15. 7. 2020

English version | The Village Idiot

by Nuno Miguel Dias


It is much more than just a character. It is an institution. It’s all over the world, ready to tear up all the social conventions of the environment in which he operates. The Village Idiot was even the inspiration of great works, as were great loves, and even a half-hippie boy who “told some truths” - but in parables, around Belém, in Judea. Which was also a village. And even if it was a city, the important thing is to understand my intentions with this thought.

Not so many years ago, I found myself spending a little more than just 24 hours in a Maasai village (also called enkai or boma). Maybe it's better to contextualize. Not so many years ago because I am far from being an old guy. But this is also subjective. It may have been around for 2004 or so. And it is worth mentioning that the Maasai tribe lives in Kenya, just outside Nairobi, you climb to Mount Kenia, turn left towards Nakuru (that lake full of flamingos that Robert Redford flies with Meryl Streep hanging from the plane, in Out of Africa) and descend as if going to Serengeti, Tanzania. It is, as you can easily imagine, a deserted place. Like the Plateau of the city of Guarda, but with less broom and more wildebeest and zebras. Who attract hyenas and lions. Kilometers and kilometers of a green just like the old Windows 97 desktop, covered with animal bones that served as a feast for predators and that vultures try to leave clean and white, as if they were trinkets making the plain an etagère that any decorator of very good taste has conceived. Many hours by car on roads that can hardly be considered roads, that take years away from our spine and degrees of verticality but that transport us through incredible viewpoints, where the most dramatic skies fall over a plain whose distance from the horizon can only be compared with the sea - I swear, it's true. From time to time, on that line that separates the so-called prairie-green and the indigo-celestial where there is always one or another cumulonimbus indicating the rain in the distance, a red dot. It’s a maasai. In safari. Whose true meaning, which gave rise to the most touristic term, is "the great journey". That a young member of the tribe, recently circumcised, undertakes for weeks, traveling distances that are inconceivable to us even by car, exposed to all kinds of dangers, to prove himself worthy of the epithet "warrior". Armed only with their typical red cloak, a spear, a knife, a canteen and something they can fire with, they walk during the day, taking advantage of the time when the great savannah beasts enjoy their well-deserved rest and, at nightfall, build a fire with the help of which they hope to reach the following morning. This lasts for almost a month (from moon to moon).

It should be noted that traveling through this inhospitable Africa is a bit like regressing to the time when man did not have absolute control over the environment, with all the good and bad that entails. It is to be absolutely certain that if the guide forgets someone in one of the many necessary breaks because the bladder cannot process the many liters of water that the heat forces us to drink, he will last hardly an hour out there. There are countless stories of Japanese tourists who either do not understand the warnings by language barrier or simply act like teenagers, always with the conviction that they can do anything and owe nothing, much to the delight of leopards and other cats who like to make a taste of them. For a maasai, it is "peaners". Many are those who return from their safari with a lion's mane, achieved in an old battle, as a souvenir of their adventure. Basically, they come out of the bomas like boys and they return as men, warriors, “title” that they never leave behind, that and the lion's mane, that is now a headgear. I got in as a mere curious. “The crazy guy who wants to spend a night here”, they would have thought, certainly. But it seemed fine at the time. Except that the enkai are surrounded by a fence of thorny plants, which seemed to me to be insufficient to protect those people from nocturnal predators and, therefore, to protect me for one night. After this little adrenaline rush and, I confess, reconsidering my decision, I was down for it. In exchange for a value and later some objects, they accepted my presence. That was the point. Being tolerated but ignored, the best status quo to achieve great photographs. It was not exactly as I imagined. I participated in almost all activities, from fetching water to milking the cows, lighting a fire to boil the blood with the milk, laugh a lot during dinner, with the help of the only two boys who had gone to school to learn English (the official language of Kenya), to play around the fact that it was “easy” to get a mane because males stay asleep in the shade and females hunt (thank you, Sir David Attenborough), sleep, without a sleeping bag, in one of the houses made of cow feces (odorless, rest assured), but which was meant to be a stable for goats (which are animals with very bad sleep, by the way). I therefore had very little time to weigh all the consequences that that act would have on my future life. Which turned out to be, after all, a huge burden in all my decisions since then. Lesson learned and maximum score in courage, determination and even patience. Because I encountered the Village idiot. Someone who exists anywhere in the world, was also there, in the middle of the Masai Mara National Reserve. I assumed that, because he was very old, he had one of the many dementias that affect the older age groups, but I ended up discovering, only much later, that he had always been like this. Imagine the curiosity that a white guest arouses in that crowd. Multiply by a thousand. He played with my hair, which was unusually smooth, started dialogues with me in Maa (the language of the Maasai), indecipherable things that the “translators” did not deign to translate, out of shame, which only made him gesture even more, in universal despair. Just before departure, I gave him my sunglasses, for which he had shown an almost obsessive interest throughout the stay. He would even throw a tantrum when I didn't lend them to him so he could look directly at the sun, followed by the obvious disillusionment that this was not possible and the subsequent disinterest, although only temporary. He ran towards his hut and brought me a sword, an almost raw leather hilt, a blade made of bundles of springs (the typical suspension of pick-ups). Only then did he say “Thank you” with the best diction I've ever heard.

Long before I even thought that, one day, travel journalism would send me to such exotic places, I was a young dreamer, attending 12th grade with a nice schedule: I only had classes in the morning. As soon as I heard the school ring, I took the boat to Terreiro do Paço and walked the rest of the way to my first serious job, with green receipts and discounts and all. Basically, I was a handyman in an architectural studio on Rua da Amendoeira, in the heart of Mouraria. In the 90s, nothing was like it is now. Including Mouraria. There were still odd people from Lisbon (Fernando Maurício, this true institution of Fado Vadio, played a Portuguese traditional game every afternoon at Café Parreirinha), prostitution in the arcades of Martim Moniz was in plain sight, heroin trafficking was taking place in broad daylight through baskets lowered from windows and Largo da Severa was a morning market. There was not a single Pakistan convenience store, no underground Chinese restaurant and Rua do Benformoso was a place where no one would want to go, 19th century Naples meets Kingston, the capital of Jamaica. Hard times at Olissipo. But not for a boy from the South Margin, versed in Old Lisbon, with dreams as humble as having some change to spend on alcohol in Bairro Alto or Shangri-La, located in the then prohibitive Rua Nova do Carvalho, today the very fashionable Pink street. Unless I found, on the route Rua do Capelão / Rua da Guia / Rua da Amendoeira, the crazy woman from Mouraria (A maluca da Mouraria). She was a hideous, ragged, and pestilent character. It hurt. Actually, it was scary. She spent her days walking through downtown with a plastic bag hanging from one arm and, in her free hand, a cobblestone from the Lisbon sidewalk that she threatened to throw at any passerby. I came across her on the crosswalk at Terreiro do Paço, at that time the most crowded in Europe, to the terror of everyone who ran, exhausted, in all directions, like a school of sardines in the presence of a great white shark. In fact, I never saw her carry out the act itself. Only the threat. Constant. Which was enough for me to change sidewalk when I saw her, just in case. Not even the mythical "muggings at the corner of Mezcal" made me so afraid. The stories were many, from "she lost a child and turned out like this" to "she was betrayed by her husband and went crazy", but the cause was not my fascination. It was the fact that her presence, impossible to ignore, was tolerated by all the inhabitants of that neighborhood, an island in the middle of the capital, where there were people who had never even seen the sea, where domestic violence didn’t wait to get home, where 12-year-old girls were put out there on the streets by their own parents, plus a number of other things that we all imagined could happen anywhere, as long as it was very remote, not there, in Lisbon's EEC.

Faced with this scenario, getting noticed for the worst reasons was, in fact, the superpower of the crazy woman from Mouraria, or simply Maria. Maria had very big eyes. A very dark complexion, matching black hair, not very long. Just over 50 years old. A challenging attitude. But no meanness. That’s what the neighbors told me, the only ones who managed to rescue her from that trance she was in most of the time. But they rarely did. Because "she is like that". Maria is no longer alive, I asked the other day. But everyone remembers her. Of course!

The arts do not forget the determining role that the Village Idiot plays in our daily life, characterizing him in an indelible way. In 1936, in full recession, Harper Lee was ten years old and lived in Monroeville, Alabama. In the neighboring town of Maycomb, a black man was accused of raping and beating a Caucasian woman. His innocence was proven but the verdict was not in line with the convictions of all the locals: guilty. The writer is so marked by the episode that, in 1960, her novel Too Kill a Mokingbird is published, which is nothing more than an account of her experience in regards to that episode as a girl. Winner of the Pulitzer prize, it is one of the greatest classics in American and world literature, which addresses themes as timeless as racism, courage, empathy, difficult social relationships in a community in the southern United States and the fallibility of that country's justice system. However, of the whole plot, the highlight goes to the relationship of the two children Scout and Jem Finch with neighbor Boo Radley, a sinister character that only appears in the final chapter. He lives in domestic seclusion, only goes out at night, is hated by everyone and represents all the superstitions and fears of the population of Maycomb, to which they are due the provincialism and prejudice that lead to racism and injustice that the book addresses. More than just the Village Idiot, Scout and Jem (sons of Atticus Finch, the lawyer who decides to defend Tom Robinson, the would-be rapist, which will bring him countless problems), strongly believe, inspired by the gossip they hear here and there, that Boo kills the neighborhood pets, in addition to other scary practices. The final episode proves the total opposite. Boo Radley is after all a protector of children, a duty he takes for himself after a very tragic childhood. More than this would be spoilers. As far as cinema is concerned, so that the great classics are increasingly underestimated in their greatness, there is the fact that, on television channels, on digital platforms or even in the cinema festivals that get organized here and there, they always play over and over again the same ones.

One of the most sadly forgotten is The Daughter of Ryan, from 1970, directed by David Lean. In the isolated Irish peninsula of Dingle, Thomas Ryan is the respected owner of the only pub from the village of Killary. His beautiful daughter, Rosy, married the even more respected teacher at the local school, Charles, and life runs as normal as dictated by the inhospitable location, where the First World War does not seem to have arrived. But that’s when an English officer, Major Doryan, is put into service in the village, where his presence is unwanted (in Ireland in 1916 the desire for independence was bubbling up for a long time). What ends up happening is obvious. But what makes this film unique (beyond the wonderful soundtrack) is the fantastic and remarkable performance of John Mills, in the role of Michael, the Madman of the Village, deaf, deformed and tattered. He’s Rosy Ryan's best friend (or follows her everywhere carried away by an uncontrollable fascination) and that is what makes him the only witness to an adultery that no one will tolerate. Interestingly (or not), John Mills won an Oscar and a Golden Globe, both for Best Supporting Actor, the only awards the movie was entitled to. 

Paradoxically, the best explanation of the “phenomenon” of the Village Idiot is given to us on the BBC's epic 70s show, Monty Python’s Flying Circus, in a sketch in which Arthur Figgis (John Cleese), the Village Idiot, is sitting on a wall, explaining, while receiving alms from passersby and exchanging views on intellectual topics with one of them, that the role of the village madman in rural society is of paramount importance, as it allows almost all other members of the community to look down on him in order to feel superior. Arthur thus provides a vital service to the community, getting up every day at 6 am to exercise with equipment specially designed to keep him goofy enough. Like the doctor, the blacksmith and the carpenter, Arthur Figgis is a very important figure and, as such, uses his status. Mr. Brando, the local bank manager, states: “Yes, we have a very reasonable number of idiots around here, and all of them can nowadays earn up to 10,000 pounds a year”. It’s important to note that Mr. Figgis is not just any village madman. He teaches idiocy at the University of East Anglia, a bachelor's degree which, when completed, entitles him to a “Idiotic Diploma”, two buckets of mud and a kick to the head. Despite the nonsense characteristic of Python, the truth is that the village idiot is an institution. An institution that in the English language even assumes a definition in the dictionary. The Village Idiot characterizes everyone who, within a community, suffers from some kind of psychological disorder and, for that reason, has been ostracized, since forever, as if they were some kind of animal. Family members themselves, once respected in that same community, are often marginalized. In Anglo-Saxon culture, it is an unavoidable character and, in Irish Gaelic (Official Language of Ireland), there is even a term, Gamal, to define it. Nevertheless, it is present all over the world. To test our tolerance limits. And it may even be the barometer that measures the degree of freedom, in the true dimension of the concept, that each of us is willing to accept. And, consequently, to have.

*Originally published on Vogue Portugal's The Madness Issue.