it and lie about it quite so much. They didn’t even try to understand, they sought to twist the message and transform it into something it wasn’t.”

Those tactics are grimly familiar to other writers who have faced the ire of Bolsonaro and his acolytes. A Senate investigation said government officials often coordinate online attacks from what is known as “the Office of Hate.”

Politicians, publishers and literary figures condemned the offensive, with Portugal’s José Saramago Foundation calling on local authorities to “guarantee [Fuks’s] and his family’s safety and investigate the origin of the attacks”.

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The affair is particularly alarming as it coes just a month before the first-round of voting in a presidential election that pits Bolsonaro against his nemesis, the former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.

Lula leads in most polls but Bolsonaro has hinted he will not give up power if beaten at the ballot box.

Both sides have upped their rhetoric in recent weeks and Bolsonaro’s supporters have attacked Lula’s rallies with crude devices containing faeces and urine.

After a Workers’ party member was shot dead by a Bolsonaro backer in July, Lula took to wearing a bullet-proof vest on campaign stops.

Bolsonaro’s next big rally is scheduled for Copacabana beach on 7 September and it is that Independence Day event that prompted Fuks to write his column.

The celebrations have been given an extra frisson this year by the return of Dom Pedro’s formaldehyde-preserved heart.

After he died in 1834, Dom Pedro’s body remained in Brazil but his heart was taken to Porto. It was flown to Brasilia in a golden urn last week, where it was greeted with military honours.

Fuks’s piece is dismissive of the theatre around the “rotten heart” tour and shone a critical light on Brazil’s latter-day problems.

The terrorist required, he wrote, should be “somebody who knows how to bring a suitable end to the heart of a self-proclaimed emperor, in order to restore to the people their own heart, red and alive”.

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