Wednesday, July 06, 2005

Tropical Illness the Naturalist Way

Hey everyone. I’m homeward bound. I’ve been happy. Time for one last flight.

On a Salvador bus in 2003, I saw a poster that read: “Sex with retarded kids is cowardice: Report it!” And I sat there thinking: …With retarded kids? It’s that rampant? That the government has to step in and say cut it out, already?
Friends who know a thing or two have questioned anecdotes like these, along with everything else I say about Brazil. Always dwelling on the dark side, Nathan. After I came back from Salvador the first time, in 2002, the Montreal Bahá’ís asked me to get up and say a few words about my trip, and I called this a black city (with 80% of its population of African descent, I’ve heard only Lagos, Nigeria is bigger); I tried to express how beautiful the slummed-up hillsides are, how human the dimensions despite the desperation; and talked about the Kiriri Indians I knew in the interior, where sun-blasted cactus replace the coastal palms, where I’d found the peace to well up in “hot tears” on my way home. At this point a Brazilian girl in the room blew up in my face. She’d grown up in Salvador, nobody talked about her home that way—they live like Americans, in highrise apartments, her family’s white, there haven’t been any Indians in her state for years, was I making things up, or a moron? I mumbled something about not having spent much time uptown, and shot back to my seat with my ears on fire.
And you know? The uptown line was a lame excuse besides. On my miserable, no-good second trip here, I lost track of how many comfort meals I snuck at the 24-hour McDonald’s up the street. The number of times I’ve wanted a shoot-em-up at the nice shiny Cineplex Odeon, and gone without inviting any of my friends from the slummed-up hills. There’s a first-world Brazil here, which is doing just fine, thank-you, where people roll up the windows on their two-door Peugeots, assume there are no Kiriris because there are none to be seen, and crowd around and listen in just as much disbelief as any given Canadian when I talk about the street people I’ve met. Thing is, by and large, I wouldn’t crowd around and listen to stories about the upper crust in return. I like to think I get enough food courts back home (my actions repeatedly give me the lie, there, but we’ll move on). Even the more engaged bourgeoisie manage to bug me, the way a stand-up guy who distributes needles for a living milks his own stories ever so slightly, saying just a few too many times for my taste, and with a tad too much relish, that he works in a neighbourhood nicknamed “Iraq.” I invite him to meet my friends’ families, who live around the corner in the same part of town, but it doesn’t work out—and on we go.
So after living such a dense little knot of hypocrisy down in Brazil, in Montreal I always found myself craving my old university haunts, where I could gorge myself back to health on lectures by world-class thinkers, surrounded by a new generation of scientists, writers, drafters of bridges and spacecraft and policy. Gone the primetime soaps and reality TV, gone the stunted and secretive life of the mind. And it dawns on me that if I’m ever going to live for any length of time in places like Brazil, instead of just stealing in and out for my latest contraband stories, I’d have to suck it up and open myself to the intellectuals here too, accept the hard slog of finding students who actually make sense, find a five-time-champion in-crowd who acts with heart and on Sunday nights unwinds with knowing laughter at Total Massacration, the heavy-metal show hosted by This-Is-Spinal-Tap-alikes on the local MTV. Total Massacration would save me. I have not been myself without it.

On April 23 I was summoned to a party at the penthouse apartment where I’d spent my very first months in Brazil (the slave mentality and me have a thing about penthouses too, and we parted ways). One of the daughters there was turning 24, had invited everyone from the various majors she’d been skipping between over the past few years. By the rooftop pool, ER interns telling architects about their run-ins with police, who’d wanted gunshot victims left to bleed in the street … art graduates going through the record collection, a cluster of engineers getting the grill going, horizon-wide ocean out beyond the rooftops below. I took a deep breath and started kissing cheeks, shaking hands. Halfway through the night, an ex-girlfriend of mine, there with her new husband and baby girl, came up and said I was a “…Seducer. In the Freudian sense.” She’s at the end of a psych degree—but yeah, there were people there I wanted to see again. A handful of stragglers crashed overnight, and in the morning I found myself trading phone numbers with the birthday girl’s boyfriend, who organizes an annual public art exhibition and talks like he dances, with foot-dragging charm; and with the one black kid who’d been there, a law student who’d brightened up when she found out I could talk some Chekhov.
These friends have transformed my last stay in Salvador. Delana, the law student, has a little apartment filled with oddball reproductions on the walls, and on every possible surface scattered piles of seminal Brazilian sociology, which I’ve been on a mission to consume. It’s like an outsider had just spent six months in the United States, swamped by culture wars and Michael Jackson trials, blinked, and decided to bone up on his de Tocqueville. The narrative I’ve been spinning in my letters (call it Nathan’s bogus underworld adventure) isn’t wrong, exactly—it’s just way too narrow. A nation of 150 million people has so many stories to tell … each one of them trying to make their own sense of this country. Friends have rightly pointed out that I’ve insisted on finding a warzone in Brazil, even though I swore I’d put that smallness behind me (the UN just called Brazil deadlier than Iraq, but moving right along)—and the best I feel I can do is reply by saying what a warzone of ideas this country is too, in its search for a way through to a narrative that has to be the entire world’s.
Pedro, the exhibition organizer, is an honest-to-goodness artist here, and my mind works double-time during our conversations, trying to figure out if our occasional brilliance does anything to unite this far-flung world—ontologically, epistemologically, at all. Total Massacration is silent on the subject. Maybe Walter Benjamin can answer my questions when I get home. For now, Pedro jokingly calls me “Samba Nathan,” but admits he’s a “yellow boy” himself: which means he grew up sheltered, with housekeepers and Nintendo and irony, and is as delighted as I would be when he goes begging for old sails off the painted skiffs that fill the bay, and the fishermen lend a hand putting them up in his street piece. A few days after the party, I visited him at his airy upstairs office in the historical centre, where he and a few bright buddies do multimedia design and plan subversive art events as an entity called “GIA.” Each year, they bring together young artists from all over Brazil and elsewhere to bounce their projects off the people in the street: clouds of red balloons with anti-war messages, crosswalks covered in strips of sod-grass that pedestrians are asked to use barefoot, jaunts around town in head-to-toe ant-printed bodysuits. Reactions are recorded, thrilled at, debated … the goal is to “shake this art-starved city up,” which programmatically speaking means there’s bound to be a bit confrontation to their play. Words are handed out to the illiterate, sandwich boards for professional training are marched before the unemployed. Vixe, I swear in the Portuguese of Northeastern Brazil, if illiteracy and unemployment get under your skin, can’t you make art about illiteracy and unemployment, instead of about your distance from them? One of the guys was about to defend a master’s project he’d done on the homeless, but said he’d decided right off not to exploit their images in anything, a self-imposed distance that, I tremble to think, would keep your creation from being about what it claims to be about in the first place. Why always one step removed? Think about it, if homegrown Brazilians come with that much alienation built in, I don’t stand a chance of saying jack about anything here.
Except that then, on certain rainy afternoons, these same guys invite crowds of NGO-going teens to paste lightswitches up on telephone poles. On June 2, I bummed around town with them as the kids hunted for locations. We cut through a back alley where one of the boys placed a gift-wrapped present in a dumpster (art!), and a streetcleaner stopped him to ask what he was up to. When the boy rejoined the group, he was proudly carrying a prize of photo albums: the streetcleaner had said, “If you’re into garbage, you’d love what we find out here,” and gave him all these books that turned out to contain the life of old woman, her family trips to waterfalls and DisneyWorld. Rather than let them get thrown out at the end of the day, a girl in the group shyly said she’d like to take them home. And that’s weird and transcendental. That’s art about garbage. Me, I give drawing classes to the schoolkids in my neighbourhood once a week—six-year-old hellions who used to greet me by exposing themselves now run up and announce they figured out how to draw a bike.
All of which is to say, I cleared out of town the day before Pedro launched this year’s exhibition on June 15 … I hear they built treehouses around town, but I had to visit the outback before I left, see a few families I knew there, take a few last pictures for my comic, smell the damp earth after the rain. My best friend from the interior isn’t a college kid—he’s brilliant, in a white-light sort of way, took one look at university and ran. Aneri invited Gilmar over one night in May, hoping we’d hit it off: in walks a 26-year-old Brazilian wearing rose water, a buzzcut and an embroidered, snow-white salwar kameez. When I asked him about himself, the first thing out of his mouth was, “I’m happy”—and looking at the smile on this guy, some more innocent part of me wanted to take him at his word. He’s a gungho lay Catholic who’s helped found daycares in his adopted Salvador parish, but with a stubborn independence of thought that’s made him opt to study Sufism and travel through India rather than enter the priesthood. His old stomping grounds are the region I feel my best here. Life can be defeatingly difficult out there, one 13-year-old girl that I thought was heading for trouble two years ago is now pregnant and married at 15, her 20-something sister has finally found a father for the son who’s recovering from drinking two cups of bleach, and the man’s always drinking farther down the sandy street—but Gilmar had a sense, perhaps, of what I go there for when he wrote my an e-mail halfway through my week away: “I hope the outback is making you draw beautiful things, a mandacarú, for example.” Mandacarú is the Indian word they use for cactus there … I would circle the poxy, sun-scorched plants rising from the brush, try to understand what draws me to their upstretched spiny arms, the black vultures wheeling in the sky above, and the best I can come up with is that I eat them because they have given themselves to the unforgiving sun, and because they are my heart. When Gilmar and I walk around his parish in Salvador, everyone rushes up to kiss his hand and he kisses theirs in return, he helps up fallen kids and brushes off the mud, he asks after everyone’s illnesses … and then we cross paths with a group of Bahá’í kids, who squeal in delight to see me too. I like heading out shoulder to shoulder with Gilmar, the orange afternoon sun slanting across our faces.
During my last week here, I tracked down an artist who has covered walls all over town with strange mosaics of dinosaur skeletons and ant-men and Candomblé divinities. Bel Borba is a ubiquitous public presence, who’s shaped the story this city tells about itself, and me being a kid trying to write a novel about the place myself, I wanted to find out what sort of man would take on such a task, and hope beyond hope, get his blessing. It just so happened that a blonde, blue-eyed environmentalist girl from Toronto had hit him up for a meeting the day before, and the coincidence obliged him to invite me along to their luncheon. Our oracle was sporting a pert Dali-esque moustache and cuffed-up jeans, and I kept seeing Pedro in his attitudes: I’d thought the city must subsidize such a high-profile artist, but his murals are all out of his own pocket, guerrilla projects put up at night. His goal is to change the headspace of passersby too—he puts it as “opening our eyes to the supernatural that lies beyond the real.” As for how he carried the weight of defining a city for itself: he seems to have a non-stop drive to create—it must be glandular—with any rationalization coming after the fact. But the city isn’t art-starved to him, far from it. His imagery is rooted in what’s already very present in the street, in capoeira and black magic and samba, rather than in confrontation with it. As a goodbye, he gave me and the Toronto girl a handpainted tile each: mine shows the head of a barking dog, drawn in a hurricane of white strokes on black. The oracle has spoken.

Coming home, now, I have nobody’s story but my own. In many ways, I respond to Delana’s apartment like a happy memory of a few genius girls’ houses I once knew, whose shelves dazzled me back in highschool with Ancient Greek primers and Woody Allen scripts and McCarthy-era manuals on how to spot a Communist in your midst. Gilmar strides the outback like I picture my grandfather doing, like I’d imagined Sérgio Couto did. Even so, it’s not a bad story, to me, at this moment, bridging continents and hearts. Bel Borba offered to help me exhibit in Salvador, which seems like as good an excuse as any to come back to this city. He also invited me to put up a mosaic with him: I asked if I could bring Pedro, looking forward to seeing what might happen by putting the two artists together, but when I called Pedro almost an hour after our scheduled meeting time, he said he was still at home, and couldn’t make it—and on we go.

Alelúia só,

Nathan

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