Fernando Bonassi’s unusual and fragmented short story “Discovery of Brazils in 15 Scenes” (“15 Cenas de descobrimento de Brasis”) has no unified narrative, plot, or character. Instead, the piece relies on the greater picture it presents, on its cumulative effect.
The fifteen fragments cohere in part because of the revealing title, but especially because of the repeated returning to the story’s main themes: national identity, exploitation of women and people of color, colonial paradigms, the story’s own repeated rupture. As I read it, Bonassi’s unflinching historical revisionism not only exposes Brazil’s colonial present and the fatal consequences of imperialism and capitalism, but narrates the very creation and subsequent destruction of the world—a world where people make the same terrible mistakes over and over again.
Bonassi was born in São Paulo in 1962 and has written everything from essays and novels to plays and film. Luxúria (Lust), his 2015 novel about the promise and failure of the “Brazilian dream,” was a finalist for the Oceanos Prize.
Click anywhere below to read the story in the original Portuguese.
We’re still not used to the world.
Being born takes time.
—Murilo Mendes, “Reflexão número 1”
THE HISTORY OF IDEAS
First came the man, with his head down and naked. God arrived on a lightning bolt. Then came the animals that eat men. And then there was fire, exotic spices, clothes, the sword and the duty. Then philosophy was created, which explained how not to do what shouldn’t be done. And then came rational numbers and History, organizing events meaninglessly. Hunger always was, of things and people. Sedatives and stimulants were created. And someone turned off the light. And everyone makes do with what they have, ripping off the scabs they can reach.
The missionaries arrived and covered what of the savages made them feel shame. Then made them memorize the Hail Mary. Then taught them good manners, how to care for their hygiene, and got them jobs at the jungle resorts, where guests arrive with whiskey in hand. There would be some exemplary humanitarian reasoning here, if it weren’t for the fact that the Indians were sleeping with the guests. Nothing would make them change. Their husbands, too high to care, don’t wear their horns. At any rate, everyone gets their share. Only our civilizing God seems to have missed yet another chance.
Juruena doesn’t recognize her image in the mirror. Not in a specific mirror, but in any surface that returns her. She finds and loses herself in glass windows, metal countertops, dishes … There’s a real difference between the expression on her face and the one that now appears. She dances, jumps up and down, punches the air … and arrives late to her own gestures. It’s more comical than concerning, her escaping from herself like this. She’s not one bit interested in keeping herself company. I’d say it’s best for her not to meet her other self at all, until they sort out their differences.
Wilson’s full name is Wilson Patachó, but that’s written all over his face. Between Paranã and Gurupi, everyone knows him as “Indian.” Actually, they know him as “Shell Indian.” Wilson, or Shell Indian, is also known for doing business at the Shell gas station with the truckers. He has two daughters to offer. You can pick them up in Paranã and drop them off in Gurupi, or vice versa. One is called Cibele Patachó and the other is Pamela Patachó. Cibele has all her teeth. Pamela has none and, precisely for that reason, she’s the white man's favorite.
When the four of them made their plan, the fifth one was already dead, but he didn’t know it yet and carried on. And since everything that lives also tires, he slept. So it took him too long to open the door that night. He ran for it, since everything that lives also runs for its life. A losing chase. Their spokesman was tied up, so no one said a word. Plenty gunshots, which no neighbor heard. His body stiffened under the bed in that twisted position, like it wanted to bite the wind that comes through our mouths.
An Indian so stupid it’s sad! Every morning he shows up at the bar and spends all the money his wife made the previous night on beer. He drinks until he loses reason, wastes his afternoons pissing, then returns to collect what he spent. He can’t be made to understand that by drinking like a fish he uses up every fucking penny he has (or his wife has, I don’t know … ). That it works like this: things move from one hand to another in a moment … That is: these colorful pieces of paper and metal circles now belong to the fellow behind the counter. It’s so clear in its stupidity it confuses the rest of us!
Don’t be fooled. She’s the most ragged woman you’ll ever meet and doesn’t do a thing to change it. She has fewer teeth than you have fingers. So thin you can’t see her in profile. Stains, welts, scars in place of clear skin. The milky eyes because of the shit she smoked. She presses the dirty magazine on the windshield and yells out the price. She won’t utter another word that day. No doubt about it. The eyes. It can only be those shattered glass eyes … The issue is that you look inside them, you slip, cut yourself all over. You really fall, understand? My friend, you never get up. It’s a goddamn curse.
In the early '70s, gold miners pulled their own teeth. In cold blood, of course. So when Paulão traveled north with a bag full of Prilocaine, he was immediately successful. Long after the gold veins disappeared, Paulão was still selling anesthetics. But now his major clients were all Indians. Most of them didn’t even have teeth to pull. He still comes to São Paulo from time to time, and returns with two or three bags of the stuff (which the Indians pay for with whatever they have). The only explanation, he believes, is that the Indians can’t bear the taste of their own spit these days.
SONG OF EXILE
My land has soccer fields where corpses lie face down to mess with the games. It has tiny pebbles, bile green, that ricochet and hit people in the head with a tuim. It also has concrete walls (no paint, of course, because it’s a pain to use with no thinners), with glass shards on top to deter the malacos. My land has the HK, the AR-15, the M21, the 45, and the 38 (in my land, the 32 is a joke). The sirens that blare here always blare with no warning, and late. They don’t belong to the factories anymore, which have closed. They’re from police cars that come to make cripples, to bring calm and fear.
Every Saturday Mariano brings a new wax piece to the Church of São Judas. He brings an arm, then prays; then a thigh, then prays; a breast … and so forth. In two months he will have the entire body, the head on top and the sandals underneath everything else. That day, he thinks of lighting a thick candle as big as Jacira, who doesn’t exist yet. He thinks that when he prays for the very last time, lungless Jacira will stand on her own two feet and walk, her heels clacking across the tiles. Mariano also thinks he’ll be able to enjoy her for quite some time before she melts in the sun.
I just came here to say that all the things you said really did happen. All the careful words you used, trying “to protect me,” well … They formed a thick cloud of misfortune in my life. One by one, I lost the support of my own elbows. Actually, you already knew that. What I really lost was all shame by coming here. I don’t even know if you tricked me. You’re good like that! You and these filthy letters. You’re both worth the fucking hundred bucks I gave you, which I could really use now. You’re a hell of a witch. This is all I came here to say.
The stocks fall, the airplanes fall, the window cleaners fall. A butterfly flaps its wings in Seoul and tchotchkes fall off dressers in Osasco. Analysts and speculators grow deeper pockets. Mediterranées doesn’t have any openings until 2003. For less than fifty bucks you can get a Saint Laurent for the inheritance. Next Monday, evidence shows, 1929 will be a joke. Henrique barely made his half million and he’s already being collected by the wrath of those elements. It’s why he abuses his credit card against the powder on the table while eliminating costs.
It’s really possible that this was a terrific year, I don’t know. The bossa nova that played on the radio, the movies winning awards, how easy it was to find someone to shout with and those divorces devastating generations … The players who marked Garrincha with their broken spines. The simplicity of book covers and of people’s desires. It’s true: the military officers were already coming up with ideas, but they had yet to do the worst of it. If you can say it, it’s possible … I was too small then. I can only remember that most things, when they fell, made a terrible thunder in my ears.
Two of every three Brazilians have smoked weed. Three of every five Brazilians believe in God. Five of every eight Brazilians have chewed the wafer during communion. Eight of every thirteen Brazilians prefer anal sex. Thirteen of every seventeen Brazilians with a license have thought of crashing a car into a pole just to see what happens. Seventeen of every twenty Brazilians don’t know that the Marlboro Man is an actor. Twenty of every twenty-two Brazilians don’t own any land. Twenty-two of every twenty-three Brazilians believe their bad luck is personal.
TV shows a “dead zone” around Marajó Island. Fish float in bulk. Buffalos sink in the mud. Birds throw themselves against electric poles. Horses break their legs. The vegetation kneels down in the rain. Cars spin like tops until trees behead their occupants. Airplanes give up. Guns go off accidentally. War bonnets commit suicide in the Atlantic among clashing ships. Some look for a Moses to push them. Someone recalls the end of the dinosaurs. Experts are perplexed that humans don’t have a hand in any of this.