Pierre Verger in the memory of Zélia Gattai

Zélia Gattai, Brazilian, niece of Italian emigrants, memorialist and “Contadora de Historias”, as she likes to define herself, today is 88 years old. She lived 56 years of her life with the great Brazilian writer Jorge Amado sharing everything: love, friendship, work, politics and that bitter exile that forced them to live in Europe from 1948 to 1952. She shared with him even the adherence to the candomblé and the friendship with great figures like Pablo Neruda, Nicolas Guillén, Pablo Picasso, Jean Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir and Pierre Verger. Pierre Verger was a great friend of theirs, and Zélia remembers him with affection: “He was an extraordinary person and I had great admiration for him. Think,” she tells me on the phone during a dialogue that almost transformed into an interview “we can say, in a certain way, that he came to Brazil thanks to Jorge. Pierre read the book “Jubiabà” by Jorge Amado and was enchanted by the description of Bahia and its nature. He became curious to the point that he wanted to see with his own eyes that nature that was so out bursting. So he came to Brazil, he met Jorge, he fell in love with the Brazilian nature and culture and he never left. We had become such good friends that he translated my novel “Crônica de uma namorada” into French.” There are two mysterious episodes related to Pierre Verger that Zélia remembers. The first one took place when she, photographer for the love of photography, was preparing a portfolio of photos and asked Pierre Verger if she could take a picture of him. He answered absolutely not, that he didn’t want her to, and furthermore not showing his profile, because he had an aquiline nose. Regardless of his refusal, Zélia took several photos of him. When she went to develop them she was very surprised because the pictures were all completely blurred. She remained so impressed that she told Mãe Senhora do Axé Opò Afonjà what happened she answered, “You cannot go against Verger’s will, he is a witch!” After a few days, Zélia told Verger what had happened with the pictures she had taken. To Zélia’s great surprise, Verger started to laugh and said: “Dear, photographs can be taken only with authorization”. Some time after Pierre Verger announced to Zélia that she could photograph him, but only full-face: that was when the only picture that portrays Pierre Verger together with Jorge Amado and Carybè was taken. This time the photo came out well defined. Another episode that Zélia recalls is related to the celebration of the fiftieth birthday of Mãe Menininha do Gantois. All her best friends had gathered together with her and decided that during the party everyone would have held a brief speech about her. They also decided to record all of the speeches: so Zélia came to the party with a little tape recorder and sat next to Thomas Farkas, a professional photographer for a São Paulo TV that had brought with him a sophisticated recorder, of high technology. All the people that were there gave their speech until it was Pierre Verger’s turn. He started talking, then he paused and asked the audience to stop their recorders because he would have started again from the beginning. But Zélia and Thomas, not being officially responsible for the recording, didn’t stop their recorders and recorded everything. For three times Pierre Verger started to talk, paused, and then started again from the beginning. At the end he decided that, that was not the right time for his speech and so communicated to the audience that he would have spoken last of all. At the end of the party Zélia Gattai, anxious to listen to the entire recording, went back home and went into her study. She sat down, turned on the recorder and listened to the speeches given by the friends of Mãe Menininha dos Gantois. Once she got to the point where Pierre Verger started his speech three times, with great surprise, she noticed that her recorder was mute or almost so. In fact, for the other speeches, the audio was clear, while, for Pierre Verger’s efforts to start his speech there was only a forced and slow sound. “Não saia nada! (nothing could be understood!)” recalls Zélia. And her awe increased even more the next day when she was contacted by a phone call by Thomas Farkas. The photographer asked her if he could borrow her recording because in his sophisticated recorder he could not hear the repeated beginnings of Pierre Verger’s speech: his recorder was totally mute. “This was Verger, he was like this” concludes Zélia Gattai.