A Portuguese Ghost

Venezuelan writer Miguel Gomes.

The ghost of my father first appeared to us three hours after the funeral. He was sat on the sofa in the study, with a book open in his lap and the lamp on (it wasn’t clear why: it was only five in the afternoon and he had always been very careful when it came to these things). I went to the study after hearing him draw on his pipe. I suspected that I would find him there: smoking in that corner had always been his favorite pastime. 

Quando voltamos à Madeira? ‘Stou farto desta terra e desta gentaça: barulho e calor é o único que têm. Além disso, as ruas estão a ficar cheias de toirões e ratazanas. Caracas já não é cidade... toca, isso é que é”.

[“When are we going back to Madeira? I’m sick of this country and its rabble: the noise and the heat are all they’ve got. And now the streets are filling up with ferrets and rats. Caracas isn’t a city any more, it’s a warren, I’m telling you!”]

The ferrets and the rats he was referring to were certain politicians, but I’ll come back to that. My mother had followed me to the study and was now getting stuck into one of her regular scraps with my father. On this occasion, the cause was his smoking in front of Rui, my son, who was eight at the time:

Joga fora o cachimbo!

A certidão de casamento é que vou deitar no lixo..”.

[“Throw that pipe away”

“Our marriage certificate is what I’ll throw away”.]

Although these marital clashes were never resolved, they were always over in five minutes. Despite his recent death, my mother was happy to see her husband. Of course, she took pains not to show it, she didn’t want the deceased to start taking liberties.

A sua bênçoa, vovô”.

Deus te abençoe”.

[“Give me your blessing, grandpa”.

“May God bless you”.]

Rui had entered the study and reacted as he always did, asking his grandfather for his blessing. My father, a dyed-in-the-wool atheist, would always give it to him, perhaps out of a weakness for his grandson, perhaps because, as a good communist, he tried in vain to hide his attraction to the Church. He was from Bragança where, as far as I know, asking for a blessing is no longer used as a greeting. He’d surely picked up this habit in his days hiding out in Madeira, and from my mother, who clung stubbornly to her island culture and had spent her life trying to catechize him.

We had come to Caracas when I was eleven. Salazar’s secret police had forced Dad to find false papers and escape from the continent to the islands. After time had passed – with a house, a job, a wife and a son – he had the great idea of writing and distributing some kind of pamphlet. They soon tracked him down and o Guilherme bragantino [Guilherme from Bragança] as his friends knew him, had to take to his heels, if that’s what you can call a maritime escape. The boat was loaded with Spaniards and Italians heading to Venezuela, when that was fashionable; it reached port in Funchal and there it was topped up with new accents, wines and codfish. On that occasion, it carried one Guilherme who was changing identity for the third time; now he was called Lourenço. (Years later I found out that this was his original middle name. I don’t know if I’ll ever discover his first one; I have no reason to visit Bragança and, according to Dad, our relatives have already been in the ground for a long time. He, meanwhile, will give nothing away).

In life, Guilherme, Lourenço, or whoever he was, was a collection of obsessions. One was to rave against Venezuela, especially Caracas; the climate, the disorder, the nouveaux riches, the waste, the filth, the ignorance: any excuse. It made him nervous to see how well I adapted, and even more, that when I got married it was to a native. The years went by and we had Rui who, even with his Portuguese name, showed little interest in expanding his vocabulary in that language. Don Lorenzo, as he was called in his new exile, lost hope with each new small misfortune. Whenever he could, he would announce his principles, which included returning to Portugal as soon as the opportunity arose. Frugal, he saved everything for the return; he was neither mean nor miserly, but optimistic: the future would be better for him and he had to prepare to enjoy it. 

Strangely, after the Carnation Revolution, which brought democracy to Portugal and allowed the Portuguese Left to operate openly finally, my father didn’t seem too eager to prepare for a return to his homeland: he spoke of a false revolution, disillusionment and, while he followed the football matches shown on the immigrant channels, he grumbled about how Mário Soares was a secret Fascist, and other improprieties. Time did not stand still: Dad retired; my grandfather in Funchal died in 1990 and we inherited the house, among other things; but Dad didn’t take that golden opportunity, limiting himself to going with Mom to spend the winters on the island and thereby escaping, if only for a few months, the calor medonho, horrível [horrible, dreadful heat] of Caracas.

He would return from his holidays and head to the study, enticed by his pipe and give voice to the bad mood he attributed to the tropics: 

O ano que vem fico de vez em Portugal”. 

[“Next year I’ll move to Portugal permanently”.]

The refrain had grown so tiresome that I no longer took it seriously; I even allowed myself to provoke him:

“Stay there if you want, Dad; no one is forcing you to come back”, in Spanish of course, to further annoy him, as he refused to speak the language.

The muttering which followed was interminable. I never understood his relationship with Venezuela; I fear that he didn’t either. I once read that a man without a nation defies classification and therefore provokes both fear and disgust. Perhaps my father sensed that being so far from Portugal and so close to other lands put him in an undefinable space; maybe the gap forced him to seek refuge over and again in his insistence. To calm him down, or to tease him gently, I would recite Jorge de Sena’s famous lines to him:

Coleccionarei nacionalidades como camisas se despem,

se usam e se deitam fora, com todo o respeito

necessário à roupa que se veste e que prestou serviço.

[I will collect citizenships like shirts which are removed

Used and thrown away, with all the respect

Due to clothes which are worn and have served a purpose.]

Between gentle pats on the back, I suggested that nationalism was just another bourgeois ploy to distract the proletariat from the class struggle. But it was all for nothing; his obstinacy was stronger than doctrine.

When he died, I thought I would miss his unintelligible monologues and the apartment would seem empty without them. I was relieved that wasn’t the case. My father couldn’t disappear so abruptly; his existence in Venezuela had been bound to the house, hours and hours spent in his study, where he worked on his Portuguese newspaper and wrote articles under different names according to whether he sent them to immigrant publications in the United States and Canada or to magazines in Portugal, Brazil, Mozambique, Cape Verde, Angola, Macao, Timor… He wasn’t ready to give up the routines he had worked hard to create. His ghost was an exact continuation of the man, even in his obsessions —the pipe, reading and “Quando voltamos à Madeira? ‘Stou farto desta terra e desta gentaça...” [“When are we going back to Madeira? I’m sick of this country and its rabble”.]

How many times had I heard the same thing from him when he was alive? Now, dearly departedas I had just heard the priest say, unwittingly issuing an angelic visa to a commie – Dad’s obsessions finally got their teeth into me. 

My mother and I were symmetrically alone, bereaved, widowed. My situation was worse: I didn’t even have Cecilia’s ghost left. In Venezuela, moreover, everything was falling apart: our savings dwindled even when we refrained from touching them; university salaries, faced with stoicism, were laughable; the political situation was chaotic and three weeks ago, in one of the many protests against the government, some snippers who will never be brought to justice emptied the head of one of my colleagues, a pacifist who taught metaphysics and was one of the few close friends I had. For a few years now, they’d been fighting fire with fire – those toirões [ferrets] presidents and ratazanas [rats] ministers, or vice versa, depending on the day and the mood don Lorenzo was in when he read the headlines. Dad had fixed ideas about the lead ferret’s supposed sympathy for Marxism, and wouldn’t admit any buts from me, because I knew nothing about the subject:

Estes vadios estão a confundir pândega e folia com revolução”.

[“These deadbeats are confusing revelry and binging with revolution”.]

Not a day went by when I sent Rui to school without worrying about what could happen to him: that someone would put a knife to his neck to steal some cheap trainers, as happened to our young neighbor; or that he’d be kidnapped, to get money from us that we didn’t have, simply because we were Portuguese and we supposedly had grocery stores; or that they’d simply do to my son what they did to Cecilia.

Flyers had started to circulate in the metro, blaming every misfortune on the European immigrants from the 1950s and 1960s, who with their bus companies, restaurants, cafés, and bakeries had corrupted, ruined and plunged into distress the courageous Bolivarian people.

Então, quando voltamos à Madeira?”

[So, when are we going back to Madeira?”]

Even though he was just repeating the usual questions, my father’s ghost was more convincing than the grumbling exile had ever been. Despite our many arguments, between his moaning and his melancholy, I had loved him so much that I had copied his fondness — well, it was more than that for writing (to annoy him, of course, I did it in Spanish; but this didn’t bother him too much: ninguém é perfeito [nobody’s perfect] ). I heard him again after the burial; I saw the book and the useless lamp, the pipe filling his ghostly outline with smoke. Alone on the balcony, at dusk, I started to cry madly and asked myself why not listen to don Lorenzo. What the hell were we waiting for in that city which was falling apart around us? I loved Dad so much, even as a ghost, that I had to let myself be persuaded. It was going to happen eventually, why not now? I would leave. We would leave: even the dead. 

I wasn’t strong enough to make the decision that night, but a few days later my father’s voice urged me to check the post; the postman would bring it in a few minutes. Indeed, the man came and I let him do his thing. I opened the post box straight away. There was a letter from my mother’s brother, which started like every letter he wrote us, but a surprise awaited me in the fourth paragraph. Old age was filling him with afflictions; on top of that, it made him sad to think that he would have to sell the bookshop he had built in Funchal through plenty of sweat and half a century of effort. He had no one but us to leave it to. Why didn’t we come back already? Who better than me to take over? The sum he mentioned as his average monthly earnings was more than my annual salary. To conclude his arguments, he sent a newspaper clipping: there were now more people in Madeira born in Venezuela than Portuguese people living in Venezuela. And not just the children of immigrants. The recent prosperity of the island and the rest of Portugal attracted the usual Africans, but also Asians, Brazilians, venezuelanos.

“‘Stás a ver?”

[“Do you see?”]

Dad read along over my shoulder. I had run out of arguments against him. And then there was the damned name of the bookshop: Esperança [Hope].

“‘Stás a ver?” 

[“Do you see?”]

“‘Stou, sim” [“Yes, I see”], I answered him, with no alternative after so many years, and all that was left was packing, explaining to Rui what was happening, drying the tears, visiting cemeteries, getting papers in order, selling furniture, and finding trustworthy neighbors to look after the keys to the apartment until a buyer appeared (very unlikely: one still hasn’t).

It hurt Cecilia’s family to know that Rui was leaving, but my father-in-law confessed that if they could, they would leave too. I didn’t want to deprive him of having his daughter’s tomb nearby. My father, by contrast, urged me to hurry and not leave him buried in that place.

I’d prefer not to record the bureaucratic headaches caused by the international transport of coffins from Caracas.

There’s not much of this story left to tell. The first few months in Funchal weren’t easy for Rui, but children end up adapting to uprooting and languages as quickly as they recover from bangs or falls. My mother has carried on with her life, as her daily quarrels with her husband keep her fit. As for me, I don’t complain. I was a professor and now I’m a bookseller; like before, the job gives me time to write in the evenings. Like everyone, I know that I’m missing something. I try, however, not to complain, or at least not often or not for too long. I once knew Cecilia. 

I’m rereading these pages and notice that I express myself as if I hadn’t left Caracas. I think that I’d note my thoughts and digressions in the same way in any corner of the world. But I don’t kid myself, this city never belonged to me. Neither do others. Perhaps that’s why I still write, and in a foreign language.

As for my father, Guilherme, Lourenço or whatever he decides to call himself: one week after returning to his homeland he started to grumble again. He would sit, smoke his pipe, get up, sit down again to read; he would sigh wearily, uncomfortable. He wouldn’t dare say anything to me, perhaps out of fear of my reaction. After a long wait, I recently listened patiently to the phrases he pronounced in a far more polished Spanish than he had ever used in Venezuela. I imagine he will repeat them to me for many years: they are the lines I’m writing here.

Translated by Katie Brown

Languages

Number 8

The eighth issue of Latin American Literature pays homage to Nicaraguan writer and politician Sergio Ramírez, winner of the 2017 Cervantes Prize and an important voice in a country currently gripped by crisis. We also feature poetry from Octavio Armand, as well as special sections dedicated to four indigenous writers of Mexico and Guatemala, bilingual sci-fi from Worldcon 76, and the poetry of Marosa di Giorgio, Olga Orozco, and Elena Garro. 

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