Tag Archives: favelas

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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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

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