ELVIRA VIGNA: IN ENGLISH – Por escrito (Brasil, Companhia das Letras,  2014, 312p.)

 

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por escrito- reviews

 

 

 

 

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This is Molly.
The drawings were made long time ago.
They should be in the book.
But aren’t.
So I put them here to you to see.

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Excerpt – translation: David Lehmann

The driver is from those parts, he knows the place well. The quilombolas’(*) village.
I had already explained before.
“It’s between the old quilombo and the Pedra do Conde farm.”
He doesn’t know Pedra do Conde. He knows all the farms that grow coffee. But not Pedra do Conde. Pedra do Conde produces nothing. Not coffee nor, as I’ll discover, anything else. So it doesn’t exist. But the information that the place I’m looking for is at the border of the quilombolas seems to suffice.
So, during these initial moments, there is wonderful silence.
And then we arrive.
The houses are now  made of masonry. The blacks aren’t so black anymore, and they’re standing still, looking at us. The driver knows the area. He even said he knows someone from there, from the quilombolas area, and that he invited this person to accompany us.
Now he’s talking. He cheered up. He’s talking nonstop. The presence of blacks who own land forces him to demonstrate, to me and to himself, that he also exists and that he’s important, even if he doesn’t own any property.
He says that the quilombolas gained title to the land a little while ago, something like two, three years. And that, after this date, they started building on the lands they now own under the law.
Indeed.
Through the window, I see that behind new houses, some unfinished, there are old hovels on stilts. They didn’t tear them down. They build the new one without tearing down the old. I like them, I like this. But the driver is talking.
He explains something he doesn’t know, something he doesn’t understand, but he needs to explain it anyway.
“Why demolish what is going to fall down anyway, ha ha”
Why indeed, why do something, make an effort for something that will end up happening anyway.
Why am I here, if I already know that everything that comes from here will end anyway, is in fact ending.
“It’s their nature. They are lazy.”
And then he adds, in a conciliatory tone:
“Anyway, while they don’t fall, the hovels can always be used to store some crap, right?, ha ha.”
I don’t mention the possibility of an incurable pain behind the apparent practicality. I don’t mention that maybe, even if demolished, the hovels would still be there, like ghosts, so it’s better to keep them. I already know, on that day, that sometimes it’s better to keep around what wouldn’t go away anyway. That these things are better left there, in the middle of the room. So they can be washed, every day, twenty-four hours a day, by the stares of everybody, day after day, as portraits that they are. And that maybe that’s the only way to make them slowly vanish.
I look at the people standing still, in front of the houses, at the windows. Before, in the days of Pedra do Conde, they would be crop workers. They would go, in groups, without mixing with the others, to earn the small amount of possible cash, each May. They worked, a lot.
I’m the one that asks.
“Slower.”
Otherwise, the driver would go straight over the low-quality tarmac, full of holes, which is unable to handle the rains and is repatched every year. And I wouldn’t see them, one by one, arms crossed, elbows on the window sills. Just existing, they are. Staring at me without moving, clawing at me without moving, they are like Pedro, crumbs tossed in at the beginning of a world, for a future conversation that would never happen. Between them and me, between Pedro and me.
A conversation that maybe, all things considered, is not necessary. Not anymore.
At the right, an entrance.
“Turn here.”
He resists.
“But isn’t it after the quilombolas?”
“Yes, but go in anyway”.
He does.
Then we proceed to another group of houses, to pick up the girl, the one he knows that lived in a farmhouse right at the border of the quilombo. The driver talks.
And talks.
He talks about when he was a boy, walking around all these places, him and his little lead pellet rifle.
Biguá, cambaxirra, viuvinha, tiê-de-topete, tiê-preto, curicaca, rolinha-caldo-de-feijão, graveteiro, macuquinho and macuquinho-de-colar, juruviara. And he keeps rambling, reciting a list of bird names that I’m not sure are named like that anymore. The cute names I keep, and repeat them sometimes, walking on the streets, sitting on coffee shops or sidewalks. I repeat them just because I like them, catuí, acaiá, icatú, just sounds, not even names anymore.
He killed them all.
“The bag came back full.”
Then they were gone, the birds. He doesn’t make the link, at any time, between the slaughter of birds and the disappearance of birds.
The path to the place I want to visit is rough and difficult. More like trails cut through the woods. The driver’s acquaintance gets in the car. She knows. She’s someone cousin, was raised together with someone else. She’s the one who goes there to sweep once in a while, he says, turning back, just one hand on the wheel, thinking the risk in this gesture and the occasional sweep of the eye are enough to impress me, convince me of the authenticity of that person, a woman he barely says hi to when she hops in, agile, to the front passenger seat.
After a curve, she tells him to turn. The road is even worse than before, and I thought that would be impossible. We fell in a hole, we went around the mud, we arrived at the cashew tree.
It’s there.
My destination is a cashew tree. Nothing around it. I should have guessed.
On the way Cris – her name is Cris – doesn’t talk at all, except it’s here, turn there. But when prompted, she says she likes the new windmills, which are ugly, white, something from Dom Quixote, generating wind energy at a distance, in the middle of a sugar cane plantation. Sugarcane is each year replacing more coffee trees. The mills, a future that carves its space before it really exists. Just like this past brought by Cris through holes, mud and cashew trees, which I also carve out. In the hope that it really exists.
We stophe car, the rest would be on foot. The driver, what a relief, tells us he’ll wait for us in the car.
The farmhouse, which is after a curved descent, surprisingly short for those that didn’t see it coming, a few steps before, is almost a ruin.
Is it on the exact border between Pedra do Conde and the quilombolas?
Yes.
Cris confirms, she’s sure about it. And she even lived there for like twelve years, she says. She gave up recently. It’s not the way it was, the way she liked.
She shows where she sat to stare into an empty space.
She shows the empty place where there used to be a small table. She used the word set. She set the table. The little table stood there, but at a specific time of the day, she set the table. She set the tablecloth, the coffee mug already with sugar, the cups. I can almost see it. The table, the coffee, the two chairs. She and her godmother. Then her godmother dies. She says a few names and looks sideways at me, afraid I might know them, afraid I might steal names that are hers alone. I say I don’t know them. And I don’t.
There used to be a vegetable garden and chickens. And she points out with a sweeping motion to the whole universe.
“It had everything.”
She almost cries. She shows the two concrete tanks. The tanks are filled with water, with a thick pipe connecting them, so white it is rude. A new pipe. It is the only thing new and white amidst the walls stained with mold, the dirt on the cement floor, the fence of thin and crooked sticks, lost in the middle of the undergrowth bushes, that are the same on both sides of the fence, no difference.
The pipe brings the rainwater that drains from the roof. The first rain washes the tiles, she explains. From the second rain onward, the water is diverted to the two tanks. It is the only water. There is no well. She says that once her nephews, still children, want to do what I’m doing. Visit this place.
And there, she points out, towards nowhere in particular, there was a very large hole. That was where they dug up the sandy earth to mix with the cement for building the house. That was some time ago. Before, the house was mud and straw, just like the ones in the quilombo.
 “The hole was there and it was very big.”
The two children like to play in the sand hole. Someone asked, when they were nearby, how much the house was worth. And they answered that it had to be worth a lot of money, because there was this hole, which was so big and good.
We laughed. It is nice to laugh. Me and her laughing, so much laughter that no one notices the tear that drops. But I keep to myself the unformed question. How much the house is worth.
I don’t know if that was the farmhouse that belonged to Molly’s family. It might have been. Or not. It doesn’t matter to me. It doesn’t matter today and it didn’t matter that day. If it was not that farmhouse, it would be another, just like it. If it’s not the same, it was good enough for me to imagine it was.
Because it didn’t matter.
And not just because if it was not that farmhouse, it would be the same. But rather, because all that was indeed over, and that was what I wanted to be sure of. Not that it existed, but rather, precisely, that it didn’t.
We stand a while outside the nearly ruined house. We can’t go in. She says she doesn’t have the key. And she offers a long story about the key. I say yeah, yeah, accepting. I understand. She surely wants to defend, faced with this woman (me) from the big city, the privacy of a home without appliances, an old oven using bottled gas abandoned long ago, firewood being cheaper and so much easier. Just head over there, and cut.
We talked some more, standing in front of the closed house.
We talked about the pests on the Jambo tree. The Jambo tree is next to the cashew tree, which is next to the gate. The gate has been open for so long that its wood has drilled into the mud and from there it is germinating in a new stupid start.
(Like my own.)
We talked about the coffee stalks, wild ones, which we still see around those parts, even without looking for them.
We stand there. There’s a sound of radio coming from the neighboring house. The original land, which was never very big, was divided and partly ceded. Hence such a close neighbor. In exchange, Cris agrees with them that she’d get some chickens, some vegetables.
But the new neighbor’s home is closer than she’d like. She can’t sit at the table anymore, with a coffee, the chair turned towards the undergrowth. Just one chair now. She can’t stay there anymore, listening to the sound of nothing. And she leaves.
She’s just there to show it to me. She hasn’t been there in a while.
Right after the car is parked underneath the cashew tree, there’s a dog that comes to see us and then vanishes. She says she’s seen it around other times, when sometimes, and it’s been a while, she comes to look at the closed, empty house, the undergrowth almost erasing the gate. I think that after she says that, she regrets it. I think she notices that, by talking about the dog, she’s telling too much. By talking about the dog, she’s saying she goes there all the time. That she’s standing all the time, next to the gate that’s growing from the ground, looking at the sand hole that is no longer there. The absent coffee table. The laughter of the nephews when they were children. The godmother.
While we’re standing there, on foot, the house closed, the car parked crookedly underneath the cashew tree, the dog doesn’t show up. It only reappears when we’re slamming the door back shut, the engine starting its rumbling.
The house was burglarized once, she says. Someone related to one of the nearby neighbors.
He takes the gas cylinder. Uses almost all of the tank water, the theft happens during the dry season.
And he takes some cloths. Tablecloths, bed sheets.
Later, the guy is arrested, for another theft. She’s summoned to the police station to identify  the cloths. It is a Sunday afternoon. The thief hadn’t had lunch. She goes out, buys some warm takeaway, brings it back. That’s the only time the house is burglarized. After that, the guy’s already out, never again.
She has a hard, marked face, and a kindness in her voice. She never got married, she answers me. Not even a boyfriend. So, during this whole day, we kept our distance. Our private lives, so different, and at the same time, so understandable to each other. But we kept our distance, our lives politely excluded from the conversation, in common and tacit agreement.
I try to talk about Molly a little, but she never knew Molly. Molly was gone from there a long time ago, she wasn’t even born yet. She thinks she’s heard about her, but she’s not sure.
I leave my address, email, telephone. I don’t know what the legal situation of the property is.
I don’t even know if this is really the house that belonged to Molly’s father. But I say that, if it is, and Cris wants to or needs to make it legal, just say the word. I’ll come back. I’ll sign whatever.
The driver drops Cris at her little house in the village. Nothing changes on her face. It’s just the same as when we picked her up on the way to the farmhouse. Now she has my card in hand. But the face doesn’t change at all. The drive to the farmhouse is not important. She doesn’t let it be important.
I didn’t have much to offer, much to tell. I realize then how little I know about Molly. I know Molly’s father had a cow. What was left of the milk and the raw cheese made in a crumpled aluminum mold, he threw away. There was no electricity. Therefore, no refrigeration. It would go rotten in a single day, with the heat. Later, Pedra do Conde managed to get the wiring and posts up to the gate. They went through the farmhouse. Molly’s family starts being able to sell the remainder of the milk and the cheese.
Molly was the only one to go to school. The brothers, all men, did not study. They stayed on the fields. Molly studied until third grade.
What I’d have to tell is that one day the school bus was late. The stop where Molly got off was the same one that the children of regular employees of Pedra do Conde also used. From there to the farmhouse, there was a section of the coffee crop. The children of regular employees went one way. She went the other. Her father or a brother would always be waiting for her, on the return from school. They came back together. One from the fields, her from school. And then one day the bus was late. It broke down midway. When she arrived at the stop it was late at night. And there was no one waiting for her. So she went by herself. She crossed the coffee fields alone, clapping with her hands stretched away from her body. Snakes leave when they know there’s people around. They are very peaceful creatures. They only attack when they think they’re in danger. Not like cougars. Cougars are different. But Molly thought it was best just to think about the snakes. She crossed, she got home. Everyone already at the table.
“Hi.”
“Hi.”
They didn’t even raise their faces from the plates. Nothing out of place. Nothing extraordinary. So she didn’t think there was anything extraordinary either. She washed her hands. She sat down, and ate.
That’s what Cris would have done.
The driver takes me back to the hotel. There’s a stupidly strong sun on the already late morning. I tell him to leave me at the beach hut in front. I ask for a moqueca, amidst the flies. The moqueca takes a while. The wind in the palms, continuous, grows stronger, the music in staccato. I switch chairs to face the wind, so the hair won’t hit my face, won’t tickle, won’t remind me I exist.
It’s nice, the wind in my face. Very nice. When I open my eyes, I see the wind also works against the flies. They disappear. The moqueca is good. Not great, but good. A shame it doesn’t have pepper in it. My desire is to fill it with pepper. Until it drains out through the eyes, until the eyes cry out: pepper.
Back to the hotel, I meet the rest of the group, anxiously looking for me. There’s a lunch that was already scheduled. The whole group, great restaurant. I apologize. I’ve eaten already.
“Early, huh?”
“That’s right.”
I got up early, I got hungry early. An explanation. I don’t always have one.
They ask if at least I’m still up for dinner. I tell them no, that I’ll eat at the hotel. Tired, you know. I recommend the hotel food to them. Grilled chicken. My usual good old grilled chicken, when my crumpled sandwich runs out.
And I say to them that the next day, the last in town, I’ll need the morning just to myself again.
I go to the low house that the driver pointed out when we arrived, where the local documents are. Notary’s office.
I don’t need to explain much to the person there.
“Oh, that was a nasty fight, a bloody one.”
Pedra do Conde was divided up even more, between legitimate heirs and those who appeared over time.
“Once in a while another one shows up.”
He laughs.
The guy, the owner, died in a silly way, in a bar fight. He offended a quilombola. He called him a dirty negro without even being provoked.
He would have hated Pedro. Gay. Me, I don’t think he’d have the opportunity to hate. I wouldn’t give him that chance.
As for DNA, I won’t pose as a magnanimous person. At Molly’s time it didn’t even exist. At the time of this trip, it did. Molly was very afraid of this. Very afraid that I’d want it. I didn’t. Exhumation of dead bodies, lawyers, me fighting for a life that wasn’t mine. I didn’t want to. I never did. Me, and the legal recognition, the guy recognized as my father.
“Hi, daddy.”
No. No way.
I went back, the trip was over. I never told this to anyone. For a while I still waited for Cris to get in touch. I would have liked to talk to her again, I liked her so much. I thought I’d like to drink coffee with a lot of sugar next to her, both chairs turned towards the same direction, four eyes staring into the distance, looking at nothing, anywhere, in any city.
Talking to Molly, a little after this trip, her eyes examined me, furtively, saying hello, how are you, in an inquisitive way. It would be the hello, how are you of every trip, if not for those eyes. I answered with the usual everything’s fine. And I got the feeling, that sometimes she gave off, that she knew where I had been. And that it was a relief to hear my everything’s fine. She didn’t want to listen, she never did. But she knew.
 
 
(*) heirs of fugitive slaves who remained on the land.

 

 

 

 

and there is another excerpt, published by wasafiri magazine volume 30, issue 2, pages 56-58, and read by its translator, lucy greaves, in youtube.

.9 de April de 2014