- from The Darkest Of Places
The following is from Milton Hatoum's novel The Longest Night, the first in a three-part series. In this excerpt, the narrator, Martim, is living in Paris in the 1970s and recalling his turbulent adolescence during the violent anos de chumbo ("leadyears"), from 1964 to 1985, when Brazil was ruled by an authoritarian, military dictatorship. Following his parents' traumatic separation in the 1960s, he moved with his father from São Paulo to Brasilia, the new federal capital. There, he slowly became involved with a group of fellow students who began challenging the dictatorship. The rest of the novel details how, as the relationships among Martims family members deteriorate further, he becomes radicalized, setting off the chain of events that leads to his departure from Brazil.
Winter and silence. Not a single letter from Brazil.
Paris, December 1977
A frozen city, though not always a still one: noisy tourists crossing a bridge over the Seine. We come from the same country, we walk toward opposite banks. Are these voices, this laughter real?
Today, in Neuilly-sur-Seine, my student—a young Frenchman—invited me for a cup of coffee. He wanted to talk a bit about Brazil. Our chat, which got off to a mundane start, gradually turned to a knottier subject, and quickly became rather grim; over two cups of coffee and a few cookies it moved from grim to the terrifying political situation. When we finished, my student, silent as a stone, paid me the forty francs for the class and another ten as a tip. This was the closing balance on that cold and gray afternoon.
I stuffed the bills into my pocket and walked through the Bois de Boulogne: trees without leaves, a thin layer of ice covering the ground, the song of invisible birds. The stillness was soon disturbed by an onslaught of memories. People and places invaded my mind, in a jumble of different moments: Lázaro and his mother in their shack in Ceilândia, the voice of the Geologist on the campus of the Universidade de BrasÍlia, the agonizing wait for my mother in the lobby of a [End Page 79] hotel in Goiânia, the ambassador Faisão reciting verses by some American poet: "Just one more truth, one more element in the immense disorder of truths."
The other day, I saw Dinah's face. I followed this face and found myself before a Frenchwoman, who was alarmed at my gaze. More faces from Brazil appeared before me—in museums, at the door to the cinema in Denfert, at markets throughout the city.
I took the subway to Châtelet. I played guitar in the stuffy underground station and thought back to the music lessons with the Songbird. I didn't hear the sound of Portuguese on the subway platform or in the long corridors of the underground; I gathered the coins in the guitar case and walked through the Marais until I reached the Royal Bar. A cognac. I opened my notebook and waited for three Brazilian friends. We'd agreed to meet at seven that night.
People wearing bundles of clothing pass by on the sidewalk of the Rue de Sévigné, voices fill the Royal Bar; outside a street performer walked across the icy night and asked a woman if she could spare any change.
Eight fifteen. Damiano Acante, Juliao, and Anita had stood me up.
Distance doesn't always heal our wounds …
Memories cast a pall over this beautiful city.
My landlords are an Angolan couple who fled the war. I sleep in this tiny bedroom shaped like a trapezoid; the ceiling is sloped. I can only stand up next to the small desk near the window. I eat lunch right around the corner, in a bistro on the Rue de La Goutte d'Or, or the Boulevard de La Chapelle, on the way to the train. Later, I cross the city to give private classes. At rush hour, I get off at Châtelet station. I earn some spare change with a guitar...