Man Crossing Bridges
Ronaldo Correia de Brito was born in 1951, in a small town in Ceará, in the Northeast region of Brazil, and now lives in Recife, Pernambuco. Until the beginning of the 2000’s, he was mostly known for a few plays, very successful in Pernambuco, and pieces on folklore. This all changed when a friend — an influential literary critic — discovered his short stories and convinced Ronaldo to bring them into light. His first collection (Knife) was launched in 2003, to a great response. Shortly after that, Ronaldo published his second story collection (Book of Men), and established himself as an accomplished short story writer (the third collection, Immoral Portraits, would be published in 2010).
This all changed in 2008, when his first novel came out. Galilee got amazing reviews, and in the following year won one of the most prestigious Brazilian awards, the São Paulo Literary Prize. It is, in my opinion, one of the greatest Brazilian novels of the last decade, and places Ronaldo among the most outstanding Brazilian prose writers working nowadays.
Galilee tells the story of three cousins, who made their lives in big cities, and are now returning to the family decadent rural estate of Galilee, in the backlands, where the patriarch is dying. It’s a large and traditional family, with a violent history of betrayal, murder and revenge. One of the cousins, the main character, is a doctor, a learned man, and considers himself to be free from all that, until he slowly realizes he and his cousins are as violent as all the generations past. Ronaldo revisits the backlands, a literary landscape made famous by writers such as Euclides da Cunha, Guimarães Rosa, and Graciliano Ramos, to build an extremely contemporary novel, that draws references from Faulkner to Radiohead. It is now published in Spanish, French and soon in Hebrew.
His second novel, I’ve Been Outside, has just been published, and is another literary wonder — disconcerting and powerful, as are all of his works.
Man Crossing Bridges
He always walks on Sundays, as devoted as a Catholic attending mass. Denim shorts, slightly worn t-shirt, leather sandals instead of trainers and a cap from a hardware store. He does ten kilometres, if Saturday’s drinking hasn’t left him too hung-over.
At five in the morning he sits down at his computer; he puts the finishing touches to a lecture or a bit of research for some ministry or other. Activities that keep him busy and just on the verge of stress, travelling across Brazil, the world, to universities and embassies. He is put up in luxury hotels, commands high fees and generous expenses. Perhaps he does earn a lot of money, it’s never altogether clear. He creates a sense of mystery around these activities that he keeps quite separate from his walks and from his meetings with his friends. Any change in this timing can provoke his depression.
He works till 7.50 a.m., without breaking his fast with so much as a slice of yesterday’s bread. At 8 a.m. he goes down in the service elevator and starts his walking around parts of central Recife. A route that is always so identical that the Portuguese stone of the pavements The bridge splits the river in two. He can smell the unpleasant stench of the low tide and catches sight of some crabs wandering adrift. would have preserved traces of his walk, had they not been changed for concrete blocks under the new mayor. He’d replaced the little black and white stones with the same cynicism with which he knocked down old buildings, monuments and churches. But our man in denim shorts and slightly worn t-shirt looks straight ahead as he walks. He never stops to look at the façades of the big houses, or the run-down shacks. He doesn’t explore the relics of colonial architecture and art nouveau, doesn’t notice the modernist improvements of art deco, nor does he waste his time on the excesses of the baroque. He walks, exercising his legs and his cardiac muscles.
The leather briefcase he uses for long trips was something he picked up in a department store in London; the blazers he bought in Milan. Quite the opposite of this poor figure of the Recife walker. He wouldn’t wear rags like these on the road to Santiago de Compostela. No, definitely not. Perhaps he wants to be mistaken for one of the ordinary people, wandering the deserted city streets on Sunday mornings. Recife barely awake, the children on bits of cardboard on the pavements, groggy from an excess of glue and crack, sleeping oblivious to the hot sun on their faces, to the bells of Santo Antônio’s church and to the walker who doesn’t spare them so much as a glance.
The man with the pretend-modest appearance might be thinking about academic sociology, about his Harvard PhD, about his pride at being the family’s breadwinner. He picks up his pace, certain that his heart-rate will not exceed eighty beats per minute, the ideal rhythm according to the cardiologist who examined him. He leaves the poetry of the streets to Manuel Bandeira, Joaquim Cardozo and Carlos Pena Filho. His name, fortunately, is not Severino like in the João Cabral poem, and he has never contemplated throwing himself off the bridge and out of this life. His latest ergometric test was perfect.
He gets past the first obstacles in Boa Vista, crosses the Duarte Coelho Bridge, and Guararapes, and the Pracinha do Diário, and then takes a right onto the Rua do Imperador. He reaches the São José market, crosses the Pátio de São Pedro and the basilica square of Nossa Senhora do Carmo, with its magnificent baroque pagan altar. Not once does he stop to think about the open churches, relics of a colonial past of which he is ashamed. In France, he visited Notre Dame in Paris and Chartres Cathedral. But France is France and Pernambuco is Pernambuco.
It’s only now that he notices the first signs of hunger. He hasn’t eaten in over twelve hours. He has become used to prolonged fasting. At ten, he’ll sit down with his friends at the Mercado Popular in Boa Vista for a round of beers and a beef jerky arrumadinho. He prefers rum and coke, because beer swells his bladder. He’s had pains in his groin ever since his wife got into tantric yoga, insisting that he maintain his erections for longer and reach orgasm without ejaculating. Too much effort at his age. He accepts the sacrifice stoically, afraid that she will imagine he lacks the potency he had at the start of their marriage. He assures his friends that he can keep it up for six hours. No one believes him.
He crosses the Ponte Velha over the putrid-watered Capibaribe river, where he swears that on the day he becomes impotent he’ll throw himself. Premeditated suicide has nothing to do with João Cabral’s poetry, nor with Seu José, the master carpenter from the poem in praise of life, even the most insignificant life, a Severine life. Nothing to do with the sociological discourse that has always guaranteed him good jobs and good salaries. A suicide for exclusively sexual reasons, for anthropological reasons, perhaps. He swears to his friends that he will kill himself. They laugh between one drink and the next, at those Sunday gatherings after the walks, in squalid places where they serve appalling food and play songs on the jukebox.
The bridge splits the river in two. He can smell the unpleasant stench of the low tide and catches sight of some crabs wandering adrift. What does the sociology of mangrove swamps and the stilt houses on Leite island have to do with the amorous culture of the Indians, which oppresses him and leaves him wandering adrift, too? He has developed his own way of thinking and having sex. Painfully he has circumcised himself, separating the foreskin from the glans, cutting the frenulum. He prefers women in women’s roles, and himself in the man’s. When his friends ask him to explain his theories more clearly, he tangles himself up in meaningless phrases, provoking derision.
The crabs curl themselves up in the dirty mud, a terrifying sight. These are the same creatures that the gatherers will clean and sell in embira nets: docile, tame. They come out of their prisons of string and into the pan of hot water. Nice and simple, and practical. Then they will be served up at the table, with manioc meal. An immaculate gastronomy, the fruit of tradition, traditionalist regionalism and, in its modernist way, of the lessons of Pernambucan sociology and anthropology. The walker smiles as he remembers that crabs make up part of a food chain and a cultural chain, at the top of which he clings onto a job to survive. He spits disgustedly at the grappling creatures trying to scale the great sides of the bridge and invade the streets of the city. He imagines Recife overtaken by crabs, in a war for the mangrove swamp. The creatures pile up like the steps of a staircase, they gather height, they totter and fall back down into the mud and the chaos of the river. They remind him of tarantulas. With their tenacious claws they grip hold of the intellectuals engaged in research into the rottenness of the mangrove swamp, causing alarm, pain and cries in the invaders, an ill that is transient and well-deserved, albeit nothing in comparison to the feverish poison of tarantulas.
Tantric creatures, they clamber all over one another, and if left to it they would stay there forever. He shouldn’t allow his wife to keep going to the tantric classes, with an Indian teacher. What does an Indian know about crabs with drawn claws, that we break up with wooden clubs and suck up their flesh and their insides? he asks himself Every month his wife spends a weekend away from home, in a rural hotel, in the middle of what’s left of the Atlantic Forest. angrily, conjugating the verb ‘to break’ in the first person plural like a dissolute politician or a scared teacher: we. He’s the one who wants to do the breaking. Every month his wife spends a weekend away from home, in a rural hotel, in the middle of what’s left of the Atlantic Forest. The master and his disciples talk about tantric sex. Do they perhaps train themselves in practical classes? He travels, too, spends days away from home. Men were born for travels, adventures, dangers and wars. It’s biological. The women wait, weaving cloaks that never end. He has always rationalised it like that, in spite of sociology, California, the counterculture and all the pamphlets of feminism.
His body shudders when he looks at that staircase of crabs, collapsing in the rotten mud. Perhaps he’ll give up on meeting his friends and make a surprise appearance at the hotel where his wife is staying on her course. She’ll be alarmed at his presence in the middle of her fellow students, afraid of what he might make of such strange teaching in the academic setting of a sociology course. At first she had even suggested to her husband that he enrol in the gang of yogis. But that was only at first.
He wouldn’t go down by the José Mariano Quay, even though it was Sunday. The memory of the wooden warehouses, of the lorries being unloaded by strong, sweaty men, nauseates him. He prefers the road of the Boa Vista Church, where he was married. What does his wife talk about with her Indian teacher? How far do their verbal intimacies get? In what terms do they talk about sex, hardening, ejaculation, orgasm? It’s nearly ten o’clock and the people who live on the street are still inside their improvised plastic and cardboard houses. Some of them can be seen drinking spirits, squatting on the pavement. The metal grilles from the mansions, the pride of Portuguese Pernambuco, are used to tie down the plastic sheeting with which each night they improvise their shelters. Only on Sundays do the coverings stay up the whole day. When Monday comes, the inhabitants disperse and the city goes back to its commercial life. Best to ignore the whole lot, he didn’t do sociology expecting to dirty his hands with blood. Wounds are for poets and warriors. He prefers the battles of the bed, but his wife insists on his keeping to a severe containment, filling his musculature with pains.
Can the Indian really keep it up for six hours without ejaculating once? His wife assures him that he can. How did does she know? And the inhabitants of this street, how do they have sex? All piled up in the mud, like the crabs? People walk along the pavements, cars honk their horns in the road, neighbours in cardboard huts rubbing just alongside, without bothering them. Legs, arms and heads invade the space. Piled-up bodies touch, wallowing between rags and leftover food, surrounded by empty bottles, cigarette butts, pot, glue and crack. He imagines a mass orgy beneath the pieces of cardboard, like in porn films or ancient Babylon. He is getting excited. He’s afraid he won’t be able to resist the impulse to slip into one of those shacks. He picks up the pace, placing his trust in the ergometric test, even though his heart is accelerating to a hundred and ten beats per minute.
He needs to sit down and rest.
He has come to the old Boa Vista Square, where once there was a drinking-fountain. It would be good to cool himself down. Now, the water comes out from ornamental spouts guarded by nymphs and lions. At the top, the statue of an indigenous woman is a reminder of the old inhabitants of reefs and mangroves, decimated like the crabs. Other crustaceans move about around the fenced-off square. Best not even to mention them.
The walker has tired of his own thoughts and the immodest images in his head. He doesn’t usually let his gaze linger on almost anything, but he is captivated by the nymphs with their classical profiles, their breasts on show. He shames himself with fantasies about the women who approach him to ask for cigarettes or money, but it’s his childish way of getting revenge on his absent wife.
House number 387, just a little way ahead, is where the writer Clarice Lispector lived during her childhood. He remembers the title of one of her books: The Imitation of the Rose. He’s only read the title story of that collection: the distressing madness of a woman obsessed with a desire for her marriage to reach the perfection of roses. He thinks of his wife and feels a stabbing pain in the left side of his chest. She, too, is seeking harmony in her married life, the perfect communion of body and soul. He doesn’t understand such things and is probably losing it.
They built the stone fountain in Lisbon, on the other side of the Atlantic. Several squares succeeded one another as time went on, until this one through which he is walking nervously. It is possible to investigate the past of them all, to follow in the footprints of Clarice and the Jewish families going around and around it, trying to forget the horrors of war.
His heart is still racing, threatening to explode. What if he were to jump into the water? Perhaps that would cool his head. Perhaps. ■
Translated by Daniel Hahn.
Photo by Frankzed.