Somewhat surprisingly, Rio is posing one of the problems that plagued my time in Washington: the place is not strange to me. My challenge is to conjure up the Rio of fifty, forty, thirty years ago, but what is incomparably more vivid is the Rio of the past three years — or even the future Rio that is coming into focus, vertiginously and violently. My personal Way-Back Machine has a pathetically small range, but it insists on firing up every time I pass a corner with a juice bar I haven’t frequented since a sweaty break in the action during my first Carnaval, or where I asked directions once, back when I confused the Barra da Tijuca with Tijuca. The city is alive with memories that threaten to steal my attention at every turn.
The return to scanning the Historia Universal is also the closing of a personal circle. As I flip the pages, I have double vision: I remember the first time I pored over these dynasties a year and a half ago, and, as I check the inscriptions on the tags (a list of popes compiled in CUERNAVACA, MORELOS, MEXICO), I can faintly glimpse Santiago at the Remington, the unwrinkled forehead of the young portraits bent over the typewriter amidst the greenery of Rancho Tetela or looking out on Washington in winter. I have the feeling that I understand something now, but all I have to show for it are a few sentences tapped out in all caps on a note in my phone.
On the way to the Instituto Moreira Salles, I lean my head against the rumbling bus window and see through half-lidded eyes that the Bus TV says it’s fig season. I compose this, these fragments, as the bus lurches forward, and wonder sleepily if Santiago is reading them, and what he thinks.
Memory never fails to astonish. I’ve now seen a person look at a photograph and identify his face in the features of another man, and one with little resemblance at that. The image is fairly clear, but was taken over 30 years ago. If memory can’t be trusted to exercise its most basic task — tying together the fragments of a life into a reasonably coherent first-person narrative, attaching the same “I” to the child and the youth and the adult, being able to pick out our face in the mirror or a crowd — then what to say of its ability to capture the essence of another?
Do you know these people? Would you know yourself?
In Night Train to Lisbon, Gregorius, a high school classics teacher in Berne, is impelled by an encounter and a mysterious book to flee his life and begin a search for the author, a Portuguese doctor named Prado. When he arrives in Lisbon, still a stranger to the country and the language, he finds that Prado has died decades earlier; and so Gregorius sets out to speak to the people who knew the man, now aged or forgetful, or simply gone. The similarities between this search and my own were enough to make a friend in Rio recommend the book to me and give me a copy, and the weather collaborated, with the sickening heat pressing me to take refuge in long, air-conditioned spells of reading.
While I turned the pages quickly, I found myself helplessly irritated. Less than halfway through, I snapped the book shut and came here. I don’t know if I would have made the link if it hadn’t been framed that way from the start — be that as it may, I couldn’t help but imagine myself as Gregorius. And, as far as research goes, he is a lucky sumbitch. A chance accident drives him to an ophthalmologist (recommended by a stranger he meets on said night train), who quite literally gives him new vision (hi, symbolism) and whose uncle just happens to have known Prado — and the old man delivers brilliantly polished accounts of his character to Gregorius. Figures described as forbidding and closed-off suddenly open up and deliver soliloquies after a chance word or gesture on the fumbling protagonist’s part. With every new testimony, the story of Prado’s life becomes more dramatic (cinematic, I snorted) and more alive. Continue reading
After the “what the fuck is that?,” closer examination and Internet research to make sure it wasn’t poisonous. My guest eats cockroaches, spiders, and even scorpions, so I have one less thing to worry about at night. (Scorpion invasions: it could happen to you.) Yet another reminder that I’m in the tropics, as if having tracked beach sand all over the house on my way back from New Year’s and the suffocating heat weren’t enough.