April 8, 1979
The highway from Santos to Rio de Janeiro winds among steep green mountains that jut into the South Atlantic Ocean. It is not a heavily traveled highway—two lanes of modern asphalt, carefully maintained for the upper-middle-class families who visit the picturesque coastal towns along the way. Near one of these towns, Angra dos Reis, the highway climbs up and circles on a high bluff over one of many fine-sand beaches. On this particular beach, close to the road and slightly below it, domed like a dark basilica, looms Angra II, the nearly completed nuclear power plant.
Sunday afternoon. The sky and sea are bright blue, the air pleasantly cool. Large white clouds shadow the green land. On the beach below, hundreds of people are enjoying the afternoon sun. A white Volkswagen van, similar to thousands of others in Brazil, climbs the slope. It has São Paulo license plates, and its driver and passengers look like São Paulo tourists—a tanned man with gun-metal gray hair, glasses, a trim clean-shaven face, shirt unbuttoned on his chest; two younger men—one a big dark-skinned mulato with kinky hair, the other thin and blond. All three wear leather driving gloves.
Near the top of the slope, just before the road disappears into a cut-out pass over the top of the hill, the van pulls to the shoulder and stops. The two young men leap out. Both are carrying two-foot-long, olive-green metal tubes. The van moves forward a few feet, out of range. The mulato falls to one knee, snaps a clip that releases caps from the two ends of his tube, and pushes a lever that extends it to be a yard in length. Lifting the tube onto his shoulder, he raises it slightly and fires. A rocket swishes out, and simultaneously a strong blast of air shoots backward across the empty road, blowing up dust and litter on the other side.
The mulato waits to see the small explosion against the dome of the nuclear plant, then throws the empty tube down the bluff in front of him. He turns to the blond, who is down on one knee and trying to fire the second tube, fumbling with it ineptly. The mulato reaches out impatiently to take it from him, but just as he does so the tube fires, the backblast barely missing the corner of the van, the rocket heading too low, hitting the small administration building next to the nuclear plant and blasting a large hole in the building’s wall.
The mulato stands up, seizes the empty tube from the blond’s hands, and throws it down the bluff. He gives the blond man a push, and they both turn, running toward the van, leaping into it. The mulato reaches out and closes the van door behind him as the van starts up. Slowly gaining speed, it tops the hill.
Not a policeman, not a soldier is in sight.
The night Harry Quentin learned of his son’s death, he stood looking out his office window at the traffic on the Avenida Rio Branco, seven floors below. A light rain splattered the window. It was Sunday night, and traffic wasn’t heavy. He actually said that to himself—that the traffic wasn’t heavy—and then he thought, I should be feeling more than this.
He had come down to the office in the afternoon. He often did on Sundays—the extra touch that made Harry Quentin & Associados so special, he would tell clients in his smooth, smiling way.
The telephone had rung. “Harry?” His brother-in-law’s voice sounded tense, nervous.
“Is that you, Julio? What’s up?”
A pause. “Harry. I’m down at the Misericordia Hospital. You’d better come.”
“What is it, Julio? What’s happened? Is it Sonia?”
“It’s Tony. Look, you’d better come.”
“For the love of God, Julio. What the hell happened?”
A pause, and his brother-in-law’s voice choked on the other end of the line. His brother-in-law, crying on the telephone.
“By God, Harry, he’s dead.” And then, after another question, a single word: “Cocaine.”
That had been over an hour ago. Harry stood, looking out the window, a stocky man, hair still dark, fingers with large rings, wearing an expensive sport shirt and expensive slacks. The sleek modern windows of his office suite ran down to the floor, making a survey of the traffic much easier. He thought of that. He thought of the expensive beige tiles under his feet. He thought, I should be with Sonia, but he didn’t want to be with Sonia. He could almost feel her dramatic, self-conscious grief enveloping the hospital room. Oh, her grief would be real enough—her son, her Tony. Named after her father, not after Harry—no, that would have to wait. Her boy, who had to be everything, do everything, have everything—rotten, spoiled bastard. Son of a bitch—Harry’s fist hit the window. The glass held, and Harry stood, looking down at the street, nursing his hurt right hand in his left one.
“I’ll be damned. Lourdes, come here.”
Sam’s voice came from the study, where he’d turned the television on low so as not to disturb the children. Sam hated television, she knew; he watched it only because he had to. On Sundays he always delayed turning it on until it was time for the late news.
“What is it, bem?” She came into the study with a slight smile on her face. She was a slender young woman, almost thirty, not particularly pretty but very graceful, with delicate limbs, light-brown mulata skin that freckled across her cheeks and small pugnacious nose, kinky brown hair, lively intelligent eyes.
“Sit down,” her husband said, motioning with his hand, his eyes glued to the set. “They’ve hit the power plant at Angra.”
She sat down on the couch beside him, feeling his intense excitement. He was a dark-haired, nondescript man of average height, fifteen years older than she. He leaned forward, the tips of his long fingers held together as if in prayer, his eyes closely following the figures on the television screen.
It was a commentator now—a thin dark man with a sarcastic tone. The government was to be congratulated on this afternoon’s incident at Angra dos Reis. In the wake of another incident—that of Three Mile Island near Harrisburg in the United States—many people, no doubt foolishly, had begun to question the validity of Brazil’s nuclear energy program. The plant currently under construction at Angra particularly drew attention—located close to Rio, on a slowly sinking beach, under a busy air route, close to the highway. Located, most of all, at that point where prevailing winds would carry any escaping radioactivity directly into the city of Rio de Janeiro, the Marvelous City, the heart-throb of Brazil. Why, some even questioned whether the plant was sufficiently secure. The government, of course, pushed for completion of the plant, but had thoughtfully not improved security. And this afternoon, thankfully without loss of life, the saboteurs neatly illustrated the point and then vanished into thin air. The damage was significant—but what were a few million dollars where so much had already been wasted? The government’s inaction proved its critics right, and that was, for a change, a service to the nation…
Sam stood up and turned the channel. Another commentator came on, a solid man with a somber voice. The incident today was appalling. It was the first major saboteur activity in years. Lives might have been lost—as it was, considerable damage had been done to national progress and to the image of Brazil as a stable, responsible nation. The threat to national security was apparent, but the government’s hands were tied due to the recent repeal of the national security laws. Those who pushed against the government should have realized that they were playing into the saboteurs’ hands. Democracy could not be constructed on the sands of uncertainty, but only on the rock of security.
“Rather unfortunate image, that,” Sam said as he clicked off the television. “Makes you think of the poor old nuclear plant—built on the sands of uncertainty, not on the rock of security.”
Lourdes saw the light in his eyes. She shared his excitement. For the first time in years, someone had really hit back at the smug, stupid military dictatorship. Hit back not with speeches or editorials or opposition in a powerless legislature, but hit hard, like a slap in the face. It made her happy, as it must have made hundreds of thousands of people in Rio happy tonight, to see the government embarrassed and exposed.
But it scared her too. Unlike Sam, she was a Brazilian. She knew, as he knew, that there were people in the government looking for an excuse to crack down. She knew, as he knew, what that could mean, what could happen to the people—to people they admired and were close to. But to Sam, no matter what he knew—and he knew, in factual terms, far more about those years of torture and repression than she would care to know—to him, cruelty and oppression were always an aberration, something to be fought against in the dark corridors of bureaucracy but essentially not part of one, not something that dominated one’s soul. It was an attitude he was only half aware of, an attitude of someone brought up in a safe, strong, bracing world. It was one of the things about him she loved. But she was Brazilian, and she wasn’t so sure. She was scared.
Sam had a professional interest, of course. She knew that his feelings about the matter would resemble hers—the elation, the enjoyment of an attack pulled off without loss of life—but whatever he felt, Sam’s first job was to work for the American government, and when Sam had a job, he did it. He had the keen Yankee sense of responsibility that his father had. Not that he divorced his work from his feelings—he tried as much as possible to carry out his job in conformance with what he felt was right. If the tension became too much, she knew, he’d simply quit his job. As he’d almost done when they said he couldn’t marry her.
She watched him now. It had been a long time since anything like this had happened. The past years had seen some developments: the slow opening of the government’s stranglehold on the country, the end of press censorship, the moral victory of the opposition party in the last election—only the government’s careful manipulation of the legislative process had kept the opposition from gaining control. She knew that, for Sam, all of it had been exciting. But it had also been a long, patient process of keeping up contacts, monitoring newspapers, trying always to have a finger on the pulse of the country. Now here was something dramatic. Men need dramatic events, Sam always said; that’s why they constantly return to wars and revolutions.
“I have to go out and make a call,” he said quietly. They were standing in the hall. He leaned over and kissed her, picked up the light jacket he used in the winter, and slipped out the door.
Their house was in Penha, a working-class neighborhood of small, one- and two-story houses inhabited by shopkeepers and skilled workmen, far from the Rio de Janeiro of beaches, postcards, and hotels. It was an unusual place for an American to live, but then few of Sam’s neighbors realized that he was an American.
It was raining very lightly. The streets were quiet, the little houses and stores closed against the night. The spotlighted white church of Nossa Senhora de Penha stood like a beacon on the steep hill that rose, high and isolated, out of the labyrinth of shops and houses, giving the neighborhood its name. Sam turned toward it, walked down the street and around the corner.
A few years before, the telephone company had installed public phones throughout the city. He walked now toward a cluster of phones—three yellow-orange molded-plastic bonnets hung on a central metal pole, each bonnet arched over a square gray telephone, the whole looking like a strange, industrial flower. He passed that cluster and walked down two blocks to where another yellow-orange flower stood on a corner, in front of a pharmacy. After pausing, considering for a moment, he turned down a side street and kept walking.
He used these phones whenever he wanted some chance of a confidential call. His home phone was almost certainly tapped. At least he hoped so—he thoroughly enjoyed acting the innocent bureaucrat on the telephone at home, playing to a silent, listening audience.
Telephoning had been his excuse for going out tonight. Leaving the house, he hadn’t known whom he would call, but he had to do something. Walking the streets at random, he could think. His initial excitement settled, his mind began to tease out the problems in the aftermath of this romantic gesture of rebellion. He had been watching Brazil for eighteen years, and he knew what would be happening tonight. The somber, unimaginative, moderate wing of the military—presently in power and publicly committed to re-democratization—would be scrambling to save face. The left was a powerless scattering of individuals; the middle classes were cynical and uncommitted; the great masses of the poor—despite a first flowering of strength in the labor unions—were leaderless and inarticulate. The right wing of the army would be waiting, gathering strength.
Reaching a busy cross street, he spotted yet another cluster of public phones and cut across to it, half running to avoid an oncoming taxi. The taxi, blowing an angry horn, whizzed by his heels as Sam reached the curb.
Stepping under the yellow-orange bonnet, he reached into his jacket pocket and drew out several gray, grooved tokens. He needed most of all to know what the government was doing. He picked up one of the receivers, put it to his ear, and deposited the tokens. The receiver made no sound for a suspenseful moment, then purred into a dial tone. He put his finger into the disk and dialed slowly and carefully, letting each number register before dialing the next. If one didn’t do that, the chances of the line going dead were greater. He held his ear away from the receiver to soften the staccato of static that came out of the phone lines when you dialed on rainy days.
The phone rang several times. Sam didn’t really expect an answer. Just as he was about to hang up, however, the call was picked up at the other end. “Alo,” a man’s voice said.
“Harry?” Sam said in English, sounding hearty and very American. “I’ve just been out, walking around town, and thought about you. How about lunch tomorrow?”
There was a pause at the other end of the line. Too long a pause, Sam thought. He wondered whether Quentin had been asleep.
“Sam?” The voice sounded vague, sleepy. “No. Not tomorrow.”
“Well, that’s all right.” Sam was still hearty. “Maybe some other time. Say, did you hear about this thing at Angra dos Reis?”
“Angra dos Reis?”
“Yeah. Some clown took a pot shot at the nuclear plant.”
“Say, are you all right?” Sam asked.
“Me? Sure. I’m all right.”
“Well, call me if you get a day for lunch.”
Sam said good-bye and hung up. He stood by the phone a moment. He’d never known Harry Quentin to be like that before. Of course, he didn’t know Quentin well and had never really liked him. I suppose even New York sales types have their down days, Sam thought. Maybe trouble at home. Lord knew, Quentin was the type to have it.
Sam reached into his pocket, pulled out more tokens, and picked up the receiver to dial another number.
The ringing of the phone jostled Harry Quentin back into consciousness. Not that he had been asleep—only lost somewhere back in 1954, when a young Harry Quentin first stepped off a plane in Rio de Janeiro. It had been a different place then, a magic, tropical city of carnaval queens, green hills, blue sea—a place for a young man to drift. Sometimes he caught himself thinking of that magical Brazil as though it had really existed, like the young man descending the stairway from the airplane under a blue, tropical sky, his future open before him.
He got the message from Sam Snow. Sam, he knew, had not called him out of a sudden desire to eat lunch. There was a reserve in Sam, a well of strong beliefs that Harry didn’t share but that made Harry’s world seem all tinsel to Sam. It was funny, he thought, that Sam, with all his friends, his contacts, was a very private man. It seemed to Harry as if Sam lived in a fortress—not defensive, but distant and strong.
He jerked to his feet, disturbed by the passing time, by the strange turn of his thoughts. How long had it been since Julio called? He had to get to the hospital—or would they have gone home now? He didn’t know. What did one do when one’s son died?
He looked around his office—the large, smooth, uncluttered desk, the brightly colored chairs and curtains, the glossy ceramic floor—looked around as though he had lost or forgotten something. This room—modern, tasteful, prosperous—is Harry Quentin, he thought. He picked up his sports jacket off the back of a chair and moved toward the open door, switching off the lights. The outer office where the secretaries sat during the day was dimly lit, as it always was at night. Silent now, and empty. He walked across it, putting on his jacket, hearing his shoes click on the floor. It was strange, he thought, how little things seemed so clear, how one noticed clicks and the way light and shadows fell in the empty office. Only big things weren’t there, didn’t matter—wrapped away in thick, soundless blankets.
He passed the receptionist’s desk and let himself out the front door into the elevator vestibule—beige tiled floor, light wood paneling, two tasteful paintings of Rio de Janeiro on each wall. This was one of the newest office buildings in Rio, and Quentin & Associates owned the seventh floor. He pushed the little elevator button, and one of the two elevator doors opened immediately—no one had used it since he arrived in the office that afternoon. He was about to enter the elevator when he stopped, turned around, unlocked the front door, and went back to the receptionist’s desk. Picking up the phone, he dialed, then waited as the line connected.
Why are you doing this? his mind was asking—with his son lying dead at the hospital. He was not an introspective man by nature. But living in a foreign country—always, in a way, alone, separated from others by a thin transparent screen because his language, his memories, his youth were something they could never really understand—this makes any man turn frequently to his own thoughts. And he sensed in a blind, groping way that making this phone call was the only thing that would give some small sense of meaning to life.
He rode the elevator down and walked out into the black marble lobby. His shoes clicked even more loudly on the marble floor. The night guard at the front desk looked up, then stood.
“Boa noite, Dr. Harry,” he said—but he made the name sound like “Ah-REE” with a small, hard “r”—almost “Ah-DEE.”
“Boa noite, Fernando,” Harry answered. It came automatically. He even smiled, as he always did. But he couldn’t think of anything else to say. Usually he asked about Fernando’s family or said something about the soccer season, but tonight his mind wouldn’t think, his lips wouldn’t form the strange Portuguese words. He picked up the pen that lay beside the big hour-book and signed himself out, looking at his watch. 10:45. It was the first time he had looked at his watch in—how long? When had Julio called?
He walked out through the big glass door onto the Avenida Rio Branco. The rain had stopped. He waved a passing cab. As he got in, he thought of his childhood in New York, when taking a cab with his mother had been a luxury for very special occasions. Even now, riding in a taxi made him feel like a rich man. He thought, Is going to see my dead son a special occasion, Mother? He stared out the window at the passing lights.
Harry Quentin had never been an idealist. Oddly enough, that was one reason he had been able to become a sincere anti-communist. As a young man not long in Rio, he had seen Communism as one of those fierce, stupid ideologies that wouldn’t leave men alone to transact their business in the sharp, exciting marketplace where one played one’s wits and skill against the world and, if one was Harry Quentin, more often than not won. Communism was against that.
So, in 1957, when a fellow he knew at the embassy asked him if he’d like to earn a little extra cash helping to protect America and fight Communism—in those days the two were the same thing—Harry agreed without qualms. He was just getting started with his firm—public relations, advertising, American contracts, a little trading—and the cash wouldn’t hurt. Some of the early payments came through contracts with branches of American firms, and that helped to develop his business reputation too.
The work was simple enough. He had a lot of contacts—consulting with Brazilian companies, talking to businessmen. The embassy just wanted him to keep his ears open and report back on political trends, discontent, rumors—anything that might help them fill in the picture.
He found that he enjoyed it immensely. It gave his activities a hidden meaning. He would look around, listen, carry out his business deals, and all the time be aware that he knew something his associates didn’t know. He was acting on a level apart from them, in their world but also with his own hidden priorities. He grew adept at acquiring bits of information—business secrets, rumors about people in the government and the military. He sought out government—especially military—contracts, spurred on by his dual motivation, discovering how easy it was to pick up both profits and information in the long halls and tacky offices of government bureaucracies.
His big opportunity came in 1960, just as the U.S. was beginning to worry seriously about Communism in Brazil.
In 1969 I went to Brazil as a Peace Corps Volunteer and lived there for most of the next forty years. I became intrigued by Brazilian philosophical and political attitudes, how they deeply intertwine with the country’s culture, and how they differ from American values.
From 1964 to 1985, Brazil was a military dictatorship. By no means as brutal as the dictatorships in Chile and Argentina, the Brazilian dictatorship nevertheless engaged in violent repression. My novel, Shadow Companion, traces the relationship between two friends, intellectuals who meet as students in Recife in 1961—Jaime Bittencourt, a leftist radical from the privileged classes, and Sam Snow, the son of a liberal Boston Brahman father and a Portuguese-American mother. Sam becomes a U.S. government political agent in the heady Kennedy years; Jaime resists the dictatorship and is imprisoned, tortured, and exiled.
In 1979, under a general amnesty, Jaime returns to Brazil to teach at a university in Rio de Janeiro. The military government is losing its grip on the country, and moderate generals have agreed to gradual re-democratization. Hard-line military and paramilitary elements, however, are against this change and try to manufacture an incident that will appear to be a leftist terrorist act. (In my novel, this is an amateurish attack on an unfinished nuclear power plant; in real life, it was a bungled bombing attempt.)
Through a series of mishaps, the hard-liners cast the blame on Jaime. Jaime, traumatized and terrified after his earlier arrest and torture, flees into the Rio slums. Sam, who is currently stationed in Rio, finds out that security forces are searching for Jaime and seeks to protect him. But Sam is a maverick officer, fully bicultural but with little political weight. In order to protect Jaime, Sam needs to find him, racing against both the security forces and the hard-liners behind the attack, for whom it would be most convenient if Jaime were killed.
The novel describes Brazil and its culture during the 1960s and ’70s, a period and people that I know intimately. Times of crisis—such as dictatorships and resistance to them—call upon people to live out their philosophical and political beliefs, often at considerable risk. Shadow Companion seeks to examine the multifaceted actions of two friends and multiple secondary characters from all classes, as they play out under real political and social tensions.
Arthur Powers currently lives in Raleigh, North Carolina. He is the author of two collections of short stories set in Brazil, A Hero for the People (Press 53, 2013) and Padre Raimundo’s Army (Wiseblood Books, 2020). He has received a Fellowship in Fiction from the Massachusetts Artists Foundation, the 2012 Tuscany Novella Prize, the 2014 Catholic Arts & Letters Award, and numerous other writing honors. His website is arthurpowers.com.
Embark, Issue 9, July 2019