Life Eternal, by Machado de Assis

(My translation of the short story A vida eterna)

E

veryone agrees that nothing compares to that state of being neither asleep nor awake when the soul frees itself from affliction and seeks rest from the cares of life. For me, at least, I must say I’ve never experienced more pleasurable moments, especially when my stomach’s full and I’m inhaling the smoke of a fine Havana.

After an ample, refined supper, in the company of my good friend Dr Vaz, who’d appeared at my house for the first time in two years, we went – the two of us – to my study and started talking about the past, like two oldies whose grammar of life no longer has a future tense.

Vaz was sitting in the leather-upholstered easy chair – you can still find them in sacristies – and I was stretched out on the similarly upholstered sofa. We were both smoking excellent cigars that I’d been sent as a present a few days before.

Our conversation started desultory and became even more so, until each of us, without removing our cigars, closed our eyes and entered into the state I’ve just alluded to, hearing the mice in the wainscot, but completely oblivious one of the other.

It would have been natural to pass on to real sleep and I’d have arrived there, were it not for three resounding knocks on the door. I stood up in surprise. Vaz remained in the same position, which made me suppose he must be asleep; if he’d been only half-asleep, like me, the knocking would have produced the same effect.

I went to see who was knocking. It was a tall, thin individual with a cloak wrapped round him.. No sooner had I opened the door than the man entered without so much as ‘By your leave.’ I waited for him to explain the reason for his visit, but I waited in vain, because the stranger sat down comfortably in a chair, crossed his legs, took his hat off and began to tap on its crown, producing a sound I wouldn’t know how to describe, but which must have been some demented symphony, because it looked like he’d come straight from the Red Beach Lunatic Asylum.

I glanced over at my friend, who was deep asleep in the easy chair. The mouse saturnalia continued in the wainscot.

I remained standing for a few moments to see if the stranger would deign to say anything. Meanwhile, despite the unpleasant impression I had of the man, I assessed his appearance and attire.

As I say, he was wrapped in a cloak. When he sat down, the cloak fell open and I saw white leather shoes, yellow trousers and a green waistcoat – colours which look good on a flag, but you couldn’t say they adorn or embellish the human body.

His features were even stranger than his clothes: squint-eyed, big moustache, Roman nose, wide mouth, salient chin, mauve lips, bushy eyebrows, long eyelashes, a perpendicular forehead and – crowning everything – grey, unkempt hair.

When he’d finished tapping out the tune on the crown of his hat, the stranger raised his eyes to me and said:

‘Sit down, dear fellow!’

What audacity! Giving me orders in my own house! I should have sent the fellow packing without more ado; his tone was so imperious, however, that I obeyed willy-nilly and went to sit down on the sofa. From there, with the light of the lamp that hung from the ceiling, I could see his face better and my second impression was even worse.

‘My name is Tobias. I’m a graduate of mathematics.’

I bowed slightly.

The stranger continued:

‘I think I’m going to die tomorrow… Don’t be alarmed! I’m sure that, tomorrow, I’ll be going to the other world. It’s no problem. “To die, to sleep,” as the poet says. Nonetheless, I don’t want to leave this world without fulfilling a pressing, inescapable duty. Have a look at this.’

He took a little picture from his pocket and handed it to me. It was a miniature, a portrait of an extraordinarily beautiful young woman. I returned the picture to my interlocutor and awaited an explanation.

‘This portrait,’ he continued, looking at the miniature, ‘is of my daughter Eusébia. She’s twenty-two and as rich as Croesus, because she’s my sole heir.’

I’d have been amazed at the contrast between the stranger’s wealth and his appearance, had it not been that I was already convinced he was mad. What I was thinking about was how to get this man out of the house, but I confess I was afraid there’d be a struggle, so I waited to see how things went.

Meanwhile I was asking myself how it was that my slaves had allowed a stranger to get as far as the door of my study even though I’d given strict orders that this sort of thing shouldn’t happen. I was already pondering what type of punishment I’d impose for such carelessness – or connivance –, when the stranger shot these words at me:

‘Before I die, I want you to marry Eusébia. That’s the proposal I’ve come to make: if you agree to marry her, I’ll leave you this wad of notes right here, as pin money; if you refuse, I’ll simply put a bullet from this revolver through your head.’

And he lay the wad of banknotes on the table, together with the cocked revolver.

The scene was taking on a dramatic aspect. My first impulse was to wake up Dr Vaz and see if I could get the man out of the house with his help; but I was afraid – and with good reason – that if the stranger saw what I intended he’d put into effect the second part of his proposal.

There was only one thing to do: play for time.

‘My dear Mr Tobias, it goes without saying that I feel enormously flattered by the proposal you’ve put to me. Nothing could be further from my mind than to refuse the hand of such a beautiful creature – or the banknotes. Look at me, however! I’m seventy years old! Miss Eusébia is only twenty-two! Don’t you think it’d be too much to impose me on your daughter?’

Tobias smiled, glanced at his revolver, and started tapping on the crown of his hat again.

‘Far be it from me,’ I continued, ‘to wish to offend you; on the contrary, if I were thinking of myself, I wouldn’t say a word; but it’s purely for the sake of that most gentle gentlewoman – I’m already in love with her, despite my seventy years –, purely for her sake that I draw attention to the disparity between us.’

I raised my voice as I said this, to see if I could wake up Dr Vaz. But my friend continued fast asleep in his chair.

‘I don’t want to know about your age,’ said Tobias, putting his hat on and picking up his revolver. ‘What I want is you and Eusébia to marry. Today. If you refuse, I’ll kill you.’

He pointed the revolver at me. What could I do, despite all my qualms, other than accept the girl and the money?

‘I’ll marry her!’ I blurted out.

Tobias put the revolver back in his pocket and said:

‘Good! Get changed.’

‘Now?!’

‘Now. Get changed while I have a read.’

He stood up, went to my bookshelves, took out a volume of Don Quixote, and went to sit down again. Whilst I – more dead than alive – went to get my coat from the wardrobe, the stranger took out some glasses and prepared to read.

‘Who’s this, sleeping here so peacefully?’ he asked as he cleaned his glasses.

‘That’s Dr Vaz, dear sir. Shall I introduce you to him?’

‘No, it’s not necessary,’ Tobias replied with a malicious smile.

I got myself ready slowly in the hope that something would happen to interrupt that unpleasant scenario. What made it worse was I’d started shaking – I was all fingers and thumbs.

Once in a while I glanced at the stranger, who was calmly reading Cervantes’ immortal work.

The clock struck eleven.

Suddenly it occurred to me that, once in the street, I’d be able to find a policeman, alert him to my predicament and free myself from the awful fate of having Mr Tobias as father-in-law.

But there was another option, an even better one: wake up Dr Vaz before leaving – which would only be natural – and get rid of the stranger with his help.

Whereupon I got dressed as fast as I could and put myself at Mr Tobias’s disposal. He closed the book, went to replace it on the shelf, wrapped himself in his cloak and said: ‘Let’s go!’

‘Would you mind if I wake up Dr Vaz first? He can’t stay here. He needs to go back home.’

As I said this, I stepped towards the chair where Vaz was sleeping.

‘No need,’ said Tobias. ‘We’ll be back soon.’

I didn’t insist: there was still the chance of coming across a policeman, or perhaps one of the slaves – as long as I’d have time to say something. But the slave option proved impossible: when we left my study, the stranger gave me his arm and guided me rapidly down the stairs and out to the street.

A carriage was standing outside the front door. Tobias gestured for me to get in.

I hadn’t foreseen this. My legs went weak and I lost all hope of giving my executioner the slip. It was dangerous – nay, impossible – to resist: the man had the trump card in his pocket and what’s more, I told myself, one doesn’t argue with a lunatic.

We got into the carriage.

I don’t know how long we travelled or which way we went, but I’d guess we passed everything that was passable in Rio de Janeiro. After several centuries of the most extreme anguish, we stopped in front of a house that glowed like a lantern.

‘This is it,’ my companion said. ‘We can get out.’

The house was a real palace, the entrance ornamented with Doric columns, the vestibule paved with black and white marble and illuminated by a stupendous antique bronze chandelier.

The two of us ascended a magnificent marble staircase. At the top there were two little statues, one of Mercury, the other of Minerva. When we reached them my companion pointed them out and said:

‘You know what they represent, my dear Son-in-Law? Minerva is Eusébia – Knowledge; Mercury is me – Commerce.’

‘So you’re a businessman?’ I asked the stranger ingenuously.

‘I used to be a merchant in India.’

We passed through two rooms and when we reached the third we came across an old man. Tobias introduced me:

‘This is Dr Camilo da Anunciação; take him to the guest room while I go and get changed. I’ll see you soon, my dear Son-in-Law.’

And he turned his back on me.

The old man – I subsequently discovered he was the major-domo – took me by the hand and led me to a great hall, where the guests were.

Despite the profound effect of the adventure itself, I have to confess I was more and more amazed by the sumptuousness of the house, and not only its sumptuousness, but also the taste and artistry with which it was all put together.

The guest room was closed when we got there; the major-domo knocked three times, and a valet – also old – came to open the door and took hold of my hand. The major-domo remained outside.

I’ll never forget my first sight of that room when the doors opened. Everything was strange but magnificent. Against the far wall there was a big, imitation-bronze eagle, made of wood, with its wings extended as if about to take flight. From the eagle’s beak there hung a mirror, the lower part of which was clasped in its claws in such a way that it leant forward in the usual fashion of wall mirrors.

Instead of paper, the walls were lined with white silk; the ceiling was artfully wrought; large candelabras, magnificent furniture, a profusion of flowers, carpets – simply, everything that luxury and taste might suggest to a rich man’s soul.

There were only a few guests and by some coincidence – like the major-domo and the valet and my future father-in-law and, indeed, like me too – they were all old.

After the servant introduced me, those present greeted me with such attentiveness that I couldn’t help but feel well-disposed towards them. I sat in a chair and they came to form a circle round me, all smiles and happiness at seeing the son-in-law of the ‘Incomparable Tobias’ – that’s how they called the man with the revolver.

I answered their questions as best I could and it seemed that all my replies caused them satisfaction, because I was swamped with more and more praise and compliments.

One of the guests – a man of about seventy, breast covered with medals, bald – said amidst universal acclamation:

‘Tobias couldn’t have found a better son-in-law even if he’d taken a lantern and searched the whole city – what am I talking about?! – the whole Empire! Anyone can see that Dr Camilo da Anunciação is a perfect gentleman, distinguished by his talents, his gravitas and, not least, by the admirable white hair adorning his head, which makes him more fortunate than I, who lost mine long ago.’

Then he sighed so profoundly he seemed to be entering his death throes. Applause welled up over the final words of the orator.

I’d scarcely mouthed a ‘Thank you’ before I had to prepare myself to listen to another discourse, directed to me this time by a retired colonel, and then a final one from a lady who hadn’t taken her eyes off me ever since I came in.

When she’d finished speaking, the Colonel said: ‘Wouldn’t you agree, Countess, the young men of today are as nothing alongside this patriarch, Tobias’s future son-in-law?!’

‘I couldn’t agree more, Colonel! When it comes to bridegrooms, only the last century can provide adequate ones. Weddings nowadays?! Heaven help us! The bridegrooms are no more than fops and dandies! No gravity! No dignity! No honesty!’

The conversation continued on the same lines. They subjected the past century to a wide-ranging investigation and – perhaps it’s just an old man’s prejudice – they spoke so well and made such fine and telling points that I couldn’t help but admire.

But, during all this, I was anxious to get to know my bride. That was all I was curious about now; and if, as I imagined, she was both beautiful and extremely rich, what more could I ask?!

I made so bold as to put a question to that effect to a lady who was sitting beside me, opposite the Countess. She told me my bride was at her dressing table and it wouldn’t be long before I saw her. She added that she was as radiant as the sun.

Meanwhile, an hour had gone by and neither my bride nor her father, the Incomparable Tobias, had appeared in the room. What could have delayed my future father-in-law? One didn’t need all that time to get dressed. I must confess that, despite the scene in my study and the circumstances in which I’d met the man, I’d have been calmer if he’d been present. You see, I’d already seen the old fellow in my house and had got used to his gestures and his way of talking.

After an hour and a half the door opened to admit a new guest. Imagine my amazement when my eyes alighted on my friend Dr Vaz! Unable to stifle a shout of surprise, I ran to him.

‘You?! Here?!’

‘Some friend!’ replied Vaz, smiling. ‘You get married and don’t even invite your old chum! If it wasn’t for this letter, I’d still be stranded in your study.’

‘What letter?’ I asked.

Vaz opened the letter he had in his hand and gave it me to read, while the other guests stood back a little and contemplated this scene – unexpected as it was, both for me and for them!

The letter was from Tobias and was to the effect that, since I was due to get married that evening, he was taking the liberty – as father-in-law – of inviting Vaz to be present at the ceremony.

‘How did you get here?’

‘Your father-in-law sent a carriage to collect me.’

At this point I had to agree, in my mind, that Tobias merited the title of Incomparable just as much as Aeneas the title of Pious. Now I understood that the only reason he hadn’t wanted me to wake Vaz was so I could have this pleasant surprise later.

My friend, of course, wanted me to tell him all about how I came to be getting married so suddenly and I was on the point of obliging him when the door opened and in walked the owner of the house.

He was different.

He was no longer wearing the weird clothes, nor did he have the peculiar air about him that he had when I’d seen him in my study; he was now dressed with the sober elegance that befits an old man, and the most amiable smile was hovering on his lips.

‘So, my dear Son-in-Law,’ he said to me after he’d greeted everyone, ‘what do you say to your friend’s arrival?!’

‘I say, my dear Father-in-Law, that you’re a diamond. You can’t imagine the pleasure this surprise has given me, because Vaz is my oldest and dearest friend.’

I took the opportunity to introduce Vaz to all the other guests, who were in general agreement that Dr Vaz was a friend worthy of Dr Camilo da Anunciação. The Incomparable Tobias expressed his firm hope that, within a short while, he’d be personally tied to both of us in such a way that the three of us would be known as ‘the bosom pals.’

A clock struck midnight on some church tower – I don’t know which – nearby. The Incomparable Tobias rose to his feet and said to me:

‘My dear Son-in-Law, let’s go and pay our respects to your bride. The wedding hour’s approaching.’

Everyone stood up and headed for the door, with me, Tobias and Vaz in front. I must say, of all the incidents that night, this was the one that affected me most. The idea of going to see a beautiful maiden, in the blossom of her youth, who was going to be my wife – the wife of an old philosopher who’d long ago seen through life’s illusions – that idea, I confess, was flabbergasting.

We passed through a hall and arrived in front of some double doors, which stood ajar, leading to a brilliantly illuminated room. Two valets opened the doors wide and we all entered.

On the other side of the room, seated on an exquisite blue divan, was Miss Eusébia, ready for me and dazzlingly beautiful. I’d seen many fascinating women in my life, but none of them came anywhere near this one. She must have been created by some oriental poet. When I compared my old age with Eusébia’s youth I felt ashamed and was on the point of refusing to get married.

I was introduced to my bride by her father, and she received me with such affability and tenderness that my qualms were soon completely assuaged. After two minutes I was besotted.

Fixing her bright, pellucid eyes on me, she said: ‘My father could not have chosen a better husband for me; I sincerely hope I shall prove myself worthy.’

I gibbered something – I don’t know what – in reply; I had eyes only for her. Eusébia rose to her feet and said to her father ‘I’m ready.’

I requested that Vaz be one of the witnesses, which was accepted; the other witness was the Colonel. The Countess would be the bridesmaid.

We departed for the chapel, which was a little distance away in the same house; the priest and sacristan were already there. Like everyone in the house except Eusébia, they were both old.

My bride said ‘Yes’ with a firm voice, I in a feeble whisper; our roles seemed reversed.

After we’d exchanged our vows, we listened to a short sermon from the priest about the duties imposed by marriage and the sanctity of the sacrament. The priest was a well of knowledge and a miracle of concision: he said a lot in just a few words. (I subsequently discovered he’d never studied proper oratory.)

After the wedding ceremony there was a light tea and a little music. The Countess danced a minuet with the old fellow with all the medals, and that was the end of the party.

On the way to my apartments, accompanied by all the guests, I discovered that Vaz would sleep there that night at the express invitation of the Incomparable Tobias, who’d shown the same kindness to the others.

When I found myself alone with my bride, I fell to my knees and said:

‘I’ve lived so long to receive only now – one foot in the grave – the greatest good fortune any man could ever have, because the love of a woman like you is truly a present from heaven! I speak of love, but I don’t know if I have the right to… because I’m old and you…’

‘Be quiet! Be quiet!’ said Eusébia, greatly perturbed.

And she collapsed on to the sofa, hiding her face in her hands.

I was astounded and, for some minutes, remained kneeling, stock-still, without knowing what to say.

Eusébia seemed to be weeping.

Finally I lifted myself up, went to the sofa, and asked her why.

She didn’t reply.

It struck me that perhaps Eusébia had loved someone else and that, as a punishment for the crime of that love, they were forcing her to marry an elderly stranger – someone she couldn’t love.

Something of Don Quixote awoke within me. She was a victim: therefore I must save her. I bent down and told her what I suspected and what I’d resolved.

I was expecting to see her clasp my knees in gratitude for the noble impulse behind my words, but – to my surprise – all I saw was a look of pity, and all I heard, as she shook her head, was:

‘You poor, poor man! It’s you who’s the victim!’

‘Me?!’ I exclaimed, a shudder running through me.

‘Yes, you!’

Cold sweat broke out on my forehead, my legs began to shake and, to stop myself from toppling over, I sat down beside her on the sofa. I asked her to explain herself.

‘I suppose I might as well,’ she said. ‘If I hid it from you, I’d be an accomplice in the eyes of God, and God knows I’m only a passive tool in the hands of all those men. Listen! You’re my fifth husband. Every year, on the same day and at the same hour, this house is the scene of the ceremony you’ve just witnessed. And afterwards they all bring me here with my new husband, who…’

‘Who what?!’ I asked, sweating.

‘Read this,’ said Eusébia. She went to a chest of drawers and took out a parchment. ‘I discovered this just a month ago; for only one month have I known the reason why I must marry each year.’

Trembling, I opened the parchment she’d handed me and read – horror-struck – the following words:

‘Elixir of eternal life, found in Egyptian ruins in the year 402. In the name of the Black Eagle and of the Seven Little Children of the Septentrional, salve! When there come together twenty people desirous of the inestimable privilege of Life Eternal, let them form a secret society and have for supper ever year, on St Bartholomew’s Day, an old man of over sixty years of age, roasted in the oven, and washed down with pure wine.’

Could anyone possibly understand my situation?! In front of me was Death, certain Death, painful Death; but, at the same time, all I’d just learnt was so outlandish – the purchase of eternal life through a cannibal banquet – that my spirit hovered between doubt and fear; I believed, I didn’t believe; I was afraid, and I was asking ‘Why?!’

‘That is the fate which awaits you!’

‘But this is madness!’ I exclaimed. ‘To buy eternity with a man’s death?! And, in any case, how do you know this parchment has anything to do…?’

‘Because I do,’ Eusébia replied. ‘Haven’t I just told you this was my fifth wedding?! Where are my four previous husbands? All of them entered this room, only to leave half an hour later. Each time, someone came to call them – under some pretext or other – and I never saw them again. I suspected it must mean something awful. Now I know!’

I started walking to and fro, feverishly; was it true I was going to die? Was this my last hour alive? Sitting on the sofa, Eusébia’s gaze flitted between me and the door.

I stopped in front of her and asked: ‘But that priest, mademoiselle…?! ‘Is that priest in on it too?’

‘He’s the head of their society.’

‘And you, mademoiselle..?! You’re an accomplice: your words were nothing but a trap! If it wasn’t for them, I’d never have agreed to marry you…!’

‘Oh, sir!’ she replied, her cheeks wet with tears. ‘I’m weak, yes, I am, but I’m not an accomplice. What I said to you… I was forced to say it.’

At that moment I heard slow footsteps: it was them, of course.

Eusébia – terrified – rose from the sofa and dropped to her knees at my feet, murmuring: ‘I’m not to blame for anything that happens, but forgive me for being the unwitting cause!’

I stared at her and told her I forgave her.

The footsteps were getting nearer.

I got ready to go down fighting, quite forgetting that, apart from having no weapon, I had no strength at all.

Whoever was approaching arrived at the door and knocked. I didn’t reply straight away, but as the knocking became insistent I asked:

‘Who’s there?’

‘It’s me,’ Tobias replied softly. ‘Would you mind opening the door?’

‘Why?’

‘I need to tell you a secret.’

‘At this hour?!’

‘It’s urgent.’

I looked questioningly at Eusébia; she shook her head.

‘Let’s leave the secret for tomorrow, Father-in-Law.’

‘It really is very urgent,’ Tobias replied, ‘and to save you the trouble I’ll open the door myself with another key I’ve got here.’

I ran to the door, but it was too late; Tobias was at the threshold, beaming as if entering a ball-room.

‘My dear Son-in-Law,’ he said, ‘would you accompany me to the library? I’d like to tell you an important secret about our family.’

‘Wouldn’t tomorrow be better?’ I said.

‘No, it has to be now!’ Tobias replied, frowning.

‘I don’t want to!’

‘You don’t want to..?! But you must.’

‘I’m perfectly aware I’m your fifth son-in-law, my dear Mr Tobias.’

‘Ah! You know..! Eusébia’s told you about the other weddings. So much the better!’

And turning to his daughter he hissed, icily:

‘There’s a price to pay for indiscretion.’

‘Mr Tobias, she’s not guilty.’

‘Was it not she who gave you that parchment?’ Tobias asked, pointing at the parchment, which was still in my hand.

We froze!

Tobias took a little whistle from his pocket and blew it; other whistles were blown in response and, within a few minutes, the boudoir had been invaded by all the old people in the house.

‘Supper time!’ said Tobias.

I grabbed hold of a chair and was on the point of throwing it at my father-in-law when Eusébia caught hold of my arm.

‘He’s my father!’

‘That won’t help you, Eusébia,’ Tobias said with a diabolical smile. ‘You’re going to die.’

And grabbing her by the neck he handed her over to two of his lackeys, saying: ‘Kill her!’

The poor girl screamed, but in vain: the two lackeys bundled her out while the other old people caught hold of my arms and legs and carried me in procession to a hall that was covered totally in black. I arrived there more dead than alive. And the priest was already there, dressed in his cassock.

Before dying I wanted to see my poor friend Vaz, but the Colonel told me he was sleeping and wouldn’t be leaving the house: he was next year’s supper.

The priest offered to hear my confession, but I refused to receive absolution from the very person who was going to kill me. I wanted to die impenitent.

They laid me out – with my hands and feet bound – on top of a table, and then they all surrounded me. Behind my head stood a lackey, a dagger in his hand.

Then the whole company began chanting something. The only words I could make out were: ‘In the name of the Black Eagle and of the Seven Little Children of the Septentrional.’

Sweat was pouring down me; I could hardly see. Despite my seventy years – an age at which one no longer feels nostalgia for this world – the idea of dying was horrible.

The chanting stopped and the priest said, loud and slow:

‘And now..! Let the dagger do its work!’

The blade flashed in front of my eyes and buried itself completely in my heart; blood gushed out of my chest and soaked the table; my death throes; my last breath.

I was dead – really dead – and yet I heard everything around me; I still had a certain consciousness of this world to which I no longer belonged.

‘Has he died?’ asked the Colonel.

‘Completely,’ replied Tobias. ‘You can call the ladies now.’

The ladies – eager and curious – arrived shortly.

‘Well?’ asked the Countess. ‘Do we have our man?’

‘Behold!’

The women came up to me and I heard their unanimous cannibal approval; they all agreed I was plump and should be an excellent dish.

‘We can’t roast him whole: he’s too big and fat; he won’t fit in the oven. We’ll just have to quarter him. Knives!’

Those words were said by Tobias, who immediately proceeded to allocate tasks: the Colonel would cut off my left leg, the one with all the medals my right, the priest one arm, Tobias himself the other, and the Countess – a connoisseur of the human nose – would cut off mine to have with the giblets.

The knives arrived and the operation began; I must say I didn’t feel a thing; I only knew they’d cut off a leg when it landed on the floor with a thump.

‘Good! Into the oven,’ said Tobias.

Suddenly I heard Vaz’s voice.

‘What’s all this, Camilo! What’s all this?!’ he was saying.

I opened my eyes and found myself lying on my sofa at home; Vaz was standing beside me.

‘What the Devil’s the matter with you?!’

I looked at him in amazement and asked: ‘Where are they?’

‘They who?’

‘The cannibals!’

‘You’re mad, old fellow!’

I looked at myself: I had my legs, my arms and my nose. The room was my room. Vaz was the same old Vaz.

‘That must have been some nightmare!’ he said. ‘I was asleep and you woke me up with your yelling.’

‘Thank heavens!’ I said.

I got up, drank some water and told my friend about the dream. He roared with laughter, but decided to stay with me that night. The next day we woke up late and ate a hearty breakfast. When he left, Vaz said to me:

‘You should write down your dream for the Family Digest.’

‘I might just do that, old fellow.’

‘Do! I’ll send it to Garnier.’

TRANSLATOR’S NOTE

Translator’s note: The last word of this story, ‘Garnier,’ refers to a famous publishing firm in Rio de Janeiro whose publications included the Jornal das Famílias – here, the Family Digest –, which was in circulation from 1863 to 1878.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

The following biographical details have been translated from the Academia Brasileira de Letras website.

Machado de Assis (Joaquim Maria M. de A.), a journalist, short-story writer, feuilletonist, novelist, poet and playwright, was born in Rio de Janeiro on 21 June 1839, and also died there, on 29 September 1908. He was the founder of Chair No. 23 of the Brazilian Academy of Letters. A good friend and admirer of José de Alencar, who died about twenty years before the establishment of the Academy, it was natural that Machado should choose the name of the author of O Guarani as his patron. He was President of the Brazilian Academy of Letters for more than ten years, the Academy becoming known, familiarly, as ‘The House of Machado de Assis.’

He was the son of Francisco José, a labourer, and Leopoldina Machado de Assis. His mother died when he was little, but information is scarce about his early years. He was brought up on Livramento Hill and was an altar server at Lampadosa church.

Without the means to have proper schooling, he published his first literary work – a poem called Ela (She) – in the Marmota Fluminense magazine in 1855. The next year he got a job at the National Press Works as an apprentice typographer.

By 1859 he was a proof-reader and correspondent for the Correio Mercantil newspaper and in 1860 he became a member of the editorial staff of the Diário do Rio de Janeiro newspaper. He also wrote regularly for the magazine O Espelho, where he made his debut as a theatre critic, for the Semana Ilustrada – from 1860 to 1875 – and for the Jornal das Famílias, where he mainly published short stories.

His first book, Queda que as mulheres têm para os tolos (How Women are Attracted to Fools), was printed by Paula Brito in 1861, although he was described as its translator. In 1862 he became theatre censor, an unpaid role, but one which gave him free entry to performances. He also began to collaborate with O Futuro, which was produced by Faustino Xavier de Novais, the brother of his future wife.

His first book of poetry, Crisálidas (Chrysalids), was published in 1864. In 1867 he was appointed assistant director of the government bulletin Diário Oficial. Three months after Faustino Xavier de Novais’s death in 1869, he married his friend’s sister, Carolina Augusta Xavier de Novais. She was a perfect companion during the remaining 35 years of his life and introduced him to the Portuguese classics and the works of various English authors.

His first novel, Ressurreição, was published in 1872. Shortly afterwards he was appointed first official at the state secretariat of the ministry of agriculture, commerce and public works, thus embarking upon the civil service career that would be his main source of income throughout the rest of his life.

In 1874 he began to publish, in instalments in the Globo newspaper, the novel A mão e a luva (The Hand and the Glove). He also wrote feuilletons, short stories, poetry and serialised novels for newspapers and magazines such as O Cruzeiro, A Estação and Revista Brasileira.

One of his plays, Tu, só tu, puro amor (You, just You, Pure Love) was staged at the Imperial Dom Pedro II Theatre in 1880. From 1881 to 1897 he published his best feuilletons in the Gazeta de Notícias.

1881 saw the publication of the book which would give a new direction to his literary career – Memórias póstumas de Brás Cubas (The Posthumous Memories of Brás Cubas), which had been published in instalments in the Revista Brasileira from 1879 to 1880. He also revealed himself as an extraordinary short story writer in Papéis Avulsos (Loose Pages, 1882) and in a number of subsequent collections of short stories.

In 1889 he was promoted to director of commerce at the ministry.

He had continued to work for the Revista Brasileira in the period when it was under the direction of his great friend José Veríssimo. The group of intellectuals connected with the Revista had the idea for creating a Brazilian Academy of Letters and, when the Academy was inaugurated in 1897, he was elected President, a task he devoted himself to for the rest of his life.

His oeuvre covers practically all literary genres. His first works of poetry were the Romantic Crisálidas (1864) and Falenas (Moths, 1870); this was followed by indianism in Americanas (1875) and parnassianism in Ocidentais (Occidentals, 1901).

The Contos fluminenses (Rio Stories) were published in 1870 and the Histórias da meia-noite (Midnight Stories) in 1873; the novel Ressurreição (Resurrection) in 1872, A mão e a luva in 1874, Helena in 1876 and Iaiá Garcia in 1878, all of which were considered part of his Romantic period. From that point onwards he moved into the phase of his masterpieces, which evade literary categorisation and which make him the greatest Brazilian writer and one of the greatest authors in the Portuguese language.

During his life, his work was edited by the Livraria Garnier from 1869; in 1937, W. M. Jackson, of Rio de Janeiro, published the Obras completes (Complete Works) in 31 volumes. Raimundo Magalhães Júnior organised and published, in Civilização Brasileira, the following volumes of Machado de Assis: Contos e crônicas (Stories and Feuilletons, 1958); Contos esparsos (Random Stories, 1956); Contos esquecidos (Forgotten Stories, 1956); Contos recolhidos (Collected Stories, 1956); Contos avulsos (Separate Stories, 1956); Contos sem data (Undated Stories, 1956); Crônicas de Lélio (Lélio’s Chronicles, 1958); Diálogos e reflexões de um relojoeiro (Dialogues and Reflections of a Watchmaker, 1956). In 1975 the Machado de Assis Commission, which was established by the ministry of education and culture and was chaired by the president of the Brazilian Academy of Letters, organised and published, also in Civilização Brasileira, the Edições críticas de obras de Machado de Assis (Critical Editions of the Works of Machado de Assis), in 15 volumes, comprising short stories, novels and poetry by that greatest of Brazilian writers.

Publications: Desencantos, comedy (1861); Queda que as mulheres têm para os tolos, prose satire (1861); two comic plays: O protocolo and O caminho da porta (1863); Quase ministro, comedy; Crisálidas, poetry (1864); Os deuses de casaca, comedy (1866); Falenas, poetry (1870); Contos fluminenses, short stories (1870); Ressurreição,  novel (1872); Histórias da meia-noite, short stories (1873); A mão e a luva, novel (1874); Americanas, poetry (1875); Helena, novel (1876); Iaiá Garcia, novel (1878); Memórias póstumas de Brás Cubas, novel (1881); Tu, só tu, puro amor, comedy (1881); Papéis avulsos, short stories (1882); Histórias sem data, short stories (1884); Quincas Borba, novel (1891); Várias histórias, short stories (1896); Páginas recolhidas, short stories, essays, plays (1899); Dom Casmurro, novel (1899); Poesias completas (1901); Esaú e Jacó, novel (1904); Relíquias da casa velha, short stories, criticism, plays (1906); Memorial de Aires, novel (1908).

Published posthumously: Crítica (1910); Outras relíquias, short stories, criticism, theatre (1932); Crônicas, feuilletons (1937); Correspondência (1932); Crítica literária (1937); Páginas escolhidas (1921); Casa velha (1944).

To mark the centenary of Machado’s birth, in 1939, Monteiro Lobato wrote the following at the request of the Argentinian newspaper La Prensa:

‘The short stories of Machado de Assis! Where can we find stories more perfect in form, more sparkling with ideas and more permeated by philosophy? Where can you find stories more universal and more human whilst simultaneously local and individual? We’d need to go to France to find one of his brothers in the person of Anatole France. But Anatole France blossomed in the most propitious of gardens, amidst a highly developed civilisation, encouraged by all sorts of awards, and surrounded by all the finesse of comfort and art; Machado de Assis was born into poverty, amidst the squalor of colonial Rio, and received no awards other than his own auto-approval, and his monthly wage was scarcely enough to live on. Rather than having readers throughout the world, like Anatole France, Machado de Assis had just half a dozen friends as his readers. The paltry sum for which he sold the copyright for all his works to the Garnier publishing house […] shows clearly how limited was his readership.

Even so, despite all these limitations, it was his pen that produced the first masterpiece of Brazilian literature, Memórias Póstumas de Brás Cubas (The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas), a book that’s going to surprise the world one day. They’ll all be saying: ‘How on earth could this have appeared in such an inferior country, in a South American backwater?!’

And then he gave us Dom Casmurro (Mr Grumpy), that perfect novel, and Esaú e Jacó (Esau and Jacob) and Quincas Borba and, finally Memorial de Aires, a work that brings style and romance to emptiness, to the emptiness of old age, to the emptiness of his own almost seventy years.

In between the novels, he was producing short stories – and what stories! What marvellous stories, different from anything produced in Brazil, or in the whole of America! Stories without tricks, without stage props, without lots of landscape, everything based on the most meticulous design, like the paintings of Ingres. Human types and more human types, souls and more souls – an immense procession of figures more vivid even than their models. And with what style, with what purity of language!

There are few great heights in Brazilian literature: plenty of writers, plenty of books, plenty of printed paper, but also plenty of vain pretension and, in recent times, plenty of impostors. But all those defects have been redeemed by the appearance of works of eternal value, works that will endure as long as the language in which they were written. ‘Missa do Galo’ (Midnight Mass), ‘Uns Braços’ (A Pair of Arms), ‘Conto Alexandrino’ (An Alexandrian Tale), ‘Capitulo dos Chapeus’ (A Chapter of Hats), ‘Anedota Pecuniária’ (A Pecuniary Anecdote) [Translations of the first four are available in John Gledson’s A Chapter of Hats (2008)] – it’s difficult to choose between Machado’s stories, because they’re all drawn from the same spring. Ah! If only Portuguese wasn’t this clandestine language…

Before writing these lines, I re-read several of Machado de Assis’s works and it’s only because I promised La Prensa I would that I forced myself to speak about him, so little, so insignificant, so miserable did I feel! I felt ashamed of judgements I’d made previously in which, either out of snobbery or stupidity, I’d dared to make ironic remarks about such work. And, given that I didn’t withdraw from this undertaking, at least it gives me a chance to undergo public penance – because, in all honesty, I find it grotesque that anyone nowadays should dare to speak about Machado de Assis without removing their hat. Our attitude should be marked by complete and reverential humility. If anyone doubts that, let them re-read ‘Conto Alexandrino’ or ‘Missa do Galo.’

In your presence, Machado, we’re all bit players…

The wariness with which Machado de Assis lived his life in Rio de Janeiro was supremely felicitous in his case – a difficult case, of extreme intellectual superiority allied to extreme awareness that it wouldn’t do to flaunt it, in view of the colour of his skin and his mundane job in public administration. How many proud but empty ministers must have been his legal and social superiors – superior to him, who was, simply on his own merits, the highest of the highest in Brazil! Time’s broom has already swept the names of all those bigwigs, all those ‘superiors,’ into the bin; but the name of Machado de Assis continues to rise higher and higher.

He was oddly gregarious. He always liked literary associations and societies, going so far as to found an academy of ‘immortals’ (the Brazilian Academy of Letters), of which he was the president, and he was the only one who really became an immortal, without the quotation marks. The explanation may reside in his innate need to observe ‘the puppet show’: gathering the puppets around whatever human stupidity, he had them conveniently to hand for his study, just as, in his laboratory, an anatomist has a collection of rabbits, dogs and monkeys in cages for his experimentation.

Machado’s philosophy was permeated by melancholy: he’d studies the guinea pigs too much, he knew the human soul too well. A calmly resigned philosophy, the ultimate point of which appears in Brás Cubas, that hero of self-satisfied vulgarity, who concludes his posthumous memoirs with the balance sheet of his earthly existence, a positive balance sheet. How come, positive? ‘I didn’t have children, I didn’t pass on to any other being  the legacy of our misery.’

The life of Machado de Assis also had a positive balance. He didn’t have children and, given that he couldn’t pass on his genius, at least he didn’t pass on to any other being the colour of his skin, his stutter, his epilepsy, his disenchantment with the puppets. And there could have been nothing more generous in his life. What a terrible thing for any being – even for a being of some capacity – to carry the stupendous burden, for your whole life, of being the child of Machado de Assis!

‘Do you know who that is, the sad old crow coming out of that office?’

‘That miserable-looking mulatto, the one with the hunchback?’

‘Yes, that one. That’s the son of Machado de Assis…’

Just imagine the look of pious sympathy this piece of information would evoke!

Nature permits geniuses only one child: their work. Machado de Assis understood this better than anyone and, having given the world this most beautiful child, he walked sadly away from the madding crowd, with the tranquillity of those who’ve succeeded in the most challenging of all tasks – that of not leaving behind the merest shadow of pain.’

For his part, Lima Barreto – who was initially often referred to as the true successor of Machado – was less fulsome in his praise:

Not denying his merits as a great writer, I’ve always found a considerable aridity in Machado, a marked lack of sympathy, a lack of generous impulses, some puerile characteristics. I’ve never imitated him and he’s never been my inspiration. You can mention Maupassant, Dickens, Swift, Balzac, Daudet, perhaps, but Machado, never! You could go as far as Turgenev or Tolstoy in order to find my exemplars; but Machado, no! […] Machado wrote […] hiding what he felt so as not to be humiliated […] I’m not afraid to say what I think and what I feel, without calculating whether I’m going to be humiliated or praised. I think that’s a big difference.

(Obras Completas de Lima Barreto, Correspondências, Vol.2, 1956).

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