The world-renowned Brazilian novelist was one of thousands jailed and tortured during the military regime (1964-1985) that Brazil's current President Jair Bolsonaro holds in such high esteem.
May 28, 1974: A group of armed men breaks into my apartment. They start going through drawers and cabinets — but I don't know what they're looking for, I'm just a rock songwriter. One of them, more gentle, asks that I accompany them "just to clarify some things." The neighbor sees all this and warns my family, who immediately panic. Everyone knew what Brazil was living at the time, even if it wasn't covered in the newspapers.
I was taken to the DOPS (Departamento de Ordem Politica e Social), booked and photographed. I ask what I had done, he says they will ask the questions. A lieutenant asks silly questions and lets me go. From that point on I'm officially no longer in prison — so the government is no longer responsible for me. When I leave, the man who took me to the DOPS suggests we have coffee together. He stops a taxi and gently opens the door. I get in and ask to go to my parents' house — they need to know what happened.
On the way, the taxi is blocked by two cars — a man with a gun in his hand exists from one of the cars and pulls me out. I fall to the ground, and feel the barrel of the gun in the back of my neck. I look at a hotel in front of me and think, "I can't die so soon." I fall into a kind of catatonic state: I don't feel afraid, I don't feel anything. I know the stories of other friends who have disappeared; I will disappear, and the last thing I will see is a hotel. The man picks me up, puts me on the floor of his car and tells me to put on a hood.
The car drives around for maybe half an hour. They must be choosing a place to execute me — but I still don't feel anything, I've accepted my destiny. The car stops. I'm dragged out and beaten as I'm pushed down what appears to be a corridor. I scream, but I know no one is listening, because they are also screaming. Terrorist, they say. You deserve to die. You're fighting against your country. You're going to die slowly, but you're going to suffer a lot first. Paradoxically, my instinct for survival begins to kick in little by little.
The interrogation begins with questions I can't answer.
I'm taken to the torture room with a raised floor. I stumble on it because I can't see anything: I ask them not to push me, but I get punched in the back and fall down. They tell me to take off my clothes. The interrogation begins with questions I don't know how to answer. They ask me to betray people I have never heard of. They say I don't want to cooperate, throw water on the floor and put something on my feet — then I see from underneath the hood that it is a machine with electrodes that are then attached to my genitals.
Colonel Carlos Alberto Ustra, torturer and one of President Bolsonaro's "idols'— Photo: GDA/ZUMA
Now I understand that, in addition to the blows I can't see coming (and therefore can't even contract my body to cushion the impact of), I'm about to get electric shocks. I tell them they don't have to do this — I'll confess whatever they want me to confess, I'll sign whatever they want me to sign. But they are not satisfied. Then, in desperation, I begin to scratch my skin, tearing off pieces of myself. The torturers must have been frightened when they saw me covered in my own blood; they leave me alone. They say I can take off the hood when I hear the door slam. I take it off and see that I'm in a soundproof room, with bullet holes on the walls. That explains the raised floor.
The next day, another torture session, with the same questions. I repeat that I'll sign whatever they want, I'll confess whatever they want, just tell me what I must confess. They ignore my requests. After I don't how long and how many sessions (time in hell is not counted in hours), there's a knock on the door and they put the hood back on. A man grabs me by the arm and tells me, embarrassed: It's not my fault. I'm taken to a small room, painted completely black, with a very strong air-conditioner. They turn off the light. Only darkness, cold and a siren that plays incessantly. I begin to go mad. I have visions of horses. I knock on the door of the "fridge" (I found out later that was what they called it), but no one opens it. I faint. I wake up and faint again and again, and at one point I think: better to get beaten than to stay in here.
I wake up, and I'm still in the room. The light is always on, and I'm unable to tell how many days or nights went by. I stand there for what seems like eternity. Years later, my sister tells me my parents couldn't sleep; my mother cried all the time, my father locked himself in silence and did not speak.
I left prison, but prison hasn't left me.
I am no longer interrogated. Solitary confinement. One fine day, someone throws my clothes on the floor and tells me to get dressed. I get dressed and put on my hood. I'm taken to a car and thrown in the trunk. We drive for what feels like forever, until they stop — am I going to die now? They order me to take off the hood and get out of the trunk. I'm in a public square filled with kids, somewhere in Rio but I don't know where.
I head to my parents' house. My mother has grown old, my father says I shouldn't go outside anymore. I reach out to my friends, I look for my singer — nobody answers the phone. I'm alone: If I was arrested, I must have done something, they must be thinking. It's risky to be seen with a former prisoner. I may have left prison, but prison stays with me. Redemption comes when two people who were not even close to me offer me a job. My parents would never fully recover.
Decades later, the archives of the dictatorship are made public, and my biographer gets all the material. I ask why I was arrested: an informant accused you, he says. Do you want to know who reported you? I don't. It won't change the past.
And it's these Years of Lead that President Jair Bolsonaro — after referring in Congress to one of the most heinous torturers as his idol — wants to see back in place and time
*Most recently, in August, Bolsonaro hailed the late Colonel Carlos Alberto Ustra, head of the dictatorship-era's notorious DOI-CODI intelligence unit, as a "national hero."