Under Our Skin—A Journey

By JOAQUIM ARENA
Translated by JETHRO SOUTAR

 

And then, as is its wont, death comes knocking at the door. This time from two thousand miles away.

I try to get the image I have of him in my head to focus. The man who tried to be my father for over thirty years. Officially, not biologically, and not anymore. A death that will nevertheless force me home, back to Lisbon, just when I thought I’d found my place on this dry and sleepy island.

We think we sleep better under the sun than in the cold, but maybe there’s just more time here. Slowness makes energetic thinkers of us all.

It’s said that the days are more suited to reflection in the tropics. For the many Cape Verdeans who lead their lives elsewhere, governed by the European clock, reflection is an almost alien concept. But here, unlike in England, for example, and unconsciously, of course, we can experience luxury in the form of a simple shadow. As a consequence, we’re less materialistic than others. But it’s not only the sleepy dryness of the islands; there’s also a sort of metaphysical restlessness here that stimulates creativity, especially when it comes to music. Despite the isolation, the vastness of the blue sky and the ocean gives us a sense of continuity, an appreciation of the light that bathes all human beings and the conviction that we too will get to dip our spoons in the great universal soup pot.

So what does being tropical mean? Being less concrete and assertive in our ideas and convictions? There’s certainly an art to filling the arid hours and empty nights here.

The bad news comes, here as everywhere, first thing in the morning. I retreat to the intimacy of my bookshelves and flick through a few tomes, while outside, the day quickly passes from fresh to mild to heat wave. It’s absurd to try and fit the news of someone’s death into the context of whatever story you have at hand, some false, pseudo-writerly notion of anguish. It’s as if a ghost has settled in between the lines and started hopping from noun to pronoun, though verbs would doubtless take it further. How many lives are embodied within these spines? How many testimonies and possibilities of what it is to be human are contained within these pages? My library is my cathedral, and today it serves as my confessional.

I think about an ideal end for him: some bloody crime that might afford him a little glory at the last, like a flourish of beauty on a dead flower that speaks of past grandeur.

But all I feel is anger at the impertinence of his having died.

I leave the house and go for a walk, hoping time and space will force some sign of grief out of me. I pass a group of students singing, watch a flock of birds score through the cloudless sky. It’s winter in Lisbon, but here in Cape Verde the sun beats down on everything with sad and heavy rays. For a brief moment I recall our journey to Portugal all those years ago, picturing it all neat and tidy, a tranquil home with everything tucked away in its proper compartment, even our shadows. The naphthalene smell of his suitcase suddenly comes to me, his personal affairs, his perfumes and aftershaves, until I turn around, change course and head up the road toward Bairro da Ribeira Bote and the house where he was born.

Through a chink in the doorway, I see a young teacher on a wooden bench, a dozen children sitting on the cement floor before him. I’m struck by the spirit of schoolmasters the world over, preparing their charges for life, a sublime poem written on the blackboard. The building, which became a schoolhouse some time ago, is in a fairly bad state. The people who use or live in it have plastered cement and whitewash here and there, while the neighborhood youth have fashioned a gym with barbells in the yard. A young prostitute lives in the annex room at the back, her eyes moist, a red rose tattooed on her chest.

The news from Portugal speaks of cold mornings and even snow in Lisbon, something rare indeed. My stepfather was found in a building undergoing renovation work. The owner let homeless people spend the night there when it got particularly cold. My father was lying on his side, uncovered, hunched up, fully clothed and wearing shoes. He had plastic bags beside him containing a few odds and ends, and an old suitcase. He wore denim trousers, and his belt and fly were undone. It had looked like he was asleep, laid out on a mattress, his back against the wall.

At night I look out on the bay of Porto Grande and the lights of boats reflected in the water, twinkling in the silence, like flags without masts, fallen from Monte Cara. It was from here that the landscape of my childhood changed forever.

There’s no question that time is our biggest killer, and that if a man lets an abyss open up inside him, only he himself can cross it.

My stepfather died painlessly and silently.

He’s breathed his last breath, but I’m left wondering if the stones on the pavement remember the weight of his body, the weight of defeat that had accompanied him for some time. The hardest part isn’t imagining him dead, lying cold and heavy on a mattress. I find it much more painful to imagine him as a child—the restless and mischievous child he was said to be—a habit I’ve had since my own childhood that now resurfaces whenever an adult close to me dies. I’m left with the image of how my father’s face and body would shake when he laughed, struggling to regain his composure. His last gasp, a final portrait on a cold morning cut short. But when all is said and done, we cannot truly tell if the images that pass through our retinas come from the outside or are produced inside ourselves.

A few days later, I begin my return.

I abandon the island where I’ve spent the last few years trying to recover a life denied to me as the child of emigrants, trying to solve the age-old problem of my identifying skin. I’d come to fulfill a wish, but it was an idealized life, and now it’s run its course. Time to reclaim my other life, the one waiting for me back in Lisbon, the one where I follow in the footsteps of the man pretending to be me.

 

Before writing about the search for the great white whale, Herman Melville sailed the world’s oceans in the company of many a Cape Verdean shipmate.

In a short story entitled “The ’Gees” (an abbreviation of “Portuguese”), Melville refers to Cape Verdean sailors, and specifically men from Fogo island, as being Portuguese. In what is doubtless one of the first examples of Cape Verdean people appearing in any American publication, Melville has his narrator recount, and indeed display, all the prejudice and disdain American sailors felt for these singular men, whom they considered inferior. The narrator also mentions the ash expelled from the volcano on Fogo and the island’s great poverty, describing fish as the one and only food source.

“The ’Gees” is a satire, and, at first reading, it is not entirely clear why Melville turned his attention on the Cape Verdeans: out of sympathy, solidarity, compassion, or contempt for them as sailors?

Melville’s narrator, an old sea dog, describes Cape Verdeans as being small of stature, but brave and with a great capacity for work, when the moment suits them. They are said to lack imagination, but have great appetites; to have huge eyeballs, but little insight; to possess mouths that are too big for their bellies. They have short necks and round, compact heads, which the narrator takes to be a sign of solid understanding. Their teeth are strong, durable, square, and yellow, and their bodies have a peculiar odor—like the negro, but different.

It is intriguing, and somewhat bewildering, that Melville’s narrator does not consider the Cape Verdeans to be Black. Their hybrid complexion, he says, puts them in a sort of limbo that allows for all kinds of classification. In speaking of the islands, there is an indulgent tone to his stating that “all the likelier sort were drafted off as food for powder, and the ancestors of the since-called ’Gees were left as the caput mortuum, or melancholy remainder.”

Cape Verdeans became known to American skippers in the early nineteenth century when whaling ships docked at Fogo seeking crew hands. By the time Melville wrote his story, in 1856, men from Fogo were to be found on almost every American whaling ship.

In Melville’s story, Cape Verdeans are favored because they demand no wage whatsoever; they work merely in exchange for biscuits, dished out almost as liberally as cuffs and blows. But many captains also judged the “’Geesˮ to be physically and intellectually superior to American sailors, who were liable to cause trouble if conditions were not to their liking.

Be that as it may, Melville’s narrator points out that it is unwise to sail with a crew composed entirely of Cape Verdeans, due to their clumsy feet. Inexperienced Cape Verdeans—“green ’Gees”—were liable to fall off the rig and into the sea on the first stormy night.

But they were always ready to sail, he says, so long as you waved a handful of biscuits at them, and so the important thing was to be a good judge of them, which meant you had to study each one like a horse: “Simple as for the most part are both horse and ’Gee, in neither case can knowledge of the creature come by intuition.” A captain was therefore advised to stand three paces in front of a potential recruit and look him up and down to gage his stature and to take in the shape of his head, the size of his ears, the state of his joints, his legs, and his chest. It was wise not to hire a Cape Verdean on a countryman’s recommendation, for a captain from New Bedford had taken a man on board who, at the first gathering in of the sail, had hitched up his trousers to reveal shins plagued by elephantiasis. On a long sperm-whaling voyage, the captain had been unable to disembark the man and ended up sailing him and his elephantiasis around the world for three whole years.

Melville’s satirical text mocks ignorance in general, but particularly targets the scientific community and racist research masquerading as ethnology, most prevalent in the United States and Europe at the time.

But it was no less true that Cape Verdeans in the U.S.—be they white, mixed-race, or Black—went to great pains to distinguish themselves from American Blacks. All Cape Verdeans, a mixed-race island people, feared being “mistaken” for ordinary Blacks, and such complexes and contradictions hold true today, wherever Cape Verdeans are and no matter how much they try to hide it.

Back in Lisbon, I catch the ferry over the River Tagus to meet an old sailor who’d been like a brother to my father. I try to get my thoughts in order during the short crossing. If I really want to understand my stepfather’s life, I need to look beyond my own memories.

There’s a picture in one of our family photo albums of my stepfather dressed dashingly in a shiny beige shirt with gold cuffs, surrounded by a motley crew of other foreign sailors. He was a lively, headstrong boy from Ribeira Bote who sailed the oceans and saw more of the world than most men of his generation. He and his fellow seamen all answered the same call: to live a little; to taste life in all its fragile extremes. Come rain or shine, they would never feel so alive and full of hope as they did as twentysomethings in Kobe, Yokohama, Fukushima, Singapore, Port Klang, Shanghai, Yangzhou, Hong Kong, experiencing one revelation after another. There was no time to think about death; you just had to go with the flow, ride the waves and your luck, though some would have assigned a certain metaphysical aura to their fate.

Juca retired from seafaring many years ago. He ushers me into a living room and motions for me to sit down on a brown leather sofa. There’s a giant photo on the wall of the main square in Ribeira Brava, the village where he’s from. Smaller framed photos sit atop various items of furniture. Most are of his wife and kids, but one is of three young men on the deck of an oil tanker; two of them are bare-chested and look like they’re going through some sort of boxing routine, under the tutelage of the third.

Juca begins by telling me about when he bumped into Pio, as he calls my stepfather, in Rotterdam in the early 1960s. It was in a bar called Le Ciel Bleu, which was popular with Cape Verdean immigrants at the time, and my father exclaimed: “They might as well close the doors right now, Juca, because tonight we’re the only customers in town!” But then Juca confides to me that Pio was a man with more than one personality.

They first met in 1952 at the Escola da Pontinha, a vocational college on the Cape Verdean island of São Vicente. “Back then, our parents didn’t have the means to send us to school, so we went there to become apprentices. Your father worked for Shell, and I always went with him when he got his lunch, because he’d give me whatever he had left over. Then in 1956 I set sail on the Casamance, a steamship owned by the Compagnie Nationale de Navigation. I tried to get him a place alongside me, but he wanted to work in the engine room. I later found out he’d got a job as a cook on the Peter Hess, a Dutch boat.”

Their paths soon crossed in Curaçao and again in Aruba in the Dutch Antilles. As ever, their reunions were full of party spirit.

“We danced the twist, salsa, cumbias—the port guys always sorted us out some chicks from Bonaire, who we could get along with well speaking in Papiamento. Pio would say: ‘Oh, Juca, if only we could stop the hands on the clock right now….’ Another time, I bumped into  him in Lisbon, at the Andaluz nightclub—it must have been the early 1980s—at this big party for the crew of an Esso Netherlands supertanker. We hugged and almost cried with joy when we saw each other that night.”

Juca spoke Italian, Spanish, French, Greek, Wolof, and English, as well as Portuguese and Creole. “Wherever we docked, I was always the one sent to buy provisions, even in places like the Soviet Union, where it was very hard to get fresh supplies.ˮ

While Juca talks, I think about my father’s spendthrift attitude. I begin to understand that look of self-assurance so evident in the photo album.

“The likes of me and Pio saw more of the world than most men. We tended to prefer the Americas, because it was easier in terms of language, music, food, women, etc. But the country that made the biggest impression on me was Japan. People there would leave their shoes at the door of their own homes, but also to go into dance halls. I must have been to at least twenty cities in Japan, and I never saw a calmer people. They never ran. Once, in Osaka, a siren went off to say a typhoon was coming, but no one broke into a run. New Zealand and Australia were also very impressive; we would go there to pick up a cargo of onions to take back to Holland. I once saw a policeman in Australia stop the traffic to let some crustaceans cross the road. Then there was Canada, where we traveled up the Saint Lawrence River as far as Detroit and Duluth, an amazing trip.ˮ

Juca’s expression changes.

“Pio was a good person when he didn’t drink. He was a peaceful soul when there was no alcohol involved, believe you me. And I know what I’m talking about: if I hadn’t decided to retire, on the twentieth of January, 1980, I might not be alive today either.”

Having contemplated the end, Juca goes back to the beginning.

“When we started out as apprentices in the dockyards in São Vicente in the 1950s, there was a special motorboat that took oil out to ships anchored in the bay. No matter how hard we worked the motor, the boat would only ever start when it felt like it. We nicknamed it Tont ta dam. And that was Pio’s motto in life.”

Tont ta dam: not so much “I would prefer not to” as “I don’t give a damn.”

 

[Purchase Issue 20 here.]

 

Joaquim Arena was born on the island of São Vicente in Cape Verde in 1964 and moved with his family to Portugal at age six. He has written two novels, one novella, and the nonfiction work Debaixo da Nossa Pele—Uma Viagem (Under Our Skin—A Journey), which was runner-up and awarded an honorary mention for the INCM/Vasco Graça Moura Prize. A former journalist, he is currently the culture and communications advisor to the president of Cape Verde.

Jethro Soutar is a translator of Spanish and Portuguese. He has a particular focus on works from Africa and has translated novels from Equatorial Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, and Cape Verde. He is also editor of Dedalus Africa and a co-founder of Ragpicker Press. Originally from Sheffield in the UK, he now lives in Lisbon, Portugal.

Under Our Skin—A Journey

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