Culture : Death of Speeding Star Pains a Nation Looking for Heroes : Ayrton Senna’s fatal crash shattered Brazil, fueling anger and sadness.


Covered in rose petals, their faces painted funereal black, hundreds of thousands of Brazilians bade farewell last week to Ayrton Senna, the Formula One driver who crashed and died on the racetrack at the Grand Prix at Imola, Italy. Senna was buried in tomb No. 11 at Sao Paulo’s Morumbi Cemetery to a 21-gun salute and honors normally reserved for a head of state.

And no wonder. In life, he was Brazil’s, and probably the world’s, ablest race car driver, who took the sport to new limits. In death, he seems destined for even grander things--for the Brazil that mourned his passing and poured into the streets to get a last look at his coffin lost not only a champion, but a part of its soul. It was as though Senna, who was 34, had left behind not only a grief-stricken family, a desolate girlfriend and an armoire full of trophies, but 150 million orphans.

Papers bellowed his passing. A three-day period of mourning was declared. Perhaps half a million mourners watched his coffin pass by in the largest funeral procession Sao Paulo had ever seen. Senna is now a postage stamp, a logo, a cartoon. Several avenues and racetracks have been renamed for him. Dozens of newborn Ayrtons were baptized.


The loss of an idol, especially by sudden death, can stagger any nation, but the way each people mourns also tells much about the national character. The emotion that washed over Brazil at Senna’s death showed a society at once fractured and galvanized by grief. Men of industry stood shoulder to shoulder with domestic workers to wave goodby as his coffin passed. University students wept alongside bricklayers. It was not simply passion that bonded Brazilians at this moment but something deeper.

In a country of brutal contrasts, where the poor see opulence every day but may not share in it, the belief in idols can be a balm for the bruises of misery and want. Achievers like soccer immortal Pele, or the Olympic gold medal volleyball team, or the TV star Xuxa, are worshiped not merely for their individual triumphs but because their achievements are public goods, annexed by the entire nation. After all, Brazil, says anthropologist Roberto DaMatta, is “an enchanted nation.” In this way, Senna was not just a champion but a medium. He and his racing machine transported Brazil to some higher, richer plane.

All last week in Brazil was a time of anguish, puzzlement and tears. But there were more violent passions raging as well. If countries can be said to have self-esteem, the death of Senna shattered Brazil’s. Many fell into depression or shock. One woman in Curitiba committed suicide and left a note that she was “going to join Senna.” Others lashed out in fury, throwing invective at the wind.

“You! Indecent people,” bellowed Edgar de Mello Filho, director of the Interlagos racetrack in Sao Paulo, speaking on nationwide television of Formula One officials. The veins in his temples bulged. “Until when are you going to keep on killing drivers?”

Such outrage, though compelling, misses the point. Formula One is a sport cherished not only for speed and precision but also for danger. The risk, the peril are part of the attraction, maybe the centerpiece of Grand Prix. Defying death is what spectators want to see, and why sponsors sponsor it. If Formula One were risk-free, would anyone bother to watch? What would be left of boxing without bodies crashing to the canvas?

Yet Brazil was nursing injury to its soul last week, and to suggest a more dispassionate explanation was to whisper in a gale. “Murderers!” Mello Filho howled. “See if you can sleep at night.” Some commentators went even further. “We are now being expelled from Formula One, a sport for the rich of the First World,” wrote Villas-Boas Correa, the normally understated columnist for the Jornal do Brasil. Senna, by Correa’s logic, had been Brazil’s and the Third World’s great dark hope, Caliban’s revenge.


“Senna spoiled the party for the rich.” Not only was Senna murdered, he died at the hands of venal capitalists, “a sacrifice on the altar of modernity,” who got mere “scraps of profits” for running dire risks, said another newspaper columnist. And it was not just any capitalists who did Senna in, it was the imperialists. “A field hand for a multinational,” anthropologist Regina Abreu called him.

Never mind that Senna, the son of a wealthy Sao Paulo landed family, was one of the richest athletes in the world, who got that way by skillfully negotiating with the sponsors. He plastered his pilot’s suit, helmet and car with that collage of logos and brand names because of a deal, not servitude. Part of the rage was understandable. What else but crime or conspiracy could account for such a cosmic injustice? But some deeper malady was mobilizing Brazil, one that renders the nation as the imagined victim of the designs of others. Even President Itamar Franco showed some of the symptoms. “Since the beginning of (Portuguese) occupation, we have had to live with injustice,” he wrote in an op-ed piece.


Many, perhaps most, of the mourners were not even Formula One fans. Many probably had no special feelings for Ayrton Senna before he died. More than a few, Senna’s former rival, Nelson Piquet, told Veja magazine, looked on precisely to gawk at the “spectacular accidents” that claimed his life. In fact, for years Senna was best remembered for his feuds with the press, his moodiness and the barbs he traded with rivals. Hardly a man of the people, Senna was private, introspective and something of a mystic, who closed his eyes and put both palms on his car before each race. But time endeared Senna to his fans--time and trophies.

He was a winner, and Brazil has precious few winners these days. There are plenty of leaders, but they are hardly a reliable category. When they are remembered at all, it is for their misdeeds, mainly helping themselves to taxpayers’ money. The last time Brazilians rallied by the hundreds of thousands, it was to be rid of a president, Fernando Collor de Mello, found by Congress to have commanded his own kickback and influence-peddling scheme. Then they learned that some of those same righteous congressmen had had their own hands in the till. Senna, by contrast, was an honest journeyman hero. “He was the right kind of hero. He worked for what he won,” said anthropologist DaMatta, a longtime student of the national psyche. “He was the Brazilian miracle.”

Ah, the miracle. There it is again. It is as if Brazil’s morass--inflation, crime, corruption--is an ordained infliction. Such conditions require a miracle, and miracles are the ouevre of heroes, not humans. Life can make champions, but only death, tragic death, can manufacture a mythic hero. Senna, the man, the driver, was admired. The late Senna, the martyr, is adulated.

But there was something disturbing in the outpouring of tears and rage. Does it take death (or an impeachment, or a corruption scandal) to fill the streets and bring out the bonds of solidarity and national pride? Anthropologist DaMatta says no, that the desire for victory is there, dormant, and that even a tiny miracle--an honest pol? a World Cup?--could awaken it. Yet a quarter-century has gone by since Brazil’s last World Cup title, the last time the whole country hoisted flags and wept for a victory, not defeat.



Lately, Brazil seems alloyed more by frustration and loss. “We live a nationalism of tragedy more than of triumph,” writes Marcelo Coelho in the Folha de Sao Paulo. “Everyone comes together in the sense of a tragic Brazil.” Listen to Marcelo Pontes, a senior political observer: “A tragedy was necessary to show that loving (Senna), Brazilians love even more strongly themselves.”

All of this necromancy is moving, but it may ultimately do disservice to Brazil’s latest champion-turned-legend. In most societies, anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss once wrote, the living strike a pact with the dead. They pay homage to the deceased in certain predictable rituals, say a wake or a funeral, and in turn the dead agree to stay where they are and not to cause the rest of us grief or nightmare. In other societies, we living will not let go. Rather, we “conscript the dead,” to appropriate their powers, sometimes by eating them, or else more symbolically, in politer societies “where the people must continually summon the dead to their rescue.”

In Brazil, as always, things are not so simple. It is as if they want to have Senna rest in peace and eat him too. His coffin was lowered in the Morumbi Cemetery last Thursday, and the nation said a heart-rending goodby. But Senna’s mission--as hero, example and healer--had just begun.