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Regina Rheda emerged as an irreverent new voice in Brazilian letters in the mid-1990s with the publication of the award-winning collection Stories from the Copan Building and of her first novel, First World Third Class, both featured in this volume. She is primarily an urban writer, dedicated to observing and probing the daily lives of inhabitants of greater São Paulo, a megalopolis of some 20 million that is Brazil's industrial and financial capital. Rheda is also a chronicler of globalization at its most micro level, having focused her attention on Brazilian immigrants in Europe and the United States.
São Paulo is a congested, sprawling city, with none of the natural beauty of its rival, Rio de Janeiro, or the charm of historic coastal cities like Salvador or Recife, yet it is also the site of some of the most important cultural and political transformations of the twentieth century. Rheda grew up in this city and would later earn a degree in film production from the University of São Paulo. Throughout the 1980s she was a prominent figure in a local boom of short films, or curta-metragens. She worked as a scriptwriter and director for films, videos, and television into the early 1990s. Several critics have noted that First World Third Class would make a splendid film, and one can only hope that a project of this sort is undertaken in the future. There is a palpable cinematic quality to her narrative style replete with jump cuts, close-ups, and intensely visual descriptions. The languages of cinema and television are very salient influences on her writing, although one also detects affinities with an earlier generation of Brazilian women writers like Sonia Coutinho and Márcia Denser, who explored issues of female sexuality and changing gender roles in the 1970s. Rheda's prose also brings to mind the fiction of Caio Fernando Abreu and João Gilberto Noll, two Brazilian writers who established a literary presence in the 1980s with short stories and novels featuring imperfect, dissolute protagonists who struggle, often unsuccessfully, to create some sort of meaning for their lives.
Rheda arrived on the literary scene to great acclaim in 1994 with the publication of Stories from the Copan Building, a sequence of eight tales set in and around the eponymous landmark structure in downtown São Paulo. Designed by Oscar Niemeyer, the greatest Brazilian architect of the twentieth century, the striking S-shaped Copan is a monument to high modernism in the tropics and a reminder of a more optimistic era of national development when Brazil seemed poised to become a prosperous industrialized nation. As the opening story recounts, the building was to be opened in 1954 to mark the tetracentennial of the city of São Paulo, but financing problems delayed its completion. Originally projected as a posh multipurpose space with a luxury hotel, cinema, shops, and panoramic terraces, it ended up as a mixed-income apartment complex with several design flaws. One resident, a curmudgeonly has-been playwright of the first story, "The Neighbor from Hell," sums up the building's problems with a pointedly postmodern critique: "It's that dumb ass Niemeyer. Like everything he did, it's good for taking pictures, but lousy to live in." The Copan building, decadent and run down, becomes a sort of national allegory in Rheda's story, evoking the ruins of Brazilian democratic modernity, toppled by the advent of military rule in 1964 which would last for over twenty years. Slovenly and smelly, the leftist playwright who had been persecuted by the dictatorship now provokes the ire of his octogenarian neighbor, an old matron who wistfully recalls the rule by generals as a "time of prosperity" in which an "obscene pig" like her neighbor would have been duly punished. She is also a clean freak with a mean streak, leading to the story's unexpected denouement.
In Rheda's collection, the Copan Building functions as a microcosm of urban Brazil, with a host of disparate and often desperate characters from many walks of life. There's a balding computer geek, "short, a little overweight, and very shy," who holes up in his tiny apartment writing a dictionary of Brazilian short-film directors until he falls in love with a mysterious, and ultimately treacherous, "cat girl." There's a Catholic religious fanatic who rails against leftist priests and Protestant evangelicals while engaging in extensive conversations with a votive statue of Jesus, who beckons her to proselytize in the Copan Building. There is even the ghost of a maintenance man, an underpaid worker who selflessly served the Copan's residents for years and lingers on after death doing his chores. In "The Voyeuse" we meet a frustrated housewife who has been in a loveless marriage for over forty years. She feels intense pleasure one early morning spying on a copulating couple in the hotel across from their apartment. Her husband finds her, binoculars in hand, and walks out on her. His abandonment turns out to be a veritable liberation and she begins to explore her own eroticism for the first time in many years. In other stories, the edifice itself is the main protagonist. In "Dry Spell," for example, chronic maintenance problems cause terrible inconveniences to the inhabitants of the vertical city, but also provide the context for new forms of social interaction and community solidarity. All of the Copan stories are marked by Rheda's unique wit and keen sense of both eros and pathos.
"In the late twentieth century, Brazil experienced a phenomenon quite unprecedented in its five-hundred-year history. Many young middle-class Brazilians decided to swap their university diplomas for mops, their designer clothes for aprons, their cars for kitchen sinks, their prosperity for tips, and Brazil for the First World." So begins First World Third Class, Regina Rheda's first novel, originally published as Pau-de-arara: classe turística. The original title refers to wooden poles on covered flatbed trucks used to transport poor migrants from the northeastern hinterlands to the cities in search of work. The term came to refer to the actual trucks and metonymically to the migrants themselves. For Brazilian readers, the designation has deep resonance, for it brings to mind the massive exodus of rural poor in the mid-twentieth century. Within a generation Brazil would transform from a largely rural agrarian society to an overwhelmingly urban one. There is a bitter irony, of course, in using pau-de-arara to refer to the middle-class immigrants who left Brazil in droves to seek employment in Europe and the United States beginning in the early 1990s.
In many ways, Regina Rheda's First World Third Class is a companion to the 1995 film Terra Estrangeira (Foreign Land), directed by Walter Salles and Daniela Thomas. Shot entirely in black and white, the film is austere and somber, chronicling the adventures of a young man from São Paulo, Paco, who unwittingly falls in with a circle of international gem smugglers and is sent to make a delivery in Portugal. Paco's mother has died of a heart attack, apparently triggered by the confiscation of her life's savings, the result of a disastrous fiscal policy undertaken by the corrupt government of Fernando Collor in 1990. In Lisbon he meets up with an assortment of Brazilian and Angolan immigrants struggling to survive and avoid deportation. Paco is introspective and morose, dreaming of seeing San Sebastian in the Basque country of northern Spain, the birthplace of his deceased parents. Ultimately, Foreign Land is a story about the quest for origins. In the final sequence the protagonist and his girlfriend speed through the Andalusian countryside, bloodied from a roadside encounter with Paco's mafia employers and trailed by the Spanish police, as they attempt to reach his ancestral home.
Rita Setemiglia, the protagonist of First World Third Class, provides a striking contrast to Paco. Crafty and vain, Rita had achieved modest success as a filmmaker before taking a dead-end job, losing it, and ending up in the unemployment office. She finally decides to pursue success abroad, traveling initially to England as she awaits a passport from Italy, accorded to her by birthright, which turns out to be a complicated process. Paco stumbles blindly into his European adventure, while Rita pursues hers relentlessly with brash arrogance that belies an inferiority complex. In one passage, for example, she rehearses some anxieties about how she will be perceived abroad: "Given her looks, she could pass for French, Spanish, Portuguese, or even Irish. Wasn't she European, after all? She felt superior to her friends, who were stuck in their miscegenated fate, doomed to unimportance, irredeemably rooted in Brazil's peripheral impotence." Rita is an anti-heroine with dubious ideas about the "first world" and prone to startling ethical lapses, but she is oddly endearing in her ill-fated, picaresque adventures. She is Rheda's most complex and compelling fictional character to date.
Rita's status as a white, middle-class paulista means nothing to Ian Weston, the pasty-faced and surly British immigration officer who submits her to a humiliating interrogation at Heathrow airport. Her former social position is relativized and steam-rollered by the crude economy of nationalities and passports, despite her indignant protest "I'm NOT AN IMMIGRANT! I'm a TOURIST!" While such treatment of "third world" arrivals was not uncommon in the 1990s, Rita's story is poignant and prescient in the way that it reminds us of more recent ugly incidents in international airports throughout Europe and the United States in which immigrants, tourists, students, and professionals from developing countries are treated like criminals. One can only imagine Rheda's protagonist disembarking in New York, Boston, Miami, or Los Angeles in our post-9/11 era, in which Brazilians are regularly abused, insulted, and sent packing on return flights to Rio or São Paulo. In comparison, the hapless and pathetic Ian Weston, who turns out to have an irritatingly persistent love interest in Rita, seems almost benign, at least until he begins to stalk her.
Rheda's portrayal of Rita trying to find her way in the English capital brings to mind one of the great Brazilian songs of exile, "London, London," composed by singer-songwriter Caetano Veloso in 1970. At the time, Veloso was living in London after being arrested and expelled by the military government. The song's refrain offers a succinct poetic description of London from an outsider's perspective: "Green grass, blue eyes, gray skies, God Bless, silent pain and happiness / I came around to say yes, and I say / while my eyes go looking for flying saucers in the sky." Veloso captures the mixed feelings of alienation, fascination, and melancholy that often come with being a foreigner. Rita's first foray into the streets of London produces a similar reaction: "The Englishwomen she passed were dressed like frights, but the men . . . The men were so good-looking! From the collars of their dark jackets sprouted faces made colorful by blue eyes and fair hair. Their snub noses, reddened by the cold, signaled Keep Back." She wants so desperately to meet people, find a boyfriend, and participate in this world, but is constantly relegated to its margins as a lonely observer. Only her former tormenter, the smarmy immigration officer, pays her any attention, phoning her at home and insinuating darkly that her legal status in England could be jeopardized were she to rebuff his advances.
Rita's problem is that she doesn't conform to European stereotypes about Brazilian women. In a letter to her best friend, with whom she maintains correspondence throughout the novel, she complains that "no one gives a hoot for my Venetian features," and she expresses envy toward a dusky, sensual, happy-go-lucky baiana who has a charming American boyfriend, the object of Rita's thwarted desire. Her quest for romance frustrated, she turns her affectionate attentions on the thirteen-year-old scion of the British family that has taken her in as an au pair. It is here that Rheda's novel is most transgressive in the way it plays with a sexual paradigm rooted in Brazilian plantation life, in which young slave girls sexually initiated the young master of the house, often under duress. Rita plays this role, but not as the victim so much as the willing seducer, egged on by a bawdy Brazilian acquaintance who exalts, "Any self-respecting maid has to deflower the mistress's son. It's archetypal!" More promising partners eventually come her way, but Rita's romantic adventures always end in disaster. With her visa running out and confronted with the grim prospect of an uncomfortable marriage of convenience in order to stay in the country, Rita leaves for the land of her forebears.
In many ways Rita's experience in Italy is the most dramatic and frustrating of all. Hoping to reconnect with her ancestral roots in rural Calabria and then move on to Rome or Milan, she finds herself trapped in a tiny village in the house of a distant cousin, Domenico, an overbearing patriarch and uncouth octogenarian who delights in telling dirty jokes and monitors her every move. Rita had found the English to be cold and hostile; the Italians are warmer, but also more ethnocentric and prejudiced, assuming that she is a prostitute like other Brazilian women on the streets of Rome and Milan. She can't identify with her Italian relations, who are semi-literate peasants with little to offer a savvy cosmopolitan like her. The shadowy estranged son of Domenico offers to help Rita to secure an Italian passport, but he exacts a dangerous price. Rita gets mixed up with mafiosi in circumstances that resemble Paco's ordeal in Foreign Land. Plot similarities notwithstanding, Rheda's novel is ultimately quite different from Foreign Land, especially in the way that it refuses the quest-for-origins narrative. Europe chews up Rita and spits her out, but is also demystified in the process, and she is left with the thought that perhaps life in Brazil wasn't so bad after all.
Rheda strikes a similar note in "The Enchanted Princess," taken from her second collection of stories, Amor sem vergonha (Shameless Love, 1997). This story tells of a renowned German music professor who falls in love with an alluring Brazilian woman whom he met on Atlantic Avenue in Copacabana. Back at home, he enlists the aid of a young Brazilian graduate student to help him convince the woman to accept a marriage proposal and live happily ever after, with vacations to his kitschy faux-castle in the Bavarian woods, which takes on symbolic import by the end of the story. The professor harbors all kinds of naive fantasies about his "princess," but she has no illusions about his proposition, and her response to the professor's messenger reveals a tough skepticism about the supposed superior advantages of life in Europe.
If "The Enchanted Princess" is an apropos coda to First World Third Class, "The Sanctuary" points in a new direction. Here Rheda's focus is no longer on Europe, but rather on the United States, where the author now lives. Brazilian immigration to the United States has increased dramatically since the early 1990s, raising new questions about national identity, especially in relation to other Latinos. She leaves behind the comedy-of-errors scheme of her novel and, without sacrificing characteristic irony, adopts a more serious tone to tackle such issues as animal rights and labor conditions for immigrant workers. Her more activist stance is further intensified in the final story, "The Front," which deals with ecology, work environment, and gender politics. In this tale, Rheda finally returns home to a globalized Brazil of international journalists, Korean industrialists, anti-slavery guerillas, ecofeminist lesbian mayors of rain forest villages, and Indians who use sunscreen because of a breach in the ozone layer. This is emergent and insurgent literature depicting a decidedly dystopian context, but with a vision of a utopian future, however fleeting or fragile, within the "global mix."
One Friday night, on the eve of a long weekend, those residents of the Copan Building who had a job to come home from found a notice from the manager taped to the doors of the elevators. Xerox copies of a handwritten note read:
Esteemed occupants. I regret to inform you that the water pump broke and that we will be without water for a period of 72 to 96 hours. Without further comment for the time being, Peixoto.
Those who were planning to spend the holiday out of town couldn't help feeling a certain disdain for the poor wretches who were going to have to deal with the heat wave in São Paulo. "By the time we get back the problem will have been taken care of," they figured, leaving behind a building baking in the 96-degree summer.
Excluding the two thousand or so travelers, five thousand occupants remained, and they bravely began to play the role of human water pumps to keep their homes irrigated. At least they could count on water from the faucets in the garage!
And there they went in the elevators, constantly up and down, hauling water between the basements and the thirty-second floor, carrying buckets, pots, cauldrons, liter Coke bottles, watering cans, clay jugs, and anything else that could hold water, including large empty paint cans. If there was a regularly watered garden that weekend, it was the floors of the elevators.
The garage, previously cold, dark, and dry, now harbored some social life, which was beginning to sprout around the faucets. Neighbors who had barely looked at each other before began to exchange a few words as they filled pails or gallon cans. Flirtatious girls learned when their heartthrobs would be at the faucets and went to get water dressed to the nines, made up as if they were going to a party. Some bought new buckets, embarrassed at the thought of exposing their old utensils. Others coordinated their clothes with the colors of their buckets.
Street kids who hung around the neighborhood found a new way to earn some change. Perched on the garage's handrails, they offered their services to middle-aged matrons. "Need some help, lady?" The women accepted, letting them swing the buckets clumsily and spill water all the way to their apartments.
How many recipes for desserts and savory dishes were exchanged in the line for the shower outside the garage's smelly bathroom! One afternoon a TV crew even showed up to do a story.
Young mothers found it more practical to bring down their bundles of dirty clothes and install themselves in front of a faucet to wash and wring shorts and diapers galore. Next to them, solitary gentlemen tried to bring back the whiteness of worn shirt cuffs and collars. Fussy housewives scrubbed pots and pans, accompanied by toddlers who splashed around in the puddles in their panties, pretending they were at the swimming pool.
Clothes washed and pots shined, people, buckets, and basins piled into the tireless elevators to scale the architectonic hill of concrete.
At the end of the holiday, the lucky two thousand residents returned. On the doors of the elevators, they found a notice:
To the occupants. I regret to inform you that due to problems with the new water pump, we will be without water 96 hours longer. Needless to say, every effort is being made to overcome this difficult time for the Copan Building. Peixoto.
"It's an outrage!" growled the fortune-teller from 21-E. "It's all right if the water's late, but if you're late paying the condo fees, they hit you with a fine!"
"The administration is worthless!" declared the fiftyish queen from 32-E, clutching a freshly filled canteen to his chest. "How come we don't have a friggin' backup pump?"
"Let's give the manager hell!" clamored the fortune-teller, disembarking on her floor with a basket of wrung-out sheets.
That night about a hundred residents got together in the garage to demand satisfaction from the manager. One hundred hardly represented the seven thousand occupants of the building, but that was an irrelevant detail in the face of the emergency. Maria, the nut from 20-E who walked around dressed like a saint, contributed to the rally with her megaphone's nasal voice:
"May the Virgin Mary make holy water flow from the pipes of the Copan Building!"
The manager was a sensitive creature but not firm enough. In the few months of his administration he realized he had no calling to be the mayor of a vertical city full of problems and contrasts. He'd already had to raise the condo fees four times due to plumbing, electrical, and mechanical repairs, and the more he fixed up the building, the more there was to do.
He arrived at the meeting an hour and a half late, by which point it had been reduced to fifty-two lost souls, plus Maria, who was always the last to leave events of any kind. He explained his delay, told the residents they were right, apologized for the inconvenience, attributed the problem with the water pump to the previous administration, stressed his commitment to normalizing the situation, and announced his resignation at the beginning of the following month. Let someone else administer that can of worms.
"What a mincing little faggot," whispered the fortune-teller to a neighbor. "He says he's resigning just to see if people cry, "Stay! Stay!"
The news of the manager's resignation gave the residents the impression that the situation was improving, and that in some part of the universe a righteous entity was at work to vindicate them.
By the end of the four days, most of the elevators had broken down from overuse. For the same reason, the faucets in the garage no longer worked either, and were held together with strips of cloth and rubber bands.
Then the water pump began to work, injecting vital fluid into the veins of the building. Reinvigorated, the residents washed their floors, their possessions, their bodies, and their souls. The liquid eased the harshness of those lives and worked as an emollient on hearts hardened by discomfort. Spirits were pacified, until the condo fees came. With them, a typed message from the manager:
To the occupants. I regret to inform you that due to the purchase of two water pumps, the cost of repairing the elevators, and replacing the faucets in the garage, the condo fees have increased by 80 percent. Cordially, Peixoto.