Andrés Neuman on Miguel Del Castillo
GRANTA 121: BEST OF YOUNG BRAZILIAN NOVELISTS
Introduced by previous Best of Young Novelists
Miguel Del Castillo was born in Rio de Janeiro. His father is Uruguayan and his mother is from Rio. While studying architecture at PUC-Rio, Del Castillo worked as editor of the culture and architecture magazine Noz. In 2010, he moved to São Paulo, where he is now an editor at Cosac Naify publishing house. He received the Paulo Britto Award for Poetry and Prose for his story ‘Carta para Ana’ and is currently at work on his first collection of short stories, from which ‘Violeta’ is taken. Here, as part of an ongoing series on the twenty authors from The Best of Young Brazilian Novelists issue – which was first published in Portuguese by Objectiva – Miguel del Castillo is introduced by previous Best of Young Spanish-Language Novelist Andrés Neuman.
The protagonist of this story, Miguel Angel, shares his name with another Miguel Angel, who fought with the guerrillas during the dictatorship and is being, in a way, idealized. Did Miguel Angel fear nothing, as we are told in the first lines? I doubt it. A man without fears would be an empty man, not an epic man. Brave people are people who do something with their weakness. There is, of course, a metaphorical transference through the main character’s name. A sort of historical guilt, inherited by a later generation that has no heroes nor epic memories, but does have a lot of questions. And questions, more than heroes, are the material from which good stories are made.
Del Castillo’s story is far more than an interesting testimony about the Tupamaros, the influential guerrilla organization to which the current Uruguayan president himself once belonged. Or about what in the Anglo world are usually (and wrongly: as if they had been two equivalent forces) called Latin American dirty wars. No, my touristic folks! Fortunately ‘Violeta’ is overall a piece of wonderful, oblique prose. A very well written (and, I’d dare to say, carefully refined by the author) story with a mature style and a peculiar form. It is as if the lost fragments of family history are painstakingly collected by the narrator, piece by piece. The writing seems to follow the winding and uncertain silhouette of an incomplete memory. This is when Alzheimer’s becomes much more than an individual illness, achieving the rank of a social, political trauma.
‘Violeta’ seems symptomatic of a recent tendency in Latin American literature to conjure narrators who don’t know their family past and who, through detailed research unearth their link with political history. These narrators make us think wonder who did what to who in our own families. Find out who named us and why.
I liked very much the poetical structure of Del Castillo’s prose, its unfinished syntax, as synthetic as suggestive, easily skipping from one level to other. I also liked the dynamic dialogues, or lyrical fragments of dialogues, emerging among the stream of narration slightly in a way reminiscent of Lobo Antunes. In this story, the Spanish language works as like a secret code which the family hasn’t told to the protagonist, and which he fights to learn by himself. It’s worth pointing out here how, as far as I know, at least another one among the Brazilian authors selected by Granta (J. P. Cuenca) was in a similar situation with his Argentinean father. As if the new Brazilian writers had faced their cosmopolitan condition not thanks to, but in spite of, their literary fathers.
The most urgent problem posed here is how to remember with an impoverished memory. The deep melancholia invoked by the narrator has nothing to do with the typical saudade. It is not simply the fact of missing what has gone. But the painful lack of what never happened to us, of what we didn’t see. That’s more or less, I suspect, what poetry can be. A hole in our vision. A ‘silent laughter’.
Inside that hole, behind that silence, we still can hear the noise of those death flights. Del Castillo’s brief and terrifying description, reappearing across the second half of the text, sounds just like an unending fall. Too fast to be forgotten, too cruel to be forgiven. – Andrés Neuman, Best of Young Spanish-Language Novelists, 2010
Miguel Angel was one of my father’s cousins, a Tupamaro who disappeared during the military dictatorship in Uruguay. I was named after him. For many years I was unaware of my family history, of the twenty-two years my father spent in Montevideo before moving to Rio, Miguel Angel and the rest of it. I learned Spanish on my own, as nobody bothered to teach it to me.
I like to think that Miguel Angel feared nothing: looked at himself in the mirror every morning, took his guns, and made two or three coded phone calls
– Now the bird flies off alone
sipped his maté, bade farewell to his daughter Ximena, entrusting her to my father, and set off to find his comrades in arms. Violeta, Miguel Angel’s mother, was taken prisoner more than once because of her son’s subversive activities, her head inside water barrels, the soldiers provoking while undressing her
– She doesn’t look all that old after all
gripping her tightly, telling her that her son had been captured, that they were torturing him nearly to death but still he wouldn’t reveal anything, so she’d better spill the beans. Until one day one of Miguel Angel’s female comrades was brought into the prison and she and Violeta decided that, should the girl succeed in getting out before her, she would find her family and ask them to write to Violeta in an agreed code, to inform her regarding her son. Two days after her release, this woman bumped into my father
– I can’t believe I found you, I’ve got something to tell you
and she explained how, since Violeta spent her time in prison sewing, they had agreed that sending her some needles would indicate Miguel Angel was well and that a skein of wool meant he was going to leave the country. My father wrote to his aunt to announce the birth of her grandson, Pablito, and that baby clothes would be useful, which was why he was sending the wool and needles
– Now the bird flies off
and Violeta jumped with joy, the guards could not understand, even after reading the letter once twice three times, why Violeta was dancing naked around the prison
– She doesn’t look that old
my father, a student at the military school, enquiring at every military headquarters about a lady called Violeta, Miguel Angel had left the country, the skein of wool, Chile still free of dictatorship
– I can’t believe I found you
and Violeta, back at home, sewing, Chile then under a military regime, a news blackout. I assume at this point Miguel Angel must have already been captured, the water barrels, the silence.
I visited the old house where my grandmother and Violeta lived for most of their lives, in Prado, where I ate grapes off the vine stretched over the pergola in the backyard, in a grey part of Montevideo far from the centre. Miguel Angel wanted his Montevideo to be free of the military, my grandmother was nervous about yet another police inspection into her home
– My son how long is this going to go on, please don’t get mixed up in this business like your cousin did
my father attempting to calm her down, saying that he knew nothing, that he had no intention of becoming involved, my sister’s mother was pregnant, the move to Rio
– Now the bird
my grandmother comforting her sister, telling her that they would find Miguel Angel just as soon as that military nightmare came to an end, that he must be either in Chile or perhaps in Bolivia, he had always been clever, even if at times somewhat coarsely spoken, my new wool coat
– Son when I arrived from Uruguay we no longer had any news of my cousin
(I was listening carefully)
Violeta’s Alzheimer’s, the visits to the old people’s home, Ximena collecting the benefits for the children of the disappeared, the afternoon cup of tea, my grandmother
– Viola do you remember when Miguel Angel was little and used to say he’d grow up to be the captain of a big ship?
my great-aunt nodding her head in agreement, adding milk to the tea
– Son when I arrived from Uruguay we no longer
the house in Prado, the pergola in the backyard, the sweet grapes, the Alzheimer’s
– Viola do you remember when Miguel Angel was little
my baptism in the parish church of São Conrado, the heat of Rio de Janeiro, I grew up intermittently hearing the Spanish I struggled to emulate
on the plane returning to Rio, dinner was gnocchi with tomato sauce, not a patch on what my grandmother used to prepare
– Viola you remember when Miguel Angel
I landed at Rio’s international airport and called a taxi, the driver was from the south of Brazil, his maté right there
– Where are you coming from chief?
he had been to Uruguay and Argentina too, of course, it was winter in Rio de Janeiro, it was exceptionally cold, and my wool coat was in the boot of the car.
When he enrolled in the School of Fine Arts, Miguel Angel was probably unaware of what awaited him, the military coup, the life of a revolutionary. In Chile he became a chauffeur for the Finnish Embassy, and extradited Uruguayans to Chile with the help of his Finnish girlfriend, the dictatorship there by then, too, I imagine that was why he went to Argentina, to the Victoria del Pueblo Party, to prison. Soon he was on one of the death flights: they were all political prisoners on that plane, the launch chute opening, then all of them gyrating through the air, what went through his head at that moment
(Violeta, the house in Prado, his daughter?)
– I was always ashamed of having studied at the military school, my cousin was the one who opened my eyes
crying as he related this to me, I told him not to be ashamed, I said that at times we really don’t see things for what they are
(descending in free fall)
my father opening the cupboard containing the photo albums, hoisting the flag at school
– My cousin was the one who opened my eyes
now in Rio, calling his mother, all was well and she could soon go and visit him, the journey was cheap by bus, all she had to do was to follow the coast road up through Brazil, preferably during winter because of the heat, Miguel Angel gyrating through the air, the distant plane, Violeta’s phone call
– Chiche your cousin has disappeared
and then her travelling across Chile and Argentina looking for her son, about to embark for Bolivia, and my grandmother
– Viola don’t go, can’t you see that Miguel Angel isn’t there any more
giving up on trying to convince her, putting more milk in the tea
– Chiche your cousin
(falling at an ever-increasing speed)
I used to visit the house at Prado and sit on the swing, watching for ages the pergola offering shade dotted with small spots, Blacky the puppy at my heels, Violeta
– Miguelito don’t be afraid, she doesn’t bite
she spoke a rapid and convoluted Spanish but this much I understood
– Miguelito don’t be afraid
her curved nose, the tickles and me begging her to stop, my grandfather, Totito, had a cupboard full of junk, stuff he used to make swords and shields for me
crouching down so that we could fight as equals, throwing himself on the floor, he was toppled and I really was the bravest knight who had ever been seen or heard of in our backyard. I remember seeing him there, playing cards with Violeta’s husband, after they’d sold the house, the walking sticks leaning on the white armchair
– Viola don’t go
they moved to Pocitos but luckily Violeta’s old people’s rest home was nearby, on the days they brought her home she would sit sewing in the corner of the living room, the Alzheimer’s, and always the same questions
– Telma where is my son?
and more milk in her tea
(in free fall, the sea always drawing nearer
Months later they found some bodies in the bay of Cabo Polónio but Miguel Angel was still missing, I returned to Uruguay and Violeta at the airport
glad to see us, tickling me
I saw a photograph of her at the age of twenty, leaning over the windowsill, boots up to her knees, she would have been out riding that day, lifting her face to the strong winds of Lavalleja, my father closing the album, storing it back in the cupboard
– I was always ashamed
the sea of Montevideo, I never understood why almost no one goes swimming there, they just hang out on the sidewalk, by the shore, drinking maté, maybe because they had seen the bodies washed up onto the beach at Cabo Polónio, maybe because of the brown water, when I go to the rambla and see the empty beaches I feel a pang, the sea empty, people on the shore looking out towards the horizon as if they could see something, as if the waves could bring them someone they’d not seen in a long time, as if they were
as if they longed to dive in but somehow couldn’t manage to.
Returning from Uruguay was always different from returning from any other country. Once inside the plane, I kept my eyes fixed on that empty prairie, an immense plain stretching as far as the horizon. I gazed at that green desert, thinking how that could be possible.
Before, on the way to the airport with my uncle in the car, I would slowly scan the historic houses of the old centre, the port, the market, the rambla filled with people drinking their early-evening maté. I think the trip lasts for more or less an hour. Looking through the plane window at the runway, I consider the melancholy this country has always evoked in me, but why? It does not seem to be about the buildings in the old centre, nor the late-afternoon sun on the red stone benches of the rambla. Perhaps it should be put down to the people and everything I had already been told, that’s just what Uruguay was like, and then those days when the tango singer Zitarrosa was still alive etc., or maybe the ex-Tupamaros. Perhaps it’s those restaurants with their elderly waiters, it’s drinking grapefruit juice from glass bottles. I picture Miguel Angel eating with Violeta in one of those restaurants, saying how one day he would become a ship’s captain, her placing the order with one of the old waiters
– A roll and two small white coffees
(the husband would be coming very shortly). My father opening the albums, the military school, the shame. I bear this melancholia with me, and I can’t and don’t want to let it go. My eyes stay fixed on the immense vacant plain surrounding the new airport at Carrasco. The death flight, Miguel Angel toppling through the air. On take-off, I can’t stop myself from crying, as once again I gaze down on the enormous patchwork of plantations with their different shades of green. I could return, yes, to Violeta waiting for me at the airport
and she would tickle me until I couldn’t stand it any more.
Who was Violeta? I think about it while I walk through the front garden of the house at Prado, where she and her husband lived side by side with my grandparents, and with Marta, Violeta’s daughter, at the back with the twins. I think if we get to know someone only when we are still children, the memory we have of that person is different. As if we had not been able to understand enough and needed to know something more, something beyond a child’s comprehension. And which is brought to light when someone, years later, tells us about it.
I also remember the sun coming in through the kitchen at the Prado house, my grandmother preparing Milanese steak and Russian salad, the backyard out there so inviting. Before going into the rest home, Violeta would come to us talking loudly and laughing, laughing uproariously at something, which then gave rise to guffaws from all. My grandmother and she were like Martha and Mary: while one of them supervised the sauce cooking on the stove, the other would stay around the table with us, making everyone laugh with her jokes. Violeta loved to play ‘arm-measuring’: as her arm was obviously longer, her hand reached up to my armpit, which always gave rise to another round of tickling. I remember few of the things she told me directly, but I do remember her loud laughter perfectly.
Once Alzheimer’s had set in, the silence grew more and more. Soon she would just smile, but never laugh out loud. That silent laughter made a strong impression on me, she seemed to want to laugh at something, but couldn’t exactly recall what. That was why she kept a ready smile on her face, and that was how she used to look at us when we arrived at her rest home.
The day she died I was unable to go to Uruguay. My father did, he called me from there, very sad. I think that had I gone I would have asked them to use make-up to recreate that smile on her lips. It would have been the ultimate silent laughter. I learned that the cemetery where she was laid resembled a public garden, as large and leafy as a park. ■