A bestselling literary sensation in Brazil, The Sun on My Head is Geovani Martins’s forceful debut story collection about favela life in Rio de Janeiro. Drawing on his own childhood and adolescence, Martins uses the rhythms and slang rooted in his experience to capture the texture of life there, where every day is shadowed by a ubiquitous drug culture, the constant threat of the police, and the confines of poverty, violence, and racial oppression. The following story, “Spiral,” looks at the divides and alienation within a neighborhood, and their damaging effects on sense of self.
It started really early. I didn’t understand. Once I began walking home from school on my own, I noticed this shifting. First with the kids from the private school on the corner of my school’s street—they shook whenever my crew walked past. It was weird, funny even, because at our school my pals and I didn’t scare anybody. Quite the opposite, we spent our lives running from bigger, stronger kids who were braver and more violent. As I walked around Gávea in my school uniform, I felt like one of those boys who bullied me in class. Especially when I passed in front of the private school, or when an old lady crossed the street, clutching her bag so she wouldn’t bump into me. There were times, back then, when I enjoyed that feeling. But, as I said, I didn’t understand a thing about what was going on.
People say that, compared to other favelas, in the North or West, or in the Baixada Fluminense, living in a favela in the South Zone is a privilege. In a way, I see why they’d think this, I guess it makes sense. What people don’t often talk about is that in the South Zone, unlike in other favelas, the abyss that marks the border between the hill and the blacktop runs much deeper. It’s rough walking out of those alleys, sharing the stairs with pipes upon pipes, stepping over open sewage drains, staring down rats, swerving your head to dodge electrical lines, and spotting your childhood friends carrying weapons of war only to be faced fifteen minutes later with a condominium with ornamental plants decorating its metal gates, and spying teenagers at their private tennis lessons. It’s all too close and too far. And the more we grow, the taller the walls become.
It’s all too close and too far. And the more we grow, the taller the walls become.
I’ll never forget my first chase. It all started in the way I hated the most: me, so distracted I was frightened by the person’s fear and, next thing I knew, I was driving it, I was the threat. I caught my breath, my tears, stopped myself, more than once, from cursing out the old woman who was so obviously flustered about having to stand next to me, and only me, at that bus stop. But instead of moving away, as I always did, I inched closer. She’d try to look over her shoulder without seeming to watch me, I’d draw nearer. She started looking about her, searching for help, her eyes pleading, then I came right up next to her and looked directly at her purse, pretending to be interested in what it might hold, trying to seem capable of anything to get what I wanted. She walked away from the bus stop, her steps slow. I watched her drifting from me. I didn’t quite understand what I was feeling. Then, without blinking, I started following the old woman. She soon noticed. She grew alert, stiff, her tension stretched to the limit. She tried to pick up her pace so that she could reach someplace, anyplace, as quickly as possible. But on that street it was like only the two of us existed. Now and then I’d pick up speed, savoring that fear, full of the dust of another time. Then, I’d slow down again, give her room to breathe. I don’t know how long it all lasted, probably no more than a few minutes, but, to us, it had seemed like a lifetime. Until she stepped into a café and I kept on walking.
The whirlwind over, I felt disgusted for taking it so far, thinking of my grandma and of how this old woman probably had grandkids, too. But my guilt was short-lived. Soon, I remembered how that same old woman who’d trembled with fear before I’d given her reason to certainly hadn’t given any thought to how I probably also had a grandma, a mother, family, friends, all those things that make our freedom worth much more than a purse, domestic or imported.
Even though it sometimes seemed crazy to me, I couldn’t stop, because they wouldn’t either. My victims were varied: men, women, teenagers, the elderly. Despite this diversity, there was always something that brought them together, as if they all belonged to the same family and were trying to protect a common patrimony.
Then came the loneliness. It became harder and harder to cope with any day-to-day things. I couldn’t even focus on my books. I didn’t care if it was raining or shining, whether Flamengo or Fluminense were playing on Sunday, if Carlos had split up with Jaque or there was a special promotion on at the movies. My friends didn’t get it. I couldn’t explain the reason for my absence, and so, little by little, I felt myself drifting away from the people who mattered to me most.
With time, this obsession started taking the form of research, a study on how humans relate to each other. I became both guinea pig and experimenter. I was beginning to grasp my own actions clearly now, decode my instincts. Meanwhile, the difficulty I had in understanding my victims’ reactions seemed to grow by the day. These were people who inhabited a world unknown to me. Not to mention that, since I was supposed to be simultaneously acting, the time I had to analyze my subjects face-to-face was brief and disorienting. Realizing this, I reached the conclusion that I’d have to target a single individual.
It wasn’t at all easy finding this person. I became lost among the many personalities, couldn’t make up my mind. I was frightened. Until one day, walking down the street late at night, a man turned a corner at the exact moment I did, and we collided. He raised his hands, surrendering to the assault. I said: “Take it easy. And beat it.” It’d been a long time since I’d felt that same first, unfettered hatred, the kind that filled my eyes with tears. For a while now, I’d abstracted myself from those feelings of humiliation and even revenge. I’d been approaching my task from an ever more distant, scientific viewpoint. But something in the way that man moved—the way he raised his hands, the look of terror on his face—rekindled the flame that had been lit the day I followed my first victim. He was the one. It could only be him. I waited a moment and then followed after him, invisible.
It’d been a long time since I’d felt that same first, unfettered hatred, the kind that filled my eyes with tears.
His name is Mário. I gathered this piece of information from watching him closely as he greeted acquaintances on the street near his place of work. He had two young daughters, one around seven or eight years old, the other four, five at the most. I didn’t catch their names, because, whenever he was with his family, I followed them from a distance, so as not to raise suspicion. In the end, I christened the eldest daughter Maria Eduarda and the youngest, Valentina. Names that suited their babyish, well-fed faces. His wife, I called Sophia. From where I stood, they seemed happy. On the day they went for a picnic at the Botanical Gardens, they played, ate cake, sweets, and looked at plants together. A bona fide butter commercial, with the exception of the nanny, who walked a short distance behind them, dressed entirely in white.
For the first month, I often orchestrated our encounters. During some of these, he felt intimidated by my presence, in others he appeared not to realize or care. I kept wondering when he’d register my existence. Three months. Until the day I saw in his eyes the horror of his realization. A lot changed after that moment. Mário became another person altogether. Always worried, looking over his shoulder. I watched. Sometimes I stalked him in plain sight, watching his tension grow until he was nearly bursting. Then I stopped, stepped into some establishment, acted natural.
Which brings us to the present. I spent a few days wandering the streets by his house. Once a privilege, living so close to work had become one of his greatest concerns. He’d try losing me by walking down different blocks, but his efforts were in vain; I’d known for a while where his apartment was located. Those were complicated days for both parties. I felt I was taking a definitive step forward but was unsure where this path would lead me. Until we arrived at the final round. I started stalking him, as usual, from a place close to his home. This time he didn’t try to lose me, though. Instead, he took the fastest route back to his apartment. He sweated down the street, red-faced. I trembled at the thought of the many possible outcomes.
He entered his building, robotically greeted the doorman, went upstairs. A window. That’s all I could see of his apartment from my line of sight. I fixed my eyes on that point, this time without hiding; if I saw him, he’d see me, too. A few minutes later, Mário appeared, a wild look in his eyes and an automatic pistol in his hand. I smiled at him, in that moment realizing that if I wanted to keep playing this game, I’d need a firearm, too.
Geovani Martins was born in 1991 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. He grew up with his mother in the Rio neighbourhood of Vidigal. He supported his writing by working as a sandwich-board man and selling drinks on the beach, and was discovered during creative writing workshops at Flup, the literary festival of the Rio favelas. The Sun on My Head is his first book.
Julia Sanches translates from Portuguese, Spanish, French, and Catalan. She has translated works by Susana Moreira Marques, Noemi Jaffe, Daniel Galera, Claudia Hernández, and Liliana Colanzi, among others. Her work has also appeared in Two Lines, Granta, Tin House, Words Without Borders, and Electric Literature. She is a founding member of the Cedilla & Co. translators’ collective, and currently lives in Providence, Rhode Island.