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Blazing Sun

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Today Granta’s Best of Young Brazilian Novelists is available in bookshops the UK and for download. You can preview the issue here by reading Tatiana Salem Levy’s ‘Blazing Sun’, below. Levy is also introduced by previous Best of Young Novelist A.L. Kennedy here.

After living abroad for seven years, I arrive in Rio de Janeiro in late December, in the middle of summer. The walls and furniture of my flat are hidden beneath a layer of mildew. If it weren’t for the green paths traced by the mould, I’d say that the interval separating my departure from my return never existed. The strong smell almost drives me away, but I persevere, and enter. I leave my suitcases in the hallway and open the window, my big glass window, its wooden frame painted white.

Muggy air envelops my face; there isn’t a hint of a breeze. Beads of sweat rapidly squeeze through my pores, cross the barrier of skin and trickle down my body, leaving me drenched. It’s been years since I’ve sweated like this. It’s been years since I’ve felt my clothes stick to my body as if I were standing in a downpour.

Finally and immediately, I understand why I have returned. My body understands; the same body that always protested against Europe’s harsh air with dry legs, straw-like hair, nausea, dizziness, difficulty breathing. In a sweat, it recognizes itself. Much faster than I had imagined, my blood stirs, aroused by the month of December. Then I realize, sitting on the sofa moistened by my sweat, why I have returned: because here, in Rio de Janeiro, my body feels at home.

~

A few days earlier, I awoke, reluctantly climbed out of bed – it was cold and grey outside – and when I saw you lying on the sofa with a book over your face, I thought: It’s time to go back.

Is something wrong? you asked me. No, I answered: I just miss it. I want to spend a little time there. Ah! you sighed, as your face twisted into a lopsided expression, I see. You didn’t say anything else, just lit a cigarette and started pacing the room in circles. We both tried to cling to the word time. Just a little time.

~

Our parting was silent. We smiled, pretending to believe we would be reunited. Now, slouching on the sofa in my old flat, I perspire: it’s never easy to trade one love for another.

~

We came to Rio together only once. I vividly remember your enchantment with every last detail of the place. I was at the peak of my anti-Rio phase, while you, on the other hand, were delighted by everything. Why didn’t we ever come back? Is coming here without you a betrayal? Is that what you think, that I’m betraying you? No matter how hard I cast about for the redeeming word, all I can say is: only solitude makes sense. Solitude in this city that overnight shouted out that it was missing from my life. Me, of all people, who has always made people my home. Suddenly I hear the rumbling voice of a city, like the voice of a former lover that comes to life again with the violence of things stowed from sight. (What if I regret my decision? If I change my mind, will you still be waiting for me under the bear-fur blanket?)

~

First thing to do: scrape the mould off the solid surfaces, free up the flat’s pores. I came here to breathe.

~

In the summer, the minutes leading up to a storm have a greasy thickness about them. The plants give off a strong, sweet smell. The black sky announces that the world is about to be turned inside out.

Before the storm is the very definition of disaster: nothing has happened yet; everything is about to happen soon, very soon. The imminence of tragedy in its extreme beauty: few things are more beautiful than the instants that precede momentous things, the second before a passionate kiss, before a marathon runner crosses the finish line, before a rainstorm hits Rio de Janeiro.

Before the water comes crashing down, Rio teems with activity, people make a frantic dash for it, birds disperse in a flurry, cockroaches scurry, monkeys leap from branch to branch, all seeking shelter, a roof of any kind. The city suddenly begins to palpitate when the humidity reaches an unsustainable level, when you know that the hot, heavy, sticky weather is about to come undone in a downpour. And if you are lucky enough to be somewhere safe, you will soon see nature’s strength unleashed, supreme, reminding us of how fragile and fleeting we are.

That is why, in December, when the smell of approaching rain reaches my nostrils, I am filled with genuine joy: the joy of things that are about to happen.

~

Between one bout of cleaning and another I head out into the streets. The buildings are ugly; the pavements, potholed; the heat, inhuman; and, nevertheless, it is what I need: to feel like going out.

~

You shook as we took the cable car up. I, on the other hand, was filled with enthusiasm. Sugarloaf Mountain is the only tourist attraction I visit each time as if it were the first. I love to see the world from up high. From Morro da Urca, halfway up, when I see the mantle of water washing over the rocks, I feel like a traveller discovering Brazil. I imagine myself five hundred years ago, anchoring a small ship in Guanabara Bay and being struck with awe as I take in the still-pristine landscape. I don’t envy the Amerindians who were already here so much as the Portuguese who arrived and discovered an inhospitable, scandalously beautiful world.

~

Almost a week of cleaning: there is no more mildew on the surface of things, but I still can’t get the musty smell out of them.

~

When anxiety gets the better of me, and with it doubt and nostalgia, I head downstairs to seek relief and dive into the swimming pool in the summer storm. The children laugh at the thunder that rumbles and lights up the sky as if it were day.

~

Theory regarding the cheerfulness of Rio’s inhabitants: sweat lubricates the muscles; it makes us move.

~

You insisted: you just had to go to a Rio funk dance. Men, women, mothers, brothers, friends, strangers in a continuous curved line down to the ground. With their legs slotted into one another, showing that that was what they were made for, they slotted together. Sweat wasn’t an inconvenience, just another fluid.

Just don’t ask me to like Carnival, I told you.

~

The heat here is so great that it has melted away the ‘h’ that the Portuguese still retain. The seriousness of the ‘h’ blocks direct access to umidade, the Brazilian version of humidity that hasn’t got time for this letter that goes up before it comes down. Everything bursts out, without permission. Fluids run even from solid objects. Houses melt, papers drip, photographs discolour.

But the Portuguese humidade contains the ‘h’ of ‘humus’ and the ‘h’ of ‘humour’. Humus: the remains that retain water, keep the soil wet, the earth damp. The decomposition of remains is also what gives life to everything else. It creates the broth. The earth feeds on its dead; the present, on its ghosts. Humidade suggests memory swallowed and transformed. The adjective húmido has more history than úmido, more vestiges. It doesn’t arrive on a straight path: it has to take detours, go around things, but it gathers moisture more intensely.

Humour: a liquid or semi-liquid organic substance. In natural history, it was believed that the human body contained four such fluids: blood, phlegm, choler and black bile. A healthy man (goodhumoured) was he who maintained a balance between the four. In a sick man (bad-humoured), the balance was disrupted. Health was directly related to the bodily liquids. (Could the good humour of Rio’s inhabitants stem from there? From their moist bodies?)

~

The books are all on the floor, and the cloth by my side: the obstacles to resuming an interrupted story, to restarting a life left behind.

~

Things I don’t like in Rio: the water that drips from the buildings in the city centre when summer is at its peak.

The sea is serene at first. Waves form, looming bigger and bigger until they are frightening, until they drag me from wherever I am – from the sand, from the beach promenade, from the sea itself. First I see the white of the foam, then an enchanted world, brimming with sea horses, anemones and corals, then everything goes dark. I wake up sopping wet, the blanket in a tangle, my pillow on the floor, and I ask myself: Why aren’t you here?

~

I used to buy flowers every Friday. I would remove the previous week’s arrangement from the vase and replace it with the fresh flowers. My little wonder, my quota of moisture in that dry land.

Here, the flowers are abundant; they are large-lipped and catch the warm, sticky rain that the sky pours on them. Here, I don’t buy flowers.

~

I’m going to buy a plane ticket, you say. I’m going to join you in Rio. No, I say, drily, as if the European air were able to pass through the telephone line. Each thing in its own time.

~

I leave home at ten o’clock at night, dressed in white, and head for Copacabana. For the first time I’m going to spend New Year’s Eve on my own. I walk along the lakeside until I get to the Corte do Cantagalo, and then down to Copacabana, arriving shortly before eleven. The beach is crowded, a vast carpet of yellow sand dotted with white. I carry my sandals in my hands and let my feet sink into the moist sand, strewn with offerings.

The afternoon was sultry, and now heavy clouds menace the city. I circulate among the people, brush past strangers’ bodies. Looking down I see thousands of naked feet in the sand, among lit candles, boats and giant flowers. I have my own: four white gladioli.

Before I toss them into the water, I sit facing the ocean. I’ve never seen Copacabana so crowded, and I have never felt so alone. But my solitude doesn’t trouble me. It would be beautiful, I think, if for one moment the people lining the waterfront fell silent and the sound of their breathing was indistinguishable from the coming and going of the waves.

I get up and head for the sea. One by one, I throw the gladioli to the orixá of salt water. The first three are for my dead, so they will know they are always with me. Last of all, I throw one in for you.

The people start preparing the champagne, holding hands, anxious. I join a circle of strangers, who invite me over when they see that I am alone. There is a countdown and, suddenly, fireworks in the sky. Immediately afterwards, as if they have been politely waiting for the spectacle to end, the black clouds pelt down on us, mixing with the champagne, sweat and salt. Then, locals and tourists rally the vaguest certainty, with astonishing conviction: the year to come will be the best of their lives.

~

The solid weight of the humidity: in 1770, the Marquês do Lavradio observed that the inhabitants of Rio de Janeiro were inordinately lazy.

~

The air saps voices of their enthusiasm; they are drawn out, slow, quiet, almost a whisper. The people of Rio economize on words: they don’t greet one another in the lift, or when they get on the bus; they don’t say excuse me before walking between two people, or sorry when they bump into someone; they rarely say please or thank you. When I first arrived back, coming from a country where words build things and define relations, I thought everyone was rude. Later I understood: Rio’s inhabitants speak with their bodies. With their bodies that collide, slide, cross, brush up against others. They greet one another and say excuse me, sorry or thank you with their lethargic, flexible bodies, with their flesh and hair that rub against one another without modesty or disgust, their hugs on first meeting, even if they are sticky with sweat.

Today, comparing the two places, I’d say: Words don’t always contain the truth, but the body never lies.

~

I awake with a start. The emptiness on the other side of the bed. Difficult choice: air or hand?

~

Theory regarding the cheerfulness of Rio’s inhabitants: sadness exits through the pores.

~

Etymologically, melancholy means black bile. Bad humour, the body overflowing with black moisture. Unlike the other three humours enumerated by Hippocrates – choler, phlegm and blood – black bile doesn’t exist. It is merely fictional.

~

The people of Rio don’t accept sadness. They don’t know how to live with pain. Not feeling well? Take a dip in the sea, crack open a cold beer, go dance samba in Lapa. Sadness: only with music, only in community. Sadness: only with cheer.

That’s why I left, why I went away for so many years: nothing is more contradictory to happiness than the obligation to be happy. The requirement that one be cheerful in Rio can be as oppressive as the grey sky in Paris, London or Berlin. Everything in excess becomes banal. And I wasn’t able to be happy having to be happy all the time.

~

The posture of one who is melancholic: sitting, hunched over himself, head tilted, chin in one hand, he stares downward, lost in the void. His body paralysed, petrified, his soul immersed in memories and regrets.

How is one melancholic in Rio de Janeiro? You lower your head, but on your right side a hill rises up, majestic; on the left side, scandalous nature makes its presence felt; in front of you, the infinite line of the sea. You try, but your right eye stubbornly wants to see the landscape; the left is drawn to the greenery. And you know that if you happen to lift your head and look at the horizon, there’ll be no way out: you will smile.

One must, therefore, find the melancholic corners of the city, those in which you can look down without being sucked in by the landscape (but where?).

~

On the other end of the line, the shaky, faltering voice, slightly stammering, asks: Are you trading me for a city?

~

I’m sorry, but I never did learn to live in such aridity. The chapped skin was ageing me. Little by little it is recomposing itself. Beads of sweat work like stitches, and I think: I am going to survive.

~

Theory regarding the cheerfulness of Rio’s inhabitants: people walk to the beach in bikinis and swimming trunks. They share the pavement with men wearing suits and ties and women in high heels.

~

On the telephone, I beg: Please wait a little longer.

~

When uncertainty strikes, I get up and walk over to the window. A dense fog covers Corcovado in white, splitting it in half, separating the foot of the mountain from the top. Christ the Redeemer floats, and I chat with him, a habit that in times past filled many a solitary night in this flat.

~

My organs were becoming equally arid and dry, atrophied. Little by little, the moist air expands them again. I cycle through Flamengo Park and have the curious feeling of being almost happy.

~

Don’t ask me to talk as if time hasn’t passed, I tell you. At the other end, I feel the weight of my selfishness: for you, time is intact, monolithic, waiting for someone to give it a shove.

~

The beach has always been my refuge. The sea, my home away from home. When I was very young, I liked to dive under and hold my breath. That was how I forgot the outside world and imagined that a mermaid would lead me with her warm hand to a colourful universe, full of anemones and creatures of the depths, where I would no longer need to breathe.

I also liked to stretch out along the seashore while my sister covered me in wet sand, leaving only my face exposed. I would stay in this position, unmoving, until the tide rose and the waves licked my body.

~

I set the rules: from one end of Copacabana to the other, only on the black paving stones. If my foot slips and touches a white one, I have to go back to the start. Between one leap and another, cool air rushes up my legs, reinvigorating me.

~

The phone rings and I don’t answer it. Today I put my suitcases in the wardrobe.

~

Theory regarding the cheerfulness of Rio’s inhabitants: bodies always on display. Women are constantly flattered. Men whisper smutty things when a woman goes past in a pair of shorts and, instead of a kick, they get a smile.

~

Tonight the Carnival theme song is to be chosen at the Salgueiro Rehearsal Hall. I am here to cheer for a samba composed by a friend. My body is just another cell in an enormous fabric, a uniform blanket of skin and fluids. Impossible not to kiss someone, says a friend. Here you only breathe collectively. I try to inhale the rarefied air but can’t. Panic begins to set in and I think of the organized bodies on the other side of the Atlantic, until there isn’t enough oxygen for my brain, my limbs loosen and I give my body permission to be part of an anonymous mass and mingle with other bodies until it finds one that really appeals to it.

~

When I return home the only guilt is the guilt of not feeling any guilt.

~

On the telephone, you tell me my voice is different. It’s the humidity, I say. It purifies the voice.

~

Things I don’t like in Rio: the bold cockroaches that scuttle out of drains during summer.

~

Sitting in the only bar overlooking Arpoador Rock, I order a caipirinha. It is a little after 7 p.m. and the pavement and sand are still bustling, even though it is only Wednesday. The sun is about to sink from sight. The sea is placid and reflects the red of the horizon, while more and more people gather on the rock. Whales used to be harpooned from there not all that long ago. Whales that now only put in rare appearances in these parts, causing wonder and commotion among the locals. I hear laughter around me, other people’s conversations, I see people going past on bicycles, others drinking coconut water while sitting on a cement bench or at a plastic table. Rio de Janeiro in the summer says many trite but true things. It says, for example, that complicating something as simple as life is useless; that cultivating pain is a waste of time; that all is worthwhile even if the soul is small.

When the sun sets, my glass is empty. People flock to the rock, as if they have come to watch the final judgement, and once the blazing sphere has dipped into the sea everyone claps, whistles and gives thanks. And I, who always thought this spectacle unbelievably ridiculous, find myself clapping along with everyone else, immersed in anonymity, happy to have rediscovered my enthusiasm. When we are done and people finally disperse and start heading home, I think that I don’t need you in order to have you with me after all.

~

The telephone hasn’t rung for days. Perhaps you want to avoid the answer that is so light and simple for me, but so cruel for you: Yes, I have traded you for a city.

~

If it were possible to choose a perfect ending for Rio de Janeiro, I’d say: a tsunami on a summer Sunday. Anyone on the beach in Ipanema or Leblon would see the ocean pull back as far as the Cagarras Islands. Anyone in Copacabana would see Guanabara Bay dry up all the way across to Niterói. The sea peeling back its own flesh, leaving exposed and airless, for a few seconds, its deepest inhabitants. Then this same ocean would return as a giant wave, covering its creatures once again, but also covering those who are not of the sea. We would all be dragged under, swallowed by the water. Unhurriedly, but magnificently, the ocean would engulf the entire city, its buildings, its forests, the people, the animals. Only the tops of some of its hills would be left uncovered: Morro Dois Irmãos, Corcovado, Sugarloaf, Pedra da Gávea.

Anyone here would have the right to one last image: Rio de Janeiro submerged by the sea itself. Limpid Rio, translucent beneath the water, the extreme beauty of the disaster.

With the years, centuries, millennia, the ocean would expand even further until it found a trace of sand on which to rest. And Rio de Janeiro would be a mere vestige of a marvellous city, lost in the ocean’s depths, inhabited by fish and corals, which would make its debris their new abode. ■

Translated by Alison Entrekin.

Events: From 12 to 16 November Tatiana Salem Levy and other Best of Young Brazilian Novelists will be in London and Cambridge to launch the issue with readings and parties.

Photo by Rodrigo Soldon.

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