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 and a song, and don't return to Aubervilliers until after ten at night, the time my Angolan landlords go to sleep. The husband is a doorman at a modest neighborhood hotel, and the wife is unemployed. They talk a bit with me, always in Portuguese, and speak Kimbundu between themselves.
I woke up today, terrified by something I had dreamt. I got up to grab a glass of water and hit my head on the low ceiling. A dark morning. My bad mood grew worse as I recalled my dream …
At night, I went to see Julião and Anita in a café on the Boulevard Arago. Julião gave me a notepad with a stained green cover and wrinkled pages. I read a poem Ox had written on the first page, and tried to decipher the sloppy handwriting on the other pages.
"My final days in Brazil, Martim … everyone who could getting the hell out, man … Lúcifer loose on São Paulo. I don't want to hold on to this fucking diary … If I read these notes again, I'm only going to miss my friends more, miss my samba school, and Vila Madalena … Longing for people and places leaves the heart withered and dead …"
"I also made some notes," Anita said. "I think I left my notepad in São Paulo, [End Page 80] at Ox's place … I'd written about the first night I made love to Julião, and other stuff from the student residence in Vila Madalena …"
While Julião went to wait on a customer, Anita told me he was discouraged by life in Paris. "I don't know if it's winter or the language, Martim … He's learning French, but he still stumbles quite a bit … He mimes as he speaks. He's resident mime at this bar … The clients laugh when he gets tripped up in French, mimes a few words, and whispers, Pardon, pardon …He earns some change with the whole charade and then lets loose with curse words in Portuguese. At the end of the night, he thinks back to what's going on in Brazil and suddenly he's down in the dumps … The way he misses Brazil, I think he's going to be sick before long."
Rue de la Goutte D'or (Aubervilliers)
Paris, January 2, 1978
New Year's at the apartment of some friend of Damiano Acante, on the Boulevard Diderot, in Nation. Damiano introduced me to the host: a tall guy with a defiant, copper-tone face. He was smoking a Gauloises near an open window, ignoring a woman who complained about the cold draft coming in; when he tilted his chin toward the ceiling and expelled the smoke through tight lips, I was certain it was really him: Jaime Dobles.
He only recognized me after I mentioned our brief encounter in BrasÍlia; he had held a diplomatic post in Prague and been transferred to Paris, where the Cuban embassy was especially active.
"What's going on in BrasÍlia? Such a strange city, intolerable for a Cuban."
Strange, perhaps, I replied, but not intolerable. Not for me.
Almost midnight. The sky lit up with fireworks. Jaime Dobles walked to the center of the room and declared in French that 1978 would be the year that all the peoples of South and Central America would finally be free, and that Angola, with Cuba's military and political support, would follow in their footsteps. Everyone toasted to freedom. I raised my glass, but my other hand, the empty one, remained pinned down beneath the weight of doubt. Or was it the weight of pessimism? As I was leaving, Damiano Acante cut me off at the door and told me of a studio on the Rue d'Aligre.
The street where they have the market, Martim. It's a steal: four hundred francs a month. Sure beats sleeping in a tiny room in Aubervilliers."
Four hundred francs a month: eight to ten Portuguese classes … I pay sixty a week for a room where I can hardly stand up.
"The Cuban embassy helps out a small group of exiles," Damiano said.
"The Latin American Circle of Resistance, LACR … We're going to publish a news bulletin and maybe even a newspaper. Some of the members of LACR are here … Those three in the corner … Someday soon we can all meet in the studio …"
"Am I going to split this studio with someone?"
"No … Now and then a Brazilian friend will sleep there, but not for long. [End Page 81]
Are you worried about something? The owner of the studio is a Frenchwoman, a friend … The worst is behind us, Martim … I know how you feel … I have many contacts in Brazil; I haven't given up looking for your mother …"
My Last Night in Aubervilliers
Paris, Winter 1978
My mother had been waiting for me for years in a log house in the countryside; she asked what had taken so long for me to find her.
Where was that house? Flowering ipê trees across the rolling landscape, the sky and the light of the central plateau. It might have been somewhere near BrasÍlia, someplace in the Federal District, or in the state of Goiás.
I wanted to ask her, Who's the one who took so long, Mom? Who's the one who put off our reunion?
I didn't say anything in the dream. I stood there, stewing in silence. Now, awake, it's too late.
Rue d'Aligre, Paris, March 1978
Out of the suitcase I took the collection of papers from BrasÍlia and São Paulo: notebooks, photographs, notepads, loose papers, napkins with instructions, the letters and diaries of friends—nearly all of them somewhere far away, some of them lost, perhaps forever.
I began to type up the manuscripts … A periodic diary, written in fits and starts, rants from an uncertain time.
An artist, a painter. That's all I knew about the man who seduced my mother. On December 22, 1967, Lina left home and went to live with him. This unexpected, perhaps untimely decision unnerved me. My father was convinced that Lina would come back to him, but she told me that she no longer loved him and that the two of us would go to live with the artist.
One afternoon my father caught me talking to her, grabbed the telephone, and told her the whole thing was a reckless joke. Suddenly, the color drained from Rodolfo's face. "How could this happen? Where are you living? Are you trying to ruin my life? What about our son?"
Without looking my way, he waved me off. I was to leave the apartment.
From outside, I heard the voice say repeatedly: "Never again, never again …"
Rodolfo didn't tell me what Lina said to him, and their conversation remains a secret.
At the time, we lived in a small apartment on Rua Tutóia in São Paulo. My mother gave private French classes in Paraíso, Bela Vista, in Jardins, and Vila Mariana. I had no desire to be with my father, a civil engineer who supervised every building project to the very end.
I spent Christmas 1967 with Lina and my Uncle Dacio in my maternal grandparents' home in Santos. My Grandma Ondina and her maid, Delinha, made fish and a shrimp-and-crab soufflé. Ondina spoke only to my grandfather, [End Page 82] who had always been more flexible than his wife. As far as he was concerned, a storm across the lowlands near Santos, a dock workers' strike, a child lost out in the marshes, some crazy guy who'd been showing up naked at the canal near José Menino—everything was in the hands of fate. And it was to fate that he attributed my parents' separation. Ondina paid no attention to him; she went on and on about my mother's moral and emotional shortcomings, about fantasies that come back to bite us, and she didn't so much as acknowledge my praise for the soufflé, the fish, and the dessert. By the end of Christmas dinner, the atmosphere was funereal. Ondina got up from the table and announced she had no intention of celebrating New Year's. We listened to footsteps go down the hallway. Delinha went after these footsteps, and the two women disappeared. My grandfather, in a good mood, suggested we take a walk down to the docks.
"In the dark?" Dacio asked.
"It's not as dark outside as it is in this room, Dacio. It's like they turned off the lights in here … Martim, you coming?"
The three of us walked through the neighborhood streets toward the ocean. Derricks and forklifts lay still, sailors and stevedores nowhere to be found, only the dark shadow of a cargo ship. Silence across the port, as though the sea had dried up that Christmas night. When we got back to my grandparents' house, everyone was sleeping. I lay down next to my mother. It was a short night; early the next morning, we returned to São Paulo. Dacio left me on Rua Tutóia and then kept going with Lina. I started to gather my things to go live with her and the artist; Rodolfo had used the holiday to box up his engineering books and pack his suitcase.
Would he move to our neighborhood or somewhere far away from ParaÍso?
The man was too bitter to say anything. It was rare for my father to speak directly to me; the words he addressed my way were intended for my mother, and at that moment there was neither a mirror nor a shield against them. It was in this near muteness that I spent the last week of December. The morning of the thirty-first, Lina called: I should go to my Uncle Dacio's house; we would have lunch downtown.
He lived in a small apartment on Avenida São Luís; the bedroom was a photo lab. Dacio slept in the nearly empty living room, his books arranged on a metal shelf. On the walls, black-and-white photographs with the faces of immigrants from Portugal, Spain, and Italy, and the portrait of a family in a tenement in Bixiga. Lina had tried to sell the photos to her students and clients of the Livraria Francesa. She would visit Dacio often, despite my father's disapproval of his brother-in-law's work. "Gave up engineering to be a small-time photographer … Sooner or later he'll be pushing a cart in downtown São Paulo and sleeping in a tenement building."
On Dacio's last visit to Rua Tutóia, Rodolfo interrupted a conversation about poets and photographers to say that progress and civilization were triumphs of engineering. Dacio disagreed, smiled sarcastically before responding that [End Page 83] several engineers, doctors, and scientists had also been great artists. "Our class at the Politécnica studied the work of engineer and poet Joaquim Cardozo … Your curiosity was piqued by the structure of the church in Pampulha, Rodolfo … You studied the complex structure of the cathedral in BrasÍlia … Niemeyer came up with the design and Cardozo saw to the calculations … Both of them are artists"
Dacio and my father had been classmates at the Escola Politécnica. When they earned their diplomas, my grandparents and Lina made the trip to São Paulo for the graduation party. There, Rodolfo met my mother, a nineteen-year-old girl who had finished high school and wanted to study literature at the Universidade de São Paulo, but Ondina forbade her to live in the big city.
What was it like, this party for two recently graduated engineers, the first encounter between Rodolfo and Lina, a former student at the Colégio Stella Maris dancing with the young engineer, the two of them under Ondinas watchful eye? My mother had come up from Santos to marry and leave her parents' house, I told myself, and I'm the product of this graduation party.
The cacophany of voices rises up from the Marché d'Aligre below, and during the chorus just before the market closes, the memory of the rest of Dacio's conversation with my father suddenly comes to me.
"Very few Brazilians know about the engineer-poet Joaquim Cardozo, but without him, the cathedral, the Palácio do Congresso, and other government buildings throughout BrasÍlia wouldn't exist …"
"You threw an engineering career in the trash, Dacio … You go around snapping photos of workers, immigrants, and streetwalkers … Who's going to buy all that crap?"
Dacio looked straight at my father: his gaze seemed to mark a clean break between them for the rest of their lives. When Rodolfo left, brother and sister whispered secrets to each other in the living room. Perhaps they'd had a similar conversation the afternoon of December 31, before I arrived at the apartment on Avenida São LuÍs. I'd said I was ready to leave the apartment on Tutóia. Rodolfo, too, was about to move, I had no idea where. Dacio and Lina exchanged glances; it was as if all the immigrants' faces on the walls were examining me with a sad, though not confused gaze. It was I who lost my bearings when Dacio told me the news point-blank: "You're going to live with Rodolfo in BrasÍlia, Martim."
The look on Lina's face told me she shared my apprehension.
BrasÍlia? I asked Uncle Dacio. With my father in BrasÍlia?
"He got a good job in a government office. He wants to live far away from your mother … Easier to move on that way …"
"I went to the Colégio Stella Maris here and spoke with Mr. Verona," Lina said. "He already gave your dad the necessary documents and wrote a letter to the director of your school in BrasÍlia so you can get a transfer."
Couldn't I go live with my grandparents in Santos? [End Page 84]
My mother said that Ondina was too strict, my parents' divorce hadn't sat well with her, and I was bound to suffer in such a hostile environment. It would be worse for me. And I couldn't live with Lina and her new companion for one reason: money.
"And it's for the same reason that you can't live with me," Uncle Dacio added.
The immigrants' faces disappeared from the wall. My bleary gaze detected betrayal on my mother's face. Was the lack of money a pretext, or was what she said really true? The question hadn't occurred to me on that day, the last of 1967, when words got stuck inside my head, unable to leave my mouth, and remained there at the restaurant on the Praça José Gaspar, where I'd gone for lunch on other occasions with Lina and my uncle.
I can still see the tall, leafy trees of the square, the Biblioteca Mário de Andrade, and, a bit farther away, the Livraria Francesa, where Lina would take me on Saturday mornings when my father went to visit a construction site.
Lina and I barely touched our food, our locked hands sweating beneath the table, as though fear and anxiety—absent from our previous lunches—had begun to move in on me. My mother's lover arrived as we were finishing lunch: taller than I was, dark and thin, with a scruffy appearance; a face full of sharp angles, dramatic and perhaps a bit sly, sought an intimacy in my eyes that I refused to grant. I didn't reach for the hand extended in my direction; Lina gave me a reproachful look, and I asked myself where and how she had met a guy like this, who would never be a friend to me. He and Dacio sat at another table; the artist's voice was grating, everything about him seemed unbearable; I could feel the sweat on Lina's hand, and my suffering grew. The artist didn't stay long. He winked at my mother and waved goodbye with a quick, hasty gesture. Lina let go of my hand and covered her face with her palms. Uncle Dacio walked with us as far as the sidewalk, then said goodbye to me. We took a taxi to our neighborhood, getting out near the Praça SantÍssimo Sacramento before walking into a bakery, the Flor do ParaÍso.
"Your father decided to go live in BrasÍlia," she said, taking my hands and then squeezing them. "My partner and I … We fell in love, Martim … One day you'll understand … Write me at your uncle's address. BrasÍlia is a different sort of city, but you're going to like it there."
When would she see me next?
In a few months, son.
I listened to her tender voice and her stifled crying, and then I felt my mother's body close to mine: the longest, saddest embrace in all of my seventeen years …
The things Rodolfo had told me about BrasÍlia slowly faded during the bus trip, which I spent thinking about Lina. My father, who was on alert, covered my body with a wool blanket … It wasn't cold I felt, but a sort of vertigo from the distance, the separation. What was he thinking during that sleepless night on our endless trip? He murmured over and over: an artist, a deadbeat in your [End Page 85] mother's life … At some point during the night, he mentioned a Ford Rural Willys. Perhaps I dreamt that …
Gray buses at the station, the early-morning sun, my father's voice saying to the taxi driver, "Hotel das Nações"—a short trip along a wide avenue that only came to an end at the horizon.
I left the hotel for the city center, but I couldn't find it: the entire city was the center. When I became lost walking along the megablocks of the South Wing, or grew bored when I didn't find a single living soul along the dry grass that grew around the buildings, I walked until I reached a business district and Avenida W3 Sul, where there were people, stores, buses, cars. On the way back, I passed through the stores of the Hotel Nacional and came to a stop before the display window of a bookstore named Encontro. At the door, a burly man with a ruddy face asked if I studied at a school inside the "original plan" or in some satellite city.
"Don't you know what a satellite city is? You must have just arrived … and not terribly informed."
He opened a map of the Federal District, showed me the favelas throughout the original plan and the satellite cities, and then introduced me to Jairo, the manager, and a bookseller named Celeste, a girl from Anápolis. Jairo was Portuguese, born in Porto; he'd traveled to Rio in 1962 and just last year moved to BrasÍlia. "Encontro opens at nine every morning and closes whenever. Sometimes, we're open on Sundays and holidays. In the auditorium, we host several activities: play rehearsals, public lectures, film showings, art exhibitions, even parties."
Jairo and I walked up to the mezzanine, where he showed me boxes full of books written by authors from Brazil and abroad. He looked down as soon as three men wearing ties walked into the bookstore. "Those men are staying at the Hotel Nacional," he said. "They're part of a small herd of high-court judges … They're a bunch of sheep, old and obedient. They don't tend to challenge the military."
Back at the Hotel das Nações, I wrote to Lina:
The first person I'd met in the nation's capital was named Jorge Alegre, a bookstore owner who gave me a map as a gift. BrasÍlia is a city for those who have wings or know how to fly … The distances are so wide that they seem to shrink the buildings (called blocks) of the Monumental Axis, stained by a red dust. I write and look at the photo you gave me at the Flor do Paraíso—"so that you think of me every single day." The trip took more than fifteen hours and I barely slept—my dad, too. Where are you going to live? Why didn't you give me your address?
My father is at the office of engineers and architects. He is going to buy a Ford Rural Willys; you can't live without a car in BrasÍlia, and I never wanted to live here. The neighborhoods and avenues are numbered and lettered, and [End Page 86] I got lost on my very first trip to the megablocks of the South Wing. It seemed like I never left the same spot, like I was looking at the same buildings. They're beautiful buildings, surrounded by grass that can grow in clay; this very same beauty repeated over and over again also left me puzzled. Everything is confusing here, nothing reminds me of anywhere at all. The sky seems closer and it's full of light. People have disappeared from the city …
North Wing, BrasÍlia, March 1968
"The buildings of the North Wing were built in a hurry … The paint of the façade faded, the drywall is total shit, it's already buckled. They inaugurated a city that's still a work site."
Rodolfo is bothered by the workmanship of our building along city block 406, and by the mice and cockroaches attracted by the trash scattered across the ground floor. He's bothered that he has to live in the North Wing, the area of the capital that's home to mid-level civil servants and students attracted by the cheap rents or the chance to squat in abandoned apartments. He considers himself a high-level employee, a civil engineer who with his qualifications deserves to live in the South Wing.
"Our apartment in ParaÍso was much smaller than this one," I said to him.
"It was smaller, but do you mean to compare our old neighborhood with the North Wing? This isn't a neighborhood, this isn't anything at all. What were those Commie architects thinking when they planned this crappy city? In the business district, there's one bakery, one bar, and a few godawful stores, all empty … Public transport is crap, too … The neighboring building is a construction site, and ours is full of people from the countryside of Goiás and Minas Gerais … A bunch of hayseeds … A rickety old bus comes along Avenida L2 every hour. The only decent thing here is your school, there at the entrance to the college campus—"
"But you were the one who wanted to come live in this city," I said, looking out toward the campus of the Universidade de BrasÍlia and the lake known as Lago Paranoá. "If we had a drift boat or a canoe—"
"I didn't want to come here … BrasÍlia hardly meant a thing to me. But when your mother left, I decided to find a job in some other city …"
Rodolfo's long pause piqued my curiosity. He adjusted his tie, the one that had a gold-ring pattern and that he wore to Mass in São Paulo. He hadn't given up his habit of ironing the tie. He did this habitually after Lina told him she didn't want to go to church.
"I could never live close to your mother and that guy … We would be worse off … It all came out of the blue, and she cheated on me and she cheated on you, too. Now I'm taking it all the way …"
That Sunday, he didn't insist that I go to Mass with him. I thought about Rodolfo's words: "she cheated on you, too." But I hadn't understood what he meant by "Now I'm taking it all the way …"
It was just one more of the dark mysteries that pursued me, that pursue me [End Page 87] to this day …
One Friday afternoon, after history class, I stepped out onto the school courtyard to read a book about slavery. A bit later, I would have dinner at The Starving Man's Palace, the cafeteria at the Universidade de BrasÍlia. I was reading in the silence of the courtyard when I heard footsteps and laughing. A voice spoke to me, "Today we have an audience."
The voice came from a skinny man with a calm, inquisitive gaze. He extended his hand and introduced himself with almost comical formality: "Damiano Acante. You're welcome to stay here and watch the class … My theater group is going to perform for its very first audience member."
He pointed to each of the five students. "This beanpole is Northerner, an actor from Amazonas who has fallen in love with Vana, soon to be a great actress … Ângela and Fabius are still learning; Dinah alone has mastered the secrets of the theater."
Upperclassmen—none of them were in any of my classes. Dinah snuck a glance at my book and asked if I enjoyed the theater.
"He looks too shy for the stage."
"Shyness disappears on the stage, Ângela," said Dinah, laughing. "Want to rehearse with us?"
I waved them off, and as I got up to leave, she grabbed me by the arm and pulled me to a corner of the courtyard. "Is our only audience member leaving? You must be the new kid at school."
"The new kid who's been hiding," the Northerner said.
Dinah and Ângela looked me up and down, as though I were some strange beast standing still in the corner. I stayed there, catching a glimpse of the class. The scenes they rehearsed were short, some dramatic, some comedic, some silent or involving miming: feigned terror, or doubt, or distrust. The teacher corrected the facial expressions and gestures made by Fabius and Vana, who looked distracted. When the exercises came to an end, the Northerner and Vana did a handspring, put their hands on their knees, and locked lips. Ângela sat in another corner of the courtyard, cupping her hands beneath her large breasts, which bulged beneath her yellow T-shirt; she peered with the gaze of the faithful at the white wall made of hollow bricks, ignoring Damiano Acante's instructions about diction, breathing, and emotion. Afterward, he used red chalk to draw a large circle and asked Vana and the Northerner to stage a short dialogue, less than a minute. Vana didn't know what to say. Ângelas eyes shifted from the wall to my face; hers was a gaze that didn't seem to hide anything.
"Any old dialogue," Damiano Acante said, clapping his palms together. "You can improvise."
"The dialogue we rehearsed in your house," the Northerner suggested. "You can start."
An expression of surprise on her face, Vana pointed to the Northerner: "Who is this guy? What does he want?"
"A ticket," the Northerner said.
"A ticket where?" [End Page 88]
"End of the line."
"Which end? The round one or the square one?"
"There's no point in yelling," Vana said.
"Sorry! I meant whichever's farthest away" the Northerner said, trailing off. "You don't need a ticket, man; what you need is a passport."
The two of them stood silent and immobile in the center of the circle. Damiano Acante addressed the Northerner: "You nailed the diction, breathing, and emotion … and your timing was great."
The Northerner leapt to the outside of the circle. Vana's gaze looked for some sign from the teacher.
"You merely recited lines," Damiano said. "And it's not enough to recite—"
"And you didn't even do that right … The translation of this passage takes too many liberties," Dinah said.
"Is that so, Dinah?" Vana asked, a touch of anger in her voice.
Ângela stood up, extended her arms, and swung them frenetically, as though she were batting away everything before her. She walked to the courtyard entrance and told Fabius she wouldn't be sleeping at his apartment that day. Then she asked who the author was.
"A mysterious Irishman," Dinah responded. "A total genius."
"Who did the translation?" Damiano Acante asked.
"I did," Dinah responded, "but Vana ruined it. Thank goodness the Northerner is a real actor … A real actor doesn't need a passport; he can carry a scene alone as far as he wants to …"
Vana was about to say something, but Damiano brought the class to an end. Vana and the Northerner left with their arms around each other; Fabius and Ângela followed them, holding hands.
"Vana doesn't like the theater," Dinah explained. "She's only part of our group so she can get close to the Northerner. Fabius doesn't care about it either … Not him and not Ângela either … only the Northerner and Lázaro."
"Lázaro … Are you guys rehearsing over in Taguatinga?"
"Every weekend, in the theater on the square," Dinah said. "Lázaro is much more than an actor … You know what I'm talking about …"
Damiano glanced at the history book in my hands. "And the new guy—why doesn't he join our group?"
"He prefers to watch." Dinah laughed. "He kept an eye on us the entire time … One eye on the rehearsal, the other on Ângela."
BrasÍlia, March 1968
"I miss you, too, son … Is your father giving you enough attention? Do the two of you get out enough?"
Lina's voice cut in and out. My mother wouldn't be able to travel to BrasÍlia anytime soon. I didn't say much, perhaps because I was emotional and frustrated, too. Her voice, so far away, was obscured by a high-pitched sound. [End Page 89]
I set the phone down, sensing my father's presence.
His arms crossed, he peered at me with a serious expression I couldn't decipher.
When Lina would look at me, I could deduce her words, her emotions, her admonitions … Her look said, You got in a fight today at the soccer match; your dad isn't very happy about that … Poor marks on your report card; your father is irate. The disgusted, irate man wouldn't look at me; his reprehension and censure were expressed with words and gestures.
Now, alone together, my father and I meet gazes at some point during the evening.
What had Rodolfo wanted to say when I hung up the phone? His face expressed the secrets of his silence.
I didn't ask, and he remained bitter the entire Saturday night, perhaps ruminating on his ex-wife's love life.
BrasÍlia, Sunday, March 1968
Rodolfo wanted to venture beyond the confines of the original plan for lunch. We left the ghost town and followed a nearly deserted road until we reached Planaltina. After lunch, my father taught me how to drive the Rural. As I practiced various maneuvers, he criticized other drivers: they were negligent, irresponsible, drunks. "You need to pay attention to the danger and threats posed by others … I'm not just talking about other drivers … At any moment, someone can betray us, humiliate us, mistreat us. Your mother did it to me … I don't want anyone to do the same to you."
On the way back, I thought about Lina's selfishness, about her life with the skinny, scruffy-looking artist, about his seemingly false smile; I thought about the unhappiness that consumed my father, who had decided to speak with me that afternoon. Would we be able to live together without exchanging a word? He paid close attention as he drove, his tense hands grasping the steering wheel, his head slowly looking from side to side, a bit to the right, then to the left.
The smell of gas and manure from the patches of grass across the North Wing.
What was he denying with his rigidity and his demands?
Lago Paranoa Norte, BrasÍlia
I had lost the rhythm of the oars when a bird skimmed the water and flew off toward the buildings of Colina, the student residences at the Universidade of BrasÍlia. At the northern edge of the lake, Rodolfo uttered the first phrase of the day: The sun of the central plateau plays tricks on us.
He wet his face. We rowed until we reached the yacht club, pulled the boat up alongside the edge of the lake, and walked up the dock. We saw women seated on the veranda and in hats and bathing suits, men playing tennis and volleyball. [End Page 90]
We were going to have a soda at the bar, but a security guard barred us from entering. When we left the club, my father decided to cut our outing short.
I stayed in my room, reading and studying. Now and then I would remember Rodolfo's reaction at being barred by the guard at the club; he was about to argue with the man but then gave up. "A Politécnica engineer barred by a man who can't even read," he had said, blowing off steam as he rowed toward the other bank. His face, which revealed his frustration, had been burned by the tricky sun of the central plateau.
Later that afternoon, I walked into the kitchen and saw Rodolfo standing in the living room; he was looking out at the lake or the savanna. Or he wasn't looking at anything at all. He nodded affirmatively, ignoring my presence. Was that gesture some sort of decision, or the beginning of the end?
He didn't want to go rowing with me today; he preferred to check the numbers for a building somewhere in the South Wing. I grabbed a book, carried the boat to L4 North, and rowed to the other side of the lake. Only then did I notice that I hadn't been thinking about my mother, but rather two classmates: Dinah and Angela. Halfway across the lake, I masturbated as I imagined Dinah's face superimposed on Angela's body; I lay down in the boat and imagined the face of one girl, then the body of the other, in quick succession. I did this twice more and felt the same sense of pleasure. Billowing, motionless clouds were reflected on the bronze-colored water, its gentle waves.
BrasÍlia gave the impression of being a deserted city, abandoned in a hurry. The low sun illuminated the air and the silence.
Rue d'Aligre, Paris, Spring 1978
The first words from the southern hemisphere: a letter in two languages, sent from Santos by Ondina.
In big, neat letters, my grandmother began by telling me that she had found "an enormous frog, absolutely adorable, au pied du palmier impérial."
He's the latest to take up residence at our house, Martim. He and the cat are friendly little creatures and balance out the crankiness of Delinha, who's worse than ever. She's lived in my home for thirty-eight years, and now she claims she can no longer cook meals, but she still helps me to make my Portuguese sweets, clean the house, and look after the garden and the backyard. We've grown old together, and thanks to old age, we're inseparable.
Your grandpa speaks of you often; he's arranged a few things in the living room from when you used to come here as a boy: a nautical map, the silver compass with the black needle, the photos of the cargo and passenger ships you two would go to greet as they arrived from Germany, Italy, and Japan. He doesn't know why you went to live in Paris, why you left so suddenly without at least coming to see us first. But he's at peace with it all, and even asked me to send you fifty dollars each month. I don't know why you left either, or how you managed the money to buy the ticket. Were you running from something, [End Page 91] some sort of danger? In March, you sent me a note with your Paris address. Cest tout? Will you write me? Or are you going to disappear once and for all? Ours is a family whose members stray and disappear, and never miss what they left behind.
Much love from your grandparents, who miss you. Delinha sends her love, too.
My mother's name, missing from the letter.
North Wing, BrasÍlia Sunday, March 31, 1968
In the letter to Lina, I was going to mention my shyness, how I found it difficult to get close to the five other students in the theater class … I folded the page with only two words: Dear Mother.
My diary is a way of speaking with Lina, of thinking about her … Perhaps I shouldn't tell you about what happened between Friday and yesterday.
Friday: afternoon classes were canceled, the majority of students from the high school had gone to the student assembly on campus. During lunch at the cafeteria, the university students were talking about impromptu rallies and protests in several locations: Rua da Igrejinha, Pra$a 21 de Abril, the sidewalk of the Casa Thomas Jefferson … A loudspeaker in the Student Federation's tent was broadcasting strange music; it sounded like a military march. Dinah was distributing fliers and invited me along. Her bare shoulders, red lips, and intelligent gaze on my face. When she handed me a flier, I was stupid enough to say I was going to see a movie at Cinema Cultura.
"A movie? Yesterday the police killed a student in Rio … This is no time to go see a movie. Later today the Geologist is going to lead a rally near Escola Parque … The Northerner and Fabius are going, too."
"Are Ângela and Vana also going?"
"Vana hasn't decided yet … Ângela isn't going … She protests on her own at the apartment that belongs to her father, the senator …"
Someone called out to Dinah, her bare shoulders disappeared. I peeked through the opening of the tent; two students were filling bottles with a clear liquid and stuffing the necks with some sort of cloth. Dinah and some skinny guy scrawled murderers across a long strip of cloth. When she saw me, she came to the window and said we could meet at five that afternoon on Rua da Igrejinha; then she returned to what she was doing, and the skinny guy turned up the volume on the military march. I walked in the opposite direction of the sound, determined to go to the movies. Later, I'd meet up with Dinah on Igrejinha. The bus to the South Wing stopped before Megablock 502; Avenida W3 was blocked off. I walked down a parallel street, W2, and when I was getting close to Cinema Cultura, I saw the area from the Escola Parque to the Pra$a 21 de Abril surrounded by police vehicles. The siren from a squad car gave me a start, and I ran toward W1, where I stood against a column near a building on Rua 308, close to Igrejinha. Why was I running and hiding? An [End Page 92] apartment superintendent in a blue booth walked out and asked me what I was doing there. "Nothing" I said, "I only wanted to go to the movies" He pointed in the direction of the Cinema BrasÍlia as though telling me to get out of there. "The cinema's closed" he said, "a bunch of students are conducting marches and rallies. Shit's gonna get ugly" He walked back into his booth. I walked to Igrejinha and circled the tiny, closed church, observing the tiles depicting scenes in blue and white: birds and angels flying toward the ground, in free fall. I decided to read the flier. It said something about the murder of a student in Rio; the word freedom appeared six times. Had Dinah written those words?
A car—a Dauphine—drove slowly along Wi. It braked near a Veraneio driving the wrong way. The driver of the Veraneio turned on his high beams, even though it wasn't dark yet. Two undercover cops stepped out of the Veraneio and pulled the driver out of the Dauphine; another man, this one stronger, snatched a short, skinny girl from the backseat. He handcuffed her and grabbed her neck between his thumb and index finger, like a pitchfork. They dragged the driver of the Dauphine in front of the Veraneio. The bright light of the high beams blinded him as he tried to defend himself against the policemen's punches and kicks. They threw the limp, bloody body of the driver into the trunk of the Veraneio and dragged the girl toward the beam of light. The girl and the policemen sat in the backseat, and the Veraneio drove off toward the Residential Axis. Then everything grew quiet. The white Dauphine had been left behind, doors open.
I threw up the food from lunch, left the flier on the grass. My desire to see Dinah on Igrejinha was as strong as my fear. I wanted to get out of there, grab the rubber boat, and row across the lake, but going from the South Wing to the North Wing was like traveling to another city. There were no streets or winding alleys through which to flee; the immense, wide-open spaces of BrasÍlia were like a trap. I could hear yelling and the sound of bombs. The stores of the business district were closed. I walked the megablocks, and on W3 I saw a stalled, empty bus that ran a route between the South Wing and Lago Paranoa. Two students dashed out from behind the bus, threw rocks at a police van, and then disappeared across the other side of the avenue. I headed back to the North Wing, walking and running, the entire time with the sensation that I would never make it home. It was already five thirty when I saw my father in the living room. "Were you with those rioting students?"
"At the movies" I lied, nearly out of breath.
"You ought to stay here now … All the government buildings, stores, and schools are closed. Both axes are full of police."
I said I was going rowing on the lake.
"You're going rowing in the dark? I'll meet you at six thirty at the door to the Minas-BrasÍlia Tenis Clube"
I hoisted the boat above my head, walked across campus, and took an unfamiliar trail. Near the edge of the lake, I saw a block of buildings, still unfinished, made of reinforced concrete and having thick, round pillars: the ruins of an [End Page 93] abandoned construction project. Three old leather boots were impaled on pointy scraps of steel. A rusty metal sign: military zone. I rowed for more than a half hour, until I could see the Clube de Fuzileiros Navais. Farther from the shore, the bandshell looked like a white whale beached on the dusty clay ground. The sunset tinged the bandshell and a façade of the BrasÍlia Palace Hotel with red. Only two letters from Lina. And a phone call. I lay down in the boat, resting my head on the rubber edge. My mother's voice at the Flor do ParaÍso: Here's some money to buy books and have some fun … I'm going to live outside the city, son … We had hugged at the end of the day. I had begged her once more not to go away, after our goodbye on Rua Tutóia, New Year's Eve in my bedroom. A bit of shaking, the boat rocked; two soldiers were pointing machine guns at my chest. The wind had sent the boat to the wall that surrounded the presidential palace. A soldier from the presidential guard searched me, and I was taken to a police station in the South Wing.
A policeman opened the door and gave me a shove. "Get in there, sailor." The smell of sweat and mud filled the cramped, brightly lit room. Six students, two from my school: Fabius and the Northerner. I didn't recognize anyone else. I sat next to some skinny guy, his face covered with pimples, dried blood on his lips. "Sailor? Why sailor?" the Northerner asked.
I looked at the skinny guy.
"Lázaro," Fabius said. "He goes to school in Taguatinga, at Ave Branca. The others study at the Elefante Branco, in the Ginásio do Plano Piloto, and the Escola Agrícola de Planaltina."
"I was out rowing on the lake," I replied. "I fell asleep, and they picked me up near the presidential palace."
A few short laughs, and then Fabius's voice. "Tough luck, sailor … The lake stretches along both sides of the city, and your boat docked in front of the general's palace? Are your parents going to believe you?"
"We can't turn off the light," the Northerner said.
I wasn't afraid of the madmen who fled the psychiatric ward in Vila Mariana and set off wandering the streets of ParaÍso. I was afraid of the sound of the key in the lock: the heavy, metallic sound had preceded the tense look on my father's face when I was a child. Now all these little fears had merged into one great big terror. I took a folded piece of paper and a pencil from my pocket. I wrote two words. Lázaro peeked over at the piece of paper and rubbed his hand across his bloodied lips. Another student was lying down next to him, his face to the wall. A small, windowless room with gray walls, someone stumbling in the hallway, no clock. What time was it? I leaned against the wall, put away the pencil and paper; it was impossible to write. What would I tell Lina that night? "I fell asleep when I went for a boat ride and was arrested? No, I didn't dream … Daydreaming, the wind, a whale of reinforced concrete, tinged red by the sunset. Why did I let myself get distracted?"
Muffled screams, everyone on guard.
"The university students," said a student from Elefante Branco. "One of the leaders was arrested." [End Page 94]
"The Geologist?" the Northerner whispered.
Kneeling down, Lázaro touched the ground with his closed fists and looked to the door.
On the other side, a loud voice was interrogating someone.
"A gray butterfly," the Northerner whispered as he pointed to the wall. "A witch …"
"A witch?" Fabius said. "You're nuts, that's mold on the wall … We're going to get all moldy, too, in this windowless room."
Silence in the hallway, down the hallway, and behind every door. Lázaro unclenched his fists and asked about Dinah.
"She was able to escape," the Northerner said. "She was smarter than the rest of us … She's the only one with wings … a butterfly …"
"Who threw the Molotov cocktail at the general's stage?"
Everyone looked at Fabius, no one said a thing.
"They set fire to those army bastards' stage," said the student from Elefante Branco. "But come the thirty-first, they'll be celebrating the coup all the same." Lázaro lay down. He breathed through his injured lips, seemed to see me through his closed eyes. Why had he asked after Dinah?
Someone opened the door and tossed in some guy about twenty-five years old, who landed on his seat. A redhead with a beard, Lee jeans, a red T-shirt torn across the chest; he lay down on his stomach next to Lázaro and fell asleep, or pretended to. The Northerner stared at the mold on the wall. Fabius, bringing his index finger to his lips, asked us to quiet down. Not a peep. I closed my eyes and let them adjust to the yellow shadow of the burning light bulb. A bit later, a voice from outside woke me up. Everyone looked to be sleeping. Only Lázaro opened his eyes and gave me a hard look; his lower lip, split and flayed, seemed to be drooping. I couldn't hear the voice anymore. Perhaps I'd dreamed the sound of screams?
A policeman called out for me. The others woke up, except for the guy with the beard. I followed the policeman to the office of the police chief. The portrait of the marshal-cum-president was the lone object on the white wall: sagging cheeks, the neat gray mustache, the presidential sash atop his civilian's suit. I was examining the steely expression when the police chief gave me back my student ID and my watch. Eight twenty-five.
"Let me see that paper … The paper in your pocket …"
The police chief read out the two words: "Dear Mother."
"Where does she live? What's she do for a living?"
"In São Paulo state. She's a French teacher."
"And you live with your father in the North Wing. Name, address, occupation?"
I repeated what I'd told them when I was brought in to the station.
"Do you know those two students from your school? Fabius and Lélio …" "They're friends of mine," I said.
"And the black kid who looks like an altar boy? … The agitator from the Ave Branca." [End Page 95]
I didn't know that student. I listened to a few more questions, denied everything, thinking about the others gathering dust in the moldy little room. When would they be released?
"Where can I pick up my boat? My dad—"
"The boat was confiscated by the presidential guard … You're all lucky you're minors."
I walked through the stores of the Hotel Nacional. Celeste was arranging books in the display window of the Livraria Encontro; Jorge Alegre recognized me. I asked for a glass of water, told them I'd been arrested by mistake and was walking back to the North Wing. Jorge Alegre turned to a man next to the cash register with a look of irritation on his face. "Jairo, get Martim here a glass of water and some money for a coffee and the bus. A student may be arrested by mistake, but once he's got a record with the police, life is never the same."
"You fell asleep in the boat? I waited around until eight at night in the lobby of the Minas-BrasÍlia Tenis Clube," Rodolfo said. "I thought you'd had an accident on the lake, that you'd drowned … I went to the Hospital Distrital; I spent hours there, went back to the Minas-BrasÍlia … I didn't sleep a wink … Now I'm late to work … And here you are telling me you fell asleep in the boat … And now I'm out a boat … And what if I lose my job because of you? Did some classmate of yours get arrested? No? I'm going to get to the bottom of all this."
North Wing, BrasÍlia
Early Morning, June 1968
I stared at the pages of an open book without managing to actually read. I got up, giving in to insomnia. Noise out on Avenida L2: patrol wagons and police cars were pulling onto the campus; soldiers circled my school and the entrance to the Universidade de BrasÍlia. I was unable to eat at the cafeteria or even leave the apartment.
Where had my father slept?
That Sunday, Rodolfo returned midmorning from Mass.
"Yesterday, more than a thousand students went to the meeting of the Latin American Parliament. These troublemakers occupied the congressional building … They and opposition-party members spent the night there … They're seeking to demoralize our patriotic government …"
On the seventh day after classes were suspended, a warning from my father: if you get arrested again, only God can set you free.
Why should I obey this man? Because he's stronger than I am? Because his deep voice instills fear? Because of the measly monthly allowance I get? [End Page 96]
"Four of our classmates were expelled," Dinah said. "When the police stormed onto our campus, they arrested dozens of students and looted the tent belonging to UnB's Student Federation … The chancellor closed the Central Art Institute."
On June 21, Lázaro added, the police killed three students during a protest in Rio. The day before yesterday, a march 100,000-strong …
"What about the policeman who was killed in Rio? Why don't you all ever mention the military officers who get killed?"
The voice came from a towering student with a straight back and crossed arms, standing in the doorway. His bulging eyes and his thick neck, squeezed by a tight collar, gave him the look of a suffocating madman. He was known for insulting those who dared call him by his nickname: Preppy. Next to him, a strong man with a mustache, about thirty, watched as Lázaro wrote on the chalkboard: meet AT the PRA£A 21 de ABRIL AT 5 o'clock. march Along Avenida w3.
Lázaro stood close to Dinah, her bony chin resting on her clasped hands, looking straight ahead, without a trace of cowardice. I remembered the questions from the night in March, back at the police station. Did that subversive from the Catholic Student Youth come to talk with you? Were there any Trotskyites in the room? Did someone mention anything about explosives? Molotov cocktails? You're lucky you're all minors …
When Dinah and Lázaro left the room, Preppy walked up to the chalkboard and quickly erased the words. He said it was dangerous to go to the march: the protestors would provoke the police, there would be confrontations, people would die. His voice and attitude were full of cockiness. When one of the students shouted, "Everyone knows who your daddy is," Preppy lunged like a tiger toward the girl. The man with the mustache held him back, and the two of them left. I had seen this Preppy in the dining room and hallways, but I had no idea who his father was.
I had lunch in the school cafeteria. Classes had been canceled, the library closed. The Northerner and Vana waited for the bus on Avendia L2; they would go to the bus station and then to the Pra$a 21 de Abril. Rodolfo's face appeared in the window of the apartment. I ran to make the bus, not looking back. The bus station was bustling. Groups of students held banners with the names of schools from the satellite cities. I told my two friends I wanted to be alone and would meet up with them later, on Avenida W3. I climbed the platform, where I could see the entire Esplanade of Ministries and a stretch of the Lago Paranoá. I'd asked Rodolfo for another rubber drift boat; I wouldn't fall asleep again. I would remain alert, as I'd been during my walk back to the North Wing on the afternoon of March 29. I recalled the body of the man between the white Dauphine and the Veraneio, the policeman's hand on the neck of the skinny woman, forcing her to watch as the man writhed in pain, covered in blood; the other hand tore her blue shirt, exposing her small white breasts in the headlights, brighter than the afternoon light. The other policeman called out, "Let's get back to the station!" [End Page 97]
What had happened back at the station?
A green-and-yellow bus drove down the Monumental Axis. The water of the lake grew dark in the June afternoon. I thought about my friends and their courage, Rodolfo in the window, his face looking straight at me, a gaze made dim by the distance. If you're arrested again, only God can set you free. The Teatro Nacional is a pyramid without an apex; the unfinished work looks like the largest mausoleum in all of BrasÍlia; all the capital's dead heroes could fit inside. The sun, weaker now, illuminates two faces of the pyramid. Army vehicles protect the Esplanade of Ministries and the presidential palace. I was going to walk in the direction of Avenida W3; I imagined Dinah's voice in the middle of the crowd, but another voice was calling to me, a deep voice that makes a coward of me.
That's what I think now, on this autumn afternoon in Paris. The butcher and the frame store are closed, the market-goers have already left, the chilly wind rustles the leaves of the trees along the Rue d'Aligre. A coward turned his back on the protest, crossed the Monumental Axis, and slowly made his way to the North Wing, rehearsing what he'd say to his father, like a defendant inventing an alibi to acquit himself.
Rodolfo was waiting for me next to the window, with an expression on his face that I would never decipher. He walked slowly towards me.
"Are you trying to mess up my plans?"
I was going to tell him that I hadn't gone to the march on Avenida W3. I mumbled a few indistinct sounds that were heard by no one: stifled words, imprisoned thoughts.
"Now I understand why your mother didn't want to live with you … No one wanted you … Not your mother, not your grandmother … Not even that amateur photographer uncle of yours …"
My voice broke loose from my cowardice and gained an unknown force. I repeated over and over again: "She left you for a second-rate artist …"
I didn't react to the blow to my face.
Universidade de BrasÍlia Campus, 1968
A single sheet of paper—a page from a novel written in English—escaped from the bonfire of books in the center of the athletic field. Later, heading to the apartment in the North Wing, I recalled the terror-stricken face of the ambassador of the United States at Two Candangos Auditorium; the diplomat had spoken about the donation of hundreds of books by American writers to the central library of the Universidade de BrasÍlia. He spoke in Portuguese, without looking at the banners protesting the war in Viet Nam and the accord between the Ministry of Education and the US Agency for International Development. A blond, reed-thin student walked up to the stage and raised a sign: we stand with the workers and students of france. In the first row, a man stood up and turned to [End Page 98] the audience. "I'm Romero Blanco, professor of anthropology. It's absolutely ridiculous to interrupt the ambassador's speech—"
A rag doused in black paint hit Blanco in the face. In the ensuing tumult, I snuck out of the auditorium, ran to Oca Pavilion, and waited there on the residence balcony. The ambassador's car left the campus, escorted by a motorcade, as though it held a coffin. I saw a group of students tossing piles of books onto the athletic field; I saw the fire spread until it consumed the entire mountain of paper; I heard the pop of burning pages, a crackling like grasshoppers being burned alive. Dinah argued with two of the fire-wielding students. The Northerner grabbed books from the athletic field and placed them in a plastic bag. I left Oca and walked to a dirt tract that led to Avenida L2. I went to my bedroom to write a poem about a single sheet of verse soaring skyward across the endless savanna.
I sat there thinking about Dinah. I didn't write the poem in the end. Nothing at all. [End Page 99]
Milton Hatoum was born in Manaus, Amazonas, in 1952 and studied architecture at the Universidade de São Paulo. His debut novel, Relato de um certo Oriente (Tale of a Certain Orient), was published in 1989 and won the Jabuti Prize. His second novel, Os irmdos (The Brothers), was published in 2000 and has been translated into a dozen languages and adapted for television and stage. His other works include the 2005 novel Cinzas do norte (Ashes of the Amazon), which won the Jabuti Prize, the Bravo! Award, and the Portugal Telecom Prize; the 2008 novel Orfãos do Eldorado (Orphans of Eldorado), which was adapted for the screen; and the 2009 short-story collection A cidade ilhada [The island city]. He is a columnist for O Estado de S. Paulo and O Globo newspapers. In 2017 he was nominated Officier de L'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres.