from “Ashes of the Amazon”

I'm from where I was born. I'm from elsewhere. --Jo£o Guimar£es Rosa

I read Mundo's letter in a bar in the Beco das Cancelas, an alley-way where I found refuge from the hubbub of the centre of Rio, and endless discussions about the future of the country. The letter had no date, and was written in a clinic in Copacabana, the words jolting up and down, in a small, tremulous handwriting that revealed how much pain my friend was in.

"I thought of writing my life over again, back to front, or upside down, but I can't, I can barely scratch the paper, the words are blotches on the surface, and writing is almost a miracle*Š I can feel the sweat of death in my body" - that's what I read, just before the end. In the margin of the last page, these words: "Just after midnight".

He may have died at dawn that same day, but I had no desire to know the date or the time: pointless details. Some twenty years later, Mundo's story comes back to my memory with the intensity of burning embers shrouded by my childhood and youth. I still have his notebook with drawings and notes, and the sketches for several unfinished works, noted down in Brazil and Europe, in the course of the wandering life he fearlessly threw himself into, as if he wanted to tear himself open from inside, as if he were repeating, over and over, the phrase he wrote on a postcard sent from London: "Dumb obedience, or rebellion".

1

They walked together, in sunshine or rain, Fogo and Jano, his master. The dog went ahead, turned his nose to one side, waited, reared up a little, sniffing the man's scent, listening to the hoarse sound of his voice: "Come on then, Fogo*Š Come on, let's go".

They were inseparable: Fogo slept next to the couple's bed, something Alícia couldn't bear. When the dog brought ticks onto the bed, she shooed it: Jano objected, the animal howled, and no one slept. Then Fogo would come back, quietly, silently, and curl up in his own corner, on a jaguatirica skin1. She went to sleep in the son's room. In the last months of Jano's life that was the way: Fogo and his master in one room, and the woman, alone, where the absent son slept. The dog had some yellowish marks in its coat, which the boy hated because one day his father had said: "Marks that shine like gold. And after all, Fogo is one of my treasures."

Before Mundo and I became schoolfellows in the Pedro II, I saw him once in the centre of St Sebastian Square: scrawny, his head almost completely shaven, sitting on the stones with their black and white wavy patterns. Sitting next to a girl, he was staring at a bronze ship representing Europe; he was looking at the ship on the monument, and drawing with a look of astonishment on his face, biting his lip and craning his head from side to side, like a bird. I stopped to look at the drawing: a strange, twisted boat in the midst of a dark sea which could have been the River Negro or the Amazon - beyond the sea, a strip of white. He folded the paper with an insolent gesture, glared at me as if I were an intruder; then suddenly he got up and stretched out his hand, offering me the folded piece of paper.

"Mundo?" I asked, before I thanked him.

He gave a slight smile, his dark eyes still blinking.

"Naiá, is this Ranulfo's nephew?"

The girl grabbed him by the waist, and the two went off, Mundo's face turned first to me, then to the monument.

It was the first drawing I got from him: a ship heeling over in the wind, sailing towards an empty space, and, every time I went near the Europe, I remembered Mundo's drawing.

I only met him again in the middle of April 1964, when the classes at the Pedro II were about to start again after the military coup. The monitors seemed fiercer and more arrogant, enforcing discipline to the letter, treating us with mocking disdain. Steelhead, their boss, messed around with the girls, made fun of the shyer boys, and boomed out, before he inspected the uniforms. "C'mon, you gang of idiots: no noise: left, right, left, right".

That morning, the school's main gate was shut during recreation, and the rain forced the boys and girls to shelter under the marble-lined porticos. Before the siren blew, a woman appeared holding a small red parasol that only protected the pupil beside her; they were almost the same height. Steelhead rushed to open the gate for the two of them, and they went slowly up the staircase. The schoolchildren moved to one side so they could cross the patio; they looked at nobody, but everyone observed them. The monitor led them to the headmaster's room, and when the siren sounded, the woman reappeared, alone, her hair wavy and damp; her silk blouse, which was wet, attracted whistles from the older boys. Dark-complexioned and about thirty, she hurried down the staircase; when she reached the bottom, she opened her parasol and came close to the iron bars. She saw me leaning against a column and called me over: it was absurd I hadn't been to visit her, but from now on there could be no more excuses; her son was going to study at the Pedro II. I agreed with a timid gesture, and she added: "I think of your mother as if she were still alive". It was Alícia, Mundo's mother.

At first, he was just another schoolfellow: shy, the strangest of all, and given certain privileges. On rainy mornings, a black DKW came along Rui Barbosa Street and parked in the side courtyard. Mundo came up the stairs, protected by an umbrella held by the chauffeur, who said to the monitor: "Here's the boy". But when Mundo came late, he had to wait for the next gap between classes. We watched him as he wandered round the bandstand in the Acacia Square, then sat on a bench and drew a sloth, or an egret, or the face of some passer-by. The school rules were a torment for him; even so, his laxity about his uniform and his general appearance increased, maddening the monitors; his hair unkempt, his face half-asleep, his hands smeared with ink, the gold medallion on his tie askew, the knot in his tie loose, his epaulettes unbuttoned. His socks were of different colours; he rolled up his sleeves and didn't polish his belt-buckle. Steelhead wouldn't let him into class and threatened him: lazy and offhand, did he think being daddy's boy cut any ice here? Mundo didn't answer: he sat behind the back row, isolated, near the window opening onto the square. When it rained heavily, he spent the recreation-time standing at that window, observing the trees blown down by the storm, the alligators among the stones, the birds sheltering at the edge of the little lake, someone sitting on a bench, alone, at the mercy of the gusts of wind, and, further off - at the time the horizon was still visible - the little wooden houses flooded or submerged and the boats and canoes capsized or floating aimlessly in the waterways of the centre of Manaus.

During breaks, he showed no fear when he was surrounded by the brash older boys, paying no attention to their threats, even at the risk of being cuffed or slapped. In the nervous silence of a maths exam, we heard the noise of his pencil on paper, sketching people and things; even so, he answered all the questions and was the first to finish the exam. At the end of the year, Mundo gave us all a surprise: he passed in every subject.

When I came up for a chat, he would show me thumbnail-sketch caricatures, and asked me if I liked them. He shut the book if certain of the boys came near, showing a haughty contempt that irritated them.

"We work like slaves, so how come he manages to pass into the next year?" Minotaur complained. And Delmo said: "His parents must give backhanders to the teachers and monitors. He's even got off the Games in the Arena."

These "Games" were a freestyle wrestling match in a circle of dirty sand. On Saturday afternoons, the PE teacher chose the ones to take part from among the older pupils and the new boys. The pupils of the Pedro II surrounded the arena, and, on the pavement, boys from other schools and soldiers on their day off watched the spectacle through the bars, cheering the wrestlers on and having a good time, as if they were animals outside our cage. Gradually the competitors lost their fear and became ferocious, like cornered animals.

In one of these tournaments, Chiado died. His opponent, a boy from the final year, was so loudly applauded that he didn't even see the head stuck between the iron bars. He lifted his arms in victory while the other was bleeding; someone let out a cry, he turned around and came face to face with Chiado's closed eyes. With hands like metal hooks, he pulled the bars apart, the crushed head fell, and we saw the bloody mouth, then the body being carried to the teacher.

For a week of mourning, the sand circle stayed empty. We looked at the arena and remembered Chiado, his face pummelled and kicked by his squat, thickset rival. His death was talked about all that year. In November, after a court case that led nowhere, the older boy was expelled from the Pedro II, and the games started again; now they were even more violent. Some of the competitors promised vengeance and pointed to the bent iron bars, alluding to the prowess of their punished friend - cowards beware!

Mundo took no part in these tournaments, or in any of the other sports: he had been let off thanks to a medical certificate Alícia had managed to get; but he had to stay in the playground and be there for roll-call in PE classes. She came two or three times more with her son: they arrived arm-in-arm, and said goodbye at the gate with kisses and caresses; he came up the staircase turning round to look at his mother, and, with every step, his suffering seemed to increase. She left before he went in, walking quickly to the car, while Mundo followed her with his eyes, hoping for a wave. When he was thirteen, he was already taller than Alícia; he had inherited her angular face and big, dark eyes, somewhat almond-shaped, "from some forgotten tribe" as he himself wrote years later. When it rained, the older boys surrounded him in the patio: "Hasn't your mother come? When she's wet, she's even prettier", and he, his face set, bit his lip and returned their stupid jokes with a menacing look. We soon saw that his power came not only from his hands, but from the look in his eyes.

The first cartoons caused a sensation in the Pedro II: they appeared on the cover of the four hundred copies of Element 106, the grubby little magazine put out by some of the older boys. The drawing of the scowling face of the Marshal-President stood out: the heavy, spotty, prehistoric head of a tortoise, his little, hunched-up, uniformed body covered by a shell. At his feet was a whole brood of little animals in helmets, with grotesque features; the biggest of them, Steelhead, grasped a rod, and sported the Pedro II's badge on his forehead. A month's suspension for the editors, ten days for the artist; the magazine was impounded. Even so, the cover of the Element 106 was on display everywhere: in the toilets, the refectory, the blackboards, the school's head office. It was taken down and torn to shreds, only to reappear the next day, in spite of the monitors' vigilance, threats of punishment and even of expulsion.

When Mundo came back, the PE teacher reprimanded him: another escapade like that, and he'd be out! He was branded a subversive by Delmo, insulted by Minotaur: "some artist he is, the useless wop". He stayed by himself at the back of the room, watching our gestures, fixing his eyes first on one person, then another; he'd push his chair back, leaning it against the wall, and his head, concentrating, with his face close to the paper.

While the players were warming up, he sat in the shade of the awning by the laboratories and discreetly kept his eyes on everyone; the big eyes with their thick lashes following us, more than likely despising our exertions, indifferent to the teacher's shouting: "C'mon, lad, get stuck in, for Christ's sake!" When the whistle blew, and the teams rushed onto the cement square, Mundo went up to the spectators' seats, opened his pencil box and drew the bodies as they ran, collided, twisted, turned, and fell.

Fallen bodies was the first series he left on his desk one morning when he went to the refectory. We saw our bodies on the ground, our faces distorted, grimacing: the Minotaur, almost monstrous, the only one without a head, Delmo with a face like a grasshopper, and the teacher, in the middle of the square, a squat harlequin, with his head separated from his body. The drawings twisted and jumbled our bodies; we recognised bits of ourselves and others, so everybody felt insulted. Delmo, in high dudgeon, wanted to tear it all up and get his own back: "How about a good punch-up?" Minotaur, who was much stronger, pinched Delmo's neck with his great big hand: "Nah, kid, that's not the way. I've got a better idea."

It was on a Saturday morning in November, before the second-year final exams. Minotaur came up to Mundo: how about going to the square? The girls were dying to see the drawings. OK, he said. A circle of girls surrounded the bench while Mundo was showing the fallen bodies; with a ball of gum made from a sticky plant, Minotaur stuck a paper tail onto the artist's backside, lit it with alcohol and stepped back; I was going to run and warn him, but Minotaur grabbed me, covered my mouth with his great hand and pushed my head down. Surprised by the girls' laughter, Mundo saw the smoke between his legs, jumped up and flung himself into the lake. Then he sat on the little stone bridge, took his shoes and belt off, and stayed there, soaked to the skin, looking at the animals, listening to the jeers of his fellow-students, dozens of them. He didn't budge; he waited for the signal of the end of recreation, when there were no more uniforms, howls or guffaws. He seemed more sad than angry. "I'm used to it", he said, without looking at me. He didn't answer when I asked if he was going to complain to the director.

Later, from the classroom window, I watched him as he walked slowly away, with no shirt on, his belt round his neck, his shoelaces wound round his hands. His figure disappeared into the winding paths of the square, reappearing in the shade of the acacias. He passed near the bronze sentinels of the Military Police barracks, and went round the building, as if on his way to the port.

Footnotes:

1. A spotted leopard-cat (Leopardus brasiliensis) resembling a small leopard, widely distributed throughout South and Central America.