was born in Lisbon in 1961. He is a writer and dramatist, he lectures at the Nova University in Lisbon. He published ten fiction books, including Pornex, the Book (1984), Spidermen (1994), Apocalypse Vessel (1996), The Supreme Art (1997) and others. For the stage he has written Francisco Zappa’s Life and Work (1985), Sun of the Earth (1992), A Deadman’s Life (1996). He is also involved in street theatre and happenings. He has 2nd degree black belt in karate, that is, he hopes, quite impressive. When alone, he likes to dress in female lingerie, in order to understand women better. He likes to test the magic of word doing outside of the blank page.
The Magic Word (short story)
I’ll never forget my first expletive. It’s such a fond memory that I’ve even thought of framing it. But how frame a four-letter word? Especially when it begins with S (or was it F?), making it the dirtiest word of my childhood (which wasn’t that long ago, but long enough)?
To pronounce that word was no easy task. It took planning, strategy, and managerial skill — qualities I didn’t even know I had until then. I’m proud to say that at eight years of age I planned — and executed! — my first swearword with the maturity of an adult carrying out a difficult enterprise. Napoleon didn’t weigh the pros and cons of invading Moscow any more than I debated before uttering my first expletive. I prepared myself just as carefully as Gago Coutinho and Sacadura Cabral did, before they flew across the Atlantic. Not even Vasco da Gama, as he set sail for India, was more aware of the enormity of his undertaking than I was of mine, on the day I said my first dirty word.
Where I lived was a fringe version of Alfama, without the renown of Lisbon’s oldest neighborhood but with the rest of its characteristics: narrow streets with the air of a village, a self-contained world where cars rarely came through and where fishwives walked barefoot. I could write a book about where I grew up, but Dinis Machado beat me to it with his O que diz Molero [What Molero Says, 1979]. It’s worth reading, if you haven’t already. In the square in front of the Convent we played ball; on the curbs of the streets we pretended to bike — with rolling bottle caps — all around Portugal; we zoomed down the hill in our go-carts (the forerunners of karting), and the cheese vendors got furious when we made off with their wooden boards to build, like shipwrights, our hotrods.
The local population was mixed — mostly working-class, but with other groups that rubbed shoulders there. Displaced bourgeois kids (me) and boys from the poorer section of Mouraria trekked up the hill together every day. At a certain time of the year war regularly broke out between the different streets, with sticks, stones, slingshots and toy swords being employed as weapons. During the other months a precarious peace reigned, with our soccer matches sometimes degenerating into free-for-alls of yelling and kicking each other in the shins. A happy childhood, all things considered. (Eat your heart out.)
Expletives, from the simple “Damn” to the more recherché “Go screw your grandmother” were a fundamental rhetorical device. Anyone who didn’t resort to them, at least occasionally, was dubbed a “faggot”. And though we didn’t know exactly what a faggot was, nobody wanted to be one, not even those of us who later discovered that it wasn’t after all such a bad thing to be.
Now guess who, for years, couldn’t bring himself to say the slightest, stupidest expletive? That’s right: yours truly.
One day I decided it was time to put an end to my disgrace and become normal, like everyone else. And there was only one way to become a normal, accepted, full-fledged member of the tribe. I’d identified the problem, but its solution required action as well as know-how. I had the theoretical know-how. I was familiar with the basic lexicon of expletives and knew their function, if not their precise meaning. Through patient observation of others, I had acquired a thorough understanding of how and in what context the various swearwords should be used. I knew the right tone and intensity of voice for each. Certain swearwords expressed extreme irritation, while others merely indicated mild annoyance. Some swearwords, depending on the intonation, could even express admiration. “F---!” usually indicated extreme irritation, but “f---ing” could express wonderment, as in, “That boy’s a f---ing good writer!”
Time for a break. I’m not much for jokes, but now and then I come across one that, besides being funny, offers a philosophical insight, a lesson for life. Maybe you’ve already heard this one...
Two men were working in the house of an old lady, who was forever complaining to their boss about the vulgar language they used. So he finally told them to watch their tongues.
“At least when the poor old lady’s around. Have a heart.”
“Don’t worry, boss,” they assured him.
But two hours later the woman phoned to complain that one of them had uttered one of the worst expletives imaginable.
At the end of the day, the boss chided them: “You promised no more cuss words, and the poor lady calls to say you used that word — a real doozy.”
“But it’s not true, I swear it,” said one of the workers. “All that happened was that Chico was on the ladder soldering a wire, and at a certain point a drop of boiling solder fell on my hand. So I looked up at him and said, ‘Dear me, Chico, you let a drop of boiling hot solder fall on my hand, and it’s rather painful.’”
This joke demonstrates how useful words are — even swearwords, especially swearwords — for solving problems. In the beginning was the word, says the Bible. And there’s no culture or religion that doesn’t speak of the healing word, the word that’s like aspirin. I knew all about this on my street next to Alfama before I turned eight years old, even if it was only then, at eight years of age, that I had the courage to respond to the world with the balsams the world demands.
I carefully chose the occasion, a soccer match, and waited for just the right moment. Which came soon enough, in the form of a swift kick in the shins, just as I was about to send the ball between the two stones that marked the goal. As Chico’s foot rammed hard into my lower leg, I prepared to say my first dirty word.
And I said it, though it arrived, unfortunately, a few tenths of a second too late. I started falling to the ground, as if in slow motion, while furiously mumbling to myself: “Now, you dummy! Say it now!” But it wouldn’t come out. Incurably timid, I kept berating myself: “Go on! Say it! Now!”
Until finally I said:
Everyone laughed and clapped. Indeed, I was pretty ridiculous. And I couldn’t even brag to my mother when she called me for supper. But I’m still, thirty years later, proud of my accomplishment.
And now I can brag about it.
Translated from the Portuguese by Richard Zenith