Wednesday, 10 February 2010


The late American poet Elizabeth Bishop, who spent a hefty chunk of her life in Rio de Janeiro, Petropolis and Ouro Preto, maybe said it best of all. I am sorry for people who can´t write letters, she wrote to her friend Mrs. Kit Barker, but I suspect also that you and I love to write them because it´s kind of like working without really doing it. The work referred to, one assumes, is what might be called proper writing, which for EB was poetry, but might as well be fiction or even, at a push, journalism. The point, perhaps, is the avoidance of responsibility and pressure – writing letters supplies the creative and communicative and even narrative marrow (or grist - I couldn´t decide whether grist was better than marrow, so I´ve included both) required, without any of the bad bits like writing to a deadline or being judged by others. Following on from such a theory, and assuming that no-one really writes letters anymore, and therefore that what you read here might be considered the modern equivalent of a letter to no-one, or even everyone, then such a concept – that of needing to write something without being quite ready to embark on the next Brothers Karamazov -makes a great deal of sense to me and I suspect quite a few others.

And words, rather obviously, are important. Something one learns quickly in a foreign country, even once some ropy command of the local tongue has been acquired, is that words can no longer be trusted. False friends, they call them. Discutir is a good one – related vaguely to the English discuss, in Portuguese the word has more aggressive tones – a row, a scrap, a kick in the balls from The Argument. And it goes both ways. I try to explain the difference between hate and loathe to a Brazilian. There is one, tiny though it is, I´m sure, though I can´t quite pinpoint it. I know when the nuances of the situation are better suited to hate than loathe and vice versa, or at least I think I do, but how to explain it is another thing entirely. I embark on a half-baked ramble about the Nazis and racism, and how hate can be a concept and even a noun, whereas loathe is more often purely personal. But I can´t convince even myself, and so I give up after realising that my listener has lost interest some time ago and is in fact now staring intently at two girls in very short shorts walking past on the other side of the road.

And who would blame him? I also notice, as the heat in Recife grows ever more intense, and the streets are hung with balloons and bunting, and the pre-carnaval parades and parties are now so frequent that everything seems to blend into one endless wall of drums and smoke, that there is a slipperiness to Portuguese that is not always welcome. Living in, or even God forbid governing, a society as sprawling and complex as Brazil demands a great sense of responsibility, and some people who live here can be unfortunately, from time to time, great shirkers of responsibility. A whole vocabulary has sprung up to aid and abet this shirking. There is to chegando, or I’m arriving, and keen grammaticians/grammaticists will spot quickly that no such continuous form of the verb arrive really exists in English (or at least it´s not used very often). To chegando means officially I´m almost there, but can equally mean I´m at home watching TV, in a minute I´m going to have a shower and a bite to eat, then I´ll get the bus. I should be there in about two hours. Press your would-be-companion further, presumably by phone – if you can speak to him personally, of course, he´s probably already chegaded - demand to know where he is exactly, and you probably won´t get much joy – perhaps even a little irritation. To chegando, ok? Isn´t that enough? What more do you need?

Then there are the two great unquestionable excuses of the modern Brazilian age, applicable to virtually any situation where an engagement has been made and broken, be it work, social commitment or court appearance. The first is universal enough – o transito foi horrivel. The traffic was terrible. Of course we know urbanites of our great metropolises the world over, from Los Angeles to Limerick, must suffer the pains of oversaturated transit systems. But in more stiffly collared societies the excuse cannot be repeated more than once or twice – should the panting clerk present the same feeble story to his boss a third time he´s likely to either be asked, if his boss is a gentle soul, if perhaps he might have left home a little earlier, or if his boss is not a gentle soul at all, he´ll be out on his ear before you can say sou eu, sou eu, sou inferno coral, sou eu. Brazil is different – uncontestable, in Brazil o transito foi horrivel may well have been carved on the back of one of Moses´s original stone tablets.

The other, even better, is tenho um negocinho pra resolver em casa. I have a little thing to sort out at home. Like what, the hypertense gringo might shriek, watching TV? Slap up breakfast in your dressing gown with the papers? Such neuroticism is useless, however, as are any questions as to what the negocinho might be – the invoking of the word itself, like some kind of druidic incantation, is enough to captivate and hypnotise the listener so that the only acceptable response is oh, ok then. Sorry for asking. It´s the recifense version of these are not the droids you are looking for.

Though I save the best for last, that great Brazilian absolver of personal blame, beloved of shop workers and civil servants and holders of any kind of minor responsibility. É complicado. It´s complicated. Subtext – it´s not up to me, I’m sorry to say, in fact I don´t really know who it’s up to. Maybe the Prefeitura, maybe Lula, maybe God. But it´s out of my hands. I´d like to help, really I would. But my hands are tied. Looking for a new place to live (of which more later), The Argument and I find a nice apartment overlooking Recife´s not entirely polluted Lagoa Da Araça. I am smitten. But there is Guinness The Dog to consider. Will the sindico (building superintendent) show some puppy love? We ask him. Show some puppy love, sindico, gwan gwan gwan.

Hands are proffered, palms turned outward. Shoulders are shrugged, eyebrows raised skyward. There is a long pause.

Desculpe, mas é complicado.

Which leaves nothing more for me to say other than to sign off just as EB did in a letter to Robert Lowell from 1950.

Well, I must make myself a dish of tea.

1 comment:

雪糕 said...

A truly happy person is one who can enjoy the scenery on a detour..............................................