Magazine article World Literature Today

Heartbreak Hotel

Magazine article World Literature Today

Heartbreak Hotel

Article excerpt

Checking into a hotel, a traveler's thoughts turn to poverty, race, and sexuality as he explores the past and present of Rio de Janeiro.

The Sambadrome in Rio is located in a neighborhood called Lapa, which is also where I happened to find the last avail- able hotel room for New Year's Eve one year. "It's a really nice neighborhood," the cab driver told me in singsong Portuguese that made you feel like honey was running down your skin. As if he were not only a cab driver but also a travel agent, he summed up the entire neighborhood in a few words as one of hip bars and clubs that are the usual haunts of local artists and intellectuals.

I asked the cab driver how far away the beach was. His name was Sergio, and I remember it because he was a beautiful boy with a certain look of sadness-a look the Brazilians would call an olhar choroso. In broken Spanish, Sergio explained that the beach closest to my hotel was Flamenco and then started to draw me a verbal map of the other beaches. He named them one after the other: Botafogo, Copacabana, Ipanema, and Leblón.

As soon as I heard "Leblón," I couldn't help but think of Manuel Puig, the author of Heart- break Tango, one of my favorite novels. I love the fact that it has no narrator; in Argentina, where Puig was born, homophobes made fun of the book by calling it "Heartbreak Homo." After bouncing from one blacklist onto another- mostly because of his sexuality and not his books-Puig lived in Rio for a while, in a walk-up apartment in Leblón. By all accounts, Puig lived with his mother until the day she died. While he was in Leblón, he had a relationship with a construction worker and father of five-more than just a gay man, Puig was a woman trapped in a man's body.

I love the way he once explained it. I know it was in an interview he did late in his life (he died in Cuernavaca in 1990), after the best years of his career were behind him. I also know that he suffered from extreme solitude (I use the word "suffered" because solitude, for Puig, was noth- ing more than a desperate cry from never having loved nor been loved). I don't know what exactly the interviewer's question was, but I think it must have been something about whether Puig was proud of what he had written or whether he had regrets about his life. Give or take a few words, this is what he said: "I would have given it all away-my talent as a writer, along with all my novels, plays, and screenplays-just to be the kind of woman that goes to sleep with rollers in her hair: the perfect little housewife who sits and waits every night in the foyer, with makeup on her face and dinner on the table, for her husband to come home."


You can almost feel the sadness, loneliness, and pain in those words. The guy needed affection and never got it, and he didn't keep that a secret. "I am a woman who suffers a great deal," he also said.

But back to where we were-I was in the taxi on the way to my hotel with Serginho (did you notice I've already started calling him Sergin- ho?). After listening to him tell me about which beaches were crowded and which ones weren't, I asked him about favelas. He told me not to worry and explained that there were no favelas close to any of the places I'd be visiting as a tourist. Then he told me that since my hotel was located just a few blocks away from the Metropolitan Cathe- dral, I should be sure to go and see it. "Is it safe to walk there?" was the last thing I wanted to know before getting out of the car. In his musical voice, I remember his reply word-for-word: "You won't have any trouble."

The hotel was next to a popular supermar- ket. In fact, the whole block was like a super- market, given everything that you could buy there-fruits, vegetables, fruit juice, children's toys, along with a bunch of other merchandise. I stopped in front of a couple of tables covered with fruits I had never seen before. Bacaba, biribá, noni, pupunha, kiwano, uxi, durián, bacuri, plus a strange variety of red banana that filled the entire market with color. …

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