Saturday, 15 June 2013

They’re living my life, without me: Ferreira Gullar in exile

The military regime was becoming more violent and repressive every day. The bank robberies by terrorist groups and the kidnapping of foreign ambassadors (1) contributed for the positions of the military hard line determined the character of the dictatorship. If it’s true that, at the start of the regime, the radical right imposed the practice of torture, next a more moderate view started taking hold, understanding that the survival of the regime depended above all on the success of the economic plan and that that should be its main goal. While the more mature sectors of the left claimed that the road to defeat the dictatorship was the fight for democratic liberties, making use of every breach the regime had been forced to leave open, the ultra-left had embarked on the delirium of armed struggle, dislocating the fight to the terrain where the adversary had strength and experience. So, terrorist actions and repression started feeding upon each other. Homes were invaded, people kidnapped and submitted to bestial tortures; the captive militants were frequently murdered and reported as having escaped from prison. The newspapers, controlled by censorship, were forced to report the lying version with which the military sought to cover up the summary execution of their political adversaries. The blindness that took hold of the terrorist factions led them to execute their comrades when, under torture, they made compromising confessions.

Ferreira Gullar’s life in exile is intimately linked to the dictatorship that ruled Brazil between 1964 and 1976. One day, at the end of the sixties, the poet unexpectedly received a phone call from a comrade in the Brazilian Communist Party (PCB) telling him that a member had given up his name to the authorities. Gullar’s life in hiding started immediately. When in 1975, after his return to Brazil, a friend asked him to give testimony of these years for a book recording statements from fellow exiles, Gullar refused, arguing that the traumas were still too vivid for him. He was only capable of writing his memoirs twenty years later. The book, which I recently read, is called Rabo de Foguete and is a fascinating book.

At the time his worries started Gullar was a member of the ruling body of one of the PCB’s state branches. This was an underground, and therefore illegal, group within the party. That meant that, if captured, the police would be tougher on him. Ironically he had been given that position against his will. As far as he was concerned, he was better off protesting as a mere poet and intellectual, but the party tricked him into that position. So when his friend phoned him to tip him off, Gullar’s greatest fears came true. Gullar left his wife and three children and started living in several hideouts, family and friends’ places, constantly changing addresses for fear of being caught.

Hiding, he had no freedom: he couldn’t afford to stand in front of windows or even walk inside apartments, for fear neighbours could hear him. He had to keep to his room for he could never know when one of his host’s friends would unexpectedly show up to pay a visit. He sadly retells that one day his friends had made feijoada to cheer him up, but at the last moment a relative showed up with the kids to spend the Sunday in family, and Gullar has to spend all day locked in a room, being nearly discovered when he had to make a strategic visit to the bathroom. In order to communicate with his wife, Thereza, he employed an elaborate system of sending letters under fake names to friends in foreign cities, who tell re-mailed them to her. Prevented from working, Gullar was invited by linguist Antônio Houaiss to work on the legendary Enciclopédia Delta-Larousse – an art critic, Gullar was to oversaw the articles on art – a reference encyclopaedia of the Portuguese language.

Once the judge involved in his case asked him for a bribery in order to his name out. The poet agreed to pay the sum, but the bribery was made public and only make his situation worse. Without legal solutions available to him, and with the circumstances in Brazil deteriorating, the PCB gave Gullar the chance to travel to Moscow undercover. So one day, inside a luxurious car, to throw off the cops’ scent, a friend drove him out of the country. In spite of this escape, Gullar was becoming more and more critical of the party. Noticing that the fake passport they had created for gave him a new name but amateurishly kept his parents’ unchanged, he wondered, “If the party is like this, it’ll never make the revolution. Did I just fuck up my life for nothing?”

Aboard the airplane that took him to Europe, Gullar was accompanied by a young girl, daughter a party official who didn’t approve of her friendships in Brazil and figured a stay in Moscow would do her some good. In vain Gullar tried to impress her with European history and culture, she was having none of that.

In Moscow they parted ways and his new life started. Studying under the fake name of Cláudio, he enrolled in the Institute of Marxism-Leninism and had classes about Das Kapital, dialectics, Russian language, philosophy and military training, although he quickly asked to be exempted from the latter. The Institute was a secret building within the Soviet Union itself, only party members and its workers knew it existed; it received students from all over the world to prepare them for the revolutionary struggle. Gullar met dozens of nationalities there. Gullar’s teacher of Das Kapital was a Spaniard who had taught political economy to Castro and Che. “Fidel was a studious and hard-working student, Guevara, brilliant,” he confided to him.

Gullar was brilliant too but not a very good student. He was too free-spirited to be brainwashed and too honest not to say what he thought, causing embarrassments to his Brazilian friends, who sucked up to the Russians with devotion. The others accused him of ‘anti-Soviet behaviour.’ The contradictions he saw around him disappointed and he started to doubt the revolution.

In Moscow I got to know the PCB better, since only then did I work and live with the professional members of the party, with their underground apparatus and understood many of us were lacking the revolutionary mystique, the unshakeable conviction which determines the rigorous obedience of decisions and the limitless sacrifice. It’s not that the party didn’t have martyrs and that, amongst its members, there weren’t brave men, idealists, capable of dying for their ideas. During that same period I found myself in the USSR many comrades were arrested, tortured and murdered by the dictatorship in Brazil. It was perhaps the internal discipline which, as a reaction to the excesses of the previous Stalinist phase, had relaxed too much, or who knows, a consequence of our Brazilian way of facing life and values, with a critical spirit and some scepticism.

Also, for a founding member of the neo-Concrete poetry who had moved from abstract poetry to politically-committed poetry, it must have been a punch in the gut when he failed to get his poems published in Russian. One day the editor of Inastranaia Lyteratura, a magazine that published foreign literature, suggested putting some of his poems in the magazine. With a circulation of 300,000 copies, that meant reaching a considerable new audience. Pablo Neruda, Jorge Amado and Gabriel García Márquez had been featured in it before. But the translator refused, accusing the poems of not being ‘Marxist-Leninist but rather expressions of petit-bourgeois ideology.’

His life was unhappy in Moscow, save for some classes he enjoyed to attend and some Brazilian friends he had there. But he longed to return to his life in Brazil. He couldn’t bear to receive visits from friends, who gave him news of his acquaintances. “They’re living my life, without me,” thought Ferreira Gullar. His only silver lining was a couple of affairs he had: one with Nadia, a painter; and Elôina, a Russian interpreter for a group of Nicaraguans who worked at the Institute, a more serious relationship that left the poet devastated when it ended.

After failing to get an extension of his course and study in Moscow one more year (so he could stay with Elôina), Gullar had to find a new destination. He rejected a work offer from architect Oscar Niemeyer to work Algiers, so he relocated to Chile. He arrived in Santiago in May 1973, finding the city standing still because of a massive strike, and society teetering on the brink of disintegration. Five months later Pinochet was staging a coup and Salvador Allende was being assassinated. Gullar had foreseen this and when he obtained a licence to work as a journalist in Chile, instead of getting it from a left-wing institution, he opted for a right-wing one, the Colegio de Periodistas de Chile, a smart move that saved him months later when, after the coup, a cop asked the poet suspected of being a communist to show his licence and was disappointed to see it issued by the CPC.

In Chile Gullar had rented a house from a communist militant: he was surrounded by political material that could get him killed: forbidden books, left-wing newspapers, pamphlets, etc. He had to get rid of everything, in case the police searched his apartment. His attempt at destroying the books proved impractical. They were hardbound, sturdy tomes. “The Soviets live in la la land! Don’t they realize one day we’ll be forced to tear up these books?” After trying many different methods, he simply decided to mail them to friends around the world, hoping the post office wouldn’t open the packages. With the political situation deteriorating in Chile, he moved somewhere else. He stayed a while in Lima, Peru. In December 1973 his wife came over, bringing his three children. Life, however, was hard there, so they sought other options. In June 1974 he went to Buenos Aires, to prepare the ground for his family’s arrival. These were hard times for his personal life. His daughter had converted to a religious group and was fully absorbed in it; his son Marcos was turning into a drug addict; and Paulo was developing schizophrenia and acting erratically. He ran away from home many times. One time he disappeared for so long Gullar put an ad on the newspapers. A man phoned him asking for a ransom or he’d kill Paulo; fortunately it was a fake call. Gullar also spent hours looking for him.

At some point a terrible doubt assailed me: and what if I’m moving in the opposite direction to where he is? This reflection hit me like a punch: any direction I go I can be moving away from him! The city of Buenos Aires was now a vast kafkian labyrinth. A feeling of powerlessness made me return home, wrecked, defeated.

After Paulo’s last escape, Gullar only found him months later: his son had returned to Brazil, where a man had given him sheltered and, after much questioning, had learned from him who his parents were, and so he was able to inform Gullar of his son’s whereabouts.

Besides his personal problems, Gullar was worried about Argentina’s political situation. Peron had died and the military were giving signs that they were thinking of a coup to wrest the power from Peron’s wife, Isabel. By this time Gullar had lost most of his respect for the left. His experiences in Chile and the way Allende had contributed, through a serious of bad decisions, to his own destruction, had made him sceptical.

The truth is the Chilean experience had changed my head. The amount of mistakes committed by the left-wing groups, and especially the ultra-left, made it intolerable to reconcile with foolish radicalism. I was even willing to write a book about the Chilean coup opposing the thesis defended by the left. Without exception, the politicians who had fought in Chile, whether they be socialists, communists or left-wingers of different hues, all attributed the responsibility of the fall of the Chilean government to North-American imperialism. Almost no one referred to the decisive contribution given by the left with its mistakes, its pretension, its naivety and many times with its stupidity.

Sadly he never completed this book. (As an aside, Gullar is not a supporter of the former left-wing Brazilian president Lula da Silva, and I can’t blame him considering all the scandals involving him and his cabinet.) Things were getting worse by the day, with terrorism and police repression feeding on each other, like in Brazil. Gullar, due to his distinctive face, with a mixture of Indian and European features, was always picked on by the cops. Once he joked to a friend who looked European and was never bothered by the cops, “It’s dangerous in Latin America only if you look Latin American.”

A book he did write in Buenos Aires was his masterpiece, Dirty Poem. Fearing that he may day at any moment, he began working on a poem if that poem were the last one he’d write in his life. I’ll write more about it some other time. But the poem was so well received in Brazil it started a wave of solidarity that allowed him to return to Brazil.

The junta’s high-ranking officers were divided: one considered the poem obscene but did not oppose the author’s return to Brazil. Another did not want the ‘communist’ back. So Gullar and his friends mounted a public campaign to protect him during his return, to make the regime’s violence and repression public if it acted against him. The first thing he did the morning after returning was going to the beach. Cops went there looking for him and Gullar went with them to have a final reckoning with the secret police, which held him for three days and interrogated him to no avail. After that he was released and left alone. The years of exile were over.

1) The kidnappings Gullar alludes to may be, for instance, the kidnapping of the US ambassador, Charles Burke Elbrick, in 1968, which served as the basis of the excellent 1997 Brazilian thriller, Four Days in September, starring Alan Arkin as the American diplomat. It’s well worth watching.


  1. I cannot imagine what it would be like to live under a repressive regime. Living in exile also would be so difficult yet likely preferable. I guess it is no surprise that writers are so often among the most persecuted.

    1. Indeed, what Gullar endured was nothing short of heroic. But I think his suffering resulted in a great poem, the famous Dirty Poem.