The World in May

O Mundo em Maio
by Vinicius Jatobá
translated from Portuguese by Margaret Jull Costa and Robin Patterson
illustrated by Ricardo Portilho

Tears gnawed at our very feet, found the gaping crevice where they sowed terror in the brittle outcrop of rocky callus, ran their natural course through the gullies of the soul and rotted the heel of our world in May, our little garden in May, gnawed away with an all-consuming hunger, with bombs and fire and growling gunshots, at everything that sustained us in those moments of hope, things that could have lasted a whole lifetime if only we’d been more selfish about protecting our own happiness, if we hadn’t been ashamed of living only for our little garden far from the world’s upheavals, shielding from its lash the soft warmth of memory, while they and their bombs stole all the colour from the sky and the laughter from the streets and the wheeling gulls and the placid sea and even the taste of our skin, turning us into ghosts and spectres when we heard the news that came to us in snatches of conversation whispered on street corners even in broad daylight when there were eyes watching everywhere, when we didn’t even dare to speak freely on the phone, whole nights spent waiting for you to come home, hoping the jackals wouldn’t snatch you from me, reading omens in the curling smoke of my cigarette and sadly watching the palm trees across the street, afraid of your friends and afraid of your colleagues

something terrible has happened in Chile

and to fret and worry only during the long nights was sheer foolishness, because their ravenous hunger could strike at any time, and I knew that at any moment they could steal what little future was left to us, our memories still to come, the little moments of happiness we’d create in the comfortable tedium of our married life, and in the granite silence of waiting, I pleaded for them to go screw the country but, please, don’t screw me, it was a reflex reaction, my body speaking, fearful that you would never reach the safe haven of our bed and the child in my belly, growing and taking shape in the midst of that cacophony of bombs that robbed you of both your smile and your will power, you sitting in the living room in front of the unplugged TV, staring into space and waiting, pale and demoralised, because although the bombs were exploding out there in the world, they were also burning us up inside, in our intestines, our liver, our stomach

let’s go and see a film, love

and me chain-smoking, lighting one cigarette after another, waiting to hear your key in the lock and praying silently for you to open the door just as you used to open my legs, enter and stay and never leave, never again leave this bed, just lie here beneath my softly breathing shoulders, stay and give me a baby and another and another and forget about the revolution, we were young in ‘68 and we were stupid in ‘68, forget about the revolution and a world where everyone is equal and has justice on their toast for breakfast, the proletarians and all those conjectures and hypotheses can go to hell, just leave me in peace in my still, silent garden, with the sound of the key scratching at the awkward silence in the corridor every night, night after night and every tedious little day for the rest of our lives, I don’t want fine, noble sentiments, I want you to screw me but not yourself, every day they’re stealing all the colour from the world and we’re so tiny and insignificant, we should be more selfish, look out for ourselves, because now the ravening wolves have bombs and are blowing up palaces like there was no tomorrow, and it’s never been easier to turn day into night, to steal all the birdsong and make the wind stop

something terrible has happened in Chile

»and we just wanted our world to go on forever and for ’68 never to end, for our party to go on forever and for ‘68 never to end, because there were colours within colours and speed on top of speed and the music never stopped and everyone danced and leapt and kissed and fucked«

and we just wanted our world to go on forever and for ’68 never to end, for our party to go on forever and for ‘68 never to end, because there were colours within colours and speed on top of speed and the music never stopped and everyone danced and leapt and kissed and fucked, we could touch the sky with our mouths and our teeth were rubies and our clothes were covered in falling stars, and we couldn’t stop shouting and hurling insults around like candy and smoking and smoking and the discs never stopped spinning on the record-player and the nights were cyclones and my body was a battleground, love me, love everyone and let’s fuck till we drop, all of us born of the same boundless hope that never ended because it sprang from the very pores of our skin.

needs aren’t the same as your petty-bourgeois whims

that’s what the future held until the chill wind blew in and stole away the songs and suddenly we were no longer holding hands on Largo do Machado in the middle of the night discussing the state of the nation and the crimes of the bourgeoisie and cultural brainwashing by the US and the growing alienation of the working classes, back then bed was our Vietnam and, in our personal atlas, Cambodia lay between my thighs, and it was nonsense to say otherwise, you’d be looking at the world around you when I just wanted you to look at my world inside, forget everything outside and be content with what’s here inside

you are my Marlon Brando

and life became so easy after I met you and your crude humour and your rough way of dealing with things, the cyclone began to blow itself out and I wanted only you, life became so clear when I noticed your embarrassment about which knife and fork to use, your arrogant way of speaking to my university friends when they pontificated about the proletariat without ever having done a day’s work in their lives or carried any other burden than the weight of their own consciousness of rational solidarity, how you mocked us for letting our imaginations run away with us, thinking we could change the world every day without so much as lifting a finger or stepping outside of our fantasies.

anything good on at the cinema today?

life became more placid with your restless body as my horizon, your hand in mine in the smoke-filled cinema, me going to the ladies and coming back without my panties and smiling at how hungry your hand was, if your hands had teeth they’d have torn me to pieces, your body was hungry and everything was hunger, those Marxists should fuck more, you were my Lenin and my Trotsky rolled into one because whenever I thought about class struggle and ideological superstructures it reminded me of the taste of you, my reflection in a succession of mirrors in cheap hotels and by-the-hour motels, in the secret obscenity of finding myself so completely possessed, me with my intellectual-independent-modern-woman beliefs, and I smoked and swore and spat and it was me against everyone, Marxism was an idea made real by the taste of you, a sweaty taste of skin, I could taste myself in your mouth when I tasted on your lips the taste of those other lips you kissed so deeply and softly, pulling and sucking, roughly, violently, but no rougher or more violent than the world taking shape out there, me saying the most absurd profanities in French just to see the lost look in your eyes when confronted with this universe of words and sounds known only to me

needs aren’t the same as your petty-bourgeois whims

and I used to believe that I was part of the problem and the obstacle to a better and fairer world, the petty bourgeois army officer’s daughter responsible for all the shit happening in the country, the spoilt little girl who talked about work without ever having worked a day in her life, driving my mother up the wall with my put-on suffering and my profundity borrowed from philosophy books, angst was the make-up I wore when I walked around the city and it was my way of dealing with the world because I was horrified by the terrible international situation and my share of the blame for it, my father would say at dinner that the country was better off since the revolution and I’d laugh out loud and say that was all a load of meaningless crap, my life was a farce built on the blood of the victims of capitalism, on oppression and violence, and then I’d wander through the streets of the city looking at beggars and poor people, ashamed of having so much and being so privileged in a world of such misery

anything good on at the cinema today?

»I was horrified by the terrible international situation and my share of the blame for it, my father would say at dinner that the country was better off since the revolution and I’d laugh out loud and say that was all a load of meaningless crap, my life was a farce built on the blood of the victims of capitalism, on oppression and violence«

my friends and classmates at university talking about Marx and Lenin and showing off their books in Spanish smuggled in from Argentina and passed from hand to hand in the grubby shadows of canteens and corridors, dozens of invisible eyes patrolling every corner of the campus, seeing everything, knowing everything, the eyes of gorillas and monkeys and traitors and nothing was what it seemed and the clock was ticking and ‘68 was getting closer and my life was all over the place before you came along, I was sad and so I walked sadly, measuring my own steps, my footsteps fitting me awkwardly, crookedly, I had sad sex with guys with Cuban faces, hating everything and crying inside about everything, a tiny stifled cry, my angst was my daytime makeup and it was you who wiped it off and revealed the face of the woman hidden beneath, before you came along I was living through that misery of one-night stands with bodies that weren’t yours, lying in some cheap hotel in Glória or Lapa with the smell of cheap cigarettes and a man beside me with whom I had just exercised my rights as a sexually liberated modern female, back then I was modern and sad and mistress of my own body with my pills and my clothes and my thighs and my cigarettes and my nothing because this was my prehistory and life hadn’t yet begun, every day I touched up my angst in the mirror, and only after you did my eyes seem to be really mine and you were my May ’68

the military can go fuck themselves and to hell with the Institutional Act

my one refuge was always the cinema, where I’d sink into my own personal grammar of solitude, where I couldn’t feel the eyes of the world and didn’t need make-up, where the flickering screen was the bright shining mirror in which I could see my own reflection, where I loved myself, where I could gaze at myself and float in the delicate, brittle light that washed away all the world’s troubles, where I could lose myself in the light and imagine myself hovering weightlessly over the darkened auditorium, its streaming light contained so many stories and those stories were my life, French dramas with implausible plots and crooked cops and their floozies who weren’t ashamed to be women and liked money and smoked their cigarettes and were mad but happy, they were behind the times but happy while I was modern and tormented by the weight of the world’s expectations, attitude was my way of disguising fear, the cinema was my home where I could close my eyes and float in its lunar gravity for hours on end, bathed in its light where nothing would find me and no-one would talk, for as long as the film lasted the world was peaceful and silent, and when my sadness was wide as the ocean I’d stay and watch film after film and lose myself for whole afternoons in that vast, luminous sea

come here, yes now

and afterwards I understood my father and his shame and his horrified silence because he knew that the world wasn’t the garden of ’68 and his daughter was out there with the dogs, because for me anyone who didn’t stand up and do something was an accomplice who just didn’t get it, his tired eyes staring out the window of the living room was the rotten tooth that hurt me even though I’d never admit it, staring blankly out at the trees on the other side of Rua Paissandu, his eyes as severe as mine as I waited for you to come back to bed, the tops of the trees swaying sadly and slowly, like the lumbering pachyderms in charge of Brazil, dinosaurs lording it over everything and oppressing everyone, I used to say the day would come when all the flags would fall under the gentle sway of Soviet blood red, you can’t escape the inexorable march of history, Dad, where, in the world of the future, love will be the currency that even your uniformed friends won’t be able to loot, and you couldn’t understand me or take any of it in, your head was telling you that what was happening in the world was right, but you were afraid for me, sometimes we ask more of our parents than they can give and we never think what they give us is enough

they’re not my friends, child

watching myself in the darkened auditorium when suddenly there popped into my head the path that would lead me to you, the details of the map escaped me while I hung around the city’s darkened cinemas, the glow of your smile didn’t yet exist, I did nothing but watch the screen and I must have missed you during one of those showings, it was only then that I’d forget the pain around me and the pain was so great that if you’d been there beside me I wouldn’t have seen you, the world was a cancer and I was one of its infected cells, a little bourgeois daddy’s girl ashamed she could speak French and travel and see the world when the proletariat were living on starvation wages and oppressed by a system that I was a part of, I was the infected cell that spread misery and I dressed up and put on make-up so people couldn’t see who I really was, I didn’t make myself beautiful like the women I admired in those detective films, I made myself ugly and was ashamed of being pretty and I thought my pills would give me the strength I didn’t have, no matter how much I fucked I couldn’t forget that’s who I was and my father in his uniform invaded my nightmares, the stuff that defined me was so powerful and I only pretended to fight because deep down I needed comfort, I needed security, I wanted the world to explode but I wanted peace and tranquillity too

did you know that in Angola one black dies every minute?

and all our hope lay in Vietnam, one of those little countries standing up to the world domination of a superpower, a tiny little country and yet here we were afraid even to go to Brasília and bring the government down by force and take back what was ours, a small country barely the size of a fingertip on the map and here we were afraid and telling ourselves lies, fooling ourselves, but, comrade, that isn’t the way, first we need to create the right context because if we don’t think things through and we don’t plan carefully communism isn’t going to put down the kind of deep roots we need it to, we have to raise the consciousness of the proletariat because that’s the only way we can build the ideal, solid foundations for bringing about a true and permanent revolution in this country, thus eradicating hunger and poverty and misery and illiteracy and all forms of oppression be it of blacks, women, north-easterners or Indians, only then will there be true equality, only then will no one go hungry

the military can go fuck themselves and to hell with the Institutional Act

that’s when I heard your voice tearing through my boredom telling the world to go to hell, that the Institutional Act and the military could go fuck themselves, that everything was fucked, and right then I thought that anyone who talked like that must be great in bed and I fell in love with the idea of falling in love with you, I could see you slipping away from me and going back into the auditorium and I saw where you were sitting and I sat nearby and I kept glancing across at you and noticing the sad way you were looking at the screen and how you seemed to fill the dark space and I was surprised to see that you weren’t ashamed of your sadness, you were sad and not ashamed, you were proud and arrogant and happy in your misery, for the entire film you looked at the world of Paris but without sharing my yearning to be there, I dreamed of a Rio where people spoke French and was full of barricades not just in my imagination and you would think it ridiculous to want that and would laugh in my face and I hated you for laughing, I wanted you to laugh but at first I hated you, it was just you and me in the crowded darkness and for the first time I felt there was someone with me watching the film, there was a kind of peace in my longing for you to be who I needed you to be, for you to be that something out there in the world I‘d been searching and searching for even though I wouldn’t admit it

it’s cold, come here

»the bombs put an end to our May and suddenly the world became more serious«

and this is what it’s come to, our eternal honeymoon gone up in smoke with those terrifying explosions, now it’s this fear of you being captured by the jackals and not coming home and I’ve become my father staring at the emptiness of the room, waking up and not wanting to go out, afraid that they might throw bombs through our windows too and send aeroplanes slicing through the sky with a sinuous roar, a child in my belly wanting to find out about the world outside and me wanting him to grow inside, to stay inside until the jackals have gone away, to stay for decades submerged in my warmth while I tell lies about the world and only come out when they’ve given us back the colour they stole, me sitting in the living room waiting for you to return terrified I’ll never again hear the sound of keys jangling in the corridor, the baby growing inside me while the world’s still in flames, the bombs put an end to our May and suddenly the world became more serious, we aged twenty years in a day and we’ve got to survive because we and not their grandparents will raise our children, you in the living room looking at old photos of our rushed engagement, married within a year, a combination of lust and destiny, afraid that the dogs would steal even this warmth, well they can go ahead and steal the flowers in the garden but never the salt of the earth because from ashes new flowers can grow, they can take everything but not the salt of the earth

what’s on at the cinema tonight?

our hands one on top of the other as the only touch of humanity, friends of yours vanishing without a word, others shaving off their beards in terror because now they had kids just as we would soon, the world grown far too serious, the dark cinema again our refuge from the empty dawn streets, at night you’d put your arms around my belly and we would lie like that choosing names, long lists of names and behind every name a destiny and a future, a flash of joy and happiness, and when I said what about calling him Salvador we both looked up at the ceiling and wept, it was cold and we wept, we wanted our boy to be a coward not some brave little hero, a weakling who would live, bullets really hurt and fire really hurts and torture really hurts, let’s put a fence around our little world and stay inside and not worry about the dogs roaming around with bombs for blowing up palaces like there was no tomorrow

you are my Marlon Brando

and I was mortally afraid of everything, I was angry with your friends and I was angry with everyone and everything, I wanted them outside my fence and you inside, if you went out to the shops my heart would start pounding and I wanted you home right away and any sort of noise in the corridor would frighten me, like a dog waiting for its master I’d wait for you coming through the door and I’d close the curtains and sit in the living room smoking, by then I’d given up work and my friends and everything, I’d turn on the lamp and pretend that our flat was the cinema, our living room was the auditorium and we were making love on the sofa very slowly because of my enormous bump, days went by and that name never appeared, in the films’ final credits I could only see the names of the disappeared, an enormous list racing by with the names of all the world’s victims, the final credits like an encrypted eulogy to the fallen in combat, the comedies made me cry and I wanted to protect our son with a name that couldn’t be written in their files, a name so repellent that it would kill the bureaucrats even to think of it

don’t cry, I’m right here

»I’m afraid, we should have been more selfish about protecting our world in May«

I sit like this because I’m afraid and I close my eyes and I see the names racing past on the screen and I’m afraid, we should have been more selfish about protecting our world in May and closed the gates before it was too late, because it is too late now, we’re sitting in the living room imagining our little boy playing freely but there are all these corpses sitting around us, corpses from all over the world because one day we embraced the world and they stole our voice and now this is what’s left, if we’d been selfish there would be fewer silent ghosts troubling our peace of mind, the child is running down the corridor and all I can see are minefields and danger signs and precipices, the soft warmth of memory turned black and they stole the colour from the sky and the laughter from the streets and the wheeling gulls and even the taste of the sea, let’s forget everything and make our own May, let’s put the calendar on hold and go back to ’68, there’s still time to put on our make-up and fool ourselves every morning, maybe the child will teach us again how to be innocent and we’ll be able to put our feet firmly on the ground without fear of imaginary landmines, just take away those final credits with their names of skulls and bodies whipped and mutilated in our modern-day dungeons and make them let go of my body, my body that’s really yours, slip a new baby into my belly, screw me but don’t screw yourself because I can’t cope with this disaster-waiting-to-happen day after day finding its way through cracks in doors and windows, come in through the door and give me the key and I’ll smash it to pieces so that you’ll stay here in the bottom of this pit until the jackals have devoured everything in the world and died in the black hunger of their own fetid breath.


Margaret Jull Costa has translated works by novelists such as the Nobel Prize winner José Saramago, Eça de Queiroz, Javier Marías and Bernardo Atxaga. She also has translated poets such as Sophia de Mello Breyner Andresen and Ana Luísa Amaral. Robin Patterson has translated works by Luandino Vieira and José Luís Peixoto. Their co-translation of Lúcio Cardoso’s Chronicle of the Murdered House won the 2017 Best Translated Book Award, and their co-translation of Machado de Assis’s Collected Stories will be published in July 2018. Ricardo Portilho lives and works in Belo Horizonte, Brazil. He studied design in Belo Horizonte and completed his master studies at the Sandberg Instituut, Amsterdam. His research projects take the language of graphic design as a starting point to deal with reality, and to produce work that can take form in diverse media and contexts.