Good Idea, by Lima Barreto

(My translation of the short story Boa medida, which was first published in the Careta newspaper in 1921. “Kambalu” = one of Lima’s satirical name’s for Brazil; “Sultan Abbas the First” = Epitácio Pessoa, President of Brazil between 1919 and 1922 – any similarity to the current president of the United States of America is purely coincidental.)

O

nce upon a time, Sultan Abbas the First of Kambalu, otherwise known as “The Magnificent,” – who was directly descended from Manuel José Fernandes from Trás-os-Montes in the Kingdom of Portugal, and Japira, a native of the Potiguar tribe, which used to inhabit the Empire of Brazil, but is now no more – seeing the misery of his people and the starvation and plague which were wiping them out, decided to convene the bigwigs of his domains, regardless of their religion or their theories, to help him solve the problem. There duly arrived: a bishop, a wise man from the orient, a learned doctor of medicine, a clairvoyant, a jurist, an engineer and a brahmin.

Opening the convention, Abbas the First spoke thus:

“Gentlemen, you all know that the reason for our meeting is the pain and pity I feel for my dear people. That is what has moved me to ask your advice. Please feel free to speak openly. I shall listen with pleasure. Speak!”

The bishop rose to his feet, made the sign of the cross, prayed for a few minutes, passing the beads of his rosary through his fingers, and began:

Ad victum quae flagitat usus – Omnia jam mortalibus esse parata. We need churches, Your Majesty. We need monasteries, we need retreat houses!”

THE WISE MAN: “I disagree. Light is everything. The world is made of light. God is made of light. We need more electric light.”

THE DOCTOR: “This is all fantasy, pure paranoia, tempered with psychasthenia and phrenasthenia. There are two phases in the aetiology of the plague: when it first appears, it is equivocal and hardly noticeable, auroral, like a pale dawn in May; the second phase is when it presents ostensibly, in which case it manifests a horrible beauty only appreciated by doctors. As Keats said: ‘Our songs are…’”

THE ENGINEER: “What the hell is all that about? Expropriation would be more useful…”

THE CLAIRVOYANT: “I’m just going to lay the cards out…”

THE JURIST: “Careful you don’t get arrested! The Criminal Code, Book Five, Article 1824, Paragraph…”

THE BRAHMIN: “Everything that comes from me, the bull, the cow…”

ABBAS THE FIRST: “Bollocks! You’re all a waste of time… a bunch of blithering blatherers! I’ve made up my mind: I’m going to build a magnificent palace. Clear off, the lot of you!”

Abbas the First was as good as his word. He increased taxes throughout the kingdom. He put in orders for jasper, gold, marble and porphyry, contracted the best architects and building workers from abroad, and built the palace – for the enrichment of his people and the eradication of their ills.

As soon as it was finished, he moved in. A few days later there was not even one servant to wait on him. Everyone in the country had died of starvation and disease; and in due course he himself died of starvation, because there was no longer anyone to do the planting, to bring in the harvest, to tend the animals etc., etc.

 ABOUT THE AUTHOR

(The following biographical details have been translated from the [now defunct] Casa Lima Barreto website.)

Afonso Henriques de Lima Barreto was born in Rio de Janeiro on 13 May 1881 and died in the same city on 1 November 1922. The son of a typographer at the National Printing Works and of a state-school teacher, he was of mixed race. He was taught at first by his own mother, who died when he was seven. Through the influence of his godfather, Viscount Ouro Preto, an imperial minister, he completed his studies at the Pedro II National School, from where he went, in 1897, to the Polytechnic with the intention of studying to be an engineer. He had to give up his course, however, in order to become the breadwinner at home, after his father – bursar at the Colony for the Insane on Governador Island – himself became mentally ill in 1902. In the same year he had his first work published in the student press. The family moved to the Rio de Janeiro suburb of Engenho de Dentro, where the future writer decided to take part in a public examination for a vacancy in the Ministry of War. He came second but, because the first-placed candidate withdrew, he was able to take up the post, which he did in 1903.

Because his salary was only small, the family moved to a modest house in the suburb of Todos os Santos in which, in 1904, he began the first version of his novel Clara dos Anjos (Clara of the Angels). In the following year he began his novel Recordações do escrivão Isaías Caminha (Memoirs of the Clerk Isaías Caminha), which was published in Lisbon in 1909. He also published a series of reports in the Correio da Manhã newspaper and commenced the novel Vida e morte de M. J. Gonzaga de Sá (Life and Death of M. J. Gonzaga de Sá), which was not published until 1919. He participated in the Fon-Fon magazine and in 1907, together with some friends, launched the Floreal magazine, which survived for only four numbers but attracted the attention of the literary critic José Veríssimo. During this period he devoted himself to reading, in the National Library, the great names of world literature, including the European realist writers of the period; he was one of the few Brazilian writers who became familiar with the works of the Russian novelists.

In 1910 he was a juryman in a trial that condemned some soldiers involved in a student’s murder, an incident that came to be called ‘The Spring of Blood’; as a result he was passed over when it came to any possibilities of promotion in the secretariat of war. In the space of three months, in 1911, he wrote the novel Triste fim de Policarpo Quaresma (The Sad End of Policarpo Quaresma), which was published in instalments in the Jornal do Comércio, for which he wrote, and also in the Gazeta da Tarde. In 1912 he published two instalments of the Aventuras do Dr. Bogoloff (The Adventures of Dr. Bogoloff), in addition to little humorous books, one of them printed in the O Riso magazine.

Although alcoholism was beginning take hold of him, it did not prevent him from continuing to work for the press and, in 1914, he commenced a series of daily feuilletons in the Correio da Noite. In 1915 the A Noite newspaper published his novel Numa e a ninfa (Numa and the Nymph) in instalments, and he began a long phase of work with the Careta magazine, writing political articles on various topics.  In the first months of 1916, the novel Triste fim de Policarpo Quaresma appeared as a book, together with some notable short stories such as ‘A Nova Califórnia’ (New California) and ‘O homem que sabia javanês’ (The Man who Spoke Javanese); these were warmly received by the critics, who saw Lima as a true successor to Machado de Assis. He began writing for the political weekly A.B.C. After being hospitalised in July 1917, he delivered to his editor, J. Ribeiro dos Santos, the manuscript of Os Bruzundangas (The Bruzundangans – Bruzundanga being Lima’s satirical name for Brazil), which was not published until a month after his death, in 1922.

He applied for a vacancy in the Brazilian Academy of Letters, but his application was not even considered. He published the second edition of Isaías Caminha and, subsequently, the novel Numa e a ninfa in book form. He started publishing articles and feuilletons in the alternative press of the period: A Lanterna, A.B.C. and Brás Cubas, which published an article of his showing sympathy for the revolutionary cause in Russia. After being diagnosed with toxic epilepsy, he was pensioned off in December 1918 and he moved to another house in the Rua Major Mascarenhas in Todos os Santos, where he lived until his death.

At the beginning of 1919 he ceased his collaboration with the A.B.C. weekly, because he took issue with an article it published criticising the blacks. He published the novel Vida e morte de M. J. Gonzaga de Sá, which was personally edited and sent for typing by the editor Monteiro Lobato; this was the only one of Lima’s books to receive such standard editorial care and for which he was well paid; it was also well advertised, being praised by both old and new literary critics, such as João Ribeiro and Alceu Amoroso Lima. At this time he applied once more for a vacancy at the Brazilian Academy of Letters; on this occasion his application was accepted, but he was not elected, although he received the permanent vote of João Ribeiro. Under the title of ‘As mágoas e sonhos do povo’ (The People’s Sufferings and Dreams), he started publishing, in the Hoje magazine, weekly feuilletons of so-called ‘urban folklore’ and he entered into a second phase of collaboration with Careta, which lasted until his death.

From December 1919 to January 1920 he was hospitalised in consequence of a nervous breakdown, an experience recounted in the first chapters of the memoir O cemitério dos vivos (The Cemetery of the Living), which was not published until 1953, when it was issued in a single volume together with his Diário íntimo (Intimate Diary). In December 1920 Gonzaga de Sá was short-listed for the literary prize of the Brazilian Academy of Letters for the best book of the previous year; it received an honourable mention. In the same month, the short-story book Histórias e sonhos (Stories and Dreams) was published, and the manuscript of Marginália (Odds and Ends), comprising articles and feuilletons already published in periodicals, was delivered to his friend, the editor F. Schettino; the manuscript was lost, however, and the book did not come to be published until 1953.

A section of O Cemitério dos vivos was published in January 1921 in the Revista Souza Cruz, under the title ‘As origens’ (The Origins); but the work remained incomplete.  In April of that year he went to the little town of Mirassol in the State of São Paulo, where a doctor friend of his, Ranulfo Prata, who was also a writer, tried to put him together again, but in vain. With his health badly undermined, he turned into a sort of recluse in his little house in Todos os Santos, where friends came to visit him and where his sister Evangelina looked after him devotedly. Whenever possible, however, he would embark on another walk through the city he loved, keeping reading, meditation and writing for home, despite the constant presence of his father’s madness, which got worse through a series of crises.

In July 1921 Lima applied for a vacancy in the Brazilian Academy of Letters for the third time, but he withdrew his application for ‘entirely personal and private reasons.’ He delivered the manuscript of Bagatelas (Trifles) to the publisher; this book was a collection of his principal journalistic work from 1918 to 1922, in which he analysed, with rare vision and clarity, the problems of the country and of the world after the 1st World War. However, Bagatelas was not published until 1923. In November 1921 he published, in the Revista Souza Cruz, the text of a speech ‘O destino da literatura’ (‘The Destiny of Literature’) that he had been due to make – but had not managed to do so – in the town of Rio Preto, near Mirassol. In December he began work on the second version of his novel Clara dos Anjos, which he finished the following January. The manuscript for Feiras e mafuás (One Thing and Another) was delivered for publication, which did not happen until 1953.

In May 1922 the magazine O Mundo Literário published the first chapter of Clara dos Anjos, ‘O carteiro’ (The Postman). His health was declining steadily as a result of rheumatism and alcoholism amongst other things, and Lima suffered heart failure and died on 1 November 1922. They found him holding the copy of the Revue des Deux Mondes – his favourite journal – which he had just been reading. Two days later, his father died. They were both buried in the São João Batista cemetery, in accordance with Lima’s wishes.

In 1953 a publisher issued some volumes of his unpublished works. But it was only in 1956, under the direction of Francisco de Assis Barbosa and with the collaboration of Antônio Houaiss and M. Cavalcanti Proença, that all his work  was published in 17 volumes; these comprised all the novels mentioned above and also the following titles that were not published during his life: Os bruzundangas, Feiras e mafuás, Impressões de leitura (Literary Impressions), Vida urbana (City Life), Coisas do reino de Jambon (A Report from the Kingdom of Jambon), Diário íntimo, Marginália, Bagatelas, O cemitério dos vivos and two further volumes containing all his correspondence – both letters sent and letters received. In the following decades Lima has been the subject of many studies, both in Brazil and abroad. His works, particularly his novels and short stories, have been translated into English, French, Russian, Spanish, Czech, Japanese and German.  He has been the subject of doctoral theses in the United States and Germany. To mark the centenary of his birth in 1981, conferences were held about him throughout Brazil, resulting in the publication of innumerable books, including essays, bibliographies and psychological studies of the author and his works. There is currently a growing interest in him among new Brazilian writers, who see him as a pioneer of the sociological novel. His literary production, which is vast in view of his early death, is gaining him – quite rightly – more and more distinction.

Translator’s note: In an obituary for Lima in the Jornal do Brasil on 5 November 1922 , Coelho Neto – who had given the oration at Machado’s funeral in 1908 – described him as:

one of the best novelists Brazil has had, who observed things with the power and precision of a microscope, and who wrote with magisterial assurance, describing ordinary life like no one else has done. Just as he was neglectful of himself, of his own life, so was Lima Barreto neglectful of the work he constructed, not seeking to correct its defects of language, presenting it just as it flowed from his pen, without the necessary revision, the indispensable polishing, the definitive final touch which a work of art needs. Despite everything, however, what has remained to us of this man is worth so much by way of observation of life and depiction of characters that the rough edges cannot destroy the beauty: sometimes they compromise it here and there but only in the same way that a wall with stains and cracks can affect the harmony of a fresco, but cannot negate the magnificence of the painting.

Despite the nit-picking, this might be considered gracious in view of the virulent criticisms made of Coelho Neto by Lima.

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