Humour and resistance in Brazil

During lunch, the conversation eventually and inevitably turned to the political situation in Brazil. Voldemort, as my guide calls Bolsonaro, would set the country back to the middle ages. He’s like Trump – but with a military background. He’s candidate for vice president is a former general. In most countries in South America this would be a terrifying prospect even if he hadn’t also openly celebrated the use of torture and the dictatorship. And Pinochet, for good measure. But the Bookseller also told me about the typical Brazilian way of dealing with disaster: “We laugh at things so we don’t cry about them”. This has lead to a number of amazing initatives on Facebook, such as: “Cookies against Bolsonaro” or “Colour blinds against Bolsonaro” or, my favourite, “Sea turtles against Bolsonaro”.

Both the humour and the seriousness of the situation was also discussed during the two first talks of the book festival. The festival takes place in an old theatre. Someone told me that Sarah Bernhardt had once perfomed there. Someone else told me that it had at one point been a strip joint. It had also burned down, so the inside is completly new, but they kept the old facade. Because Ivander has to talk to me constantly to translate everything that’s being said, we were allowed to sit on the balconies upstairs. So the writers on stage talked, Ivander translated, and I listened, fascinated.

Diógenes Moura had written a book about the invisible Brazil. For years he photographed and wrote about the homeless people he met on his way home. His view of the country was ruthless: “The barbarity is the same in the entire country. The misery is real. The people abandoned”. He added, completely unnecessarily: “It is not a book to make you happy.”

In the next talk, professor Elias Thome Saliba told us about his research on the history of humour: “Brazil is a country of involuntary humorist”, he said. He had also studied some 160 different national anthems. Brazil’s was the only one that mentioned the word “smile”. Twice.

Tarrafa Literaria, or Catching readers with a net

I am in Santos for the bookfair Tarrafa Literaria, which is celebrating its tenth anniversary this year. The organizer is The Bookseller, as I think of him, or Zé, as he is called. He has exactly the required madness for running a bookshop and a book festival.

We were talking during lunch about how beautiful it is to see your book in print for the first time, and someone inevitably used the simile that it was like having a baby. “Better than a baby”, I said. “Books don’t cry all night.” This led the Bookseller to share the story about the time when he got Ian Sansom to visit the festival.

Ian Sansom is perhaps best known for Israel Armstrong, the bookloving vegetarian who moves to northern Ireland to take up position as a librarian. But he also wrote The Truth About Babies, a diary about the challenges involved trying to write Your Great Novel while taking care of a baby. The Bookseller loved this book, and immediately got in touch with Ian Sansoms Brazilian publisher and told them he wanted to invite him over. “Are you sure?” asked his publisher, and the Bookseller of course said he was. So in due time Ian Sansom arrived in Santos, jetlaged and tired. The Bookseller illustrated this Brittish (and, I suspect, Swedish) way of being jetlaged: empty face, dead eyes, arms close to the body, slightly hunched posture. He had barely landed before he was thrown into a discussion on stage with a Brazilian author that the Bookseller desribed as “a little bit crazy”. I’ve been here long enough to know that “a little bit crazy” by Brazilian standards is more like batshit crazy for a poor jetlaged Brittish author. The Bookseller illustrate the poor, bewildered visiting author and mentioned as a sidenote that he didn’t seem to enjoy the sightseeing either. By moped. The Brazilian author loved it of course. “Yes, I made a mistake there, pairing those two together”, the Bookseller admitted philosophically. “Ian Sansom even wrote an article in the Guardian about us.”

I have tried to find this article thinking it must be one of the greatest book festival pieces ever written, but so far without success.

One of the things the Bookseller is most proud of is that he has managed to keep the festival going through years of crisis. I think he was talking about the economical crisis, but then agian, they are also heading straight for a political one. “I think the book festival is needed more than ever in times of crisis”, I said, and he agreed: “The enemy always hates book”, he said.

“Tarrafa”, for those of you that are wondering, is the word for an old type of fishing net, used by the fishermen in the harbour. “The festival is the net that catches the readers”, the Bookseller said, which is definitely true in my case. I already know I will buy books here, and I can’t even understand Portuguese. But the Brazilian books are so beautiful! The designs are great! I will take photos today so that you can see for yourselves how impossible it is to resist them.

My own talk is on Sunday, on the theme “Tudo pode ser escrito, Suècia e Brasil”, which I am told means “Everything can be written”. I think that’s a lovely title. I am going to talk together with Giovana Madalosso, who I’ve heard is great, and who has written a book with the equally brilliant title “Everything can be stolen.”

The end of a warm and intimate friendship, and the beginning of new complications

So. I’m proud to report that my cultural competens is developing nicely. I’ve already learned several important things here in Brazil: I can now order a coffee (with milk!) without Ivander, my faithful guide and translator. I have learned not to charge ahead and walk three metres ahead of my host and, more importantly, the man that knows where we going (let’s just say that the walking speed is different in Santos than in DC). And I have mastered the always difficult hug vs. cheek kiss greeting ritual.

Those of you who follows this blog knows the huge difficulties I always have in France. In Sweden, we go straight for the hug. In France, they kiss each other on the cheek two or three or possibly four times, and if you combine these two ways of greetings chances are you’ll end up kissing new acquaintances on the mouth. Just saying. Brazil is easier. They seem to go for the very straightforward one cheek kiss. In theory, this is not a problem. In practice, it still makes for interesting situations when combined with a hug. For example, this was how I greeted Ivander the first two days:

He went for the cheek kiss. I was already on the way into a hug. His cheek kiss hit me on the way in, very normal, and easily followed up by a hug. I unfortunately remembered the cheek kiss to late, so my kiss always hit him on the neck. Which was fine with Ivander, although perhaps surpisingly warm and intimate for a friendship that’s only existed for a day. It was slightly more awkward when I also kissed the Bookseller who’s organizing the bookfair on the neck the very first time we met.

But I’ve learned now, so this morning when I met Ivander I managed to just keep a cool, normal distance and kiss him on the cheek like a normal person. I kept this up the entire day. No matter what Brazilians the world throw at me, I just gave them a cool and very normal cheek kiss. I was so proud of this new development that I even bragged about it to a friend.

I should have known better. Today a Portuguese woman entered the stage. She was a charming woman in her fifties, beautiful in that relaxed yet sophisticated southern European way, and she was in the middle of the worst stage of jet lag. I had just got through a long day of listening simultaneously to a language I don’t understand and the translation of it, nodding my way through lunch and dinner and smiling in a vague but hopefully friendly way everytime I heard my name. She was dead, I was dead. We were outside of our hotel, and the only thing that stood between us and freedom was one little, relaxed cheek kiss.

Or so I thought. Apparently, in Portugal you go for the double cheek kiss. We managed the first one just fine, but then when I started to pull away I noticed that she still sort of stayed close. So I paused. And there we are, standing outside of a hotel, with our faces close together, gazing into each other’s eyes, and involuntary sharing one of those slow, drawn out, hesitating, will we-won’t we-moment.

I really feel I should have at least bought her dinner first.

The leaning skyline of Santos

After having visited Santos, I have to say that the leaning tower of Pisa seems like very small thinking. Santos has its very own leaning skyline.

Santos is a small city with Brazilian standards. It has some 400 000 citizens in the city proper, two millions if you include the small towns close to it. Sao Paolo, an hour or so away, has 12 millions citizens.

Santos is situated in a valley, surrounded on three sides by tree covered mountains, with the fourth facing the water. Wherever you look in Santos, you’ll see mountains in the background, often shrouded in fog, and always breathtakingly beautiful. The seaside is an important harbour: every year during summer it is filled with cruise ships, although since the season hasn’t started yet there’s mostly cargo ships now. You can see them in the horizon or crossing the bay. My faithful guide loves the cruise ships and used to work on one, but personally I can’t help but find the cargo ships more beautiful and more interesting and definitely filled with fewer tourists. The city has enthusiastically built high riser by the beach, so many that the city suddenly turned warmer. Without thinking they had accidently built themselves a very effective cover from the cooling breeze from the ocean.

The literary festival is celibrating its tenth anniversary this year, and so far it seems amazing. The organizer owns an amazing independent bookshop, with handsome dark bookshelves and a café that serves an absolutely perfect coffee. And beer. I can’t think of any reason why anyone should ever leave the bookshop, if it wasn’t for the fact that the literary festival takes place at the theatre of the community centre. The only fault I could possibly find with the bookshop was that all the books were in Portuguese. But we all know that that won’t keep me from buying some.

Brazil is in the middle of an election, and as in most countries nowadays that fills people with pure terror. My guide told me that they had their own Trump, and the bookseller/festival organizer added gloomily: “Only worse.”

And I think he’s right. Jair Bolsanora has been called “the most misogynistic, hateful elected official in the democratic world and possibly the most repulsive politican on earth”, admires Pinochet, defended the use of torture, eagerly advocated for dictatorship and said so many hateful things about women and LGBTQ-people that he is actually facing charges for inciting hate speech. His followers don’t mind. They call him “The Legend.”

But as always, there is also resistance. Millions women in Brazil has come together on social media under the hastag: #EleNao, or: #NotHim.

And this weekend, Santos is celebrating its very first Pride.

Found in translation

I have arrived in Brazil, and already found myself in the middle of a movie. It’s just not clear yet exactly which movie it is.

My first impression was very much Lost in translation. I am at a bookfair in Santos, outside of Sao Paulo, and have very little idea about exactly what I’m supposed to do here. My guide explained my schedule to me in the car from the airport, but the only thing I’m sure about is that he is going to pick me up every day for lunch at 1 pm and dinner at 7. I have a flyer where my name is mentioned, but it is of course all in Portugese.

I was groggy from lack of sleep and an even more serious lack of nicotine and found myself nodding at everything while highrisers of Sao Paolo passed by outside of the car window (all of them in different version of sand colour, beige or white) with favelas in between. Our uber driver added his part to this guided tour and my guide translated enthusiastically. “That grass belongs to the university of Sao Paolo, you know X? The football player? He has an apartment in that building. He has several other apartments as well, of course. Sao Paolo is the city in the world with the largest amount of helicopters. Also the city that uses uber most. That’s a pet store. It’s a very big industry in Brazil.” Our uber driver himself had 3 or 4 or possibly 34 dogs. It was a bit unclear. When we left Sao Paolo behind we was caught in a more literal fog: Santos is built in a valley, surrounded by tree covered mountains, and those mountains are almost always shrouded in fog. It was all very beautiful. The road goes so stubbornly downwards that our ears were blocked. My guide asked if I knew how to get rid of it, and I assured himl that I did. Also, I was yawning, so that took care of it.

And yet, my experience is very different from Lost in translation, and I don’t just mean the lamentable lack of Bill Murray or Scarlett Johansson at the hotel bar (trust me, I’ve looked). No, the difference is all in my eminent and very enthusiastic guide and translator. It shall be my mission today to take a photograph of him, since he will be my best friend in the coming week.

Ivander found me at the airport, or if I found him, and greeted me with a so enthusiastic “Hallå! God dag!” that I blinked confusedly at him and answered in Swedish. Apparently he had looked up how to say “Good evening” in Swedish earlier and had a bit of a crisis when it turned out that he was meeting me instead in the morning. But he rose to the occasion and learn “good morning” as well. Ivander had also googled me, read my blog and in general done all the neccessary research, so the first thing he said after “god dag” was: “Cigarette?” I felt a deep and immediate connection with him.

“I am going to be with you all the time!” he said happily, but then added conscientiously: “While at the same time respecting your Swedish space.” Ivander was convinced we were in a quite different movie: “I am going to be Andrea, and you Miranda!” I looked down on the clothes I’d traveled and slept in for the last sixteen hours and felt that nothing was more unlikely than me turning into either Meryl Streep or Anna Wintour.

The car ride to Santos to about three hours, and he used the time to teach me to say hi, how are you and thank you in portugese; discuss European royalty (“Do you know your queen is Brazilian?” he said. “I love her!” Although his real favourite was the Danish royal family, he found queen Margrethe “so cute!”) and play Eurovision songs for me. His research had led him to believe that I was not a huge fan, but we still both happily sang along together to Måns Zelmerlöws Heroes while the high risers of Sao Paolo passed by outside.

I also managed to negotiate a free first evening (the schedule of course said for him to pick me up for dinner at 7 pm). For a long time it seemed uncertain how it would go, since I mumbled something vague about being tired and he unfortunately thought I implied that he might tire of me. “No, no! I could never tire of you!” he immediately assured me.

I don’t want you to worry that I am suddenly going to become all demanding and unreasonable. He has already taken me to a bookstore, so a, I don’t know what other demans I could possibly make, and b, he took me to a bookstore, which as we all know is the beginning of a beautiful friendship. I will return later with a report on Santos.