(My translation of the short story O homem que sabia javanês – The Man Who Spoke Javanese – by the Brazilian writer Lima Barreto, which was published in the Gazeta da Tarde in 1911)
was in a coffee shop, telling my mate Castro how I’d conned people in order to earn a living. Once, when I was in Manaus, I’d even had to pretend I hadn’t been to university so that my clients wouldn’t think me unqualified for being a fortune-teller-cum-magician.
(My translation of the short story Cantiga de esponsais by Machado de Assis – 1839-1908)
magine it’s 1813. You’re in the Carmelite Church, listening to one of those marvellous old masses that used to be the essence of public entertainment and musical artistry. You know what a sung mass is; you can imagine what a sung mass would have been in those far-off times. I’m not asking you to concentrate on the priests and sacristans, nor the sermon, nor the eyes of the Cariocan girls (already beautiful in those days), nor the mantillas of the dour senhoras, nor the shoes, hairdos, pelmets, lights, incense… none of that. I’m not even talking about the orchestra (which is excellent). I’m just pointing out the white-haired old man who—with all his devoted soul—is conducting the orchestra.
(My translation of the short story O enfermeiro by Machado de Assis)
o you think what happened to me in 1860 warrants a few pages? Fair enough, but on condition you don’t let anyone see it until I’m dead. You won’t have to wait long, maybe a week, if not less; I don’t have any illusions about that.
(My translation of the short story A Cartomante, by Lima Barreto, which was published in Histórias e Sonhos in 1951)
No doubt about it: only the evil eye could explain all the trials and tribulations of the past five years. Whenever he tried to achieve anything, it all went wrong. Take, for instance, his application for the public health job; no sooner had he secured the backing of a government bigwig than politics did a flip-flop. And if he bought a lottery ticket, it would always be the next group of numbers or the one just before. Everything seemed to be telling him he’d never get on in life again. If it wasn’t for his wife’s sewing, they’d really have been in dire straits. It was five years since he’d earned anything at all; and on the rare occasions he’d had such a thing as a banknote in his pocket it had been at the cost of grovelling to friends and acquaintances.
(My translation of the short story Milagre do Natal)
The Andaraí district is very melancholy and very damp. The mountains that adorn our city are even higher out there and are still covered by the dense vegetation that must have been even more abundant in bygone days. And the dark grey of the trees turns the horizon almost black, and the general ambience even sadder.
(My translation of the short story O único assassinato de Cazuza, which was published in Contos reunidos in 1949. There’s a strong autobiographical element in this story.)
Hildegardo Brandão, known to his friends as Cazuza, had got to the age of fifty and a bit, and was down but not out. After acute crises of despair, bitterness and resentment brought on by the injustice which had thwarted him in all his worthy ambitions, a sort of grave and calm beatitude had descended on him, as if he were preparing himself for death.
(My translation of the short story Despesa filantrópica, which was published in Histórias e sonhos in 1920.)
A farmer is talking to Felício, an old college-friend, about an incident at a farm he used to own in the Brazilian outback.
Farmer: I had no idea who it was when he arrived at the gate of my house, accompanied by an unpleasant-looking individual. After I’d invited them into the living room and they’d sat down, I ordered coffee. While we were waiting, he told me who he was. It was quite a surprise, I can tell you!
(My translation of the short story Boa medida, which was first published in the Careta newspaper in 1921. “Kambalu” = one of Lima’s satirical name’s for Brazil; “Sultan Abbas the First” = Epitácio Pessoa, President of Brazil between 1919 and 1922 – any similarity to the current president of the United States of America is purely coincidental.)
nce upon a time, Sultan Abbas the First of Kambalu, otherwise known as “The Magnificent,” – who was directly descended from Manuel José Fernandes from Trás-os-Montes in the Kingdom of Portugal, and Japira, a native of the Potiguar tribe, which used to inhabit the Empire of Brazil, but is now no more – seeing the misery of his people and the starvation and plague which were wiping them out, decided to convene the bigwigs of his domains, regardless of their religion or their theories, to help him solve the problem. There duly arrived: a bishop, a wise man from the orient, a learned doctor of medicine, a clairvoyant, a jurist, an engineer and a brahmin.
(My translation of the short story of the same name, which was written in 1919 and published in the collection Histórias e sonhos (1920, 1951, 1956))
Joaquim dos Anjos, the postman, wasn’t one for going out serenading in the streets, but he did like the guitar and modinha songs. He himself played the flute, an instrument more highly regarded in those days than it is now. He even considered himself a musician, because he used to compose waltzes, tangos and accompaniments for modinhas.
(My translation of the short story A Nova Califórnia, which was written in 1910 and first published in 1915)
No-one knew where he’d come from. All the postman knew was that the letters were sent to him under the name Raimundo Flamel. And there were a lot of letters! Almost every day the postman had to carry a great bundle of them from all over the world, thick journals in obscure languages, books and packets out to the very edge of the town, where the mystery man lived.
(My translation of the short story A viúva do Estanislau, which was published in Contos ligeiros in 1974)
after the death of her husband – poor Estanislau who’d been finally defeated by tuberculosis after a long and terrible struggle –, it seemed that Adelaide would die as well. People said she loved her husband so much that she’d done everything possible to catch the same disease and lie near him in her grave. She got visibly thinner and everyone said that sooner or later God would grant her wish; but time, which smooths over and repairs everything, was stronger than the pain and, a year and a half later, Adelaide was rosier-cheeked and more beautiful than she’d ever been. Estanislau had left her destitute. The poor boy had not expected to have to put his things in order so soon or, to put it another way, had no way of preparing for the future. While he lived, nothing was lacking; after he died, everything was lacking and Adelaide, who fortunately didn’t have children, accepted the hospitality offered by her parents. ‘Come and live with us again,’ the old couple said; ‘we’ll pretend you never married.’