Maria’s room has all the symmetry and perfection that she expects from the world. Small, square, it is cut by straight lines, with equal angles and sides. She measures each centimeter to ensure the exact dimensions and sits on the X scratched into the middle of the floor. On that fixed point, her odyssey spins. Rivers, oceans, and continents fit within just a few square meters: imaginary landscapes inspire stationary adventures. Without leaving her room, Maria dreams the extraordinary into the everyday.
She decides to put on “Alegria, Alegria”—”Happiness, Happiness.” She stretches out to Caetano Veloso’s music, lying on the floor, staring up at the ceiling. This is how she understands happiness. She doesn’t usually sigh (such a dated thing to do), but she sighs. This is happiness. A second or two, the space of a second or two. A second more and life has already been spoiled: the LP skips on the record player and disrupts the verse.
Eu vou, por que nãonãonãonãonão?
Maria observes the scratched record, certain that there is something of the world in that black disc, in that circular, repetitive existence that turns turns turns, then suddenly jams. Frustrated, she unplugs the machine and leaves her room. It’s already noon, and the watch hands spin forward, frenzied, without her.
Monday morning is over and the routine has begun. Routines, always so frightening, stalk everyone, everywhere, speaking every language. Maria’s routine, in particular, has a French accent, an accent that she has yet to master, but that she works very hard at. She races to the university, where she should have been much earlier, if it hadn’t been for the morning mania of framing the world.
From where she lives, on Rue Cujas, to the Place de la Sorbonne, she only has to walk one or two blocks. Even so, her body proceeds slowly, clumsily, at odds with the lessons of her childhood. It was her grandfather, she remembers clearly, who taught her how to walk. Chest out, salute, left back, right back, chest out, salute.
She more marches than walks down Boulevard Saint-Michel, until she begins slowing down and returns to a walk—taking her time, trying to imitate those who simply walk. She doesn’t know why, but she woke up thinking of her grandfather, who made her a soldier alongside her brother and cousins; all of them so small, dressed in olive green uniforms, rifles at the ready. Attention! Present arms. Shoulder, arms. Forward, march! Together, they pretended to be a firing squad and executed ruthless enemies that only their grandfather could see.
Eating a sandwich on the park bench before class, Maria is surprised by how inconveniently the past rises up. The girl from the flashback strikes her as a bit masculine, aggressive. Her grandfather’s legendary wars, herself, her brother, and Copacabana beach fit inside this nostalgia. Nothing else fits. There was a time, as a child, when the absence of boundaries between sand, sea, and horizon puzzled her, leaving the myopic girl with only one certainty: that of an inexact life.
That’s why she must now adjust her glasses precisely at the indentation on the tip of her nose, satisfied to bring everything into focus: the black on the white, the letter on the paper, the work on Descartes to be handed in to the professor that afternoon. But ideas continue to surge—loud, unleashed—and she is distracted once again. She gives up on reading the text to observe the university in front of her, instead.
The structure housing the Sorbonne is beautiful and brown. The buildings in Paris are all a brownish-beige, almost black, as if subdued by the dust of progress. Surrounded by pastel tones, Maria concludes: the recent change of cities, Rio-Paris, has been, above all, a change of color.
People suddenly pass by in dark clothes, looking introspective. Perhaps winter itself requires a certain mourning, for the absence of the Tropics’ easy smiles, for the loss of heat, that is somewhat the loss of human warmth, humanity’s low index. Nonetheless, Maria is totally adapted, chameleon-like in this landscape, wearing a brown coat and black pants at all times.
She looks at the clock in the middle of the building, cradled between two feminine statues, and sees that time is escaping. She goes back to the reading. Higher up, near the top, two men with short beards—stone sages—share a silence that the university wants to call discipline. She goes back to the reading.
Everything here emphasizes such seriousness, broken only by the murmur in the cafes; a murmur of low voices, from people who discuss with caution. It is a code between them, this dialogue in whispers that Maria, foreign spy, tries to imitate.
She sees Descartes in everything: in the French words, gestures, humor. Perhaps she doesn’t perceive the cliché that this represents. It’s like the tourists in Brazil who only see the mulata, the samba, the beach, the mulata-who-sambas-on-the-beach. But it’s more than this. Just like the beautiful swaying women who are all over Rio, the philosopher’s specter really does frequently pass through the Latin Quarter. Even now, his name appears on the covers displayed in the window of the J. Vrin bookstore, right there, on the other side of the square.
Maria looks around, diluted among the passersby. She isn’t out of step here. Her body language is restrained, like that of everyone else. However, she is the foreigner, the fugitive. And more and more, she enjoys this, the right to solitude. She can sit on a park bench for hours on end without anyone starting a conversation.
She is alone and silent then because she is always alone and silent here. And there’s more. When the summer sun arrives, no one will be shocked by the white of her knees beneath her short skirt. They will be just one more pair in the frenzy of un-tanned knees on the street.
The world Maria comes from resembles this one, but it should exist in another galaxy, its culture is so different from the one in which she is now a tenant. That’s why she likes to think of herself as both a citizen and a foreigner, a being-in-the-world-between-worlds.
Sometimes she thinks of herself as a tropical Cartesian spirit, a temperate mestiza, and mocks herself. She is well aware of the price paid for oscillating, high/low, high/low, on that rusty seesaw between cultures.
In the classroom, it takes a lot of effort to follow the professor. He reads an excerpt from the book, page 7, second paragraph. With a weak, stuffy voice, he shoots off phrases from Descartes’ Discourse on the Method. My intention is not to teach the method that each one should follow to steer them towards reason, but just to demonstrate how I tried to steer mine.
She fixates on that phrase—read, repeated, mentally translated at the velocity with which her brain metabolizes the foreign tongue. It has become a mantra for her, a powerful prayer in a rosary of well-worn beads.
Ever since she read that, she has tried to create her own method for organizing the recent years’ chaos. It’s not that she herself is chaotic. To the contrary, she always thought of herself as unified, indivisible, following a straight rail without junctions. Maybe it is just the weight of youth, this “having” to be young, free, and irresponsible.
Happiness comes naturally to Maria, but freedom sometimes overwhelms her, scatters her, causes her to latch onto the parked train on the grand boulevard of the imaginary. She is still too young, too happy, to notice what really disturbs her. There is a cruelty carved into her body, an inherited evil, a sticky, harmful tyranny, from which her parents tried to distance her. This is why they keep her a foreigner. A fugitive (she insists).
When we spend too much time traveling, we end up becoming foreigners in our own country. Another phrase from the Discourse reverberates through Maria’s head and sends her hurtling back towards the professor. He who reads Descartes now reads authors who read Descartes. Occasionally he stops and hones in on the concepts. The intonation is monotone, there are no highs and lows, no charm, not even a pirouette in this choreography of logic.
She is taken with the class, so familiar at this point, while Monsieur Martin—ventriloquist of borrowed statements—keeps repeating himself. Sometimes, when she’s distracted, she pictures the professor seated on a tall white chair with a little Descartes doll in his lap, engaged in a completely serious philosophical discussion. A bit sinister, a bit ridiculous, but (at least for her) amusing.
She sighs and looks down at the book, casually skimming through it, until she comes to a loose sheet of paper. She was the one who placed it there, crumpled into the spine, after grabbing it off her bedroom floor. Two weeks ago, in the early morning, someone slipped a page torn from some poetry book under her door, with a poem to cut the day, to clot the hours.
After all, the best way to travel is to feel.
To feel everything in every way.
To feel everything excessively,
Because all things are, in fact, excessive
And all of reality is an excess, a violence.
Maria reads the verses of Fernando Pessoa, disguised as Álvaro de Campos, for the second time. The poem is long, intense, deeply felt. Taken by the poet’s habitual vertigo, it doesn’t seem strange to her. She finds that poetry stylizes anguish, refines it, and that is no small feat.
The unknown person who comes to populate her room with poets is careful to appear stealthily on nights subtracted by dreams—when she is sleeping too soundly to foretell his coming. She suspects Luc, a neighbor who has been courting her for months with the copied, almost trite, charm of 19th century-style chivalry. As a matter of fact, everything about him has the air of a very old Paris that she reads about in Balzac. And when she strolls around with Luc, it’s that other city Maria sees: bound, Bible paper, gold borders, hard cover.
She puts the poetry away and turns her attention back to Monsieur Martin, to thetedium. Before a certain audience, he more murmurs than speaks, at a sound frequency that requires effort for them to hear. This is purposeful. Occasionally he tests one student or another, inserting a difficult question into his loose phrasing. Right now, he interrogates a couple whispering softly beside Maria. The two come out of it okay and go back to holding hands under the table.
It rains, that light and constant Paris rain. Never a tempest, or a rapture, just a steady hammering of water, soft raindrops set to music by Monsieur’s sarcasm. The light coming through the room’s large windows illuminates each of the teacher’s furrows and ironies. In him, happiness has the color of a ceiling lamp that, broken, flickers on and on.
The class finally over, Maria is certain that, despite all the distractions, she didn’t miss any of the day’s material. So much redundancy, she blows off steam, a little loud and annoyed, running from Rue de la Sorbonne to Rue des Écoles, late for the cinema’s ticket office hours. Today is Truffaut Day, she smiles, standing at the bend of the corner and irritation.
The cinema owner will let her watch the last viewing once the cash register is locked up. She always persuades him and he always gives in, sitting with her in the audience, despite his disdain for film d’auteur made by meddlesome filmmakers and revolutionaries (as he puts it). He’s a man of commerce, opposed to arts and revolutions that destabilize business.
The box office now closed, Maria wanders through the streets of Paris with Antoine Doinel as a guide, confusion after confusion, mistake after mistake. Truffaut’s character, bumbling in his role as assistant detective, has an enthusiasm, a vagabondish charm, a folly that fascinates Maria. The two of them laugh. The manager shakes the seat with his fat body and bursts of laughter, now appreciative of commercially profitable revolutions.
On her way back home, exhausted, Maria predicts that tomorrow will be just a repeat of today. Reaching her building’s front door, the stairs to the sixth floor, seen from ground level, look endless. She heads up them heavy-footed and with every step hears the sound of music—that makes the building shake—getting closer. The hallway leading to her room is clogged with people who drink, smoke, talk loudly, and dance in stunning spirals.
Maria had forgotten Marechal’s invitation to the gathering. She has so much studying to do, and these parties distract her, sacrificing the following day’s lucidity. On the other hand, it’s a fun group, ready for anything that might lighten a bit of lucidity’s morbid weight.
She makes her way through the hallway, enters her room, closes the door, drops her bag on top of her bed, and sits on the point marked with chalk, where she always sits. Part of her method. In spite of the noise from the party, she puts “Alegria, Alegria” on the record player again, hypnotized by the circular movement, 33 rotations per second, that proceeds to the end without this morning’s scratch. Within arms’ reach is a lone piece of paper on the floor, the pre-dawn’s verses: Rimbaud.
The noise from the party interferes with the poem she is reading in a loud voice, now yelling, to be able to hear. Allons! La marche, le fardeau, le désert, l’ennui et la colère. À qui me louer? Quelle bête faut-il adorer? Quelle sainte image attaque-t-on? Quels cœurs briserai-je? Quel mensonge dois-je tenir? —Dans quel sang marcher?
She automatically translates some scattered words. Desert, tedium, lie, rage, lots of rage. She puts down the reading, gets up, opens the door and finds herself facing into her neighbor’s door, which is open. The same group as always is out there: the literature student who came from the French countryside to attend a grande école, the couple of Algerians who work in the restaurant on the corner, and the Japanese guy with an ideogram tattooed on his chest that they all try, at every party, to decipher (in vain).
Marechal is the middleman between the assorted nationalities. He fled Brazil in a hurry before he could be imprisoned by the military types, those fuckers (he repeats). He landed anonymous in Paris, and started to gradually search for other exiles interested in forming a band of “para-guerillas,” whatever that means.
He gathers all the available human material, it hardly matters where each one comes from, only that they each carry a trauma connected to their country. And so he proceeds, coopting even the least-politicized in an abstract idea of struggle from a distance, which has the effectiveness of a correspondence course.
Whenever she hears him arguing in debates, Maria is certain he would make a great revolutionary or dictator. That is, vocations that charisma and power guarantee, once united and manipulated, swinging from one side to the other. Marechal and the tribe of foreigners frequently meet at their headquarters on Rue Cujas, surrounded by ideas soaked in a strong alcohol and filled with smoke by a sweet-smelling hashish.
Then comes the music, the frenzied dancing, everyone singing loudly some refrain of their particular histories, of the countries that aborted them, the countries that fill them with shame. There is a fury in that loud song, in the cry, that for a few minutes reconciles them with their origins, with a notion of homeland, in a great revelry of resentment.
Watching them from the doorway, Maria understands the discomfort. She would sing that loudly, shout even, if it was possible. She remembers how, newly arrived in the building, she participated in gatherings in which the host received the nickname Marechal of Exile. Ignoring the irony of being a “Marshal of Exile,” he goes by foot or by metro and picks up each one at home, ensuring their presence. They arrive this way, as a group, through the streets and into the building.
Once united in a circle on the ground, he opens up the floor, flipping the hourglass to measure the length of each speech. All of them present their ideas, filtered through the leader—Marechal more authoritarian each time than the last, and little disposed to actually take them into consideration. After this is done, they have all the time in the world to draw up plans, articulate strategies.
Here he comes now, dressed in a dark green jacket, saluting in crazy turns, bursts of laughter. Maria smiles, a laugh of fear, a bad omen. At times, some of Marechal’s stories sound weird, either because of their content or chronology. The Marxist argument, however, is logical and just.
Beside him dances an unusual boy in this square meter, who boldly observes her without lowering his eyes. The gaze is firm while his body’s movements denounce a certain fragility, a clumsiness. His gestures are out of sync, seconds delayed, with the rhythm of the old samba.
Or is it that Maria, in her exhaustion, sees him through slow motion eyes
Fine features are carved into rough skin, green eyes embedded in brown skin. The esthetic’s perfection comes from the contrast. Wearing tattered jeans and a wrinkled white shirt, Arthur’s hair is almost buzzed, as if he had just come from the Armed Forces’ barber. Surrounded by men with long hair and unkempt beards, they look him up and down. Seen from afar, he’s a type, possessing a tormented kind of beauty.
Maria is thinking about going to bed when the stranger approaches in his cathartic dance. There is a shy look in his eyes and a tawdry laugh that doesn’t match. He invites her to come in, to dance, and she, sleepy, dizzy, concedes. She moves badly, but the thread of movement pulls her from her lethargy. And just as it starts to move her, she is saved by the music suddenly stopping.
Marechal decides when the party starts, when it stops, and this is the end. The guests, imbued with the rules, disperse. She says goodbye, but the boy in front of her grabs her arm at the bend in her elbow, without letting go. He pulls her as if he had been waiting all night for a great escape, as if they had planned a bank robbery, everything pre-arranged.
A first calculation between strangers like this would normally demand the rapid filling of the silence. As if a word, sometimes so arbitrary and frivolous, was capable of saying a lot, or everything. No sound escapes Maria’s lips.
The intention to break the embarrassment, to say one normal phrase or another, comes from him first.
—You live here in the building, right?
—Yeah, at the end of the hall.
Then, silence. No thin thread of verbs to rescue them, not even adjectives to court nouns. Together, the two share a moment of open parentheses, never filled in. A mute, prolonged syntax.
They don’t pretend to search for affinities, they don´t take transversals to the other’s thoughts, to read each other’s minds. Curiously, it is during this prelude, at a standstill, that one life begins to take its course. Or two.
They go downstairs. Maria, steered by him, moves through the city, wandering along the boulevards.
Arthur uses the moment to brag, adventures, wanderings through the world. He imagines himself to be a hero expatriated to roam the continents, to spin on his heels, to cross oceans. But there, beside Maria, he seems small before all the stories, geographies, and loneliness that he insinuates. So be it, she thinks, what does the truth matter anyway.
As they walk, he talks, gesticulates, says that they are balanced on an imaginary line marked by invisible footprints, on a world map without poles, tropics or meridians. Then he stops. He says that this exact point, this slab of sidewalk on which they’re now stepping, is the geographic intersection that brings them together. But there are those who would simply call this chance, he adds, being pleasant.
They continue. He holds Maria’s arm at the same spot, the bend in her elbow, steady, as they vagabond together.
She lets herself be moved by this half invented diversion; the anguish of the pilgrim, going nowhere with him. It is what Arthur claims to be the real odyssey: en route to nowhere, or to whatever point he could, just as an example, call Ithaca. Apparently, he thinks it’s necessary to give the quest’s final destination a name. And that somewhat erratic erudition, with an air of profundity, impresses Maria.
In one of the stairs that they tumble down to the Seine, he pulls her and they go down to the riverbank. It’s intensely cold, dry, un froid de canard as the French say, and ducks glide across the water. Under the Pont des Arts, well below the bridge, sleep two clochards. They approach them.
It is a relatively young couple. Perhaps these two haven’t been homeless for very long, but long enough to accumulate a diversity of objects around themselves: miniatures of domestic utensils, furniture, books. They sleep deeply, embracing each other, rulers of nothing.
—I’ve never seen such a beautiful couple—says Arthur, who has been spying on them in their half-public privacy for weeks.
Maria slowly comes closer, astonished by the micro-universe. They surround them, and the house which they can’t reach, which will never exist on a grand scale.
It is a type of model, spacious, illuminated by a flashlight, as if it was a permanent exhibition.
The room is furnished with small sofas, tables, and chairs. The queen-sized bed is in the couple’s room, while cabinets are built into invisible walls. Pans, porcelain ware, and silverware are suitable for non-existent meals. In a corner, a bookcase accumulates tiny books. The scenographic work accounts for its reduced existence, and makes them feel at home.
—They’re French, probably from the South, from what I could make out. —says Arthur. They stay there in the corner, drinking a cheap wine, eating what they have, making up stories. But I also saw those two already by Les Halles, spitting fire and practicing juggling.
He is moved by the couple, their complicity, their self-discipline. He admires the clochards of Paris, who are not exactly beggars. Noble, many of them bad-tempered, they impose themselves on urban life. They’re marginal people, their misery a choice. It is, without a doubt, Paris’s most moving attraction for Arthur.
Dawn advances. Maria more floats than walks, feeling as though she has just discovered her own Ithaca. Arthur: a roving, wandering, floating Ithaca, as Ithacas should be.