Beauty is Sadness

On Christmas evening, I flocked with the crowd that had gathered, like a colony of seabirds, on the Pedra do Arpoador, a jumble of rock jutting out into the sea at the far eastern end of Ipanema Beach in Rio de Janeiro.

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In the summer time, when the world tilts just so, from Arpoador you can watch the sun set into the water, slightly to the left of the magical, jagged shore. And as the sun sank down on Christmas evening, the colony of humans – there were hundreds of us nesting shoulder to shoulder on the promontory – broke into applause. Why does this not make the headlines? Yes, there is hatred and grief and wretchedness in this tilted world. But there is also this jumble of rock on the Brazilian coast, teeming with strangers who clap together in awe as night falls.

I’ve been Rio twice during my first six months in Brazil, and will go again as soon as the next half-chance presents itself. Both times, before I’ve gone, I’ve been thoroughly cautioned about the place. (An emerging theme of my life in Brazil). Rio’s beauty is a siren song; in all likelihood you will get robbed on the beach, they’ll tell you.

Some months ago in my Portuguese class, I was introduced to Rubem Braga, a Brazilian writer who spent the bulk of his career working for newspapers in Rio. He wrote hundreds of short sketches and reflections about everyday sorts of things with a dreamy, melancholy touch, teasing out the beauty and the despair that lurk everywhere around us. Take the Arpoador sunset, for example. Wonder and grief are sides of a coin. The sun sets, and every one of us there clapping for it on Christmas will go back to dust.

Rubem Braga (1913-1990), illustration by Pablo Henrique Blanco.

Rubem Braga (1913-1990), illustration by Pablo Henrique Blanco.

Braga, in his own devious way, got in on the game of sour talk about Rio. Take this passage, written back in 1951 (my own translation):

I am one of those strange animals that inhabits Rio de Janeiro … I’m a tough, an expert in survival. As you know, a Carioca is, above all, strong. Although I may, from time to time, flee the city’s dangers and discomforts (once, in search of some peace and quiet, I even became a war correspondent), I always come back. I’m used to living dangerously … day by day, night by night, during this, an era that the shocked historians of the future will call the Battle of Rio de Janeiro.

Even though he’s poking fun at Rio’s reputation for danger here, that reputation clearly is nothing new. Other things that haven’t changed 65 years later: Braga went on to describe one of Rio’s beaches as “one of the world’s most beautiful sewers,” and concluded the essay by needling the municipal government's ineptitude. (There’s something Twain-ish about Braga, too).

Here’s another characteristic Braga passage, from a 1945 essay, “The Company of Friends.” It begins with Braga and his bohemian friends playing an enthusiastic, if not terribly skillful, game of soccer on a Rio beach, then lurches into angst:

Afterwards, we dove in the cool water and lazed around, thirty or so of us men and women, guys and girls, talking on the beach. How sweet, the company of friends, the women in their bathing suits, the shade beneath the tents. We hung out there under the sun, beside the sea, beneath the blue mountains. Ah, circle of friends, these moments on the beach will turn into ancient memories. What a foolish, sad thought. He’ll fall in love with her; that other couple will separate; some of us will wander far away; some of us will die suddenly; some will become enemies; one will betray another; one will fail miserably; still another will grow rich and distant and harsh. That other guy will never be heard from again, and that woman, the one there, laying down, laughing her clear laugh, her body glistening – some day she’ll end up stricken and ugly, sour and sad.