Academic journal article The Southern Review

Driving in Sao Paulo at Night with a Good Friend Who Has Died

Academic journal article The Southern Review

Driving in Sao Paulo at Night with a Good Friend Who Has Died

Article excerpt

    And on my soul hung the dull weight    Of some intolerable fate.         --ABRAHAM COWLEY, SEVENTEENTH-CENTURY ENGLISH POET    Death is the dark backing that a mirror needs if we are to see anything.        --SAUL BELLOW  

SATURDAY, AND I HAVE TAKEN the Metro to your modernistic home on the outskirts of Sao Paulo, May 2012, and now there is the fine meal of feijoada.

It's what your wife, gracious Marlene, has prepared, as served on good linen, and your two grown sons are there with their girlfriends and kids, including lanky fifteen-year-old Joao, nicknamed Johnny, who speaks fluent English and drills me with questions about basketball and the American NBA.

                                       *  

Everybody laughs a lot. I keep repeating how this might be the best feijoada I've ever had in my life. And I'm not kidding. Marlene's particular application of the Brazilian national dish of stewed meat and black beans atop heaped white rice has a very spicy tang, the slices of oranges on the side of the light green china there for aesthetic reasons if nothing else--nice. I tell the others maybe a story of the feijoada I have been eating in grimy working-class restaurants near the Hotel Itamarati in the old downtown of the city, Centro, which is where I've chosen to stay while giving lectures here at the university rather than booking into one of the new upscale hotels amid the cluster of skyscrapers in Sao Paulo that is chic Avenida Paulista.

Your sons both laugh some more about the kind of places I have been going to for meals, joke that I am a brave man, though I say that the stark downtown restaurant/snack bars are great, and you nod, agreeing that such is the real Brazil.

                                       *  

After the meal--a party of sorts, really, because it is Marlene's birthday--everybody else is watching some Saturday night TV variety show in the spacious living room, so much tinted glass and a polished terra-cotta floor, the low-slung, bone-white furniture. But we have left them and gone to your study, where a single lamp glows as we talk. We can vaguely hear the music from the show, and after we discuss some my three lectures upcoming next week that you have arranged for me to come here to Brazil to deliver--Hemingway, Faulkner, and Fitzgerald as seen in their role as story writers by me, an American story writer, though one not fit to even wander lost in the shadow of those masters, needless to add--yes, after such more or less business talk we soon settle into larger literary conversation, the way we always settle into larger literary conversation. The walls of the study rise high with books, a library ladder needed to reach those up top, where you go now, saying you have something special to show me. And something definitely special it is.

I look at you smiling up there, in neat jeans, loafers, and a striped dress shirt with the collar open, still slim and even youthful at your age, prematurely gray hair cut short; you continue to smile, assuring me again I will really like to see what you have to show me. Already I spot the cover as you lift the book from the shelf, the iconic red, yellow, and black pattern of harlequin diamonds of what I almost can't believe is a 1922 first edition of Mario de Andrade's Pauliceia Desvairada, which gets translated in English as Hallucinated City. (Of course, with me sitting there looking at you carefully descending the several steps of the ladder then, there is no way to tell you what I do know now--that you will die within a year, that the diagnosis of pancreatic cancer will come so unexpectedly; and back in Austin where I live and teach, where I first met you, in fact, when you came as a faculty member for those few years, I will receive alarmed e-mails from our mutual friends in Sao Paulo updating me by the hour on your condition in the hospital, until your death two weeks after the diagnosis.) Indeed, you do want to show me the book, now that we have been excitedly talking about the poet Mario de Andrade--there's my current obsession with his work, my even pronouncing that Pauliceia Desvairada could be of equal value with another major document of modernism published in the same year, The Waste Land, no less--and after you pass the slim volume to me, my actually holding this extremely rare first edition seems an event, well, nearly sacred. …

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