Looking after, by Machado de Assis

(My translation of the short story O enfermeiro)

S

o you think what happened to me in 1860 warrants a few pages? Fair enough, but on condition you don’t let anyone see it until I’m dead. You won’t have to wait long, maybe a week, if not less; I don’t have any illusions about that.

Listen! I could have told you my whole life story, where you’d have found other items of interest, but for that I’d need time, stamina and paper, and all I’ve got left is paper; my stamina needs to lie down and my time is like a lamp at dawn. Another sort of sun will soon be rising on another sort of day, a diabolical sun, as impenetrable as life. Farewell, my dear sir! Read this and wish me well. Forgive me for what seems bad, and don’t be too hard on the rue for not smelling of roses. You asked for a human document and here you have it. Apart from that, I can’t give you the Grand Mogul’s empire, I can’t give you a photograph of the Maccabees, but ask me for my dead man’s shoes… and they’re yours.

As I said, it was 1860. The year before, sometime in August, when I was forty-two, I became a theologian. That’s to say, I was transcribing the theological studies of a priest from Niterói, an old college friend of mine; that was his thoughtful and kindly way of providing me with board and lodging. In the month of August 1859 he’d received a letter from the vicar of a little town in the interior, asking if he knew of someone competent, discreet and patient who’d agree to look after an invalid called Colonel Felisberto in return for a good wage. The priest put it to me and I grabbed it with both hands: I’d had enough of copying Latin quotations and ecclesiastical formulas to last a lifetime. I came over to Rio to say goodbye to a brother of mine and set off for the town.

What I heard about the colonel from the townsfolk, once I’d arrived, was not good. He was insufferable, depraved, demanding; no one could stand him, not even his own friends. He went through more carers than medications. Two of them had ended up black and blue. I said I wasn’t scared of healthy people, let alone sick people; and after I’d sorted things out with the vicar, who confirmed what I’d just heard and recommended meekness and charity, I continued to the colonel’s house.

I found him stretched out on a chair in the veranda, breathing with difficulty. My welcome wasn’t too bad. He started off by not saying anything, simply fixing me with his penetrating, feline eyes; then a sort of malign chuckle lit up his hard features. Finally he told me all my predecessors had been a waste of time: they slept too much, were insolent and only had an eye for the female slaves; two of them even turned out to be thieves.

‘Are you a thief?’

‘No, sir.’

Then he asked what my name was. When I told him, he made a gesture of disbelief.

‘Colombo?’

‘No, sir: Procópio José Gomes Valongo.’

‘Valongo?!’

He didn’t think that was a proper name for anyone, so he suggested calling me just Procópio, to which I replied that he could call me whatever he liked. I’m telling you this not only because I think it gives a good picture of him, but also because the colonel was much taken with my response – so much so that he informed the vicar and added that I was the nicest carer he’d ever had. The truth is that our honeymoon lasted a week.

On the eighth day I entered into the life of my predecessors, a dog’s life of no sleep, of not having a moment for anything else, of being sworn at and, occasionally, of shrugging my shoulders with an air of resignation and conformity, which I noticed was a way of paying him homage. A merry-go-round of abuse arising from his illness and his temperament. The illness was actually a whole litany of illnesses: he suffered from an aneurysm, from rheumatism and from three or four lesser ailments. He was nearly sixty and, ever since he’d been five, everyone had done his bidding. If he’d just been grumpy it wouldn’t have mattered; but he was evil, enjoying nothing so much as to see others hurt and humiliated. At the end of three months I could stand it no more; I resolved to leave and was just waiting for an opportunity.

Which soon arrived. One day, because I hadn’t given him his poultice on time, he grabbed his walking stick and gave me a few whacks. That was the opportunity; I took my leave and went to pack my bag. He followed me to my room and asked me to stay: ‘It’s not worth losing your temper about a grumpy old man.’ He insisted so much that I relented.

‘I’m done for, Procópio,’ he said to me that night, ‘I won’t live much longer. One foot in the grave. You must come to my funeral, Procópio. No excuses! You must come and you must say a prayer at my grave. If you don’t,’ he added, laughing, ‘I’ll come back at night and haunt you! Do you believe in ghosts, Procópio?’

‘Not a bit!’

‘But why don’t you believe, you donkey?’ he snapped back, his eyeballs bulging.

If that’s what we were like in peacetime, just imagine us at war. He went easy on the walking-stick, but the insults were just as bad, if not worse. I was gradually acquiring a thick skin and stopped taking any notice: I was a donkey’s arse, a camel, a mule, an idiot, a nincompoop, I was everything. And there wasn’t anyone else around who could share the insults with me. He didn’t have any relatives; a nephew had died of tuberculosis at the end of May or the beginning of July, in Minas. His friends came once in a while to flatter him and pay obeisance, but nothing more; a five or ten-minute visit. That left me, just me, as the target for a whole dictionary. More than once I decided to leave, but the vicar always dissuaded me.

And not only were things turning difficult, but I was anxious to return to Rio. At the age of forty-two I shouldn’t have had to put up with the life of a recluse in the interior, with an aggressive invalid for company. For an idea of how isolated I was, it’s enough to know I didn’t even read the papers; apart from the occasional piece of news they brought him, I knew nothing of the outside world. So I was determined to return to Rio at the first opportunity, even if it meant arguing with the vicar. I should add (this being a general confession) that because I hadn’t bought anything and had saved up all my wages, I was anxious to get back here and splash out.

It was only a matter of time. The colonel was going downhill; he made his will, giving the notary, in the process, almost as hard a time as he gave me. The way he treated me had got worse; the brief lapses into meekness and mildness were becoming rarer. By that time I’d already lost the modest dose of goodwill that had made me overlook his excesses; a torment of hatred and aversion was seething inside me. At the beginning of August I decided that was really it; the vicar and the doctor acknowledged my reasons but asked me to stay on a bit longer. I agreed to stay a month, at the end of which I was going, whatever the patient’s state. The vicar started looking for a successor.

And now to what happened. On the night of the twenty-fourth of August, the colonel had a fit of rage: he attacked me, called me a lot of rude names, threatened to shoot me and ended up throwing a bowl of porridge at me because he thought it was cold. It smashed into the wall.

‘You’ll pay for this, you villain,’ he shouted.

Then he muttered angrily to himself for ages. At eleven o’clock he fell asleep. While he was asleep, I took a book out of my pocket, an old novel by d’Arlincourt, in translation, that I’d found there, and I started reading it, in his bedroom, at a little distance from his bed. (I needed to wake him at midnight to give him his medicine.) Whether it was tiredness or the book, before I’d got to the end of the second page I’d dozed off as well. I was woken up by the colonel’s shouts and got to my feet, half-asleep. He seemed demented and continued shouting, eventually grabbing hold of a water jug and hurling it at me. I didn’t have time to duck; the jug hit me on the left side of my face and it hurt so much that everything went black. I charged at him, caught him by the throat, we struggled, and I strangled him.

When I saw that the patient was dying, I recoiled in horror and shouted out; but no one heard me. I returned to the bed and tried to shake him back to life, but it was too late: his aneurysm had burst and the Colonel had died. I went to the next room and, for two hours, didn’t dare go back to the bedroom. I can’t begin to say everything I went through during that time. I’d been stunned into a vague and stupid delirium. It seemed as if the walls had faces. I could hear muffled voices. The victim’s shouts, before and during the struggle, carried on echoing inside me and, wherever I turned, the very air seemed to be in tumult. Please don’t think I’m writing this for effect or for the sake of style: I’m telling you I distinctly heard voices shouting ‘Murderer, murderer!’

Everything else was silence. Even the ticking of the clock – slow, regular and crisp – merely emphasised the silence and loneliness. I put my ear to the bedroom door in the hope of hearing a groan, a word, an imprecation, anything that would signal life and give me back my peace of mind. I’d gladly have taken a beating from the colonel, ten, twenty, a hundred times over. But nothing, nothing; just silence. I started randomly pacing the room again, sitting down, burying my head in my hands; I wished I’ve never gone there.

‘Damn the moment I agreed to do anything like this!’

And I cursed the priest from Niterói, the doctor, the vicar, those who’d got me the job, and those who’d asked me to stay on a bit longer. I was trying to assuage my conscience with their complicity.

Because the silence was beginning to terrify me, I opened one of the windows, to listen to the sound of the wind, were there any. There was none. The night was still, the stars were shining as indifferently as people who doff their hats when a funeral procession passes, and continue talking about something else. I leant by the window for some time, gazing at the night and letting my life run past me in the hope that it would ease my present pain. It was only then that the thought of punishment hit me fully. There I was, red-handed, with no way out. That was when fear started to complicate remorse. I could feel my hair standing on end. A few minutes later I saw three or four shapes of people slinking about in the yard, as if preparing an ambush; I stepped back, the figures dissolved in the air; I’d imagined it.

Before dawn I applied a compress to the bruise on my face. Only then did I dare return to the bedroom. I hesitated twice, but there was no alternative; I entered; but even then I didn’t go straight to the bed. My legs were shaking; my heart was thumping; I thought of running away, but that would have been an admission of guilt when what was important was to remove the evidence of the crime. I went over to the bed; I saw the corpse, with its eyes bulging and its mouth open, as if emitting that ancient question: ‘Cain, what hast thou done to thy brother?’ I saw the marks of my fingernails on his neck. I buttoned his shirt up and pulled the sheet up to his chin. Then I called a slave, told him the colonel had died in his sleep and sent a message to the vicar and the doctor.

My first idea was to leave as soon as possible, on the pretext that my brother was ill (and I really had received a letter from him a few days before, telling me he wasn’t feeling well). But I realised a rapid departure might look suspicious, so I stayed. I laid the body out myself, with the help of an old, myopic black man. I didn’t leave that mortuary room; I was afraid they’d discover something. I wanted to read from other people’s faces whether they suspected anything, but I didn’t dare look at them. Everything was making me jumpy: the stealthlike way they entered the bedroom, the whispering, the rituals, the vicar’s prayers. When the time came, I closed the coffin with trembling hands, trembling so much that I heard someone whisper:

‘Poor Procópio! He’s grief-stricken, despite all he’s had to put up with.’

I thought it was sarcasm and was anxious to get it over and done with. We went out to the road. The transition from the gloom of the house to the brightness outside was a shock; I was afraid it would no longer be possible to hide my crime. I fixed my eyes on the ground and started walking.

I heaved a sigh of relief when it was all over. I was at peace with men. But not with my conscience, and my next few nights were – naturally – full of anxiety.

I hardly need to say I came straight to Rio, nor that I hid myself away here, even though I was far from the crime; I didn’t laugh, I kept quiet, I hardly ate, I had hallucinations, nightmares…

‘Put it behind you,’ people told me. ‘He’s dead. There’s no reason to be so sad.’

And I made the most of appearances: I eulogised the deceased, said what a good soul he was, a little cantankerous – true –, but with a heart of gold. And the more I praised him, the more I believed what I was saying, at least for a few moments.

You might also be interested to know that, although I’m not religious, I had a mass said at the Holy Sacrament church for the eternal repose of the colonel’s soul – and maybe it’s done him some good. I invited no one and didn’t mention it to anyone. I went on my own and spent the whole time on my knees, crossing and re-crossing myself. I paid the priest twice the going rate and gave money to the beggars at the church door. All for the soul of the deceased. I didn’t intend to deceive anyone; the proof is that I went on my own. To conclude this point, let me say I never mentioned the colonel without adding, ‘May God have mercy on his soul!’ And I told a few cheery anecdotes, the funny side of his rages…

Seven days after arriving in Rio I received the vicar’s letter I showed you, telling me the colonel’s will had been found and that I was the sole beneficiary. Imagine my amazement! Thinking I must have misread it, I went and showed it to my brother and my friends; none of them had any doubt. There it was in black and white: I was the colonel’s sole beneficiary. It even occurred to me it might be a trap, but I immediately realised there would’ve been easier ways to catch me if the crime had been discovered. And then I thought what an upright man the vicar was: he would never lend himself to deception. I re-read the letter five, ten times, over and over; that’s definitely what it said.

‘How much did he have?’ my brother asked.

‘All I know is, he was rich.’

‘Well, that just goes to show he thought the world of you.’

‘Yes… yes…’

‘Without a shadow of doubt…’

Thus, by an irony of fate, the colonel’s possessions ended up with me. I thought of refusing the inheritance. It seemed vile to accept even a cent from such a source; it would be worse than becoming a hired assassin. I spent three days thinking it over, but I always came up against the thought that refusal might cause suspicion. At the end of those three days I arrived at a compromise: I’d accept the inheritance, but – secretly and bit by bit – I’d give it all away. It wasn’t just scruples: it was my way of redeeming my crime, of wiping the slate clean.

I got ready and set off for the town. The nearer I got, the more I replayed in my mind what had happened; the outskirts of the town had a tragic air about them, and everywhere I looked I saw the colonel’s shadow. My imagination was reproducing the words, the gestures, that whole terrible night of the crime…

Crime or struggle? In reality it was a struggle in which, having been attacked, I’d defended myself, and self-defence… It was an unfortunate struggle, an accident. I held on to that idea. I weighed up the case for the defence: how he’d mistreated me, the blows, the insults… I knew very well the colonel couldn’t help it; it was his illness that made him so bad-tempered, so… evil. But I forgave him everything, everything. It was all down to that ill-fated night… Another thing I considered was that the colonel wouldn’t have lived much longer anyway; he was at death’s door; that’s what he felt and used to say himself. But how much longer? Two weeks, or one; it might have been even less. It was no longer life, it was a travesty of life, and even that was probably an inadequate expression for the continual suffering of the poor man. And who knows whether the struggle and the death weren’t, themselves, just coincidental? It was possible, it was even highly probable; that was exactly what happened. That was another idea I clung to…

When I got near the town I started having palpitations and almost turned back; but I pulled myself together and carried on. They gave me an enthusiastic welcome. The vicar told me about the provisions of the will, including some pious bequests, and along the way he lavished praise on me for the Christian meekness and dedication with which I’d looked after the colonel, who – despite being a grumpy old stick – knew the meaning of gratitude.

‘Without doubt,’ I said, averting my gaze.

I felt numb. Everyone was lauding my dedication and patience. The initial requirements of the inventory detained me in the town for some time. I hired a solicitor; things ran smoothly. During that time I often spoke about the colonel. People came to tell me things about him, but without the vicar’s moderation; I defended the colonel, pointing out the odd virtue; he was an austere man…

‘Austere, my foot! He’s dead and gone, but he was the devil incarnate.’

And they told me bad things about him, perversities, some of them quite extraordinary. Shall I tell you the truth? At first I was really curious when I listened to all this; but I soon started taking a strange pleasure in it, even though – honestly – I tried not to. And I kept on defending him, explaining why he’d been like that, excusing his behaviour as, in part, the result of local rivalries; I conceded that, yes, he could be a little violent…

‘A little?! He was a vicious snake!’ interrupted the barber; and all of them – the taxman, the apothecary, the clerk –, they all said the same thing, which led to yet more anecdotes, the whole life story of the deceased. The older ones remembered how cruel he’d been as a boy. And meanwhile the feeling of inner satisfaction grew quietly within me, like an insidious moral tapeworm which – no matter how much you rip it out – immediately reconstitutes itself and stays put.

The distraction provided by the demands of the inventory, together with the town’s extremely low opinion of the colonel, caused the pall I’d initially felt hanging over the place to begin to lift. When I’d taken possession of my inheritance, I converted it into securities and money. By that time, several months had passed and the idea of distributing it all in alms and donations to deserving causes no longer had its original force; it even seemed like an affectation. I cut back on my original plan: I distributed a little bit to the poor, I gave new vestments to the parish church, I made a donation to the orphanage etc.: all in all, thirty-two crowns. I also commissioned a tomb for the colonel, made entirely of marble; the mason was a Neapolitan who lived in Brazil until 1866 and died – I think – in Paraguay.

The years have passed and my memory of that time has faded. Although I sometimes remember the colonel, it’s no longer with the terror of those first days. All the doctors I’ve told about his ailments have said he was facing certain death; they were only surprised he lasted so long. Maybe I unwittingly overstated his symptoms a little, but the truth is he was bound to die, even if that fateful accident hadn’t happened…

Farewell, my dear sir! If you think these notes have some value, you can show your appreciation with another marble tomb – for me – and you can engrave on it this amendment I’ve made to the divine sermon on the mount: ‘Blessed they that have, for they shall be comforted.’

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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