One night, Paulo Scott and I were discussing the strikingly sophisticated production values of books in Brazil. We were at the Alfa Bar in Botafogo and by now had polished off several beers. He looked at me very seriously and said: “We’re Brazilians, the covers have to look good, otherwise no-one will read them.” Although he was being flippant, it often seems that literature is a somewhat marginal activity in Brazil. Hardly anyone is interested in it, it comes with no prestige whatsoever, the press pays it very little attention and it has no social function. Strange as it might seem, I believe this to be a blessing. Something very liberating. It’s like the useless art that Oscar Wilde praised at the end of the 19th century. In contrast to other countries such as Argentina, Brazilian writers are not obliged to be geniuses. Or perhaps they are, but they know that ultimately it’s a pointless exercise. But because of this when they sit down to write they are not burdened by prestige and so can write in whatever way and about whatever subject they see fit, confident in the knowledge that their reader is unknown to them, or simply doesn’t exist. When this is done properly, it produces books that are free of preconceptions; unsettling, risky books. The only thing the Brazilian writer must strive to avoid is the regionalism and exoticism for export that is the bane of any culture from the tropics. Of all the writers who have come to prominence in recent years, Scott may be one of the most notable exponents of the leap into the abyss that is contemporary Brazilian literature. He is one of the most free and yet he never loses sight of the fine-tuned craft of writing, one of the most original while still being steeped in tradition. Scott is an alchemist of words – a gift he must have learned while writing his poetry – who can turn everyday banality into lyrical epiphany. His characters are very human and often suffer from some debilitating condition – gastritis, psoriasis – of the kind that doesn’t often appear in literature. The novel Nowhere People (Habitante irreal), his literary peak thus far, is one of the best written books of the last decade, not just from Brazil but all of Latin America. Funny Valentine – a perfect story about solitude reminiscent of the best of Lucia Berlin even though it was written before her recent resurgence – is a good example of how powerful he can be.
The taxi cab drove all over town. The driver was leering at me, telling stupid jokes to get my attention. I waited until I had finished my cigarette and asked him to pull over at the corner, in front of the Orient Bar. We sat there for five minutes. He turned to me and tried to start a conversation but I told him to shut up, put on my lipstick and paid the fare. Stammering, he wished me good night. I slammed the door shut. It was a cold Wednesday evening. Valentine’s Day. I stood in front of the ticket office and asked who was playing. Frank Jorge and Júlio Reny, the doorman informed me. I went in. Leaning at the bar, all by myself, I ordered a gin and tonic (quite daring for a woman of fifty-six, I thought). The musicians began to play and I ordered another drink. During the ninth or tenth song, a tall, skinny boy with shaved head caught my eye. He was wearing a black jacket buttoned up to the neck and was walking back and forth, glancing at the floor, staring at everyone around him. Every now and then he would stop, light a cigarette, and take a few drags (trying to focus on the show), but then he would resume his pacing. It made me nervous, it was all I could think about. Suddenly, he left. Feeling restless, I downed my drink and went downstairs. I followed him onto Osvaldo Aranha Avenue. A weak, ,cold rain was falling. It must have been about one in the morning. Several lean kids came up next to me, offering marijuana, crack and who knows what else. I refused (I told them I would scream if they didn’t go away). They gave up, but not without insulting first: I was a fat-arsed old woman. I quickened my pace. He turned onto Fernandes Vieira. I went with him. In the middle of the block between Vasco and Independência, he stopped, took out an aluminium package (his wallet fell out as he did so), opened it, passed the tip of his index finger several times over whatever was in there, then stuck the finger in his nose, moving it frantically from side to side. It was disgusting. He repeated the gesture twice more and went on, swinging his arms, his neck stretched upright. I picked up the wallet, then went back home. I looked at his ID card. His name was Marcelo. There was also a photo of a girl pretty enough to be a model, a two real bill, a guitar pick and a business card with the name, address and telephone number of a woman from Erechim. His ID card stayed on the nightstand for almost a week. The following Tuesday, I went home at lunchtime to pick up some documents. Suddenly, I reached out for the business card and called Erechim. A woman answered and I told her that I was a friend of Marcelo’s. What a pleasure! I’m his mother… then she asked me: So, tell me my dear, are you his girlfriend? I am, I hated myself as I said it. We chatted for a while, she said it had been a long time since she’d heard from him and asked if he was doing okay, if he was going to his university classes, whether he’d told me that he left his home town on the same day of his father’s funeral and never gone back. I said that he hadn’t. She told me many things, and the tone of her voice changed as she went on, growing sadder and sadder. I looked at the clock (nearly two hours had passed), and was sorry to have to go. We said goodbye. She said: Call me whenever you want, I’m lonely and I miss Marcelo very much. I promised that I would. I ended up calling almost every day, our friendship lasted three weeks. I made up stories about her son and promised to try to get him to call her. One Sunday (we had never spoken on a Sunday before), I called her in the afternoon. It took a while for her to come to the phone. I apologized for bothering her, but she was friendly. We chatted for hours (I had grown used to lying). Before hanging up, she asked me when Marcelo would call. I gave a vague reply. She interrupted me and said she was upset; she was desperately lonely. We stayed silent for a moment. I wished her a good Sunday night and hung up. Later that evening, around eight o’clock, the doorbell rang: it was the police. I went downstairs. There were two policemen. I invited them up. The elder man got straight to the point: look, lady… I know you think it’s hilarious, but this little joke of yours is going too far. What joke? I asked, like a coward. You know very well, these calls to the boy’s mother… They’re disrespectful! She’s a lonely widow. If you keep it up, we’ll have to arrest you. Understood? Arrest you! Why would you do that?, I replied defiantly. He didn’t like my answer and took hold of my chin: look, lady, don’t play innocent with us… don’t test us, you crazy piece of shit. We have our ways, you know. Phone calls are easy to trace. He pulled a newspaper clipping from his jacket pocket and held it out to me before angrily ordering me to open the door and storming out. As he left, the other cop whispered: Seriously, you’d better stop it. I was shaking when I came back inside. I was dying for a cup of tea so I put the water on to boil. I sat down on the sofa and looked at the newspaper clipping. It was from the crime section, the same day as the early morning when I had first seen the kid. It went something like: young, unidentified man found dead on Independência Avenue, on the corner of Felipe Camarão, in just his underwear and a t-shirt. He had died of a heart attack. To the bottom right of the article was a picture of the dead man’s face. Someone from Erechim had probably recognized him. She knew! Stunned, I let the newspaper slip from my fingers and turned off the lights. The kettle made a low whistle. Tears started to flow. I sat there in the dark. I felt alone, very alone.