Food and Drink, by Artur Azevedo

(My translation of the short story Comes e bebes, published in Contos cariocas in 1928)

W

hen he was young and free, i.e. some time before he definitively embarked upon life proper, so to speak, Dr Sesostris – not a medical doctor – had literary ambitions. (Nowadays he’s the father of a family, and a magistrate to boot.) His literary ambitions were all-encompassing: poetry, short stories, newspaper articles, novels and theatre.

It was the manuscript of his one and only play that gained him entry backstage and brought him into the presence of Rosalina who, at that time, was the first of our actresses in beauty, and the last in talent. This Rosalina, whom the impresario kept in the company purely on account of her physical virtues, had married an actor who, for his part, was kept in the company solely on account of being her husband.

To say she was a second Penelope when it comes to marital fidelity would be to flout the duty of truth I owe to the readers of my little stories, i.e. the bad-mouthers didn’t spare her, neither did the good-mouthers: more than one habitue of the theatre where she performed was pointed out as having sought, and obtained, her more intimate favours.

Having been invited by the impresario to read his play after the rehearsal one afternoon, Dr Sesostris sat himself down at a small table on the stage, surrounded by almost all the company – with Rosalina on his immediate right –, and opened the manuscript.

It was in the middle of the first act, and enveloped by a silence worthy of a tragedy, that the writer of this humorous piece felt a transference of heat from Rosalina’s left knee. This threw him off his stride so much that God only knows how the lad managed to finish reading that first act!

These equivocal – or, rather, unequivocal – manifestations continued during the second act, this time causing the doctor to come out in a cold sweat and to start trembling and making silly asides; as a result, the comical effect of the play – with respect both to situations and to dialogue – was lost. His audience, which was becoming more and more disgruntled and restless, attributed the reader’s discomfort to awestruck awareness that the work was being submitted to the judgement of so many artistic eminences.

It was not until the third act that Rosalina completed – with her little, admirably shod foot – the work of seduction she’d commenced with her knee.

Once the reading was over, and as soon as he heard those consoling words ‘the curtain falls,’ the impresario, who’d rudely interrupted the first two acts with loud yawns and had been away with the fairies during the third, woke up and said to the playwrite:

‘Well, a nice little comedy, Dr Sesostris… but not for my theatre… too refined, not ribald enough… That’s not to say I wouldn’t put it on… I will, but not till the theatre’s on a sounder footing. You’re very talented, Doctor: write another comedy, but make it saltier… plenty of cooking salt.’

‘Cooking salt?!’

‘Yes, cooking salt, Doctor! Table salt’s not going to make us even ten reais!’

Dr Sesostris, who had the inestimable good fortune of being only twenty-two years old, allowed the wool to be pulled over his eyes; but even if he’d had it put to him straight, why worry, when Rosalina – the beautiful Rosalina, so coveted of men – was there to make up for the dire struggles of this incipient author?

Once the impressario had finished recommending cooking salt to him, he turned round and fixed his eyes upon her – except she wasn’t there any more, having left without even saying goodbye…

From that point on, the young doctor started frequenting the theatre, especially Rosalina’s dressing-room; but there were no further manifestations of the knee and the foot, as if she wanted to warn him not to get his hopes up.

There was an old actor in the company who made himself out to be a big friend of Sesostris, thus gaining his confidence, and it was to him that the young man duly chose to unburden his heart, not omitting to mention how the actress had come on to him.

The old actor gave a malicious smile.

‘How can it be,’ asked the doctor, ‘that she’s changed her behaviour towards me so suddenly?’

‘Easy! you were presenting a comedy and she wanted to be the leading lady. As soon as she realised it wouldn’t be accepted, you were of no more significance than her first nightdress.’

‘You mean to say, if my comedy had been accepted…?’

‘If your comedy had been accepted, Rosalina would have been yours! And that’s the only way you’d have got her for free – she’s rather fond of money.’

Three months passed and, far from getting on to a sounder footing as hypothesised by the impresario, the theatre sank into one of those crises that are so common in our thespian life. After five or six flops, the audience fell away and the impressario stopped paying the artistes regularly. The situation was desperate.

Rosalina and her husband suffered just as much as the rest, and considered themselves lucky when they picked up the odd ten or twenty thousand reais by way of back pay.

Such was the state of affairs when, once more, the foot and the knee of the actress began to disturb the doctor’s peace of mind.

The old actor’s opinion hadn’t diminished her in the young man’s mind; a twenty-two-year old heart is blind to the defects of the woman for whom it beats, and even if, perchance, it decides to analyse those defects, it ends up finding them virtues.

One night, when he left her, Sesostris put a note into her hand. The note requested a meeting and told her he’d come to her dressing-room for the reply during the following night’s performance.

And so he did.

After seeing the hairdresser out, she said to her admirer: ‘Careful! Not a word about the message in the note.’

‘But… your reply?’

‘Just pretend… It’s there on the window… under the jug and dish… Make out you’re having a drink of water… Look! The dressing-room door’s open and there’s lots of people coming and going who wonder what you’re up to.’

So Sesostris pretended. He went to where the jug was, lifted the dish, found the note, put it in his pocket, talked – aloud – for a few moments, about the heat, all the empty seats etc. … and then left, anxious to read her reply.

In order to escape from prying eyes, he slipped into the gentlemen’s lavatory at the theatre and it was there – half-suffocated by ammonia fumes – that he read the following:

Doctor,

Before responding to your lovely message, I’d like to beg a great favour of you. As you know, the company owes us six weeks’ pay, the 15th is coming up and it’s highly likely we won’t get paid this time either, because the theatre’s not making any money. My husband and I, we’re on our uppers. Hard as it is for me to ask this, please send us, tomorrow, to our house, you know where it is, the items listed herewith, which we need for our larder. Forgive me for troubling you.

Your dear friend,

Rosalina

And there is was, attached as stated, a groceries-and-miscellaneous list: so many kilos of beans, so many kilos of dried meat etc. Nothing was missing: oil, macaroni, olives, wine, packets of candles, lamps, butter – you name it!

The next day a handcart arrived outside Rosalina’s door, carrying all that food and drink etc. Meanwhile, despite his tender years, Dr Sesostris had got the message: the stupid woman was best avoided.

TRANSLATOR’S NOTE

Translator’s note: The qualification about Dr Sesostris’s title – ‘not a medical doctor’ –, and which also applies to Dr Figueiredo in ‘Sabina,’ is mine. In Recordações do escrivão Isaías Caminha, Lima Barreto satirises, in the person of Caminha, what he saw as the exaggerated reverence accorded to the title of ‘Dr’ in Brazil:

Ah! Doctor! Doctor!.. It was a magic title, with a power and a reach that was multiple and multiform. It was a sort of sacred cloak, woven with a fine and almost invisible thread, but one that repulsed the elements, the evil eye and exorcisms […] Oh! To be a graduate, a ring upon my finger, an overcoat and a top hat, fat and inflated like the horned frog before it lets forth its drum-roll croak at the edge of the swamp; to walk like that through the streets, through the squares, down the highways, through the rooms, receiving compliments from right, left and centre: ‘How did it go, Doctor?’ ‘How are you, Doctor?’ It was the same as being super-human!..    

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

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

Artur Azevedo (A. Nabantino Gonçalves de A.), journalist and playwright, was born in São Luís in the State of Maranhão on 7 July 1855 and died in Rio de Janeiro on 22 October 1908. Alongside his brother Aluísio de Azevedo, he was one of the founders of the Brazilian Academy of Letters.

His parents were David Gonçalves de Azevedo, the Portuguese Vice-Consul in  São Luís, and Emília Amália Pinto de Magalhães, a courageous woman who, having separated from the trader to whom she had been married against her will, was already living out of wedlock with David Gonçalves when her children were born: three boys and two girls. They got married later on, after the death of her first husband, from yellow fever, in Rio de Janeiro. Artur was already showing a taste for the stage at eight years old, experimenting with adaptations of texts by authors like Joaquim Manuel de Macedo, and soon afterwards he began writing dramas that included roles for himself. Very early on, he began working in business and then he was employed in provincial administration, but was dismissed for publishing satires aimed at the authorities. At the same time, he was putting on his first comedies in the theatres of São Luís. When he was fifteen, he wrote Amor por anexins (Love through Proverbs), which was a great success, being staged more than a thousand times in the 19th Century. Having fallen out with the provincial government, he successfully sat a public examination for clerical posts in the Ministry of Finance, moving to Rio de Janeiro in 1873, where he got a job in the Ministry of Agriculture.

Initially he also taught Portuguese in the Pinheiro College. But it was in journalism that he was able to develop the activities that made him one of the greatest Brazilian playwrights and short-story writers. He founded literary publications, such as A Gazetinha, Vida Moderna and O Álbum. He collaborated, alongside Machado de Assis, on A Estação, and on the newspaper Novidades, where his colleagues were Alcindo Guanabara, Moreira Sampaio, Olavo Bilac and Coelho Neto. He was one of the great campaigners for the abolition of slavery, via his fiery newspaper articles, pieces in theatre magazines and works for the stage, such as O Liberato (The Freedman) and A família Salazar (The Salazar Family), which he wrote together with Urbano Duarte, and which was banned by the imperial censorship, being published later under the title O escravocrata (The Slave-owner). He wrote more than four thousand articles about artistic – mainly theatrical – events in the columns that appeared successively in O País (A Palestra [The Lecture]), in the Diário de Notícias (De Palanque [From the Rostrum]) and in A Notícia (O Teatro [The Theatre]). He had numerous pseudonyms: Elói o herói, Gavroche, Petrônio, Cosimo, Juvenal, Dorante, Frivolino, Batista o trocista, amongst others. From 1879 he edited the Revista do Teatro, alongside Lopes Cardoso. For more than thirty years, he kept up a campaign – eventually successful – for construction of the Municipal Theatre, but he was unable to attend its inauguration.

Although he had been writing short stories since 1871, it was only in 1889 that he resolved to collect some of them in a volume, called Contos possíveis (Possible Tales), which he dedicated to Machado de Assis, his colleague in the transport department, and one of his severest critics. In 1894 he published his second book of short stories, Contos fora de moda (Unfashionable Tales) and another two volumes, Contos cariocas (Rio Tales) and Vida alheia (Other People’s Lives), comprising stories he had written for various newspapers.

Both in his short stories and in his plays, he showed himself to be a great observer of the day-to-day life and habits of Rio de Janeiro. Courtships, marital infidelity, relationships within families, friendships, celebrations – whether festive or funereal –, everything that went on in the streets and in the houses provided subjects for his stories. In the theatre, he carried on from Martins Pena and França Júnior. His plays provide us with a documentary on the evolution of the quondam Brazilian capital. During his life, about a hundred of his plays, of various genres, and thirty of his translations and free adaptations from French plays were staged in Brazil and Portugal. He remains, today, the most permanent and expressive Brazilian playwright ever, in works such as A jóia (The Jewel), A capital federal (The Federal Capital), A almanjarra (The Wardrobe) and O mambembe (The Street Actor).

He also dedicated himself to poetry, where he was considered a representative of parnassianism, but simply on the chronological grounds of belonging to the generation of Alberto de Oliveira, Raimundo Correia and Olavo Bilac, who were all influenced by French poets such as Leconte de Lisle, Banville, Coppée and Heredia. But Artur Azevedo’s expansive and cheerful temperament actually had nothing in common with that school. A lyric and sentimental poet, his sonnets fall perfectly into the tradition of the Brazilian love sonnet.

Works: Carapuças, poetry (1871); Sonetos (1876); Um dia de finados, satire (1877); Contos possíveis (1889); Contos fora da moda (1894); Contos efêmeros (1897); Contos em verso (1898); Rimas, poetry (1909); Contos cariocas (1928); Vida alheia (1929); Histórias brejeiras, selected and prefaced by R. Magalhães Júnior (1962); Contos (1973).

Theatre: Amor por anexins (1872); A filha de Maria Angu (1876); Uma véspera de reis (1876); A jóia (1879); O escravocrata, in collaboration with Urbano Duarte (1884); A almanjarra (1888); A capital federal (1897); O retrato a óleo (1902); O dote (1907); O oráculo (1956); Teatro (1983).

Translator’s note:

Humberto de Campos wrote as follows in his preface to Azevedo’s Contos cariocas (1928):

He was the most popular short-story writer of his age and he is the one – of his generation – who is still remembered most fondly and with the most spontaneous admiration… His straightforwardness and good-humour has won him, and will continue to win him, the reputation of being the preeminent – and most affable – portraitist of Rio de Janeiro in its period of transition, i.e. in the period that saw the rise and fall of Ouvidor Street.

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