From inside a circle made of shards of glass in front of Porto Alegre’s Public Market, a scrawny man, little more than a twig of skin, fired a bottomless question at me point blank:
“Miss, tell me something. Do you think I should keep on eating glass or give it up, go back home, and put in some crops?”
I remained stock-still, not knowing what to say, utterly mute. Should he continue eating glass or not? It was a question and a half. Then I understood. Jorge Luiz Santos de Oliveira, thus christened thirty-five years ago, had a dream, the dream of making a living by eating glass. Because eating glass is Jorge Luiz’s art. From early on, it was what set Jorge Luiz apart from the sad hordes of all the Jorges, from the long line of country people from São Jerônimo, his land, coal land, dark and pungent. By masticating his rocky ground, Jorge Luiz discovered he is a unique being in the world, despite the sameness of his melancholy face, of skin stretched over bones. By gnawing on stones to frighten off the worms crawling around his insides, he blazed the trail of his art. For someone who regurgitated stones, glass wasn’t scary.
Jorge Luiz began by ingesting beer, cognac, even champagne bottles. He became, in the words of his crude cardboard poster, the Man of Steel. And so, while ruminating on a liter bottle of Scotch—on the rocks—Jorge Luiz asked me this question from the fork in his path: Should he or should he not continue eating glass?
I moved closer to understand the question. Then I noticed. The Man of Steel was crying.
Jorge Luiz had no audience, inescapably a tragedy for a performer. He drew the traditional circle of water to summon his public, but they didn’t come. They were all standing around an indigenous man displaying a lizard in a box and selling some miraculous ointments that, he guaranteed, came straight from the Amazon. Earlier, Jorge Luiz had tried to do his performance over at a busy pedestrian mall, but he left when he caught sight of the man who owns the spot, the magisterial Brazilian Rambo with his admirable bundle of muscles.
So the Man of Steel hustled over to Glênio Peres Plaza with his many riches: a leather hat, a bag filled with pieces of glass, a photo of his two kids, and a note, written by him, in which he vows to love beyond this life the wife who was run over and killed two years ago. “Tatiane, Iloveyou,” it reads, the words stuck together so he won’t ever be separated from the woman of his life again, not even by the vacuum of grammar.
When I met him, Jorge Luiz had just shattered an eyetooth on a shard from an imported bottle of something he’d pulled out of a trash can. Tough glass, said the startled Man of Steel, a bright red thread trickling from the corner of his mouth. He told me his idol and inspiration was Ostrich Man, who had swallowed pool balls in his childhood, and padlocks, too, keys and all, right down the hatch.
Now Jorge Luiz couldn’t understand why people would rather watch a boring lizard do nothing at all than watch a man eat glass, lie down on glass, walk on glass. Nor could I. Strange world this, where a man eating glass isn’t astonishing.
The two of us stood there, glaring at the lizard and pondering human mysteries. Then I left, without answering his question from the depths. He chewed glass but what pierced him was invisibility.
—Translated from the Portuguese by Diane Grosklaus Whitty
Eliane Brum is a writer, journalist, and documentary maker, and the author of five books of nonfiction and the novel One Two. The Collector of Leftover Souls: Field Notes on Brazil’s Everyday Insurrections is her first work of nonfiction to be translated into English. She has won more than forty journalism prizes and honors, is a columnist for El País, and collaborates with the Guardian.
Diane Grosklaus Whitty has translated The Collector of Leftover Souls: Field Notes on Brazil’s Everyday Insurrections, by Eliane Brum, as well as Activist Biology, by Regina Horta Duarte, and The Sanitation of Brazil, by Gilberto Hochman. She has also translated prose and poetry by Adriana Lisboa, Marina Colasanti, and Mário Quintana, among others. Her translations have appeared in the Guardian, The Lancet, History Today, and Litro. She lives in Madison, Wisconsin.
“The Man Who Eats Glass” from The Collector of Leftover Souls: Field Notes on Brazil’s Everyday Insurrections. Copyright © 2019 by Eliane Brum. Translation from the Portuguese copyright © 2019 by Diane Grosklaus Whitty. Reprinted with the permission of Graywolf Press, Minneapolis, Minnesota.