By: M. C. Dutra
Back in December, a group of Lower 6 students, including myself, who study IB
Portuguese Literature, had the opportunity to interview the author the book they read during
lesson. Dr. Drauzio Varella, author of Estação Carandiru, is a renowned oncologist, but has
been doing voluntary work since 1989 on prisons. Estação Carandiru tells the story of how it all
started and talks about how life in prison is way different than what we expected. The Carandiru
penitentiary was South America's largest penitentiary with more than 8000 inmates until 2002,
and it was also the site of the historical Carandiru massacre, when the military police invaded
the penitentiary after a prison riot and killed many prisoners. It is considered a major violation of
human rights in Brazilian history. As for the book, it is very interesting, and I highly recommend
it because it portrays criminals as 'normal' people and makes us think of them in another
perspective. Now, check out our interview with the author, Dr. Drauzio Varella:
INTERVIEWER: How did you organize the information you collected to turn it into a literary
DRAUZIO: I recorded a lot of conversations with the prisoners, I recorded it on a cassette tape
recorder, and then there was a person who took the text and gave me that text, so I worked on
the texts. In these texts I myself recorded impressions I had, things that I thought could be
interesting to tell, some actually were, others not.
I: Did you already intend to write a book when you started this work?
D: No, not at all. I arrived in Carandiru in 1989 and I started writing this book in 1996, so seven
years later, and even when I started writing, I did not start writing like a book - I listened to the
stories of the prisoners and became very interested in them. I thought it was worth writing a
column in a newspaper, at that time there was the Noticias Populares newspaper, which only
talked about crime. The newspaper became interested in the idea, so I started to write these
stories, but I had a problem because I did not know how to situate the reader about how the
penitentiary was organized. I had several stories written, but I did not know how to solve this
problem of making people understand what a jail was, what jail it was, how it was built, and I
stood there. But then I realized that the interest was not in the architectural description of each
pavilion but in showing the human population what was living there - and at that time I felt it
could turn into a book, and that's when I started to write as a book itself.
I: I imagine that for so many years assisting in a prison as a doctor, you have met many people.
How did you go regarding selecting those whose lives deserved a chapter or mention in your
book? Was there a need to make cuts?
D: I think the criterion I used was the people and stories that impressed me the most, the ones
that touched me the most for some reason; sometimes on the humanitarian side; on violence;
on the characteristics of history; on the originality - there was no definitive criterion. There were
a few stories that I cut down afterwards because I found the book was already too large and
they weren't stories that I had a great deal of interest in.
I: Throughout the book, many shocking images have been reported as in the chapter "O Baque"
or even in the final report on the massacre. How could you deal with these shocking and violent
images reported in the book?
D: You never get used to the violence, the Carandiru was a penitentiary in which the disputes
were resolved violently for a very simple reason, it was a city with seven thousand people
inside, divided in pavilions, but there were seven thousand people. When you confine human
beings, we have the idea that violence increases and it is not true; it is the opposite of that.
Then a penal code is created, for those who do not obey the general orientation. Every time you
have this confinement, violence decreases and repression increases - they needed to control
not only their behaviour but also their physiological functions sometimes. So, what happened
daily was that the drug trafficking there, which got worse when crack came because it's a
compulsive drug, made people have debts, and how did someone charge debt in a jail? The
person had to act against the other person, so they would solve it by killing the person, then
every week someone would die. And it was not just one who killed, they had groups to stab that
person, I received victims with 30, 40 stabs. And these images stay forever, you never forget, I
think of them until today.
I: Throughout your work as a volunteer doctor, you witnessed many injustices and knew better
than anyone how degrading the life of prisoners in that jail was. At some point, did you feel it
was necessary to denounce the situation in which the prisoners lived? Did you speak to any
authority on the matter?
D: It was a much bigger problem than we were think, I even talked to judges and prosecutors,
but the problem is that there were only very few prisons and detention worked that way; you
were arrested on the street, went to the police station and there were super full cells. Then you
were sent to detention, it was set up as a temporary detention centre and you were there while
you were being tried to be transferred when you received the sentence, but they did not have
any more places in penitentiaries, so he ends up in detention forever. There was no way you
could handle it, the board had to deal with what they were getting, it was something completely
out of control.
I: What was the motivation that led you to volunteer at the Carandiru penitentiary?
D: I always liked the jail, I loved jail movies, and it all started with a movie, a cousin from my
grandmother let me enter the hidden cinema, I was 7-8 years old, and one day I was passing a
forbidden movie for 18 year old and it happened in a jail, it was called Brute Force, it was a
movie that happened in a jail where they planned an escape, I was very fascinated by the film. I
watched one night with my wife, and I remembered everything, including some lines, 50 years
after I had seen it in the movies. In 1989 I was very involved with AIDS, which was very recent
and horrible, and nobody knew anything about it, and I started talking on the radio about the
illness from the invitation of a friend, and the company Perdigão wanted to make an educational
video about AIDS with me. And I wanted to portray how the virus was spread, so we shot in
various places, including a jail, and when I got into the jail, I went back to that childhood image
of the movie, I thought about it all night long. This provoked a reaction so strong in me that I
decided to get closer, I talked to the managers of the jail, and after insisting, he let me do a
study in the jail about how AIDS spreads and then an educational lecture. I collected the blood
of those who received intimate vists and 17.3% of the prisoners had AIDS, I began to give the
lectures, and the prisoners started to stop me in the corridors asking me for medical help, so I
started to do regular attendance there, something that I do until today.
I: Throughout the book, one can notice the existence of several statements in the form of
speeches of the people mentioned. These lines are very interesting because they show the way
the person spoke. What resource was used to include so many lines and make each one of
them show the characteristics of its interlocutors? Did you record them in memory, or did you
use any other resources to record them?
D: No, the books are always factual. For ethical reasons, I have to protect the people who said
that, they confess the crime, they tell me, if I exposed them, they would take another twenty
years in jail, in that kind of situation there is a disguise, so I change the location and details of
crimes, for example, but all the stories are real.
I: In general, what was your intention in writing this book?
D: I had no intention, I put this up in the preface, no intention to denounce any situation, or
defend human rights, you know? I just wanted to tell this story, I thought fifty years from now, a
grandson of mine is going to take that book and say, "Look at what a jail was like at the end of
the twentieth century!" And it was nothing more.
I: Before you wrote it, did you already think about a target audience? And after it was released
the target audience was the same? How was the receptivity of this book at the time of its
publication and how is it nowadays almost two decades after its publication?
D: I wrote the book and I thought he was going to interest people like me, people who like jail.
One publisher used to make 2000 copies per book at the time, and days before the release, the
publisher told me that I wanted to make 10000 copies of my book, I did not agree, but they did it
anyway. The book came out on a Wednesday, Saturday morning I had a surprise: the book was
on the front page of all the newspapers, I was surprised, it was unexpected, and the book was a
success, it sold more than 500,000 copies, stayed first in the bestseller list for four consecutive
years, only fell on the list when the movie came out. It was a huge surprise, I would never have
I: Speaking about the movie, when we finished reading the book, we watched the movie, and
we got a question about the title difference between the book (Estação Carandiru) and the
movie (Carandiru). Is it because of your presence in the book and the lack of it in the movie?
D: No, because the film is only based on the book, cinema is another language, I did not think it
to be faithful to the book, I had that common sense and I did not give a single suggestion, I think
it was a thing to do, the same way that I did with the series Os Carcereiros, I sold the copyrights
and did not give any suggestion. They are two completely different things: the book you read for
days, it requires the reader's presence to imagine things, and the movie has to tell that story in
just two hours, it does not require that imagination, you will see what the director imagine and
I: You said that you make non-fiction books, telling reality, but do you have some concern with
that side of literature that authors include fiction to grab the reader's attention, do you think
about that when you write?
D: Yes, I wrote some short, fictional stories, but I think I write better non-fiction. I do not have
much talent for fiction, if you do not have a certain degree of talent, you should only write the
that only you can tell.