When I was eleven years old and living in Porto Alegre, my dog Champion was killed by our neighbour’s Dobermann.
Our neighbour was a Korean, the owner of a biscuit factory, and his house was subsequently demolished to make way for an apartment block. The same thing happened to our house and to the whole neighbourhood, which had a lot of empty building plots and broad pavements you could skateboard along.
The maid usually took Champion for his walks. On the day he died, he was sniffing around in a bush and, when the maid wasn’t looking, he managed to slip out of his collar, run off and stick his nose through the railings surrounding the Korean’s garden. The girl had worked for us for one or two years, but after that I never saw her again, and from the age of eleven until now I have never owned another dog. The only other pets I had were a hamster, a duck, a cat and a second cat.
I was given the hamster after Champion died. I used to enjoy cutting up bits of carrot for him, changing his bedding and watching him run in his wheel, and I only stopped playing with him when he began biting the fingers of anyone who tried to pet him. He had a ritual of swallowing the cubes of carrot, then disappearing underneath his little blanket and regurgitating it all, scrabbling at his mouth with his paws as if he were scratching himself. One time, a bit of his gut came up with the food, and when I went to clean out his cage the following day the hamster was lying there stiff and cold.
It was my father who told me about Champion’s death. He came into my room, sat down on my bed and, after explaining what had happened, asked me not to tell my sister because he didn’t want to upset her before the ballet performance that night. My sister is two years younger than me and had been going to ballet classes since she was little. Every year we had to go and watch some thirty or so children prancing about onstage. I could stand it for about ten minutes and then I would go and wait outside at the exit, and one time my father did the same. The theatre was in Praça da Matriz, and we stood on the steps talking and looking across at the cathedral, the Legislative Assembly and the Courts of Justice.
Two years ago my father died of pulmonary fibrosis, a kind of progressive scarring that damages tissue, gradually reducing lung function. Once the first symptoms have been detected, the survival rate is around five years. It began with my father having difficulty going up the stairs, then he started using a walking stick, then he couldn’t stand and finally he had to have an oxygen cylinder beside his bed. In his last months, he needed a nurse to care for him. I used to go for walks with the two of them, pushing his wheelchair. We’d go to an ice-cream parlour and sit at the table outside, in a street lined with trees, my father almost glowing with health from the corticosteroids he was on. At the funeral the rabbi gave a speech, and made a small cut in the clothing of each family member, and sang the prayer for the dead before the coffin was lowered into the grave, and everyone present picked up the trowel and dropped a little earth onto the lid.
In 1937, when my father was six, he and his mother had to leave Germany because of the Nazis. His father – my grandfather – emigrated to Israel with the older daughter. My father only saw his sister again in 1970 when he went to visit my grandfather. Despite being in hospital with terminal cancer, my grandfather refused to see someone whom he considered a turned page. All because my father, when still a child, had failed to reply to letters sent to him in Brazil. My father only told me this in 2007 when I was already living in São Paulo, during a brief conversation we had while waiting for a taxi on Alameda Itu.
My father was an engineer. He worked on a number of large projects: the refurbishment of the market in Porto Alegre, the Metro in Recife and a hospital in Sierra Leone. In May 1992, more or less as he had on the day Champion died, he came into my room to tell me about a friend of mine. My friend had been into skateboarding like me and we were very close until our final year in school. When I was thirteen, we were both mugged by a street kid who threatened us with a penknife and demanded that we give him our knee pads and our gloves. I just stood there, but my friend ran off, as he would in 1992, when he was attacked by a mugger as he was getting out of his car. He was shot three times in the back. My father said: Something bad has happened. I went to my friend’s house that same night, my dad went with me, and my friend’s father opened the door to us and we stayed with him for nearly half an hour. There was a constant flow of visitors – acquaintances and relatives. My friend’s father was in his stocking feet. His shirt was hanging out, his tie loose, and when he saw me he said almost apologetically: What can I say?
That night, my dad and I went to a snack bar. We ate cheese and roast beef sandwiches and I drank a beer. My father started talking, recalling a day about five years earlier when I came home with a duck, given to me free at an agricultural fair. The friend who died was staying with us at the time. We gave the duck some water and some corn, and it strutted up and down in the garden, and my friend was fascinated, and because his mother was always giving me presents and I didn’t much care for the duck anyway I asked my friend if he’d like to keep it.
The duck’s name was Donald. The name of the friend who died was Marcelo. The name of another friend who died, this time in 1987, when he got caught in a fishing net while surfing, was Victor. On the day of the accident Victor, Marcelo and I were in the water, the beach was Capão da Canoa, it was about five degrees and we were near the sewage outlet. You can walk for miles along the beaches in Rio Grande do Sul and the landscape never changes – lifeguard huts, scrappy bits of grass, an old horse that keeps stopping to graze and getting beaten because it won’t pull the cart. Given the position of the rope tethering the net – we found the rope later on in the sand – and the direction of the current, which was pulling towards the south, it was clear that the net had passed underneath me and then underneath Marcelo before either getting entangled in Victor’s leash or caught on the tail of his board or around his leg, I never knew for sure. He was carried unconscious to a first-aid station. Salt water dribbled from one corner of his mouth. They tried artificial respiration, then applied electrodes to his chest, first shock, second shock, a guy in a white coat counted the seconds. Later, someone said he’d done it all wrong, that he hadn’t even placed him face down or expelled the water from his lungs or removed his wetsuit to allow his chest to expand more easily, but I think Victor was already dead when he was brought out of the sea.
I was staying at Victor’s house. We had arrived the evening before, had eaten sausages for supper and played canasta until we went to bed. I went back to Porto Alegre at two o’clock the next afternoon, with my dad at the wheel, he and my mum having driven straight to Capão da Canoa when they heard about the accident. On the day Marcelo died I thought about that journey, Lagoa dos Patos, the toll station, the hour and a half drive to Porto Alegre, and I had that memory vividly in my mind when I left Marcelo’s house I told my dad this in the snack bar, but he told me not to think about it. These things happen. Sometimes they make no sense at all, he said, and now I realize that I never talked to my dad about his childhood, the school friends who had perhaps stayed behind in Germany, some or all of whom would have ended up in concentration camps, or about the memories he had of the streets and the town and the country that was laid waste in the years that followed.
My father didn’t attend synagogue. He took no part in any charitable activities associated with the Jewish community. He showed no interest in religious topics, never quoted from the Bible, never prayed or said whether or not he believed in God. In almost forty years I never so much as heard him mention the word, and when the rabbi made a speech at his funeral praising him as ‘a man who lived his Judaism every day’ I couldn’t recall a single episode in his life that justified such a comment.
After my father died, my mother was left alone. His death came in the wake of a particularly grim period of her life, during which she had also lost her best friend. My sister had a Labrador puppy whose life was devoted to drooling, trashing the apartment, stealing food and barking at night, and my mother came to enjoy looking after him and taking him to a square frequented by other dogs and their owners or trainers. My mother likes to talk about my father but there’s nothing morbid about this, not at all, and I like it too because every now and then her memories include something I didn’t know or had forgotten: the time he won a prize from the Engineering Council, the time he decided to have a barbecue and to fan the hot coals with a hairdryer, the time he made me a little theatre out of modelling clay because I was having nightmares about giant otters.
In 1977, a sergeant saved a child in the zoo in Brasília. She had fallen into the enclosure containing giant otters, and the sergeant leaped in after her and was attacked and later died in hospital when the bites he had received became infected. The incident was featured on the TV news for days afterwards, and one night my dad called me into his room, where he had placed the ‘theatre’ on the bed with a towel as the curtain and behind it various dolls. He had made them all himself. The story always began with giant otters, about the babies they had and how they swam on their backs when eating fish. My dad told the story over several nights, explaining that giant otters are only aggressive when they feel threatened and that, besides, such creatures were unknown in Porto Alegre. I would watch this show before going to sleep and my mum says I never again woke up screaming.
My father taught me to drive, to swim, to use a soldering iron, and together we rigged up a primitive lighting system by fixing four sockets to a piece of wood, each with a plug attached by a cable to four light bulbs positioned at various points in the garage which could be turned on and off to create our very own ghost train effect. He went with me to have my MMR jab. My first trip on a plane was with him. He opened a bank account for me and taught me my first words in English and bought me magazines full of stories about the Wild West, stories that encouraged me to read and, later on, to become a writer.
When I was thirty-one, my father rang me one Friday to tell me that an old university friend of mine, recently appointed public prosecutor in Santa Rosa in the state of Rio Grande do Sul, had been shot six times by a drunken policeman. For many years, he had been one of my best friends. During the year I spent in London, I stayed in the same place he had stayed. Like me, he had done his military service, and like me, he had considered becoming a diplomat. We read the same books and throughout our time at university we both often talked about giving up law and trying another profession. We worked together in the same practice before I became a journalist and moved to São Paulo. The murder was reported in all the newspapers and was talked about for weeks afterwards. A street in Porto Alegre was named after him, another Marcelo. The funeral took place late on Friday afternoon, and I didn’t go because I had something important to do at work, or because I wouldn’t have had time to catch the plane, or for both those reasons or neither, but my father offered to go in my place.
A year after my father’s death, I was in Porto Alegre for the unveiling of the headstone. In attendance were cousins from Florianópolis and Vitória, from France and Israel. The ceremony took place on a cold Sunday morning. The black cloth was removed from the grave marker and a few small stones placed on it, and then we went to a churrascaria for lunch, and since several of my cousins already had children every single person at the table asked me if I had any plans to start a family. Whenever I attend these family gatherings, I always notice how people interact with their children, one cousin spoon-feeding her eight-month-old baby, another kicking a stone back and forth with his son. The closest I came to being a father was when I was married. But the marriage ended, and I didn’t give the matter of having children any more thought, and now I can only respond to the kind of questions I was asked at the restaurant with some banal, jokey comment.
The first cat I had was run over. The second one I lost when my wife and I split up. On the day my wife left I went to a bar on Avenida Roosevelt, then to another bar on Augusta, then I crossed the road and went into a club where there was a show on, then to another club and another show, then to a bar that had a jukebox and where you can breakfast on chocolate milk and brandy, and that was my life every night for the next three years. It lost me a job. It was the reason why none of my subsequent relationships worked out. I never again spoke to my ex-wife, or to any of the other girlfriends I’d had, or to the majority of the friends I’d made over a period of forty years, at school, university or work, and about whom I now know nothing, where they live, what they’re doing, or if they’re even alive.
The photo on my father’s headstone was taken when he was about sixty, the smile is fairly typical of him, but when I’m alone and try to remember him no specific pose or expression comes to mind, neither does his voice, because people’s voices change with age and in the last twelve years of his life we spoke more often on the phone than face to face. In the novels I’ve written, I’ve portrayed my father in different ways: as a Jew marked by the memory of the war, as a secondary character in that story about the fishing net, as a man who gives his son the worst possible news just before a football match. All of these are true and false, as is always the case with fiction, and I’ve often wondered why I keep writing about him and if, when I’m older, I’ll get my real memory of him mixed up with the memory I’ve set down in those books: the facts I chose to include or exclude, the feelings I did or didn’t have, who my father really was and the kind of person I did or didn’t become because of that or despite that or entirely independently of that, this story which, for various reasons, begins at the ballet performance that took place after Champion’s death.
My father was sitting next to me. The theatre was packed, then everything went dark and shortly afterwards a solitary spotlight lit up my sister alone on the stage, dancing the part of Little Red Riding Hood.
My sister found out about Champion when we got back home. The Dobermann had torn off half of Champion’s snout, and the maid described how his body, with his jawbone protruding from his cheek, seemed to hang limply from the other dog’s mouth. First aid for dogs is much the same as it is for people: you lay them on the ground, make sure the airways are unobstructed and apply pressure to the wound. When he was put in the car, Champion was very still, wrapped in a blood-soaked towel, and at the veterinary surgery, after the vet had checked his pulse and the temperature of his paws and the colour of his gums, he told my father there was nothing they could do for Champion and that it would be best to have him put down.
When he came back from the vet’s, my father went straight to the Korean’s house. None of us had ever been there. They had an enormous living room, with a swimming pool and a basketball court out back. By then, the Korean knew what had happened and he told my father it was our maid’s fault. After all, she was the one who had let Champion slip out of his collar. The dog should never have been allowed that close to the fence, we should have kept a more careful eye on him, the Korean said, and one day I heard my father on the phone and I stood behind the door listening to him telling the whole story in detail, before, during and after the Dobermann attacked Champion, and then he was saying: I mean, shit, what the hell was I to do? That was the first time I’d ever heard his voice tremble. It almost tailed off in a whisper. But he never said anything more about the incident, and all I have left of Champion are a few scraps of memories: the bowl he ate his food from, the plastic snake he was always chewing, his dark, wet fur after we had bathed him, the night of a football match when we sat up with him, my father and I, until the fireworks had stopped.
There are many ways for a dog to die. It can catch rabies, distemper or canine parvovirus. Or hepatitis or cancer. It can get shot or eat some poisonous plant. Or else, one humid day in the garage, when no one else in the house is stirring, you take a glass bottle, wrap it in newspaper, and stamp on it several times until the fragments of glass are so small as to be almost invisible. Then you pick those pieces up one by one and stick them into a chunk of raw meat until it’s really heavy and has the texture of sand. Then you go up the steps, through the living room, open the door, cross the garden to the neighbouring fence, as close as the shrubs will allow, and you lob it – that favourite dish of any dog anywhere any time – onto the other side.
My sister cried all night for Champion. My father went into her room several times, and his steps sounded heavy, as if he were dragging his feet, and I remembered our conversation earlier that evening, his asking me to be strong, saying that we had to protect my sister, that I was a big boy now, the older brother, and that’s what older brothers had to do. There’s no point being angry, he said. You should never hang on to anger. An angry person will never be the master of his own life, said my father, but at the theatre the wolf appeared onstage and my sister mimed her questions about the size of his ears, his big eyes, his huge mouth, and throughout the rest of the show all I could think about was the Korean. The Korean’s house. The few occasions I’d seen the Korean leaving the house and setting off to work in a suit, and what I would do the next time I saw him. And what he would do when he saw me. And if I would make a point of looking him in the eye, knowing I knew that he knew. And never again, not when Victor or Marcelo or the other Marcelo died, not even when my father died or at the unveiling of the headstone, perhaps because I didn’t cry on any of those occasions, not a single tear, a whole life without shedding a tear, no, never again did I feel as I did on that night at the ballet performance: sitting in the fourth row, my dad in the half-light, and me looking at him and fixing his profile in my mind, his nose, his jaw, his eyes and his expression, the clearest image I have of my father, with me so close to making a decision and him waiting for the wolf’s answer.
Photography courtesy of tifotter