Thursday, 1 October 2009


The mosquitoes don’t bother with me any longer. I am old meat now, says Brown in Graham Greene’s The Comedians (or at least he says something like that – I can’t find the quote right now). Brown is a man to be admired –he has elected to remain in an often difficult foreign country (Haiti) for no particular reason, or at least to remain after his reason for remaining has long gone, and now spends much time on his veranda drinking rum and gazing out into the darkness (speaking for oneself this is a lifestyle that can easily be identified with).

The Comedians is one of those books that might well be about Brazil even though it’s not about Brazil (Peter Robb believes Nostromo is another) and certainly it’s not that hard to imagine the chapter where the American Smith is wheedled by the Minister of the Interior of Greene’s Haiti taking place a bit closer to home (home, now, always, probably – being Brazil).

Though re-reading the book now I was struck by how much more terror there might be in a life and a world which was once civil and orderly (like Haiti in the book) or at least that once enjoyed a moment in the sun - until the phone stops to ring and there is darkness in the streets and there are no more guests in the hotels and fear circles through the town - than there might be in a country like Brazil which in some ways has never really grown up. By growing up I mean perhaps having faith and conviction in the idea of living in a single, unified society where things generally function as they are meant to and where there is a general idea of social responsibility and where a great many things exist for the common good, all of which should be overseen by a government that isn´t entirely self-interested. It could be argued that Brazil has never had exactly that, or if it has it hasn´t had it for very long.

This sounds a very negative thing to say about Brazil though it’s not intended to be. I believe quite strongly that everything everywhere will come around to pretty much the same place eventually, and that while Brazil might be a long way behind say England (a miserable place to live if ever there was one) in terms of social programmes and public order and ideas of effective government, it is not really that far behind at all (maybe twenty years or so), particulary given that England has had a hundred year head start in the concept of a government that exists to look after its people and isn´t there simply because being president is a pretty good job where you can lock up people you don’t like and get loads of freebies and can stuff as much cash down your underpants as you fancy. And if and when it does catch up then Brazil will be (as it probably already is anyway) a much finer place to live than England has ever been, generally because people here don´t entirely abhor the idea of coming into contact with others.

I feel I can come out with preposterous statements like this because I attended perhaps the greatest pre-Brazil training programme of them all, which was growing up in 1980’s Northern Ireland, where everything was a complete bollox of bloodshed and crookedness and black comedy and no-one ever believed it would be any different - until suddenly it was. Brazil is like that – I know that when I get to the place I am going this afternoon the playboyzinhos and patricinhas will be in uproar because of the ENEM university entry exams (which were due to be on Saturday but have been cancelled due to an enterprising janitor (I don’t care if it wasn’t a janitor – making him a janitor sounds better) being caught yesterday creeping out of the building with a Xerox of the questions in his hand. As a result 4 million or so studious Brazilians will have to wait another 45 days to do the test. To pre-empt the hand wringing and sighs of oh, it’s just Brazil, I googled similar crimes on the internet – and hey presto two examples from Irelands Norn and Sourn in the last ten years. So you see, kiddies – it’s not just Brazil, and it will change, and if you stop moaning and get off your arses and do something about it will change even quicker. Which would be nice, wouldn´t it?

Anyway – all this is a bit of a tedious digression from what I really wanted to say, which is that I’m now pretty much old meat for the mosquitoes myself, but the thing is that I’ll never be old Brazilian meat, no matter how hard I try, as I will now try to explain in gloriously convoluted fashion.

One thing that Ol’ Ryszard (see last entry) writes very well about is Herodotus, which is a good thing, given that he spends almost all of the book talking about reading Herodotus. And one thing Herodotus writes very well about, it seems, is assorted scrapping between various different countries and tribes in far flung times (war, as it’s commonly known). He writes about the Lydians having punch ups with the Persians, and the Persians knuckle dusting with the Massagetae. He tells us about people from Cyrene talking to the Ammonians, and the Ammonian king telling them about the Nasamones and all the crazy fun they get up to. Then he gets into a corker of a story about Darius The Persian King and the Babylonians, and then Darius The Persian King II, in which Darius lives gets down and dirty in Scythia. Anyway, it’s all great fun, only, what with my current situation and mindset being as it is, I could only really notice one thing.

Which is that with all these wacky tribes and countries beating seven bells out of each other, and then sitting down and talking to oracles and getting smashed on cheap moonshine and chomping down olives and goat cheese – how the hell does no-one call anyone else a gringo?

And leading on from that, do the Ammonians (or the Nasamones, or the Lydians, or whoever) charge the Cyrenians (or the Nasamones, or the Lydians, or whoever) double for their goat cheese? Do they laugh at the Ammonians (or the…ok, you get the picture) fifth century BC equivalent of wearing white knee socks with sandals? Don’t they try and nick the Ammonians cameras?

Because being gringo is a big thing for me, these days, being as I may as well have it tattooed on my forehead. The Ferrari breaks down, for example, or at least won’t start, so I ask the driver of the car next to me in the supermarket car park for a jump start. He looks at me. You’re not from here, are you? is his first comment. His opener! I get a bit steamed up, wondering what the hell difference it makes to the voltage levels in the Ferrari’s battery whether I’m from Recife or not. Or does he have an exclusive no-gringos policy when it comes to giving jump starts? But then I remember – he’s just being curious, because Brazilians are a curious bunch, and like to ask each other a lot of questions. And it could be worse – I could be in a malevolent London suburb (I’m thinking Peckham or Bermondsey) or a despondent north of England former mill or mining town (up t’clarets!), or even oh city of my birth, my love, my light, Belfast, in which case the question you’re not from here are you would swiftly be followed by a smack in the kisser and a size 10 boot in the kidneys. Which it won’t here.

But still, it’s hard, to always be different. It might be harder in Brazil than in a lot of places, because Brazilians don’t really differentiate between nationalities – Pole, Irish, Russian, Chinese, Australian, Albanian, Somalian – we’re all gringoes. So I lose my Irishness, or my Norn’ Irishness, which may not seem a hell of a lot to lose, but it’s something, if only that it’s not Englishness. It’s hard, because on one level I know that even if I spend 40 years living here, I’ll still be a gringo, I’ll still talk funny, I’ll never get to the bottom of things. It adds to the stress levels, a little.

An example. Remember The Ex-Girlfriend With Two Kids? No, neither do I, not really, but if you really want to know who she is/was, then take a look at entry dated a really long time ago. Anyway, I was thinking recently about a pleasant enough afternoon spent with The Ex-Girlfriend With Two Kids on the beach at Boa Viagem, more than a year ago or so now. This was during the period when The Ex-Girlfriend With Two Kids (and readers of The Psychological Benefits Of Exercise, should there be any, might recognise aspects of TEGWTK in the character of Jesus’ Sister’s Friend in the story Disciple - recently printed for everyone’s pleasure on these very pages) and I were no longer pretending to be in a relationship and were instead pretending to be friends.

So we sat on the beach, TEGWTK and I, TEGWTK resplendent in a very small blue bikini, the parts of TEGWTK not hidden by the blue bikini revealing precious little evidence that two kids had ever spent nine months or so kicking back within TEGWTK’s admirably streamlined belly, and drank beer and smoked cigarettes. Thoughts of my hand resting inappropriately on TEGWTK´S tawny kneecap strayed across my brain. Towards the end of the day, as people drifted home, the beach to the left and right of us came to resemble what I imagine Hiroshima must have looked like after the big firework landed – the earth churned and torn, all manner of refuse, both human and industrial, scattered distraught, as far as the eye could see. This is what the beach at Boa Viagem usually looks like at the end of the day on Saturday and Sunday.

Anyway, in front of us at least the view was serene. The milky ocean lapped back and forth, the sun licked the sky pink and orange out over the horizon. A few chalky grey clouds provided some relief from all the pastel. It’s beautiful, isn’t it, ventured TEGWTK. It certainly is, I replied, though secretly preferring the shipwrecky brute ferocity of the north Atlantic around Donegal and Antrim. Thanks be to God for all of it, TEGWTK said softly, swigging on her beer and stubbing her fag butt into the sand at the same time.

I shifted uncomfortably in my scratchy plastic deckchair. TEGWTK looked at me.

What?

Nothing.

It’s not nothing. Out with it.

Peanuts?
I proffered peanuts.

No. What is it?

So out with it I came. Not really such a big fan of the whole Adam and Eve shebang and the Creation myth and all that carry on, I think I might have nervously stuttered, or at least words to that effect.

Silence from TEGWTK, who is not always what one might call a shy retiring little rose petal. A momentary pause for thought. TEGWTK hawked up a greener. Spat a long meteor trail into the sand. What, I suppose you believe in all that science crap? All that bullshit about fish turning into monkeys and monkeys turning into people?

Um, yes, doesn’t everyone?, I think I might have said, and then probably made some kind of exaggerated grabbing of the crotch gesture and fled to the toilets, already well-versed in one of Brazil’s golden rules – heretics shouldn’t get into arguments about religion with good god-fearing Brazilians.

Of course, what I wanted to say was something along the lines of assuming for a moment that one believes in some kind of omnipotent God type figure, and that he did make all of this admittedly sometimes picturesque world, then surely the only way to understand a God who no longer remotely cares about us (or if he does care is currently enjoying the longest long weekend ever known) is to look through his eyes and see ourselves as he must see us – millions of little ants, scurrying around, fighting, building tiny ant cities with tiny ant hospitals and tiny ant schools, firing tiny ant rockets at each other, having tiny ant sporting events. Only then can we understand why such a God does not care when a baby dies, for what do we care when an ant baby dies? And while it is understandable for the ants to believe in the existence of humans (or us in God, in the metaphor), it is rather harder to fathom why the ants might choose to pray to the humans and praise their glorious name, and ergo why we might choose to pray to Him and praise His glorious name. Given that, rather neatly, he doesn’t really seem to give a monkey’s.

But I couldn’t, firstly because it’s mentalist gibberish, secondly because TEGWTK would either not get it or would not like it and would become angrier still, and there’s the thing. It was one of those moments, common to any stranger in a strange town, when you notice that you are different from those around you. Not different in terms of skin colour or language or accent or the way you take your coffee, but fundamentally, profoundly, irrevocably different. And that try as you might, you’re never going to get there – there being that almost mystical place where all the secrets of being Brazilian (that Brazilians are born with and that cannot be learned or read about in books) are kept. (Not that all Brazilians think Darwin a crank, but let’s say that more Brazilians think Darwin a crank than Londoners might (hawk/spit). Particularly Brazilians from humbler roots, given that those from humbler roots the world over tend to believe in gods and monsters a bit more than their finer robed brethren).

It’s not just being Brazilian, of course, it could well be being Irish, or being Russian, or being Uzbekistani. And from there it’s only a short leap over to the biggest question of all, for all of us accursed lepers, otherwise known as gringos ­– what the hell am I doing here? Will it one day all this otherness become too much, and will I have no choice but to stand on the Estrada Da Batalha with my arm stretched out and little cardboard sign with My Mum’s House, Dundrum, County Down, written on it?

Who knows or cares?

Now this, you see, is all by way of introduction to what I hope will be a very long, very occasional, tediously pretentious series of jottings on the theme of migration, exile, memory and gringoism. It is something I have been thinking about for a long time, and very much want to write about, though whether I can be arsed or have the time is the burning question. It just as easily might not be about any of these things, or even be a series at all. But I have to do something until Santa come back from their hols, don´t I?

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