First of April: A 13-year-old witnesses the 1964 Brazilian military coup

Celso Marconi, the longest-lived cinema critic in the world, recently commented on his Facebook page: “After 1964, the 1st of April ceased to be a playful day [in Brazil]. Sad.”

He is right. The military coup took place on April 1, 1964. But as this date is the universal day of the lie, the abusive propaganda of the armed forces pretended it had been the day before. They imposed “the Revolution of the 31st of March” on the media, schools, and universities. They imagined hilarious headlines across the world if the truth were revealed: “An April Fool’s Day Revolution.” But that was the real day. On March 31st all the legitimate governments, the voters’ choice in free elections, were still in power.

What follows is my memory of a dramatic incident that I witnessed on April 1st. To be exact, Ivan, Ivanovitch Correia da Silva did not die on March 31st of 1964. It was the next day that he abandoned his spirit, April 1st, 1964. To be more exact, he did not abandon it. He was abandoned, because Ivan lost his will even before that, and to lose your will, it seems, is the first announcement of death. So the right way to put it might be: before ceasing to exist, Ivan already no longer existed.

I want to be exact, precise, clear, but the realm that surrounds me opposes such exactness. What I saw on that afternoon does not adhere like a dog seizes and grasps, like a fowl that we hold between our fingers, like a piece of ice that we feel and cling to. Better then to organize Ivan the way the memory, the emotions, and, finally, the spirit organizes.

Ivan was big, very large, with an ample forehead—strange, now I know, only now I understand, writing these lines I am aware for the first time: Ivan was big and large like my mother. He was the best friend a 13-year-old could have. I write this generalization and I stop. I stop because this attempt to be objective and impartial is only making me write stupid generalities. I want to say, therefore, and I will not be false any more: Ivan was the best friend I had from the viewpoint of my 13 years. I want to speak, and not be interrupted by censure, modesty, or cowardice.

I was a boy without a mother, with a father it would have been better if I had already sent to hell, and inside me a huge need to understand the world, with a crazy vanity that had neither substance nor reason to endure. If I can make a bad comparison, I was like a little boy without legs who always dreamed of being an Olympic jumper. With what? With dreams of jumps that could only happen in the mode of trunk-boys who suddenly grow legs. Ivan, who only now I understand had something in common with my mother, was not one of those “most unforgettable characters” from toxic Reader’s Digest magazines.

He was my oldest friend and he is in agony on April 1st of ’64, agitated, tossing and turning on a mattress filled with dry grass. Groaning, he tells me: “There are little snakes crawling up my back.” He reaches around and tries to tear them off with his hands as his agony increases: “They’re coming to get me. They’re going to take me.”

“They who, Ivan?”

“They, they.” And they merge with the little snakes that are crawling up his back.

This Ivan is not Ivanovitch Correia da Silva. The Ivan from before was a youth of 19, a student of chemistry. He spent the whole day studying, every day of the week. With a sui generis method, as he liked to say. Between one formula and another, he would receive me at the only table in his house. And begin to relate anecdotes, to tell tales of boys from the outskirts of town, bright, anarchistic pranksters.

He smiled and guffawed and slapped his knee as he told them. He was the public and the character. He told so many stories about crazy street kids and left listeners with the impression that he was one of them. As if Charlie Chaplin was the Little Tramp. If there were something in our lives that we wanted to forget, that was sunken in the abyss of our nature that we hoped would never be remembered, Ivan would describe it in detail, roaring with laughter while describing the case that was his fall from grace.

“When the students at University of Recife Law School walked out in protest, I went there to demonstrate my solidarity with them. I was alone in the middle of the mass of people, attending the demonstration. Then a photographer from O Cruzeiro magazine showed up. When he pointed his flash camera in our direction, I threw myself in front of the students. Look, here’s the photo.” And he showed a page in which he appeared, his arms flung wide, featured, falling like a soccer player after a brilliant move, in flight over placards with slogans like “Long Live Cuba,” “Yankees Go Home,” “Agrarian Reform by Law or the Hammer.” Smiling in free fall, my friend, in a full-page spread in O Cruzeiro, the Life of Brazil. That’s why he was roaring with laughter because he appeared in a national edition in a forceful demonstration of his street urchin spirit. That is the logical reason why, days later, he was saying, “There are little snakes…They are coming to get me!”

My photogenic friend is the one who solves math problems that are beyond me. In one of these, having to do with fractions, he clarifies what the ambiguity of the problem does not allow me to see: a fraction of a pole is buried in a riverbed, its entirety does not stop at the submerged part, the whole pole includes that part hidden beneath the sand deposited underwater. “Those bandits didn’t make that clear, this way it’s easy,” I tell him. And my revolt is the subject of merriment on his part. But he consoles me: “At your age, I couldn’t solve this problem either.”

I do not know if I am an idealist, in the manner the manuals simplified into pamphlets assume, but now from a distance, I perceive that spirit imbues one with dignity. And relations built like the one between us establish respect. In passing, I recall that I was friends with some rough and forceful individuals, quick with their fists, with whom I never fought. Fortunately… But what I want to make clear is that there was no space between us for an exchange of insults.

There was respect founded on the objectives to be attained, or better, the nature of our relationship did not leave room for a physical confrontation. The same with Ivan. Now I understand that in our ideal, or idealized, relations, he saw me as a precocious boy, a boy with a future.

It is fitting here to speak about what was the future in our condition. He was one of Senhor Joaquim Pigmeat’s six sons. Sr. Joaquim called himself a merchant to dignify his specialty which was selling pork in Água Fria’s public marketplace. As a sympathizer of the old Communist Party, he gave the first four sons Russian names because, at that time, Russia was the fatherland of the revolution. His son’s names were Pedro, Ivanovitch, Serguei, Andrei, Abrahão, and Isaac. The last two coincided with the decline of the old communist’s convictions—he passed from earthly revolution to the salvation of the soul, while continuing to survive by selling pork products. I remember that their ugly, windowless house which looked, from the front, like a shabby commercial site, exuded a permanent odor of fried chitlins—a stench so abusive, nauseating, and repugnant came from that fatty excrescence, that singular abundance. Between his smoky house and his box in the market, Sr. Joaquim preserved his old ardor and faith, his passionate belief in books and education. Study would uplift the masses and proceed to civilize people. That is why his sons would have to be people, not just meat.

In 1963 and ’64, a boy with a future, even one enveloped in that smell of scorched bacon fat, was a boy who loved reading, asking questions, arguing, even if his physical image did not assimilate to any future. Thus he was because the future was books, and in the books, unquestionably, was the force that would raise the people from ignorance, from feudalism. Thus there was a mythic, a mystic respect for books. Ivanovitch was also of the future, until just before the coup d’état of April 1st. Of Sr. Joaquim’s six sons he was the most brilliant because, while the others were “specialists,” Ivanovitch was a universalist—he liked mathematics, chemistry, physics, politics, philosophy, novels, he read like an animal with a hunger for learning, and a goodnatured critique of the world.

Why are people non-linear? Why do individuals who take life lightly, laughingly, tend to have bitter or violent ends? Why are saturnine, somber individuals not those who insert gun barrels in their mouths and blow their brains out? No, the tragic loves those with a surplus of verve and heart. Not unlike cancer which, they say, feeds on vigorous health, the April 1st coup ate the brain of my friend. He who was diurnal, solar, became febrile and nocturnal in one afternoon.

“Where’s Ivan?” I asked on my way back from the bakery. “Where’s Ivan?” Because I wanted to converse with him about the latest developments, I wanted him to explain the reasons for tanks on the streets, to ask if Miguel Arraes remained Pernambuco’s governor, if the communists had lost the battle. “Where’s Ivan?”

“Come see your friend. See how he is.” And his mother led me to a doorless, windowless partition, like a room for cinema study, that served as Ivan’s room. And she started to call him, to tell him I was there as if I had the gift of making him return to reality, a reality that she did not know was the beginning of a nightmare. She called him, “Ivan!” to turn him back to the Ivan of the 31st of March, to the boy who was the hope of the family of Sr. Joaquim Pigmeat. He heard, I know today, he heard because he answered, to explain his torment: “The little snakes are crawling on me. Ma, take these little snakes off me!”

Now I know that in his delirium all Ivan’s logic, his rationality had not forsaken him. Maybe this is the way we will all go mad, in an interior dialogue between reason and unreason? You see, as I was writing this morning, the voice of Nat King Cole came to me singing, as he did in those years, from the screen of the Cine Olympia or the Cine Império. I hear Nat singing “Adiós, Mariquita Linda” in Spanish he learned syllabically. You see, now I understand: he diminished the size of the snakes so myriads of them could crawl up his back.

You see, there was an incompatibility of physical areas on his back for a great number of normal serpents. And that is why he diminished them to a size that could be seen through a microscope. He made them microscopic, in his infernal logic, so that only he could see them. My friend was delirious, raving. He had lost his rationality. But for him and for me, for our ultimate solace, he had not lost his intelligence.

Many years later I saw him again. He was bigger, obese, immense with the slow motion gestures of someone on drugs. In his face, there was no sign of reaction, just distant, spiritless eyes that did not recognize me. He passed by far from me like a shadowless hippopotamus, like an elephant without ears, without a trunk, without teeth would pass, just the great mass of flesh. Then I knew that, with him, barbarism won. Congratulations, gorillas. Well done, overthrowers. Even today, Ivan’s family tells people that he went mad on March 31st. They forget that it was on April 1st. I do not know if this would have made my friend roar with ample, outrageous, sui generis laughter.

Translated by Peter Lownds for People’s World. The original appeared in Vermelho, April 1, 2021. Dr. Lownds is currently translating a novel by Urariano Mota.


Urariano Mota
Urariano Mota

Urariano Mota is a Brazilian writer and journalist, a chronicler of Brazil’s culture, people, and politics. Mota is the author of the novels "Soledad no Recife," "O Filho Renegado de Deus," and "A Mais Longa Duração da Juventude." He writes a column for the Communist Party of Brazil website Vermelho and is a collaborator of Prosa, Poesia, e Arte. His most recent novel is "Never-Ending Youth," translated by Peter Lownds, and published in the U.S. by International Publishers.