Carnival of Hope – a contemporary Brazilian thriller by George Hamilton
Tomas and Thereza promised themselves to each other in the Northeast shanties of Brazil, but then poverty, fear, lies and people traffickers wrenches them apart.
In a small shantytown in the arid Northeast countryside of Brazil in the 1990s, less than a decade after the book burning military dictators returned to their barracks, Tomas, a poor idealist, teaches in secret in order to uplift the people and survive deprivations, despite teaching being banned by the town’s mayor. Thereza, the spirited young woman who Tomas loves, dreams of escape to Rio in the South, where she believes they will both have better opportunities. For Thereza, carnival provides hope. She conceals her entry into the carnival dance competition, in an attempt to win one of the coveted places on the bus going south, to a promised job and a better future. But the gang leader Giomar, in cahoots with Mayor Don Giovanni, controls who wins these precious places, and the future that awaits many of the winners, is more shocking than any could have dreamed.
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Thanks for taking the time to read this, and I hope you will give my novel a try and even leave a review.
Author’s research notes: Carnival of Hope – How the NE shantytown was created
Author’s research notes for Carnival of Hope – How was the north-eastern shantytown depicted in the novel created?
I read several modern day anthropological studies (1980’s) of places in the north-east of Brazil to come up with the fictitious shantytown where the story begins. Some of the descriptions of these places included:
• Smoky, fly-infested huts, hungry toddlers and goats competing for left-overs in tin plates on dirt floors…
• Women squatting by their twig or charcoal fires
• Women taking over a younger woman’s child who they think is in danger from neglect
• The hunger madness afflicting people when they have had nothing to eat for days
So this is the environment which Thereza prays to escape and Tomas struggles to improve. Here’s a scene which depicts some aspects of it:
He hadn’t eaten for almost three days now. The dizzying hunger mixed with his worries made the mind twisting insanity creep up on him, further than it had ever reached before. He avoided walking past the market, to prevent himself snapping like the fine string struck on a berimbau player’s bow as he laid down a discordant beat. A few of those who had been overtaken by the hunger madness hallucinated that the market was in fact an oasis over-laden with fruit. Then leaping into a rage, they charged to sack it, to steal food for themselves and their families. The vendors all carried machetes hidden under their stalls, and they joined forces and fought those rabid with hunger off, sometimes chopping them to death.
Two days earlier, his hands had begun to shake. At first he thought it was because of his visions of Fabricio’s eyeless corpse in his sleep, but his mother had spotted the speckled pigmentation of the starving rising on his cheek. She had implored him to eat some of her ten spoonfuls of farina, but he refused to take food out of her mouth.
Exhaustion sapped his limbs as he climbed the hill to Dona Menzies’ shack in the boiling sun, carrying a bucket. Her husband worked at a sugar mill, which was two hours travel away. Only on a few occasions had Tomas seen him, as he slept most of the time he was home in the shanty. But his job meant they were better off than most. Her goat was tethered outside feeding from a tin tray. Pentecostal hymns seeped from inside, this time at a genuine service, as that branch of the church had swept through the shanty like a virus, to compete with Catholicism and the various forms of Candomblé.
Under the shade of the overhanging roof opposite Dona Menzies’ shack, Tomas slumped back onto his haunches, to wait for them to finish their doubtful pleadings. A street-child crept up to steal food from the goat’s tray and hid behind a hut to gorge on it, oblivious to his delirious observer. A grey shadow blurred Tomas’ vision, and he imagined that the goat’s bleating was an invitation to join it at a table piled with foods that he didn’t recognize. He squeezed his eyes shut and chewed an ounce of comfort from his gums, as he swayed in time to the rhythmic clapping booming from inside the shack.
Another five hymns interspersed with praying nibbled away at the afternoon before the congregation trooped out. Dona Menzies bade them farewell at the door. Seu Dilmar and Dona Isadora, the two who Tomas had visited to vet as prospective students, stopped on the steps for a moment. Then they went on their way as if the heart-stopping glance of recognition had not darted between them. Tomas stood up and stumbled against the side of the shack. Dona Menzies shielded her eyes from the sun to seek out the source of the clatter. She waited until the congregation had left the alleyway, and then, ‘What are you doing here?’
Tomas shuffled across to her shack, raised his bucket and lifted the frayed shirt and pants that were on top. Underneath were the last two books of his father’s. ‘I wanted to trade them and thought of you, Dona Menzies.’
‘Are you mad? What if Giomar searches the houses?’
‘I’m sure you’ll find somewhere to hide them.’
‘My answer is no, and I want you to leave, Seu Tomas.’
‘Then… could you pay me an advance on the next time I work for you; we could leave it several weeks.’
Her face contorted like tomatoes left to dry in the sun. ‘What do you take me for? Do you think because my husband isn’t here you can take advantage? There’ll be no next time.’
‘But Dona, you’re my only patroa… There’s no one else I’d come to like this.’
‘I’ve been more than good to you, Seu Tomas.’ She gathered up her dragging skirt, worn especially for church, and swung back inside.
‘We’ve nothing to eat,’ Tomas said to the slamming door. He stayed where he was, swaying in the heat, knowing she could see him from behind the wooden slat window.
After a short standoff, she stomped back out and slapped two reais on the steps to be rid of him. ‘There’ll be no more where this came from,’ she said. Tomas waited until she had scuttled back inside to pick up the coins. If he bought supplies for Dona Dora too, it would only be enough to see them through one day. So he would have to come up with some other way if they were to survive.
Author’s research notes: Carnival of Hope - the women’s rich sexual banter
Author’s research notes: Carnival of Hope - the women’s rich sexual banter
Another feature of the research was how common sexual teasing and banter is in the favelas. Here are some examples which I unearthed, and then a scene to depict how this aspect was used in the novel:
- Erotic language is so linked to eating that after sex one can say appreciatively, “Foi gostoso” or “Foi uma delicia!” – “It was tasty” or “It was delicious!”
- Male organ described as a banana, cucumber, sausage or stick of sugar cane.
- A woman may tease she doesn’t want to be fed with a stick of sugar cane, she wants a fat sausage.
- A woman’s breasts may be described as ripe papayas flowing with milk and honey, waiting to be licked and sucked.
- Sex is seen as a compensatory gratification, making the participant know that even though hunger is killing them, they are still alive. So poverty, age and beauty are no barriers to this sensuality, especially at carnival.
- There is a constant flow of spontaneous black humour by the women.
- Mobility through marriage and or sexual seduction is a favourite theme of Brazilian telenovelas.
Thereza and the other women climbed through the window of the office. The man who represented the mayor wasn’t due at work that day, and Dona Fernanda had locked herself in the room and let them in. Each of the women gave Fernanda their ten centavos as they straddled the window, but Thereza was allowed in free. ‘Off the chairs, and don’t touch the table, I’ve already dusted them this morning,’ her godmother said to two of the younger women who were coming for the first time. All twelve in the room settled on the floor. Fernanda pulled the blind but left the window ajar, so they could make a quick escape if the guard with whom she split the takings rapped a warning on the door. To give her an excuse for being in the room, a duster also hung from her waist. Thereza used the opportunity to scout the room for customers, and when she found her first, she started plaiting the woman’s hair. A hum laced with excitement rose as the women clustered towards the corner. ‘Shh,’ Fernanda said, putting a finger to her lips, ‘you’ll have to keep it down.’
An ivory-skinned woman licking her strawberry lips, her golden-sand hair trailing in the wind, was the first image they saw when Fernanda switched on the television set. The intense sigh that circulated bonded the women through their dreams. Hers was the image they mostly saw when they came to watch the telenovelas, those soaps of higher-class life in the cities that caused the women to both envy and adore the lifestyles of whitewashed villas, American cars, designer clothes and romantic love.
‘What’s she waiting for? She should give it to him before he finds another lover,’ one of the women shouted.
‘It’s good to let them wait a while, then it’s sweeter, Rosie.’
‘What are you talking about, Carmella? You’re so hot all the time that you’re out of your panties before the man’s even swollen.’ The women laughed in unison, as they hurled a constant flow of explicit sexual banter and teasing around the room.
‘At least mine are clean,’ Carmella retorted.
‘That’s only because you hardly ever have them on.’
‘Shh,’ Fernanda reminded them, though creased at the waist too.
‘You’re only jealous because you know I’d win myself a coroa before you,’ Carmella said.
‘You… as black as you are! Have you ever seen a black do anything but clean in one of these telenovelas?’
‘Hmm, hmm,’ the women agreed.
‘Have you not heard of the black Cinderella? When she married her coroa she gained wealth and whiteness, too.’
‘Hmm, hmm,’ the women agreed again, most having feasted on the story.
Thereza laughed along with them, and only when she became intoxicated by the ribbing did she risk the odd comment of her own, because she could not describe a lover’s stroke with the breathless tone of experience like the other women, and would be found out if she tried. She came to soak up the striking images that many of the others failed to notice, like the woman from the favela who was in the parliament, or the women who worked alongside men in the offices in a way rarely seen in the brawny work-gangs on the plantations. Only when able to watch the pictures streamed from the capital did she feel a belonging to the country. Its sleek-lined buildings of concrete and glass, with wide, spotless avenues, pointed like an arrow to the cities in the South, an indicator of where all should head if they had designs on taking part in the future. She had never been further than the nearest towns, which were a few hours on foot, and a little quicker by truck over the rugged terrain. The bus journey to the southern cities was said to take days, which would probably give migrants time to adjust every mile of the way. That in itself was a reason for going. During the afternoons, she liked to climb one of the hills on the edge of the shanty. Once at its summit, she peered into the distance through the heat’s haze, and was sure she could see some of those cities rising like a forest out of the land.
Dona Fernanda collected magazines from the office when the mayor’s representative had discarded them, and gave them to her. She hid them until alone in her mother’s hut, and then she would lie back in her hammock staring at pictures of skyscrapers, beachfront homes and finely cut clothes. Then when she slept, she could be spirited to those places. But the experience was never as uplifting as a stomping spiritual in church, unless she was able to watch those images on the television for herself.
Rolanda was her favourite show. It was said she had become a model after being discovered in the streets of Rio, proving that the blessed hand of fate could protect those brave enough to travel to the cities. She had read in a magazine that Rolanda had travelled to London, Paris and Rome, and though she had no idea where those places were, it left her feeling caged. Now Rolanda hosted her own talk show, had three children and had bought two homes. Thereza had saved the magazine that told the story of how Rolanda, a poor country girl from the North, had travelled to the South many years ago. She had sought to interest Tomas in the story, thinking it would swell his desire for the cities. But all he had asked was if he could borrow it for his lessons. Some had urged her to grant him a taste of the juices he would be missing if she went without him. The thought had been tempting, until she realized that the women who had advised her had used the same trick, and they were still trapped with numerous children in the shanty. Still, she hadn’t given up on him, and planned to give it one more year to turn him in her direction.
‘Thereza, come here when you’ve finished,’ Dona Fernanda said. Thereza twisted the last plait in the woman’s hair, collected her payment, and then joined her godmother on the other side of the room, where the other women couldn’t overhear them.
‘Did you remove my name from the carnival competition?’ Thereza asked.
‘Yes, yes. But when I tell you what I saw you may wish I hadn’t.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘On my way home last night I saw Tomas.’
‘He must have been going home, after he left me.’
‘He went into the shack of another woman, Thereza. Her name is Dona Lena. Do you know her?’
Thereza shook her head and her eyelids fluttered. ‘Maybe he carried her some food.’
‘He may have been carrying something to feed her with alright, but there was nothing in his hand.’
Thereza shuddered. ‘Are you doing this because I decided not to take part in the carnival competition?’
‘I’m sorry,’ Thereza said, her head turning to the floor.
‘I’m telling you because you’re my goddaughter, and I don’t want you to get hurt.’
‘But there could be nothing to it.’
‘That’s what I said, so I went back early this morning to make sure. He came out of her hut and kissed her goodbye. I was lucky he didn’t see me. Afterwards I went back and asked her neighbour who I know, and she said they’d been having an affair for months,’ Fernanda added for good measure, just to make sure, although she had spoken to no such neighbour.
Thereza’s body stiffened and her head swirled. Dona Fernanda would never lie to her. She had entered carnival because he had failed to act, and then when he did, she pulled out again. What a fool she had been. The women may well have been aiming their laughter at her, for having trusted him. It was one thing to have been with other women before they started walking out together, but once they had talked about marriage and a family, she had convinced herself that he had stopped, and would wait until she was ready. One error maybe she could forgive, but this? She felt like a child in the middle of the women’s rowdy chatter. Did their lives have to be filled with coroas, the men’s with other women, all to satisfy the easiest of desires because the essentials went unfulfilled? Was there nothing that could fit only two?
She didn’t hear the knock at the door, so deep was she swimming in her reverie. Dona Fernanda snatched her arm and dragged her to the window. The other women had already scrambled out, and Fernanda pushed her through and pulled the window shut.
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