Monthly Archives: September 2010

The truth and narrative, 3: my life with Roberto Bolaño

1987

I met Gondim in Rio de Janeiro in 1987.  He brought me to Morro dos Prazeres, a favela whose name translates into English as “Hill of Pleasures.”  We took the streetcar from downtown up to the neighborhood of Santa Teresa, climbing a couple thousand feet along the way.  It was (and still is) Rio’s last streetcar line, and the trip is a step back in time.  At the end of the line, you arrive in Santa Teresa’s walled streets and tight alleys, a Bohemian retreat high above the Rio’s noise and splatter.  It’s a nice place, and the mountain air is cool.

One turn and a hundred feet down another street, Santa Teresa gives way to small houses climbing up the hillside in seemingly ramshackle fashion, stacked one atop the other to the sky.  Children play on rooftops, their kites hanging in the ocean breeze.  The two neighborhoods cling to each other on the steep hillsides of Rio de Janeiro in an uneasy relationship marked by occasional hostility, outbreaks of violence, and cheap domestic help.  The views are breathtaking across the Guanabara Bay.  Back in 1987, Gondim introduced me to Walter, the “professor,” a fan of Fidel Castro’s and leader of the neighborhood association in Morro dos Prazeres.  I spent time there talking to people, hanging out, following Walter around.

At that time, Gondim lived in Santa Teresa, among artists and musicians and dancers.  It was love and revolution all night long over cachaça, weed, and samba.  At night, and sometimes during the day, I played music anywhere I could, with Rogerio or for the girls on Avenida Atlântica between tricks, the ocean crashing across the road beneath the moon and the Southern Cross.

1992

Five years passed and I wasn’t a very good correspondent.  Neither was Gondim or Rogerio or anyone in Rio.  In 1992, I found Rogerio in Flamengo, the neighborhood down on the beach below Santa Teresa.  He asked me what I was doing, and I told him I was on my way to Belém.  Belém!, he screamed—there are only crooks and thieves and whores there! Madness to go there! he told me.  My people, I thought, and then he gave me his sister’s phone number and said I should look up her up when I get there.  Next I went to Gondim’s offices at the magazine, but the editor told me he had moved.  Where to? I asked.  Belém, she said, and she gave me a phone number.

In Belém, it was sweaty nights on the street in Cidade Velha with Gondim and his friends, among them Petit, a Catalan who had married a Belemense girl and become a professor at the university.  We drank beer, ate chicken and rice, and sang songs about everything.  With Marga (see the Tamba-Tajá stories) I took in the arrival of Iemanjá on the beach at Mosqueiro in 1992.  Márcia took me to her neighborhood, Bom Futuro, which like Morro dos Prazeres had a meaning that seemed at odds with its circumstance, “Good Future” in Portuguese.  We had great parties at her house and a photograph of all the women in her family, four generations, hangs in my office next to my desk, not far from a photograph of my own mother.

Bom Futuro was an invasão—they didn’t call them favelas in Belém—in a swampy area amid the mega-invasão of Área Cabanagem (pop 200,000) named after Oscar Neimeyer’s nearby monument to the slave and Afro-Native rebellion that occurred in Belém in the 1830s.  Chiquinho took me to his invasão in Aurá, a suburb about an hour or 90 minutes from central Belém by bus.  I spent years with him and his comrades as they struggled to pave the streets and keep the lights on.  I cherished these friends dearly, as I also loved M-J, who became my accomplice in dreams for a few years.

Then things changed.

The details are unimportant.  What matters is that things changed because I made decisions that I don’t understand today.  The right thing to do now seems so obvious, though it was so obviously the wrong thing to do at the time.  My mistake was not so much in doing right or wrong, but in doing either only half way.  I forgot my passion at some point, and my calling went to rest beneath a rock of responsibility or reason that did not suit me very well.  Maluco Beleza was the song I loved, and it became the life I lived a little by accident and not nearly enough by design.

2008

Years later, when I picked up The Savage Detectives in Brooklyn’s Community Bookstore, I felt like I found something I had lost.

My lives with Greene and Cortázar were there on Bolaño’s pages, in the stories of Arturo Belano, Ulises Lima and their band of poets—the visceral realists—by way of hundreds of small depositions from everyone who had crossed paths with them over four continents and twenty years, chronicling their lovers and affairs, their triumphs and tragedies and madness.  About half way through, the literary and historical sweep of the novel becomes staggering, Cortázar resurrected in the granularity of Bolaño’s storytelling and an entire generation of Latin American literature (including at least two Nobel prizes) left in the dust.  This was my world.

I laughed out loud on the subway to read Amadeo Salvatierra reminiscing on his hero during the years just after the Mexican Revolution (p. 396),

… I emerged from the swamp of mi general Diego Carvajal’s death or the boiling soup of his memory, an indelible, mysterious soup that’s poised above our fates, it seems to me, like Damocles’ sword or an advertisement for tequila …

And also at the exchange between Belano and Lima and Salvatierra over the one published poem by Cesárea Tinajero, the original visceral realist in the 1920s (p. 421),

Belano or Lima: So why do you say it’s a poem?

Salvatierra:  Well, because Cesárea said so … That’s the only reason why, because I had Cesárea’s word for it.  If that woman had told me that a piece of her shit wrapped in a shopping bag was a poem I would have believed it …

Belano:  How modern.

I felt my heart tug when Joaquín Font spoke about his release from the mental hospital where he’d spent the last several years (p. 400) …

Freedom is like a prime number.

… and when Edith Oster, a heart-broken, ill, displaced Mexican in Barcelona, told of how she went to find a payphone to call her parents in Mexico City (p. 436),

In those days, Arturo and his friends didn’t pay for the international calls they made … They would find some telephone and hook up a few wires and that was it, they had a connection … The rigged telephones were easy to tell by the lines that formed around them, especially at night.  The best and worst of Latin America came together in those lines, the old revolutionaries and the rapists, the former political prisoners and the hawkers of junk jewelry.

She had broken Belano’s heart, too, but the image brought me back to Vargas Llosa’s revolutionaries in Historia de Mayta, who sat around debating the finer points of Marxist theory in their garage, perched atop stacks of their party’s newspaper that had no readers and never saw the light of day, much less of a dim bulb or candle for covert reading in a dormitory, prison, or monastery.

Bolaño himself was at one time or another an old revolutionary, a former political prisoner, and a hawker of junk jewelry. Adding rapists to the mix only put down the rose-colored glasses of our generation’s passions and all those fights between Garcia Marquéz and Vargas Llosa as if to say “enough, already.”  Yet being Bolaño, it would have been more like a visceral scream from the front row during a book reading at a polite salon or book store.

The Savage Detectives is a fractured narrative told in the shards of pottery and broken mirrors laying about the floors of the places where Bolaño slept.  I read Bolaño and I saw what had become my life.

Notes and Credits

The photo of Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives was taken by the author on his nightstand.  This is the normal appearance of my end table.  I picked up the leather Brazilian street scenes in Salvador, Bahia, in 1993.

Bolaño’s biography is well-noted and I won’t go over it here, except to say that the last 10 years of his tragic life (cut short by terminal illness) was one of those artistic outpourings that will live in legend.  In a brief period of time, Bolaño the cast-off cast-away reshaped Latin America an became its voice (for now, at least).

The photo of Santa Teresa and Morro dos Prazeres comes from the Wikimedia Commons and a photographer named “chensiyuan.”  The photo of Belém from the Amazon River was taken by the author in 2000, arriving in Belém on a boat trip that began in Manaus about 10 days earlier.  The photograph of Bom Futuro was taken in 1995 on a visit to Márcia’s house. I’ve chosen for now to leave out my photos of Márcia, her family, and the parties we had.

The picture of the Bolaño graffiti was taken from gsz’s photostream on Flickr.  The photo of the author and Gondim was taken on the beach at Mosqueiro in 1995.  Mosqueiro is the old resort area of Belém, still within the city limits but on a remote island, where the elite used to have weekend vilas and houses.

Earlier this year, torrential rains caused flooding in Rio that resulted in a huge landslide in Morro dos Prazeres and other areas.  As a result, the mayor of the city developed a plan to remove the neighborhoods, on the pretext that the danger of flooding is no longer tolerable.  The problem with this logic, however, is that Rio’s favelas have always had this problem in the annual rainy season.  To many, it seems the floods are just an excuse to to solve some of Rio’s other problems with crime and drugs (really a police problem) by blaming the poor and tearing down their neighborhoods.

This is the same issue that drew Janice Perlman to the favelas in the 1960s and me there, later, in the 1980s.  Unfortunately, the problem of drugs and organized crime is all too real.  In 1987, when I was there, the police routinely went into Morro dos Prazeres and rounded up young men for summary executions – this as a warning to others and a means of controlling the population.  Twenty years later, the film Trope de Elite (Elite Squad) chronicled the same story, Morro dos Prazeres still there at the center.

The Memorial da Cabanagem is a landmark in Belém.  It was built by Governor Jader Barbalho after he became one of 9 resistance candidates to win election to governorships against the military regime in 1984.  The pretext is that Barbalho’s victory signaled a rebellion of Cabanagem-like proportions, the people rising up against the elite.  After humble beginnings, Barbalho himself has been governor twice and held seats in both the national congress and the senate, where he was that body’s leader for a short while until he was impeached while rumors and allegations of corruption mounted.  Barbalho is one of the richest men in Pará.  As with Fernando Collor, time conquers all, and Barbalho is back in the national congress representing Pará.  Jeferson Assis’s Flickr photostream has many images of the Cabanagem monument, as does Jeso Carneiro.

Bolaño’s rigged payphones reminds me of stories my friends told about the payphones in Washington Heights in the 1980s.  The Latin American drug traffickers (or so my friends said) would rig them to make free international calls, and everyone in the neighborhood used them.

When all is said and done, I wish peace to my friend Gondim and pray that I will see him again.

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Another year and we remember, 2010

For three years, from 2007 to 2009, I was able to look out of my living room window every September 11 and see the Tribute in Light over downtown New York.  Last year, I posted photos by my neighbor and myself.  Then, on 9.27.09, I moved to this apartment.  I can’t see downtown from there, though I can see the lights shooting up over the trees of Prospect Park, like strange sentinels of an Oz far away, beyond the woods.  I know there were events—call them vigils, rallies, protests, or demonstrations—down at Ground Zero, but I wasn’t there.  I was working all day at home, cataloging AIDS service organizations in the tri-state area for a research project.

This year, the arrival of 9.11 coincided with Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, and the end of Ramadan, the annual fast that is one of the five pillars of Islam.  On Friday, 9.10, my son had the day off from school because of the Jewish holidays, and his friend G came over to visit.  We played ball in the park and walked around the neighborhood to grab pizza at Bene’s and snacks at the grocery.

The Bangladeshis were all out on the street, families.  The men wear white pants and tunics, with their small white caps that are often embroidered and appear delicate and firm and strong all at the same time.  You see groups of men like this on the sidewalks of Coney Island Avenue on Friday evenings after mosque services.  The women wear beautiful long patterned dresses and veils of vivid colors.

During Rosh Hashanah every year, Hasidic Jews—mainly the men, I think—come out on the streets of Park Slope and all around Prospect Park and try to reach other Jews to celebrate their heritage.  Dressed in black suits with white shirts and black hats, they are polite and discreet as they ask everyone passing by a simple question, “Excuse me, are you Jewish?

Friday, as I walked my son over to his mom’s house after G left, we passed several along the park’s sidewalks.  They asked, and I think said, “No, not today” out of my habit with the usual assortment of canvassers for progressive causes who work the sidewalks of Park Slope.  But I might have said, “No, sorry” (why “sorry” I don’t really know).  My son asked why they were asking us, since we aren’t Jewish, and I explained what they were up to.   In a couple days, on 9.12, we would be going up to St. John’s Episcopal Church in Park Slope to celebrate mass with its mixed WASP and Caribbean congregation that we have come to cherish.

Thus it was that on, 9.11.2010, as my son and I walked home from the grocery on MacDonald Avenue through this jigsaw puzzle of religions, races, languages, ethnicities, foods and their smells, I thought about my old apartment and the sight I would not be able to see from my living room window.  I do not miss my old living room window.  I prefer the street the way it was today.  If there is anything that America has meant to me, it is this jigsaw that is not puzzling at all.

In a few weeks, the park will turn colors, and my walks over to pick up and deliver my son at his mom’s house will look like this.  Olmsted and Vaux, known more designing Central Park than Prospect Park, considered the latter to be their masterpiece, a place of recreation designed as a “democratic space” that breathed the essence of Whitman’s poetry in the war-torn republic.  And so it is.

Notes and Credits

I have my own opinions on the controversies brewing here in New York and around the country, along with my own doubts and fears about the future of the world, but that’s not what this posting is about.  Taking a break from all that, it’s just an observation about my neighborhood and the relatively tranquil days we’ve had here this week, in spite of it all.  Nothing more and nothing less.

Photographs of my apartment and the fall in Prospect Park taken by the author.  For a tour of the park and our neighborhood across the seasons, see The truth and every purpose and The truth and spring-time.

Photograph of the Bangladeshi women, all clients of the Grameen Bank, by a UN staffer and posted on this site.

I regret that I have no photo of the Tribute in Light over Prospect Park.  It’s moving in an entirely different way that the traditional photos of the lights over downtown are.  The park just looks like a forest, especially at night.   You really can’t see the city at all, especially if you can limit your view to the park itself.  At night, it’s like this but moreso.  The lights shoot up over the dark silhouette of treetops.  They seem to come from nowhere to announce a mystery looming in the distance.  Beacons, sentinels, signs of something distant and different.

This year, the lights had to be turned off a few times, because they attracted migrating birds, as Gizmodo reported:

According to John Rowden, citizen science director at the Audubon Society’s New York chapter, “it has only happened once before. It’s a confluence of circumstances that come together to cause this. Some of it has to do with meteorological conditions, and some with the phase of the moon.”

The images of the lights with the birds are some of the most beautiful photos I ever seen, reminding me of a stunning night in 1994 when I was walking along a road in Pretoria, South Africa, next to a ball park at dusk.  There was no game in the park, but the lights were on and hundreds of bats were flitting about them, feasting I suppose on the bugs in the lights.  Such was one theory of the birds in the Tribute in Light.  According to commenter deciBels, “If you’ve ever worked night construction, you’ve seen this all the time. Those big bright lights bring out big dumb bugs. What are 2 creatures that LOVE eating bugs? Birds and bats.”  See the incredible photos on the post, including this one from commenter, Baroness.

Our apartment building and this end of Prospect Park sit at the juncture of several neighborhoods.  Sweeping around the clock, starting at 11 o’clock in Windsor Terrace, the neighborhood is something like this, based on less-than-scientific observations I have made around the area since moving here:

11 o’clock—Italians, Irish, and Latinos/Puerto Ricans in Windsor Terrace, along with some (mainly white) yuppies (my tribe) who want to be close to Park Slope—9 o’clock—Jews of all sorts, trending more traditional (Orthodox) as you move to 6 o’clock and Borough Park and Midwood, along with Russians, Poles, Albanians and Bulgarians (European Muslims), and as you get over to MacDonald Avenue, Bangladeshis—6 o’clock—Banglatown all the way down MacDonald Avenue and Coney Island Avenue, Arabic and Bengali (I think) on all the signs until you get to Borough Park and the Orthodox Jews—5 o’clock—giant Victorian houses in the late-19th century suburban experiment called Prospect Park South, a bit mixed but very much the province of nice white liberals and yuppies on the move from Park Slope to bigger houses and easier parking—4 o’clock—as you head down Flatbush Avenue it’s a mix of Black Caribbeans and African Americans—3 o’clock—Jamaicans and other West Indians—and finally, all around the clock, Mexicans—Sunset Park (just west of Kensington) has a large and growing Mexican population, but the presence of Mexican taco stands, restaurants, cantinas, and bodegas all around my neighborhood is marked, though you don’t see the Mexicans on the street walking around the same way you do the Bangladeshis and others.

Neylan McBaine is a Mormon woman who lives in Park Slope and wrote a wonderful article about the Hasidic Jews on the sidewalks of the neighborhood this time of year.  See it here.  Finally, while writing this posting, on 9.11, I remembered to send my brother an email, Happy Birthday, bro.  Talk to you tomorrow.

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The truth and narrative, 2: my life with Julio Cortázar

In the midst of my Greenean visions, fueled from the outset by Pulling’s trip from Buenos Aires to Asunción, I picked up a novel called The Winners at my local bookstore.  I was still in college, and I hadn’t met R in Mexico City yet.

I was possibly still reading One Hundred Years of Solitude or soon to do so. This would have been immediately after exams, either in December or May, when I went to the book store to find novels to fill my holidays away from studies and those other books that gave me purpose without vision.

The Winners had a thick grey paperback cover with a waxy finish.  The design appealed to me, and I can say honestly that book design is an art I admire and cherish and that does indeed achieve its purpose of inviting me to open the book.  It was published by Pantheon, an imprint I always looked for because their titles were leftist and internationalist, like an American Verso.  The novelist was Julio Cortázar, an Argentine writer who was new to me at the time.

It was a narrative of people thrown together by chance.  They’d all won a cruise trip in a local lottery, but once out to sea it became clear that something was wrong.  They were prohibited from going certain places on the boat. There seemed to be a disease somewhere, but there was little information on what was happening and how it might end.  They created alliances and enemies and friends, like Lord of the Flies but not really.  Perhaps more like an inverted episode of Doctor Who, the British inter-galactic time and space traveler who would alight in different worlds and plunge head-first into local controversies and disputes—only in the case of The Winners, it was like a Doctor Who-less Doctor Who with Lord of the Flies-like consequences.

The Winners reflected the real world I knew at the time, in which people become intimately concerned with each other when circumstances gave them common stakes in something.  The something could be anything and was often potentially dreadful, but I was an existentialist.  Cortázar wasn’t my first attempt at anti-narrative or pre-postmodernity.  I’d just come off reading Ulysses and Gravity’s Rainbow in the same term. The difference between Pynchon and Cortázar was that I chose Cortázar, and next I read Hopscotch (Rayuela).  The die was cast.

My copy of Hopscotch was from the same grey-covered series on Pantheon.  I was captivated by the photograph of the thin strawberry-blonde woman on the cover, blouse off her right shoulder, looking down or away, smoke from her cigarette trailing upwards, obscuring her face.  The book came with “instructions” for reading—in linear form, in the order of my choosing, or Cortázar’s indications at the end of each chapter pointing the reader through the book in a semi-random way.  I chose the last alternative, which however random-seeming hung together around a life-time of doing what R and I did in Mexico City for the summer of 1984.

A few years later, in 1987, Sérgio talked about Cortázar as we drank chopp in the sidewalk cafes on Avenida Atlântica in Rio de Janeiro.  Sérgio was the 40-something son of Dona Nazaré, a nice woman in her 60s who rented her rooms as something of a cottage bed-and-breakfast business on Rua Duviver in Copacabana, one block from one of the most famous beaches in the world.  Sérgio was writer; he stood at a podium every day typing while standing, in an odd bedroom or in Nazaré’s kitchen, adding more words and pages to his self-described Kafkaesque stories about life in mid-twentieth century Brazil.  He would publish them on his own, but he had no grand ideas about how many copies they would sell.  For money, he had a state pension (disability after being sacked from a state job and tortured by the military regime), his mother, and the sales of his uncle’s paintings, which he hawked on weekends Copacabana and Leblón.  In whatever combination, it was enough.

Sérgio himself had walked off the pages of Hopscotch.  I liked him, in spite of his off-putting arrogance, and I added many like him to my cast of friends and supporters around Rio.  As we sat there under the umbrellas on Avenida Atlântica, Sérgio named the working girls, many of whom were friends of his and more than few of which, he made of point of mentioning, were not girls in the genetic sense of the word in spite of all (quite convincing I should add) evidence to the contrary.  Avenida Atlântica was his world, and for a while it became mine.  With Sérgio, I read Cortázar and heard a calling.

Notes and Credits

The opening photo is of a volume that R gave me when I visited her in Mexico City in the summer of 1986, Nicaragua tan Violentamente Dulce.  In the background, Gary Fuss’s photo of Chapter 7 of Hopscotch sits at the opening of an earlier version of this post.  Gary was kind of enough to allow me to use his photo, which can be found on his Flickr page here, along with many other interesting photos of Chicago and elsewhere.

The photos of Copacabana Beach and Cortázar’s grave site were both taken by the author, in 1987 and 2002, respectively.  This was the view of Copacabana from across Avenida Atlântica, where Sérgio and I would sit, talking and drinking chopp in the sidewalk restaurants.

My volumes of The Winners and Hopscotch have been lost, sold to the Dawn Treader bookstore along with 40 shelf-feet of books that I liquidated when I left Ann Arbor in the early 1990s.  This sale involved nearly every single book I had ever owned in my 28 years up to that point.  It was a literary purging.  I saved some (like my Pynchon) and would have thought Cortázar’s among them, but no.  To this day I can no longer find The Winners or Hopscotch (Rayuela) among my holdings.  Along they went with the lot, over $400 of books at about 50 cents per book.  At that point in my life, it was half a month’s salary.

It was a lot of books for anyone, 28 or 82, but books were where I lived to that point, in my head and in the imaginations of my writers.  For a while, I entered Dawn Treader lore, and a photograph taken from one of my books went on the store’s bulletin board with other artifacts retrieved likewise over the years.  I know that the photo stayed there for some time, a few years it seems.  I remember the woman reviewing my books for purchase was struck by the notes my father wrote on the cover page of every single he’d ever given me.  Perhaps there are still books of mine on the shelves.

In Brazil in 1987, I was fortunate to have brought Kafka’s The Castle.  It kept me company after Sergio’s lectures.  At home in the mid-1980s, I had Doctor Who—the Tom Baker version who with the lovely Romana took me all the other places literature and social science couldn’t.

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