Period covered: 1988 to 2015
Locations: Belo Horizonte to London.
A few years before the millennium I was invited by Marcio Mello, with whom I had recently become acquainted, to a dinner party in his flat in Belo Horizonte. There was a moment during the party when I looked around as I listened to the chatter and realised that I had little idea what anyone was talking about. I thought they were probably just reminiscing about events they had experienced together, and never about more general topics such as what was in the news or some other issue that would enable a stranger in their midst to join in the conversation. Far too often they reacted to each other’s remarks with routine, facile exclamations such as, “Wasn’t that cool, man,” or “Isn’t it divine!”
I had in the preceding few years met casually a number of my fellow guests, but did not know much about them, and even though I understood the words they spoke, most of their banter meant nothing to me. While I wondered what I was doing in that place, I looked around again, thinking that it could not be this tedious! That was when I noticed a blond man sitting not far from me, also silent at that moment, and he could not have been more obviously English. So, deciding to take a chance, I asked him in English, “Do you speak Portuguese?” He answered “Yes.”
I continued, “I speak English.”
After that I allowed time to pass in silence, making no further comment. Then he appeared to shake himself out of a deep reverie in which he had been immersed, looked at me pretty much for the first time and told me his name was Michael Wade, and we started to converse.
A curious reaction, I thought. I wondered what had passed through his mind during those first moments when I had spoken, and in our subsequent silence. And what about that slight tremble? I interpreted it as the polite reaction of an Englishman to conventional etiquette – if you are spoken to you should at least make a polite reply!
In snobbish society in Brazil people do not follow the same rules of social behaviour as in England. They are more likely to pay attention only to people they already know and studiously ignore anybody else. I do not actually know what would persuade them to deign to talk to a stranger at a cocktail party, or to someone sitting next to them by chance at a dinner party. More probably, they would never sit next to a stranger, and place settings at dinner parties are unheard of. Instead, they tend to stick to their friends and most of the time, as far as I can see, they turn their noses up at, and avoid contact with, anyone to whom they wish to display social superiority. I eventually got the impression that most of the local so-called ‘in-crowd’ either do not know, or do not wish to practise, the formal international rules of etiquette. I believe that to them I was worse than an outsider - I was actually a rejected local.
I remember going to a cocktail party with my friend Eduardo Pinheiro, and as we joined a little group of people, he introduced me to a social columnist by the name of Ana Marina. I had heard of her before but I did not remember ever having met her. She immediately exclaimed, “Oh, Anastasia Luciânia!”, eyed me up and down and turned away without another word. I pretended not to notice and looked away as if I had suddenly been distracted by something.
At another cocktail party a few months later, I joined a group of people who included an older, elegant gentleman by the name of Moacir Carvalho de Andrade, with whom I was not previously acquainted, and who I was later told was the owner of a large local automobile dealership called Mila. On hearing my name, he told me how amused he had been at some particularly unpleasant news in the local press about my family. As I had thought the slanderous newsflash in very bad taste I silently cringed in horror. It amazed me how people thought I was comfortable to vulgarity.
Little by little, I grew sick and tired of the local social options, and towards the end of my ten years there I made no further effort to attend any function at all. But in 1999, as my son Perseus was still at the American School, I made an effort to go to a parents’ meeting, after which refreshments were served and conviviality began. I did not recognise anyone at the gathering, so I just helped myself to some fruit juice and a few canapés and stood at one side to play my habitual role of detached observer. That was when I noticed an American woman sitting alone in the middle of the happily chatting crowd and being studiously avoided by all who passed her. She had on her face an expression of fear and incomprehension. I thought to myself that I should go and sit next to her to try and ease her ordeal, but instead I turned away from the harrowing sight and went home. I have never forgiven myself for having avoided that opportunity to perform an act of kindness.
So here I paint in colour the world in which I was born, where few ever cared to learn about who I was as a person; to most people I was always just the daughter of someone they either envied or resented. They created their own version of my life and supplied motives for my actions, which had nothing to do with the real me. They must have thought that as my father was reputed to have had an active sexual life outside his home it must follow that his family were contaminated and that I too must have been a person of loose morals. I always resented them very much for this and found their fictitious version of my character highly offensive.
As soon as I possibly could after those horrid ten years back in my home town, I moved to Rio de Janeiro, but I never felt at home there so I gradually increased the time I spent in the UK until I was actually living in my protective island of peace in the North Atlantic again. As the years passed, I saw Michael Wade many times, both in Brazil and in England.
Michael had been married to Isabel Barbosa, a Brazilian from Rio de Janeiro, whom I had met at some of the parties given by Olivier Mourão. Mike related to me his first impressions of Rio de Janeiro, when he arrived by ship in 1972 and sailed into Guanabara Bay. He was staggered by the beauty of the place, and from a distance it is stunning. However, many years later my daughter’s description of the city was – ‘a mostly ugly collection of buildings in a most beautiful location.’
I never could see Rio any differently from the way I had seen it during my childhood and adolescence - a seafront resort in which to spend the winter holidays, where indeed I only knew the seafront and never ventured into the interior streets. My family had always spent the school holiday month of July there, and we only socialised with other Mineiros, never bothering to make local friends. The only thing that has changed for me is that now I prefer to go there in the summer when Europe is cold.
As the years passed, I stayed in touch with Michael Wade who, like me, lived both in England and Brazil. I was shocked to hear, many years ago now, that he had been diagnosed with an advanced stage of cancer. He told me that immediately after this diagnosis he decided to go to Brazil to spend the time he had left. There he proceeded to tell all and sundry about his condition, often humorously, as if it was the most normal thing in the world. Having made up his mind to enjoy life without worrying about the future, his health took a miraculous turn for the better!
In the ensuing eighteen years Mike has a sequence of bad news, operations, and treatments, but the good news always prevails. He always surprises his doctors with what they call the spontaneous regression of most of his malignant tumours. The rest, as he says, “They lop out of me!” I have really heard him say that his eighteen years with cancer have been the happiest of his life. I bow my head to the amazing powers of the mind.
As his formative years were spent in the heat of Singapore, Mike never liked the cold. He told me how much he had suffered from the cold when he was first sent to boarding school in England, and consequently, he always tries to follow the summer. I, however, have a theory that we long for the climatic conditions of the places where we were very happy. Thus, as I was so enthusiastic about my studies in Boston, and later so much in love with Joseph Eros, I think winter is very comforting, and I love the snow. Nonetheless, I keep my homes at about 25 degrees centigrade all year round. Most English people pride themselves on withstanding fairly cold temperatures in the home, but this is not a habit I have adopted.
When I first thought about writing a book in 2003 after I went back to London, I tried to prepare myself in every way I could think of, as I was not at all sure of how to go about it. I took a few courses in creative writing at City-Lit in Holborn, and the courses I enjoyed the most were the ones given by Nicholas Murray. He encouraged us occasionally to write in class, but mainly at home. I always wrote pieces that I could later use in the books I planned, and during my classes at City-Lit I also practised the art of observing people.
Lost in sheer detachment
I observe the world
And people’s daily lives.
But as I watch them,
One looks up and gazes.
I try hard to discern
Revealing, tell-tale signs
Of their silent thoughts.
Watching one closely
I try to read his mind,
Or connect with a girl
Through a sigh, a smile, a frown.
What do they mean,
The movement of the hands,
The sudden blink of the eyes,
When startled by sudden words?
Though they had not planned
To inform, the signs are there,
There is so much to read.
In a flash one connects with me!
A brief look, a glance, a stare.
Don’t give the game away!
Look down! Pretend distraction!
Hide and focus on nothing!
Are they readers too?
What would they see in me?
They will judge by what they see,
With nothing else to count,
No judgemental grounds,
Based on motives false.
Thus, without malice to hide
Or thoughts or foul lies.
Here I am free,
Carry no burden of guilt
Which wasn’t mine,
And yet I suffered.
The air is cool, I feel
No sudden, frightening hate.
Here I can breathe
Detached and free.
© A.L.P. Gouthier, 2011.
Observing people is an exercise I have indulged in throughout my life, and it is infinitely more rewarding than talking. I started this at school at the age of four and over time one refines one’s knowledge of the human being from the safety of silence. When travelling, for example, one can sit in a discreet corner of a temple and watch. There is so much to learn. The only real alternative to this is reading.
By watching and listening to conversations one can read minds without allowing oneself to be exposed or involved, as one’s silence is always non-committal. Yet writing is like making a silent speech where the reader’s voice rarely comes back to the writer. However, talking is highly dangerous. It is not always easy to strive unwaveringly for the goal of detachment, especially when beset by feelings of loneliness.
I do believe that with the passing of time we need less communal exposure than we did before, but with me the change was abrupt, sudden. I have noticed that now, when I venture into convivial occasions, I soon tire and crave for the peace and quiet of home where my hours wreathed in silence are frequently peopled by the characters of the books I read. They become friends with whom I may agree or disagree, but they are always company. When I write, the world around me fades away, time goes by unnoticed, and I am happy and tranquil. The greatest advantage of this way of being is that it gives me a great level of detachment from the outside world.
Once I came across a column written by David Brooks about the difference between the ‘engaged writer’ and the ‘detached writer’ in today’s world: ‘The detached writer believes that writing is more like teaching than activism.’ I am not sure if I am a detached or an engaged writer. A definition I found of the verb ‘to teach’ lists: to instruct, educate, train, discipline. The definition of non-political activism that came closest to my heart was: an action to achieve an end. From this point of view, I think the purpose of my writing is to be more of an activist than teacher.
The definition I found for a non-politically engaged writer is one who is busy, occupied, and active. Brooks further qualifies thus: ‘The engaged writer is willing to be repetitive because that’s how you make yourself an unavoidable pole in the debate.’ So, what have I become? A detached observer of the world about me? An engaged writer from the safety of my invisibility?
In the late 16th century, the word ‘detached’ was associated with the sense of ‘discharging a gun’, from the French detacher, but the word now means to free oneself, separate, segregate, dissociate, alienate, isolate. An apt example of the use of this word is: ‘She remained a detached observer of the reactions to her writings’. In this case it could imply: remote, distant and silent.
For many years now, Michael Wade, who writes beautifully, has been reviewing my attempts at writing. I so much enjoy our literary partnership and think of it as lessons in style. I am not sure whether I am a lousy writer or if I show promise, but, as they say, practice makes perfect. And as I have set for myself the mission of writing my version of the story of my family, I have much work ahead of me.
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