Edney Silvestre introduces an extract from his thriller, If I Close My Eyes Now, our Book Club book of the week.
This particular crime really did happen in the small town where I was born and raised in the 1960s (a town rife with social and racial tension), and I was certainly too young to understand how profoundly it would affect my understanding of the roots of Brazilian history. There was in those days a big gap between black and white Brazilians, feudal conditions still existed outside the cities, and those in power enjoyed massive privilege. The crime, I remember, involved a young woman who shot her lover dead when she discovered he was also sleeping with her mother. The two women were part of the powerful elite of landowners and coffee planters. Later in my life, as a budding young journalist in local news, I reported on the gruesome murder of a young light-skinned mulatto woman who had been beaten and badly mutilated. The two memories combined in my head to inspire me to write my story.
Brazilian culture emerges from the mix of peoples that have drifted onto its shores in the last few centuries through trade and colonization, particularly from Africa, Asia and, of course, Europe. So there are the inevitable racial tensions and a pervasive hierarchy that is based on how white your skin is. I have illustrated these tensions in the plot for my novel.
At the same time I have always felt an immense nostalgia for all things dreamed and lost by my generation before the assassination of John F. Kennedy and the bloody 1964 military coup in Brazil (after which the character in my novel, Paulo, is forced to live in exile). To write the story of the two boys who experienced the pre-lapsarian innocence of those times was cathartic and helped me cope with that sense of loss and turn it into something more akin to nostalgia. I hope you, the reader, are as moved in the last pages of my novel as I was when I first wrote it.
If I close my eyes now, I can still feel her sticky blood on my fingers. Stuck to my fingers as it was in her blonde hair, and high on her forehead, on her arched eyebrows and black eyelashes, on her face, neck and arms, on the torn white blouse and the remaining buttons, on the bra ripped in two, on the nipple of her right breast.
I had never smelt that pungent smell before. Ever afterwards I associated it with the odour of other women, the ones I knew intimately, the odour overpowering theirs, always taking me back to her. That mixture of sweet perfume, gouged flesh, sweat, blood and – as far as I could tell – salt. The smell you find close to the sea. When it sticks to your hair, for example. Not grains of salt, but the invisible, strong tang of salt you get on damp days by the sea.
But back then I did not know the sea either; I had never smelt or seen it, so the smell of that woman in the mud, naked… I had never seen a naked woman, nor smelt the smell of a naked woman so close up. Well, she was not completely naked, but that breast with its big nipple, and… her thighs were splayed open, her skirt lifted, and I saw the tangled black hairs at the top of them, of her thighs, the point where her long legs met, and from there came – no, not from there, from all over her – came the smell of woman mingled with blood. I think she must also have shat herself, soiled herself the way I now know we all do at the moment when life leaves our body and it completely relaxes, the sphincter opens and… that’s another word I had never heard then. Or read. Sphincter. I was twelve years old and words like that were never spoken in my house. We didn’t even know such words existed.
She was there, dead. Naked. Almost naked.
I knew she was dead. Both of us knew it. Her skin was cold. The skin on her arm, which was the first thing we touched. The skin of her face, so… pallid. Was that the word, pallid? It was. With her mouth open. Half open. As if she were starting to smile. Big, dazzlingly white teeth, only partly visible, glinting between her soft lips. Had she been beaten? Were there other marks on her face? There were. But it was on her lips that the blood… I think I touched her lips. I don’t know. Yes I do, I did touch them. Smooth lips. Red lips. Blood-red lips. Red with blood or lipstick? With blood and lipstick. And mud. She must have twisted round when she fell. Or did she hit her face on the grass and mud? When the heel of her shoe got stuck, it snapped off and she almost flew over the grass and wet mud. Was that her last flight, filled with horror and sadness? Flying. A silent flight. Interminable. And, either struggling or surrendering, she registered the blue sky and the fresh autumn breeze, the cry of a bird and the killer’s breath, as the blade repeatedly punctured her flesh. Later, neither he nor I were able to say how many times she had been stabbed. Lacerated in so many places, her skin reminded me of the wounds of the Christ in the cathedral’s central nave, his arms spread wide just like hers in the mud, beneath the cloudless sky that April morning.
Even here, now, in this foreign city where I live off and on, even now occasionally when I’m not concentrating, when I leave the metro, or turn a corner of harmonious buildings that make the world seem organized and logical, or leave a café where I’ve casually bought cigarettes, put the change in my coat pocket and fumbled for the lighter, I feel on my face the same cold wind that suddenly arose on that April morning: sometimes, not always, sometimes, the same fresh breeze that began to stir that warm day, making the tall grass sway gently from side to side round the lake where we had gone to hide, far away from adults, as we had done all that summer.
From the top of the hill it was hard to make out the lake’s irregular outline, hidden behind tall bamboo canes where dozens of noisy macaws had made their nests. The macaws and bamboo groves that he recalled so often later on in the long, melancholy letters he wrote me.
I don’t know what the lake was really like. After that day in April I never went back there. All I have is the image in my memory: its bright blue, transparent water, sparkling in the rays of a sun that always seemed to shine in those days.
I think it was a Tuesday. I could look at the calendar to make sure. I don’t want to. I prefer the certainty of my memory, which tells me it was a Tuesday.
Tuesday, 12 April 1961.
On the radio early that morning a presenter announced: a man has travelled into space. The first man in space. A Russian.
His name was Yuri Gagarin.
He said the Earth was blue, and I thought – we both thought, him and me – we talked about it as we rode along lazily on our bikes, escaping punishment at school because we had been caught looking at a dirty magazine – talking about Gagarin the way we did about everything: that’s what we could be, we could also be a man flying through outer space.
At twelve years old, when any fantasy can seem real, Yuri Alekseevich Gagarin’s flight on board Vostok, a metal sphere two and a half metres in diameter, with windows scarcely larger than a book, literally opened up the skies for us.
Astronaut: another word I did not yet know.
Astronaut as well. I could be an astronaut. Everything was possible for someone still hesitating between becoming an engineer or a cowboy, a football player or a bandit in the Sertão, a pilot, test driver, a businessman, deep-sea diver, an archaeologist, or Tarzan.
Until that April day, Tarzan had been my favourite. I was good at swinging from creepers, and yet without my knowing why, both Lord Greystoke’s African jungle and Oklahoma, which is where I thought the Wild West of good guys and bandits was to be found, were starting to pall. I was also toying with the idea of being a scientific genius and inventing remedies that could cure the most dreadful illnesses, possibly a vaccine so powerful it would eliminate all pain. Or perhaps he was the one who wanted to be a scientist. One of us thought we might be president of Brazil and put an end to the century-old drought and hunger in the north-east. I think that was him. Among the ambitions that seemed to us perfectly possible, we both wanted to go and live in Rio de Janeiro one day. Brasilia had been inaugurated less than a year earlier, but whichever of us got to be president was going to transfer the capital back to Rio. We were twelve. It was another country. Another world.
Taken from If I Close My Eyes Now, by Edney Silvestre