in which the backlands become the sea

Sometimes it happens like this: you’re prone on the couch in the midst of a physical and moral recovery from a baile the night before, virtuously reading the decadent history of the last Medicis, when Carnaval calls.

Carnaval is your friend who is offering an extra costume for the last wing of a scrappy samba school that will parade in just a few hours. In the Sambadrome. And Carnaval is getting up off the couch and going.


The year before last, I almost fell asleep in the Sambadrome. Actually, I’m fairly positive that both my companion and I fell asleep at various points. Each samba school takes nearly an hour to make its snaking, thundering way down the concrete echo chamber that is the Marquês de Sapucaí, and from the heights of the bleachers, unless the group is particularly, excitingly creative, sparkly fatigue is bound to set in. The União da Ilha had a particularly inventive tribute to London, complete with bobbies and Beatles and kings and queens, but most of our time was spent drowsily guessing from afar which mountain of sequins and plaster was meant to represent what. I concluded from the experience that samba is not my favorite spectator sport.

But Carnaval was very convincing as it called me back to the Sambadrome. The school with the extra costume, G.R.E.S. Em Cima da Hora [the “Last Minute” Samba School], does not figure in any sort of hall of fame as far as their parades are concerned. The school’s last triumph in the samba elite came in 1978, and the decades that followed were a series of increasingly debt-ridden stumbles, dragging Em Cima da Hora down to the fourth tier of competitive samba schools. (Yes, there are major and minor leagues. Samba is no game around these parts.) And yet they clawed their way back up over the past decade.

This year’s theme would be a legendary one, which both wrote the school into history and damned it to decades of failure. In 1976 Em Cima da Hora took to the Sambadrome with a parade commemorating the Canudos War, the legendary struggle in the barren Northeast between the forces defending a messianic settlement and successive waves of the Brazilian army, with the latter finally managing to wipe out the ragtag city. The jagunços fought until the end/Defending Canudos in that doomed war. Wherever it rises, Canudos will always fall. And in 1976, Em Cima da Hora fell defending Canudos. The song became one of the classics of the samba-enredo, but the parade itself was destroyed by a brutal rainstorm just as Em Cima da Hora was entering the Sambadrome. Costumes and instruments were soaked and ruined, and the floats broke down and sat unusable on the concrete stage. The school was relegated to the second division. Continue reading


a piano wouldn’t have fit in that apartment anyway


I had a strange argument last night. “Come here!” I shouted, and when he didn’t, I went to him and dropped a stack of blue-bound scores in his lap. They landed with a dusty thud. “So you think Santiago didn’t know how to play the piano?” The scores were piano sonatas, all by the same publisher, some with their covers torn off or disintegrating. Haydn, Chopin. Santiago had written something in a loose scrawl on the first page — was this the date when he’d bought the music, or when he mastered it? I could barely make out his writing in the dim light. We were in a shack of a warehouse, a damp space where the floor was books, the steps up to the loft were boxes of papers, and the dripping roof was crumbling and practically open to the sky.

Left to my own devices, I turned up clue after clue. A stack of records all given as a gift and signed with the same name, in a rounded hand: Thiago. I turned to my interlocutor with shining eyes, sure that I knew who this was. There were massive encyclopedia sets, boxes packed with 19th-century French journals, and cheap paperbacks. I trod carefully as I moved from one stack to the other, as the floor bowed alarmingly.

The other shoe only dropped when, amidst these moth-eaten relics, I turned up some children’s books that I recognized: we’d sold them when we moved out of my first house. Then followed family albums I’d never seen, and these shards of red glass must be the remnants of the cup my great-grandmother won at a county fair, with her name (mine) engraved on it. All this was mixed up with Santiago’s things. The warehouse began to sag as I realized that all these things were lost. I looked again at the piano sonatas and saw that they were drifting into simple etudes, the blank pages with scratched annotations in a large, faltering script. I woke up reluctantly and confused.