American Journals – South America by Albert Camus

Formalities. Then disembarking. Right away it’s the whirlwind that I was afraid of. Some journalists have already come on board. Questions, photos. Neither worse nor better than anywhere else. But once in Rio, with Mme. M. and a famous journalist – already met him in Paris, very nice – the calvary begins. In the confusion of a first day, I notice by chance:

They ask me to choose between a room at the embassy, which is deserted, and one of the many luxury hotels. I flee the nasty-looking hotel, and congratulate myself on finding a simple and most charming room in the completely empty embassy.

Brazilian drivers are either joyous madmen or icy sadists. The confusion and anarchy of this traffic are regulated by only one law: get there first, no matter what the cost.

There is a striking contrast between the luxurious display of palaces and modern buildings and the shanty towns, which are sometimes separated from each other by no more than a hundred yards; the shanty towns, stuck to the sides of the hills, with neither water nor light, are home to an impoverished population of both blacks and whites. The women go for water at the foot of the hills, where they wait in line, and they bring it back in pails which they carry on their heads like the women of Kabylia. While they wait, an uninterrupted stream of chromes and silent beasts from the American automobile industry passes in front of them. Never have I seen wealth and poverty so insolently intertwined. It is true that, according to one of my companions, “at least they have a good time”. Regret and cynicism – only B. generous. He’ll take me to the shanty towns that he knows well: “I’ve been a criminal reporter and a communist,” he says. “Two good reasons to know the neighborhoods of misery”.

Lunch with Mme. M., B., and a kind of notary, thin, cultivated and spiritual – I can only remember his unusual first name, Annibal – at a country club which perfectly resembles its names: tennis, lawns, young people. Annibal has six daughters, all of whom are pretty. He says that in Brazil the mixture of religion and love is very interesting. To a Brazilian professor who had translated Baudelaire, Annibal sent the following telegram: “Kindly retranslate me back into French immediately. Signed: Baudelaire”. He resembles many of these very refined Spaniards that one meets in the Spanish provinces.

One of the three or four Brazilian battleships that I was shown, and that seem to me to be a little out of date, is called Terror do Mondo. It has been service in several revolutions.

After lunch a reception at Mme. M’s. Beautiful apartment on the bay. The afternoon is soft on the waters. A lot of people, but I forget the names. A translator of Molière who a colleague tells me added an act to The Imaginary Invalid, which was not long enough to make a play out of. A Polish philosopher from whom heaven, if it is merciful, will protect me. A young French biologist on mission here, furiously appealing and nice. Above all some young people from a black theater troupe who want to put on Caligula. I promise to work with them. With my frightful Spanish I manage to reach an agreement with one of them who speaks Spanish: On Sunday I will go with them to a Negro ball. He’s delighted with the trick we’re playing on my official hosts with such rendezvous and he keeps repeating to me: “Segreto. Segreto”.

Just when I think everything is finished, Mme. M. announces that I’m dining with a Brazilian poet. I saw nothing, promising myself that starting tomorrow I’ll cut everything that isn’t indispensable. And I consent with resignation. But in no way did I expect the ordeal that was to follow. Enormous, indolent, folds of flesh around the eyes, his mouth hanging open, the poet arrives. Anxieties, a sudden movement, then he spills himself into an easy chair and stays there a little while, panting. He gets up, dos a pirouette and falls back down into the easy chair. He talks about Bernanos, Mauriac, Brisson, Halévy. Apparently, he knows everybody. He’s been treated badly. He’s not involved in Franco-Brazilian politics, but with some Frenchmen he created a fertilizer factory. Besides he’s never been decorated. In this country, they’ve decorated all the enemies of France. But not him, etc., etc.

He dreams for a moment suffering visible from God knows what, and finally surrenders the conversation to a señor who seizes hold of it greedily. Because this is a señor like the ones who walked their graceful dogs on the Calle Major in Palma, Mallorca before going to watch, with the pleasure of connoissseurs, the executions of ’36. He rattles on about everything: I should see this, do that, Brazil is a country where one does nothing but work, no vices, no time for them, we work, we work, and Bernanos told him, and Bernanos crated in this country a way of living, ah: we love France so much…

Appalled by the prospect of this outing, I persuade the young biologist to come to dinner with us. In the car I ask that we not go to a deluxe restaurant. And the poet emerges from his 300 pounds and tells me, with raised finger: “There is no deluxe in Brazil. We are poor, miserable,” as he affectionately taps the shoulder of the chaffer in livery who’s driving his enormous Chrysler. And having said this, the poets sighs painfully returns to his nest of flesh where he begins distractedly gnawing at one of his complexes. The señor shows us Rio which is on the same latitude as Madagascar and oh so much more beautiful than Tananarive. “Everyone’s a worker,” he repeats, slouched against his cushion. But the poet stops the car in front of a pharmacy, with great effort drags himself from his seat, and asks us to kindly wait a couple of minutes for him – he’s going to get an injection.

We wait, and the señor comments: “Poor fellow, he’s diabetic”.

“Is it getting worse?” Letarget asks politely.

Ah yes!

“It’s getting worse.”

The poet returns, whimpering, and collapses on his poor cushion in his miserable car. We land in a restaurant near the market – where they serve only fish – in a quadrangular, high-ceilinged room which is so brutally lit with neon that we all look like pale fish floating through unreal waters. The señor wants to order for me. But I’m exhausted and, wanting to eat lightly, I refuse everything he suggests. The poet is served first, and without waiting for us, he begins eating, sometimes using his short, fat fingers instead of his fork. He talks about Michaux, Supervielle, Béguin, etc., stopping from time to time to spit – sitting straight up – bones and morsels of fish into his plate. It’s the first time I’ve ever seen this operation done without the person bending over his plate. Marvelously skillful for the most part, he only misses his plate once. But then we’re served, and I see that the señor has ordered fried shrimp for me, which I refuse, explaining, in what I believe to be a friendly manner, that I know this dish because it’s quite common in Algeria. The señor gets angry over this. They’re only trying to please me, that’s all. Very humbly, in fact, very humbly. I mustn’t look in Brazil for what I have in France, etc., etc. Rising up out of my fatigue a stupid anger overcomes me, and I push back from the table to get up and leave. Letarget’s kind intervention and also the sympathy that I feel despite everything for this curious poet hold me back, and I make an effort to calm myself. “Ah”, says the poet, sucking his fingers, “in brazil one needs a lot of patience, a lot of patience.” I simply reply, in order to get it off chest, that it doesn’t seem to me that up until now I’ve been lacking in patience. As quickly and irrationally as he got excited, the señor now calms down, and to smooth things over he overpowers me with compliments that leave me speechless. All of Brazil awaits me feverishly. My visit is the most important thing that’s happened in this country for many years. I’m as famous as Proust…

There’s no stopping him now. But finally he finishes with: “It’s for this reason that you should be patient with Brazil. Brazil needs your patience. Patience…that’s what’s necessary in Brazil…” and so on. Despite everything the rest of the meal is calm, even though the poet and the señor toss off constant asides in Portuguese, nd I sense that they’re complaining about me. As for the rest, these bad manners are displayed so naturally that the whole thing becomes rather friendly. Leaving the restaurant the poet declares himself in need of a cup of coffee. He drives us to his club – an imitation of an English club – where I consent to drink a “real” cognac for which I have abosolutely no desire. The señor launches into an explanation fo the administrative difficulties of the Figaro, which I already know very well, but no matter; he continues with a peremptory description which is completely false. In fact Chamfort is right: if you want to succeed in society you have to let people who don’t know anything teach you a lot of things you already know. I say that I want to leave.

The señor points triumphantly at the poet, who’s spread out in his easy chair behind a monstrous cigar: “S. is the greatest Brazilian poet”.

To which the poet, weakly waiving his cigar, replies in a pained voice: “There is no greatest Brazilian poet.”

In the vestibule, just when I think it’s finished, the poet suddenly becomes animated and grabs my arm. “Don’t move,” he says to me. “Observe with all your faculties. I’m going to show you a character from one of your novels.”

We see on the sidewalk a small, thin man, fedora askew, sharp features. The poet hurries towards him, gobbles him up in a long, Brazilian hug and says to me: “This is a man. He is deputy of the Interior. But he is a man.”

The other replies that Federico is excessively kind.

The señor jumps into the game. More hugs, this time between equals, since the señor is a featherweight. And the señor pulls back the deputy’s vest: “Look.”

The deputy is carrying a revolver in a handsome holster. We continue on our way.

“He’s killed at least 40 men,” the poet says, full of admiration. “And why? – Enemies.”


“Yes, he killed one, took cover behind the cadaver, and killed the others.”

“He’s authorized to carry arms,” Letarget says without flinching, “becaue he’s a deputy.”

Looking at me, the poet says: “Isn’t h a character for you?”

“Yes,” I say

But he’s mistaken – he’s the one who’s the character.


Excerpt from:

Camus, A. (1949, 1995) American Journals. Trans. Hugh Levick. Da Capo Press.