The Land at the End of the World
Lisbon, even at this hour, is a city as devoid of mystery as a nudist beach, where the all-revealing sun brutally exposes flaccid buttocks and flat, shadowless breasts, and which the sea appears to abandon on the sand like smooth pebbles left by the retreating tide. The night—which resembles a notary’s office where resigned third-rank civil servants lie snoring among the sheaves of official papers—transforms the houses and the buildings into sad family vaults inhabited by peevish couples who forget their minuscule disputes for a few hours and become like recumbent statues wearing striped pajamas and whom the alarm clock on the bedside table will soon propel back into their gray, frenetic, day-to-day lives. In Parque Eduardo VII, the homosexuals emerge out of the darkness at the approach of cars and stand among the bushes making undulating, jellyfish gestures and fluttering myopic eyes filled with dubious promises and underlined by an excess of mascara. On the other side of the road, as yet uninvaded by the decaying smiles of the prostitutes who share with the insects the shower of pale light from the streetlights, the Palace of Justice fills a kind of grass platform with its vast, reproving bulk: inside, before an impartial judge gingerly feeling a boil on his neck, my marriage will end without grandeur or glory, after several harrowing months of reconciliations and separations that smashed into anguished smithereens the wreckage of a long, painful winter. We separated amicably enough, well, you probably know how it is, with a feeling that was part relief and part remorse, and we said good-bye in the elevator like two strangers, exchanging a last kiss in which there still lingered an as-yet-undigested remnant of despair. I don’t know if this has been your experience too, if you have perhaps known the agony of clandestine weekends in seaside hotels, spent amid the roar of leaden waves crashing against the cracked concrete of the verandah, and where the dunes touch a sky so low and gray that it resembles a shabby stucco ceiling, or if you have embraced a body that you both loved and didn’t love in the same anxious haste with which baby monkeys cling to their mother’s indifferent fur, or if you have ever, with great conviction, made precipitate promises that sprang more from panic and anxiety than from any genuine and generously tender feelings. For a year, you see, I stumbled from house to house and from woman to woman like a blind child frenziedly groping for an elusive arm, and I often woke up alone in hotels as impersonal as the faces of psychoanalysts, to find myself connected by a numberless phone to the friendly but vaguely suspicious receptionist, who was clearly intrigued by my meager luggage. I ruined teeth and stomach at cheap restaurants that resembled railroad-station buffets, where the food tastes of coal and of sheets damp with the sad mucus of farewells. I went to midnight showings at movie houses, with the lone cougher on the seat behind me sending chills down my neck and reading the subtitles aloud to himself for company. And I discovered, one afternoon, sitting on the seafront at Algés, in the bubbly presence of a bottle of fizzy water, that I was dead, as dead as the suicides who throw themselves off the viaduct and whom we sometimes pass in the street, pale and dignified, a newspaper under one arm, unaware that they are dead, and whose breath smells of meatballs and mashed potatoes and thirty years spent as an exemplary civil servant.
Don’t you experience a kind of inner shock when you look into a darkened shop window, as if you were gazing into the deviant eye of someone with a divergent squint? When I was small, I often used to imagine, as I lay in bed—my muscles tense with the fear of falling asleep—that everyone had disappeared from the city and I was walking the empty streets pursued by the hollow eyes of statues that watched me with the implacable, inert ferocity of the inanimate, frozen in the artificially pompous pose of photographs from the heroic age, or else avoiding the trees whose leaves trembled with the marine restlessness of fish scales, and even today, you know, I still sometimes imagine myself alone at night in those squares, those petty, melancholy avenues, those side streets like tributaries that drag in their wake suburban haberdashers and decrepit hairdressers, Salão Nelinha, Salão Pereira, Salão Pérola do Faial, with pictures of hairdos cut out of fashion magazines and stuck on the windows. At home, the carpet absorbs the sound of my footsteps, reducing me to the tenuous echo of a shadow, and I have the feeling, when I shave, that once the blade has removed the mentholated foam Santa Claus sideburns from my cheeks, all that will remain of me will be two eyes that hang, suspended, in the mirror, looking around anxiously for their lost body.
Like in Chiúme in December 1971, my first Christmas at war after almost a year in the jungle, a year of despair, expectancy, and death, when I woke in the morning and thought It’s Christmas Day today, and then looked outside and saw that nothing had changed in the barracks, the same tents, the same vehicles parked in a circle next to the wire fence, the same abandoned building destroyed by a bazooka, the same slow men stumbling along in the sand or crouched on the crumbling steps of the sergeants’ mess, silently scratching the sweat rash in the crooks of their elbows, like beggars on the steps of a church. I woke in the morning to the thunderous sky over the River Cuando and thought It’s Christmas Day today, and saw in those same weary gestures the usual eternal Monday morning, the heat was running down my back in large, sticky, sweaty drops, and I said to myself, This can’t be right, there’s something wrong about all this, my oversize pajamas appeared to contain neither bones nor flesh and I felt that I no longer existed, my trunk, my limbs, my feet didn’t exist apart from a pair of blinking eyes staring, in surprise, at the plain and then, beyond the plain, at the accumulation of trees to the north, the direction from which the airplane always came, bringing fresh food and mail, I was just those two astonished, staring eyes, which I rediscover today in the bathroom mirror, looking older and duller after the initial shudder of my first pee, and shouting a silent plea at their own reflection, a plea that goes unanswered.
Days before, a company of parachutists had left, supported by South African helicopters, which had flown in from Cuito-Cuanavale for a pointless, heavy-handed operation in Luchazes, and every night the huge, blond, arrogant pilots would get noisily drunk and smash glasses and bottles and sing out-of-tune Afrikaans songs, led by a rather overweight David Niven lookalike, who watched like an indulgent nanny as his subordinates vomited up beer, leaning on each other for support, green with pain and suffering:
“If you worry, you die. If you don’t worry, you die. So, why worry?”
The paratroopers, as strict and grave-faced as lay seminarians, clutching their weapons to their breasts like crucifixes, observed disapprovingly this pandemonium of belches and broken glass, their lips silently mouthing military Our Fathers. The captain, who had the Better Homes and Gardens spirit of a very fastidious housewife, fluttered anxiously around any crockery still left intact and cast heartrending glances of hopeless passion at the remaining glasses and plates. Second Lieutenant Eleutério sat hunched, fetuslike, in one corner, listening to his Beethoven. The Katangan was sidling off into the village in search of some barbecued rat. Meanwhile, I leaned against the window frame watching the ellipses traced by the bats around the lamps, not hearing anything, thinking anything, wanting anything, convinced that my life would never be more than the wire-fenced oval in which I found myself, beneath a low rainy or misty sky, talking to the chief in the shade of his vast sewing machine, listening to stories about crocodiles in happier times.
The South Africans treated us as if we were some form of acceptable mulatto, and their brute impertinence sparked in me an increasingly rebellious flame, further fanned by the savagery of the PIDE and the abject, patriotic rants on the radio. The politicians in Lisbon seemed to be either criminal puppets or imbeciles defending interests that were not mine and would become less and less mine, and who were simultaneously preparing their own defeat: the men knew very well that the politicians and their sons would never fight and knew where the people rotting in the jungle came from; they had killed and seen far too many people die for them to allow that nightmare to go on for much longer. One night, the riflemen had marched past the barracks in Luso, shouting insults, and every evening we listened in secret to the MPLA broadcasts; we had to support our wives and children on subsistence wages, and then there were all those cripples hobbling around Lisbon at the end of the day, near the annex to the Military Hospital, and every stump was a cry of revolt against the utter absurdity of bullets. Later, we met with the hostility of Angola’s whites, the large landowners and industrialists hidden away in their gigantic mansions replete with fake antiques, from which they would emerge to paw the Brazilian prostitutes in the nightclubs on Luanda Island, where they sat among buckets of appalling local champagne and kisses as loud as the sucking of sink plungers:
“If you lot weren’t here, we’d get rid of the blacks in an instant.”
Bastards, I thought, as I sat drinking solitary Cuba libres on the balcony, fat, sweaty bastards, fucking fat cats, slave traders, and I envied them those women laughing and whispering into their hairy ears, the plump embraces, the clouds of dense perfume that would emanate from their armpits and groins at the slightest gesture, like smoke from a censer, the inlaid wooden beds in which they would lie down to sleep as morning approached, against a backdrop of dim mirrors, rubber trees in pots, and small Ming dogs, their jaws horribly distorted by ceramic toothache, just as my jaw dropped in incredulity in Chiúme, on that Christmas morning utterly identical to all the other mornings I had known in Africa, staring at the soldiers talking on the other side of the parade ground on the steps of the sergeants’ mess, and watching the rain clouds growing over Cuando and heading toward me in great, heavy, basalt billows, threatening a storm.
No, it’s not far now, I live over there, in that row of hideous green buildings on which the night confers, by some strange miracle, the profound dignity and rectitude of an abbey, as befits a descendant of storekeepers who, complete with mustache and watch chain, would stare into the camera lens with bovine distrust, half fear and half respectful superstition. People believed in God in those days, even as viewed through a tripod camera, a stern, bearded fellow, a sexagenarian in tunic and sandals and sporting a middle parting, whose trade in martyrs and saints was just as complicated an enterprise as the vast emporium of Armazéns Grandela in downtown Lisbon, involving as it did the distribution of sins, papal bulls, absolutions, and passports to hell through earthly intermediaries known as priests, who, each Sunday, sent the company’s director a telex message in Latin. These houses, don’t you think, suit our squat ambitions and our diminutive feelings: the damp gets in, everything warps, the blocked pipes emit sudden belches and gurgles, the carpets come unglued, the inevitable drafts whistle in through the cracks, but we buy furniture in Sintra to conceal these faults and blotches behind supposedly old-fashioned frills and flounces, just as we dress up our narrow egotism with the appearance of a vengeful generosity. My father used to tell me that Philip II had said to the architect of El Escorial, Let us build something that will make the world say that we were quite mad. Well, in that case, the order received by the fat, helmeted, toothpick-chewing guy who presided over the construction of these monstrous, abstruse, pretentious cages must have been, Let us build something that will make the world say that we were mongoloids. And the fact is that the neighbors who squeeze into the minute elevator with me do have the gaping mouth, dull eyes, sallow skin, and blithe, uncomprehending smile of creatures too ordinary ever to be truly unhappy, traversing the desert of the weekend, seated before their TV sets, sipping the fruit cordial of their mediocrity through a straw. I, by some miracle, still possess a residue of metaphysical disquiet and wake in the morning with sciatica of the soul, cruelly bruised by the footsteps above, and with my intelligence grown rusty after several hours imprisoned in an apartment insidiously designed to transform me into an exhausted functionary carrying a briefcase that contains a copy of Reader’s Digest, a thermos of coffee for lunch and the jar of royal jelly whose label promises me the illusory eternal youth of an occasional erection.