I think the cities we remember best are the ones that greet us with the utmost cruelty. I arrived in Rio after some months in Salvador de Bahia, fleeing a break-up: Europe was throwing itself into its sinister Christmas, and I thought that the summer sun of an unknown city might be a good way to dodge what was coming over me. It never stopped raining – not for a single moment – during the first week, and the city was empty. Horizontal deluges swept the desolate beach. You couldn’t even guess that there might be a sun, and by six in the afternoon the cats-and-dogs rain turned into a night of raining wolves.

On one of those nights, out of pure despair, I decided to go to a downtown nightclub. No sooner had I left the hotel than I began to consider that the risk of my self-imposed shock therapy might be greater than the sickness. I don’t think I’ve ever made a longer or more instructive trip than that hour in the taxi through wind and rain: on the right, the Orla beaches followed one after another. Even at that distance and despite the noise of the motor, you could hear the roar of the gigantic waves slamming against the beach. To the left, nameless neighbourhoods and still more nameless neighbourhoods, tall buildings, all lit up, apartments filled with people unknown to me enjoying the happiness of being in their own houses, in their own city, having friends and plans for the next day, and never doubting their place in the world.

The taxi was leaving behind the majestic backdrop of Rio’s maritime facade. Without my being able to recognize them, there were the six kilometres of Copacabana, Leme and Botafogo with their bars and cinemas full of people, the aristocratic portals of Flamengo, the low, mysterious houses of Urca, and then the nineteenth-century sector of the city, Glória and Catete, and the skyscrapers of Cinelándia. The nightmare defile of Avenida Rio Branco opened, and in the distance there appeared the neighbourhoods clinging to the hillsides, Gávea, Cosme Velho and Laranjeiras, Santa Teresa, and also the immense slums of a city that not so long ago did not even bother to include them in its official maps. I would have wanted to see Corcovado, but I didn’t know where to look. In any case it was obscured by a thick layer of clouds. I did manage to spot, behind the clouds, a diffuse glow that instead of illuminating the city, weighed on it like an imminent threat. The downtown, deserted at that time, was filled with houses in ruins split by elevated highways and populated by shadows and characters out of a post-apocalyptic film.

‘My God,’ I thought, completely absorbed by my role as astronaut stranded on a hostile planet, ‘I’ll never get inside this implacable city. It’s too big, too alien.’

I don’t think I’ll ever forget my ride in that car whose destination I’d forgotten or which at least had stopped mattering to me. I have to say the therapy did work over the long run, and it was perhaps at that moment when it began to work. It was also exactly then that I began to love Rio, falling flat on top of the hard nucleus of disconsolation it hides: that mixture, that inhumanity, probably transforms it into the most terribly human city in the world.

Of course, I ended up living there for two years. Myriad times, later on, I traced that same route in both directions: on foot, on a bike, in my own car or other people’s cars, in taxis that no longer seemed headed directly to hell or limbo. Later I learned to call each neighbourhood by its own name, to recognize in each one the buildings and windows of friends, to recognize my favourite buildings, which were also friends – and there are so many beautiful buildings in Rio, the city with the most joyous architecture of the twentieth century.

I learned that the city – or at least its Southern Zone – is not as big as it seems, that behind its majestic facades facing the sea many of its neighbourhoods end two streets later, brusquely, against the wall of stone or the jungle of the hills. The metaphysical shock of that first night has become affection – and, at times, as happens with things we love desperately, impatience and anger. But I’ve never lost respect for the city and for the entire country for which it is an emblem, a letter of introduction, and a last memory.

Because Rio goes its own way, and Brazil reluctantly follows. Until the sixties, it was possible to appropriate Balzac’s quip about Paris and France in talking about the pushing-power of the former capital with relation to the rest of the country.

Pushing and being pushed: the positions have changed often. Rio grimaced when the nation’s capital was transferred to Brasilia. The happy fifties of bossa nova were over, with the cosmopolitan prosperity of a bourgeoisie that dreamed, along with President Kubitschek, that it was living in a European capital with tropical beaches, eternally tanned, to the rhythm of Tom Jobim’s music.

Industry and business migrated to São Paulo and the wealthy southern states; the ministries and embassies moved to the recently constructed buildings by Niemeyer, favourite architect and prodigal son, in the arid centre of the country. The leaden years of the military dictatorship began. Musicians and artists were exiled. And the rural exodus also began, along with the out-of-control growth of the favelas on the green hillsides: a hairshirt (to call it a belt is to say nothing) to remind one of the misery and violence that are still very present, that threatened to suffocate the rich, irresponsible neighbourhoods in the south, and degraded the downtown and the middle-class zones around it, disfiguring the paradisal shores of the Bay of Guanabara.

The citizens of Rio, the cariocas, Brazil’s eternally spoiled brats, needed a long time to digest all those reversals. During the seventies and eighties, the Cidade Maravilhosa, as it was called, was on the verge of ceasing to be marvelous: afflicted by insane traffic (cars, drugs, arms), by pollution, by political corruption, by the flight of a frightened and apathetic upper class that took refuge in the freeze-dried malls in the condominiums in Barra de Tijuca and the new neighbourhoods south of Ipanema (just to give a name to those rows of hermetically sealed communities and their private streets).

But for some reason, Brazil, even if reluctantly, looks at itself in the mirror of this city-world. Rio de Janeiro incarnates the energy for self-reinvention, for making a virtue of necessity and finding the most creative and elegant way to get out of a jam: those qualities sum up Rio’s jeitinho, its savvy, and they constitute the most admirable trait of Brazilian character. Even before the huge shove provided by Presidents Lula and Dilma, the return to democracy, the Plano Real and the economic good sense of Fernando Henrique Cardoso during the nineties restored a bit of Brazil’s humour. And to the cariocas the era restored their slightly beaten-up pride in a city that despite everything goes on marveling. Stefan Zweig, who could almost see the beaches of Rio from the Petrópolis hills where he committed suicide, said about Brazil something quite malignant disguised as flattery: ‘Brazil is the land of the future. And it always will be.’ Now it seems the future is arriving for good, and in any case everyone believes Brazil is the land of the present.

It’s no stranger to reinventing itself. Before the happy samba, codified in the thirties, Brazil sang the melancholy choro (the name means weeping) and inherited saudade (nostalgia) from the Portuguese fado. Before it was a city of music, sun and beaches, Rio was an industrious commercial metropolis, hard-working and rainy. Because you also have to attribute to the carioca genius the ability to make people forget, after they suffer it or while they’re suffering it, that Rio has one of the rainiest climates and some of the most exasperating, eternal clouds in the world – it’s right up there with London or Oslo. In winter and spring – I learned this the hard way – whole weeks can go by without the rain stopping.

But during the thirties things changed: in that sense, placed precisely in the centre of the majestic facade of its beachfront neighbourhoods, Copacabana served as the meridian of Rio and of all Brazil in space and time. Its construction marked a before-and-after for the image of the city and the nation. Between World War I and World War II, Brazil had flirted dangerously with Germany and Italy, but the US Good Neighbor Policy changed all that. It also helped to cement a national identity born in Copacabana: o samba – yes, it’s a masculine word – as playful, sensual music, combined with deluxe beach tourism, and a Hollywood makeover provided by Carmen Miranda, Orson Welles’s mythical, failed documentary and even a visit from Walt Disney – who went so far as to invent an ad hoc character, the very forgettable parrot Zé Carioca.

Copacabana has lost its glitter, but something in it reminds us of what the genial Nelson Rodrigues said in the fifties: in Copacabana, weeks are like seven Sundays. You can limit yourself to patrolling Avenida Atlántica, which runs along the beach, up and down, morning and afternoon. You’d wonder, in fact, if you were running the risk of spending the rest of your life doing only that, gawking at the perpetual show on the sidewalks: young ladies wearing thongs that seem to be made of dental floss (which are, it’s true, no longer worn on other beaches), hunky sportsmen, gangs from the favelas, sunburned gringos, sand sculptors, incognito couturiers.

‘Copa’ used stone, cement and expensive hotels to solidify the dream of a nation that suddenly recognized itself – or tried to recognize itself – in that musical, eternally sunned mirror. To traverse its beach areas from north to south is to travel in time and review in fast-forward all the urban dreams the West created and discarded during the past century. And also, of course, the nightmares from which it has not been able to free itself.

In the shadow of the most famous stone in the world lies the small Urca neighbourhood, usually overlooked by people dashing to catch the cable car up Pâo de Açucar. But when Rio wears you out, it’s a pleasure to stroll its little streets that lead to the bay and see the old Casino stranded on the beach like a ghost ship. It’s a silent and reticent village: here live, above all, the heirs to the military caste that colonized the place during the thirties. They retain many privileges: private clubs, beaches and military headquarters, as well as official buildings that give the outskirts of the pretty Praia Vermelha the air of a tropical Gotham City.

After Urca, Rio leaves Guanabara Bay behind and opens to the Atlantic. In Leme, the ambience of savoir vivre, the French-style buildings, and the small fruit and vegetable markets improvise, just for a second, a miraculous beach-side Paris. It was a neighbourhood thought chique (or, better, chiquessimo, as the cariocas in their permanent quest for the definitive superlative would put it) before Ipanema became fashionable. It’s where Clarice Lispector lived, and I like to imagine her crossing the street and greeting (well, barely nodding to) Elizabeth Bishop, who was her neighbour. Both lived in a Rio that was the backdrop for their tormented internal labyrinths. I’ve randomly attributed to each a different building in Leme, both of an antiquated luxury, a noble but decayed art deco.

Bishop is in some fashion the patron saint of those wounded by love of Rio (our number is legion): during the years she spent there, she loved and hated it and tried a thousand unsuccessful times to forget it. Once you’ve lived in Rio, you have, whenever you’re elsewhere, the sensation of being a bit in exile. I think Bishop’s ‘One Art’, the poem that elegantly struggles to hide an irremediable grief, says it quite well without saying it completely:

I lost two cities, lovely ones. And vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent . . .

Next comes Ipanema. If Brazil feels the periodic temptation to sum itself up in Rio, Rio hurls itself towards the same painful desire: that of summing itself up in its beaches. Like it or not, in this city it’s hard not to begin (or end up) on the sand. From Flamengo to Praia Vermelha, from Leme to Copacana, Ipanema and Leblon, these unmatched urban beaches constitute the geographic and social backbone of the cariocas. The beaches are for swimming, strolling, jogging, playing all the imaginable variants of ball games altinho, football at the water’s edge, frescobol with paddles at a murderous rate of speed, the hypnotic futevolei, a kind of volleyball without hands, exclusively for virtuoso kicking and heading. Teenagers ‘smoke’, that is, cut class (they do smoke many things as well), office workers take dips at midday, muscly guys and retired folks flash their backsides and exercise in the outdoor gyms, while tourists and locals hook up – or try to.

The beach is cafe, discotheque, park, football pitch, office and even bedroom for the cariocas. It doesn’t take long to detect the nuances and codes related to their collective use. The surfers congregate beneath the stone of the Arpoador, while the presentable nonagenarians prefer quiet walks, with or without dog, through Leme. The laziest tourists hang around the door of their respective Copacabana hotels, while the lovey-dovey couples and respectable old-money families seek out discrete empty spaces on the Leblon beach.

The jeunesse dorée beach-dwellers who put down roots in the sand, beautiful and idle, never wander far from Posto 9 in Ipanema. The key point is the famous Coqueirão, the tallest palm tree on the beach and the cool site par excellence in Rio. Before it was the now-vanished pier in Posto 8, frequented by Cazuza, Bebel Gilberto, Ney Mattogrosso, and the eighties cultural scene that came after Tropicalismo. It was there that the mythical Summer of the can (1988) reached its apotheosis when a ship carrying contraband was wrecked near Rio. During the entire month of January, waves loaded with sealed cans – of marijuana instead of tuna fish – washed up on the beaches: that was the death rattle of the carioca culture scene. That summer is still remembered with saudade by the old guard in an Ipanema that left bohemian life behind long, long ago.

There’s room for everyone on the beach, and it’s easy to get a good start: all you have to do is to step in barefoot, and barely clothed. The carioca has streamlined the difficult art of eliminating beach gear, and during the summer it’s still quite a sight to see the streets of Ipanema and even lines in banks and stores made up of swimmers doing their chores.

The bikini is essential for women. Men need a simple sunga (it’s the national interpretation of the bathing suit: nothing reveals the newly arrived man like shorts of the wrong length or, even worse, a Speedo in the European style). Shoes are unisex: havaianas without pretentions at ten reales a pair. And no carrying around those terrycloth beach towels which are so gringo: at most, a cotton canga that fits in your fist which you can stretch out on the sand.

Best of all, nothing at all: everything has been foreseen and perfected by generations of beach culture in Rio. As soon as your foot hits the sand, the employees at the barraca – the snack bar – greet you and offer beach chairs, guaraná and coconuts which get put on your bill. Then the strolling vendors resolve everything: each one has his own personal way of advertising maté, ice cream, fruit and even skewers of shrimp to assuage your hunger.

For a few hours, the beach creates the impression, as does Carnival for a few days, that everything happens for the best in the best of all possible worlds: that the sea and the sculptural bodies are a sign of a world where there is no racism, no homophobia, no murders, no ultra-rich neighbourhoods and no impoverished favelas. A dose of collective oblivion that is simultaneously beautiful and tragic, like so many Brazilian things. Melancholy in sunlight, the flesh, abundant and sad (hélas!), the perfection of constantly renewed and always inaccessible beauties reach their climax on the beaches of Rio.

It’s curious: I think Elizabeth Bishop hit the nail on the head when she linked Rio to the sweet and sour feeling that follows a heartbreak and hides deep within: an invincible pit of sadness, a mad nostalgia for what it never was, the memory of that choro hidden behind the samba.

Let’s not forget: behind the joys of sun and flesh, there is always a pang of despair in Rio: that pain is very astute. We recognize in its visible jab the pain of the invisible being we bear within us. Perhaps that’s what always makes us come back for more. Remember Drummond’s verse: ‘First love passed; second love passed; third love passed; but the heart goes on.’ Remember that the ‘Girl from Ipanema’ by Vinícius and Jobim is a bitter song about the flesh that vanishes without leaving a trace. ‘Ah, why is everything so sad?’ Tom Jobim suddenly asks, freezing our smiles and revealing the frozen heart at the centre of the song. Remember, finally, what Vinícius would say: Tristeza não têm fim. Felicidade sim. Sadness has no end. Happiness does. And without ceasing to remember, let’s all go to Rio without any reservations, predisposed to believe or to pretend to believe, like the city itself, that for a few hours everything is beautiful and after can be forgotten.


Photograph by tetedelart1855

Rodrigo Hasbún on Antônio Xerxenesky
Howard Goldblatt | Interview