Brazilian terrorist trades his gun for novelist's pen

Fourteen years ago Fernando Nagle Gabeira was holed up in a guerrilla safe house in Rio de Janeiro, holding a revolver to the head of the American ambassador to Brazil.

The legendary sequestering (Gabeira's band of terrorists swapped the ambassador for 15 jailed political prisoners) launched the 28-year-old star journalist-cum-militant on a decade-long odyssey through prison and torture in Brazil, almost 10 years of exile, and a celebrated return home on the wings of a general amnesty in 1979.

The erstwhile blue-jeaned Marxist-Leninist stepped onto the tarmac at Rio's international airport sporting, to the horror of his ex-companheirosm, four-color pastel shirts, Aladdin-style slippers, and a tempered ideology.

Since then, Gabeira has traded his gun for a pen. He has churned out five books in four years, and is considered one of the country's best-selling novelists.

He stumps not for proletarian revolution, but for ecology, feminism, and ''individual freedoms.'' The young ideologue, who admits ''I would have killed the ambassador'' to spring his comrades in arms, today proclaims: ''I don't believe in politics. I believe in people.''

A smallish, slender man, his sweeping black hair streaked with gray, Gabeira is given to billowing painter's pants and baggy knit shirts. He has graceful dancer's gestures. The writer lives with his wife and their two-month-old baby in a handsome apartment building near Rio's limpid Lagoa Rodrigo de Freitas lagoon.

Many of Brazil's nearly 9,000 former exiles have, like Gabeira, successfully reentered the country they left a tumultuous epoch ago during its worst years of military rule. Perhaps the best known is Leonel Brizola, the self-styled populist who once tried to raise a guerrilla army to block the 1964 officers' coup.

After 16 years in exile, Brizola returned to capture the governorship of Rio de Janeiro State in last November's election. According to public opinion polls, Brizola could win the presidency if direct elections were held. His political compatriots include a score of former exiles, such as Rio's vice-governor and former Brazilian education minister, Darcy Ribeiro, and Congressman Abdias do Nascimento, a black-power advocate and father of Brazil's teatro negrom or black theater.

Many others have returned bearing some signs of their years spent in the cold. One former militant who had three bouts in jail and was tortured in Brazil before his exile has kept himself far away from the pulse of political life since his return.

He lives on the outskirts of Porto Alegre, in Rio Grande do Sul State, without even a telephone. He quit Brazil's first open election in two decades last November, denouncing it as ''nothing but a fashion show.''

Often, says Gabeira, an exile's personal transformations do not jibe with those of the country. Gabeira's heady radicalism of the 1960s was sobered by his experiences in a handful of ''people's republics,'' particularly in Algeria and Cuba.

He was more taken by the soft socialism of Sweden, where he stayed nine years and lived ''a very dignified life'' working as a bellboy, subway mechanic, and a cook. He came back to find a Brazil ''in many ways intolerably backward.''

Part of the disillusionment, though, is of his own making. ''Exiles often live a kind of fantasy life,'' he says. ''They usually form exile ghettos'' and maintain a closed community, fed by the distant hope of return. ''We waited 10 years to come back to a country that didn't exist anymore,'' he observes.

Two months after he landed at Rio's airport, ''I was ready to leave again.''

Nor was Brazil quite ready for the new Gabeira. ''I left here a warrior, the symbol of machismm,'' he says, smiling. ''I returned as a dancer and talking about women's rights. It was a scandal.''

The remarriage of Gabeira and Brazil has lasted four relatively tranquil years, and he has no plans for separation.

Still, he finds his world, shaped by what he calls a ''more humane'' way of life often grating against the rougher edge of the underdeveloped world.

''I feel I have a role to play here,'' he said. Then, after a pause, Gabeira added, ''But you always have to be prepared for a second exile.''

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