Friday, July 20, 2007

Necessary Steps: A Novelist's Walk Through Summer

July 20, 2007, 12:06 pm
Brazil: The Grand Tour

A devout disciple of Schopenhauer, Machado de Assis — the founding father of Brazilian literature — subtitled “The Posthumous Memoirs of Bras Cubas,” his most famous work, “Epitaph of a Small Winner.” De Assis’s fictional alter-ego, cleaving to a pessimistic weltanschauung, argued that while existence is a zero-sum game, he had managed to get out ahead by not having children, and bestowing on them the same load of suffering.

Rio de Janeiro

Set in Rio de Janeiro, “The Posthumous Memoirs” also owes a considerable debt to Sterne’s “Tristram Shandy,” with its short chapters and discombobulating of the space-time continuum. Bras Cubas is something of an ambulatory figure, although, admittedly, this is a dubious distinction in the era before the invention of the Segway. (A personal transportation system that, for sheer willing upon the human body the withering away of its legs, takes the proverbial biscuit.)

Anyway, in the spirit of De Assis and Sterne, let me offer you my latest peregrinations, which consisted of a 15,000-mile sweep through the Americas, north and south, that produced a series of giant carbon footprints, while giving me hardly any opportunity to stretch my legs. I blame the kids – but then I would, wouldn’t I? True, I only had 50 percent of mine with me, yet even two small boys are a sufficient drogue to brake any possibility of sustained walking, unless it’s on a treadmill facing a marathon screening of all the Harry Potter movies. An observation that could easily form the frontispiece quote of my own posthumous memoirs, to be subtitled: “Epitaph of a Total Loser.”

Walk 1, Sao Paulo Airport. Distance: 260 meters. Time: 2.5 hours.

Don’t be fooled by the comparatively short distances and level terrain into thinking that this will be an easy hike. Consisting of four separate stages: Domestic Transfers Check-in Desk; TAM ticketing desk; TAM Check-in and Security, the walk – or “queue,” as it is colloquially known – can become especially arduous if you undertake it, as we did, in the immediate aftermath of a strike by Brazilian air traffic controllers.

Still, there’s plenty to see along the way; mostly Brazilians, one of whom, when I tried to quicken our pace, called me the Portuguese equivalent of the son of a flute. As ever with walking, it’s an activity that really tells you where you are: orientation is bred in the femur. You may have flown in at 6:30 a.m. in a daze, but by the time you find yourself sitting on the tarmac for your flight to Rio at 9:30 a.m., you truly know where you are. Purgatory.

Walk 2. From the head of the funicular to the base of the statue of Christ the Redeemer. Distance: 200 meters. Time (including refreshment stop): 1 hour.

Everyone, just everyone, has to visit this huge statue when they come to Rio. It’s just so huge, and the views from the top of the mountain are superb. At least, they are on clear days. On the day we attempted our trek it was so cloudy we could see neither up nor down.

As numinous as God should be.

The youngest of our party did exclaim, “Oh my God!” when he saw the vast Redeemer looming out of the mist, but while this may have been apt, he is also – being 5 – a tad credulous.

Walk 3, Copacabana to Ipanema. Distance 1.5 kilometers. Time: 2 hours.

Put all thoughts of Astrud Gilberto and the eponymous girl out of your mind. Beachfront Rio may no longer have been quite as minatory as when I was last here, in the early 1990s (all the drug gangs and their mayhem are now, more or less, confined to the favelas, where they battle it out with R.P.G.s and heavy machine guns, protected by the cordon répugnante of a wholly corrupt police force), but being winter it was still a misty, chilly, slightly scuzzy prospect, as the author’s wife never ceased to remind him.

The boys liked to walk up the beach – which, to be fair, is pristine – then back down the Avenida Atlantica, time after time after time. After a couple of days of this I persuaded them to divert up the Rua Francisco Otaviano to Ipanema, past a scary Catholic iconostasis (life-size plaster figures of leprous-looking saints). It was dark by the time we turned into the Avenida Francisco Behring, and there was absolutely no one on the beach at all. The breakers rolled in from the Atlantic, and the lights of the hilly suburbs to the south mounted up as if Christ the Redeemer were developing the empyrean itself.

Then there was the Parque Garota towards the end of the point. The author’s wife felt that its dark shrubbery and sinister-sounding appellation disqualified it as a location for family rambling, but I point out that “garota” is in fact “girl” in Portuguese, and the park was named after the eponymous one. “In that case,” Mrs. Self snapped, “why is it full of single men lurking in the bushes?” Moan, moan, moan.

Walk 4. Paraty, Brazil. Round trip from the Marquesa Hotel. Distance: 2 kilometers. Time: 1.5 hours.

If you visit the charming seaside resort of Paraty, 3.5 hours’ drive south of Rio, be sure to tour its famously uneven, large-cobbled streets on foot. The grid-pattern of boxy, whitewashed houses will be familiar to anyone who has ever seen a spaghetti western. I kept expecting to see the Man with No Name ride into town, intent on wreaking destruction on all the wooden knick-knacks, glass bibelots and naïf paintings that clutter up Paraty’s famously uneven etc. etc.

Abandoning the boys at the hotel, I acquired sturdy walking companions, to whit: the entire staff of the British Council office in Rio de Janeiro, together with a journalist from O Globo, his photographer, and the jeep they’d all hired.

I asked them why they were on my case. They explained that they’d paid my plane fare to the literary festival that was being held in Paraty, and they wanted their face time. This was all news to me; I don’t like having anything to do with Council, which is an adjunct of the British Foreign Office, charged with converting the heathen to reruns of “The Vicar of Dibley” and tea drinking. They wanted to go for a drive – I insisted on walking. I prevailed, and we set out for the kilometer or so to the jetty where the pleasure boats are hired, the whole media cavalcade stringing along behind.

The journalist asked me questions, his snapper snapped away. The Head of the British Council and I chatted amiably enough. (It’s impossible to do anything else with them, as Holly Martins (Joseph Cotton) discovered in “The Third Man,” when he encountered the BC rep, Crabbin, memorably played by the late Wilfrid Hyde-White.) We made it to the jetty, and then after further excruciating politeness, I managed to shake them off. Bliss.

Next week join me for four brief – but punishing - treks in the United States.

A brief remark on my Sao Paulo airport walk is sadly necessitated by this week’s crash of a TAM Express flight, which killed approximately 200 passengers and crew. I stress: I took my walk a fortnight ago, and despite my remarks about Harry Potter, I have no belief in magical thinking. It’s always a little bit grotesque when a writer riffs on an absurdity, only to have it transmogrify into a grotesquerie; beyond this, my walk took place at the international airport, rather than Congonhas (where the crash happened), which serves mostly internal flights.

I could give you some more flimflam about how all this goes to show that air crashes – no matter how infrequent – are God’s way of showing us that we should cleave to the ground, but I don’t believe any such thing. Nor do you. And frankly, none of us – least of all the families of the victims – needs any such flat-earth nonsense.

In the wake of the crash the Brazilian body politic is galvanizing itself. Accusations are being slung about: at the state governor, and at the president, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva himself. Lula has the image in the northern hemisphere of being a kind of Chavez-lite (or Castro-very-lite), but nothing, my Brazilian informants tell me, could be further from the truth.

Of course, from my perspective, the most important thing is: is Lula a walker? I can’t answer this with any certainty, although he did attend a meeting at our Rio hotel while we were staying there. It was the first time I’ve ever actually seen a red carpet rolled out, presumably so this Latin American populist could take his own, necessary steps.


About Necessary Steps

Will Self is the author of five novels, four collections of short stories, four novellas and four collections of journalism. He is a frequent contributor to a plethora of newspapers and magazines, both in England and internationally. He is a hardened walker, with the calluses to show for it. He lives in London, England, together with his wife and four children.


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