ISSN 2359-4101

Brazilian Literature in Translation / Literatura Brasileña en Traducción

Issue / Numero

year/año: 2015
issue/numero: # 07



A Square in Antwerp


Author | Autor: Luize Valente


Translated by Lori Beuligmann

Historical note


In June of 1940, the city of Bordeaux set the scene for crucial events of World

War II. The French government fled there after Nazi occupation of Paris and

it was there that Marshal Pétain officially announced their surrender to the

Germans. Amidst the disbelief and conformity of a Europe trapped under the

steamroller of the Third Reich, it was also in Bordeaux that a Portuguese consul

stood strong against the fear and challenged the order of dictator Antonio Salazar.

Aristides Sousa Mendes was the protagonist of what is considered by many

as the greatest rescue movement by a single person during World War II. After

locking himself in his office for days, witnesses say that Sousa Mendes emerged

with strangely grey hair and began issuing transit visas to Portugal, unbeknownst

to the government and without the usual bureaucracy, to Jews and non-Jews fleeing

from Nazism. The number is uncertain, but it is estimated to be about thirty

thousand. He lost his diplomatic status as a result and lived out the rest of his days

in poverty, never receiving recognition while alive for the thousands of people he

saved during the Holocaust.

This is a work of fiction that uses these and other historical facts from the

20th century as its backdrop.


Rio de Janeiro, January 1, 2000


PROLOGUE


The grey sky and misty rain replaced the sunshine on the first day of the new

year, the new millennium. The world hadn’t come to an end. People could

be heard here and there on the street, singing and laughing their way home. The

cups, cans and champagne bottles lying on the curb were the full extent of what

remained that Saturday morning after New Year’s in Copacabana.

Under the weight of her eighty-three years of age, from the heights of her

penthouse at the most coveted spot to ring in the New Year, Olivia felt small. It

was six in the morning and she hadn’t slept a wink. A little after two in the morning,

she’d gone to her room, giving the silent signal that it was time for everyone

to leave. Twenty minutes later her granddaughter, also named Olivia, entered the

bedroom and she kept her eyes closed. A few minutes later, the sounds of cups

being thrown away followed by the click of the door cleared the way for her to get

up and go to the balcony, where she remained until daybreak.

She remembered how at midnight she’d wished that the world had ended.

The champagne was popped as a farewell to last year, as a farewell to her son.

They drank amidst the exchange of trivial greetings of Happy New Year and empty

words common to moments of deep sadness. For the last twenty years - since

Olivia moved to the penthouse in the annex of the most glamorous hotel in the city

- her apartment had been the gathering place for the family at the end of the year.

As the end of the millennium approached, the expectations and bets about

the New Year’s celebration rose. Olivia never thought she’d live past eighty years

old to see that day, much less that Luiz Felipe wouldn’t be there.

The urn with his ashes rested on the buffet alongside the picture of him as a

baby with his father, Antonio. In a few minutes, she would grant him his last wish.

— Grandma, are you sure you want to go? — Her oldest grandson’s question

was followed by silence. He insisted, — Grandma, maybe we should wait for daybreak,

we can go in the morning when it will be calmer.

Olivia caressed the urn and responded with a firm smile on her face.

— Tom, remember how your father refused to watch the fireworks from up

here? Twenty minutes to midnight and there he would go with the bottle of champagne

and plastic cups… “Happy New Year Mom, this place for this Portuguese is

down there, in the midst of all those people!” Well, that’s where we’re going. Now!

And now, Olivia was still there, sitting on the balcony on the first day of the

new year. The world really had come to an end — it’s not fair to watch your son die

without being able to do anything about it.

She picked up the photo she always carried with her. She then slowly studied

it, the woman, the man and the child.

She didn’t even hear the sound of the door opening, nor the light footsteps

across the rug. Tita, her granddaughter who was also named Olivia, entered slowly.

She had not slept that night either.

It wasn’t her uncle’s death that kept Tita awake; it was the death of her dream.

Why was it so difficult for some women to get pregnant?

Tita lost her first baby, then the second and now the third. She kept the pregnancy

a secret already expecting another failure. Only her grandmother knew about

it. Tita needed to tell her now, needed to share her pain even though she knew she

was being selfish. Her grandmother had just lost her son, but she had too.

The granddaughter sat down. Olivia rested her head on her granddaughter’s

shoulder. She rested the weight of eight decades. Tita felt embarrassed. Truth be

told, she’d gone there to cry, to vent her loss. Maybe it was time to see the world

without having to be the center of attention. A few seconds of silence passed, both

of them staring straight ahead. The grandmother was the first to speak.

— You lost the baby, didn’t you? — She said without looking directly at her

granddaughter, who nodded her head in confirmation. — I also lost a baby — she

whispered as she ran her fingers over the photo, as if that would allow her to reach

out to the child.

That was when the yellowed and worn photograph in Olivia’s hand drew Tita’s

attention. She recognized the young woman as her grandmother. She was pregnant,

probably with her own mother. However, she didn’t recognize the man beside

her, nor the boy in his arms. Who were they? Where was it taken? A square in some

European city, but certainly not Lisbon, from which her grandmother came.

Words were written on the back in a language she didn’t understand.

Antwerpen, Familie Zus, Verjaardag Bernardo, drie jaar, 4 februari 1940.

She took the picture from her grandmother’s hand, who offered no resistance.

She stared straight ahead, as if she were somewhere far away, in a place that only

she knew.

— Grandma, who is this man? And this child? — her voice was low and fearful.

Her grandmother translated the words written in Flemish.

— Antwerp, Zus family, Bernard’s third birthday, February 4, 1940.

Then she got up. She motioned for her granddaughter to wait. Seconds later,

she came back with another picture from the same timeframe. Tita recognized her

grandmother, her grandfather Antonio who died before her own mother was born,

and Uncle Luiz Felipe as a very young boy.

Olivia placed the two photographs side by side. After a brief silence, she turned

back her granddaughter and first pointed to the photo that was familiar to her.

— This is Antonio in Portugal, shortly before coming to Brazil, with Luiz Felipe…

still a baby. I kept my promise and took care of him right up to the last minute,

loved him more than life itself. I wished for the cancer to be mine, for it to take me

and not make me go through this all again!

Tita listened incredulous. Her grandmother then picked up the other photograph

and spoke while looking back and forth between the picture and her granddaughter.

— This is Theodor, oh, how I miss him… — she paused, which seemed more like

a prayer, as she stared at the tall and thin man, then ran her finger over the boy’s

face. — And this is Bernardo, who I never forget for even a minute.

Tita started to speak, but was interrupted. There was a catch in her grandmother’s

voice as she pointed at the pregnant woman beside Theodor.

— And here I am, pregnant with your mother, Helena. — She then pointed at

the woman in the other photograph, who also seemed to be her. — And this is Olivia…

my twin sister. I am Clarice.


Border of Spain with France, 1940


Clarice and Olivia observed everything, scared. They weren’t sure what was

happening. The only thing everybody talked about were the terrible conditions

of the armistice that France negotiated with Germany. For them, however, it

was something that would remain on the other side of the border. A single night

had never seemed so long. They were close to the corner near the church. Olivia

helped the boy unbutton his pants and then crouched down to urinate in a dark

corner. Clarice remained alert, like a guard, under the dim light of a lamppost.

A car slowly passed by, downshifting. In the back seat, there was a man with

fine, arched lips. His curved nose gave him the appearance of an eagle. The man

set his eyes on Clarice. He stuck his head out the window and continued to watch

her until the car turned left. A bad feeling ran through her body. She was in the

crosshairs of that eagle eye. Olivia approached in a state of shock. She knew that

face well. She took a deep breath and returned to her sister.

- Clarice – her tone was calm, but tense –, that man is from the Portuguese

police. His name is Fagundes. I’ve seen him several times in the market. He’s always

kind, but a treacherous type. When he arrived, Antonio treated him like a special

client. We didn’t want any trouble with him. Word is that he’s a slick and dangerous

man. I’m sure he confused you with me. - Her voice came out trembling. - We have

to get out of here.

- Olivia, calm down! - Clarice tried to calm her sister, as she also tried to calm

herself. - We’re tired, nervous. Nothing is going to happen. There was hardly any

light. And what would you be doing here on the Spanish border, alone, in the middle

of the night? He probably thought I was a familiar face…that’s all! The car kept

going, already gone! - She tried to sound unconcerned. - Soon Theodor will be

back with the tickets and we’ll be on our way to Lisbon. Everything’s going to be

ok! We made it this far! The worst is over! - she said, squeezing her sister’s hands.

But neither Clarice nor Olivia believed that. Clarice grabbed Bernardo and

hugged him tight. She felt real fear. Much different from the panic before the

bombings, or when they escaped death in that open field alongside the road and

in the shelters in Calais and Bordeaux. Theodor wasn’t there. If that man were to return,

what should they do? They could tell the truth. Say that they were twins, that

Olivia went to find her in France, that her husband had a visa to enter Portugal,

that they would be going to Brazil. But Theodor was a Jew, communist and had

fled Lisbon, from men just like that one. The best thing to do was to blend in with

the crowd, return to the café and wait for her husband. He would have the answer.

From there, everything happened very fast. The car appeared on the corner

again. Clarice squeezed Bernardo tight and passed him to her sister.

- Listen, Olivia. Everything will be ok. I’ll make up a story. I’ll pretend I’m you

and it will all work out! This man will continue on his way and we will too! Now go!

Stay in the café with Bernardo – she said, hurrying her sister along. - I’ll talk to him

and then I’ll meet you there!

Olivia crossed the street with her head down, Bernardo clinging to her neck,

just before the car stopped.

The man slowly approached, like a hunter observing its prey before the attack.

A chill ran down Clarice’s spine and she felt the baby kick. “Not now”, she pled

softly. “Be quiet, my dear. Mommy needs to be calm.” She closed her eyes and then

opened them with an angelic smile on her face.

- Olivia? - he said gently, just as her sister described him. - It’s really you! - he

said, taken aback.

She nodded her head and remained silent.

- What are you doing here? Where is Antonio? Did he come back from Brazil?

- he asked. - And with this belly?! How did you end up here? - he fired one question

after the next, still unbelieving she was there.

Clarice waited for a pause and responded, with all sincerity. Antonio was still

in Rio de Janeiro. She invented a story of half-truths. She’d come to Bordeaux a

month ago to get her only aunt, a widow who was ill and lived alone there. She

intended to take her to Portugal. The old woman, however, was hospitalized and

she ended up staying. Unfortunately, she died, which delayed her return to Lisbon.

After that, it was the same story that everybody else knew. The city was bombed.

The building was struck and destroyed. She only had the clothes on her back.

Antonio didn’t even know she was there. It wouldn’t do any good to worry him

anyway. But now everything was ok. She would leave on the express to the capital

in the morning. She thanked him for his attention. Now she had to go. She was with

friends, who were waiting for her in the café.

When she finished talking, Clarice recovered. Even she believed what she’d

said. Fagundes can’t be all that bad, she thought. He listened to her attentively,

without interrupting. It seemed like they were the only two people on the street.

Not even the intense movement and rumbling bothered that man who lit one cigarette

on the other and kept his arms crossed. Clarice then extended her hand

to say goodbye. At that moment, he threw the cigarette butt on the ground and

slowly put it out with the toe of his shoe. He turned back to her.

- That’s quite an adventure! - he said in a suave voice. - But you have nothing more

to worry about. - He faced her with eagle eyes. - I hold your husband in high regard. You

will return to Lisbon with me. I’ll take you back to your home, safe and sound. We’re on

our way to the capital. - He pointed to the car stopped a few yards away.

Clarice froze. She wasn’t expecting that response. She had to think quickly.

There was no way out of the lie. Her voice came out low and unsteady.

- That’s very kind of you – her tone was formal - , but the convoy leaves in a

few hours. I’m well, with friends. We’ll leave at sunrise… Speaking of, they must be

worried! I left the café to get a little air, I have to get back – she said, hurried.

He took another cigarette from the pack and lit it with a terrifying serenity.

After taking the first drag, he looked her in the eyes once again.

- Olivia, I don’t want to be rude, but you seem to be a little lost and outside

of reality. - He paused. - We’re in the middle of a war! This here – he extended his

arm, pointing around – is not a vacation spot! It’s full of refugees; this filthy mob

is going to Portugal with illegal visas! Jews, communists, every type of traitor. You

have no idea what is about to happen. I was in Bordeaux and in Bayonne to see

up close and personal the insanity of our consul. The man went mad giving authorizations

without the government’s consent! - His soft voice gave place to an

agitated tone. - But this party is about to end! The Spanish were warned. Nobody

gets through anymore! - he ended, snorting. - You will leave with me, now. If you

like, I’ll accompany you to the café to say goodbye to your friends. - He lowered his

tone and the soft voice returned. - I’m sure they are good people, but I don’t have

room to take all of them. Everybody will meet again in Lisbon. Now – he completed

unwaivering – it’s my obligation to get you out of here! - he exclaimed, stomping

his foot on the ground.

Clarice listened with her head down, wide eyed. She wanted to run away and

get lost in the crowd. There was nowhere to run. She was cheated by her own lie. If

she were to change her story now, it would only confirm that she was hiding something.

It would certainly raise suspicion. She would have to go to Lisbon in that car.

She raised her head and, with her wits about her, spoke calmly.

-You are right. I’m very confused, many hours without sleep… All these people

around… - She sighed. - I’ll go to the café and return in five minutes. - He moved

to accompany her, but she stopped him. - It’s better if I go alone, you understand,

don’t you? They were so kind up until now. I’ll say I met up with my husband’s

friend and that I’ll return by car… That way they won’t bother you with requests for

a spot in the vehicle. - She whispered.

Fagundes agreed with a nod and remained silent. Clarice crossed the stone

street slowly and entered the café. Olivia was at a table close to the counter, watching

the door. She was afraid that Fagundes would enter. Clarice made a motion for

her not to get up. Upon arriving at the table, she was quick.

- Listen, Olivia. I can’t take too long. Fagundes could enter any moment now.

He believed that I’m you…and I confirmed it with an untrue story…that I can’t undo!

I’m going to have to go back to Lisbon with him. He was unwavering. - She swallowed

hard. - I need your passport. Theodor has mine. The situation is getting

worse and worse… We were lucky to cross the border. From now on, the Spanish

will be more rigorous. The important thing is that we’re already in! And soon you

will be on the convoy to Lisbon. - She fell silent, her eyes filled with tears.

She then picked up Bernardo and kissed him all over.

- Son, I want you to know that I love you so, so much. Your aunt is going to

take care of you. We’ll soon be together again! - She returned to Olivia and gave

her the boy. - I’m so sorry for all this trouble, my dear sister… Take care of my boy

as if he were yours. Explain to Theodor what happened. I have to go – she ended,

wiping away the tears.

Olivia was also crying. The two of them hugged each other and stood still as

if they were back in their mother’s womb, until Olivia spoke.

- This will all be over soon! Go now. - She paused. - And give my little boy lots

of kisses when you arrive… Tell him I love him more than anything… Take care of

him as if he were your son! And I’ll take care of Bernardo as if he were mine! We’ll

soon be together… Now go!

Clarice hugged her son one last time. She felt pain, a deep sense of loss. She

didn’t want to think about it. She walked to the door of the café and, just like hours

before when she’d said goodbye to Theodor, she waved to Bernardo and Olivia.

The two of them waved back. It was the last image she had of them.





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