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Featured Writer

Jacinto Lucas Pires

We at Ninth Letter are delighted to be able to debut selections from The True Actor, the latest novel by the Portuguese writer Jacinto Lucas Pires (Disquiet Books, 2013, translated by Jaime Braz and Dean Thomas Ellis).

If Pires isn't a creative polymath, then no one is. He has written novels, short stories, plays, screenplays, a travel book, and he is also a newspaper columnist, frequently commenting on cultural and political topics. His work has been translated into a half-dozen languages, and he has won numerous awards throughout his career, including the 2008 David Mourão-Ferreira European Literature Prize for his story collection Whistling in the Dark. When I lived in Lisbon, I was fortunate to be able to see one of his plays, Os Vivos (The Living). The play was staged throughout the courtyard of the Belém Cultural Center, where actors deeply engaged in conversations or arguments with each other wandered among the crowds; several lucky members of the audience had been given headphones, and when an actor passed by, one could hear the words that character was thinking, often at odds with what he or she was saying aloud.

If all this is activity and accomplishment isn't enough, Jacinto Lucas Pires is also a singer and songwriter, one half of the Portuguese rock and roll duo Os Quais, and he has been kind enough to let us feature "Quando Ela," one of the songs from the group's most recent CD, Pop é o Contrário de Pop.

Jacinto Lucas Pires's new novel, The True Actor, follows the struggling, hapless actor Americo Abril as he makes his way through Portugal's contemporary landscape of economic austerity. A "big break" comes his way--playing the lead in a film titled Being Paul Giamatti, a meta-meta story of Giamatti "as a stranger in the world, an unwitting poet and an adorable schlump...the happy-sad clown." The role perhaps cuts too close to the bone of Americo himself, and Pires sends it all up with a droll humor and empathetic sadness. We hope you will enjoy this excerpt.
--Philip Graham



The True Actor

"Answer the phone," says the voice on the phone.

"But I'm already on the phone," says Americo.

"Five minutes. Answer the phone in five minutes."

"What if I'm still on the phone in five minutes?"

"You'll stand by the phone, and you won't move an inch, and you'll wait."

"Oh, really? And how do you know that?"

"I'm telling you, that's how. It's a very important call, so don't screw it up. Whatever happens, answer the fucking phone."

"Alright, relax."

"Relax, nothing," says the voice. "Answer the phone."

"Got it," says Americo. "But right now I can't."

"Alright, then, I'll hang up."

Five minutes later, the phone rings. Americo lets it ring three times and picks up. Murilo was right; it is a very important call. An English producer is on the line, a Somebody Summers, inviting him to play the lead in a big-budget international film, and soon. At first, Americo thinks that maybe this is some kind of joke, so he just goes "Uh-uh, uh-huh," whenever there's a pause on the other side, tentatively, so as not to commit himself. But he soon realizes, based on the foul language and his accent, that no, this is the real deal. It's too absurd to be a prank. He doesn't get half of what Mr. Summers says in his rapid-fire English, but this much is clear: the producer finds it incredibly funny that Americo works without an agent and the designated director of the film in question, the renowned Louis B. Kamp, deeply appreciated Americo's brutal turn as a drug lord in a detestable Spanish film that was shot in two-camera digital in less than a month and the production department urgently needs his e-mail address.

"You get what I'm saying? You got Internet, right?" Summers asks, carefully separating each syllable, as though Americo were a cave-dwelling troglodyte. Americo swallows hard, fakes a laugh, answers, yes, of course, and within seconds the script arrives on the computer. It is called Being Paul Giamatti.

As the title suggests, it's the story of Paul Giamatti, the character actor who made that amusing film about wine in America. "Inspired," they write, in a note of introduction to the project, "by his chameleon-like talent in such films as Being John Malkovich (Spike Jones, 1999), Synecdoche, New York (Charlie Kaufman, 2008), and Cold Souls (Sophie Barthes, 2009), we now launch an exciting project, Being Paul Giamatti (working title). We call it a 'non-sequel', and in it we conjure everything that has and hasn't been conjured, every possible (and imaginary) reference to history and fiction, everything that has ever existed and everything that hasn't, all in an unprecedented attempt to create the very first human being made purely from moving images and Dolby surround-sound." It is, of course, the story of a fictional Giamatti as the character in a bizarre video game called Being Alive. The story of Giamatti as a stranger in the world, an unwitting poet and an adorable schlump. The story of Giamatti as the happy-sad clown. More or less.

The film begins in one of those seedy bars where the velvet curtains have suspicious stains and amateurs of all kinds are permitted, encouraged even, to step up onstage (for no remuneration whatsoever) and tell a few jokes, sing, dance, make political statements, declare their abiding passions, confess their sins--that kind of dive. Paul Giamatti (that is, Americo, the actor playing him) sits at a table with a platinum blonde, older than him and resoundingly, thunderously fat. On stage, a girl dressed, let's say, like Cleopatra performs a reasonably rhythmic number with a fiddle, two boxes of matches, a remote-controlled chicken and a book of poetry, when, at a certain point, the blonde says to Giamatti: "What are we drinking, Baby?"

Giamatti smiles, nods, and summons the waiter. "Champagne!" he shouts, and sneaks a glance to check her reaction. But the confounded blob only has eyes for the chicken, running hysterically around the flaming book of poetry as the half-naked Cleopatra tears the pages into shreds and lights them on fire, wielding the fiddle in a kind of absurdist calisthenics.

By the time the bottle of champagne is empty, a guy in a white shirt and black bowtie is behind the microphone. He looks like a boxing referee but speaks in an unbroken string of non-sequiturs: "Politicians get a bad rap," "Sports are fine with me, but then again they're not," and "once I went to Italy, then I went to Oklahoma." It's your typically lame stand-up comedy act, the kind that always falls flat. Well maybe not typical-typical. It lacks the grievous, deadweight silence following each joke, that strange empty echo that heightens the tiny disreputable noises that normally go unnoticed. In this case the people simply stop listening. The crowd gets distracted, talks in asides to each other, turns back to the bar and to their drinks, focuses their attention inward, and the meek little voice of the boxing ref lapses, diminishes, drowns. "An ass from here to the Himalayas," are the last words Giamatti hears from the stage before the blonde whispers "I gotta go to the shithouse," and coarsely swings her majestic rump around the tables and disappears. It's an expression he loathes, "the shithouse"; it bugs the hell out of him, leaves him in a foul mood. Now he is alone, looking up at the stage. How sad. Well, not sad, exactly, sad is nothing. Pathetic, ponderous, pusillanimous.

Suddenly he becomes intensely conscious of every gesture, each banal occurrence in his body, the noises in his belly, the itching in his inner ear. He doesn't know where to put his hands. Practically speaking, his hands are now cursed. He tries various positions: right on top of left, like a shell; both with fingers open and joined, like a crest; and one on either side, above the table, "death mode." But nothing helps, of course, no position works; it's just a way of killing time.

Onstage the boxing ref, pale and nervous, defeated by the fierce indifference of the crowd, interrupts to say: "Well now, I..." An amusing grimace appears on his face, like he just tasted a bitter inedible fruit, and he exits, almost in a run, staggering out like an un-tethered marionette. Not looking where he has placed his feet, he gets tangled in the curtains and stumbles out of sight. Yet no one notices. For two, three astonishing minutes his foot remains visible from the side of the stage. It can be seen, yes, from the edge of the curtain. The shoeskin, a terrible, translucent brown, can be seen for these two, three long minutes, until the ref departs for good. He carefully gathers his foot with a sort of vague disgust, as if he were picking up a banana peel from the floor to toss in the nearest trashcan. From the stage the foot--zap!--vanishes.

The crowd has quieted. They look at each other, unsure what this all means, and then they burst into laughter and applause: "Bravo! Encore! Encore!" The blonde never returns.

The plot unfolds a bit after this opening scene. Then other adventures, other complications, new layers. This is an auteur’s film; it's got a certain degree of complexity.

Holding the script in his hands, the pages freshly printed and freshly read, Americo is content but a little in shock. The invitation to act in a serious film has come at just the right time. For six months now, nine counting the holidays, he has been out of work, with no offers coming his way: no plays, no soaps, no dubbing gigs, not one lousy commercial. (And how can you count holidays if you're out of work, holidays from what?) Day after day spent at home taking care of Joaquim, now a year-and-seven-months, constantly crying, screaming, falling down, messing up, breaking things, putting stuff in his mouth, choking, coming down with fever, taking medicine, getting vaccinated, sleeping little and crying and screaming and dirtying diaper after diaper that Americo, sooner or later, has to change, since, during the day, he's the only adult in the house. In his spare time he works on his own ideas, he won't resign himself, he will not, he will not allow himself to be, as one character in a soap opera he wrote some years ago put it, "crushed by the fatally grinding gears of this world."

***

The next day Americo heads straight for the Office of Finance and Social Security. If he wants to collect his sweet sum from the film Being Paul Giamatti, he must return to "active status." This is a serious, professional production, and these serious, professional types won't pay without a receipt, and in order to get a receipt, well, one needs to attain "active status"; and so he summons the courage to show up.

He takes Joaquim along in his stroller so he can get "priority treatment" and move to the head of the line at Public Services. It's a great little scheme that falls just short of a swindle. The boy is, after all, his son and he is the boy's father and that's the way the world works. Besides, Joaquim doesn't mind one bit, in fact, he even likes it. He's got a pacifier in his mouth and, in an open-eyed dream, his face reacts to every detail of the city: all its colors, all its houses, all its giant toys.

"Full name."

"Americo Santos Sousa Silva Abril."

A woman with short hair and dismissive gray eyes hands him a sheet of paper. It's an A4, full of squares and lines just like in one of your more contemporary sketches. In order to "return to active status", she explains, he must first complete the form stating who he is, list the ID numbers of all his city and state-related documents, his current address, occupation, marital status, domicile, level of education completed, annual income, capital gains estimate for the current fiscal year, all other sources of income, and which, if any, professional associations he may belong to, any debt he may owe to any public agency, and if so, whether it is small or medium or scandalous, if he spends much time abroad and where, if he has ever held any public position, whether he prefers the beach or the countryside, men or women, prose or poetry, opera or football, Pessoa or Camõ es, Eusébio or Amália, and on what day of what year he "left active status" (print in Portuguese in capital letters and write legibly, please).


On the way home, Americo buys a newspaper with a picture of "the international superstar arriving on these shores to put on a performance not to be missed." He folds it carefully, tucks it under his arm. He's wearing a short-sleeve shirt and the singer's face grazes, ever-so-lightly, the inner part of his elbow. And what a tender face it is. But he keeps his cool, refuses to allow himself to get carried away by the hoopla. He puts on a serious face and keeps walking. He will not ogle the woman's photo in a public plaza, in front of all these people, this he will not do.

He arrives home in a sweat, exhausted from pushing his son's stroller up one street and down another, then back up another. What a day, the sun-in-a-surreal-sky kind of day. He shuts the door and props himself against the wall to restore his equilibrium. He exhales, he inhales. Christ, he's not twenty anymore. His son regards him with amazement from the stroller, as though breathing itself were a work of art. "It's alright," Americo says. It occurs to him that his son is growing way too fast, and has gotten fat; his weight seems a sudden, ridiculous thing. He loosens the straps that hold him in the stroller and sets him on the floor. "Get a move on," he says.

Joachim looks at him with those big animé eyes, bursting with life.

"Get going," he says again. He nudges him forward with this hands, as though he were shooing a fly. "You're on your own, you're free, go to your things, go."

The kid doesn't budge.

"Alright then, do as you please," he says, at last, feigning indifference, and sits down on the couch to read the newspaper.

It's all one big letdown. Inside there's nothing but a a ridiculous little mention of the superstar's tour and a photo of the woman leaving Portela airport, dressed up to her ears from the bitter cold; what nonsense. The other news is a bunch of depressing claptrap about the state of the nation and the mounting tensions in all its sectors: the economy, education, health, justice, security, the arts. Groups of the unemployed have begun to organize into autonomous "pressure groups"; threatening "new forms of protest" and a "more literal" call to arms. Around the province, discontented teachers on hunger strikes in front of schools wield banners with revolutionary slogans and didactic posters with diagrams of entrails and digestive organs. Judges in their robes outside the courthouses chant their demands in Latin: better working conditions, better legislation, greater respect. Americo no longer understands what's going on; suddenly it's as if this is all happening in another country, in a place he doesn't recognize, on some black-and-white street, where an angry mob, fed up with everything, is streaming past. An immense mob in an orderly Portuguese fury, calling out names left and right, he not knowing whether to put his hands in his pockets or fold his arms across his chest or what, not knowing what kind of face to put on, a nice condescending smile or the stern mask of one who thinks and doubts, he stuck in the middle of that vast, streaming crowd feeling more and more alone, more and more like a stranger. He looks up at the flowers in the trees, the wondrous jacaranda flowers, and wants to point them out to all those passing by, "Look, how pretty..." but no one stops, no one listens. A multitude united by the force of a NO. An impervious, nay saying mass constructed of headlines and sound bites, people rancid with real life, still soiled, smudged with the black dust of newsprint, as if they have just fled a war zone, a catastrophe, the wreckage of a decimated city. Americo, with a mix of fear and fascination, leans against a tree trunk as the crowd surges past. They march at a rapid, insistent pace, following a forceful cadence. He hears--by the hundreds, by the thousands--their simultaneous footsteps on the pavement. People who rob gas stations, ATM's, jewelry stores in order to have something to eat, people who want a home or just some time to spend there, people black with angst or white with fright or brown with doubt; he has no idea from where they've all come, occupying the streets and the avenues with their familial battalions, with their diverse odors (odors in which the city and the country converge, a bizarre mix of generic soaps and roadside vegetation), people who rob drugstores to get medicine for their children and people who rob pharmacies to shoot themselves up with aspirin powder, people who've come from spacious continents to live in crowded slums, young and beautiful and perfectly lost people, with no future in sight, with nothing to wish for, people dressed in an incongruous mix of colors, people who, by the way they walk and the faces they wear, quickly reveal a diversity of culture and tradition, giving off the light of another time, and he leans against the tree trunk and watches them pass. Such strange faces, such strange bodies. He wants to speak to them of Beauty, show them those lovely jacaranda flowers, the heartrending beauty of their lilacs against the blue sky of Lisbon, he wants to touch them with this, allow them this rapture, anything that could bring even a fleeting smile to their lips, but it's hopeless, it won't work, no one pays him any mind. All the reckoning from that clamorous NO has blinded them to everything else, it's useless. As if anything has ever come from a NO. On the black-and-white street, along the big abstract boulevard that leads to the House of Parliament, Americo Abril holds himself against the jacaranda tree and marvels at the faces--foreign and suburban, poor and middle-class--a streaming chorus of "No! No! No!" while the lilac petals rain down and gradually he hears the piercing cries of his son. "What is it?" he says, and closes the newspaper.

Joachim, of course, doesn't respond. He still doesn't know how to speak, only how to shriek and cry, sometimes simultaneously.

"Don't cry," says his father. "Alright then, go ahead, cry, no, stop..."

But the boy won't stop howling. Eyes shut tight, mouth wide open, an expression that recalls the old rollercoaster at Entrecampos. Could he be hungry, perhaps?

Americo microwaves the plate of green baby food that Joana left prepared in the fridge. The big moment approaches--getting the kid to taste it. He sits him in his high chair, struggles to tie the plastic bib around his neck. The moment of truth has arrived: feeding time.

Joachim begins to squawk the second he sees the slop on his plate.

"Look, dude, I can relate. I'd scream, too, if someone tried to feed me this crap." Americo speaks softly, in a jovial, childlike manner, so his son won't pick up exactly what he's saying. Not that he understands many words, but one never knows. He takes a spoonful of the green-white gruel, blows on it to cool a little so the boy won't burn himself, then, very slowly, theatrically, trying to divert his son's attention and stop him from screaming, lifts the spoon in the direction of his mouth. "Here comes the little airplane..."

And just as the spoonful of mush passes through passes through the parted lips of his immense mouth, Joachim--beloved little offspring, pride of his father--eyes bugged in an expression of dubious, eternal expectation--Ptui! He spits it all out. Shit, fuck. Americo is completely soiled--fuck!--his designer shirt covered with mouthfuls of green slop, as is the floor and the Afghan rug that Joana bought on the Internet.

The boy screams even louder.

"Eat!" commands Americo. "You hear me? You've got to eat!"

No, he'll have to try it another way. He scratches his head, looks at his distraught offspring. But what way, how? The way of delicacy, of love, of gentleness and understanding?

Tentatively he approaches his son, lowers himself to the level of his eyes and, with his knees pressed against the cold floor, tells him the story of the Death Child, a walking skeleton with dark circles under the eyes that reached the floor and who spoke in a language of only consonants--"wrtpsfghjlkçzxcbnm"--who drooled yellow spittle from the corners of his mouth and frightened all children. He tells him of dystopian Lisbon, one of purple skies, honeycombed houses and families afraid to look at each other on the street. People who wouldn't look up so as to not be snatched by some nameless monster. "One fine day the Death Child walks to the center of town and do you know what happens?" Now, at last, he listens. Ah, yes; he listens, mesmerized, to the horror story that this actor invents, and, utterly elated, eats the green mush that Mommy made for Daddy to give him. He devours all of it, right down to the last disgusting drop.

***

Joaninha is a gem when she wants to be and a sweetheart when she can be, and she cuts quite an upright and elegant posture at whatever dinner table she sits. Here she is at the Rodrigues', chatting animatedly with the hostess, Mariana Rodrigues, about diapers, canning jars, and baby creams.

With nothing to say, Americo turns his attention to his plate. The punched potatoes are excellent. "This is...magnificent," he says.

But he may as well be at the bottom of a mineshaft in some imaginary desert.

This is a curious mystery indeed. The notion that punching a food could alter its flavor seems absurd--yet here it is. After being punched the potato discovers its secret personality, its tipping point, its calling, so to speak. Suddenly its complex nature is revealed, a sophisticated framework of flavor, aroma, color, texture, consistency and form, a complexity we would never suspect when contemplating the banal tuber in the red netting that we bring home from the supermarket. It's something that can only be understood empirically: take an unpeeled potato, roast it the amount of minutes that tradition requires, then stick it with a good punch. A forceful but restrained wallop, gallant yet gentle. A miracle is guaranteed. Suddenly, right before our very eyes, a brand new potato, at once hard and soft, assertive and submissive, compact and obliging. A potato just like the savory ones on the Rodrigues' Nordic china. An endearment of a potato: the surprising crunch of the skin contrasting marvelously with the anticipated softness of the inside, the smooth surface of the knife blade slicing so convivially into its porous heart, gently giving way to receive the olive oil and garlic. Ohh. Ahh. On the side, a piece of codfish cut into a rectangle, none-too thick, with just the right amount of salt, the ideal happy medium--so difficult to achieve--between "merely salty" and "too salty." And, topping it all off, the piece de resistance--the garlic-infused olive oil. Wow. A flavor that makes one think of old times, of twilight, cities in flames, dark-skinned people, deep wrinkles, and other such images. But Americo won't go there. It would take a serious, truly talented lyric poet to properly conjure such mysteries. And besides, one shouldn't talk with food in in one's mouth.

"They have the tiniest little socks and shoes there, so precious, you can't imagine," says Joaninha.

"Oh really, where?" asks Mariana. "Would you take me there sometime, tomorrow, perhaps?"

When her husband Mario hears this he says nothing. Does nothing. He sits in the exact same position, with that dim, benevolent smile on his face. Could the guy be on meds?

They've known each other, the four of them, for fifteen years. They were once called the group Nothing, an informal organization that they created for no particular reason, except to give a name to their gatherings of free time and small talk. They would say to each other: "Don't forget today's meeting of the Nothing," or "The Nothing meets tomorrow night at the King Cinema to see the new Jarmusch." They believed they were going to create resounding revolutions, masterwork modes of living; they envisioned themselves eternally free of the conventions of their parents and grandparents, believed they would live together forever, and now here they are, playing at couples and grown-ups and discounted baby clothes. Americo feels the tears welling in his eyes.

Anyway, the red wine is glorious. See how it swirls in the glass, so rich in body and color. Americo tastes it first; one sip, two, then downs the whole thing in one gulp. Mario regards him with a frozen-fish grin.

"Excuse me..." Americo says, and flees to the bathroom.

He washes his face with cold water to see if it'll invigorate him. He shuts his eyes, tries to calm himself. It'll pass, it's alright, it'll be okay. Breathe deep, easy now.

The sound of the city, far-off, beneath the hum of the fan in the bathroom ceiling. The muffled whooshing of automobiles, clothes swaying on the line. It must be beautiful outside.

So peaceful and so good. Until someone knocks on the door.

"Is everything okay?" It's Joana. "Americo, are you alright?"

"Yes, thanks. It's just a...little intestinal complication, darling. I'll be right out."

He hears her steps going away (the fine black high-heel shoes that cost 375 euros, according to their credit card statement) and further off, from the living room, the cackles of the Nothing. He doesn't want to leave the bathroom. No, no, no. He won't leave here for anything on Earth.

There is a similar scene in Being Paul Giamatti. Americo, that is, the bogus Giamatti, is in the bathroom of a huge mansion in Los Angeles. It's one of those parties you see in the movies, with loud music, cocaine, naked people in the pool, that kind of shindig, and he's locked in the bathroom. The doorknob is shaped like a hand. Giamatti looks at it, somewhat distressed. He steels himself and tries to turn it. But the thing won't budge. It's not a doorknob, it's a hand. How odd. The macabre discovery sinks in slowly. A hand? But whose? The actor-character begins feeling queasy, starts sweating like a pig (close-up of massive drops of sweat running down his bald scalp), he is hyperventilating, there isn't enough air in such a closed, cramped, and sinister place.

Back at the party the houseguests laugh, cups in hand, showing their perfect teeth.

Giamatti pulls out a piece of paper from his pocket, unfolds it. Three Steps To Control Your Panic Attacks. He reads the first step, Try to control your breathing, and this is when he really starts to panic. His eyes ache from within, behind the eyeballs (close-up of wide eyes in expression of terror; cut to close-up on back of eyeballs, veins aflame, a chiaroscoro of night-black and green tints that recalls the bombing of Iraq), and he decides he has only one option: to scream. To scream as loudly as he can, to cry for help, HELP!, and see if anyone comes to his rescue, please.

But the music is way too loud, nobody hears a thing. Oh God, I'm going to die here, what an idiotic way to go. No, it can't happen like this. He screams louder. He cries and screams at once. He desperately pounds the door with his fists, bangs it with his head.

From the other side, nothing. Only the happy boom-boom of the dance tunes.

He's on the floor drooling when Penelope Cruz opens the door. "May I, is this free?" asks the Spanish film star whose smile, upon seeing his condition, shifts to an expression of disgust and soon after, to one of pity. As if he were a poor soul condemned to death.

Giamatti, pathetic puppy, exits on all fours. "Excuse me," Cruz says and shuts the door.


Don't forget to check out "Quando Ela" performed by Portuguese rock duo Os Quais!

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