Category Archives: Provenance: South America

About Artists: SONIA BOYCE

"House by the Railroad," Edward Hopper, 1925

About Poets: JACOB SAM-LA ROSE

"House by the Railroad," Edward Hopper, 1925

About Poets: GRACE NICHOLS

"House by the Railroad," Edward Hopper, 1925

About Poets: JOHN AGARD

About Artists: HEW LOCKE

About Artists: ANA MARIA PACHECO

"House by the Railroad," Edward Hopper, 1925

From Portuguese: EVOLUTION by Machado de Assis

(My translation of the short story Evolução by Machado de Assis, which was first published in the collection Reliquias de Casa Velha in 1906)

My name is Inácio; his, Benedito. I won’t tell you our surnames, for a reason that any discrete person would understand. You’ll have to be content with Inácio and Benedito. It’s better than nothing and is in line with Juliet’s philosophy: “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose / By any other name would smell as sweet.” But let’s turn to Benedito’s smell.

And it’s immediately apparent that he was the least Romeo-like of any man in this world. He was forty-five when I got to know him; I won’t say when that was because everything in this story has to be oblique and mysterious. So, forty-five, and lots of black hair. For the hair that wasn’t black, he used a chemical process that was so efficient that you couldn’t tell the natural from the fake – except when he got out of bed; but no one saw him when he got out of bed. Everything else was natural: legs, arms, head, eyes, clothes, shoes, watch chain, and cane. Even the diamond pin he wore on his tie – one of the most beautiful I’ve ever seen – was natural and legitimate; it has cost him quite a bit; I saw him buying it in the jeweller’s shop; I don’t remember the name of the shop, but it was in the Rua do Ouvidor.

A fine character. No-one’s character changes, and Benedito’s was good – or, more precisely, peaceable. But he was less original when it came to intellect. We could compare him to a busy guesthouse where all sorts of ideas can be heard when the guests are sitting at the table with the owner’s family. At times, two of the guests might be antipathetic to each other, if not outright inimical; but the owner ensured it would never come to blows; he demanded reciprocal tolerance. That’s how Benedito managed to reconcile his vague sort of atheism with founding two religious confraternities – I can’t remember whether they were in Gávea, Tijuca or in the Engenho Velho. So he availed himself, promiscuously, of devotion, irreligion and silk stockings. I never saw his silk stockings, but he didn’t keep secrets from his friends.

We first met when we both happened to be travelling to Vassouras. We’d alighted from the train and got into the carriage that was going to take us from the station to the town centre. We exchanged a few words and soon began talking more freely – as far as that was possible in the circumstances, i.e. we still hadn’t introduced ourselves properly.

Of course, the first subject of conversation was the progress that the railways would bring to Brazil. Benedito could remember when the whole journey was made on the back of a donkey. Then we exchanged some anecdotes, we spoke about a few well-known people, and we agreed that the railways were essential to the country’s progress. Someone who’s never been pulled along behind one of those solid, stolid locomotives can have no idea how they can dispel the tedium of travel. One’s spirit is lifted, one’s muscles relax, one’s heart beats calmly, and one remains at peace with God and men.

“Our children won’t live to see the whole country criss-crossed by railways,” he said.

“No, you’re right… Do you have children?”

“No, none.”

“Nor me… It will take at least fifty years; but it’s essential. I think of Brazil as a little child that’s just learnt to crawl; it will only walk when it’s criss-crossed with railways.”

Benedito’s eyes lit up:

“What a lovely comparison!”

“Never mind ‘lovely.’ What’s important is whether it’s correct.”

“Lovely and correct,” he replied good-humouredly. “Yes, you’re right: Brazil is crawling; it will only begin to walk when we’ve got lots of railways.”

We arrived at Vassouras; I went to the house of the district judge, an old friend of mine; Benedito stayed in the town for a day before continuing to the interior. Eight days later, I returned to Rio de Janeiro, but alone this time. He returned a week after that; we met at the theatre, talked a bit and exchanged news; Benedito ended up inviting me to lunch with him the next day. I duly went, and it was a lunch fit for a prince, enriched by good cigars and lively conversation, although I must confess I’d found what he said during our train ride more engaging – lifting one’s spirit and leaving one at peace with God and with men; but perhaps I was too engaged with the lunch on this occasion. It was really magnificent; and it would have been a great injustice to relegate it to a mere background to chit-chat, elbows on the edge of the table, and looking at the smoke rising from our cigars.

“On my travels just now, I saw how right you were with that idea of Brazil just crawling.”

“Really?”

“Yes, exactly as you were saying in the carriage to Vassouras. We won’t start walking until our country’s criss-crossed with railways. You can’t imagine how true that is!”

He went on to talk about lots of thing: the customs of the people of the interior, the difficulties of their lives, and their backwardness; but he was pleased to see their good heartedness and their hopes for progress. Unfortunately, the government wasn’t abreast of the needs of the country; it even seemed to want to keep it out of step with the other American nations – as if it was indispensable to persuade us that principles are everything and people nothing. People aren’t made for the sake of governments; governments are made for the people; abyssus abyssum invocat.

Afterwards, he took me to see the other rooms, which were all beautifully decorated. He showed me his collections of paintings, coins, antiquarian books, stamps, and weapons; he had swords and épées, but he admitted he didn’t know how to fence. One of the paintings was a beautiful portrait of a woman; I asked him who it was. Benedito just smiled.

I smiled too: “I won’t press you on it.”

“No, no,” he replied hurriedly. “I can’t deny it. I was much in love with her. Pretty, isn’t she? But you can’t imagine how beautiful she was in real life: carmine lips, rosy cheeks, eyes as dark as the sky at night. And teeth like pearls. A wonder of nature!”

We carried on to his office, which was enormous and elegant, although nothing so out of the ordinary. All present and correct. There were two bookcases, full of beautifully bound books, a map of the world, and two maps of Brazil. The ebony writing-desk was a piece of fine workmanship; and on it, lying casually open, was one of Laemmert’s almanaques. The inkwell was made of crystal – “rock crystal,” as he explained, in the same way he’d explained other individual items. There was an organ in the adjacent room. He spoke enthusiastically about it: he played the organ and loved music. He mentioned particular operas and which parts of them he liked best, and he told me that, when he was a boy, he’d started to learn the flute but had soon given it up – which was a pity, he said, because it’s such an emotive instrument. After showing me other rooms, he accompanied me to the garden, which was splendid: a wonderful balance of art enriching nature and nature enriching art. He had roses – “the Queen of Flowers,” he said – of every type and from every region.

I left enchanted.

Subsequently I had occasion to appreciate Benedito’s character further when we met on various occasions, in the street, in the theatre or in the houses of mutual friends.

Four months later, I left for Europe on business, which was going to keep me there for a year. Benedito remained, immersed in the elections because he wanted to be a deputy. It was I who’d encouraged him, not for any particular reason, but just to be agreeable; it wasn’t really much different from praising his waistcoat. But he’d caught hold of the idea and had put his name forward.

One day, when I was crossing the road in Paris, I suddenly bumped into him.

“What on earth…?!”

“I lost the election, so I came to see Europe.”

He didn’t part from me; we travelled together the rest of the time. He told me that losing the election hadn’t put him off having another go. In fact it had made him even more determined. And he told me his great plan.

“I want to see you become a minister,” I said.

Benedito hadn’t expected that. He beamed, but immediately tried to hide his satisfaction.

“Don’t say that. But if I were to be a minister, it would have to be minister for industry. We’ve had enough of political parties; we need to develop the latent power of our country, its huge resources. You remember what we were talking about in the carriage in Vassouras? Brazil is crawling; it will only walk when we have railways…”

I was somewhat amazed: “Quite right! And why do you think I’m here in Europe? I’ve come about a railway. I’ve been arranging things in London.”

“Really?”

“Really.”

I showed him the paperwork: appointments, statistics, publicity material, reports, copies of contracts, and everything about the engineering side of things. He looked at it all as if transfixed and told me he was going to put something similar together. And, indeed, I soon saw him going off to ministries, banks and associations, from which he returned with notes and booklets that he stored in his suitcases; but his enthusiasm waned almost as quickly as it had arrived – it was a passing fad. Benedito immersed himself once more, and with much more pleasure, in the minutiae of political and parliamentary language. He had a whole arsenal of the stuff in his head and often gave me the benefit of it in our conversations; he found it all greatly prestigious and of inestimable value. A lot of it had come via English translation, which he preferred to the others, as the English versions had a hint of the House of Commons about them. He savoured it all so much that I wondered if he’d accept liberty if it didn’t come with all that verbal apparatus; I think not. Indeed, if he’d had to choose, I think he’d have chosen all those short and pithy formulas, some of them beautiful, others sonorous, and all of them axiomatic, and which don’t require reflexion, which fill the silences, and which leave one at peace with God and with men.

We returned to Brazil together; but I remained in Pernambuco, before returning subsequently to London, whence I came to Rio de Janeiro a year later. By that time, Benedito was already a deputy. I went to visit him and found him preparing his maiden speech. He showed me some notes, parts of reports, books on political economy – some of them with the pages marked with strips of paper headed: Exchange Rates, Land Tax, English Corn Laws, Opinion regarding Ab ovo…

He was clearly determined to demonstrate to the practical men of the Assembly that he too was a practical man.

Then he asked me about the company; I told him what there was to know:

“Sometime in the next two years I’m expecting to inaugurate the first stretch of the railway.”

“And what about the English capitalists?”

“What about them?”

“Are they satisfied? Are they optimistic?”

“Very. You can’t imagine.”

I told him some of the technical details, which he listened to absent-mindedly – either because what I had to say was terribly complicated or for some other reason. When I finished, he told me it was good to see me so involved in industry; that’s exactly what we need, and, on that pretext, he did me the favour of reading me the draft of the speech he was due to deliver a few days later. It went like this:

In the midst of the growing agitation of spirits and of the clamour of political parties, which drowns out the voices of legitimate interests, allow me to give voice to the supplication of the nation. Honourable Members, it is time to concentrate exclusively – note that I say ‘exclusively’ – on the material improvement of our country. I am not unaware of what might be said to me by way of objection; I will be told that a nation does not solely comprise a stomach for the purposes of digestion, but also a head to think and a heart to feel. I reply thus: that all of that is of no or little consequence if the nation has not legs to walk; and here I shall repeat what I said, some years ago, to a friend during a journey through the interior: ‘Brazil is a little child that’s just learnt to crawl; but Brazil will only walk when it is criss-crossed by railways…’

I didn’t hear the rest because I was lost in thought – or rather, amazed and astounded by the abyss that psychology had just torn open at my feet. This man is sincere, I thought. He believes what he’s written. And I descended into the abyss, hoping to discern the highways and byways through which that snatch of conversation in the carriage to Vassouras had passed. And I found there – forgive me if I got carried away – I found there one more example of the law of evolution as defined by Spencer. Spencer or Benedito, one of them.

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).

About Poets: MALIKA BOOKER

From Portuguese: CAPTAIN OF THE VOLUNTEERS by Machado de Assis

(My translation of the short story Um Capitão de Voluntários by Machado de Assis, which was first published in 1905)

No sooner had the Republic been proclaimed, than Simão de Castro set his mind to embarking for Europe. Before he did so, he gathered all his letters and notes and tore them up – all except the story you’re about to read, which he entrusted to his friend Marcelo, with the intention of having it published once Simão had departed; but Marcelo didn’t do so because, as he explained in a letter to Simão, he thought it might hurt the feelings of an acquaintance. Simão replied that he was happy for Marcelo to do whatever he thought fit; as he didn’t have any literary aspirations, he wasn’t really bothered whether it was published or not. But now that both of them – and the acquaintance – are dead, I’m publishing it myself.

***

There were us two men and the two women. The two of us used to go there to amuse ourselves, but eventually it was out of friendship. I became friends with the owner of the house. After supper – which used to be taken early in 1866 – I’d go there to smoke a cigar. The sun would enter from the window that looked out on a hill with some houses at the top of it; the opposite window looked out on the sea. I’m not going to tell you the street name or exactly where it was, other than it was in Rio de Janeiro; and I’m not going to tell you my friend’s name either, so let’s just call him X. He was big and strong. One of the women was called Maria.

When I entered, X would be in the rocking chair. There wasn’t much in the way of furniture, and what there was was simple. After X had shaken my hand, I’d go and sit by the window, alternately looking round the room or out at the street. If Maria wasn’t already there, she’d appear shortly. Neither of us had much interest in the other; X was the only real connection we had.We’d have a chat, I’d go home, and they’d go to bed. On some evenings we’d play cards, and eventually I’d spend most of the evening there.

I was in thrall to X. To his figure in the first place. He was robust, whereas I was weedy, but my weak, feminine look would disappear next to his masculinity, his broad shoulders, his wide hips, his strong legs and his large feet, which hit the floor so decisively when he walked. I had a thin and sparse moustache; he had long, thick, curly whiskers; when he was thinking or listening, he had the habit of running his fingers through them, making them even more curly. His large, beautiful eyes completed the picture; they smiled even more than his mouth.

X was forty, I was twenty-four. He’d had an eventful life in various places, from which he’d eventually retreated to that house, with Maria; I’d had no life to speak of and hadn’t lived with anyone. And to cap it all, he had something Castilian about him, some of the blood that circulates in the pages of Don Quixote.

They’d fallen in love a long time ago: Maria was now twenty-seven and seemed to have had some education. I heard that the first time they’d met had been at a masked ball in the old Provisional Theatre. She was wearing a short skirt and had been dancing to the sound of a tambourine. Her feet were beautiful, and it was they, or her story, that first caught X’s eye.

I never asked her how it had all started; all I know is that she had a daughter, who was at a boarding school and didn’t come to the house; it was Maria’s mother who used to visit her there. Our relationship was reserved: we simply accepted the situation as it was.

A couple of months after I started going there, I got a job in the bank; but our relationship remained the same. Maria would play the piano; sometimes she and her friend Raimunda would manage to drag X to the theatre, and I’d go with them. Afterwards we’d have tea in a private room; and, once or twice, if the moon was shining, we’d end up taking a trip over to Botafogo.

Barreto didn’t take part in any of that; it was only later that he began visiting the house. He was good company – cheerful and chatty. When the two of us left the house one night, he started talking about the two women and suggested courtship.

“You choose one of them, Simão, and I’ll take the other.”

That stopped me in my tracks.

“Or rather,” he continued, “I’ve already chosen – Raimunda. I like her a lot. You can choose the other.”

“Maria?”

“Who else?”

What Barreto said was so tempting that I failed to object in any way whatsoever. Everything seemed natural and necessary. So, yes, I agreed to choose Maria. Maria it was! She was a few years older than me, but that would be ideal for teaching me in the ways of love.

The two of us embarked upon our mission of conquest with ardour and tenacity. For Barreto it was quite easy: Raimunda didn’t currently have a lover, but had recently split up – unwillingly – with a young man who’d gone off to marry a girl from Minas; and so she soon allowed herself to be consoled.

One day, when I was having lunch, Barreto came in and showed me a letter he’d received from her.

“Success?”

“Yes. And you two?”

“No.”

“So, when?”

“Just wait. I’ll tell you when.”

I felt rather ashamed afterwards. With the best will in the world, I hadn’t had the courage to express my feelings to Maria. It’s not that I was passionate about her: rather, it was curiosity. Whenever I saw her – so elegant and fresh-looking, so warm and lively – I was overcome by a completely new feeling. On the one hand, I’d never been in love; on the other, Maria was my friend’s companion. I’m writing this, not to make myself out to be particularly honourable, but simply to explain my shyness. X and I had been the best of friends for a number of years. He had absolute confidence in me, he told me about his business dealings and his past life. Despite the difference in age between us, we were like students in the same class.

I was thinking so much about Maria that something I said or did must have given her a glimpse of my feelings; in any case, when we shook hands one day, I felt that she left her hand in mine longer than usual. Two days later, when I went to the post office, she happened to be there sending a letter to Bahia.

Did I tell you she was from Bahia? Well, now you know. She spoke to me before I’d noticed her. I helped her attach the seal, and we started making our way out. I was about to say something, when I noticed X standing by the door.

“I’ve just sent a letter to my mother,” she explained rather rapidly.

Then she said goodbye and headed for home, while X and I walked off in the other direction. He took the opportunity to sing her praises; without entering into any details about how their relationship had begun, he told me they were deeply in love; he was a happy man.

“I won’t get married: we’re like husband and wife, and I’ll die by her side. There’s only one thing that bothers me: that I live such a long way from my mother.”

He stopped walking and added, “My mother knows.”

Then he started walking again. “She knows. She made a vague remark about it, but I understood: she doesn’t disapprove. She knows that Maria is serious, a good person. My mother’s happy as long as I’m happy. Marriage wouldn’t add anything to it.”

He told me a lot more, which I heard as if in a trance. My heart was pounding and my legs felt weak. I couldn’t think of anything to say, and if I’d tried it would have come out all garbled.

After a while, X noticed how quiet I was, but he misinterpreted it. He laughed and said he was boring me with all that.

“Not at all!” I protested. “It’s fascinating to hear about people for whom I have nothing but respect.”

I think I was giving way to the inevitable. When I left him, I no longer felt so tormented. My first impressions, from what he had told me, had disappeared, and all that remained was a delicious curiosity. X had described Maria as a modest and homely person – no mention of her physical attractions. But, at my age, I didn’t need any direct mention of them. As I walked along, I could see her as if she were there in front of me. I could see her languid but firm gestures. And I was feeling more and more entranced.

When I got home, I wrote her a long and diffuse letter, but I tore it up within half an hour and went to have something to eat. Finally, I went to X’s house.

It was late in the evening. He was in the rocking chair. I sat down in my usual place and looked around the room and out at the hill. Maria arrived some time later and clearly wasn’t in the mood for conversation. She sat and dozed a bit, then played the piano a bit, and then left the room.

“From first thing today,” X told me, “Maria’s not been able to think of anything other than collecting contributions for the war effort. “I told her it might not be a good idea to look as if… You understand… In her situation… But she’ll get over it. She has these mad ideas from time to time…”

“And why shouldn’t she?!” I said.

“Well, why not?” replied X. “I’m not saying the war in Paraguay is not a war like any other war, but – believe me – I can’t get excited about it. I was outraged after Olinda, indeed, but then I calmed down and I really think we’d have done better if we’d joined López against the Argentinians.”

“Not me. I prefer the Argentinians.”

“I like them too, but I think it was in the interest of our people to stick with López.”

“Not at all! I was almost on the point of signing up as a volunteer.”

“Ha! I wouldn’t have signed up even if they’d made me a colonel.”

I didn’t pay much attention to the rest of what he said because I was listening out for whether Maria would return. So I just mumbled indeterminate replies at what seemed appropriate points. But the devil of a girl just would not and would not return.

I suggested we play a round of voltarete.

“Why not?” he said.

We went into the office. X placed the cards on the table and went to call Maria. Eventually I heard a whispered conversation, the only part of which I could make out was:

“Come on! It will only be for half an hour.”

“How tedious! I’m not feeling well.”

She was yawning as she entered the office. She told me she could only play for half an hour as she had a headache and wanted to go to bed early.

She sat down to my left like a heap of woe, and we began the game. I regretted having torn up my letter; I could remember some bits of it that would have described my feelings with the necessary warmth and persuasiveness. If I’d kept it, I would have given it to her that night. She often came to the top of the steps to say goodnight before closing the gate. That would have been the moment I could have given it to her; it would have eased my agony.

After a while, X got up and went to get his tin tobacco box from the writing-desk. At that point, Maria did something that took my breath away: she raised her hand of cards to shield her eyes, turned her face and gave me a piercing, mesmeric look. It was just a matter of seconds.

By the time X came back, rolling a cigarette, Maria had lowered her cards and was pretending to study them. Trying to compose myself, I stared at my own cards, but without managing to say anything. Fortunately, Maria calmly filled the silence by saying one of the words of the game – Pass or Stick, I don’t remember.

We played for about an hour, by which time Maria’s eyelids were drooping, and X suggested it was time to go to bed. I took my leave and went into the corridor, where I’d left my hat and walking-stick. Maria stood at the door of the room, waiting to accompany me to the gate. As I was about to descend the steps, she flung an arm around my neck, pulled me to her, and kissed me full on the lips. Rapidly but passionately. And I felt something pushed into my hand.

Wishing me goodnight, she closed the gate.

I was stunned, still feeling the impression of her lips on mine, still with the vision of her eyes, but somehow I managed to walk down the steps. And that something was still in my hand.

Once I was out of sight of the house, I ran to the nearest streetlamp and looked at it. It was an advertisement for a haberdashery shop, on the back of which, written in pencil was: “1 o’clock tomorrow afternoon. The jetty for the Niterói ferry. Wait for me there.”

Emotions came in great, breaking waves, and for the next few minutes I had no idea where I was or what I was doing. Until, that is, I found myself in the Largo de São Francisco de Paula, where I read the card again. Then I forced myself to walk a bit further, until I came to a halt again not far from a couple of policemen, who probably wondered what I was up to. Fortunately, hunger eventually overcame my emotions and I went to the Hotel dos Príncipes to get something to eat.

I didn’t get to sleep until the early hours but, even so, I was up at six, and the morning was slow agony. I got to the jetty at ten to one. Maria was already there, swathed in a cloak and with a blue veil covering her face. We boarded a ferry that was about to depart.

It was a relief to leave the shore. There were few other passengers at that time of day, and everything – the bobbing boats, the birds and the bright blue sky – seemed to be serenading this first proper conversation between the two of us. But what we said was so awkward and confused that I can’t remember more than half a dozen words, and none of them was the name of X, and none of them referred to him at all. We both felt like traitors, me towards my friend, and Maria towards her companion and protector; but there wasn’t time enough for either of us to actually mention it, and there certainly wasn’t enough time for the infinity of what we wanted to say to each other.

Our hands met and remained, our eyes met and remained, and our hearts were probably beating at the same insistent pace. At least, that’s how I felt when I parted from her after the circular trip to Niterói and São Domingos and back. At each of those stops, I suggested we disembark, but she declined; and when we got back to Rio, I suggested we get a closed carriage, but she just said, “What on earth would people think of me?!” Her modesty made her even more beguiling. So we said goodbye, and I promised I’d carry on coming to visit them, as usual, in the evenings.

I didn’t pick up my pen to write about my happiness, so I’m omitting the most delightful parts of our romance – all the rendezvous, the letters, the words, the dreams, the hopes, the endless longing, and the waves of desire. Romances are like calendars in that, for all their variety, they have to follow the same days and months, the same feast days and festivals. Our calendar didn’t even stretch from one half-moon to the next; not even an eclipse of the sun.

Maria was a model of grace, life and movement. She told me she was from Bahia but had been brought up in Rio Grande do Sul, in the countryside, near the border. When I asked about her first meeting with X, in the Temporary Theatre, dancing to the beat of a tambourine, she told me it was true, she’d been dressed in Castilian style and had been wearing a mask. When I asked her if she’d dance with me – even if only a lundu – but without the mask, she seemed shocked:

“It would drive you mad!”

“But X wasn’t driven mad.”

She laughed: “He’s still not in his right mind. Imagine if this was all I did…”

At which point she made a lightning-quick twirl, which could, indeed, have almost driven me mad.

Our three months ended suddenly, as three months of that kind often do. Maria simply failed to turn up one day. She was usually so punctual that I felt disconcerted as soon as the appointed hour passed. Five, ten, fifteen minutes; then twenty, then thirty, then forty… I can’t tell you how many times I walked up and down, in my living room, in the corridor, looking and listening, until it was beyond doubt that she wasn’t coming. I’ll spare you the details of how depressed I felt, of how I lay rolling about on the floor, talking to myself, shouting and crying. When all that tired me out, I wrote her a long letter, hoping she’d reply and explain why she hadn’t come. I didn’t send it; instead, I went to their house that night.

Maria told me she hadn’t come because she was afraid she’d be spotted and pursued by someone who’d been following her about for some time. I had, indeed, heard something about some neighbour or other who’d been courting her assiduously; once, she told me he’d even followed her as far as the door of my house. I accepted her excuse and suggested another place to meet, but she didn’t seem to think it appropriate. She thought it would be best for us not to meet until any suspicions had died down. She’d stay at home. I didn’t realise that the main reason was that her ardour had diminished.

She seemed like another person. You can’t imagine what became of that beautiful creature: it was like fire and ice; but fierier and icier than anyone.

When I became convinced that everything was over, I decided not to return but, even so, I didn’t lose all hope. Imagination, which makes the past seem present, made me believe that, through my own efforts, I could restore those first weeks. Five days later, I returned; I couldn’t live without her.

X welcomed me with his big, childlike smile, his honest eyes and his firm, sincere handshake. He asked me where I’d been. I said I’d had a bit of a temperature and, by way of explaining my low spirits, which I couldn’t shake off, I said I’d still got a headache. Maria understood everything, but that didn’t make her show any kindness and, when I left, she didn’t go out to the corridor as she used to do.

All of that increased my anguish. I even thought of killing myself, including – by way of romantic symmetry – taking the Niterói ferry again and throwing myself overboard in the middle of the bay. But I didn’t take that idea, or any other, further.

I needed to speak to someone and, when I bumped into my friend Barreto, I told him everything. Of course, I asked him to keep it secret, in particular not to say anything to Raimunda.

That very night, Raimunda knew everything. She was a feisty lady who loved nothing better than to get involved in other people’s business. She probably wasn’t particularly interested in either me or Maria, but it would be something new, and she decided to reconcile us. And that’s the real reason why I’m writing this.

She spoke to Maria a few times. Maria professed ignorance at first but ended up confessing everything. She regretted her foolhardiness. I imagine she didn’t say all that directly: it would have been by way of circumlocutions, imprecise phrases and, at times, just gestures.

I learnt all that from a letter Raimunda herself sent me, which included an account of how she’d managed to get Maria to talk. Raimunda was evidently very pleased with herself. Her letter ended with an invitation to call round.

“Don’t despair,” she said, when I got there. “I told her you might kill yourself.”

“And I will!”

“Well, not yet. Hold on.”

The next day, the papers had a list of citizens who’d gone to enlist as volunteers the previous day. Among the names was that of X, who’d been given the rank of captain. I didn’t believe it first of all, but it really was him. One of the papers even mentioned his father, who’d been an officer in the navy, and went so far as to say what a fine figure of a man X was. So, yes, it was definitely him.

At first I felt elated: we’d be alone. Maria certainly wouldn’t be going south with him as an auxiliary. But, after a while, I recalled what X had said about the war; it seemed strange that he’d have volunteered, although he was, indeed, prone to making grand gestures from time to time. He’d said he wouldn’t go even if they made him a colonel, and there he was accepting the rank of captain. And then there was Maria. Given his great affection for her, and how little enthusiasm he had for the war, how could he leave her so suddenly?!

It had been three weeks since I last went to their house. The news of his enlistment was justification enough to pay them an immediate visit, without need for further explanation. I went there straight away after lunch.

Adopting a serious expression appropriate to the circumstances, I entered the house. X came into the living room after a few minutes. The constrained look in his face contrasted with his words, which he tried to make cheery. Shaking my hand, he said, “So, you’ve come to see the Captain of the Volunteers?”

“I’ve come to hear that it’s not true.”

“Not true?! It couldn’t be any more true. It was probably the latest news that did it… I’m not sure. Why don’t you come with me?”

“So it’s true?”

“Yes.”

After a few moments of silence, rather lost for words, and trying to mask my real feelings, I muttered that it would be better if he didn’t go, and I mentioned his mother. X replied that his mother was all for it; after all, she was the widow of a military man. He tried to smile, but his face was stony, and his eyes seemed to have lost focus. We said very little after that.

Eventually he got up from his chair, saying he needed to wind up some business or other. At the front door, he said, rather haltingly:

“Come for dinner one of these days, before I leave.”

“I will.”

“Look, why don’t you come tomorrow?”

“Tomorrow?”

“Or today, if you’d like.”

I wanted to give him my regards to Maria; it would only have been natural, but I didn’t have the heart.

As soon as I got to the foot of the steps, I regretted not doing so. I went over our brief conversation in my mind; I thought I must have looked tongue-tied and confused. He’d seemed not only reserved, but also haughty. I had a vague feeling of unease. His handshake when he entered the living room, and when I left, seemed different.

That night, Barreto came to see me. He’d also been stunned by the news and asked me what I knew. I told him I knew nothing, but I did tell him about my visit in the morning, about our conversation and my suspicions.

After a few moments, he said, “Maybe it’s a mistake.”

“How come?”

“Raimunda told me today that she spoke to Maria, that Maria denied everything at first but then confessed all, and that she refused to carry on seeing you.”

“I know.”

“Yes, but apparently he was in the next room and caught the end of the conversation. Maria went and told Raimunda that he’d changed completely. Raimunda offered to go and see him, to get a first-hand impression, but I wouldn’t let her. Then I saw the news in the papers. Later I saw him walking down the street. He was stepping out as usual, but he looked terribly preoccupied – not like him at all.”

Taken aback as I was by this confirmation of my own impression, I nevertheless went there the next day. Barreto offered to go as well; I could see he just wanted to give me support, but I said no.

X hadn’t said anything to Maria; I found them in the living room, and I can’t think of any other occasion in my life when I’ve felt more awkward. I shook their hands, but without looking at Maria. I think she was diverting her eyes too. Whereas he, lighting up a cigarette, hardly paid any attention to us at all.

At dinner he spoke as naturally as he could, but without much success. The effort to appear normal was even more apparent in his face than it had been the previous evening. In order to explain his low spirits, he told me he was due to embark at the end of the week, and the nearer it came, the harder he found the thought of it.

“But I’ll be fine once we’ve set sail. I’ll be myself again, and then, on the battlefield, I’ll be the man I’m meant to be.”

Those were the sort of words he used, like an actor who’s just started practising his lines. I noticed that Maria was on the brink of tears. I learnt later that, like me, she’d only learnt of his decision from the newspapers – which suggests something more personal than patriotism – and that, the night before he was due to embark, she’d wept as she tried to persuade him not to go. All of which explains why she said nothing at the table.

X tried to fill the silence, talking about battalions, recent appointments and the chances of victory, before going on to recount random anecdotes and bits of gossip. He did his best to seem cheerful. At one point he said it was a foregone conclusion that he’d return as a general, but he seemed to find the joke even less amusing than we did. So the dinner ended in silence.

Sitting again in our armchairs, the two of us smoking cigarettes, he tried to say something else about the war, but thought better of it. Before leaving, I invited him to come to dinner at my house.

“I can’t. There’s too much to do in the next few days.”

“Come for lunch then.”

“Not even that. But I will come and see you on the third day after I get back from Paraguay.”

I understood that to mean that the first two days would be reserved for his mother and Maria, which suggested there might not be any hidden motives for his decision.

Not only that, but he told me to choose something as a keepsake, perhaps a book. Instead, I chose the latest photograph of him, which he’d had taken at the request of his mother, and in which he was wearing his captain’s uniform. In order to complete the picture, I asked him to sign it; promptly, he wrote, “X, Captain of the Brazilian Volunteers, to his loyal friend Simão de Castro.” But his expression was even more grave, and his eyes even more sinister. He ran his fingers nervously through his moustache, and we parted.

He embarked on the Saturday, leaving Maria with the necessary resources for her to live here in Rio, or in Bahia, or in Rio Grande do Sul. She preferred the latter, and went there, three weeks later, to await his return. I wasn’t able to see her before she left: she’d closed her door to me, just as she’d closed her face and her heart.

Before a year had passed, it was reported that X had died in battle, at which he’d evidently displayed more valour than skill. I heard that he’d already lost an arm, and I suppose it was the shame of being crippled that made him throw himself, suicidally, at the enemy. That was probably the case because he had a taste for grand gestures. But the reasons wouldn’t have been straightforward.

I was also told that Maria had died in Curitiba, on her way back from Rio Grande, although some people said she’d died in Montevideo. Her daughter was only fifteen years old.

I remained here with my regrets and my fond memories. Until it was just regrets. And now it’s just admiration, a particular admiration, an admiration which is as great as it makes me myself feel small. No, I wasn’t able to do what X did. In fact, I never knew anyone like X.

And why am I persisting with that stupid letter?! Let’s call him by the name he was given at the font: Emílio. Gentle, strong, simple Emílio.

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).

From Portuguese: ANACLETO’S WIFE by Lima Barreto

My translation of the short story A mulher do Anacleto by the Brazilian writer Lima Barreto.

This is a true story about Anacleto, an ex-colleague of mine from the office.

At first, he was an excellent clerk: punctual, elegant handwriting, and the bosses were very pleased with him.

He got married quite young, and you’d have thought a life of marital bliss lay ahead. But you’d have been wrong.

Two or three years after his marriage, he started going off the rails, via drink and gambling.

Not surprisingly, his wife started expressing disapproval.

At first, he listened passively to these strictures from his better half, but it wasn’t long before they made him furious and he started responding with violence.

She’d done nothing wrong, but might there have been hidden extenuating circumstances to explain the transformation in her husband? She, however, wasn’t interested in that: she carried on complaining. Which only made her husband’s reaction more violent. Even so, she put up with it for quite some time.

One day, however, she’d had enough; she left her unhappy home and went to stay with a couple she knew; but they treated her like a skivvy; she left that house as well and descended into poverty, ending up – homeless, dirty and in rags – selling her body in the most insalubrious parts of Rio de Janeiro.

Whenever anyone raised concerns with Anacleto about what had happened to his wife, he fell into a rage:

“That filthy tramp can die, for all I care! She means nothing to me.”

(He said even worse things, which I think it better not to recount.)

She died in the street. When I read the news about the death of an unidentified vagrant woman, I suspected it was her and immediately urged Anacleto to go and identify the body. But he just shouted, “It’s all one to me, whether it’s her or not, whether dead or alive!

I didn’t insist, but everything suggested it really was the body of Anacleto’s wife that was lying in the mortuary.

Several years later, Anacleto lost his job as a result of his disordered life; but, thanks to the intervention of some old friends, he managed to get another, as a civil servant in the north.

A year or two after that I received a letter from him asking me to get a police certificate confirming that his wife had died in the street and had been buried at public expense. This was because he needed to prove he was a widower, as he wanted to marry a widow who was reputed to be wealthy.

I did my best, but it proved impossible: because he hadn’t identified the body of his poor wife, for all intents and purposes he was still married.

And that’s how Anacleto’s wife took her posthumous revenge. He’ll never remarry, be the bride rich or poor.

• • •

From Portuguese: THE PRETTIEST GIRL IN RIO by Artur Azevedo

(My translation of the short story A moça mais bonita do Rio de Janeiro, which was published in Contos cariocas in 1928.)

I

t was 1875. In a small house in the suburb of Engenho Novo lived the prettiest girl in Rio de Janeiro, together with her parents. Because she was born on the second of May, she’d been given the name of Mafalda at the baptismal font, simply because it was the feast of St Mafalda; but no one knew her by that name – ever since she’d been little, everyone in the house had called her Fadinha, a diminutive and corruption of Mafalda, meaning Little Fairy. And those three syllables suited her well because, when she was eighteen, she possessed all the charms that the faries have, or should have; and in her extraordinary beauty there really was something supernatural and magic.

Coffee-coloured – but that sort of fluid coffee colour that only Murillo could find on his wonderful palette – with dark, twinkling eyes, dilated nostrils, big but elegantly contoured lips that opened, once in a while, to reveal the most beautiful teeth, with abundant, slightly wavy hair as dark as her eyes, always arranged in an untidy, but aesthetically pleasing way so as to give a glimpse of her little ears, which were so faultlessly designed that it would have been a crime to cover them, and with all these aspects completing each other in the oval harmony of her face, there could be no doubt that Fadinha would win first prize by the unanimous decision of the most rigorous jury if it had only occurred to someone, in those days, to run a beauty contest in Rio de Janeiro. The rest of her body was a fitting complement to her head: slim, without being tall, robust without being fat, and her figure represented an extraordinary correctness of line. Her hands and feet were exemplary.

Perhaps you’ll think I’m exaggerating when I say that, in addition to these physical gifts, her character was outstanding; but the truth is, she was good, affectionate, submissive and understanding. She had a touch of vanity, I admit, but which other woman wouldn’t, were she so pretty?

However, there were two things she regretted: having been born on the second of May and thus being called Mafalda, when she could have been born on the tenth of July and been called Amélia – and not having been born rich, very rich, so as to enhance her beauty even more. Nevertheless, she cheerfully resigned herself to the precarious situation of being the daughter of a very poor public servant. Yes, that’s how it was, because her father, Raposo, had reached the age of fifty as a simple clerk at the secretariat and found himself obliged to supplement his wages by doing the books in a bakery or a shop or a pawn brokers. And his sedentary life caused him to become enormously fat. Dr Souto, the family doctor, used to say ‘Raposo is an apoplexy waiting to happen.’

Fadinha wasn’t the only child: she had an older brother who’d got a place in business, and another who was still very young and was studying to be a doctor, because his father considered him ‘the talented one.’

Their mother was forty-five years old and didn’t look anything like her daughter. I don’t know what physiological phenomenon caused this splendid specimen, this sculptural creature, this impossible beauty, to issue forth from such an ugly couple (because Raposo, poor fellow, was another one who’d not been blessed by nature)! Note also that the two boys were equally ugly, particularly the future doctor, who was big nosed, big-eared, rickety, anaemic, insignificant.

Not content with dedicating part of her existence to the saints of her private oratory, Sra. Firmina – the name of Fadinha’s mother – would constantly be visiting churches to adore yet more saints; but, despite all that piety, she could not forgive her daughter for being beautiful and was deeply bitter about the singular monopoly the girl had received from nature, as if it were something scandalous; nevertheless, all her hopes for good luck and better times resided in her daughter. Given that a prince didn’t come into the equation, her dream was to be the mother-in-law of a rich man. If Raposo hadn’t been a proper head of family, this woman would have dominated him, usurping all domestic authority; fortunately he put his foot down and wouldn’t agree to anything he didn’t like.

But our Fadinha has a boyfriend. It’s time to introduce him to the reader.

II

B

eautiful as she was, she had no shortage of admirers, of all ages and categories. Many decamped to Engenho Novo from the city centre just for the pleasure of contemplating her, many of them out of simple curiosity, many others spurred on by the vague hope of a promise hidden in a smile or a glance. It could be said that, for a long time, Fadinha’s famous beauty contributed to the increase in the profitability of the suburban trains and to the hustle and bustle of the district, which had a much smaller population in those days. Many of those admirers got as far as speaking, declaring their intentions to be of the purest, and among them were some who really were worthy of marrying Fadinha; she, however, rebuffed them all, with the greatest delicacy and composure.

One day, Raposo invited Remígio to come to his house for dinner. Remígio was his colleague, a good lad, employed in the same section in which Raposo carried out his official functions. This Remígio was one of the stars of the secretariat, a paragon of dedication, intelligence and assiduity, an official with ‘a very promising future,’ as everyone said; but he was neither good-looking nor elegant, nor was there anything else exceptional about his exterior. But, of all those who passed in front of Fadinha’s beautiful eyes, this was the only man who merited her attention. Accredited, wealthy traders, well-placed functionaries, lawyers, doctors, officials of the Army and Navy etc. – all of them had to give way, in Fadinha’s heart, to this pallid, clumsy, badly dressed amanuensis who earned just 166.666 reais a month.

The young lady seemed anxious to let her heart speak; she immediately gave Remígio to understand that it would be he – among her numerous admirers – who would be victorious. The clerk, who was modest by nature, and had never even dreamt that he’d marry the prettiest girl in Rio de Janeiro, was amazed by this preference that he’d never sought, and duly fell head over heels in love with Fadinha.

No sooner had the first symptoms of that love appeared than there was a commotion in the home. Sra. Firmina had seen the danger approaching and, after breakfast one day, when her husband was getting ready to leave the house and drag his obesity to the train station, she told him of her fears; but Raposo, who had a fatherly affection for Remígio, and didn’t look at all askance at the prospect of his marrying Fadinha, merely smiled and said:

‘It’s only natural they should be attracted to each other and get married.’

‘You mean that seriously?’

‘What a question! Of course I do! Who could possibly say Remígio isn’t worthy of our little girl!’

‘He’s a clerk!’

‘And what am I?.. And what was I when we went to the church?.. Fadinha will marry whoever she likes; if she prefers a clerk to a government minister, so be it! She doesn’t want to be rich, which is a good thing, because money doesn’t bring happiness. And anyway, Remígio isn’t some poor devil lugging all his possessions around in a carpetbag; his father left him a bit; he’s got two or three little houses, some insurance policies and, most importantly, lots of common sense. He’s so highly thought of in the secretariat I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s not head of section in five years’ time. Even if you go looking with Diogenes’s lamp, you won’t find a better son-in-law.’

‘Don’t talk nonsense! Our daughter is very pretty and…’

‘Off you go again about how pretty our daughter is! That means nothing, absolutely nothing! She’s very pretty, that she is, but she hasn’t got two cents to rub together, and if she was forced to marry some rich fellow the marriage would look more like a business deal than anything else. Anyway, it would be embarrassing for us: we could hardly be poorer. Damn it! I don’t want to speculate with my daughter’s beauty, and I don’t want to make her unhappy by opposing her wishes. I might have expected you, being so religious, to agree with me…’

‘But we could make Fadinha see that…’

‘That’s enough! It’s clear we’re not going to see eye-to-eye about this. In my opinion, Remígio is an excellent fellow, and I don’t see any reason why our little girl should want someone else!’

‘But…’

‘No buts! We’ll let her decide, because – and I want you to mark my words – Fadinha won’t marry who you or me want her to marry; she’ll marry the man she chooses of her own free will, whether he’s a clerk, a tradesman, the Tsar of Russia or the Shah of Persia!..’

‘I…’

‘Not one word more, Firmina! You know very well this house isn’t Gonçalo’s! Under this roof, no voice will be louder than mine!’

‘But you’re talking twaddle!’

‘Twaddle?!.. Twaddle?!.. How dare you say that to me?!..’

‘Yes, I do… Twaddle! I’m sick and tired of playing second fiddle in this house.’

‘In that case, why don’t you put on my trousers and I’ll put on your skirt! Don’t be ridiculous! I’m going to tell Remígio today that our little girl is his!..’

‘But I’m telling you she can’t be! I want good fortune for my daughter!’

‘Don’t lie!.. What you want is good fortune for yourself, not for her! Don’t force me to say what I think, because if I do I’ll create such a scene as you never ever saw!’

And Raposo forced himself, with difficulty, to whisper, so as not be heard by others in the house:

‘You never thought as much of her as you should have; you never loved her, never gave her a real mother’s love!.. And now you want to sell her… That’s good!.. I’m going to tell Remígio this very day!..’

‘This is scandalous! I know I’m her mother. Can you be sure you’re her father?..’

‘Eh?!.. What do you mean?..’

Raposo squared up to Sra. Firmina, but the blood rushed up to his head, his eyes and his mouth opened unnaturally wide, he waved his arms about and fell as if hit by lightning.

By the time Dr Souto arrived, having been summoned urgently, he was already dead.

‘Didn’t I say he was an apoplexy waiting to happen!’

III

R

emígio showed himself to be a real gentleman: he asked Sra. Firmina to let him take care of the funeral, and neither she nor the children have ever found out, right up until today, how much it all cost.

This great kindness, together with the bitter tears the young man shed over his old colleague’s corpse, enhanced Fadinha’s feelings for him even more; now it wasn’t just affection, it was also gratitude that drew those two hearts together. After Raposo’s death, they both felt like orphans, and this equivalence in their situations cemented still further the mutual sympathy that had taken hold of them.

Sra. Firmina didn’t have a word of thanks for such kindness, but Remígio attributed this omission to the extremity of the widow’s grief, which she demonstrated through unending tears and groans. When the funeral took place, it needed three men to pull her away from the coffin and, seven days later, when the mass was over, she had such a violent attack of nerves in the sacristy of the church of São Francisco de Paulo that it seemed her last hour had arrived.

Nor did the boys, neither the student, nor the one employed in business, thank Remígio for arranging the funeral and the mass; it was as if everyone in the house considered it his duty.

Or rather, not everyone: Fadinha praised his generosity at every turn, but her words, to which no one replied, were heard with indifference by her mother and brothers.

The older one, Alexandre, a lad of twenty-two, who worked for Baron Moreira’s firm, felt flattered beyond words by the fact that his boss had deigned to attend the funeral personally. He could scarcely believe his eyes when, in an aisle of the church, he came across the Baron standing there, holding his hat behind his back with one hand, with his head raised, examining closely a portrait by Fragoso of one of the benefactors of the religious order. At first, the counter clerk assumed the Baron had come to attend some other mass but, despite his sadness, he felt as pleased as Punch when, once the ceremony had begun, the nobleman took his place among those who had come to pay their last respects to the deceased Raposo.

When the mass was over and the priest, accompanied by his acolyte, had returned to the sacristy, genuflecting at every altar along the way, the Baron was the first to embrace Alexandre, who was standing near his mother.

‘Courage! We all have to pass through these trials… That’s how it goes…’

‘Thank you, Baron.’

‘I don’t know your family – would you introduce me to the ladies?’

It wasn’t possible to introduce the widow, because she was shedding an ocean of tears and didn’t have time for anything except her spectacular grief; but the Baron, stupefied by Fadinha’s beauty, gave her a long handshake.

‘Young lady,’ he said, ‘your brother is an employee of my firm, and I greatly appreciate those who serve me well. Please tell your mother that Baron Moreira is at her disposal for anything at all she may wish to request.’

‘Thank you very much, Baron Sir.’

This offer surprised Alexandre, who wasn’t used to his boss being friendly – although the Baron was still young, he was humourless, severe, cold, proud of his education, his elegance, his title and his wealth; in his subordinate humility, Alexandre imagined the Baron wouldn’t even say ‘Hello’ to him, were they to meet in the street; so he was duly amazed that this rich egoist should have come all the way from Botafogo to attend mass for an obscure clerk and should show so much interest in the family. This phenomenon will be explained, for the benefit of the reader, a little later.

When all those invited had left and the Raposo family remained alone in the sacristy, the two boys took their leave of their mother and sister: the older went off to his workplace, which is where he also had lunch, and the younger to the medical school: the exams were coming up and he couldn’t afford to miss lectures; he took lunch at Rocher de Cancalle, just off Ouvidor Street.

Remígio offered to accompany the ladies to Engenho Novo, but the widow who, in the absence of spectators, no longer looked so grief-stricken, gave him an ornate refusal: ‘No, sir; I don’t want to put you to that trouble; you need to go to your workplace too.’

Fadinha interrupted:

‘One day won’t make any difference. Come and have lunch with us, Remígio.’

‘I’ve already said “No”!’

The clerk bowed and accompanied the two ladies to their tilbury: he helped them enter and closed the door.

‘Come and visit us,’ said Fadinha sadly, and she waved him a delicate little ‘Adeus.’

For her part, Sra. Firmina didn’t utter a word; but when the tilbury had drawn away, in the direction of Teatro Street, she pronounced the following, with an indescribable look of anger in her eyes:

‘What you’re going to do now is forget all about that fellow! You don’t have your soft-brained father with you anymore! I’m the one who gives the orders now, do you understand?..’

IV

A

nd now for the explanation of the phenomenon:

Baron Moreira had come to the office earlier than usual and was enjoying a conversation with his friend Pimenta, who occasionally came to have a chat with him and to remember the good old days when they’d both been students at Vitório College.

Pimenta had also gone into business, but he hadn’t been as fortunate as his old colleague. Over the years, he’d worked for a large number of firms, but in none of them had he found the fortune his prodigious activity merited. Already over thirty, he still didn’t have a definitive position in business, but he’d always managed to do a bit of goods brokerage, and the resulting sales, through an intermediary, brought him a profitable return.

Fifteen years of employment in a haberdashery store in Ouvidor Street, which he’d left with his hopes and dreams unfulfilled, infuriated with his bosses, and none the richer, had at least bestowed on him unrivalled knowledge in two areas: that particular branch of business, and comings and goings in Rio de Janeiro. There was no event, scandalous or not, that Pimenta hadn’t stored away in his memory, and that he couldn’t avail himself of at an opportune moment.

He was a backbiter and, without that defect, he’d perhaps have been rich and free like Baron de Moreira, with no need to hawk samples, bills and gossip from door to door, up and down, sweating blood. Some people said: ‘Pimenta’s not a bad sort, if it wasn’t for his tongue’; others: ‘For all his being busy and clever, nothing seems to go right for him.’ But, as he was still single and didn’t have any family obligations, he put up with his ill-fortune cheerfully and contented himself with earning enough to live on without being a burden to his friends.

As I’ve already mentioned, on that day he’d appeared in Baron Moreira’s office for a bit of a chin-wag with his childhood friend and, if he was lucky, a free lunch.

They were both chatting when Alexandre entered the office to inform the Baron that he’d just received the news of his father’s sudden death and to ask for a few days of compassionate leave.

The Baron, who maintained an autocratic hauteur towards his firm’s employees, said, without lifting his eyes:

‘That’s a matter for Sr. Motta; have you spoken to him?’

‘Sr. Motta’s not in.’

‘Alright, you may go.’

And Alexandre left, without hearing a single word of condolence.

‘Do you know that employee?’ Pimenta asked the Baron.

‘No; it was my partner, Motto, who took him on; I think that’s the first time I’ve spoken to him; as you well know, I don’t generally pay much attention to the clerks.’

‘That’s why I asked if you know him.’

There was a pause.

‘In that case, you won’t have known his father, Raposo, who’s just died suddenly?’

‘No, I didn’t know him.’

‘And you don’t know that his sister’s the prettiest girl in Rio de Janeiro?’

‘No!’

‘How strange! You’ve never heard of Fadinha from Engenho Novo?’

‘I think, perhaps…’

‘Well, that’s her!’

‘And is she really pretty?’

‘What a question! She’s beautiful! She’s more than beautiful!.. Take my word for it!’

‘You’re whetting my appetite, damn it! How can I get to see her?’

‘Simple! Go to the mass of the seventh day. Because her brother works in your firm, you can use that as a pretext for offering your services to the family, right there in the church, and you’ll be able to get a close look at her.’

‘Good point. That’s the only way I could go to the mass for the father of Sr… what’s the boy’s name?’

‘Alexandre.’

And that’s how it came about that Baron Moreira appeared at the mass: simple sacrilegious curiosity.

When the aristocrat returned from the church, he found Pimenta waiting for him in the office.

‘Well?’

‘She isn’t the prettiest girl in Rio de Janeiro, my friend, she’s the most beautiful woman in the world!..’

V

I

f Alexandre had been amazed to see Baron Moreira appear at the church, he was even more amazed when, from that day forward, his boss began treating him kindly and affably, which didn’t take long to turn into familiarity. He summoned him to help in all the office work, entrusted important tasks to him, let him handle large sums of money or take them to the bank and, one day when the young man was making the fair copy of a letter – a confidential letter, a very important letter –, his boss offered him one of his magnificent Havana cigars, with the words: ‘Have a puff, Alexandre.’

Motto, the Baron’s partner and his antithesis, being good company, affable, friendly towards the staff, was nonplussed and had no idea what could have caused this favouritism; but the book-keeper and the other clerks, who’d become jealous and had perhaps picked up a thing or two from Pimenta’s caustic remarks, murmured: ‘There’s nothing like having a pretty sister…’

The Baron was constantly asking for news of the family and showed great solicitousness for the widow, repeating, almost daily, his offer of help and friendship, in order to prevent, remove or resolve any difficulties resulting from old Raposo’s sudden demise. The lad couldn’t thank him enough and, when he got home, he’d tell his mother all the marks of kindness he’d received from his boss that day.

Perspicacious and crafty, Sra. Firmina soon realised it was the effect of Fadinha’s beauty that was causing the Baron to find every means he could of inveigling himself into the family; so one day she advised her son to invite him home and tell him that she, Sra. Firmina, was very grateful for all the Baron’s kindness and would be very happy if she could thank him personally.

She couldn’t have been more pleased with the result of Alexandre’s missive: the Baron wasn’t going to pass up an opportunity which, as we’ve seen, he’d been fishing for during the past two months. One fine Sunday he decided to go for lunch to Engenho Novo. To give extra solemnity to the visit, Sra. Firmina went to wait for him at the station, accompanied by her two sons, because Fadinha, knowing that the Baron was coming, had shut herself in her room on the pretext of a terrible migraine, and neither pleading nor chiding, neither kindness nor threats, could make her come out.

The girl was desperate: she hadn’t seen her dear Remígio for more than a month. Firmina and the boys were so rude to him that, understanding their wish to be rid of him, and seeing the impossibility of standing firm against that pack of ingrates, he did as they wanted, without, however, abandoning his marriage plans, because Fadinha was still the same and he considered her worthy, in all respects, of his affection and constancy.

‘They can do what they like, I’ll be yours, just yours – I promise you on the soul of my father! The more they constrain me, the more they offend you, the stronger, were it possible, will my love for you burn. I’m your betrothed!’

Uplifted by these ardent words, in which Fadinha had put all the energy of her soul, all the sincerity of her heart, Remígio waited resignedly for an opportunity to secure the rights that his love merited; but – it has to be said – his vacillating and timorous spirit didn’t have enough strength for the battle being fought against him. He really was in love, but he began silently to curse the singular beauty that turned Fadinha into an object to be coveted, a pledge of good fortune, a type of life assurance for a whole family. Notwithstanding the venerable Raposo’s last wish, his ultimate and sacred desire, Remígio was afraid that his insistence would bring disunity and disgrace to the family. Meanwhile, whenever she managed to escape her mother’s vigilance and write to him, Fadinha repeated over and over again her vehement promises of fidelity.

But let’s return to Baron Moreira who, at Engenho Novo station, in his light flannel suit, his white straw hat, his multi-coloured cravat, his bejewelled tie-pin and an enormous rose in his lapel, contrasted markedly with that matron and her two boys, who were dressed in the most severe mourning, so that even their cuffs and collars were black.

VI

W

hen he entered the Baron’s office the next day, Pimenta found him in a bad mood.

‘Well? Did you go?’

‘I did. I went to Rome and didn’t see the Pope.’

‘I don’t understand.’

‘Engenho Novo is Rome and Fadinha is the Pope; do you understand now?’

‘You didn’t see her?’

‘As I’ve already said. She was unwell; she didn’t make an appearance.’

‘Really?’

‘How stupid is that? To have lunch with Sra. Firmina and her sons, and not even catch sight of her! “Have lunch” in a manner of speaking, because I didn’t eat anything. I was desperate!’

‘And what did the old woman say?’

‘She was even more annoyed than I was. I could see it in her eyes. She kept apologising for her daughter’s absence and telling me – but completely without conviction – that she really was unwell.’

‘You don’t think she was.’

‘Of course I don’t think so.’

‘You’ve got a rival.’

‘I thought as much.’

‘A serious rival. They told me everything this morning.’

And Pimenta told the Baron what the reader already knows: about the love of Remígio and Fadinha, old Raposo’s last wish, the kindness shown to the family, the opposition of Sra. Firmina and her sons, Remígio’s retreat – and he added:

‘The girl suspected they wanted to force her to marry you, and she shut herself in her room. So that’s how you went to Rome and didn’t see the Pope.’

‘What’s your advice?’

‘Before I can answer that question, I need to know, first of all, what your intentions are.’

There was a long silence.

‘Do you like her?’

‘A lot. I liked her already and, after that wretched lunch, I liked her even more!’

‘Are you prepared to be her husband?’

There was another silence, even longer than the first.

‘If you don’t want to make her a baroness,’ Pimenta continued, ‘forget about her. Devil take it! She might well be happy with that Remígio, seeing he’s an honest fellow.’

‘But who told you my intentions weren’t good?’

‘You didn’t say anything…’

‘I didn’t say anything because marriage scares me. My liberty is so deliciously complete! Yes, I admit that marriage has never figured in my plans, but were it necessary…’

‘What do you mean, “were it necessary”? You haven’t been thinking that Fadinha could belong to you without the intervention of a priest?! The family is poor, but it’s just as respectable as yours! If you want to be her husband, fight for her and – perhaps – you’ll win her; if not, abandon an idea that’s unworthy of you!’

The Baron had a good, long look at the Havana cigar he was holding between his fingers, let the ashes fall into a spittoon, stuck the cigar in his mouth, stood up and announced resolutely, amid a cloud of cigar smoke:

‘I shall fight!’

When Pimenta left the office, he met Alexandre in the store and muttered to him in passing:

‘He’s going to marry her.’

TRANSLATIONS FROM PORTUGUESE

From Portuguese: THE ORACLE by Machado de Assis

(My translation of the short story O oráculo by Machado de Assis, which was first published in Jornal das Famílias in 1866)

I  once knew a man who was a prime example of what bad luck can do to a mere mortal.

His name was Leonardo, and he started off as a tutor for boys. But it didn’t work out well: he lost the little he possessed, and ended up with just three students.

So, he tried the civil service. He got together the necessary testimonials and even went so far as to vote against his convictions; but just when it seemed a done deal, the political party that ran that particular ministry lost control of it, and the party Leonardo had previously always voted for took over. His recent vote now made him suspect, and he was turned down.

With the help of a family friend, he set up a business; but bad luck, combined with the dishonesty of some of his employees, soon resulted in bankruptcy. The only thing he could be thankful for was that the debtors didn’t demand immediate payment of all they were owed.

Next, he founded a literary journal. (It should be said that, even though he wasn’t unintelligent, he did this more from necessity than from literary enthusiasm.) But, given that the readers were of that substantial number who prefer to read for free, this enterprise folded after five months.

In the meantime, the party to which he’d sacrificed his conscience had got the upper hand once more. Leonardo went and reminded them that they should be grateful to him; but gratitude is not one of the principal characteristics of political parties, and Leonardo was passed over in favour of some influencial supporters of the new lot.

Despite this succession of set-backs and bad luck, Leonardo never lost his faith in Providence. Yes, he’d suffered all those blows, but he’d always bounced back, prepared to try his luck once again. This was based on an axiom he’d read somewhere or other: “Fortune, like a woman’s heart, favours the brave.”

So, he was getting ready to try his luck again, which would have involved a journey to the North, when he came across Cecília B…, daughter of the businessman Atanásio B…, for the first time. The young lady was endowed with a sympathetic face and a hundred contos in ready money. She was the apple of Atanásio’s eye. It appears she’d only been in love once, namely with a naval officer called Henrique Paes. Her father was opposed to their marriage because he didn’t like the young man; and it seems that Cecília herself wasn’t overly in love with him: she cried for one day, only to wake the next morning fresh and happy as if it were all a matter of nothing.

It wouldn’t be quite true to say that Leonardo was in love with Cecília either, and truth, in respect of both facts and feelings, is paramount for me; but, for the same reason, I have to say that she did make some impression on him.

What did greatly impress our ill-starred young man, and what immediately won his affection, was the dowry of one hundred contos – so much so, that he rejoiced in the bad luck that had eventually thrown him into the arms of such a fortune.

What impression did Leonardo make on Cecília’s father? Good, excellent, marvellous. The young lady herself received him with indifference, but Leonardo was confident that, given he already had her father on his side, he’d overcome that indifference.

At any rate, he cancelled the journey north.

Atanásio’s sympathy grew to the point where Leonardo was always being invited for dinner; and, ever hopeful, our ill-starred Leonardo was only too happy to accept every little favour.

Before long, he was like one of the family.

There came the day when Atanásio called him to his office and said, in a fatherly tone:

“You’ve justified the esteem I have for you. I can see you’re a good young man, and that, as you told me, you’ve suffered misfortune in the past.”

“That’s true,” replied Leonardo, unable to repress a triumphant smile.

“So, having considered the matter, I’ve decided to treat you as that which heaven has not granted me: my son.”

“Ah!”

“But wait! That’s not all. You already are my son in the light of my esteem for you. Now I wish to reinforce that by the assistance you will give to our house. I’m going to employ you in my business.”

Leonardo was a little taken aback; he’d been expecting that the old man was about to offer him his daughter’s hand in marriage, instead of which it was just the offer of a job. But then it occurred to him that it was, indeed, a job that he was really after. It was no small thing, and it was quite possible that it might lead to marriage in due course.

“Oh! Thank you!”

“So, you accept?”

“Oh yes! Without a doubt!”

The old man was just about to stand up from his chair when Leonardo, on the spur of the moment, gestured to him to remain seated.

“But listen…”

“What…?”

“There’s something I don’t want to keep from you. You’ve been so kind to me that I can’t be other than completely frank. I accept your generous offer under one condition. I love Dona Cecília heart and soul. Every time I see her that love only increases in strength and passion. If you could see your way to allowing your generosity to admit me into your family, I would accept it. Otherwise, the suffering would be too much for a mere human.”

I should say, in appreciation of Leonardo’s perspicacity, that he only dared risk the job in this way because he’d noticed that Atanásio had a tendency to grant him whatever he wanted.

And he wasn’t wrong. On hearing these words, the old man embraced him, saying:

“Oh! I couldn’t wish for anything better!”

“Father!” replied Leonardo, as he embraced Cecília’s dad.

It was a moving scene.

“Don’t think I haven’t noticed the impression Cecília has had on you,” said Atanásio, “and I was really hoping it might lead to marriage. I think nothing stands in the way now. My daughter’s a sensible girl, and I’m sure she’ll respond to your affection. Would you like me to speak to her now, or shall we wait a bit?”

“As you wish.”

“Or rather, please be honest: are you already assured of Cecília’s love?”

“I can’t give you a positive answer, but I believe she’s not indifferent to me.”

“I’ll undertake to find out. Not forgetting that my wishes need to be taken into account: she’s an obedient girl…”

“Oh! I wouldn’t want you to compel her!”

“Compulsion my foot! She’s a sensible girl, and she’s certain to see the advantages of having such an intelligent and hard-working husband…”

“Thank you.”

They separated.

The next day, Atanásio was due to instal his new employee.

But that night the old man raised the subject of marriage with his daughter. He began by asking her if she’d like to get married. She replied that she hadn’t thought about it; but as she was smiling, her father had no hesitation in telling her that he’d had a formal request from Leonardo.

Cecília received this news in silence. After a while, still smiling, she said she’d go and consult the oracle.

Non-plussed by this talk of consulting an oracle, her father asked her what on earth she meant.

“It’s very simple,” she replied. “I’ll go and consult the oracle. I don’t do anything without consulting it; I don’t go visiting, I don’t do anything at all without consulting it. This is really important; as you can see, I just have to consult it. I’ll do what it tells me to.”

“Extraordinary! But what is this oracle?”

“That’s a secret.”

“Can I at least give the lad some hope?”

“It all depends – on the oracle.”

“Come, come! You’re making fun of me…”

“No, Father, I’m not.”

He went along with Cecília’s wishes, not because she was really so imperious, but because of the way she spoke and the way she was smiling; he was convinced she was open to the offer and was just being coquettish.

When Leonardo heard how Cecília had responded, he became worried. But Atanásio tried to calm his fears by telling him his own opinion.

The next day, Cecília was due to tell her father how the oracle had responded. He, however, had already decided what to do: if the response of the mysterious oracle was negative, he’d oblige her to marry Leonardo. The marriage would go ahead whatever3.

The first thing that happened was that two of Atanásio’s nieces turned up. They were both married and had both been supportive of Cecília when she’d wanted to marry Henrique Paes. They hadn’t been back to the house since her father put his foot down: although Cecília had reconciled herself with her father, they hadn’t.

“To what do I owe this visit?”

“We’ve come to ask forgiveness for our error.”

“Ah!”

“You were right, Uncle. And it seems that there’s a new suitor.”

“Who told you?”

“Cecília. She sent us a message.”

“So, I suppose you’ve come to object.”

“On the contrary.”

“Thank goodness for that!”

“All we want is that Cecília should get married – to whoever. That’s the only reason why we intervened in support of the other one.”

Gratified by this reconciliation, Atanásio proceded to update his nieces on the situation, in particular how Cecília had replied. He also explained that she was due to convey the oracle’s response that very day. They all laughed at how odd it was, but were happy to wait and see.

“If it’s a No, will you support me?”

“Of course,” said both the nieces.

Soon afterwards their husbands arrived.

And soon after that, Leonardo turned up, wearing a black jacket and a white tie – very different attire from that in which the people of antiquity went to seek responses from the oracles of Delphi and Dodona. But every age and every place has its own customs.

During the whole time that the two young women and Leonardo were conversing, Cecília was in her room consulting – allegedly – the oracle.

The consultation had to do with the subject that had brought them all together.

Finally, at about eight o’clock in the evening, Cecília made her appearance.

They all gathered round her.

After they’d exchanged greetings, Atanásio – half-serious, half-smiling – put the question to his daughter:

“So, what did Mr Oracle say?”

“Oh! Father! He said No!”

“You mean to say,” replied Atanásio, “Mr Oracle is against your marrying Leonardo?”

“Yes.”

“Well, in that case I’m sorry to say that my opinion is contrary to that of Mr Oracle; and given that everyone knows who I am and the oracle is a complete mystery, you shall do as I say, even if that is contrary to Mr Oracle.”

“Oh! No!”

“What do you mean, No? Whatever next?! I only went along with that nonsense to humour you. I never had the slightest intention of submitting to the decisions of any mumbo-jumbo oracles. Your cousins agree with me. And what is more, I want to know what this jiggery pokery is about right now… Let’s go and unmask the oracle!”

At that precise moment, a figure appeared at the door and said:

“No need.”

Everyone turned towards him. The figure advanced into the middle of the room, holding a document in his hand.

It was the above-mentioned naval officer, in his uniform.

“What are you doing here?” the old man spluttered.

“What am I doing here? I’m the oracle.”

“Don’t expect me to put up with such nonsense. What right do you have to be here?”

By way of reply, Henrique Paes handed over the document he was holding.

“What’s this?”

“It’s the reply to your question.”

Atanásio moved towards the light, took his spectacles from his pocket, put them on his nose and read the document.

During all this time, Leonardo stood there open-mouthed and dumbfounded.

When the old man got half-way through the document, he turned to Henrique and said in amazement:

“You’re my son-in-law!”

“Duly confirmed as such by all the sacraments of the Church. As you’ve just seen.”

“But what if this is a forgery?”

“Hold on!” said the husband of one of the nieces. “We were the best men, and our wives were the bridesmaids, at the wedding of our cousin Dona Cecília B… with Henrique Paes, which took place a month ago in the oratory in my house.”

“Oh!” said the old man, as he sank into an armchair.

Muttering “That’s the last straw!” Leonardo tried to slip out unnoticed.

Epilogue

Even though he lost his bride – and in such a ridiculous way –, Leonardo didn’t lose the job. He told the old man that it would be difficult, but that he’d stay, on account of the respect Atanásio had for him.

Unfortunately, Fate had not yet finished with the poor lad.

A fortnight later, Atanásio contracted a respiratory illness, which killed him.

His will, which had been drawn up a year before, left nothing to Leonardo.

As for the business, it went into liquidation. Leonardo received two weeks’ pay.

The ill-starred lad gave it all to a beggar and went off to drown himself in the sea, by Icaraí Beach.

Henrique and Cecília couldn’t be happier.

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).