The Collision of a Big Rat and Zacarelli

Zacarelli has always had a penchant for drama, especially comedy, which he has had to neglect due to the student movement’s more pressing tasks. His comedic gift is spontaneous and unintentional. Sometimes, without warning, it spills over. Zacarelli weaves his way toward Bandeira’s bust. Then and there, in homage to his muse, Maria, who is mad about the student leader José Berenstein who will marry her and then abandon her for another woman not part of this story, Zacarelli declaims “I am leaving for Pasárgada” in the heat of anger, eyes wide open, shaking his fist at the statue, as if threatening the man it represents, the author of the poem.

If you do not love me, Maria,
I am leaving for Pasárgada
There I am a friend of the king
There I have a woman to love
In the bed that I choose….

When he is about to recite the verse “when at night I want to kill myself,” a large and lively Norway rat runs over his feet. She must be drunk too because she scrabbles back, erect and sniffing Zacarelli’s shins, drawn, perhaps, by odoriferous droplets of beer extruding through his pores. As if provoked by the verse “There I have a woman to love in the bed that I choose,” the dreadful ratazana tries to climb one or both of Zacarelli’s stilt-like legs. At least, that is what he told me, still tremulous, as if to justify the spectacular fuss he made about the intrepid animal’s assault in the midst of his Bandeira recitation. “The fuckin’ rat tried to climb my tibia, baby, she was headed straight for my stuff, no shit!” What is certain, from the more trustworthy testimony of Zeca Amaro and Luiz do Carmo, is that Zacarelli hot-footed it down Riachuelo Street, furious, kicking and stamping as if he were a flamenco dancer or Mané Garrincha with the ball at his feet, dancing his way through the Swedish defense. From all accounts, several claiming eyewitness veracity, some surreal, others bawdy beyond belief, Zacarelli believed he had climbed on top of Manuel Bandeira’s head. The entire scenario was wildly implausible, but the dolorous year of 1970 was replete with nightmares next to which a giant Norway rat climbing your leg was a bagatelle.

“Was she pregnant?” I asked.

Zacarelli answered as an actor would when reliving a traumatic experience, vacillating between indignation and shock: “Hunh? Ah—well, yuh know, actually I didn’t have time to examine her bottom. She was climbing me! Do you know what it’s like to have a humungous rat suddenly scrambling up your leg? Can you imagine? You’ve got to be quite a man not to faint.”

“But how do you know it was a female Norway rat and not just a simple rat?”

“Luiz do Carmo told me. He’s from Goiana, man, he knows all about rats!”

“But if you were in such agony, how did you have time to determine its gender?”

“That’s beside the point. Ratazana, Norway rat, is a word that applies to both genders.

Do Carmo saw her and said he knew she was female by the way she acted.

“She was headed straight for my balls.”

“You could have run.”

“Me? Run? I’m not going to run down the street yelling, ‘Help! Take this goddam beast off me!’ That wouldn’t be very manly for a combatant.”

“In other words, Zacarelli, your attitude is ‘Let the rats come!’”

“Right, uh—sure.”

He held his head in his hands as if neither the revolution nor female Norway rats were worth the effort. This episode might bear fruit as a farcical adaptation of Frei Caneca’s verse

Between Marília
and the fatherland, I place my heart.

A fertile imagination is not necessary to visualize the scene Zacarelli made on Riachuelo Street. I know from hearsay and experience that he is inept, uncoordinated and lacks motor skills. Meaning, he cannot dance, swim or play soccer. I don’t know if he can shoot straight but I believe that he would like to so he could become a rifleman in the vanguard of the proletariat. Never mind a rifle, he couldn’t throw a stone straight at someone else. But what has this to do with a ribald ratazana? Everything! Zacarelli who could not dance, declaimed and danced face to face with Manuel Bandeira. There, at the junction of Union and Riachuelo Streets, the poet’s lifeless eyes saw a powerful Norway rat come and go, seem to run off and then run back again to dizzily circle and then ascend the long legs of the brave lad who was reciting “I am leaving for Pasárgada.” Or would it be more appropriate if he had shouted, “I’m hightailing it for Catende?” The fear and trembling, the sweat that leapt from the warrior’s brow might have contaminated the pelt of the defenseless rat. The animal, wanting to pursue one course, was diverted by the barrier of Zacarelli’s size 11½ shoes. Then back she came. Why? Only to run into those shoes which, this time, left the ground as if they wished to climb to the crown of Manuel Bandeira’s head but, moments later, landed hard and heavy next to her snout with the force of gravity. All the rat wanted to do was get out of the sewer and, with a bit of luck, gnaw on some leftover soupbones or rummage through the garbage. To leave and to return to her destiny, in peace. But in the middle of the road, from Riachuelo to Union, where “my grandfather’s house” still stands, impregnated with eternity, stood three men in the dark of night. And one of them, the thinnest and tallest of all, who used to be firm in his bones and stood higher on his 11½-inch feet than the head of the poet on its pedestal, suddenly got agitated. As if a jolt of high voltage electricity ran through his nervous system, setting those slender legs vibrating with the fury of a horde of Mongols. When he took off, it seemed to the rat like a stampede of horses. And not without reason, because the shoes making the noise had “horseshoe taps” on their heels. So the poor thing, who just wanted to eat in peace and quiet, when faced with a mob of noisy tap dancers shouting “Epa!” and “Oba!,” wanted to take a more poetic route than that of Manuel Bandeira. She wanted to run away from these admirers of poetry who stamped their hooves on the sidewalks and the cobblestone streets. She wanted, she waited, and she went. But fear must be composed of a strange mix of chemistry and physics because it inevitably draws the terrifying object toward itself. Wherever the rat went, as if he knew her route, Zacarelli’s feet were there, blocking her way. The feet cut off her flight, when they too wanted to flee. A collision of fugitives, the Norway rat and Zacarelli, the scorned lover of Maria who loved Berenstein who loved a girl from Rio who loved no one. He did something wild and risky, something he had never done before. He jumped! His friends went so far as to claim that he broke the Olympic record set by João the Jumper.[1] What that athlete had accomplished in years of rigorous training, Zacarelli and his agile intelligence surpassed. He soared as an eagle flies from the head of Manuel Bandeira to where Union and Riachuelo streets  meet. Anunciado the Jumper received no medal. But his modest words about the feat will be long remembered: “The Norway rat went crazy, baby. Crazy! She was probably ‘preggers’ when she attacked me. Pregnant rats, like all animals, attack people. Have you ever seen a brooding hen lay an egg?”

I recall that he did not differentiate, in his account, between laying eggs and being pregnant. This was just one of the things about Zacarelli’s rat tale that bothered me.


[1] João Carlos de Oliveira (1976 and 1980 Olympic bronze medalist) De Oliveira lost both legs in a traffic accident in December 1981, just three months after winning his third IAAF World Cup title. At the time he was the World record holder with a jump of 17.89m.

Excerpt from the novel Never-Ending Youth, translated by Peter Lownds.


Uriarano Moto is author of the novel “Never-Ending Youth.”