This story is a drastic departure from what I usually write. It depicts a brutal setting and a distressing scenario without much hope for the protagonist. Or for the reader. Something to bear in mind before reading.
Why write something so different? Part of the reason is that it’s a challenge. On one hand, the occasionally frustrating path of a musician is an element of this story that I know well. On the other hand, the experience of being imprisoned, of interrogation, of facing serious consequences for what one says or creates; these are totally unfathomable situations that I had to try to feel from the outside and place within the dejected main character, Rodrigo Carvalho.
Writing this also required inhabiting a time and place I am aware of, but far removed from: Brazil in the year 1969. Four years into the military dictatorship, one that would continue until 1985.
I was born in the United States, but I grew up with a sense of my paternal Estonian and maternal Brazilian ancestry. With regard to the latter, I’ve been able to connect with the culture through music, food, traditions, and language to an extent. I had a general idea of what life in Brazil was like for my family prior to the mid 60s, too. But coming to understand this history, this culture, and this side of me on a deeper level is something that I’ve poured myself into in the last few years. In a few ways, this has solved personal mysteries. I love that I have grown up in North America and England. I have a fondness for English-speaking culture, there is no doubt about that. But there are times when you must swim back upstream, so to speak, to understand and accept who you are. Sometimes, it’s necessary to do this from afar as well.
In this way, I took inspiration from Kazuo Ishiguro, who describes how, from the time he emigrated from Japan at five-years-old to when he wrote his first novel, he had built in his head “a kind of fictional Japan.” In comparison, I wondered if the Brazil I had built in my head was something that could be written about credibly.
Moreover, maybe a story like this was something that could examine themes such as fear of failure, politics, censorship, intergenerational misunderstanding, and shame. If the story could be informed by history, all the better. History contains many truths that can make better sense of the present day.
Ato Institucional Número Cinco. AI-5. This was the most unexpected roadblock that came in between me realizing my dreams and turning out as another humiliating failure to my family. A starving artist. Although, in some ways, that might have been preferable as a state of being than what lay ahead of me. Unknown, struggling, but not under assault.
I applied the damp towel to my face where the bruises still shined. It stung every time I moved the towel, even just a bit. The previous night was the worst beating I had received so far, and it was a relief to know that the bed above was empty. The next day would be frightening. It always was when I decided to fight back. But for that very moment, that fleeting moment, I had peace. I had time to dream and to reassess.
I stared out of the prison cell, flicking my eyes between the cynical white light by the lock and the darkness straight ahead. It was my way of anticipating an incoming threat. For a half hour or so I would sleep, and the slightest tremor would wake me up again. I was sleeping like a mother seagull, watching with one eye. I wanted to take whatever was coming with both of my feet on the ground should it ever approach me: a furious guard, a visit from one of the many gangs—the ones who left people like me particularly thrashed and bruised—out and about among the crowd of prisoners unleashed for exercise in the yard, meals, shower time, and labour. It made it better when I could at least anticipate the attacks. It had taken me a few of them to prepare myself. I'm scrawny after all. Each hit takes me down more than usual.
Which brings me back to why this was all a surprise. Why it was hard to adjust to this captivity. I was never on a path to prison. I grew up with a fear of the law. I did well in school. My demeanour was, and perhaps still is, people-pleasing. I had everything provided to me so as to pretty much guarantee a comfortable future: a home, food, water, an education, the support of people around me. Provided I did what everyone told me to do, that is. If you took one look at me—my tall, lanky composure, the greasy mop of hair that once dangled from my head—you wouldn’t believe I was wanted by the government. Considering everything that's happened now, the only flaw in my upbringing was that I wasn’t physically restrained when I decided to break off, to think and do as I pleased. There was just intense disapproval.
In my early years, I was encouraged to learn. I was taught to read and to express myself eloquently. It didn’t matter if I was a child, my parents said that was the way it should be for everyone, it was what would decide whether people treated me with respect or not. Eventually, when those values turned me into a social outcast at school, because it was a threat to know too much, I discovered records. I turned to them for refuge. I listened obsessively, with big headphones on in the living room, devouring the words and the mythical heroes printed on the jackets: singers, guitarists, percussionists. They represented something outside of my own world, people who had original things to say and knew other people who had things to say. They were poets, thinkers, dreamers, and there was a scene where being like that was celebrated. Not only that, they were so well dressed.
I leaned back into my bed and imagined all that I could have been if I hadn’t deviated further: awards, packed concert halls, radio interviews, wealth. If I had just stuck to that style, that easy-going approach, I could have been a pop singer or an actor if fame and image remained my concerns.
It wasn’t easy to do because a child only has so much in the way of their own money, but I tried to look like these musicians I admired. I wanted to sing like them, write songs like them, stand like them. I wanted to make people dance, and I wanted to dance, too. I was totally swept up by these records, which crashed into my life like a wave. First came the soaring voice of Agostinho dos Santos in '56. Then the syncopated plucking of João Gilberto in ‘58. In ‘63 there was Jorge Ben and those rumbling drums.
It sounded like the drums were right in my room. The sound was huge and relentless. I had drifted back to sleep once again, long enough to be awoken by the guards knocking their clubs on the bars of the prison cells. It was our block’s turn for a morning shower and everyone was leaving their cells.
I guarded my sore head from the low metal frame of the bunk bed and put my shoes on, wrung the remaining water out of my towel into the sink, took the soap, and walked out into the corridor where the guards watched. “Carvalho, não faça nenhuma gracinha. Don’t try anything funny,” one of them called out when I walked past. He pointed his club at me, a warning of what would happen if I dared to defend myself again. I was thinking about it, for sure.
“Não vou, senhor. I won’t.” One had to be polite to get by with the guards.
Hundreds of prisoners walked single file down the long corridors, going several floors up, in their dark shirts and grey trousers, treading slowly and carefully. It seemed that maybe, for once, I had made an impression on the people around me. While turning the corner and going down the stairs I noticed “O Chefe”, as they called him, laughing. “Eh, look who it is! Rodrigo Carvalho, O Magrinho. Ol’ skin and bones. Getting all confident now…”
The inmate behind him egged him on, seeking his favour, “You see this kid? You better watch out, or he’s gonna hit you.” Chefe continued to laugh mockingly. I would have taken a swing and knocked his lights out, but kept my hands to myself and nodded quietly.
Rafael was his real name, but everyone called him Chefe because he ran the show at the Casa de Detenção de São Paulo—itself possessing the moniker Carandiru. More than the guards, and second to the authorities who ran the place, there was Chefe. Again, I had learned to be diplomatic, to minimize the pain of being there. Even though bullies like him deserved it. The psychological torment you go through in a place like that is bad enough, without throwing in needless fights.
For quite some time before ending up here, I was held by the Polícia Militar in an unknown facility in the city for questioning. They wanted to know who I was and what I was trying to say with my songs. As though I was something more than a low-rate, discontent artist with only a bit of publicity. Did I have accomplices? No, just a few thousand curious listeners, something that I had struggled to gain for years. Was I trying to stage a revolution against the President? No, I’m not popular enough to pull off something like that. I was simply writing critically about the norms and expectations we live by. Maybe you have noticed it, but there are ideas we must believe in. A single idea of this nation we must all rally behind. There is a control of thought. There are ways we can and cannot dress ourselves. And, depending on who’s asking, you could say that there is a leader in this country we cannot say anything negatively about at the risk of being locked away. At the same time, though, I’m at odds with the opposing radicals and revolutionaries. I don’t like their vision of the future, or their methods. They’re just as rigid. Just as macho. They disapprove of my loud guitar and theatrics. They call me an American puppet. At best, I’m a meaningless, unformed piece of clay. Stuck in the middle. But I’d seen some of my own friends and peers caught up in the heat and fury of it all, only to end up dead or to disappear. Some people who disappeared ended up coming out the other side, floating down the Pinheiros River. So how could I choose?
For years now, my goal was to establish myself as a voice of this generation. I started on the fledgling rock and roll scene of São Paulo. But audiences weren’t so receptive to my introspective approach. They wanted something they could dance to more easily. It was only when I teamed up with a drummer, Sérgio, and set out onto more edgy ground that people started to notice. AI-5 was a big, honking question mark, then, on what a performer like me could get away with.
So no, I was not one to stage a revolution. I just spoke my mind and didn’t quite fit in. I was just vague enough in what I created. A bit confusing. Troubling. Those songs were recorded, then made their way onto a few pieces of vinyl, before being played by some radio stations, which, in turn, attracted the attention of listeners, censors, and the anxious government.
And so these plainclothes officers, who tore me off the street in a car, pried me for non-existent answers for weeks. All the while, myself and what sounded like a few others—I can’t be sure as I had a hood over my head the whole time—were steadily drained of our will to continue. Our clothes were taken away. We were tossed scraps of food through a squeaky slot in the door once a week. They stored us in rooms which alternated in scorching heat and startling cold. An infernal, constant noise perforated our cells from speakers. Currents of electricity shot through the floor at irregular intervals, jolts of searing pain running through my body in the middle of the long nights. We were made to stand for hours at a time as they screamed at us. My heart is beating, but all I have left is the husk of who I was before.
Eventually, when they realized there was nothing they could get out of me, they had uncovered the fact that I had been avoiding military service. Cumulatively, that was enough to sentence me to three years in jail. Circumstances couldn’t have piled on in a more unfortunate manner.
So I got a bit of fame with my song. “Perfeccionista” was its name. “Perfectionist.” Did you hear it? It got airtime for a few weeks on some of the underground stations around the city. Musically, I had never done better. And this was the result of that “fame.”
The guards divided up the prisoners into groups of 10 once we reached the other end of the building where the showers were. Mine had nine, accounting for my cellmate, Samuel, who was in solitary confinement after our fight the day before. We waited calmly at the door of the shower room as each cohort went in, cleaned up, and left. The steam escaped the room, the condensation clinging to our skin.
When it was our turn to go in, I took my uniform off and placed it on a shelf and just stood under the warm water for a moment. Water is something from heaven. It eases your mind no matter how badly you feel. It cleans you up, heals you, and puts you back on the right track. I saw the water, discoloured from my wounds, rushing down the drain. I felt it wash away the mess I had made. What a complete mess everything had become. A total waste.
Why did I have to be so enamoured with pointless songs, stage lights, melodies, and rhythm? Why did I have to crave something so impractical and so unattainable? If I had taken a more conventional route like everyone had told me to, followed my father’s footsteps and became a lawyer, applied my brain to that and given my time wholeheartedly to that, I could have been unstoppable. I could have a home and maybe a family. I wouldn’t have been tortured or thrown in prison. Never mind that, though, there was no changing the past. I took my rag and some soap, and scrubbed away at the memory of disapproving cousins, aunts, uncles, parents. It was time to leave that behind.
I took the soap and lathered it in my hands to clean my hair as well as I could. It was like washing your hair in the kitchen sink. I had to do it quickly and get the soap out of my eyes and face so I limited the amount of time I couldn’t see around me. With the sound of water getting higher in pitch as it filled my cupped left hand, I splashed my face. It wasn’t enough. I did it again, and halfway through my cupped hand being filled, a hard clanging noise rang out to my surprise. I jumped at the thought of someone seizing the opportunity to attack, but when I splashed my eyes and turned around, I saw three of the other prisoners kicking in a pipe that came out from a large, cylindrical metal boiler. One of them got down and loosened something on the pipe and then signalled the other two to kick again. This time, the pipe dislodged and hot steam blasted back at them. They yelped out and fumbled on their backs to the wall behind, one of them calling to the other “Grab the pipe! Take it!”
The prisoner closest to the boiler, an older, greying man with a sunburnt back, reached forward with two hands and stomped at the loose pipe repeatedly until it came off, clattering to the tile floor. The noise had alerted the guards outside the shower room and down the corridor, but by the time they ran inside, it was too late. The tall, furious ringleader of the three wrapped his towel around the end of the hot pipe and began swinging at the guards, bludgeoning one in the neck. Upon impact, he crumpled to the floor and slipped onto his face. And then another swing—knocking the next guard out cold. The waiting prisoners rushed in and kicked mercilessly, crying out for backup, as a multitude of bystanders seized the moment, stealing a key and opening up the gate that separated living quarters from the showers and the dining hall. In a total reverse movement, the flow of prisoners going through their morning routine came back through and rushed up to their cells, grabbing anything lethal they could wield.
What could have been a mass organized escape dissolved into terror as prisoners, catching sight of their enemies, launched into ruthless attacks. Realizing the knife’s edge I was walking on, I decided not to return to my cell, lest I be cornered by Samuel breaking out of solitary confinement and returning to the same cell with his allies. I would be leaving behind everything I had written during my time behind bars, certain trinkets I had collected and made in the exceptionally long, dreadful months I had been here. There wasn’t even enough time to put my clothes on properly. I slipped on my trousers and shoes, tied the shirt around my waist and fumbled through the walls of thrashing arms until I reached the yard. There was no one to stop us. Presumably all of the guards were underneath piles of inmates, trapped. I consciously shifted my mind from the horror that was within metres of me and hit the dusty clay of the open yard, my shoelaces flopping from side to side as I searched for a passage out.
Across a gap between the humidity-stained stone prison buildings, inmates still in their cells were waving laundry, towels, rags, and protruding odds and ends out of the bars to get my attention. They called for me to look up, to do something, to get them out. But I couldn’t. I wouldn’t. I stared down, and moved ahead, shutting out the deepest curses that fell upon me from above. It’s something that still haunts me.
What helps me sleep at night is that, even if some of those people shouldn’t have been there, there were enough that were there for good reason. That’s how I live with burdens like these, I outweigh my guilt with some kind of desperate, half-prepared counter-argument. Anyway, I had to move fast, and I was lucky that, seemingly, all of the guards were sent to secure the uprising in our cell block. As I turned a corner, I saw the gates opening up, and three trucks of police poured into the prison, armed, tense and gazing concertedly ahead in my direction. Seeking protection, I sprinted and dove around the next corner, huddling against the walls that hid from the sun. Seeing an opening, only a few seconds long, where I could slip past another stream of trucks, this time covered vehicles, I ran low to the ground into a cluster of trees that surrounded the west exit of Carandiru. Here, the air was cool and sweet. It struck me that I hadn’t spent much time around trees since I was a child, playing in the fruit garden of my avô and avó’s country house. I caught my breath, savouring the distinct lack of a mouldy stench.
Sitting in darkness, I fastened the buttons of my shirt methodically as I sought the direction of my next move. I wondered if perhaps the way I was dressed, especially in this neighbourhood, would create the wrong kind of attention. And how long would it be before everyone on the outside knew what had happened?
I didn’t have very long, so with as much restraint as I could muster, I walked slowly to the side of the road. Looking up, I could see a signpost that read “Avenida General Ataliba Leonel.” The name was familiar from history lessons years before; he was somehow involved in the Revolution of 1932 if I remember correctly. How often our struggles come to combat. Who knows how many more times it will come to that in our world.
I saw a truck idling briefly in front of a bakery and, sure that no one was looking, climbed under the tarp that covered its flatbed and nestled myself into the back by the cab. I held tightly to a sack of flour, baking powder, something like that, while I heard the driver bid farewell and get back behind the wheel. Unaware, the driver shifted into first gear and continued down the road. When I could, I gazed out at my city from under the truck’s cover. We continued unabated, around a bend, past houses and businesses, rising apartment blocks, and a waking crowd of free people. I suppose I could have gone the other direction, to see my family one more time. They don’t know where I am, and I don’t think they would want to see me now in this condition. I left the idea alone.
After what must have been 20 minutes, the buildings thinned out and were replaced by forests, vine covered shacks, and high walls, the ones covered with pieces of broken glass to keep burglars out. The morning smog gradually formed a blanket over everything we passed, giving way to higher elevation and cleaner air. As the driver with a truckload of baking supplies slowed down on the dirt tracks, I climbed out and hit the ground. The truck carried on with a tail of stirred up gravel behind it.
The January heat scorched the grass and sides of the road, leaving me exposed to everyone’s view. So, I crossed the road and followed another track into the protection of the forest. And that’s where I’ve come from, probably 50 kilometres in that direction, on the other side of Rio Juqueri.
If what I have just told you makes you at all consider allowing me to stay here, I’d like to add that I can make myself useful. I will even sleep in the shed, so I don’t take up too much space. Please, I beg of you. I don’t know what’s next.