"I am 3/4ths Canadian, and one 4th New Englander - I had ancestors on both sides in the Revolutionary war." - Elizabeth Bishop

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Letters to Aunt Grace, Part 53: The Rhinoceros

Bishop’s next letter to Grace followed quickly on the heels of her last because “Lota went to town and mailed my letter [of 12 November 1959] to you — brought home one from you to me.” In the previous letter Bishop had mentioned that a planned trip to the U.S. had been cancelled because of inflation; but Grace must have been under the impression from previous letters (perhaps one that is missing from the big 1959 gap) that her niece was going to be visiting the States because Bishop immediately re-confirmed the abandoned plan: “I am so awfully sorry we aren’t going to be able to make that trip, at least not when we thought we were going to.” The main reason, as Bishop had mentioned before, was the economic situation in Brazil, and Lota’s business activities.

Bishop explained that “the dollar is away up.” For Bishop with her U.S. currency, this situation was not so dire, even if “prices have gone away up too.” For Lota, however, the situation was more problematic because “the exchange rate is so bad.” In addition to this money matter, Bishop elaborated on what she had mentioned in passing in the previous letter, that Lota “has just made a contract for her last big hunk of land — to be developed — and it is much better to stay on hand and see to it that things start off right, at least.”

Bishop noted that she didn’t “mind too much not getting to N.Y. now … but Lota feels very badly.” Lota loved New York City, far more than Bishop did. Bishop had hoped she could have written and published enough to earn “enough money … to take her [Lota] to N.S. even if just for a few days,” but clearly Bishop wasn’t as flush as she expected. She concluded this explanation in the same way she ended the previous letter, trailing off with “Well, sooner or later —”

She wasn’t done, however, with the subject of inflation. To reinforce her argument for why she and Lota had to stay put, Bishop offered more details about the economic and political situation in Brazil, reiterating that “inflation here is so bad I don’t really know what is going to happen next.” She had already mentioned the meat shortage” to Grace (“meat prices have gone up to about half of U.S. ones”), which was causing “great hardship” because “even poor people eat beef every day, with their black beans and rice.” This diet was a national staple, partly because, as Bishop noted, “there isn’t anything else, no variety, such as we have” in the U.S. The shortage meant long lines, even “people sleeping on the sidewalks all night to get in the meat lines early in the morning.” The situation was particularly bad in Rio, “our Rio friends’ cooks get up to start getting in line at 4 A M.”

Bishop noted that she could get “along perfectly well without meat,” and the situation in Petrópolis wasn’t as serious as further south, “we even send meat down by bus to our friends.” But the tensions generated by this shortage had resulted in “bombs thrown etc.,” which would surely not reassure Grace. People were blaming the politicians, of course. More evidence of this discontent: “maybe you even saw (it was on television in N.Y.) how a rhinoceros got elected to be a city councilman?” This candidacy, in a municipal election in São Paulo in 1958, “started just as a joke, then people took it up and actually voted for him [sic: her], just to show what they think of their crooked politicians. He [sic] got over 20,000 votes — then they stopped counting them.” Actually, the “famous rhinoceros in the zoo here” received over 100,000 votes. Check the internet for Carareco. Bishop observed, “I think it is a very nice — and very Brazilian — gesture.”
According to Wikipedia, this successful run for office inspired the Canadians who set up The Rhinoceros Party of Canada in 1963. I wonder if Bishop ever heard about the latter, when she moved back to the U.S. in 1970.

This electoral success gained some international coin. Bishop recounted that Mary Morse, who had just returned from a trip to the U.S., “went to a musical show and one of the jokes was ‘Well, I see that Macmillan got elected in England and a rhinoceros got elected in Brazil’….”

After the sad news of the previous letter (telling Grace about the death of Marjorie Carr Stevens) and confirming to her aunt that once again they were prevented from the much longed for trip to New York (and even Nova Scotia), Bishop seemed intent on imparting the funnier side of things in this letter. The next post will conclude with another dose of humour, this time at the expense of the relatives.

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