What if they put on Carnaval, and nobody came? A short work of fiction
By James Young
It was a glorious Saturday morning in Recife. A statue in the form of a multicolored rooster, the Galo da Madrugada, towered over the Duarte Coelho Bridge, streamers hung from the lampposts and on every street corner someone was selling beer, snacks or carnaval paraphernalia – rainbow-colored frevo parasols, wigs or whistles.
The VIP boxes that overlooked Avenida Guararapes were packed with local politicians and minor celebrities. In a box sponsored by one of Brazil’s giant beer companies, the mayor of Recife was talking to a young woman dressed in a halter top and a pair of very tight shorts.
“Being on Big Brother Brasil was just the beginning for me,” the young woman was saying. “Really I’m an actress. It’s my dream to be in a novela.”
The mayor bit his lip pensively and said nothing. He looked at his watch – it was already nine o’clock. What was going on? Normally by this time the streets were thronged with hundreds of thousands of revelers, but this morning there were only the beer sellers and a group of blonde-haired, pink-skinned tourists dressed in German football shirts. He gave an involuntary shudder.
He sipped his caipirinha. It was probably nothing. Perhaps everybody had drunk a little too much cachaça the night before. A few sore heads this morning. They would be here. The people loved carnaval. Everything would be fine.
By ten o’clock the Germans had been joined by a Japanese family and an American couple draped in the stars and stripes. Other than that, Avenida Guararapes was entirely empty. The mayor called his counterpart in the neighboring town of Olinda.
“I don’t understand it,” said the mayor of Olinda. “There’s no one here either. The streets are deserted.”
By eleven o’clock, even with free beer and caipirinhas, the VIP box had begun to empty. In Rio de Janeiro, the organizers of the Cordão da Bola Preta bloco, which usually attracted over two million partygoers, reluctantly announced that this year’s event had been called off as no one had shown up. In the afternoon the trio elétricos rumbled through the deserted streets of Salvador for a few hours before returning to their garages in defeat.
On Jornal Nacional that night, an ashen-faced newsreader described similar scenes across the country – cancelled blocos, deserted sambodromos and empty streets. For the first time that anyone could remember, on the opening day of carnaval, the people had decided to stay at home.
In Brasília, the president stared glumly at the TV. No carnaval? She couldn’t understand it. Sure, the economy had tanked, there were the usual corruption scandals, and there were water and electricity shortages, but was that really enough to cancel carnaval? The people loved carnaval! Goddamn it, she loved carnaval – axé, frevo, and most of all samba. Samba was her favorite.
Later that night she addressed the nation. She told the people that even though times were hard, they couldn’t let things get them down. There had always been carnaval. Carnaval was in their blood. Goddamn it, it was their duty to celebrate carnaval! She said “o povo Brasileiro” as often as possible, hoping to stir up a sense of patriotism, and finished off by saying that “God was Brazilian, and carnaval was Brazilian, so get out there tomorrow and party!”
The next day, however, the streets, the blocos and the sambodromos once again lay empty and silent. A survey showed that the president’s approval rating had fallen from 44% to 24% following her speech.
The opposition party was naturally delighted by the president’s woes. A television commercial was hastily put together where the leader of the party, a man from a wealthy family who had trouble connecting with less-well off voters, discussed the crisis. “The boycotting of carnaval is a clear sign that the Brazilian people have rejected this corrupt government, and the president’s message last night shows just how far out of touch she is! Carnaval belongs to the people, not the government!” The commercial ended with an exhortation to vote for the opposition in the next elections.
A survey the next day revealed that the opposition leader’s popularity had also dropped by half.
The crisis continued. Hundreds of foreign journalists arrived to cover the situation, and the Brazilian media reported with pride that the carnaval crisis was making international headlines. A group of well-known soap opera stars, footballers and musicians made a TV commercial in which they sang songs, danced and smiled at the camera, and begged people to come out into the streets and party.
In a darkened underground bunker in Mato Grosso, a group of generals from the Brazilian army discussed what action might be required on their part should the government fail to resolve the situation. Nothing, they decided, was too extreme. In some cities, the police attempted to make Brazilians celebrate carnaval by force – twelve people were shot in two days.
Meanwhile the main TV network attempted to coax people into the streets by showing carnaval footage from the year before and packaging it as live. It did not take long, however, before an observant viewer noticed a banner labeled “Carnaval 2014” and spread the news of his discovery via Twitter. The TV network pulled the footage (though neglected to apologize or admit any wrongdoing). The stock market and the currency both crashed as tourists demanded refunds from their airline companies and hotels and the billion reais carnaval industry ground to a halt.
Monday brought more empty streets. The carnaval cities of Brazil, normally filled with the sound of music and partying, had fallen silent. But then on Tuesday morning something surprising happened. An elderly man, his step frail and uncertain, climbed slowly up the Ladeira da Misericórdia in Olinda. He led a little girl, dressed in a traditional frevo costume, by the hand.
Immediately he was surrounded by TV crews, journalists thrust microphones under his nose and helicopters circled overhead. A nearby frevo orchestra started playing “Vassourinhas” and hired dancers filled the street, leaping in the air and twirling their parasols.
Watching on TV, the president smiled and quickly arranged a conference call with senior party officials. “This will show that playboy from the opposition!” she shouted triumphantly down the phone. “The Brazilian people never give up! Carnaval is back!” She hung up and told an assistant to dig out her old samba records. She was in the mood for a little celebrating herself.
On her TV the elderly man in Olinda was being interviewed. “Sir,” cried one journalist “why do you think no one wanted to celebrate carnaval this year?”
“Hum?” said the elderly man, who was a little deaf.
“Carnaval!” yelled the journalist. “There was no party, no blocos, no Galo. What happened?”
“Oh, I wouldn’t know anything about that,” said the elderly man.
“Come on sir,” pressed the journalist, “you must have an opinion.”
“Well, I can only really speak for myself,” said the old man. He looked down at the little girl, who stared up at him with a worried expression. He squeezed her hand gently.
“Of course! Please do!” yelled the journalists.
“Well, personally, it just seemed a bit silly this year. With all that’s going on, I mean. To go out and jump around, though I don’t do much jumping around these days, he he, not with my hip, I’m not as young…”
“Yes, yes,” shouted the journalists impatiently, “but what about carnaval?”
“Oh, well, like I was saying, it didn’t really seem right, with things as they are, to go into the streets and celebrate, and drink, and laugh, and pretend that everything is great. How does the song go? “Sadness has no end, but happiness does…the great illusion of carnaval, we work all year for one moment of joy”, something like that? Like I say, I can’t speak for anyone else, but…”
The journalists looked perplexed. They stood quietly and tried to digest what the old man had said. Finally, someone asked another question.
“But you’re here now, aren’t you? Have you changed your mind? Do you think there are others coming? Is carnaval back on?”
“Well,” said the old man. “I wouldn’t know about that. And anyway, I’m not here for carnaval. I live around the corner, and I’m on my way to the bakery. My granddaughter here is hungry and wants a snack. Do you know if it’s open?”
Slowly, the journalists lowered their cameras and their microphones. The frevo orchestra fell silent and the helicopters drifted away. In the president’s office, the television screen went blank.
Disclaimer – this is a work of pure imagination with no relation to the reality of 2015 Brazil. Tens of thousands of Brazilians have already taken to the streets for Carnaval. Some Folha coverage of that here. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental. (With thanks and apologies from James Young to Jose Saramago’s “Ensaio Sobre a Lucidez”)