Category Archives: Brazil

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.

5 Comments

Filed under brasil, Brazil, existentialism, fiction, freedom, ideas, life, literature, love, philosophy, truth, writing

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.

2 Comments

Filed under art, brasil, Brazil, existentialism, freedom, ideas, life, literature, truth, writing

The truth and narrative, 1: my life with Graham Greene

This is the first of three posts on writers whose work has influenced the course of my own life.  The writers are Graham Greene, Julio Cortázar and Roberto Bolaño.  In these writers I have seen myself in futures, presents, and pasts.

Travels with My Aunt

It started when I saw glimpses of the film, Travels with My Aunt, late at night on television.  I was doing homework or something.  What I noted then, and what I remember now, is the face of a very young Cindy Williams on a train with Alec McGowen as Henry Pulling.

I was in college already, but still living at home with my parents.  I had these vague ideas of wanting to explore the world, do something exciting, see places no one in my family ever had seen.  Later, I noticed the book on a shelf in the house and read it.  What I remember best from the book is Pulling’s trip by boat up the Rio Paraguay, from Buenos Aires to Asunción.  I knew then what I wanted to do with my life.

My mother, it turned out, was quite fond of Graham Greene.  She was fluent in Spanish for reasons she never told me, though I cannot recall whether she declined to say or I simply failed to ask.  As a college student in Pennsylvania, she had gone to Mexico City one summer to study abroad, a trip that led her to New Orleans and Loyola University, where she met my father in 1960.  At Loyola, she paid her bills in college by teaching Spanish at Mercy Academy, a Catholic girls’ prep school next to the campus.  She told me Travels with My Aunt was a frivolous book and that the really good Green was in The Power and the Glory, his novel of a “whiskey priest” trying to escape persecution during the Mexican Revolution and its aftermath.  I read the book and though I agreed with my mother, I never stopped thinking about Asunción.

Mexico City

In the summer of 1984 it was my turn, and I went off to Mexico City in the very same program my mother had gone on 25 years earlier.  My Dutch friend was on the Mexico trip the year before, and he gave me the names of two girls, R and E, and told me to look them up.  He’d had a crush on E, who worked in the big bus station and lived in a poor neighborhood on the outskirts of Mexico City, where 2-room cinder block houses crept up the hillsides surrounding the city.  E was indeed the prettier of the two, but I fell in love with R.

She was older than I was by about seven years, which at the time seemed like a lot.  She took me to Coyoacan, where we sat on park benches until three in the morning kissing and talking under the stars, which we could not see but knew were there above the constant soup of Mexico City smog.  We talked about Frida Kahlo and listened to jazz.  We drank tequila over art and philosophy and revolution with her friends.  During the days, in between classes in US-Mexican Diplomatic History and Spanish, I took Graham Greene novels from the library and devoured them.  The End of the Affair, The Comedians, The Human Factor, and others.  I marveled at the stories he told, so strong and bold and confident.  I read Greene and knew what I wanted to do with my life.

Rio de Janeiro and Asunción

I imagined I was reading biographies of the lives I wanted to lead, perhaps without the Russian Roulette but nonetheless in that Greenean world of strained romance and moral decay.  By the time I was 23 I was on my way to Asunción, albeit over land by bus from Rio de Janeiro, where I had just spent 6 weeks interviewing people in favelas during the day.  Favelas were the infamous slums that clung to the mountainsides of Rio and lined the bottoms of its swamps.  In the favelas, marginal people lived on the extremes of the most spectacular scenery on earth.  By night I played music with my friend Rogerio do Maranhão, who had standing gigs at Maria Maria in Bota Fogo and a pasta house in Copacabana.  We sang for food, beer and women.

... portrait of the author as a young musician

In Asunción, I stayed with the family Weiss, who were hosting Brother Alexis Gonzales, a theatre director from Loyola, mom’s and my old alma mater.  One night, after hanging out with the actors past curfew—these were Stroessner’s last days—I came home to find everyone on the street in their night clothes.  Minutes earlier, some Colorados drove by and shot up the house. They didn’t like Alexis’s production of Princípios, a play about censorship in Latin America. We pulled bullets from the walls and kept them as souvenirs.

Along the way, Greene stayed with me.  He wrote at a disciplined clip of five hundred words per day and produced almost a novel a year for forty years. His stories played on the compromised decisions of flawed men in decadent contexts.  With le Carré, Greene was the ultimate Cold War novelist, the two of them forming bookends around the era’s great struggles and grand themes, le Carré in Europe and its near environs, Greene everywhere else, across Latin America, Africa, and Asia.  They were our literary secret agents, searching for (and finding) the same themes every where they looked, morphing effortlessly into the same man with a different name everywhere they went.

Greene wrote about people and places that were not his native contexts, though when he did touch his own world, as in The End of the Affair, the results were breathtaking.  I was drawn most to his wanderlust and his ability to create compelling stories in so many different places.  Still I wondered—why did Greene make such sense to me?  Was it because I, too, was an outsider, a privileged white thrill-seeker in worlds brown and black and poor and altogether far away from the places I knew?

Yet critical post-colonial narrative was not something I could sustain for very long.  I was too good-humored and guileless.  This was a chicken and egg story that after a while could be anything and nothing at all.  Like all narratives it was mostly about justification and never really got to the heart of the matter.  Disciplined writing in an inevitably tainted world of compromised good and stilted vengeance was, on the other hand, a narrative I could understand.

Notes and Credits

I was inspired to go up the hills by my advisor at Tulane and by a book called The Myth of Marginality by Janice Perlman.  Perlman went to the favelas and lived there and worked with the residents even as the military government at the time was razing their neighborhoods and resettling the residents in modern slums further from the center of town.  I called Perlman from S’s dorm room at Louisiana State University one Sunday morning as the fog of a hangover left me, to ask Perlman about doing this kind of work.  “Go, do it,” she said, without specifying anything more specific about how to do it or whom to ask for help.  I didn’t speak to her again until 2006, almost 20 years later, and in 2007 I was able to contract her to evaluate the program I ran at the New York Academy of Medicine.  In 2010, she published a sequel to Myth of Marginality called Favela, in which she revisits the favelas and favelados she wrote about n the early 1970s.  She was able to find the children and grandchildren of her original subjects and the new book is a compelling story of coming full circle, as all narratives eventually do.

Cover photograph of Travels with My Aunt from the Wikipedia article about the novel, found here and used under fair use principles.   The photograph of Greene’s gravesite is also from Wikimedia and is used under the Creative Commons license.

Photograph of the author from his personal collection, no doubt to be sold one day for millions (in Monopoly money?) on E-Bay.  I cannot recall the name of the restaurant in Copacabana where we used to play, but here’s another of my friend Rogerio, from the same time.

Rogerio do Maranhão

2 Comments

Filed under art, Brazil, freedom, individuality, life, philosophy, postcolonialism, truth, writing, youth

The truth and fearlessness

Macha Chmakoff, Daniel et l'ange dans la fosse

My God has sent his angel and closed the lions’ mouths so that they have not hurt me.

Daniel 6:23

Of those who are fearless, there two kinds:  the reckless and the serene.

The reckless attract more followers, for they are dashing and dramatic.  Yet that which is dramatic is also sloppy and careless.  The reckless laugh in the face of danger, but only because doing anything else would seem lifeless and limp.  The reckless cannot appreciate the little things, nor can they understand the subtle, warm moments in between danger, fear, excitement and ecstasy.  They see and feel only in extremes and abandon all judgment in between.  They search out life at the margins where few dare to go or dwell and in this they seem like heroes, but they are not.  Heroes can understand triumph in sadness, and they always know where they are.  The reckless, by comparison, are lost.

I—I can remember
Standing, by the wall
And the guns, shot above our heads
And we kissed, as though nothing could fall
And the shame, was on the other side
Oh we can beat them, for ever and ever
Then we could be heroes, just for one day

David Bowie, “Heroes” (1977)

Fearless Heroes

The serene can be heroes.  They know where they are and what they want.  They are motivated by the desire to do the right thing, and they do so regardless of the odds of success or failure.  They are not reckless because they endanger no one but themselves.  They accept the risk even as they try to minimize it because they are as simply human as the rest of us and they do fear death and pain and suffering.

Giotto, St. Francis Preaching to the Birds

Heroes who are fearless and serene become vessels for a love larger than they are.  They seek nothing from their actions but to be made even more whole in the act of giving to another.  St. Francis of Assisi—once a street brawler, solider, and libertine—found his calling in service to the poor and in love for the animals.  He became the friend of all those in harm’s way, the trampled upon, oppressed, and marginal.   The prayer of St. Francis puts all of this in simple verse.  We used to sing it in church when I was a child.

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace
where there is hatred, let me sow love
where there is injury, pardon
where there is doubt, faith
where there is despair, hope

where there is darkness, light
where there is sadness, joy.

O Master, grant that I may never seek
so much to be consoled as to console
to be understood, as to understand
to be loved, as to love
for it is in giving that we receive
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned
and it is in dying that we are born to Eternal Life.

Amen.

Modern Heroes

Padre Bruno Secchi and Pastora Rosa Marga Rothe—he a Catholic priest and she a Lutheran Minister—are both human rights workers in Brazil. I met them in 1992, as I was beginning fieldwork for research on social movements and politics.

Padre Bruno came to Brazil in 1964 and in 1970 founded the República of Emaús, a ministry with street children.  Emaús has just celebrated its 40th anniversary and is still going strong.  Padre Bruno’s work is dedicated to creating the space and opportunity for street children to grow into productive, happy people.  It is humble work, dedicated not to changing these children but to allowing them to find their potential and calling in life.  Emaús in Belem was a part of the worldwide movement that eventually resulted in the UN’s Convention on the Rights of the Child, which was ratified in 1989.  The CRC is a milestone on the path to a better world, appointing the rights of the child in the world we would like to have, not the world we know right now.

Rosa Marga I have written about already, in the Tamba-Tajá stories.  She teaches and practices liberation theology, the interpretation of Jesus’s life and works as a message of liberation for the oppressed and marginalized of the world.  She has been a leader in the women’s movement in Brazil and Belém.  From 1997 to 2005, she was the Ombudswoman for the State Police in Pará, responsible for representing and investigating claims against corruption, brutality, or human rights violations by the police.  In this position, she received international recognition.  She and her family took me in as a friend.  There is always much joy in her house.

Giotto, "St Francis Giving his Mantle to a Poor Man"

In 2004, along with my colleague Sasha Abramsky, I once again interviewed Padre Bruno and Rosa Marga for my work as a researcher.  Afterwards, I reflected on what I had learned from them over all these years.  I was struck by their constancy in the face of overwhelming odds.  They work for the small victories and see joy in every one, rather than the long road left.  Serenity, I thought, is what makes them so effective and compelling.  Without serenity, they would not be able to endure the suffering that their struggles have brought them personally.  Without serenity they would not be able to bring young people into adulthood with hope, promise, and love.

The theologian Reinhold Niebuhr wrote the “Serenity Prayer” at some point in the 1930s.  It has been widely adopted by many who struggle with changing themselves in a world that resists change.

God, give us grace to accept with serenity
the things that cannot be changed,
Courage to change the things
which should be changed,
and the Wisdom to distinguish
the one from the other.

What is remarkable about people like St. Francis, Padre Bruno, and Rev. Rosa Marga, is that the “wisdom to distinguish the one from the other” leads them to take on the most enduring and difficult challenges of all.  That is real heroism.

Notes and Credits

The opening image is “Daniel et l’ange dans la fosse” (“Daniel and the Angel in the Pit”) by Macha Chmakoff (www.chmakoff.com), a contemporary painter who has an extensive set of works in Biblical themes and images.  The original painting is oil on canvas, 52″ x 39″ (130 x 97 cm).  Ms. Chmakoff is a psychoanalyst and painter who has been exhibited across France and has gained international noteriety for her paintings.  The image was provided by Ms. Chmakoff and is used here with her permission.  She recently had a reproduction of one her paintings, “Jésus, souviens-toi de moi,” exhibited between the columns of the Église de la Madeleine, the magnificent Greek classical church in Paris.

David Bowie’s song “Heroes” was recorded in Berlin with Brian Eno, near the Berlin Wall. When guitarist Tony Visconti and backup singer Antonia Maass snuck away for a kiss near the wall, Bowie wrote them into the song and they became heroes.  The song is a masterpiece of experimentation that sounds so much less than experimental today.  Radical as it was in its day, it’s purely beautiful today, and its sentiment is timeless.

The images of “St. Francis Preaching to the Birds” and “St Francis Giving his Mantle to a Poor Man” are from the series of frescoes known as “The Legend of St. Francis,” which can be found in the Upper Church of the Basilica de San Francesco in Assisi, Italy.  The frescoes date from 1297-1300 and are usually attributed to Giotto de Bondone, though they may have been done by several painters.  These images are taken from The Atheneum, an organization devoted to making tools for art, scholarship and community-building available over the Web.  They encourage people to post photographic images of art from around the world and then make it possible for others to repost and use that art in ways that will bring it to others.

St. Francis’s ministry to animals and to the poor are radical and enduring parts of his ministry.  St. Francis is a constant reminder of the simple fearlessness in Jesus’s ministry.

A Note on Heroes, Villians, and Justice

Not all who are serene and fearless can be called heroes.  I have chosen to dedicate this post to the heroes, but I have to recognize that villains, too, can be fearless and serene.  In this way, they are like heroes, even though they are not.  Let me clarify.

Only those who work for the cause of justice are heroes.  There are others who are equally fearless and serene but who are concerned only for themselves, their narrow interests, and personal pleasures.  They are sociopaths.  Those sociopaths who intentionally harm others are the criminals of sensational accounts in films, television, books, and magazine.  They are rapists and serial killers and destroyers.  Some find a legitimate outlet for their urges in mercenary exploits, military conquest, dogma, and institutional authority.  These sociopaths are dangerous and horrible, but they are not numerous.

Far more pernicious are sociopaths whose violence is exerted at a distance under the cover of ideology and reason.  They kill without ever coming close to the trigger.  They command armies and industries.  They tell us we need them in order to live our own lives and that without them we would not have jobs or homes or food to put on the table.  They are serene.  They are fearless.  They are all around us and hidden in our midst.  “Sometimes Satan,” Bob Dylan sang, “comes as a man of peace.”

As for justice, there are many definitions, but I prefer to keep it simple.  That which reduces needless suffering and cruelty is just.  The definition of needless suffering and cruelty usually is apparent by sight alone, without words.  Once people start to bring words into play, the cause of justice is damaged.  This is a cruel irony for those of us who are writers and seek to paint beauty in words.

The Convention on the Rights of the Child is one of the UN’s landmark accomplishments.  It is a form of aspirational justice, more a signpost on the way to the world we would like to live in than a description of the world we have.  All member-nations of the UN have signed on to the CRC, except for two:  Somalia and the United States of America.  Serenity now.

2 Comments

Filed under art, beauty, Brazil, danger, death, existentialism, ideas, life, truth

The truth and amoebas

The mighty amoeba

Your body isn’t your own,
exposed for all it really is:
permeable, full of holes,
part of the world.
A floating thing tossed and spit
on tumbling water not always clear,
you become home to others,
little animals here
at play in the world.
You could be a tree, or grass, under
tiny feet that make no sound of their own,
their steps heard in quickened heartbeats
and restless groans
that shake the world.
You’re full of holes that leave
you open, a window lost of glass,
panes rattling, short of breath,
waiting, waiting, hoping to pass
this sense of a world
stumbling moments from death,
moments from life.

____________

The name of the poem is Sickness.  I wrote it in Belém in February of 1993, as I was coping with the onset of amoebic dysentery.  It was rather a rough time, and this, the worst and latest in a cascade of different ailments since my arrival in Brazil the previous November.  I was adjusting to my new home, I told myself, but I began to re-conceive my relationship to the world.  Except for a bout of the flu at age 9 and a one-day bug at age 13, I’d never been seriously ill in my life.  When I met the amoebas, my body-as-fortress gave way to a new understanding of myself as a being in the world, no different really than a bug, participating in the world along with all the other creatures of existence, open to all those creatures, part of the landscape.  In the world – the amoebas helped me understand Heidegger and Sartre.

We’re all part of the landscape here, guests of each other, parts of each other.  Somewhere in the human genome, shot through my body and yours, there is DNA that we inherited from a common of ancestor with amoebas.  According to Richard Dawkins in his lovely The Ancestor’s Tale, our most recent common ancestor (MRCA in biospeak) would have existed between about 1.3 and 2 billion years ago.  This being, some kind of single-celled thing, would have eventually given rise to amoeba and other protozoans, in one evolutionary path, and the things that became plants and animals on another path.

Most recent common ancestor, collapsed tree

All creation is locked in struggle for the limited energy of this world.  This struggle produces rainforests when so many beings stretch to outdo others in an effort to trap the sun.  The struggle produces abundance as well as scarcity, cooperation as often as annhiliation, and a long-standing collaboration between us humans and the hoards of friendly bacteria (and even some amoeba) that live inside our bodies and help us be “human,” as it were.

Notes and Credits

A really interesting article about amoebas can be found here, by Wim van Egmond, and it includes really great photos of amoebas in action.  The photo of an amoeba at the beginning of this posting is taken from the site, Helpful Health Tips, which discusses the causes and treatments for amoebic dysentery.  More detail on the different kinds of amoebas can be found in this piece on Innvista.  Getting past dysentery meant mountains of Flagyl and a lot of examinations and tests, not only in Brazil but also after I got back to the US in 1993 and in 1994.  I never was the same again, but then again, were we ever?

When I was looking around the web for amoeba-related sites, photos, and such, I came across this company, Rogue Amoeba Software, LLC, and it’s blog.  It has nothing to do with this post specifically, except that it’s a very cool name for a company, and especially suggestive for a software firm.  Our computers and their software are, like our bodies, permeable, full of holes,
part of the world
.  We’ve made information systems in our image, both on purpose and by accident, just as it was presumed by some we ourselves were made.

4 Comments

Filed under ageing, body, brasil, Brazil, entropy, existentialism, life, philosophy, truth, vanity, youth

The truth and the still

Parintins, Brasil 1993

The still photograph is not so still.  The photograph asks questions.  It suggests a story.  It presents an idea in a language without words.  It is even as it signifies. Video killed nothing, and the still photograph survives (even as the radio star carries on).  Unlike video, you can take the still photograph in.  You have a role in your experience of the photograph.  It speaks to you at a speed that you can handle, that doesn’t overwhelm, that invites your participation and imagination.  You can look into its nooks and crannies and seek out all it has to offer.  All this at your own pace, and for your own reasons.

Snow on Sterling Place, Brooklyn 2005

The still photograph is a water that runs deep.  If it seems to sit there, that’s its charm.  The still makes you active, because it’s impossible to just look.  Indeed, that’s the point, and all the while the still is not nearly inert.  It just moves differently, at a different pace, like a tree.

Detail of a rock on the beach, Long Island Sound, 2009

You fill the stillness with motion, the silence with voices.  You hear these people, feel the breeze come across the flowers, sympathize with a long face or smile with happy eyes.  Or you imagine the immediate suspension of all motion and noise and concentrate on only the image and the miracle of capturing time itself.

Intensity . . .Prospect Park, Brooklyn, 2009

Video?  Its harsh, grating noise, the motion too fast to keep up with – video steals your ability to think about what you’re seeing and replaces your mind with its own images.  The difference between the still photograph and video is the difference between democracy and dictatorship.

Fixing the sidewalk, Prospect Park Parade Grounds, Brooklyn 2009

Notes and Credits

On December 15, 2009, I had the opportunity to hear two award-winning photographers, Lynsey Addario and Damon Winter, discuss their work at the Museum of the City of New York.  After the panel discussion, one member of audience asked them if they were experimenting with video, given the prominence of video on the Web and current developments in social media and journalism.  Of course they were interested, but they were still committed to the still photograph.  That’s what got them aroused in the first place, and the still continues to drive them today.  Moderater Kathy Ryan, photo editor for the NYT Magazine, chimed in that photos are still much more popular than videos on the Magazine’s website, perhaps because the photos allow the viewer to control what they are seeing.  So that got me thinking . . .

Sidewalk fixed, December 2009

All the photos featured in this post were taken by the author.  Go back and double-click them to see a larger view.  Enjoy.  If you want to see some interesting and incredible photos by others more talented and adept with shutters than I, check out the work of some friends at T’INGS, Chloe, and the No Words Daily Pix on Only the Blog Knows Brooklyn.

Astor Place, New York 2009

6 Comments

Filed under art, beauty, Brazil, freedom, ideas, journalism, life, media, Park Slope, philosophy, politics, truth

Tamba-Tajá, 3

Nego and his little brother outside the family’s house in Moju.  This the final installment of Tamba-Tajá, the story of a trip to rural Amazonia in 1993.  Double-click the photos to see them in original size.

______________________________________________________

We ate our fill at Nego’s uncle’s place.  It was nice, after a long morning of travelling on a hangover.  We had a lot of things to carry, bags of food and drinks, some clothes, and things from the city that Aluízio brought for the people we’d see on the way.  All fed, we started down the path single file, away from the road, the little house, the clearing, and into the woods.  We were carrying a lot, but behind us we left some sacks of food and other things – we’d be back to get them.

The family farm was a couple more kilometers through the woods.  The trees were tall and lush and green.  Leaves littered the forest floor off the path, which began to turn and then turn back again, as if cutting back to go up a steep hill or mountain, only the land was flat.  Flat and densely covered with trees and shrubs.

After a good bit of walking, we came to a creek – igarapé – that had cut a gorge about 6 feet deep and maybe 20 feet across.  It wasn’t terribly deep, but it was enough to slow us down a bit.  Another 20 or 30 minutes and we arrived at the house, which was surrounded by fruit trees of all sorts.  Huge limes hung from one, and we’d use those limes later to bathe in the igarapé behind the house.  The house was shingled on one side, straight boards on another, with windows open to the air and what seemed like a lot of space as we approached.  You could see through the spaces between the boards.  There was no electricity.  The water came from a well drawn by a hand crank, up to a thousand-liter tank 10 meters up atop a scaffold.  PVC piping brought the water down from the tank and into the house.

On the other side of the path, in front of the house, there were fields of manioc and pepper plants.  Pepper was supposed to the salvation of Amazonian smallholders, a marketable crop easy to grow in the climate and soil conditions.  Some folks made money on it, but few were truly saved.

The women settled into the house.   They wiped the dust from the tables and chairs.  They opened the hammocks we would sleep in and hung them from the house’s frame.  They began cooking.  The man who took care of the place while the family was in Belém came round with the horse, and we took the charrette back to the road to fetch sacks of food and other things needed for the next few days.

Cajú

Later, I went off with the men into the forest.  Aluízio wanted to show me his Amazonia.  We brought a bottle of cachaça (ka-SHA-sa), a clear, potent cane liquor, and we walked along pulling cajú from the trees.  The cajú grows as a fruity, pulpy bulb with a nut, the cashew, hanging from its end.  After a slug of cachaça, you suck on the juice from the cajú to dissipate the burning sensation of alcohol on your tongue.  We did this for an hour, stopping from time to time for Aluízio to show me the plants near the ground and explain each one’s medicinal purpose.

After a bit, we reached the virgin rainforest.  The trees were as large around as any I’d ever seen, taking three or four men to encircle a trunk, hand to hand. They grew high in their struggle for sunlight, competing with each other as they threw up ever larger leaves, leaving very little light to filter down to the forest floor, were it was damp and cool.  In the forest, you feel a chill even as you sweat under the leaves.

Vines hung everywhere and swayed with the gentle breeze that ran through the trees.  Bird sounds came from every direction, a dense concert in the round of cackling and crowing, the flapping of wings and stirring of leaves.  Echoing caws of differing pitch and resonance shot through the distance from near and far.  This was the sound of the forest breathing.

We took a twisted path through the woods and then headed back to more settled places.  We stopped to visit neighbors who lived further from the beaten path, in houses of wattled clay daubed onto wood frames made of sapling branches and topped with palm fronds.  The clay dried hard as bricks, but I thought it must take a beating in the rain.

One man was making birdcages from reeds and bamboo, fine little pieces fitted together.  He caught forest birds and sold them to another man, who took the birds in their hand-made cages to Belém, where he sold them to another man, who in turn sold them on the streets of the city to visitors and local people alike.  Of the three men involved, the one in the middle made the most money.

The farmers were talking about the price of pepper and whether or not they’d make any money this year.  Then the conversation turned to the price of lumber, and Aluízio asked one farmer if he was going to cut the madeira nobre – the valuable wood, like mahogany – on his land.  Some of it might wind up going into beautiful headboards and armoires for sale at specialty importers in Chicago.  Some would wind up as yet another wall for yet another room on yet another house in Jurunas.

Back at the farm, darkness began to close in as the women put out the food for dinner.  Beans with chicken and meat, rice, fruit, bread, crackers, coffee and farinha, the raw manioc flour grown right there.  We mixed the farinha into everything. Farinha de manioc isn’t much to speak of in taste or nutrition, but it stretches the food on your plate and lets you “fool the stomach” into thinking you’ve eaten much more than you have.  It tastes good with the beans and brings a crunchy texture to the soupy froth.

By dark, the house was lit with a couple of kerosene lamps not larger than Bunsen burners.  A soft light, it brought out the curves and contrasts in everyone’s faces as we talked about life, the weather, the family.  OOOOOO-go!, the boy’s mother rang out time and again as the he ran about making noise, upsetting things carefully stowed and stacked and, in general, being a boy.  Nego took out his guitar, and we all went outside to sit under the trees and sing.  Nego played.  His brother played.  I played.  We shared our stories and ideas and adventures.

Between songs and laughter, the forest told its own stories as the birds calmed and other noises came.  Nego told of the time he spent a week at the house by himself.  The forest noises scared him so much he would never do it again.  Aluízio told older stories about jaguars and snakes and mythical creatures who came out of the forest at night and are sometimes men in appearance.  Legend had it that the boto, the pink freshwater dolphin found in the Amazon, would turn into a tall white man in a white hat and white suit, showing up at the village dance to sweep a young girl off her feet and take her back to the enchanted city under the river, where the boto made her his queen.

We became tired and went inside.  I crawled into my hammock and pulled up the sheet under a chill.  I listened to the night forest and fell asleep to the sounds of snoring and swaying hammocks.

Crossing the Moju River, Aluízio, Dona Maria, and Nego (Augusto)

Notes and Credits

The photos for this installment of Tamba-Tajá are all from my 1993 trips to the farm with Nego, except for the photo of the cajú, which is from Wikipedia Commons.  The Tamba-Tajá closed by 1995.  Nego got married and moved to a small town in the interior of Pará, a town much like Moju, where he became a school teacher – music of course.  The small town life in Amazônia is what suited him, so I imagined he was, and still is, happy there.

Writing this post has taken me on an interesting journey through my old photos and Brazilian research material, in search of journals and photographs, things to help jog my memory about certain events.  I know I have a journal entry somewhere on this trip, but I can’t find it.  It’s probably on an old 3.5″ floppy disk somewhere in a box under my son’s bed.  I looked through those boxes just now.  Among other things, I found the daily calendar I kept in 1993, showing the dates of the trip recounted in this story:  I arrived at the Tamba-Tajá around 10 p.m. on Friday, January 8 and came back on Tuesday, January 12.  It was the first of a couple more trips, including Holy Week and Easter, April 8-11.  One day I will find the journal entries and figure out how well my memory has recounted these events so many years later.

The land issues encountered by the smallholders who Aluízio talked with in this story are quite difficult.  I deleted a couple paragraphs from an earlier version of the story that got into those issues; they didn’t work for the story I wrote.  But they are real.  The further south you go from Belém, the more dangerous it gets, southern Pará being rife with more land conflict than any other place in Brazil during the 1990s.  Church people and unionists tried to organize the small farmers and ranch hands, but they were constantly harassed by the big farmers and their henchmen, who as often as not were also the local police.

A good up-to-date article on land issues in Amazônia appears here, by Paulo Cabral for the BBC.  The murder of Sr. Dorothy Stang, of the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur, an international Catholic religious order that works for social justice and human rights, was a major issue in Brazil and internationally.  A lot more could be written and said about these issues, and I’m working on writing something that was inspired by Rosa Marga Rothe and the Book of Daniel.  Coming soon …

For now, I’d like to leave this story with a photo I took of Rosa Marga and Iza that I took in 1998, not too long before Iza passed away.  They started this story, and so they should end it.

Marga and Iza, Belém 1998

2 Comments

Filed under beauty, brasil, Brazil, danger, food, life, truth