If you and I were anteaters, instead of a man and a woman talking to each other in this corner of the bar, perhaps I would then be able to accustom myself to your silence. Perhaps we would understand each other through the complicity of our restless snouts sniffing the pavement nostalgically for non-existent insects. We might join, under the cover of darkness, in coitus as sad as the nights of Lisbon. Maybe then you would finally tell me something about yourself. It is possible that behind your Cranach forehead is a secret tenderness for rhinoceros. And perhaps, if you were to touch me, you might suddenly discover the unicorn in me. We could buy tickets to ride the little train that circles the zoo, going from animal to animal, waving, for example, to the white bears of the Arctic grotto. We could observe the anal conjunctivitis of the baboons, their eyelids inflamed with haemorrhoids. We could kiss in front of the cage of lions, moth-eaten like old coats, rolling their lips over stripped gums. You could buy me a popsicle near the corner where the clowns, arching their eyebrows, buffet each other to the tragic tune of a saxophone.
Do you remember the stone eagles at the entrance to the zoo? My parents lived not very far away. From the window of my brother’s room you could see the camels and their bored expressions. Sitting on the toilet, I listened to the complaints of the seals who were impeded by the width of the moat from swimming down the sewage canals and emerging in a jet of water through the spigots in my bathroom. The one-armed peanut vendor set up her basket industry in the shade of our veranda, and she would relate her husband’s drinking spress to my grandmother with epic zeal.
In every building there along the Rua Barata Salgueiro lived an old relative amid debris of Chinese vases and mouldy cabinets. In kitchens, ageless servants, all named Albertina, prepared salt-free broths while mumbling fragments of rosary as seasoning for the white rice. My aunts used to approach me, jerking like music-box figurines, to poke my ribs with their canes, observe the lining of my jacket disdainfully, and proclaim: ‘You’re so skinny.’ My pronounced clavicles were more shameful than lipstick on a man’s collar. My aunts would then settle with difficulty on the edge of their arm-chairs decorated with crocheted doilies; they would pour tea from ornate services, delivering a torrent of comments while pointing with their teaspoons at photographs of furious generals who, after glorious combats of backgammon and billiards in depressing mess-halls, died before I was born.
‘Fortunately the army will make a man of him.’
This vigorous prophecy, transmitted during my childhood and adolescence through false teeth, prolonged itself in strident echoes at the canasta tables, where the women of the clan countered the Sunday Mass with the pagan game at two centavos a point. The pompous solemnity of the men of the family fascinated me even before my first communion, when I still didn’t understand that their hushed, reverent conferences were simply about the soft merits of the maid’s back-side. These men gravely agreed with my aunts’ plans for me, hoping to rid themselves of a future rival who might also cop feels and pinches while the table was being cleared.
The spectre of Salazar, our glorious leader, hovered over the white washbasins, protecting us from the gloomy and suspect idea of socialism. The PIDE carried on courageously with its valiant crusade against the sinister notion of democracy. The framed picture of Cardinal Cerejeira, childhood friend of our leader, zealous guardian of the purity of the Portuguese Catholic Church, guaranteed the perpetuity of the Conference of St Vincent de Paul, and by extension, of the poor servants. The print, picturing the people shouting for joy around a libertarian guillotine, was permanently exiled to the attic, along with old bidets and broken chairs.
When I embarked for Angola, on a ship full of troops, finally to become a man, my tribe, grateful to the government for giving me the opportunity for my metamorphosis, appeared en masse at the docks, consenting, in a transport of patriotic fervour, to be elbowed by a restless crowd that came there impotently to witness its own death.1
Luanda was Angola’s shabby port, its warehouses shimmering in the humidity and heat. The water was like turbid sun-tan lotion glistening on dirty old skin. Blacks squatted in small groups and watched us with timeless distraction. Thin white birds dissolved into the palms along the bay. In the distance was the island to which whores–tired of the men from Lisbon who had forgotten about tenderness–went to drink the last of the soda-pop champagne. Short, bespectacled second lieutenants, with the scrupulous manner of students, led us in the direction of the cattle-cars that waited for us near a barge covered with trash and slime, like the barge near Cruz Quebrada, you’ll remember, where the sewage spreads out in stagnant pools at the feet of the city, and where old dogs vomit garbage. Wherever we drop anchor, we announce our adventurous presence with our standards and our empty jam tins. I have always thought that we Portuguese should erect a monument to spit in–a spit-poet, a spit-tomb of the unknown soldier, a spit-equestrian– something in honour of the perfect Portuguese male who boasts of his most recent fornication and then spits.
Our train finally rolled from the station near the port and was full of suit-cases and the timid fear of foreigners in an unknown land. The colourful misery of Luanda’s slums–the slow thighs of the women and the swollen bellies of the children–awoke in me a strange sensation of the absurd. It was a discomfort I had been feeling since leaving Lisbon, perhaps shared by one of the priests on the boat who was preoccupied with finding a justification for the massacre of the innocents. We would meet, sometimes, on the bulwark–he clutching his books and I with my hands in my pockets–to look at the same black opaque waves. I lost touch with that priest, but I remember his expression: a perplexed Noah forced to board an ark full of animals suffering from stomach aches–dragged from their jobs, their billiard tables, and their clubs–and launched, in the name of strident ideas, into two years of anguish, insecurity, and carnage.
As to the carnage, there was no doubt: huge crates of coffins filled a part of the ship’s hold, and we played the macabre game of trying to guess their future occupants. Him? Me? Both of us? The fat major over there talking to the communications officer? Whenever you examine people closely they start to acquire, subtly, a posthumous profile dignified by our fantasy of their death. Sympathy, friendship, even a certain tenderness, become easier.
T he train that took us from that African Cruz Quebrada ended up dumping us near Luanda in a barracks of sorts. The sweat tingled on our skin. At the officers’ quarters, mosquitoes penetrated the window screens to produce a sharp insistent harmony in the dark. Outside, unfamiliar constellations surprised me. We had dinner in the city in sordid esplanades full of soldiers. Fat white men, briefcases under their arms, exchanged Portuguese money for Angolan currency with the measured pace of seagulls. The streets, all looking like Lisbon’s Morais Soares, joined and separated in a labyrinth that wound its way to the fort. Provincial neon lights were reflected on the sidewalks in blinking orange pools.
The closeness of death makes us more wary, or at least, more prudent. In Luanda, waiting for a few days before entering the combat zone, we exchanged metaphysics for the degenerate cabarets of the island–whores at our sides, buckets of cheap Raposeira champagne before us, and the little cross-eyed strip-tease artist taking her clothes off on stage with the tired detachment of an old cobra shedding its skin. A few times I woke up in the rooms of slick pensions without knowing how I had got there, and dressed myself in silence looking for my shoes under a black lace brassière, trying not to disturb the sleep of the shape rolled up in the sheets, of which I could see only a confused mass of hair on the pillow. In fact, fulfilling my family’s prophecy, I had become a man: a type of cynical and sad avidity. Despair and egoism had supplanted the fragile pleasures of childhood, the laughter without reservation or cryptic meanings– which I think I can hear, you know?–sometimes at night, on my way home in a deserted street, echoing behind me, as a cascade of ridicule.
T he Gago Coutinho outpost was our first destination: near the Zambian border, three hundred kilometres south of Luso, two thousand kilometres east of Luanda, the Gago Coutinho comprised a mound of dusty red earth between two eroded plains; a barracks; several tribes led by chieftains forced by the Portuguese government to wear carnival costumes with ridiculous stars and ribbons; the PIDE station; the administration building; Mete Lenha’s Café; and the lepers’ colony. Once a week I rang a bell, and dozens of deformed larvae would emerge, limping, dragging themselves, loping from the bushes, the trees, the grass huts–larvae of all ages on whose shoulders rags flapped like feathers–advancing toward me and extending the remains of their arms for bottles of medicine. Senhor Jonatao, the black nurse from the public health delegation, distributed pills with the macabre majesty of a priest engaged in a eucharistic ritual for the living dead, some of whom, already blind, had eyes that had been reduced to a cloudy-blue mucus. Mute, frightened children, without fingers, and tortured by flies, huddled together, as women with gargoyle features whispered among them-selves. Senhor Jonatao would treat the lepers with a tincture of iodine, while I circulated randomly from tribe to tribe frightening skeletal old women squatting at the entrance to the huts. I smelled manioc drying on matting and humidity, rain, dry excrement, and obese rats rummaging in the garbage. I saw the plain in the distance and a narrow, sinuous river and bats waiting for sunset in the ruins of a colonialist’s home, overgrown by colourless grass.
Gago Coutinho also had Mete Lenha’s Café. Mete Lenha, who lisped and whose efforts to talk twisted his face into the grimaces of someone straining to shit, was married to a kind of petrol tank, adorned with strident necklaces; who always complained to the officers about the pinches with which the soldiers paid homage to her massive thighs–difficult, in fact, to discern in a woman who looked like an immense rolling gluteus, whose jowls had something anal about them, and whose nose looked like a painful haemorrhoid. This café was for innocent refreshment on impossibly long Sunday afternoons, and it was there that, for the first time, the lieutenant confidentially opened his wallet to show me the picture of his maid, and, leaning back in the wrought-iron chair that was too narrow for his enormous scapula, uttered the grand synthesis of a lifetime of reflection: if the man of the house doesn’t give the cook a little stir, the household will never have any love.
After dinner the officers would drive frantically in their jeeps from hut to hut in search of cheap, quick love in stuffy rooms, lit by tentative oil lamps that cast chapel-like illusions on the mud walls. We would arrive with contra-VD ointment that we applied to our cocks sticking through our open zippers, under the indifferent gaze of women with sharp triangular teeth who, squatting on make-shift beds, offered profiles resembling certain Picasso portraits. Often lying beside them were sleeping children, chickens, or some decrepit forebear lost in mummy nightmares, snoring out the hieroglyphics of his dreams. The lieutenant fornicated with the visor of his cap twisted around to the back of his head and with his pistol still strapped to his waist, ever on the alert; the operations officer ordered a sewing machine from Luso and sewed the hems of his trousers at dawn, sitting next to a splendidly energetic black woman with pendulous breasts; and the captain, with whom I played checkers, sat at the wheel of his jeep and asked prepubescent girls to masturbate him, offering them little packages of mint candy. ‘The white man came with the whip,’ sang the sergeant with the guitar. ‘The white man came with the whip and beat the chieftain and the people. The white man came with the whip and beat the chieftain and the people.’
Most of the chieftain’s people, however, had already fled to the bush. Forbidden to fish and hunt, dispossessed, hemmed in by barbed-wire fences, fed handouts of dried fish, spied on by the PIDE, tyrannized by the black bodyguards of the officers, they had fled to where the MPLA, our invisible enemy, was hiding. We were forced to fight a hallucinatory war. With every wound from an ambush or a mine, the same distressing question occurred to me–product of the Portuguese youth movement, Catholic journals and the monarchist tabloids, nephew of catechists and an intimate of the Holy Family that visited us at home in a bell jar–who is killing us? The guerrillas or Lisbon? Lisbon, the Americans, the Russians, the Chinese, the whole fucking lot? Who is shitting on us in the name of interests that escape me? Who stuck me in the ass-hole of the world full of red dust and sand, to play checkers with an old captain who was promoted from sergeant and who smelled like a menopausal book-keeper patiently suffering from chronic colitis? Who will explain the absurdity of this to me–of the letters I receive that tell me of a world that distance has rendered strange and unreal, of the calendars I mark with crosses to count the days until my release, as I see before me only the endless tunnel of months into which I have hurled myself?
T hen, we were in Ninda.
Ninda: dry corn stalks growing next to the barbed wire rustled all night. The witch doctor sucked blood from the necks of decapitated chickens. And the captain and I played chess at the dining-room table, amid disarray. We would talk outside, sitting in the dark in curved barrel-backed chairs, guessing each other’s location from our voices. The captain had introduced me to Marx and Marx then observed me from a distance muttering unintelligible economic theories; bewigged Lenin conspired amid a group of ardent men in frock-coats; Rosa Luxemburg limped in the streets of Berlin; Jaures, shot to death in a restaurant–a napkin around his neck, like a Chicago gangster–spun round and round as in a barber’s chair, mirrors and bottles shattering. I imagined myself entering my house accompanied by these spectres as my frightened relatives ran to the safety provided by their own political and religious icons, threatening the socialist vampires with the adjuratory garlic braids of Our Lady of the Conception.
The platoon that went out at night to protect the barracks crouched amid scraggly bushes that grew yellow and gnarled in the sand. Returning in the dark, they passed in front of us, and dispersed silently into the cabins where the bodies of sleeping soldiers were strewn about. I asked the captain, ‘What has our government done to my people? What have they done to us sitting and waiting in this oceanless landscape, imprisoned by three rings of barbed wire in a land that doesn’t belong to us, dying from malaria and whistling bullets, waiting for supplies whose arrival is always threatened by accidents, ambushes and mines, fighting an invisible enemy, fighting impossibly long days that do not follow one upon the other, fighting homesickness, indignation, and remorse?’
N inda. The attack began near the landing field, opposite the tribal village. There were moving lights that turned on and off pin the plateau in a kind of morse code. The enormous moon shone on our prefab barracks and sentry posts protected by sandbags and wooden logs. At the door of the health station, I, half-asleep and naked, saw soldiers running with their rifles toward the barbed wire. Then voices, the shouts, red spurts–all of that–the tension, lack of decent food, the precarious shelters, the undrinkable water, the monstrous cruelty of war, it all made me feel as if I were in an unreal place, a dream. Lying in my barracks, waiting for the attack to subside, looking at the stiff silhouettes of the eucalyptus trees with a useless G3 rifle in my sweaty palms and a cigarette stuck in my mouth like a toothpick, I thought of myself as a character from Beckett waiting for the hand grenade of a redemptive Godot. The novels I still had to write accumulated in the attic of my mind like old machines reduced to a heap of odd parts that I could never re-assemble; the women I would never sleep with offered their spreading thighs to others. My unborn child would be only the improbable material-ization of a distant afternoon in Tomar, in a room in the officers’ quarters with the window wide open looking out on the park, and my wife and I celebrating our desire in bed.
Listen. Look at me and listen, I need you to listen to me. Listen to me with the same anxious attention we gave the radio appeals from the column under fire, the voice of the transmissions officer, calling, begging, forgetting the security code, the captain hurriedly climbing with half-a-dozen volunteers into his Mercedes that skidded in the sand on its way to the ambush. Listen to me the way I bent over our first corpse, desperately hoping that he was still breathing, the corpse I wrapped in a blanket and took to my room right after lunch, and as I closed the door I said, ‘Have a nice nap,’ as outside the soldiers looked at me in silence. This time there’ll be no miracle, fellows, I thought, looking at them. ‘He’s taking a nap,’ I explained to them, ‘he’s taking a nap and I don’t want you to wake him up because he doesn’t want to wake up,’ and then I went to treat the wounded who were writhing in stretchers, and never before had the eucalyptus of Ninda seemed as big to. me as on that afternoon, big, black, high, frightening, and the medic who was helping me kept saying Shit, shit, shit, with his northern accent–we came from all points of our muzzled country to die in Ninda, from our sad country of stone and sea to die in Ninda–Shit, shit, shit, I repeated along with the medic in my sophisticated Lisbon accent, while the captain got out of the Mercedes with infinite weariness, holding his weapon like a useless fishing rod, and the people from the black compound peered at us anxiously. Listen to me as I listened to the throbbing of the blood in my temples, and through the spaces in the lattice work on the porch I could see the captain pacing back and forth pressing a glass of whiskey to his chest, talking to himself, everyone talking to himself because nobody was able to talk to anybody–‘Let’s drink to National Unity’–while the corpse grew in the room until it burst through the walls, dragged itself through the sand to reach the bush in search of the echo of the shot that had killed it, and then the helicopter transported it to Gago Coutinho as if they were sweeping shameful garbage under a rug, and the medic arranged the surgical instruments in the stainless steel box, the scalpels, pincers, the needles, and probes, and sat down next to me on the steps of the first-aid station, a type of small vacation cottage for ageing caretakers, virgin governesses–‘Fuck it,’ said the medic, polishing his boots with his fingers.
Listen: before that there was Ferreira’s leg, that is, Ferreira’s leg that an anti-personnel mine transformed into the absence of Ferreira’s leg, and there was Corporal Mazunguidi’s tattered thighs from which I extracted even the metal eyelets of his boots. I walked out to the porch of the first-aid station in my blood-stained shirt where the indifferent clarity of the day was an insult and the freshness of the morning a welcome relief. If the revolution is over, see, and in away it really is, it is because the dead of Africa, their mouths full of dirt, cannot protest, and hour by hour the political Right kills more of them while we, the survivors, continue to doubt that we are alive, continue to be afraid that we will discover in some casual gesture that we are as dead as they. The burial urn of Corporal Pereira, Carpinteiro’s urn, Macaco’s urn, the man killed by a mine just fifty metres away from me, whose ribs were crushed by the sand bag against the steering wheel of the overturned car, and on whom I wanted to perform a cardiac massage but his chest was a soft, popping, boneless mass, and my palms pressed a pulp–it just took one explosion to turn Macaco into a rag-and-sawdust puppet. The captain disappeared into the pantry of the mess hall and came back with more whiskey in his glass, and the plain lost colour, announcing night, and the medic who kept saying Shit, shit, shit, squatted at our feet. We all said Shit, between our clenched teeth, the captain whispered Shit into his whiskey glass, the duty officer stood at attention in front of the flag and his fingers, adjusting his cap, shouted Shit, the stray dogs rubbing against our heels moaned Shit as they stared at us with eyes as imploring as those of the customers in this bar here, humid with resignation and stupid meekness, eyes bobbing up and down over glasses of Cognac.
Why the hell won’t they talk about it? I’m beginning to think that the million and a half Portuguese who passed through Africa never existed and I am narrating for you a cheap contrived story composed of one-third bullshit, one-third alcohol, and one-third tenderness to persuade you to watch the sunrise with me in the pale blue clarity that pierces the blinds and reveals the curve of a thigh, the silhouette of a shoulder on the mattress, our bodies entangled in torpor. How long has it been since I was able to sleep? I enter each night like a furtive bum with a second-class ticket in a first-class car, a clandestine passenger of my depressions coiled in inertia, a walking dead man, deriving deceptive energy from vodka. Really , how long has it been since I have been able to sleep? Every morning in the mirror, I discover I have grown older: the foam of the shaving cream transforms me into a pyjama-wearing Santa Claus whose tousled hair modestly hides the wrinkles on his forehead.
On the afternoon of June 22 1971,1 was in Chieme. It was then that they called me by radio from Gago Coutinho to announce the birth of my daughter by spelling, ‘Gordo, Ira, Romeo, Lucky.’ And with the walls lined with pictures of nude women for the siesta masturbation, enormous mammaries that suddenly began to advance and withdraw, I gripped the back of the corporal’s chair and thought something crazy is going to happen me and I’m screwed.
I had got married, you know how it is, four months before leaving, in August, on a sunny afternoon of which I have confused and ardent memories. The sound of the organ, the flowers on the altar, and the tears of the family lent a certain soft and compassionate Buiiuel touch. There were brief week-end encounters when we would make love with urgent anger, inventing a desperate tenderness in anticipation of the anguish of our approaching separation, and we said good-bye in the rain, on the docks, dry eyed, locked in an embrace of orphans. And now, ten thousand kilometres from me, my daughter suddenly burst forth in the transmissions cubicle. My daughter. The National Women’s Movement must have been thinking of us as its members sat under their hairdryers; the patriots of the National Union must have been thinking of us as they affectionately nurtured the heroes who would replace us; the businessmen must have been thinking of us while they manufactured war material at reasonable prices; the Government must have been thinking of us as it gave miserable pensions to the soldiers’ wives; and we, ungrateful targets of so much love, left the barbed wire where we were rotting only to die perversely in a mine or an ambush, or else we simply abandoned fatherless children who had been taught to point at our pictures next to the television set in living-rooms where we had never been.
My place? I live behind the illuminated fountain in Picheleira, in an apartment with a view of the river, and every time I open the door and clear my throat, the echo of my cough bounces back from the end of the hall and I am overcome by a strange sensation, do you understand? Has it ever occurred to you to observe yourself when you are alone? Your eyes search for an impossible companionship in their own reflection. At moments like these I usually sit on the floor in my daughters’ room. My girls visit me every two weeks spreading crumbs throughout the deserted rooms and I watch over their sleep with sentimental solicitude, tripping on dolls’ legs and comic books. Or, from time to time, women I have casually found in the corner of a sofa at a friend’s party, like unexpectedly finding change in the pocket of one’s winter coat, come up with me in the elevator for the quick imitation of fascination and tenderness that I know by heart–from the first suggestive Scotch to the look of desire long enough not to be sincere, to the afterlife of love-making, the sluicings in the bidet where our effusions dissolve in soap, anger, and lukewarm water.
And how do you get along? You know, I imagine you in a scenario half-way between oriental philosophy and the judicious, lucid Left, for whom May ’68 represented a kind of annoying childhood affliction that reduced the dream of a better life to the disillusioned, utilitarian, cynical Marxism of certain bureaucracies of the East: a lot of pillows on the floor, the smell of incense floating over the Indian bibelots, a Siamese cat disdainful as a prima donna, books by Reich and Garaudy promulgating their vehement prophecies on the shelves, the febrile voice of Leo Ferre on the record-player. Moustached architects with their studied rumpled look occasionally occupy your antique brass bed, filling your ashtrays with the butts of unfiltered cigarettes or scratching the shaggy hair on their chests. In the mornings, wearing slippers in the kitchen, you make the strong coffee that will propel you toward your job, as you sit at the steering wheel of a cream-coloured Renault 4, its back fender crushed by an irate taxi driver. Living in the same city, we can spend years and years near each other, but without ever meeting. We are, if I can express myself this way, contemporaries, and our parallel trajectories will finally meet in my house (because the smell of incense makes me sick).
T he war in Africa? You’re right, I’m wandering, I’m wandering like an old man on a park bench lost in the exquisite labyrinth of his past. What is certain is that, as Lisbon receded from me, my country became more and more unreal, my country, my house, my daughter with the clear eyes in her crib, became as unreal as these trees, these facades, these dead streets. Lisbon, understand, is an amusement park, a travelling circus set up beside a river, an invention of tiles that repeat each other: no, seriously, we live in a land that does not exist. It is only an eye, a name, not our country. Lisbon begins to take shape, believe me, only from a distance.
When my daughter was born I took a short leave and went to foggy Luanda. The windows of the pensión where I was staying opened out on the confused morning of Matamba, and I removed from my suitcase the picture of my daughter I’d been sent and put it between the telephone and a glass of water. In an anonymous room smelling of disinfectant, formica, and glue, I stretched out on the bed with my jacket and shoes on and fell asleep.
Night comes too soon in the tropics. I dined alone in a restaurant full of sleek men whose necks glistened with sweat, and whose fingers were studded with rings of red or black stones. A black hunchback went from table to table trying to hawk plastic dolls until the waiter swatted him with a grimy napkin. A juke-box shrieked with loud bullish suggestions in the background and I telephoned a stewardess I had met who was waiting for me on a third floor in the Bairro Prenda, stuffed into a pair of jeans so tight you could almost see the veins of her thighs.
‘Hello Modesty Blaise,’ I said. Her breasts, under a print t-shirt, were like two enormous pears under a Coca-Cola napkin: without her uniform, she didn’t have the mystery I insist on attributing to angels. Her apartment smelled like dirty laundry and canned dog food. The African night came in through the open window in the guise of a thick stable odour; in the unmade bed a book of Eluard’s poems promised fragile sweetness in the body of this Amazon charged with busting the balls of warriors in transit to the carnage of the front.
‘What do you drink, Blue Eyes?’ she asked with a carnivorous smile that made me think of the story of Little Red Riding Hood: All the better to eat you with, my dear, said the Wolf, wearing a nightcap and baring his pointed teeth. All the better to eat you with, all the better to eat you with, all the better to eat you with, my dear. Her mouth grew in my direction–concave, gigantic, bottomless–and her red nails grew until they grazed my skin. Her dog scratched at the kitchen door with sad yelps. I put my glass on a bamboo table and was congratulated by the frozen laughter of a ceramic buddha; the clinking ice cubes reminded me of the bell we had bought for my little girl’s crib. (Now my wife was heating the midnight bottle; a cigarette burned blue serenity in a tin ashtray; the comfort of domestic silences circled the painful corners of despair. A whole universe from which I found myself excluded went on imperturbably in my absence, its mincing pace marked by the rapid ticking of the alarm clock, by a tap ceaselessly dripping in the dark.) The girl shoved the Eluard book off the bed (larmes des yeux les malheurs des malheureux) and slipped out of her clothes shaking her mane. (In Lisbon, my daughter, with eyes shut, nursed her bottle, and in the lamp-light her ears acquired a rose-coloured transparency.) I took off my trousers, unbuttoned my shirt. The buddha jeered at my pale, distressed thinness. I stretched out on the bed, ashamed at the size of my flaccid penis reduced to a shrivelled piece of tripe amid the auburn hair down there; the stewardess handled it politely with two fingers as if she were at a formal dinner– I’m not sure whether with surprise or distaste. Get hard, you imbecile, I ordered. (My daughter stopped drinking her bottle to burp and her eyes looked inward, unfocused.) I touched the woman’s vulva, and it was moist and warm and tender; I found the hard nerve of her clitoris and she let out a small sigh. For the love of God get hard–I begged looking surreptitiously at my dead cock–don’t make me look bad and get hard I begged, for your own good get hard, get hard, fuck, get hard. (My wife changed the nappies with pins in her mouth.)
The woman stopped kissing me, propped herself up on her elbow like a figure in an Etruscan tomb, put her hand on my face and asked, ‘What’s the matter, Blue Eyes?’ I hunched my shoulders, rolled over on my stomach and began to cry.
Even at this hour of the night Lisbon is devoid of mystery. The night transforms houses and buildings into sad family vaults where sour couples are allowed for a few hours to forget their petty quarrels. Around Edurado VII Park homosexuals approach passing cars. At the Palace of Justice, prostitutes stand listlessly in the pale light of the street lamps. Inside, before a serenely disinterested judge, busy palpating a boil on his neck, my marriage ended without glory after several months of rendezvous and estrangements. We separated with relief and remorse, said good-bye in the lift as if we were strangers, and kissed for the last time. I don’t know if it has ever happened to you: if by chance you have known the agony of clandestine rendezvous on week-ends in seaside motels with lead-coloured waves crashing against the chipped cement of the porch; if you have embraced a body that you love but you don’t love in the way small monkeys hang from their mother’s fur; or if you have had to make promises that lack conviction. You see, for a year I stumbled from address to address, from woman to woman, with the frenzy of a blind child groping for what escapes him, and I woke many times alone in hotel rooms with telephones without numbers that connected me to the mistrustful cordiality of desk clerks intrigued by my meagre baggage. I ruined my teeth and my stomach in cheap restaurants where all the food tastes like charcoal. I went to midnight shows, my neck chilled by the cough of the man in the back row, who read the credits out loud to invent a companion for himself. And I discovered one afternoon, sitting on an esplanade in Alges, in the bubbly presence of a bottle of soda water, that I was no longer alive.
In Chiume, Christmas ’71, the first Christmas of the war after almost a year in the bush, one year of despair, anxiety, and death in the bush, I woke up in the morning and thought It’s Christmas day today. I looked outside and nothing had changed in the camp: the same tents, the same circle of vehicles next to the barbed wire, the same dilapidated abandoned building that a bazooka grenade had destroyed, the same slow men tripping in the sand or squatting silently on the broken-down steps of the mess hall like beggars in front of a church. I woke up in the morning and thought, ‘Today is Christmas’. I saw the dark clouds in the sky over the Quando River. The heat dripped from my shoulders in thick sticky beads of sweat and I said to myself, ‘This can’t be, there is something wrong here.’
A few days before a company of parachutists had left in a column protected by South African helicopters that had arrived for an extravagant and pointless operation in the Luchaze territory. And every night the pilots–enormous, blond, arrogant–got noisily drunk, breaking glasses and bottles and singing songs out of tune in Afrikaans. They were commanded by a David Niven type, apparently off his diet, who, with the demeanour of an obsequious nurse, contemplated his subordinates vomiting beer, holding each other up, and said: ‘If you worry you die, if you don’t worry you die. So why worry?’
The officers in our group observed the pandemonium of belches and broken glass, moving their lips with silent reproaches. The captain, possessed by the spirit of a Better Homes and Gardens housewife, fluttered anxiously around the china that was still intact. Lieutenant Eleuterio, wrinkled as a foetus, listened to Beethoven in a corner. The Catanguese snuck off the black compound in search of a rat barbecue. And I, leaning against the window frame, watched the elliptical flight of the bats around the light bulbs, not hearing anything, not thinking anything, not wanting anything, sure that my life would end in the barbed-wire space in which I found myself, under a low sky, talking in the shade with the chief about his sewing machine and listening to stories of crocodiles in happier times.
The brutal impertinence of the South Africans, who regarded us as if we were barely tolerable mulattoes, sparked a flame in me that had already been fuelled by the savagery of the secret police and the abject patriotic speeches on the radio. The Lisbon politicians appeared to me as criminal puppets or imbeciles, simultaneously defending interests that were not mine and preparing for their own defeat. The troops were aware that neither these men nor their sons would ever see action; they knew where the men rotting in the bush were coming from. Every afternoon we listened clandestinely to the MPLA broadcasts; we fed our wives and children on miserable salaries; in Lisbon there were too many cripples limping around the Military Hospital grounds in the evenings, and every stump was a shout of revolt against the incredible absurdity of bullets in Angola. Later, we learned about the hostility of the Angolan whites: the farmers and industrialists secluded in their pretentious residences full of fake antiques, from which they sauntered to pick up Brazilian prostitutes in the cabarets on the Island, and consume bottles of local champagne.
‘If you weren’t here, we’d clear the blacks out in a minute.’
Pricks, I thought, drinking Cuba Libres at the bar, sweaty fat slobs, rich shits, slave traffickers. But I envied them the giggles of their women, their embraces, the smell of cheap perfume coming from their armpits and groins at the slightest movement, the Queen Maria bed in which they would get laid early in the morning amid tarnished mirrors, rubber trees, and Ming miniature dogs.
It was Christmas in Chiume and nothing had changed. No one from my family was there with me. My grandfather’s house–with its garden and statues, the lake and the greenhouse into which the dining-room extended–remained anchored in Benfica, behind the brick-coloured gate and the driveway filled with the cars of visitors: they are arriving for lunch, the old servants of my youth are serving the soup, and shortly my grandmother will tell a grandson to ask the staff to come for their carefully wrapped presents (socks, underwear, sweaters, long Johns). Sitting on my bunk, in front of the green-yellow vastness of the plain and the thunder along the River Quando, I recalled my ancient aunts in their enormous apartments on the Alexandre Herculando and the Barata Salgueiro, submerged in an eternal dusk in which wine glasses and soup tureens sparkled: Aunt Mimi, Aunt Bilu, a sick gentleman babbling in his armchair, old fellows who parted their hair from behind the ear to hide their baldness, upright pianos, a portrait signed by Portugal’s last king, biscuit tins with hunting scenes on the lid, Uncle Eloi winding the clocks in the hall, and the suddenly delicate fingers of the grounds-keeper tending a flower. I had jumped without transition from that solemn community to the war–I thought, buttoning up my camouflage uniform–to being forced to confront a death which had nothing in common with the antiseptic death of hospital patients for which I had been prepared. Their agony had only intensified my assurance that I was alive. Now I was offered the vertigo of my own end in the end of those who ate with me, slept with me, talked with me, lay with me in the trenches during the cross-fire of attacks. Silhouettes and voices arose from the black compound, approaching me: my uncles, my brothers, my cousins, my grandmother’s chauffeur (affected and very delicate), the old men with the parts behind the ear, the grounds-keeper, the sick old gentleman in the arm chair– uniformed, exhausted, dirty, their weapons over their shoulders–all were now walking towards the infirmary, carrying me in a piece of canvas between two sticks, my limp body with a bayonet in my bloody thigh. I recognized myself as in an excessively faithful mirror, and examined my shut eyes, my pale mouth, the blond turf of my beard on my chin, the mark left on my finger by the wedding band I had lost. My family, standing still, waited at the door of the first-aid station, waited in suspense for me to revive myself; the transmissions corporal shouted orders to the helicopter to take me to Benfica in time for coffee and liqueurs. No sound came through the rubber plugs of the stethoscope I held against my chest. The medic handed me the adrenaline syringe and I opened my shirt and stuck the needle into my heart.
H ere we are. No, I don’t think I’ve had too much to drink. I always fumble with the lock, maybe because I find it difficult to accept the fact that this is my building and that the terrace up there in the dark is part of my apartment. I feel like a dog who sniffs its own urine on the tree it has pissed on, and sometimes, surprised and incredulous, I stand here for a few minutes, between the letterboxes and the lift, searching in vain for some sign of myself; a foot- print, a smell, a piece of clothing. You can’t imagine how I envy the tranquil security of my neighbours, the decisiveness with which they open their door, the cordiality of their smiles. I always suspect that they are going to kick me out, that when I walk into my apartment I will find someone else’s furniture instead of my own, unfamiliar books on the shelves, a child somewhere in the hall, a man installed on my couch looking up at me, baffled but indignant.
We are never where we are, don’t believe it, not even now, as we ride in this small lift as you, serious and quiet, obliquely encourage my goatish impulses. At this moment you, my friend, are probably nude on the beach last August in the company of one of those intelligent, ugly creatures who are easy to like because, on the one hand they don’t compete with you, and on the other, they save you from having to go alone to the film series at the Gulbenkian Foundation, often attended by lucid myopics and imperious sociologists; at this moment I might be in Angola as I was eight years ago, saying good-bye to the chieftain-tailor, standing next to his sewing machine now covered with rust and corroded by the sand. We are going to leave Chiume for the north. The convoy is waiting for us. And I am standing at the centre of the black compound, nauseated by the odour of manioc drying on the roofs of the huts.
The story of Portuguese Africa–as told by lycée history books, politicians, and chaplains–was really nothing more than a provincial drama unfolding in immeasurable vastness; housing projects devoured by the grass and the underbrush; a great desolate silence. The lands at the end of the earth were governed by alcoholic, greedy commanders shivering from malaria in their empty houses, reigning over a passive people sitting at the entrance to their huts with vegetal indifference. President Tomas looked at us with the idiotic, glassy stare of a stuffed bear, while his militia dozed off at sentinel posts guarding useless barbed wire. 2 But there was the almost immaterial beauty of the Ninda or Cessa eucalyptus, imprisoning the dense nights in their branches. There was the angry majesty of the Chalala forest resisting the bombs. And there were the tatooed women giving birth to children who would be, I hoped, greater than those around us and would not squat, defeated, in front of their huts, passing a gourd pipe to one another.
The East? Yes, in a certain way I am still there, sitting next to the driver in one of the trucks in the convoy bouncing along on the sand roads on the way to Malanje. ‘No one who comes here goes back the same,’ I explained to the captain of the wire-framed glasses, delicately moving pieces on the chessboard. When the gangrened thigh of an MPLA guerrilla captured at Mussuma was amputated, the soldiers had their picture taken with it as if it were a trophy. The war has turned us into animals, you see, cruel, stupid animals taught only to kill. Just before we arrived in Luso, we were stopped by someone who, having been sent out ahead in a jeep, was meant to tell us that the General did not want us to spend the night in the city, did not want us to expose our wounds in the mess hall.
‘We are not rabid dogs,’ shouted the lieutenant, not caring that he was addressing the envoy of the zone command. ‘Tell that bastard that we are not rabid dogs.’
Another lieutenant threatened to destroy the mess hall with the bazookas. ‘Let’s blow up the fuckers, Lieutenant, sir, there won’t be one bastard left to drive us nuts.’
‘One year in the ass-hole of the world doesn’t give us the right to sleep in beds at night,’ the operations officer observed.
The lieutenant banged the bonnet of the jeep with his fist, ‘Tell the general to stick it up his ass.’
‘We were not rabid dogs when we got here,’ I said to the lieutenant who was pacing back and forth with furious indignation. ‘We weren’t rabid dogs before the censored letters, the attacks, the ambushes, the mines, the shortages of food, tobacco, soda, matches, water, coffins, before a Berliet became more valuable than a man and before a man was only worth three lines in the newspaper: “He died in combat in a province of Angola.” We were not rabid dogs but we were as nothing to the State that shit on us and used us like laboratory rats–the same State that now is afraid of us, so afraid of our presence, of the unpredictability of our reactions and of the guilt we elicit that it goes the other way if it sees us from a distance. It avoids us. It avoids facing a vanquished army in the name of cynical ideals nobody believes in, an army defeated while defending the wealth of the three or four families that support the regime.’
The lieutenant turned to me, touched me on the arm and begged, ‘Doctor, inject me with a disease before I explode from all the shit inside me.’
2 Rodrigues Tomas was President of Portugal from 1958.
My company went through Malanje like a shot, and we set up camp in Marimba, where mango trees grew atop a hill in yet another encirclement of barbed wire, and where little black boys from neighbouring villages would come and peer at us.
There we waited, waited for months, waited for mines, waited for malaria, waited for our improbable return to our families and friends at the airport or at the docks, waited for mail, waited for the PIDE jeep that made weekly trips to check with informers at the border to come back, bringing three or four prisoners who would dig their own graves, curl up inside them, squeeze their eyes shut, and go limp after being shot through the head.
‘A ticket to Luanda,’ the PIDE agent remarked calmly, enjoying the euphemism, as he put his gun back in its holster. ‘You can’t trust these bastards.’
That night the agent cut his ass on the broken toilet seat, and I sewed up his behind without anaesthesia in the cubicle of the first-aid station under the satisfied observation of the medic, avenging, if only in a trifling way, the silent Angolan prisoners whose panic had manifested itself in sheets of sweat, and who had stared at us with eyes as hard and blank as those of naked corpses in the hospital morgue.
In the North, for lack of whiskey, we drank the sulphuric brews provided by the administrator–a fat Indian who received officers with the amiable pomposity of a monarch, and after dinner, we ceremoniously visited his house for a game of bingo. Dona Aurea, the administrator’s wife, distributed the cards and the chick peas, and pulled wooden numbers out of a bag. Her husband, on the other side of the room, invited the school teacher to dance tangos cranked out by the record player. She was a thin little creature, with clavicles as pronounced as Brezhnev’s eyebrows, and her interminable menstruations afflicted her with colic and anaemia. She looked at us through tired eyes that suggested fainting spells and addition tables. Lightning from the Cambo River illuminated the windows. A mulatto, owner of the only shop around, dozed with a tooth-pick in his mouth.
Outside, the African guarding the generator with a musket from the days of the Spanish conquest snored under the cement roof. Bats the size of partridges flew around the lamps. Pale fires could be seen in the dense shadows of the black settlements: Chief Macau, Chief Pedro Macau, Chief Marimba. After the war began the Mo-Holos and the Bundi-Bangalas–the primitive inhabitants of the Baixa do Cassanje–had been killed or exiled to the Congo. Their villages were repopulated with Gingas from the area around Luanda, who were more obedient and accommodating because their chief had rotted for twenty years in the colonial prisons, falsely accused of some crime. Forced to wear the embarrassing uniform of a carnival emperor, a tin crown encrusted with glass diamonds, ridiculed by the Salazar corporate state in front of his people, the king wandered among the members of his tribe like the mentally ill in a psychiatric ward. The elders of the tribe observed him with incredulity and displeasure. Nevertheless, Chief Bimbe and Chief Caputo, from the other side of the border, continued the fight, and you could see the MPLA bases in the Congo from Marimbanguengo, tiny but burgeoning constructions.
You can’t imagine the absurdity of this bingo game in the middle of nowhere, the dusty tangos, the pathetic toilettes of the women, the men’s flattery, the European water colours on the walls. While those condemned by the PIDE coiled like retracted tentacles in their holes, soldiers trembled with malaria on their bunks. In Luanda, in air-conditioned quarters, generals invented the war in which we were dying in and off which they lived. The African night unfolded into a majestic infinity of stars. The Bailundo tribesmen, purchased in Nova Lisboa, suffered in the black compounds with an agonizing homesickness. And I wrote home saying that Everything is fine, in hopes that they would appreciate the uselessness of the suffering, the sadism, the separation, the uselessness of tenderness and longing, hoping they would appreciate what I could not very well write down on paper, the Shit shit shit shit shit of the medic after the ambush–remember, the one in the East–the sand lots of the Luchazes, where the corporal’s corpse rotted in my room under the sheets. And I sat on the steps of the first-aid station as I am sitting with you here in this room, watching the boats on the river and our reflections in the window.
Let me rest my head on your knees for a while and close my eyes, the same eyes with which I saw the African guard stick ice cubes up this guy’s ass and I didn’t protest because fear, you see, restrained me from even the slightest gesture of revolt. My egotistical desire was to return to Portugal intact and quickly. I wanted to return and forget, to go back to work at the hospital and my writing and my family and the cinema on Saturday and my friends. I wanted to disembark on the Conde De Obidos rock and declare to myself, It was all a lie and I’ve woken up. And still, you understand, on nights like this, when the alcohol accentuates my feeling of solitude, the memory of my cowardice and conformity eight years ago haunts me. How do I say it? A kind of remorse drives me to crouch in a corner of my apartment like a hunted beast, pallid, ashamed, afraid, waiting for the dawn.
Morning won’t come. It’s useless to wait for the glare of the roof-tops, for light to flicker through the blinds. We are condemned, you and I, to an endless night, a labyrinth of anguish obliquely illuminated by the turbid clarity of Scotch.
Meanwhile, maybe we could try to make love, and indulge in pagan gymnastics. My bed doesn’t creak; nothing will disturb our mechanical caresses. We have gone through too much to run the idiotic risk of falling in love. Time has conferred on us the wisdom of scepticism. We lose the frank simplicity of youth after our second suicide attempt, when we wake up on a hospital bed under the reproving look of a doctor and distrust humanity as much as ourselves, because we have got to know the sour egoism of our character, hidden under a deceiving veneer. It’s not that I don’t believe in you. My distrust is in myself: my need to sabotage the pleasant everyday moments, pulverizing them with acid irony until they turn into the awful pabulum of my habitual bitterness. What would happen to us if we were really happy? Have you noticed how we cannot stand sincere, unconditional affection? These people, the Camilo Torreses, the Guevaras, the Allendes, we hurry to kill them because their combative love disturbs us. We search them out with bazookas perched on our shoulders, angry in the jungles of Bolivia. We bombard their palaces. We replace them with cruel, slimy characters more like ourselves.
Between us sexual relations would be a soft violation: the defeat of two wet exhausted bodies lying on a mattress, checking the time on the clock on the night table, waiting to dress silently, wash our faces, comb our hair, and leave under cover of darkness. But if I were to tell you that I love you, you would answer me, in the most serious tone in the world, that you haven’t felt so passionate about a man since you were eighteen. You would insist that something different and strange was happening to you, that all of a sudden you have a catfish urge never to leave me. We would end up laughing into our respective glasses at the innocence of our innocuous lies. But suppose we were to divest ourselves of our malice for a minute, and were, instead, sincere? Suppose that while stroking your hand I were touching a vulnerable and fragile girl, chewing gum under a poster of James Dean, blond archangel whose brief trajectory abruptly ended in a heap of smoking scrap iron. Suppose that your nipples were to harden from real pleasure, that your thighs were to quiver, that you wanted me in you? Don’t worry. It’s too late. Our excessive lucidity preempts the stupid, hot impulses of passion. My thin hair and your wrinkles, are our defences.
We are in a position, therefore, to go to the bed and make insipid love.
I told her I’d be right back, Sofia, and I came here to sit in front of mirror where I shave every morning to talk to you. I miss your smile, your hands caressing my body, your feet tickling mine. I miss the smell of your hair. I need your body next to mine, your black thighs, your hot mysterious laughter that the PIDE, the government, the CETEC tractor operators, the administrator’s greed, and the sadistic and perverse fury of the whites were incapable of silencing.
I met you in Gago Coutinho on a Saturday morning, when the washerwomen came to the barbed wire to deliver the soldiers’ starched clothing, and they waited, on the slope of the hill, next to the guard-gate, talking in their native language that I hardly understood, but in which I heard Charlie Parker’s swing when he’s not shouting his hatred for the ridiculous and cruel world of the whites. Holding the clean clothes wrapped in colourful bundles, they allowed the soldiers to graze their hands over their bellies, their backs, their breasts, under the hot, stationary sun of Angola, while they jeered among themselves at the pathetic desire of the whites, their clumsiness and their haste.
On Saturday mornings the old people gathered around a gourd of tobacco in the centre of the black compound exhaling through their nostrils and their mouths billows of brown smoke, masking their hatred for the occupying forces with vegetal indifference. They were the old men of Nengo, Lusse, and Luate; the old men of Cessa and Mussuma; the old men of Launguina and Lucusse, of Narriquinha and Chalala; the proud old Luchazes, lords of the Lands at the End of the Earth, who had come many centuries ago from Ethiopia in successive migrations. They had expelled the Hotentots and the Kamessekeles to inhabit this land of sand and cold nights. Free old men were put behind barbed wire and turned into ragged slaves by the primitive rifles of the black bodyguard and the furious lizard-like faces of the secret police and the rancour of the colonial state that treated them like a subhuman race.
The old men gathered in the centre of the black compound. The wild dogs barked at the scrawny chickens in the settlements. The commander shrugged his shoulders in his armoured office–he too was a slave behind barbed wire, a slave of the proud perpetrators of the war who, sticking coloured pins into their maps in Luanda, killed us off one by one–and I looked at you, Sofia, sitting on the slope among your women who laughed and made fun of the soldiers pawing them: the Luchaze women spreading their indifferent thighs for the whites in the huts cursed by the silence of the solemn children in the corners playing games with pieces of sugar cane.
I met you on a Saturday morning, and your uninhibited laughter touched me.
I was sick of the war, sick of the obstinate evil of the war and of listening, in bed, to the protestations of my dead companions persecuting me in my sleep, begging me not to let them rot in their lead coffins. I was sick of being a larva among larvae in the mourning chamber of the mess hall. I was sick of the old captain’s chess games and of the lieutenants’ depressing jokes, sick of working, night after night, in the infirmary, up to my elbows in the viscous, hot blood of the wounded. I was sick, Sofia, and my entire body ached for the serenity that a man can find only in the body of a woman.
The sergeant medic led you over by the arm to a corner of the compound facing the road to Luso, where I had stayed to look at you. In the distance there was a verdigris expanse of forest that the CETEC machines were stupidly destroying, trunk by trunk, and the medic asked me in a sad voice, timidly, afraid of himself, ‘Do you need a washerwoman, Doctor?’
I didn’t, Sofia, because the orderlies took care of my shirts and towels and shorts and socks, but I needed you.
I was sick of the war, Sofia, sick of seeing the wounded arriving from the sand road on makeshift canvas stretchers, the wounded whose mouths opened and closed with indecipherable and tortured appeals. I was sick of bending over dying soldiers in an improvised operating room. I was tired of stepping outside to smoke cigarettes before daybreak, to see a curved sky with unknown stars. Standing at the door of the operating room–the camp dogs greedy for the carnage of my wounded companions, sniffing at my clothes, licking blood off my pants and my arms–I was filled with hate, for the people who lied to us and oppressed us, humiliated and killed us in Angola: the serious and dignified gentlemen in Lisbon, the politicians, the magistrates, the police, the informers, the bishops, the people who, with hymns and speeches, sent us off in battleships to die in Africa.
After dinner on the evening of the day when I first met you, Sofia, I fled from the old captain’s chess game and from the lieutenants’ poker, and I walked through the guard-gate in the direction of the chaos of the black compound below, where the smell of manioc rose like moisture from a tomb.
I could have sworn you were waiting for me, Sofia, inside the thick adobe walls, because the wooden door opened, without my touching it, into a darkness darker than the night. There was only sound–breathing, whispers, and the soft cackle of sleeping hens–as you led me through the dark. And I imagined your triumphant laughter, the laughter of a free woman whom no secret police, no soldier, no African guard could ever silence.
I could have sworn that the hollow in the straw mattress was the shape of my body, as if you had been waiting for me forever; that your vagina was perfectly fitted to my penis; and that the little mulatto boy, sleeping soundly in the cane crib has features resembling mine before the bitterness and the suffering of the war changed me into a disillusioned, cynical creature, proceeding mechanically through love-making with the indifferent gestures of people dining alone in a restaurant.
You were waiting for me, Sofia; you lit an oil wick in a bottle, and the flickers of light revealed, intermittently: tins on shelves, a clothes basket, the closed window, and an old woman sitting in a corner smoking a cane pipe in absolute quiet. You were waiting for me, and we exchanged not a single word, because you understood my anguish, the indignation that my cowardice provoked in me, my submissive acceptance of the violence and the war that the gentlemen in Lisbon had imposed on me. You understood my desperate caresses and my fearful tenderness, and your arms made their way slowly down my back, slowly up and down the length of my cold flanks, until you rested my head on your shoulder.
Your house smelled hot and healthy, delicate and invincible; and, coming from the camp, twisted, as I was, by homesickness and fear, I felt I was re-enacting my childhood with you.
I have always been a loner, Sofia, while I was in school, at the lycée, the university, the hospital, while I was married; a loner with books I read too many times, with my pretentious and vulgar poems; alone with my anxiety about writing, my fear that I wasn’t good enough, that I wasn’t able to translate into words what I felt like screaming into people’s ears: I am here; notice me because I’m here; listen to me even in my silence and understand. But it’s impossible to understand what is not said. People look at you. They don’t comprehend. They walk away. I was always alone, Sofia, even in the war, especially in the war, because the camaraderie of war is a fellowship of false generosity resulting from a destiny suffered together but not really shared. Even in the abandoned mission, sitting with the lieutenant in the back seat of the jeep under the acacias, listening to the insects and the birds and the deafening silence of Africa, I was alone. Alone in the infirmary with the wounded who moaned and cried and called for me nights on end, doubled over with fear and pain. What an idiotic war, Sofia. What an idiotic war in a miraculous place which makes you feel that you could sprout with the sunflowers and where the children are ushered into the world with the thrust of a geyser, steaming and triumphant.
Sofia, we lost each other. When I got to your house and the door didn’t open, I knocked. I circled the adobe, listening, and heard nothing, no breathing, not even the cackling of the hens through the cracks in the mud, through the grass on the roof. I knocked again and the old woman smoking her pipe opened the door a little and stared at me vacantly. I approached her, peered inside. The oil wick illuminated the deserted bed, the limey folds of the sheets, the rusty tins on the shelf. The old woman took the pipe out of her mouth, spata wad as dark as a rain cloud at my thigh. Her lips looked like the concentric folds of an anus; the pipe belched a smoke signal, and she said:
‘The PIDE boss took her.’
She may have been your mother or your grandmother but there was no apparent displeasure or alarm in her voice. If there was, I didn’t notice it, astonished as I was to hear her talk, as I would have been if a chair or a table had suddenly begun to speak.
The next day, on my way to the civilian hospital, I stopped by the PIDE barracks where the prisoners gathered the agents’ crops under the fierce vigilance of an armed jailor, overseeing emaciated men and women, almost naked, their heads shaved, swollen by kicks and punches, bending over the earth in limp attitudes. I stopped at the PIDE barracks, Sofia. I walked through the gate trembling with fear and disgust, and I inquired about you, addressing the chief of the brigade who, standing beside the Land Rover, was giving instructions to two pale creatures armed with pistols who were taking careful notes on pads of lined paper that students use at the lycée. The bastard chuckled with contentment like a friar at a banquet.
‘A nice piece of ass, hah? She worked for the guerrillas. Headquarters, get it? So, first, we gave her orders to be nice to all the boys, and then we sent her to Luanda.’
I have to go back inside now, Sofia. It’s almost morning. The whiskey is making me twitch, nervously, in disenchanted anticipation of the lucidity of dawn. I leave this bathroom as I left the PIDE barracks, where the prisoners gathered the agents’ crops, bending over the earth in laconic attitudes without the courage to shout their indignation or to revolt, like me during twenty-seven months of hell. I am going out to the hall, Sofia; I’m turning off the light. And I’m getting ready to smile again like the chief of the brigade, the son of a bitch. I’ll chuckle like a friar at a banquet, the son of a bitch standing beside the Land Rover, displaying his buck teeth with the satisfaction of a hyena. Because, Sofia, I have turned into a creature who laughs at himself and at others with the envious, cruel laughter of the dead.
1 In the sixties, the Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) began its war for national independence from Portugal. The war lasted for fourteen years, and Portugal–first under the leadership of Antonio Salazar, the prime minister from 1932 until shortly before his death in 1970, and subsequently under the leadership of Marcello Caetano–sent over a million and a half troops to fight in Angola. In 1974, Caetano was overthrown in a bloodless coup, and, in the following year, Portugal declared Angola independent. Shortly before then, PIDE–the International and State Defence Police famous in both Portugal and Angola for its repressive methods–was officially disbanded.
Antonio Lobo Antunes was among the troops sent to fight in Angola. He served as a medic for twenty-seven months.