Tuesday, May 1, 2012
The promise of Carnival is immense. Denying the power of time and claiming a moment of life victorious, it occurs at the chronological boundary between winter and spring. Like Saturnalia or the ancient komos, the customs associated with the time just before Lent tend to return humanity (albeit temporarily and in imagination) to a utopian golden age without distinctions. There are no performers and spectators -- the entire world is carnivalesque and the spectacle, rather than a work of art, is reality itself. The emphasis on the body is democratizing, universal. The laughter is upwelling, non-specific, laughter at the cosmos. For this reason, as Bakhtin demonstrated in Rabelais and his World, it is beyond good and evil, containing aggression as well as love, death as part of life, comic suffering, and foolish joy. The impulse of carnival arises surely in the most archaic yea-saying practices of springtime ritual, celebrating nature’s Phoenix-like rebirth from its own corpse. Carnival provides an annual excuse to imagine social equality in an inclusive community in which an abundance of all good things – notably represented by food and drink – is available to all and the censorious mandates of everyday life may be treated lightly or flouted altogether. We had heard that Carnival in Nazaré, on Portugal’s Atlantic coast, was a grass-roots affair. The locals eschew the popular Brazilian tunes, composing songs every year anew about the town’s own scenes and issues. If it promised little of the all-out sensual assault one hears of in Trinidad or Rio, or the marvelous music and glitz of New Orleans, lesser in scale than even nearby Torres Vedras (where we meant to go until we found we couldn’t book a room), Nazaré offered instead a most participatory festival in which we thought perhaps even a visitor might feel the publicly-shared humanity at the heart of Carnival, reflecting the universality of our species’ nature, our passions and concerns. The stage for Tuesday’s parade was on the edge of the beach just beneath our balcony at the Hotel Mar Bravo. It featured the legend “Carnaval 2012 ca crise é pu pescoce” which I am told could be translated “the [economic] crisis is strangling us,” but one could never have guessed the message from the flipped-out jolly clown depicted next to the words. The music had blasted for hours, becoming almost hypnotic and the streets were crowded by the time the parade began, and floats began to pass by in the most glorious variety. The king and queen rode to their thrones in a cannibal’s pot. Was the giant face of a disturbed-looking European looking forward whose other half, looking back, was a gleeful Chinese, complete with queue, a political comment? A couple of ladies in traditional dress carrying racks of drying mackerel such as one sees daily on the beach led a troupe of women in the costume version of the same outfit dancing with mock racks of drying fish. There were not one, but two representations of surfers off the nearby point on which the Virgin Mary had performed a miracle. A group of men in tutus delighted the viewers no less than the dance school teens who followed them. Some floats were drawn by cars, some by tractors, not a few were simply pushed along. There were a number of more casual participants. A family had entered the parade playing what they please on flute, trumpet, and drum. They marched along, pausing now and then to chat with friends. Another family had cobbled together a modest sort of hand-drawn float using a toy wagon, a bit of papier-mâché and crepe. Was the car with hand-written signs declaring “love is not a crime” the local gay liberation? Viewers on the sidelines stepped into the street for a block or so to blow a toy horn in exuberance, then they head to the sidelines to buy a bag of fava-type beans and a beer. Even the elders were jiving, many people danced, raising their arms like Pentecostals in an upwelling of spirits as spontaneous as the mood of the dogs playing along the shore. When the parade had passed by twice after circling back, performances began on the stage. The king and queen were ceremonially seated to gaze with approval as kids danced, the men in tutus danced, anyone who wanted to come on stage to dance or sing or simply take a turn passing under the raised shepherds’ crooks of some celebrants who seemed to be impersonating Biblical figures. As dark approached, a drama I suspect of very ancient roots was enacted. A frame representing a metal detector was brought on stage and a judge seated with court officers in attendance. A new procession approached, carrying a dummy who was the defendant, but his wife was quite human and pled his case warmly. A burlesque priest appeared to offer aid. Eventually, as sun set, the dummy was convicted, carried out toward the ocean, and burned on the sand. I believe a fish was buried with him. Earlier that afternoon, we had lunched at outdoor café seats in a tiny square just off the beach. We ordered a seafood caldeirada, a fish stew akin to bouillabaisse. When a huge and brimming pot emerged from the kitchen, I reminded the waiter that we had asked only for a single order, planning to share. Told that this massive heap of clams, cockles, ray, and shrimp with a few vegetables and potatoes was indeed a single serving, we set to. In moments we were enjoying a memorable meal with a clay pitcher of the house wine. We fell into conversation with our amiable neighbors, a clown and a man in kilts, with occasional comments by two youths in pink fright wigs occupying the next table. The meal could not have been more satisfying. The full belly is perhaps the most eloquent and succinct expression of Carnival.