Tuesday, July 5, 2016

How Little Chief Escaped by Jose Eduardo Agualusa

We always die of dejection, that is, when our souls fail us - then we die. That was Little Chief's theory. In support of this, the businessman described what happened to him the second time he was arrested. He faced terrible prison conditions, the ill treatment, the torture, with courage that surprised not only his companions in misfortune, but the prison guards and the agents of the political police.

It wasn't courage, he admits: "I was experiencing serious rebelliousness. My soul was rebelling against the injustices. Fear, yes, the fear came to hurt me more than the blows, but the rebellion was growing over the fear and that was when I confronted the police.  I was never quiet. When they shouted at me, I shouted louder. From a certain point, I realized those guys were more scared of me than I was of them."

One time when they were punishing him, and they put him in a tiny cell, which they called Kifangondo after the site of a great battle, Little Chief found a rat and adopted it. He called it Splendor, a name that was perhaps a little optimistic for a common rat, brown and shifty, with a gnawed on ear and fur in pretty poor shape. When Little Chief reappeared in the regular cell, with Splendor nestled on his right shoulder, some of his companions teased him. Most ignored him.  At that time, at the end of the seventies, the Sao Paulo Prison brought together an extraordinary collection of personalities. American and English mercenaries, taken in combat, lived alongside dissident exiles from the ANC who had fallen into misfortune. Young intellectuals from the far left exchanged ideas with old Portuguese Salazarists. There were guys locked up for diamond trafficking, and others for not having stood at attention during the raising of the flag. some of the prisoners had been important leaders in the party. They took pride in their friendship with the President.

"Only yesterday the Old Man and I went fishing together," one of them boasted to Little Chief. "When he finds out what's happened, he'll get me out of here and have the moons who did this arrested."

He was shot the following week.

Many didn't even know what they had been accused of. Some went crazy. The interrogations often seemed erratic, preposterous, as though the aim was not to extract information from the detainees, merely torture and confuse them.

In this context, a man with a trained rat wasn't enough to surprise anyone.  Little Chief took care of Splendor. He taught him tricks. He'd say "Sit!" - and the animal sat. "Around! he'd order, and the rat started walking in circles.  Monte heard of this and went to the cell to visit the prisoner.

"They tell me you've made a new friend."

Little Chief didn't answer. He's created a rule for himself never to reply to an agent from the political police, unless the agent was shouting. In such cases he would scream an attack at him, accusing him of being in the service of the socio-fascist dictatorship, etc. Monte found the prisoner's behavior exasperating.

"I'm talking to you, for fuck's sake! Don't act like I'm invisible."

Little Chief turned his back on him. Monte lost  it. He tugged on his shirt. That was the moment he saw Splendor. He grabbed hold of the animal, threw it on the floor and stamped on it. In the midst of all those crimes, such vast crimes that were being committed in those days, right there, within the prison walls, the tiny death of Splendor affected nobody, apart from Little Chief. The young man fell into a deep dejection. He would spend his days lying on a mat, unspeaking, unmoving, indifferent to his cellmates. He became so thin that his ribs stuck out beneath his skin like the keys of a kisanji. Finally, they took him to the infirmary.

When he was arrested, Nasser Evangelista was working at the Maria Pia Hospital as an orderly. He took no interest in politics.  All his attention was trained on a young nurse called Sueli Mirela, well known for the length of her legs, which she displayed generously in daring miniskirts, and for her round hairdo, in the style of Angela Davis. The girl, who was going out with a state security agent, allowed herself to be seduced by the orderly's sweet words. Her boyfriend, in a rage, accused his rival of being linked to factionalists. When he was locked up, Nasser started to work in the infirmary. He was moved when he saw Little Chief's condition. He conceived and organized the plan himself, a plan that was brave and happy, which made it possible to return the frail young man to freedom. Well, to relative freedom, since, as Little Chief himself likes to repeat, no man is free as long as one other man is in prison.

Nasser Evangelista registered the death of Little Chief, alias Arnaldo Cruz, aged nineteen, student of law, and he himself put the body in  the coffin.  A distant cousin, who was in reality a comrade from the same small party  in which he was himself an activist, received the casket. He buried it, in a discrete ceremony, at the Alto das Cruzes cemetery. This after removing the passenger in question. Little Chief got into the habit of visiting the grave on the anniversary of his supposed death, taking flowers to himself.  "To me, it's a reflection on the fragility of life and a small exercise in otherness," he explains to his friends.. "I go out there, and try and think of myself as a close relative. I am, really, my own closest relative. I think about his defects, about his qualities, and whether or not he deserves my tears. I almost always cry a little."

It was months before the police discovered the fraud. Then they arrested him again. .  . 

Magno Moreira Monte was killed by a satellite dish. He fell off the roof while he was trying to fix the aerial. Then the thing fell on his head. Some people saw the events as an ironic allegory for the recent times. The former state security agent, the final representative of a past which few in Angola wished to recall, was felled by the future: the triumph of free communication over obscurantism, silence, and censorship; cosmopolitanism had crushed provincialism.

Maria Clara liked watching the soaps. Her husband, meanwhile, took little interest in television. The pointlessness of the programs infuriated him. The news bulletins made him even angrier. He watched football matches, supporting Primeiro de Agosto and Benfica. From time to time he's sit down, in pajamas and slippers , to re-watch some old black-and-white movie or other. He preferred books. He had collected hundreds of titles. He planned to spend his final years rereading Jorge Amado, Machado de Assis, Clarice Lispector, Luandino Viera, Ruy Duarte de Carvalho, Julio Cortazar, Gabrriel Grcia Marquez.

When they moved house, leaving the dirty, noisy air of the capital behind them, Monte tried to persuade his wife to do without the television. Maria Clara agreed. She'd got into the habit of agreeing with him. For the first weeks, they read together. Everything seemed to be going well. But Maria Clara was getting sad. She'd spend hours on the phone with her friends. Monte then decided to buy and install a satellite dish.

Strictly speaking, he died for love. . . .

God weighs souls on a pair of scales. In one of the dishes is the soul, and in the other, the tears of those who weep for it. If nobody cries, the soul goes down to hell. If there are enough tears, and they are sufficiently heartfelt, it rises up to heaven. Ludo believed this. Or wanted to believe this. This is what she told Sabalu:

"People who are missed by other people, those who are the ones that go to Paradise. Paradise is the place we occupy in other people's hearts. That's what my grandmother used to tell m. I don't believe it. I'd like to believe in anything that's so simple - but I lack faith.

Monte had people to cry for him. I find it hard to imagine him in Paradise. Perhaps, however he's being purged in some obscure nook of immensity, between the splendor of Heaven and the twisted darkness of Hell, playing chess with the angels who are guarding him. If the angels know how to play, if they play well, this would be almost Paradise to him.

A General Theory of Oblivion by Jose Eduardo Agualusa, Daniel Hahn transl.; Archipelago Books, Brooklyn, 2013

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