Notes from Tavel – Summer, 2018

 by R. Passov

We are on the train from Lisbon to Cascais. They, riding with their backs in the direction of the train, sit across from me. I am next to a middle-aged woman, smiling, well-coiffed, dressed in white. I fail to speculate on why she heads toward the wealthiest enclave in Portugal where, it has been said, ex-dictators peacefully sun-away the last years of their lives.

I had been in conversation with Ananda before getting on the train. We wandered toward each other to exchange the partial pieces of directions we owned; directions on how to get from our seminar to the museum in that beach town to enjoy a showing by a famous artist who had something to do with the co-founder of our seminar.

Ananda is from Brasilia, a place I had learned about in the 6th grade and that somehow stayed with me as a Shang ri-La gone astray – an attempt at the future that ultimately lost to the jungle. But Ananda says it’s not in a jungle. Instead, it’s on a giant plain, away from the jungle. It’s the capital and 3 million people live there. Yet I press on with my memory, still seeing the place as a grand replica of Kennedy airport with its 60’s modernism, just empty of passengers. But it’s not like that, Ananda argues. Yes, it’s aged like things are let to age in Latin America, not like in America where you go crazy trying to fill in the cracks.

To get past Brasilia I ask Ananda about the economy and the mood in Brazil, trying to gain insight into whether my small investment in Brazilian government bonds is safe; hoping to hear what I want to believe – that Brazil is strengthening its judiciary, an important step toward improving its investment climate. Ananda smiles. Things are bad, she says. Bad and not getting better. Perhaps I was hoping for drinks later alongside her sun dress, fun glasses, hair that runs away from her ears and the smile.

What about the trade wars, I ask? Won’t that be good for Brazil?

How so?

Aren’t you big producers of grains and livestock? Won’t the Chinese want that and won’t that be good for your economy?

I hadn’t thought of that. I’ll have to tell my husband. Why your husband? I ask, getting the words out quickly, keeping my curiosity ahead of my disappointment. Because she says, he works for and then names a hedge fund where, were I twenty years younger and in possession of a PhD, I’d like to work.

But her smile doesn’t leave, even after she adds without even being sly that she had hoped to marry a mathematician or a poet and perhaps has both.

Somewhere between the train station and the train we became a group of three. Her friend, Bruna, also in our seminar, is shorter, less sunny, pretty as Patti Smith in youth, already letting a sheen of gray mist her black hair. Bruna is also from Brazil, says Ananda, who I now know lives in New Jersey, pursuing an MFA while her husband mathematizes at a hedge fund.

Wary of fooling myself twice I ask Bruna, is that where you live now? Now, she says, I’m in Iowa. In Iowa? At the writer’s workshop? I ask. Not the writer’s workshop, I already have an MFA. The same program, she goes on, but I’m getting an MFA in literary translation. You have an MFA and you’re getting another one, I ask? No, she says patiently, I have an MFA and now I’m getting an MFA in literary translation.

Ananda smiles, saving some of Bruna’s patience. He wants to know about the economy in Brazil, she says. About how we’re doing. Bad, says Bruna. We are doing poorly. Yes, says Ananda, but he has a theory that the trade wars will help Brazil, help because of our grains and livestock.

Oh, says Bruna.

Yes, I say, ready to impress these women with my knowledge about ex-presidents: Lula, who lives sparingly, driving a Volkswagen and Dilma with her searing personal history of armed resistance. The economy helped. The demand for commodities from China pulled us all up and that helped until the demand for commodities collapsed.

Ananda smiles as though in a tag team where her partner takes the ring to provide the beating.

So that’s happened, Bruna says. The Chinese demand for commodities pulled us up. Is that it? Well, I come from Natal, in the north, do you know it?

No, I say straight into Bruna’s smile.

The woman in white, to my left, leans forward, smiles, lifts her arm, brings her finger around to point at herself saying through a big smile, ah the north, then sits back as if to say, go on young woman, go on. She too, by coincidence, is from Brazil.

Bruna goes on. Natal where my parents live, is violent. After the dictatorship fell the US, through a special program funded by wealthy Brazilians, went looking for some people to uplift. And in the moment of rising tides they found me in my little school and offered me a chance to go to America, to Phillips-Exeter and then on to Harvard. But first I had to go around the country and tell a little bit about the wonderful experience that I had in America. A little propaganda because perhaps the US felt bad. But when I finished high school I decided not to go to Harvard and instead went to a small liberal arts college.

And Brazil today, it is going backward, she says. It is getting more dangerous. Where my parents live, it is very dangerous.

She says the rising tide you mentioned has sent more Brazilians to school than ever before; and we don’t want to go back. But we can see what’s coming. Yes, she says, the commodities boom lifted the tide. But let me tell you something else.

The elegant woman in white smiles and a new threesome grows tight.

Let me tell you what’s going to happen. There is going to be violence; violence because we don’t want to go back to the hillsides. My parents can’t take seeing me come back and so we are going to go to the streets and then the businessmen, the congress, are going to have the excuse they need to call out the army.

Yes, shouts the woman to my left, yes! But you women have left. Don’t come back, she says. We all want to go. She falls into Portuguese, not wanting me to hear a so well-dressed woman, perhaps a private banker on her way to those who’ve stolen the wealth, who chose to survive as she has, tell these women to run, to be strong, to be free.

It’s not the tides, say Bruna, it’s the choices. It’s business choosing business over people and people like you, she says through the polite disdain on her face, who know so much only because you’re so far away. Far enough away not to see the people. The people who will starve, who will take to the streets. Well, she says, look at the lady next to you telling me not to come home. That’s your economics. I know what is in your books but I also know where I was born, where my parents still live and my economics is different.

Ananda adds, with that soft and sunny smile, we know Lula was corrupt and Dilma too. We know that. We know everyone is corrupt. There’s no other way to be. But we care about the corrupt politicians who care for us and that is Lula and Dilma.

And who have they been replaced with? asks Bruna. Yes, congress says Dilma is corrupt. Something happened on her watch. But what you are really watching is a coup. Who is Dilma replaced with? Not someone against which there is hearsay; someone caught on tape, caught on tape taking brides. But he will stay; he will bring out the army. And the business-people will get what they want.

The elegant woman sneaks in Portuguese, inviting her young countrywomen for dinner but not me.

Ananda laughs as she tells me Brazil is killing the good politicians and there are a lot more to kill.

Bruna gets to the last ounce of her patience. Save your ideas, she says, until you’re starving, until the army is killing in your town, at your door, then tell me.

The elegant women speaks of how she went all the way to Brasilia when Lula won, just to celebrate, just to be there, just because they had finally lifted up.

Ananda repeats, yes of course Lula was around graft and corruption and perhaps Dilma too, but the people don’t care much about corruption. They care that someone cares and Lula and Dilma care.

Then she says, it’s not the first generation of poverty that makes for violence; it is the second generation that is violent, the generation that sees that their parents were starving and that they too are going to starve.

Iowa, Bruna adds, is a shit hole.