When The Book of Rio was published in 2014, it was amidst the extensive media coverage surrounding the Rio World Cup. The economical benefits of hosting such a prestigious international event were shadowed by the various challenges and the negative impact of the aftermath. The most devastating effects of the World Cup hit the Brazillian people, who were evicted from their homes as the government reclaimed the favelas, subjected to excessive police brutality, and some even lost their lives due to the impossible construction pressures, which resulted in fatally hazardous infrastructure. This is most poignantly echoed in Dominigos Pellegrini’s ‘The Biggest Bridge in the World’, which recalls the deadly pace of the Rio-Niteroi Bridge’s construction.
Just two years later, Rio once again finds itself experiencing the same challenges and extensive exposure, only this time with the Olympics. The coverage toggles between alluring depictions of Brazil’s vibrant culture and exposés documenting the city’s austerity and safety shortcomings, which makes the themes in The Book of Rio startling resonant. The editor of the collection, Toni Marques, has provided his starkly honest views on the impact of the Olympics for Brazilians. You can read his musings below followed by an extract from ‘The Biggest Bridge in the World’.
Though it is winter in the Southern Hemisphere, the Summer Games are here. One can take the Northern-centric definition of what the Olympics are, or should be, and crack as many jokes as possible that will tell a lot about what has been going on in Rio since the IOC had given us the opportunity to expose our pathetic nudes on the screens of the world. Yes, nudes. Inequality porn. Obscene lack of running water and sewage networks. Dirty public education. Public hospitals’ filthy innards as an end-of-the-world scat. The mass gang rape led by corrupted politicians. Violence, the supreme click bait. Some barely-legal sense of citizenship, if any. The feel-good stories are also on the menu. The people of Rio de Janeiro have no other choice than trying to survive against all odds.
We are the spectators as well. We are watching Great Brazil flexing its dormant muscles all over again. Not exactly the Great Brazil the military dictators and technocrats had once conceived, about which nobody has written as sharply as Domingos Pellegrini in ‘The Biggest Bridge in the World’, but its improbable offspring, the Millennial Brazil, the country that was born in propaganda speeches, lived briefly in consumers credit card bills and died in the financial news feeds.
– Toni Marques
The Biggest Bridge in the World
From The Book of Rio
Translated by Jon S. Vincent
I used to have a pair of pliers like you wouldn’t believe – yellow plastic handles that glowed in the dark – real German steel. I used them almost every day for eight years. They were with me at Ibitinga, Acaray, Osório Falls, Solteira Island and Capyvara Falls. If I had saved a yard of the copper wire every time I cut a line with those pliers, I’d have enough to last a lifetime. You know, when you lose a tool you’ve used a lot it’s just like losing a finger.
I was working at Capyvara Falls. I was single, without a care in the world, life was a thing with no beginning and no end, and I thought working on dams was a big deal. All you had to do was sign up, always keep your hardhat on your head and your boots on your feet, and the rest the Company told you what to do. You finished one dam and they sent you to another, and life turned into a thing without beginning or end.
That day I had come back from the dam, taken a shower, and we were getting dressed for dinner – I was putting on my shirt and Fifty Volts had been combing his hair for about five minutes – he’d smear a smelly cream on his head and spend half an hour in front of the mirror, until a hank of hair came out in his comb, and then he’d pull it out and throw it on the floor. That’s why damworkers’ quarters always stink – one guy throws hair on the floor, another one spits, another leaves his wet towel on his cot, and the windows are always closed because there’s always one crew sleeping and another on its way out and another coming in. Work on a dam never stops, day or night.
So there we were getting ready, about half an hour before supper, when a guy in a yellow boilersuit walks in, asks if I’m me and if Fifty Volts is him. Then he asked about the other electricians and Fifty Volts says he doesn’t have any kids. The guy didn’t get that and asked if they hadn’t said where they were going before they left, and Fifty Volts came back and said they didn’t ask for his permission when they went out. Then the guy looked at Fifty Volts and said OK, buddy, that’s fine, I’ll fix you up with a nice mule so you can have a good time. Fifty Volts was about to argue some more but the guy said the earlier we found the others the earlier we’d get going.
Then Fifty Volts asked where the party was going to be, and the guy answered, serious: in Rio de Janeiro, pal. I looked out the door and saw a yellow van with Rio plates, turned to Fifty Volts and told him the guy wasn’t kidding. Then another guy in a yellow boilersuit came in with the three electricians who’d left, pulled a piece of paper out of his pocket, and called Fifty Volts and my names and asked the other guy: Where are these two?
I saw that the paper was Company paper, and I was already pulling off my clothes and putting on my work clothes, but Fifty Volts still wanted to argue with them, because he had just come off a 16-hour shíft, hadn’t eaten, and what’s all the hurry and so forth, but the men just said: Look, buddy, if you don’t get ready we’ll leave you, and you can take care of yourself – but by then Fifty Volts had already started changing.
Keep your good clothes on, pal – one of the guys said, and the other one: On the way we’ll stop and pick up some chicks. Then it only took Fifty Volts a minute to get his gear together, all five of us got in the van, and the two guys got in front. We stopped at the Company office and a nice-looking secretary came out with some papers for us to sign right there inside the van. Everybody signed, and there was hardly time to give the pen back because the van took off in a big cloud of dust, and then we noticed that the back of the van was padded, just like a bed but with a canvas cover – and in the corner were two styrofoam boxes.
Fifty Volts took the lid off one of the boxes, and the whole thing was full of canned beer and crushed ice, and in the middle a bottle of brandy. In the other cooler, more beer and a litre of yellow rum. Then one of the guys in front looked back, knocked on the glass so everybody would look at him, and signaled by putting his thumb in his mouth, meaning we could drink all we wanted.
About an hour later they stopped at a restaurant, and we all got out as well as we could and the guys said: You can eat all you want because it’s on the house. We went in and started to chow down – ribs, roast beef, chicken, steak – I ate so much I was sick. It occurred to me to ask what the hell dam it was that we were going to wire, but the topic by then was women and we took off in the van again drinking beer with brandy, in that wild mood you get when you’re going to get laid, and in less than a hundred metres the van stopped.
The house had five women, just right. Fifty Volts got stuck with a fat redhead, and I got a little brunette with a nice face, hard tits, and a tight belly, but within a minute I could tell she was an icecube. I stuck my hand in her and it was just like sticking your hand in a sofa, nothing but stuffing; and there was the fat one with Fifty Volts by her, and she was so cranked up you’d think she had a hot coal in her.
Everybody was playing grab-ass, and every once in a while one of the chicks would get up to get more beer or change the record, and the two guys in yellow boilersuits just hung around outside, like watchdogs. Finally one couple went to the bedroom, then another, and me there with that icecube, and Fifty Volts with the fat one on his lap licking his ear and his neck, and the sofa felt like a boat on rough water, bouncing back and forth, and I couldn’t figure out why Fifty Volts hadn’t headed for the room yet. And me with my chick, with her hand on my knee like it was an ashtray. When I said things to her, she just answered yes or no.
Then I leaned over to fill my glass and noticed that Fifty Volts had his hand on my little brunette’s other knee. So I reached back and grabbed the fat one’s ear so she could see but not him, and I started sticking it in and going around her ear with my finger, and she kept looking at me all fired up, wiggling her tongue around at me. So I told Fifty Volts to go outside with me and take a leak, showed him how it was a starry night and asked him if he wanted to trade. We went back in and I sat down with the fat one and he went over to the brunette, poor guy. For me, it was just a matter of sitting down, steadying the boat a minute and heading for the bedroom.
The fat girl started taking her clothes off standing on the bed, and I was afraid the frame would break, but she kept taking things off and hopping around. She was fat but had good balance, because when she took her panties off she stood on one foot and then on the other one, and I realized then that she was a real redhead, even down there. She only had a black bra left on, a tiny little thing that was too tight on her, so when she took it off her tits seemed to jump out. Then she did a whole turn, not too graceful, to show that she was really fat but wasn’t ashamed of being fat. Then she faced me again, opened her legs, and asked if I thought she was too fat, and I said she was as good as she was heavy, and then I got up and stood on the bed, too, almost naked.
So she grabbed me and pulled me down, and the bedframe broke and she kept squeezing me between her legs and saying Skinny Baby, Skinny Baby, and I was lost in that mass of her. Then she sat on me, just as they knocked on the door: Time to go, pal.
I was the last one. When I went outside, Fifty Volts and the others were already in the van, so I just got in and off we went. The fat girl came to the window with a towel around her and waved, and I started thinking: These guys were even going the price of a girl for us – in exchange for what? The van was hitting the curves at 60 miles an hour. All of a sudden, after wasting all that time, they were in a hurry.
It started to rain pitchforks and the van was still cooking along at over 70. The others went to sleep, all rolled up together with their knees against each others’ heads and their elbows agalnst each others’ necks. I spent the night wide awake. About dawn I started dozing off and Fifty Volts wakes up and says: You should have gotten some sleep, buddy. I asked him if he’d been screwing my mother to be giving me advice like a father, but he kept on. That I should have gotten some sleep. That it was going to be rough. They had orders to fill us up with booze, let us all get laid, and eat meat until we were stuffed. All that so later nobody would demand time off.
With the sky turning all red and the sun coming up I thought Fifty Volts was exaggerating, and I said that nobody dies from working too hard on a Sunday. Then he said: I don’t know. I don’t think we’re going to get off that bridge until either the job or us is done.
The men stopped for a good breakfast, with bread, cheese, butter, honey, milk and crackers, and I thought again that Fifty Volts was exaggerating.
I saw the statue of Christ the Redeemer and a minute later the van stopped. It was the bridge.
The bridge is so big that from one end of it you can’t see the other. They told me later that it’s the biggest one in the world, but I guessed that the minute I saw it – the biggest bridge in the world.
Good news – You can read the ending of Pellegrino’s story, along with nine other short stories, in our Olympics offer Ebook for just £1.99, here!