Sketches of Familiar Strangers

by Beatriz L. Seelaender

There are some stories that get stuck in your head for years and years, fighting to come up the surface of reality, to reality. Being a surface, however, reality is distortive. Reality is the flat map of the Earth; some things stretched and some made smaller. I never knew how to write this story.

The first time I thought of it was about five years ago when I went to Rio for the first time. It is strange to think that, as a Brazilian, I had never been to Rio before, but then again there were a lot of other places I hadn’t been to, at least ten of which were higher on my bucket list than Rio de Janeiro. Perhaps that is not so strange, after all, considering that as Brazilians we are doomed to being constantly underwhelmed by our own country. It, in fact, is a Brazilian’s patriotic duty to patronize our great nation to the point of political exhaustion. Taking that into account, I wonder exactly how strange it is that Brazil’s unpatriotic attitude is what makes me proud of my country in the first place. It keeps us grounded, I would say. No one is under the illusion that fighting and dying for our country is honorable—we are well aware of how hollow these are, concepts that simulate the impossible wholeness of one together nation. I would say knowing that makes us freer, and also a little more hopeless.

Sure, lots of people have died for Brazil before, but those people were certainly not soldiers, because soldiers were always the enemy and the government never cared enough to die, only kill. The last of our presidents to die for Brazil was Getúlio Vargas, who killed himself in 1954 trying to stop a military coup—yes, this is confusing, but it was actually very fitting a plan considering the situation.

The story I have always wanted to write is about Vargas, his suicide note, and a middle-aged woman who now chaperones Vargas’s room in the Catete Palace— the president’s residence up until 1961, when they moved the capital to Brasilia. Nowadays, the Catete Palace serves as a museum, although Brazilians are aware it is much more than that. The Catete is still somewhere in the past, living the past right in front of us. Visiting it is sort of like adding batteries to an old tape recorder and realizing it still works—it doesn't know it’s obsolete, and so its wimpy efforts continue like always, and the longer it’s been, the sadder they are to watch: the wimpy efforts. See, everything that is historical is obsolete, but I wonder what comes first sometimes.

In the Catete, the room where Getúlio (I am not calling him Getúlio to vary speech forms—it’s just that in here Brazil we are accustomed to calling people by their first names, even our presidents) killed himself is spacious and on display there are numerous objects pertaining to him, including his bed. You become weary of the room, suddenly, not because there a suicide took place fifty plus years ago, but because they won’t let it escape: death. The place is in a constant loop.

Right in the middle of the room are the pyjamas Vargas was wearing when he killed himself: bullet hole and blood. The contrast between the ridiculous matchy-matchy stripped pyjamas; the pattern of the stripes interrupted by the bullet hole and gunpowder; the lines making their way down the bottom half beneath the bullet hole as if nothing had happened; it's all a little unsettling. Considering the political implications of that gesture, you would think he would at least have put on a suit. You couldn’t say he didn’t take a minute to think about it, because Vargas knew exactly what he was doing. No, he did it in his pyjamas to give the population the idea that Vargas the person and Vargas the statesman were the same. He wanted to show he would bleed for Brazil even before the beginning of working hours.

An old TV monitor plays Vargas’s lengthy suicide note (actually, more of a manifesto) over and over, nonstop, from the moment the museum opens until closing hours. While I was in that room I heard it at least three times and each time it got more depressing.

While Getúlio Vargas's suicide note is, to me, one of the best pieces in Brazilian literature, for all its prompt and execution and the state of affliction it conveys, stimulating the reader to call for revolution even decades later—the motivation for revolution being beside the point as long as it calls for change—it can get tiring after a while. I can only wonder what goes through the mind of that woman who has to sit in that room day in, day out, listening to this guy’s final testament on repeat.  

She was black, thirtyish, soberly dressed, and she looked like she had kids to care for. Or maybe she didn’t, and I am confusing the real person with one of that person’s many versions inside my unfinished stories. You know what it probably is? It must be that I cannot imagine someone having this job unless someone else is financially dependent on them. But I am weak and I chase depressive things, or maybe they find me, I wouldn’t know. Maybe to her it was just a job; that’s all.

But if that is the case, I am frustrated at her; I want her to care. I am afraid she will turn out to be like those people who take no interest in what it means, what is happening around them, oblivious and bored. It’s not like I want her to be mesmerized at the historical experience—she does go there everyday, after all. But I need her to express some sort of curiosity, some sense of acknowledgement to what happened inside that room. Despite it being unfair to deposit my expectations on this stranger, I will nevertheless.

The other day I went to a museum—another museum—and I was sure I had seen the very same painting a year before in that same venue. My father and I argued about it; he said it was a brand new exhibition and I said the same exhibition had been brand new a year ago. In order to settle the argument, I asked one of the security guards if the paintings had been there before. He didn’t know. He didn’t know even though he had been working in that room for six years, looking at the paintings every day. I don’t mean to blame him, I am simply trying to understand what in the name of the devilish muses and art gods he thought about when he was there. Those paintings are supposed to inspire people, transport them from their dull lives—and, when they don’t, then there’s no point to them. You see, it wasn’t even that he did not like the paintings, it just hadn’t occurred to him to look. So was the problem in the paintings or in him? How much of a problem is it, though, if there are people starving all over? Being numb is being painless—it’s a different, arguably better sort of starvation. It is internal bleeding, it is anesthesia. It is a privilege conceded to the functioning members of society in exchange for their utmost objectivity and pragmatism.

Perhaps the reason it is so difficult for me to compose a story about the suicide note on replay is that there is no story to be told. While the situation and the setup might be bizarre, the woman in the room probably sees it differently from how I see it. She is not the outsider who appreciates remarks on the bittersweet specificity of her job; she is not an anecdote. She never takes her work home, and when her kids learn about Vargas at school she’ll have nothing to say about him, no meditations or insights whatsoever.  

“But he was the president for a long time, wasn’t he?” the kids will ask. Well, I think so (he was the “president” for 18 years). He was pretty important, I guess. His room was pretty big. He must have had lots of money. “Where was he from?” I don’t know. I don’t think he was from here. South, maybe.  

But this is not a version of the story that I like. I do not like stories about people being numb—they are bleak and they are way too long for the point they are trying to make.


(…) I have been fighting month in month out, day in  day out, hour in hour out, resisting a constant, incessant pressure, enduring it all in silence, all having forgiven, renouncing to myself to solely defend the people who are now deserted. There is nothing I can give you but my blood. If the birds of prey want somebody’s blood, if they want to continue to suck on the blood of the Brazilian people, I offer them my life in sacrifice (…)

When we left the Catete I told my father how disturbing it must be; listening to someone’s suicide note all day long. She probably knew it by heart by now. There was a time when I knew it by heart, but that was when I was trying to get into college. I wondered whether she was at a higher risk for suicide than others. I wondered whether she was suicidal. I wondered what she thought of Vargas politically. Or if she had simply tuned it out by now, if she’d grown accustomed to that dull Discovery Channel voice reciting war verses, and it had simply become a part of her daily life: death. Or better yet, whether she had become used to it to the point of complete dissociation, thus deeming the words meaningless; death having nothing to do with it anymore. There must be a point when even death gets too old.

My father said he had not thought about that, and that I was kind to think about other people. Then he told me that it would make a good story and told everyone that I would be writing a story about that woman. He started calling it “The Getulista,” and he was very proud of me to have noticed how bizarre that entire situation actually was. People easily let go of the bizarre without so much as registering it, he said. I always said I was going to write the story, but it never came out right.

I am very good at stalling. I started the story a couple hundred times, if we are counting the ones in my head, but I noticed they were all ultimately beside the point, whatever the point was at the beginning. As the details began to fade from memory, I came to terms with the fact that this story might never be written. There were simply too many variables to it, and if I got it wrong it would not be real because it was real, after all. Anything different from reality would be, thus consequently ipso facto, also different from the truth, and I think that as a writer I want to tell the truth buried in things.

Still, “The Getulista” remains a story I say I will write when it feels like the right moment to write it. In all truth, it’s just another one of those things you pretend to yourself you are going to get to, eventually, when everything is calm and there is time. But there is never time; time requires making.  


Getúlio Vargas first rose to power in Brazil in 1930, following a dispute between the elites of the states of São Paulo and Minas Gerais regarding the upcoming presidential election. After announcing a candidacy meant as a conciliatory initiative on part of Minas Gerais and losing to the São Paulo candidate, Vargas protested the election results by denouncing voter fraud (in which he was probably, certainly, right).

People all over the country started supporting him as manifest of the growing frustration with the Republic. Then, Vargas’s party’s candidate for vice president João Pessoa was murdered.

Pessoa’s death ended up serving as the catalyst for the 1930 Revolution, given that the population was convinced his death had been an assassination ordered by the president. In reality, it had nothing to do with politics whatsoever. You see, Pessoa was killed by a man named João Dantas in a bar fight. Turns out Dantas—one of Pessoa’s local nemeses—wasn’t too happy about the fact Pessoa had taken a hold of his private love letters and given them out to a regional newspaper.

I wonder what was so compromising that compelled the man to kill in order to defend his honor, but it is safe to say the content of the letters made even the better-seasoned high society ladies rather violently blush. The letters almost certainly featured more than one account of vigorous hand-holding, expressed both as reference to a previous instance of hand-holding as well as explicit desire for engaging in more hand-holding in the future.

While the newspaper chose not to publish the letters on account of indecency, they had a great deal to say about just how indecent the letters were, and even brought the police into it (I find it gloriously fascinating that the police, indifferent as they were to serious problems such as voter fraud and “honor” murders happening all over town, would preoccupy themselves with libidinous correspondence. I don’t know if this was because they knew there was nothing they could do about these other things and were on top of what was easily corrupted, or if they simply considered that a woman writing to a man unsupervised was, in the bigger realm of things, a greater violation).   

This is the sort of gossip that can never be deemed trivial, the sort of gossip that is academic in its accidental relevance. You see, pedestrian as the motivations for Pessoa’s murder might have seemed (bars are not a place for respectable members of society to die), they were soon replaced with more noble, and global, reasons. Hours after the incident, Vargas’s coup was taking over the country. He was to remain in power for fifteen years.

After fighting the resistance in São Paulo (my great-grandmother is a serious claustrophobe from the hiding in the basement from the bombings), Vargas introduced a new constitution, overruled said constitution once he realized it limited his government to a four-year term, threw another coup, and declared himself dictator on account of the instability posed by the high-threat of Communism. He left in 1945, to return again as the democratically elected president in 1951.

The number one issue I had with writing the story about the woman and the suicide note was that a great deal of people did not know enough about the historical context to understand it—especially if I were going to write in English. There are some stories that can’t be told without leaving out a huge chunk of history too. I still have problems with that. Every writer probably still has problems with that.

There was a time, you see, when art was supposed to be timeless, and truth was supposed to be timeless as well. Nevertheless, the generic story of a generic lady who listens to the same suicide note everyday does not have as nice a ring to it, especially when considering what this note symbolizes to Brazilians. This then raises another question: can I only ever write about Brazil in Portuguese? Are there some things that should only be talked about in a specific language? If so, should they be written about at all? If the story is good, shouldn’t it be able to stand in any language it is translated into? Are writing and translating so different, in this scenario?

Calvino solved his problem with historical background and Literature by declaring historical background a result of an accomplished literary work, as opposed to being its cause. History’s rumor, to him, must be just enough to qualify without isolating the experience in its time and landscape. But this is different: it is so painstakingly specific that the whole story would need an introduction, and without it the story would descend into meaningless name dropping. The woman will have to forgive me, but she is now condemned to the loneliest and most incomprehensible of existences. By now she is a casualty of a fading past, simply there to attest its existence. She is whole other person inside the Palace. She is caught in a moment in time. We think it’s over, but many a thing has been known to fall into those states of mind where they don’t count time. Maybe that is just how this quiet moment could be timeless, because it is lonely, too.

Every day in that room in the Catete Palace, Getúlio Vargas wakes, and gets bad news, and writes that letter, and then proceeds to kill himself. Every day and multiple times a day, mind you, which means that, in a way, he brings himself to life to die again. That woman must feel like she knows him like no one else. She probably does know him. Everyone who actually did must be at least a little dead these days. She was a little dead too, but it was a different kind of dead; it was from living inside the loop.

(…)I choose this way of being with you always. When you are humiliated, you will feel my soul suffering by your side. When hunger knocks on your door, you will feel in your chest the energy to fight for yourself and your children. When you are disparaged, you will feel in my thoughts the strength to react. (…)

Both Vargas and the woman were lonely; that part of the letter was less lonely, it was a conversation. It was a sympathetic conversation—maybe she listened to it when she was sad. Maybe she even had the recording on her iPod. Maybe there was a strange sense of satisfaction that emanated from being a deceased leader’s confidante, because none of her friends had experienced greatness like he had, and none of her friends knew words that nice, and by listening to them she felt more important for a second, like she got a taste of greatness as well. The question of what Getúlio Vargas would think was always in the back of her mind. Should I buy ham, did he like ham? Is the paper lying, is the TV lying? Should I get the pricier gas just because it is local and I need to support local businesses?


For quite a while I have heard people referring to Vargas as someone one tends to either hate or love. Some people still see it in black and white—he was good for the country or he was bad for the country. The movie they made about him was disappointing. Without him we would still be planting coffee seeds. But we are planting coffee seeds, still. Yes, but not as much. The fact is, we were stuck and he got us out of the mud. So it’s alright for someone to be a dictator as long as you agree with them? It was a different time, then. No time for democracy, then? Look, he was the one who invested in petrol and created Petrobras. Well, Petrobras has gone down the drain now. Well, but that’s not his fault now, is it?

Nonetheless, a different, more layered version of Vargas has been gaining popularity as of lately, the one where he is recognized as having improved some things all the while being horrible to some people. To be honest, we could have gotten a lot worse than Getúlio considering the political climate in the 1930s.

Furthermore, I just realized a couple of years ago that we never really knew what he actually believed in—just like any other efficient politician, his actual beliefs were private matters to him. His attitude towards Hitler was servile and at one point even amicable, when Germany was winning the war. Brazilian troops were sent to fight in Italy only once the U.S. had entered the war. President Truman even came down here to talk to him about the situation in Europe and how hard it was and how they needed all the help they could get. Vargas got a railway deal out of it, plus a medal for being on the right side. And yet, he had placed his bet in the last five minutes of the race.

At the end of the war, Getúlio left his post as leader only to return, this time democratically, six years later. The political climate, nevertheless, had changed, and the country was facing historical recession levels. The policies he implemented were controversial, and the press had turned against him. Aware of a military coup in the works, Vargas sent for the assassination of journalist Carlos Lacerda. The assassin hired, however, was apparently unqualified for the job; his shot injured Lacerda in the leg, and just enough for him to make a scandal about it. The lesson here being of course that you should always check an assassin’s credentials before hiring him.

When you think about these ridiculous moments in history—the poorly trained assassin, the timely murder of the man who just happened to be involved with political schemes—and how pivotal they turned out to be, it makes me wonder about more of those seemingly collateral events of which we will probably never know. In our everyday lives we only ever coexist with history as an abstract thing, as the past and the present that is happening in the newspapers. I wonder how it was like for that guy to miss that shot; whether he knew what that meant. I don’t even know if it meant anything at all, or if things would have happened the same way they did without it, though considerably delayed.

Perhaps the assassin just didn’t have it in him to kill a person. He might have just had the perfect shot and then let go. Maybe he had finger cramps from typing in a typewriter, his daily, unsuspicious job. Let’s call him Boris, because Boris has such an assassin ring to it, doesn’t it? Boris Laguna: part-time assassin. Turn the card: fastest typist around; to be seen only by appointment.

Nevertheless, despite his apparent numbness regarding everyday violence, he had a soft, mushy, fuzzy heart, and his tough exterior was now exposed to all of his repressed ladylike feelings which, due to the long lasting effect of toxic masculinity in its glorifying of violence, his innocent subconscious had hidden deep within.

This sounds like a great premise for a story, doesn’t it, though? As long as I do not give away the ending, I could summon millions and millions to the movies; get a blockbuster out of this. From the Gut: An Assassin’s Diary would attract men everywhere with the promise of violence, and little would they know it would be about the assassin’s soft side: his heart. Dear Diary, even though my father really wants me to behave violently, I can’t hurt a fly. I’m too sensitive for it. I don’t know how to tell my father that I don’t think the number of people one murders counts for how much of a man one is. What do I do? He wants me to go into the family business, but all I want is to be a painter! Oh, diary, dearest!


Vargas knew he that, in order to prevent a military coup, he would have to kill himself. His populism made him beloved by the masses, and even the rich. He was a father to the poor and a mother to the rich, they used to say of him—point being that he was good at negotiating.

The minute his letter, written in metaphorical blood (actually, it was typed and sent to the press), hit the papers, people stopped what they were doing and took the streets to protest the military coup. My grandmother remembers where she was that day: her teachers took the students out of class and told them to go home, because the president had died. That day, the entire population of Rio de Janeiro left their houses and walked the grave all the way to the airport. The commotion was such that the military coup wouldn’t happen for another ten years. This was ten years of unlawful arrests, disappearances, political persecution, torture, and censorship prevented. While Vargas is certainly not exempt from his crimes (let’s not act like he did not do these things too, even if arguably less), maybe he made a good save there. I still don’t know what to think of him, Vargas.

Indeed, it is possible there are as many versions of Getúlio Vargas out there as in my mind there are of the woman who works for the museum. Whichever one you prefer, however, I don’t think you necessarily have to pick a version. Just like Vargas and the woman coexist in that room, there are many versions of Vargas and many versions of that woman coexisting in themselves, all terribly alone and too sketchy to rise above.

Perhaps I have figured it out, why I cannot write that story: because it is one too many stories, and all of those people and combinations of people are equally possible.

In one story the woman is Vera, in another Clarice. She is haunted and numb, she is old, ignorant, she wants a sip of greatness; she doesn’t know her country. She is a metaphor for her country. Her country is a metaphor for her. She sees a friend in Getúlio Vargas. She is miserable because of Getúlio Vargas. She is miserable due to reasons having nothing to do with Getúlio Vargas. Getúlio Vargas is a background murmur in her story; she is a background murmur in the story of Getúlio Vargas. She doesn’t care, at first she cared but now she is exhausted from caring, and she just needed not to care for a second. She still gets goosebumps sometimes when she hears that letter, but she doesn’t care anymore. She unplugs the old TV and recites the letter on slow moving days. It is always in her head, like those catchy pop songs always on the radio:

(…)I have fought against the spoliation of Brazil. I have fought against the spoliation of the people. I have been fighting with my heart open. The hatred, the infamy, the slander- haven’t exhausted my spirit. I have given you my life. Now, I offer you my death. There is nothing I fear. Serenely I take my first step on the way to eternity, and leave life to enter History.

Jan 11th, 1954

Beatriz L. Seelaender was born in Sao Paulo, Brazil, in 1998. In 2016, she published her first novel, De Volta ao Vazio. Her work in English can be found on websites such as The Manifest-Station, and literary magazines such as Grub Street. Seelaender is currently studying Literature and Languages at the University of Sao Paulo.