Free City

Introduction: Seven Nights and a Funeral

Excerpt from the novel Cidade Livre (Free City), by Jo√£o Almino, 2010.

Translation by Alison Entrekin

At one stage I thought about getting rid of everything I had researched and written, leaving my memories, fears and preoccupations for a book of memoirs, in which I would talk not only about my childhood in Cidade Livre, or Free City, the settlement that had shattered the silence that had prevailed on the plateau for millenniums, but also my interest in journalism, how I had met my current wife and the birth of my three children, relegating my research to articles so I could concentrate on my father’s words, words I later corrected after a talk with Aunt Francisca at his funeral.

But no, my account remained a mixture of my memoirs, my father’s, my research and Aunt Francisca’s observations, and I made the mistake of giving it to a writer who emptied it of commas and periods, filled it with slang and scenes of violence, told me I needed to give it a moral and philosophical dimension, and even enquired if it contained some kind of lesson, which I thought absurd and decided to send it to the publisher as it was, without morality, philosophy or lesson, to be later annoyed by the polite reply that it didn’t fit their editorial line.

I thought about selling my car so I could self-publish it, cut out the flourishes and reestablished my commas and periods, because I didn’t have time for stylistic filigrees and I do think it’s an advantage to be a journalist: of Lucr√©cia looking at a bird I will never say that the wind sighed sweetly in her face, or that her beauty was graced with tender smiles, or that her eyes gazed long into the immensity of the Cerrado or fluttered with the bird through the red grasslands. When I was halfway through, a critic who claimed to be my friend found fault not only with my style, but also the content, This experiment of yours is going to be a debacle, he announced, and I attributed his prophecy to a political divergence, because we were on opposing sides. He thought I was backwards and even now passes me without a greeting, but I owe him the suggestion to create this blog and publish the story here, bit by bit, like a nineteenth-century newspaper serial ‚Äď which saved my car.

I do not presume to know everything that took place in those times. I may have erred, written too much or too little, memories and research being flawed and incomplete, as you all know. Better, then, to confess straight up that I have forgotten many facts and the ones I do remember I don’t always remember with certainty or precision, which is why this is a text to be modified by readers, almost as if I’d created a Wikipedia entry for this story, the only rule being that I alone can fiddle with my memories, and those of my father and Aunt Francisca. The rest ‚ÄĒ the description of the facts that makes us feel we belong to the spirit of a time ‚ÄĒ you blog readers may correct as you wish and, if anyone has something to add or a comment to make, please do not hesitate to do so.

During the process, I added a few personal opinions here and there and corrected what I knew based on what had been published about Bras√≠lia until this year, 2010, in so doing becoming deeply indebted to Isa√≠as P. Ferreira da Silva Junior, whose work thoroughly analyses the flora and fauna, the first inhabitants, and details the construction of Bras√≠lia ‚ÄĒ a work that is at once that of historian, anthropologist and sociologist. He, in turn, is even more indebted to many, many others, who, through historical accounts, sociological and anthropological analyses, memoirs, eye-witness reports, testimonials in newspapers, articles, columns, poems, short stories and even novels, sought to present a panorama of the worker’s settlement Cidade Livre (later renamed N√ļcleo Bandeirante), back when Bras√≠lia was being built.

It was in my father that I found the inspiration to publish this book, because back when he was trying to reconcile his growing interest in civil construction with his work as a journalist, he’d tell me that writing also entailed construction and that we went along laying brick upon brick, and it was with this in mind that I took up his journalist’s torch many years ago, and that I now rearrange the bricks to present this account in its current form.

Finally, I would like to thank Jo√£o Almino for his revision. I met him in 1970 when he first set foot in Bras√≠lia, and it was he who encouraged me to begin writing this story. So far this is the only paragraph you blog readers have commented on ‚ÄĒ you just have to know what my name is, or at least if I am Jo√£o Almino or not, as if the story’s meaning changed depending on the author, but never mind. I shall maintain my anonymity for the simple reason that it gives me more freedom, above all freedom to be sincere.


Excerpt of First Night: From A to Z:

When I was a boy, I wasn’t afraid of staying home alone with the door and windows open, or walking through the streets, recommending hotels, stores, bars and restaurants to people arriving. I’d take my faithful mongrel dog Typhoon ‚Äď white with black spots and the delight of the local kids ‚Äď through the dirt streets, muddied by the rain, listening to the hard, rhythmic music of the generators, which provided lighting while the Saia Velha Hydroelectric Plant was under construction. Here a powerful generator, there a weak one, further along a house lit by an oil lamp, another with a gas lantern, and the lights painted the shadows now blue, now shades of yellow, white and gray.

In the early years especially, since there were few buildings and, thus, few lights, which were only lit by generators for a few hours (the owners generally turned them off before ten at night), and not all of the buildings had generators anyway, the sky was strewn with stars at each new moon. Don’t point or you might get warts, Aunt Francisca would warn me before showing me the Belt of Orion and the Southern Cross.

I remember walking through the streets late at night, when Cidade Livre didn’t sleep, its stores staying open to supply merchandise all night long since Bras√≠lia was going up at a frenetic pace, and I’d hear folks playing the viola and drum beats coming from bars and serenades in front of houses on moonlit nights.

Sometimes Typhoon chose our route, and I’d follow him through the market and streets, listening to loudspeakers blaring ads for movies, job opportunities, foot-stomping music from the northeast and sermons. When he was a pup, Typhoon liked to visit Mr. Albuquerque de Pinho’s cobbler’s shop, where he sniffed the soles, glue, dyes and shoe polish, and much later, in early 1959, he invariably wanted to go into Progresso or Bom Jesus butchers’ stores to try and pilfer a piece of meat.

The settlement’s main attraction, in which I took pride, was that it looked like something out of the Old West, a town in a Western, which, as my father used to say, didn’t exist anywhere else in Brazil. Because it was intended to be temporary and was to be knocked down when Bras√≠lia was inaugurated, the houses and shacks, most covered with asbestos or zinc tiles, sheets of aluminum or straw, all had to be made of wood. Hence the fires, which spread quickly and which I also saw in the countryside, where, every year, out of the blue, the vegetation would catch fire and then sprout bashfully, afraid to grow.

In 1957 my father enrolled me in a class of thirty-three students at the Baptist school, a building with wood-paneled walls, a pitched roof and a single classroom, the first private school in Cidade Livre, but he soon transferred me to a much bigger public school, School Group Number One, in the habitational and administrative division that came to be known as Velhacap, or “Old”cap, because it had been the first location of the government building authority Novacap, or “New”cap. The Novacap cafeteria, which Aunt Francisca came to supply, was also situated there, as was the prison run by the Novacap Police Guard, later Bras√≠lia’s feared Special Guard, which, according to one version, may have been responsible for the death of Valdivino, if, indeed, Valdivino was dead.

My father was proud of the fact that the school had been designed by architect Oscar Niemeyer and built in just twenty days. The long shoebox raised on pilotis was inaugurated on September 21, 1957, by President Juscelino Kubitschek himself, who, a month later, planted a still rachitic Cabralea canjerana tree behind the school, which I venerated like a god from an indigenous religion. At the time I didn’t notice the poverty of that yard, where we organized our parties, perhaps because the sun frequently deepened its colors and lent cheer to its sparse branches. I’d get up at six-thirty in the morning to go to school, taking with me my drowsiness and ignorance and, when I wasn’t jolted awake by our mischief, throwing paper planes and passing drawings and notes around, I’d sometimes doze off on my desk at the back of the room, until two o’clock, when it was time to go home.

Because there were more families in the Velhacap settlements, I saw more women and girls in the streets than in Cidade Livre. My dream of owning a bicycle came about because of a girl with black braids whom I’d see riding past on a man’s bicycle. If I rode beside her down the main street of Cidade Livre, she’d look at me with her black eyes and smile at me and I’d take her in my arms, so lovely, and she’d be my first girlfriend. So I asked my father to buy me a bike. I’d ride to school alone on my bike and find the girl in braids. I’d heard that women pleasured themselves by rubbing their privates on bike seats, and I’d be next to her, peddling, peddling, and she’d smile at me again, then we’d get off our bikes and kiss passionately like they did in the movies that Aunt Francisca forbade me to watch.

Whenever I got good grades, I’d ask my father for a bike again, but it never came. He rewarded me, however, by taking me on Sundays to R√°dio Nacional, where, in the full auditorium, we’d watch singing competitions broadcast live, or we’d go see a soccer match. We supported Guar√°, a team that played in championships with many others named after building companies, and after matches we’d catch a movie at Cine Bras√≠lia, located in the middle block, or the Countess’ Theater, or else Cine Bandeirante, after the market and near one end of the settlement.

At the exact opposite end, a little ways out, was a place I only imagined, since Aunt Francisca had strictly forbidden me to go anywhere near it. I knew my father sometimes frequented the red-light district, known as Placa da Mercedes, and he became partner to a corpulent man with whiskers who had businesses thereabouts. How is it that you go and get involved with a sort like that? Aunt Francisca demanded to know one day, He gave up the brothel a long time ago, Francisca, he’s in construction, I’m not so sure about that, there’s something fishy about it. I sensed that Aunt Francisca was right and later I too thought that the guy, in one possible version, had been involved in some way with Valdivino’s murder, if, indeed, there had been a murder.