hey there

I know it’s been a while, guys.

In my defense, my brain has limited capacities, and it’s been working overtime Translating and Being a Reporter (you’ll see) and doing Thesis Research (which now involves Many Hours of Scanning Documents). But I’m going on a little trip tomorrow. And I promise I’ll tell you about it when I get back.



e agora, josephine?

These were taped to light poles all around Praça XV on Saturday, where I went and got my fingers delightfully dusty combing through R$1 records (hellooo Ary Barroso). JOSEPHINE, I Love You, FORGIVE ME. Unsure as to how to interpret the mud streak on this one.

then we came to the end

May 29th to July 16th, not counting weekends, a few off days, and FLIP: that’s how long it took me to read Santiago’s history. Which is entirely fair, given that it took him 60 years to write. The last week has been bittersweet, with some really great dynasties. Gods and nymphs, people throwing themselves into the sea, shameless Spanish kings, ill-fated marriages, movie stars, Dracula, too many dukes to count, poor Sancho who was torn apart by a bear, lots of etc., and Wilfred the Hairy. In total, about 25,000 pages — that’s my humble estimate, given that other page counts range from 23,700 to 35,000.

Of course this is just the beginning, not just because I still have a secondary bibliography to read and a thesis to write, but also because a terrifying horizon of research is spreading itself out before me. The donations Santiago made to the museum in Sunchales, which include 19th-century Spanish physics texts, eyeglasses from 1921, Aztec artifacts, records, a snuffbox, rosaries, and a dollar autographed by Harry Truman. Interviews, diaries mysterious lists, more piles of paper. It’s all very confusing, and I can’t shake the feeling that I have no right to be poking around in someone else’s life with my grubby little fingers. Blindly forging ahead, less than a month left in Rio.

what were you thinking, jonathan franzen? or: how i could have made $50 at flip but didn’t

In recounting FLIP mk 2 (mk 10 for everyone else, but this is a self-centered blog), I’m going to go off the top of my head, because linear chronology is so 19th-century. And the one thread left decidedly loose from all the flurry of roundtables and parties and Argentine buskers is this: really, Jonathan Franzen?

It’s rare for people not to know what they think of a FLIP roundtable. It’s also pretty rare for people to not like a FLIP roundtable, for that matter; if the authors make charming small talk and praise the beauty of Paraty, they are pretty much set. Then what was it that made everyone come away from the Jonathan Franzen interview with such wildly different opinions? He was just tired. He was deliberately disrespectful! He was insincere. I thought he was touching. The translation must have been bad. There was nothing wrong with the translation, the problem was with him.

Franzen was there because Freedom was being released in Brazil (as Liberdade, by the Companhia das Letras). And, because there always has to be one, he was the Big Name of FLIP this year, the sought-after, the gossiped-about. The main tent was packed, and I imagine the outside projection was as well. But from the beginning, something was off. “Not getting laughs,” was the first thing I wrote. Franzen was clearly trying to be funny, making jokes that would have been easy punchlines for any American audience (far too easy, in my opinion) but they were met with a sea of Brazilian crickets. I chuckled politely, which was a drop in the bucket. The discomfort was palpable, and only thickened. Franzen started talking about 9/11, again dropping easy punchlines that with American audiences would have gotten sympathetic laughs — making reference to the media’s crazed, 24/7 insistence in the immediate aftermath of the attacks that America would never be the same again — and the quiet in the Tenda yawned. “Is this interesting? Is this helpful?” he said after a minute or two, half to the audience and half to the moderator. “I can stop.”

It didn’t get better. The next thing I have written down gets to the heart of the controversy of the Franzen roundtable. As I saw it, he made a very bad joke: saying that his book, How to Be Alone, was just being released in a translation to “Brazilian.” I blinked. Then he said it again, in reference to Freedom. DOES JONATHAN FRANZEN THINK THAT THEY SPEAK BRAZILIAN? I scrawled. It seemed absolutely ridiculous for Franzen to be so ignorant, on one hand, and equally ridiculous for him to make such a terrible joke, on the other. He said it a third time, in reference to the publication of Freedom, and then giggled to himself and said “All right, I won’t do that again.”  Continue reading

kisses from paraty

Part of the charm of Paraty is that it’s a compromise, albeit an accidental one. The little city, which back in colonial times was nestled among hills bristling with cannibals and Frenchmen, is almost perfectly halfway between Rio and São Paulo. This surely contributes not a little to its bustling social calendar; every couple of weeks Paraty sweeps itself clean and plays host to another festival, be it literature or jazz or booze. “Paraty doesn’t stop,” a local told me a bit defensively in a bar (we were there to watch the Botafogo game). “People say that it’s monotonous, but there’s always something going on.”

That’s what you get when your hometown is a sort of professional convention center, I guess. I hypothesized out loud that it might be strange to live in a place with such a mobile population, where the restaurants and the cobblestoned city center are flooded and then recede, human tides governed by a festive moon. But then someone walked in front of the TV right as Cidinho was about to score our second goal, and the analysis was cut short.

To return to my train of thought: Paraty is an almost perfect site for the convergence of carioca and paulistano populations. Exaggerated accents and big-city arrogance all around! What could go wrong? Actually, the people are all perfectly sweet, that’s not the problem. Rather, the coming-together of Rio and São Paulo poses a basic, terrifying dilemma. How many kisses to give? 

It’s so simple when you’re in one city or another. In Rio, it’s two kisses for all acquaintances and a kiss and a hug for friends (the transition from one to the other can often be fraught with unrequited friendship, incidentally, but that’s another story). In ever-economic São Paulo, it’s invariably one kiss — more fleeting for first encounters, and accompanied by an energetic hug for friends, relatives, etc. But what to do in Paraty, that colonial no man’s land?

Brazilians seem to have a sixth sense for knowing how many kisses to give, which I am still struggling valiantly to pick up. Often during FLIP, when I was introduced to others as an American, they gave me a cautiously friendly handshake, as if sensing that I wasn’t calibrated to correctly gauge more physical salutations. But when I was left to my own devices, I found myself doing a hasty calculation every time I went in for a greeting, trying to keep methodical track of everyone’s origins. 

Paulistano living in São Paulo: one kiss. Paulistano living in Rio: two kisses. Or does the greater proximity to São Paulo mean that we have to go back to one? Carioca living in São Paulo: two kisses, because some things never change. I met this woman at last year’s FLIP, so does that mean that we’re on hugging terms? Carioca friend, regardless of residence: one kiss and a hug. Are goodbyes two kisses, or only one? Will it be rude if I just wave? Where did this guy say he was from again? The hell with it, go in for a hug. All this to say that in 5 days of FLIP, I managed not to accidentally make out with anyone, and I’m very proud of myself.

catch you on the flip side

This morning I went rowing on a world heritage site. In a world heritage site, as a matter of fact. Surrounded by a world heritage site. I have the impression that the news didn’t get nearly as much coverage as it deserved in the Anglo-imperialist press, but UNESCO has declared the city of Rio one of its World Heritage sites. Copacabana, Tijuca, the Jardim Botânico, the Lagoa, Corcovado… about time, né? Maybe, I reflected as my oar thwacked against a floating soda bottle on the Lagoa, we’ll start taking better care of the place now.

Actually, I’m being too harsh; I noticed that there’s been a drastic reduction in trash since I started rowing last year. Last August I pulled my oars alongside potato chip bags, cans, and remnants of plastic, and now there’s hardly anything disagreeable bobbing in the lagoon’s glinting waters. Today I felt like the sun in its golden boat floating around Okeanos, the river encircling the world. (Empedocles, a good read.)

There’s a lot to catch up on: the tiny publishing house on top of an abandoned chocolate factory, the Princetonian invasion of my favorite city, typewriters and profane manuscripts and baby showers and mosaics of Michael Jackson’s face, but that’ll have to wait. It seems fantastically surreal that it’s been a year since I hit the ground running in Paraty, but the second edition of FLIP starts this evening and I’m catching a carpool down the curvy highway to the little colonial town, which is surely already bustling with literature groupies. Internet will be scarce, but I’ll have my notebook on me. Tentative prediction: less cannibalism and nudity than last year. Of course, if Corinthians wins the Libertadores, anything is possible.

Long story short: back next week.