Saturday, December 22, 2001

This past month of December has been underwhelming for me here: news that I did in fact fail the Foreign Service exams; that the New York-based Seven Stories Press is coming out with an edition of works by Varlam Shalamov, the gulag writer that I’ve been translating for a year and a half; and the fact that, thanks to working two simultaneously thankless jobs, nearly all my adventures have been confined to the rugged, pitted moonscape of my own psyche, instead of even aspiring to be of any external use to anybody. And all that notwithstanding any greater or lesser crises elsewhere in the world, you know what I mean?

Well, in a few days I’m going on a Christmas-vacation trip to another little nowhere-town with a few of my Bahá’í buddies, and when I come back I’ll be exchanging my office clothes for some more serious time doing volunteer work, plus sitting down to write the first draft to my next story, which I’m feeling ready for. Hopefully January will represent a small shift in perspective.

So—I think I mentioned something about Swedish nurses. Read on, dear friends ... I do miss you guys.

I hate artists. I hate them in the plural, when they get together for their loosy-goosy little bacchanals ... I hate their facile camaraderie and even easier outrage. Whereas I have undying respect for any artists who spend their lives in miserable isolation, wracking their brains in a search for some abstract mot juste. Hemingway and Matisse and Picasso were all brilliant, but I’m sure they would have turned my stomach—while they were all carousing around in Paris in the 1920s, Rilke and Tsvetayeva and Pasternak were doing more my thing, busy writing each other desperately alienated letters, writerly masterpieces, from some of the loneliest margins of Middle Europe (say, Swiss leukemia sanatoria and the Ukrainian steppes). As Tsvetayeva put it, she had only the sea to read with her ... and in a brilliant German accretion, declared their triangle of longing correspondence to be “Geisterbriefe”—ghost-letters.

So this is my Geisterbrief to you.

Earlier this month, I was sitting in the park drawing some wrought iron I liked, and keeping my eye on the slumming men nearby as they got their kicks yanking on the long spiky tails of the iguanas hanging down from the flamboyant-trees. A sketchy-looking character, monobrow and acne-scars and ponytail and all, grimaced at me as he walked by, and dropped a piece of paper onto my sketchpad before loping off. It was an invitation to a play being staged at Espaço Xis [Ex Space] that night, and I squinted up at the iguanas while I decided that, considering I actually knew where it was, I should go check it out. I might be able to wrangle a contact out of it. Into the rabbit hole. [Useless trivia: the letter X, or “xis”, is pronounced “sheess” here, which sounds like “cheese”, and therefore replaces the word “cheese” in all kinds of obnoxious American borrowings, from the X-burgers on every menu to saying “X!” when you get your picture taken.]

The monobrow was the director of what turned out to be a little community play—the scene kept flipping back and forth between a passion play set in the sertão (“And in those days it shall come to pass that the sertão shall become sea, and the sea shall become sertão…”) and a parody of popular Brazilian TV, which is more or less exactly a replica of popular Japanese TV, except (impossibly) gaudier. I managed to track down the monobrow while he was running around afterward ... he took a close look at my drawings for the first time, and suddenly his all-important director persona got switched for a coquette—suddenly he was toying with his greasy hair, praising me to everyone he saw, and eventually asking me to join him and some of the actresses at a local bar. He really needn’t have been touching at my chin while he invited me, but I compressed my mouth into a brittle graphite line and agreed.

I’d been to the bar once before, almost immediately after arriving in Brazil, when my ex-girlfriend Melissa had singled it out as one of the intellectual hangouts in town. Funky place and all, moody lighting following all the metalwork in and around cowhide-covered surfaces. Gays to shake a stick at. This second trip afforded a pretty good breakdown of how far I’d come since then, and to what extent I’d been treading water. On the one hand, I was across the table from a handful of aspiring actresses; on the other, I barely said a word to anyone all night—they were all cooing over the monobrow, giggling inexcusably while they described something he called his “sofa test” to their friends ... I was vaguely envious, but more categorically repulsed, and out of my larder of responses I put on my uncomprehending-doofus face. The monobrow kept up his intermittent praise for me, even going so far as introducing me to the donna of the bar and forcing her to admire my paintings ... he said that all I had to do was put together a portfolio of twenty full-sized canvases, and he’d see to it that I got an exhibition in the city. (Which, you know, was exactly the kind of contact I’d been looking for—and which raises to three the number of major Brazilian cities where I’ve received an identical offer: Salvador, Recife, and Brasilia [the latter smack in the capitol buildings]. Who knows, God willing. I can’t not apply myself to an opportunity like this.) And on my way out, I bumped into one of my upstairs neighbours, who turned out to be the architect for the place, and who chatted with me over his beer for a while.

So it seems like everything is open to me—not a bad showing for a kid who had to go home early, fleeing all the yappy discussion of astrology and Egyptology, and feeling more alienated than ever. I promptly got on the phone with a Brazilian friend of mine and asked her why anyone even bothered with me.

In the end, the monobrow turned out to be super-willing to put me in touch with people for no particular reason at all—he invited me for lunch at the city’s biggest theatre, and plenty of more or less interested people passed by our table: actresses (much less), gallery directors (got a number), and lawyers (here the monobrow launched into a magnanimous rant against his phone company, wildly shouting and gesticulating in an appeal for legal representation—I leaned over to the lawyer and whispered, “I don’t think he needs a lawyer,” to which the guy humourlessly replied, “I don’t think so either,” and leaned in to give him his card). The upshot of all this was that through our conversation the monobrow actually began to merit a proper name, telling me things about his life that seemed to be coming from a real person and not just from the ambiance of chandeliers, I think at first because when he said he was bending all his energies toward a dramatization of the Percival myth, he found I was surprisingly conversant, and then he opened up with quite a touching story about his parents both having died just after he finished drama school, and him only now being able to return his cracked attention to his life and career; and also the fact that it very quickly became hugely evident that without some real work to show for all my self-conceit, all these leads would inevitably run aground on little anecdotes like a comic-salesman here proudly informing me that the guy who drew He-Man now lives right here in Salvador. It’ll be a few more months at least before I follow up on this and give Yulo another call.

The Swedish nurse I met here was a guy nurse, ha ha. I met him the day I went back to the leprosy centre. He’s ten times the Swede I’ll ever be—his name is nothing less than Erik Gustavsson, his hair and eyes are perfectly fair and droopy, and he’s heads taller than anyone here in Brazil. He’s been in Salvador two years, though, and so there he sat in a Salvador soccer jersey at the front of the room, talking fluent football with only a trace of a sheepish Swedish accent. I’d come to give copies of the portraits I’d made to the regulars there, and I was planning on just saying hi to people and then getting out fast. Everything happened more or less as it had on my previous visit—it was a different Christian outfit handing out the provisions, but the songs and parables were virtually identical. The only thing that really surprised me was when one of the missionary-types started saying, “But it’s okay if you don’t get it right in this life, God is merciful, and you’ll be born again for another try”—I hadn’t heard of any Catholics preaching reincarnation before, but I just put on my steely-bafflement face and made a note of consulting someone more knowledgeable than myself at some later time.

Erik works for a Swedish health NGO, and is on a two-and-a-half-year contract to raise health awareness against leprosy in Salvador. He was at the meeting that day to make a record of the work being done, and spent his time wandering around the room with a big Pentax camera. As we were finally filing out, he came up to me and surprised me both by speaking in fluent English and by expressing a way disproportionate degree of interest in why I’d come to Salvador. The Christians offered us a lift back downtown, which we accepted, and which ended up being another rabbit hole altogether, and left me very glad that Erik had come along.

This time the Christians were, of course, not Catholics but Spiritists, and they insisted we join them at their centre for coffee and conversion. Once Erik and I were in the back seat of their car, they started expounding on all sorts of extraterrestrial metaphysics, and while my futile-absorption face deflected most of their interest away from me, I was able to watch Erik’s responses and grow steadily in respect for the guy. At every point, he said exactly what I should have said, if I knew the language well enough and held these people in boundless humanistic esteem. Confronted with the weirdest declarations about aliens or Ouija boards, he’d just give them his blond, lop-sided smile and try to talk with the person on a level free of ideology: “And why did you join the Spritualists?” To which they’d repeat what they said about Ouija boards, thinking he hadn’t understood, so he’d have to repeat: “Yes, but what led you, personally, to become a Spiritualist?” From what they said, their group was involved with a variety of humanitarian projects, all in the health sector—I gathered that nearly everyone who’d joined had done so because of the help they’d received getting through cancer or some other illness, and their attentions were then naturally channeled toward helping others caught in the same crisis. A decent tradeoff, but a funny dogma ... when we passed by the Dique do Tororó, an old dike dug in the centre of town by Dutch invaders in the 17th century, and recently turned into a tourist attraction with the addition of a dozen giant bronze Afro-Brazilian Candomblé gods floating above the water, Erik and the Spiritists were in perfect agreement about the scandal that had accompanied the erection of these “pagan idols”—he couldn’t understand why religions just can’t get along, and they said yes, that’s right, Catholics have no tolerance for Spiritualist beliefs.

At their place we were introduced to living proof of their doctrine—an old man in his nineties who I actually took a shine to, who spoke exclusively in what could only be timeworn Brazilian jokes ... when I said I didn’t drink coffee, his answer was, “Yeah, I know, with us it’s either water or straight cachaça,” when prompted about his age, he said, “Above the belt, I’m twenty—but below the belt...” and he trailed off into the quiet laughter of a man who has led a long, full life in communion with the hereafter.

Well, and I was happy to hang out with Erik later, once the storm had passed. Ironic, he’s working for health here and yet is covered with what looks like chickenpox from the groundwater—something I’ve been able to avoid. He took me on a walk through an old shantytown where he’d lived and worked the first year he was in town, and where he was on a first-name basis with every slumming, iguana-tail-yanking guy on every streetcorner. A group of men drinking cachaça under a tree at noon call him over and ask him to stand up for them against the government, because he’s white and commands respect, and he’s right in there, saying “Yeah, they’re happy as long as you kill yourselves in this favela, it’s when you step outside that the police jump on your back...” What frustrates him the most is the seeming impossibility of summoning any independent drive for social change among the poorer layers of society, where it matters most. We passed by an abandoned compost and recycling centre that had been set up by an Austrian social worker, Markus, who I met later that same day—like in so many places, the development projects are artificially implanted, and the people sit and complain whenever the foreigners leave them to their own devices again.

It’s obvious that I have my guess at an answer—and he actually agreed to come to the Bahá’í centre here one day, pored over a prayer book I showed him, witnessed an election, and came away with that same lop-sided, humanitarian grin. Ha ha—we’re hanging out again tonight, and he’s proving to be both a friend and a conduit to yet more artists that I won’t be able to stand ... he works at a school with a photographer-lady, who’s married to Markus the Austrian, and who listened to the story for my comic one lazy afternoon under a beach umbrella and then told me about the torture of getting out from under the thumb of her dad ... a guy came by hauling a barbecue he’d soldered out of a washing-machine drum and offered it to us for R$25, and she bought it knowing full-well that Markus would be cheesed, and we lugged it all the way back to her house, and of course he was, and so there may yet be an artist-and-foreign-social-worker-studded barbecue in my future, and more alienation for me to share with you all.

In the short term my life seems like it’ll just be full of more silly coincidences and interconnections ... the small town I’m going for Christmas turns out to be the home town for one of the Baptists who was working with the street kids near my house, and he’s given me his phone number there and promised to introduce me to all his old friends from back when he was a free-wheeling Trotskyite revolutionary involved in all the local theatre; I ran into one of the Spiritists again while I was having lunch with the drunken consul on my first day of work this month, and the consul’s eyes immediately spread into a milky grin that trickled over into the creases of his crowsfeet, asking me, “Ah, but Nathan, where did you meet this lovely young lady?”, which is really a strictly editorial description of her, but nevertheless he had me introduce them, and he clasped both her hands in his and promised that, as Honorary Canadian Consul of the City of Salvador, he would always be ready to be to tender whatever services she might desire.

So—that’s it for now. Chivalry is not dead, and I wish you all a very happy holiday whether it’s at home or far away.

David Bowie as the Thin White Duke,



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