From Portuguese: A Christmas Miracle, by Lima Barreto

(My translation of the short story Milagre do Natal)

The Andaraí district is very melancholy and very damp. The mountains that adorn our city are even higher out there and are still covered by the dense vegetation that must have been even more abundant in bygone days. And the dark grey of the trees turns the horizon almost black, and the general ambience even sadder.

When the mountain range reaches the sea, the picture becomes much less monotonous: the sunlight can spread itself more freely and the little, mundane things of humankind acquire a brightness and cheeriness that has more to do with perception than reality. And that applies to both the humble houses in Botafogo and the bombastic “mansions” in Copacabana; but further inland everything is overwhelmed by the mountains and their gloomy vegetation.

It was in that district that Feliciano Campossolo Nunes lived. He was deputy director of the Exchequer. The house was his own and, in the middle of the cornice at the front, its grandiose name was displayed: “Vila Sebastiana”. I won’t bore you with how tasteful its façade was, and how elegant its proportions. At the front there was a small garden that extended, on the left as you looked at it, about a meter beyond the façade, which was the width of the varanda that encircled most of the house. Campossolo was a stern, bald man, with a goatee beard, a large belly, fleshy hands and short fingers. He never let out of his sight his Morocco-leather attaché case, in which he brought home the office papers, with the intention of not reading them. When out and about he’d also usually be seen carrying an umbrella with a gold knob and silk lining. Overweight, and with short legs, he had great difficulty, burdened as he was with those items, in climbing the two steps of the “Minas Gerais” trams that were run by the Rio de Janeiro Tramway, Light & Power Company.

Oh! And he wore a bowler hat.

He lived in Vila Sebastiana with his wife and their only child, Mariazinha, a young woman who was not yet married.

His wife, Dona Sebastiana, after whom their house was named and whose money had got it built, was taller than him, but there was nothing distinctive about her face other than an artificial addition: a gold-framed pince-nez that was secured behind one ear by a silk ribbon. She hadn’t been born with that adornment, but might as well have been, as no-one had ever seen her without it. Day or night, it always seemed firmly fixed on her nose. And when she wanted to have a really good look at someone or something, she’d lift her head and tilt it backwards, with all the severity of a judge.

She was from the state of Bahia, as was her husband, but the only thing she had against Rio was the difficulty of obtaining seasonings for the moquecas, carurus and other Bahian dishes that she cooked so expertly (with the help of her black servant Inácia, who’d come with them from Salvador when Feliciano was transferred to Rio). Whenever she could, she’d ask someone to go and look for some; and when she did manage to get them, and to cook a really tasty moqueca, she’d completely forget that she was so far away from her beloved city of Tomé de Sousa.

Unlike her mother, Mariazinha had more or less forgotten that she was born there and she’d become a proper Carioca. She was twenty years old, slim, shapely and about the same height as her mother. And she was pretty and completely without airs and graces. Her most beautiful feature was her eyes, which were pale gray flecked with black. But, as I say, she had no fashionable conceits, unlike most other girls.

So, these were the residents at Vila Sebastiana, that’s to say, apart from a little black boy who was never the same: every two months or so, for whatever reason, one would be replaced by another, the only difference being that the next one might be a bit paler or a bit darker.

On certain Sundays, Mr Campossolo would invite some of his subordinates to dinner. But he was particular about which subordinates he invited. After all, he had an unmarried daughter and he couldn’t let any young man into his house, even if that young man happened to work at the Exchequer.

The ones he invited most frequently were his right-hand men in the section, the third-tier clerks Fortunato Guaicuru and Simplício Fontes. Fortunato had a degree in law and was, more or less, Feliciano’s secretary and his adviser on difficult matters; and Simplício was chief of protocol in the section, an extremely responsible function, because it required him to ensure that processes were followed to the letter and that the section was not open to accusations of laxity or negligence. So, these two were the most frequent guests at those delightful family gatherings. And Feliciano was mindful that he needed to find a husband for his daughter…

You’re probably aware that parents normally try to marry off their daughters to someone of the same class as themselves: fathers who are businessmen seek out businessmen or clerks; military men, other military men; doctors, other doctors etc. So it’s no surprise that Section Head Campossolo should be looking out for a promissing civil servant, and not just any civil servant, but a civil servant from his own department and, indeed, his own section.

Guaicuru was from Mato Grosso. His features were decidedly Native Indian: prominent cheekbones, a short face, a big, hard chin, moustache like wild boar bristles, receding forehead and slightly bowed legs. He’d originally been appointed to the customs-house in Corumbá before being transferred to the Goiás tax office, where he’d spent three or four years, gaining a law degree in the process – because there’s not a city in Brazil, whether it’s the state capital or not, that doesn’t have a law school. Once he’d got his degree, and the title of Dr that went with it, he’d been promoted to the Mint and thence to the Exchequer. On his Sunday visits to Casa Sebastiana he never forgot to wear the ruby ring that marked him out as the holder of a university degree. He was a stout lad, with broad, straight shoulders, unlke Simplício, who was pale and weedy, with big black eyes and the look of a shrinking violet.

Simplício was from Rio and had achieved his post almost completely without the intervention of powerful backers. He was much better educated than Guaicuru, but didn’t have the latter’s panache. And even though panache didn’t win out over education in Mariazinha’s heart, it did in her mother’s mind as regards finding a husband for her daughter. So Dona Sebastiana’s attention, at the table, was directed almost solely to Guaicuru, who she’d arranged to sit opposite her, beside her daughter.

Just now she was smiling at him whilst giving him her haughty, four-eyed look. “Why don’t you become a lawyer?” she asked.

“Because I don’t have the time for it, Senhora…”

“What do you mean, ‘don’t have the time for it’? Felicianinho would agree to it, wouldn’t you, Felicianinho?”

“But of course. I’m always happy to help my colleagues progress,” said Campossolo, gravely.

Meanwhile Simplício, who was sitting to the left of Dona Sebastiana, was looking distractedly at the fruit basket and keeping quiet. The slight pause in the conversation was because Guaicuru was trying to think of something to say, other than the truth, which was that the law school he’d attended wasn’t recognised.

“My colleagues might resent my leaving,” was what he managed eventually.

But Dona Sebastiana only pressed on more forceably:

“Nonsense! You wouldn’t complain, would you Senhor Simplício?”

Hearing his name, the poor lad raised his eyes hurriedly from the fruit bowl and asked in trepidation:

“I beg your pardon, Dona Sebastiana?”

“Would you complain if Felicianinho allowed Guaicuru to leave the office to get a job as a lawyer?

“No.”

And his eyes drifted back to the fruit bowl, with a brief stop along the way to exchange a glance with the beautiful eyes of Mariazinha. Campossolo was concentrating mainly on eating, leaving Dona Sebastiana to continue:

“If I were you, I’d become a lawyer.”

“I can’t. It’s not just the office that takes up my time. I’m writing a very large book.”

Everyone looked up in surprise. Mariazinha looked at Guaicuru; Dona Sebastiana tilted her pince-nezed face even further back; and Simplício – who’d been looking at the picture of the dead game bird hung upside down that you see in the homes of so many bourgeois families, more often than not alongside The Last Supper -, Simplício, as I was saying, just stared at his colleague, leaving Campossolo to ask:

“What’s it about?”

“Brazilian administrative law.”

“It must be quite a work,” said Campossolo gravely.

“I hope so.”

Simplício continued staring at Guaicuru as if he couldn’t believe his ears. When he noticed this, Guaicuru hastened to add:

“Would you like to hear what I’m proposing?”

All of them, except Mariazinha, replied almost in unison:

“Oh, yes! We would.”

The graduate from Goiás straightened up in his chair and began:

“I’m connecting our Brazilian Administrative Law to the ancient Portuguese Administrative Law. Many people think there was no Administrative Law under the old regime, but there was. I’m going to study the mechanism of the state at that time, in so far as Portugal is concerned. And I’m going to consider the functions of the ministers and their subordinates through the lens of those old orders-in-council, regulations and royal decrees, and I’ll show how the whole thing worked; and then I’ll show how that rather moribund Public Law was transformed by the influx of liberal ideas; and how, having been transported to Brazil with the arrival here of Dom João VI, it was adapted to our context and was further modified by the ideas of the Revolution.

Hearing all this, Simplício couldn’t help thinking, Where on earth did he get all that from?”

But Guaicuru hadn’t finished:

“It won’t be a dry enumeration of dates or a transcription of decrees, orders-in-council etc. It will be something completely new! Something vibrant!”

He broke off here, and Campossolo repeated, but even more gravely:

“It must be quite a work.”

“And I’ve already got an editor!”

“Who’s that?” asked Simplício.

“It’s Jacinto. You know, I’m always going there to get legal books.”

“Oh, yes!” said Simplício, trying not to smile. “It’s the law bookshop.”

“And when do you intend to have your work published, Doctor?” asked Dona Sebastiana.

“I’d like it to be before Christmas, in time for the pre-Christmas round of promotions, but…”

“Are there promotions before Christmas, Felicianinho?”

Senhora Sebastiana’s husband replied:

“I believe so. The Cabinet have already requested recommendations and I’ve given mine to the director.”

“You should have told me!” said his wife, sounding put-out.

“We don’t talk about things like that to our wives: they’re state secrets,” her husband replied, gravely.

This business of the pre-Christmas promotions had introduced a rather awkward note to the meal. So, trying to reanimate the conversation, Dona Sebastiana turned once more to her husband:

“I wouldn’t want you to tell me their names, but if it so happened that Dr Fortunato was to be promoted or… or our “Simplício” here, it would be good if I knew that a celebration was in order.”

This didn’t have the desired effect. The atmosphere turned even more awkward and, by the time coffee was served, there was almost complete silence.

When they eventually stood up to leave the table, they all had a rather constrained look, except for the brave Mariazinha, who tried to get the conversation going again. In the living-room, before taking his leave, Simplício got the opportunity for two more, furtive, exchanges with the beguiling eyes of the young lady, who was smiling as if nothing were amiss. His colleague Fortunato stayed on, but everything felt so awkward that, before long, he too took his leave.

On the way back in the tram, there were just two things in Simplício’s mind: Christmas and Guaicuru’s law book. As to the latter, he was still thinking, Where on earth did he get all that from? Guaicuru hardly knows anything! And his thoughts about Christmas were, If only our dear Lord Jesus…”

When the promotions were finally announced, it was Simplício who was promoted, because he’d been in the office much longer than Guaicuru and it so happened that this particular minister took no notice of lobbying or of so-called law degrees from Goiás.

No-one was much put out, except for Guaicuru, the one who was working on a book that had already been written. But he bit his lip.

Dona Sebastiana’s Christmas meal was in the northern style. When everyone went to take their seats, Guaicuru, as was his habit, went to sit beside Mariazinha, but Dona Sebastiana had alread raised her pince-nezed head.

“Come and sit beside me, Doctor. Our Simplício is going to sit over there.”

They were married within the year and, even now, after the first flush of passion, they still are.

He maintained it was Our Lord Jesus Christ who did it. She maintained it was the promotions. But whether it was the one or the other, or the two together, it’s a fact that they did get married. Guaicuru’s book, however, has not yet been published…

 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.

Comments welcomed