Category Archives: Brazil

From Portuguese: New California, by Lima Barreto

(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.

Continue reading From Portuguese: New California, by Lima Barreto

From Portuguese: Estanislau’s Widow, by Artur Azevedo

(My translation of the short story A viúva do Estanislau, which was published in Contos ligeiros in 1974)

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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.’

Continue reading From Portuguese: Estanislau’s Widow, by Artur Azevedo

From Portuguese: The Blue Rose, by Humberto de Campos

(My translation of the short story A rosa azul, which was published in the collection A serpente de bronze in 1921.)


hen I met Knight Commander Luiz de Faria, he was waiting for his carriage at the door of the funeral directors. It wasn’t long since he’d closed the eyes of the old Marchioness of São Justino, having sweetened the moment of her death with the auspicious – if untrue – news that her grandson, Guilherme de Araújo, a student, was now a completely reformed character. Still downcast by the emotions of that moment, when he’d had to resort to a falsehood to perfume the last breath of a life of virtue and suffering, the former peer of the Portuguese realm accepted a lift in my vehicle and confided in me along the way:

‘A lie is necessary at times, my friend. The lie I availed myself of half an hour ago, to soothe the death of a saint, of a lady whose main hope was the future of a grandson who’d renounced his home, was just as necessary as the lie the Carthusian prior told to assuage the death throes of the famous monk Bussaco.’

Continue reading From Portuguese: The Blue Rose, by Humberto de Campos

From Portuguese: Top Down, by Artur Azevedo

(My translation of the short story De cima para baixo)




ne day the minister arrived in his office in a bad mood and immediately sent for the director general of the Secretariat.

The latter, as if propelled by an electric battery, promptly appeared before His Excellency, who received him with clenched fists.

“I’m furious!” the minister shouted. “I’ve just been humiliated in the presence of His Majesty the Emperor. And all because of you!”

Continue reading From Portuguese: Top Down, by Artur Azevedo

From Portuguese: Late Bet, by Lima Barreto

(A translation by Francis K Johnson of O número da sepultura, which was published in the Revista Sousa Cruz in 1921)

Translator’s note: The ‘animal game’ mentioned in this story originated in 1892 when, in order to attract more visitors, the Vila Isabel Zoo in Rio de Janeiro gave its entry tickets an extra function as raffle tickets. Each ticket had the picture of one of 25 animals on it – the example below is from 1895 – the winning animal being revealed at the end of each day. The game soon ‘escaped’ from the zoo, combinations of numbers were added to the tickets, and the jogo do bicho took hold of Brazil.

The number in the story – 1724 – comprises ‘the ten’ (24), ‘the hundred’ (724) and ‘the thousand’ (the whole number.


fter three months of marriage, what did she have to say about it? Was it good? Was it bad? She couldn’t really say one way or the other. Basically it seemed to come down to a simple change of house.

The house she’d left had neither more nor less rooms than the house she’d moved to. The latter wasn’t bigger, as such, but it had a tiny little garden and a sink in the dining room. When all was said and done, the difference between the two was no more than that.

Passing from filial to uxorial obedience, what she felt was what one feels when one moves house. In the beginning there’s hustle and bustle; there’s thinking of ways to adapt the furniture to the new house and, consequently, of ways to adapt the new occupants themselves. But that doesn’t last long. After a month, each item of furniture is firmly anchored to its spot and the inhabitants forget they’ve only recently arrived.

A further factor that stopped her feeling marriage had profoundly altered her way of life was the great similarity between the characteristics and habits of father and husband. Each of them was not only courteous towards her, mild-mannered, calm and well-spoken, but also meticulous, precise and methodical. Thus her transplantation from one home to the other had been uneventful.

Nevertheless, she’d expected marriage to bring something completely new: a radiant and continual joy in being alive, in being a woman. Quite the contrary, however: she felt nothing of the sort.

Whatever was special in her change of status was insufficient to cause her to look at life and the world in an entirely new way. She didn’t notice anything particularly novel…

That lustrous, roseate-and-gold aurora with which marriage beckons all young men and women…. she never saw it at all. That feeling of complete liberty, embracing walks, parties, theatres, visits – everything the idea of marriage suggests to a woman – lasted just one week in her case.

During that week she’d promenaded and gone to parties and theatres, but none of it had greatly engaged her; she’d not been surprised by any great or profound emotion; nor had she dreamt about anything other than the trivialities of day-to-day life. She’d even found it all rather boring! At first she’d felt a certain happiness and contentment; by the end, however, it all seemed tedious and she was looking forward to returning to her quiet suburban home, where she was at ease and could daydream without worrying that people would discover the vague yearnings of her misty, bourgeois, nostalgic little soul.

It was also not uncommon for her, under the influence of all that theatre and cinema stuff, to think nostalgically of her paternal home. She wouldn’t have been able to describe her feelings on remembering the old furniture and other familiar things that had surrounded her in her childhood home. There’d been an old rocking-chair made of jacaranda wood, an antique china milk-jug, painted blue, the octagonal clock without a pendulum – also old – and other domestic knick-knacks, which had engraved themselves on her memory much more strongly than the furniture and utensils she’d recently acquired.

Her husband was a young man of excellent matrimonial qualities and, even in the nebulous state of Zilda’s soul, there was no question of her disliking him or of his having disappointed her. Well-bred, and scrupulous in carrying out his duties in the section presided over by her father, he had all those middling qualities necessary for being a good head of family, a dutiful continuator of the species, and a good chief in a secretariat or some other department, or in a bank or a commercial office.

On the other hand, he had nothing to distinguish him whatsoever with respect to intelligence or activity. He was, and would always be, a serviceable piece of machinery, well-fitted, well-polished and which – properly oiled – would maintain output but always need an external force to set it in motion.

Zilda’s parents had brought the two of them together; her grandmother, whom she thought the world of, had made the usual encouraging noises; and, seeing that everyone was for it, she’d decided – more from curiosity than from love or anything like that – to marry her father’s clerk. They married. They lived very well. Not the faintest shadow had fallen between them, nor was there the least misunderstanding that might mar their married life; but neither did there exist the expected deep and constant mutual empathy with respect to desires, feelings, pain and happiness.

They lived in the placid tranquillity of a lake surrounded by high mountains that prevent gales from ruffling the still surface of the water.

The beauty of the life of that novice couple wasn’t that they managed to make one mind out of two, but rather that each of them continued to be a separate personality, without, however, ever finding the least cause for conflict. Once, however… But we’ll leave that for later – it had a lot to do with their respective character and education.

He, a fastidious bureaucrat, was sober, calm, prudent and dry as dust. She was almost passive and, having been educated under the ultra-conformist, spit-and-polish regime of her father, an old administrator – obedient to the chiefs, the ministers, the ministers’ secretaries and other sycophants, and to the laws and regulations – had neither fits of anger nor whims, nor any strong desires. She found refuge in dreams and was in favour of anything that was generally acceptable.

Her husband’s habits were as regular as clockwork, without the least variation. He’d get out of bed very early, almost at sunrise, even before Genoveva, the maid. Once up, he’d percolate some coffee and, as soon as it was ready, pour himself a large cup. Whilst awaiting the paper (just one), he’d go into the little garden, sweep it, make sure the rose bushes and carnations were tied back, and then feed some maize to the hens and chicks and look after the birds. When the paper arrived, he’d read it meticulously, imbibing his daily quota of opinions about literature, science, art and society, not to mention international politics and the various wars around the world. As for Brazilian politics, he had some opinions but didn’t reveal them to anyone, because they were mainly anti-government and he was looking for promotion.

At half past nine, breakfasted and dressed, he’d take leave of his wife with a perfunctory kiss and off he’d go to catch the train. He’d clock in as per the regulations, i.e. never later than half past ten.

In the office he’d fulfil his most sacred clerical duties with religious fervour.

It had always been thus, except that, after the marriage, his zeal had increased still further, with a view to making his father-in-law’s section a byword for celerity and promptitude in the expedition of paperwork. When he was short of work himself, he’d patrol the desks of his clerical colleagues and if he found a job that was late he wouldn’t hesitate to get stuck into it himself.

After returning from such a day at the office, he’d get changed, sit down to his dinner, and his first words would be: ‘My God, Zilda, I’ve been working like the Devil today!’


‘Well might you ask! Those colleagues of mine are a bunch of…’

‘Why?! What happened?’

‘Would you believe that Pantaleão’s a week late with that file of his, the one for the Admiralty?! I had to sort it out for him…’

‘Was it Daddy who asked you to do that?’

‘No, but it was my duty, as his son-in-law, to prevent the section he’s responsible for being labelled as sloppy. And anyway… I can’t stand seeing work that’s late…’

‘Does that Pantaleão take much time off?’

‘I should say so! His excuse is that he’s studying for a law degree. But I also studied, and I hardly had any time off.’

With information of this sort, together with titbits he told her about the private lives, moral defects and vices of his colleagues, Zilda became acquainted with life in the directorate where her husband worked: not just the bureaucratic life, but the personal and family life of the individual employees. She knew that Calçoene drank cachaça, that Zé Fagundes lived in sin with a Creole woman who’d borne him children, one of whom had successfully applied to the section and would soon be a colleague of her husband; that Feliciano Brites das Novas had gambled away all his savings; that Nepomuceno’s wife was the lover of General T, with whose help he’d got promoted ahead of all the others etc., etc.

This office stuff was all Zilda’s husband talked to her about; he had no other topic of conversation for her. With visitors and the odd colleague from work he discussed patriotic subjects: the army and navy, our natural resources etc.

He had a special predilection for such discussions and would always find a way to bring them round to the bee in his bonnet, i.e., everything Brazilian was No.1 in the world or, at least, in South America. And woe betide anyone who disagreed! Before they knew it, he’d hit them with his shibboleth: ‘And that’s why Brazil’s not progressing: the worst enemies of Brazil are Brazilians!’

Zilda was a petit-bourgeois woman of limited education and, like any woman, she didn’t have much intellectual curiosity when she heard him talk like this with his friends; it made her bored and sleepy; she much preferred the tittle-tattle about his colleagues’ home life…

Thus her married days slipped by. Already three months had passed and there’d only been one event that had broken the rigid monotony, an event that caused her anguish, that tortured her but which had, at least, dispelled the tedium of her bland, anodyne life for a few hours. Let me tell you about it.

Augusto – Augusto Serpa de Castro, that was her husband’s name – had a dour and grumpy air about him; there was something of the native Indian in his shiny, silky, intensely black hair and coppery complexion. His eyes were large, black, inert and dull, lacking in expression, especially with respect to happiness.

He was five or six years older than his wife, who was coming up to twenty. She, for her part, had a vivacious physiognomy, very supple and varied, although her light-brown eyes generally had a notably melancholic and dreamy expression. Of fine and delicate features, quite tall and with an attractive, slender figure, she had the gracefulness of a reed: not fearing the wind, simply bending even more elegantly under its force, while rustling complaints about being fated to be fragile, quite forgetting that her very fragility is what makes her strong.

After their marriage, they came to live in Saudade Street. It’s a picturesque road, only a little distance from the railway lines of the Central Station, an up-and-down road, blessed with a capricious wobbliness, both along and across. It’s populated with trees and bamboo on both sides, and runs almost directly north-south. The numerous dwellings on its east side crouch in a dip formed by the unevenness of the road, and are even more obscured by the liana-strung trees. The dwellings on its west side, however, rise up and gaze directly out – over those on the other side – at the dawn, with its indescribable sheen of colours and hues.

Just as Augusto had done at the end of the previous month, at the end of the next month – the second since his marriage –, as soon as he’d been paid and had checked the bills, he gave his wife the wherewithal to pay them, together with the money for the rent.

Zilda promptly paid the butcher, the baker and the vintner, but their landlord’s agent was rather tardy in calling. She mentioned this to her husband one morning when he was giving her a small amount to pay the greengrocer and for other little domestic expenses. But he left the rent money with her.

The rent was already four days overdue, and the rent-collector had still not appeared.

On the morning of that fourth day, she woke up happy and apprehensive at the same time. She’d had a dream, and what a dream! She’d dreamt about her grandma, whom she loved deeply and who’d been so much in favour of her marrying Augusto. Grandma had died a few months before they married, but they were already engaged.

The number of her grandma’s grave plot – 1724 – had appeared in her dream and she’d heard her grandma’s voice saying: ‘Bet on this number, my sweet!’

The dream made a deep impression on her, but she said nothing to her husband. After he’d left for the office, she gave instructions to the maid and tried to put the strange dream out of her mind; but there was no way of doing that. Despite all her efforts to the contrary, she couldn’t stop thinking about it; and thinking about it exerted a pressure on her brain that demanded a way out, a safety valve, because she couldn’t contain it any more. She had to speak, to talk, to tell someone about it…

She confided in Genoveva. The cook thought for a moment and said: ‘If I was you, Ma’am, I’d take a bet on the animal game.’

‘What animal is it?’

‘Twenty-four’s the goat, but you shouldn’t just bet on one side. You need to cover each part and give weight to the ten, the hundred, even the thousand. You don’t have a dream like that for no reason.’

‘Do you know how to make out the card?’

‘No, Ma’am. When I place a bet it’s Mr Manuel from the bar who does my card, but Mrs Iracema next door can tell you all about it, Ma’am.’

‘Call her and say I want to speak to her.’

The neighbour arrived in due course and Zilda told her about the dream. Mrs Iracema thought about it for a moment before giving her advice:

‘You can’t ignore a dream like that, young lady. If I was you, I’d make a big bet.’

‘But, Mrs Iracema, I’ve only got eighty thousand for the rent. What can I do?’

The neighbour was cautious with her reply:

‘I can’t give you any advice about that. Do what your heart tells you, but a dream like that…’

Zilda was much younger than Iracema and deferred to her experience and wisdom. She immediately sensed that Iracema was in favour of a bet. That’s what her neighbour’s forty-something-year-old eyes were saying.

It didn’t take long before Zilda blurted out ‘I’ll bet the lot!’

And she added:

‘Let’s do a card. What do you say, Mrs Iracema?’

‘How do you want to do it?’

‘I don’t really know, but Genoveva will.’ And she shouted into the interior of the house:

‘Genoveva! Genoveva! Come here quickly!’

The cook arrived in no time. As soon as her mistress had put the problem to her, the humble negress hastened to explain:

‘I told you, Ma’am, you should cover the group on all sides; you should bet on the ten, the hundred and the thousand.’

Zilda asked Mrs Iracema: ‘Do you understand all that?’

‘Do I understand it?! Of course I do! How much do you want to bet?’

‘Everything! Eighty thousand!’

‘That’s too much, my dear. No one round here would accept it. It would have to be over in Engenho de Dentro, in Halavanca’s house. The bank’s strong there. But who’s going to place the bet? Have you got someone?’


The cook, who’d remained standing in the corner, listening to the preparations for this domestic derring-do, spoke up at once:

‘I can’t go, Ma’am! They’d only bamboozle me and if you win they won’t pay out to me. You need someone they’ll respect.’

At that point, Mrs Iracema interjected:

‘Carlito may be back from visiting his granny in Cascadura… Maybe he could… Go and find out, Genoveva!’

The girl went, and returned accompanied by Carlito, Mrs Iracema’s son. He was an eighteen-year-old lad, big, strapping, broad-shouldered. The card was duly made out and the lad carried it off to the ‘banker.’

It was just after one o’clock in the afternoon. The draw wasn’t till two. And it was at this moment that Zilda remembered the rent-collector. But there was no danger: if he hadn’t come by now, he wouldn’t come at all.

Mrs Iracema went home, Genoveva went to the kitchen and Zilda went to lie down to try and still the crisis of conscience and the mortifying uncertainty brought on by the risk she was taking. But as soon as she lay down she regretted what she’d done.

What would happen if she lost the money? Her husband… angry… stern… She didn’t know what had possessed her, she was mad… She tried to doze off but, as soon as she shut her eyes, there was the number – 1724. That gave her back some courage and stilled her jangled nerves a little.

And so – with Zilda alternating between hope and despair, anticipating both the satisfaction of winning and the distress of losing, on a roller-coaster of the most fretful imaginings – two o’clock arrived. It was time to find out what luck had in store. She went to the window.

Once in a while a person appeared in that dead and forgotten road. She was tempted to ask these passers-by what numbers had been drawn, but she felt too ashamed.

Suddenly Carlito appeared, shouting: ‘Mrs Zilda! Mrs Zilda! You’ve won!.. On the ten!’

Without even uttering an ‘Ah!’ Zilda fell on to the sofa of her modest lounge in a faint. But she came to quickly, thanks to the vinegar Mrs Iracema and Genoveva rubbed on her face.

Carlito went off to collect the winnings, which came to over two million. When he handed it over, she gave generous tips to him, his mother and Genoveva, the cook.

She’d calmed down completely by the time Augusto got home. She waited for him to get changed and come into the dining room, before announcing: ‘Augusto, if I’d bet the rent money on the animal game… would you have been mad with me?’

‘Of course I would! I’d be really mad with you and I’d tell you off in no uncertain terms, because a housewife does not…’

‘Well, I bet the rent money.’

‘You bet the rent money, Zilda?!’

‘I bet the rent money.’

‘Who on earth made you do such a stupid thing?! Don’t you realise we’re still paying for the wedding?!’

‘Well, we’ve certainly paid for it now!’

‘What do you mean? Don’t tell me you won?!’

‘I won! Here’s the money.’

She took the bundle of notes from her décolletage and gave it to her husband, who’d turned speechless from shock. He counted the notes very carefully, stood up and, hugging and kissing her, said to his wife with great feeling: ‘Aren’t you the lucky one, my sweet angel?!’

And all the rest of that afternoon there was nothing but joy in that house.

Mrs Iracema came, with her husband, their daughters, Carlito and some other neighbours. There was beer and cakes. Everyone was smiling and chatty, and it was only because the newlyweds had no piano that the general contentment didn’t erupt into dance. Augusto even had a patriotic discussion with Iracema’s husband.

The next month – just to be on the safe side – Augusto paid the bills himself.

From Portuguese: Captain Mendonça, by Machado de Assis

(My translation of the short story O Capitão Mendonça, which was published in the Jornal das Famílias in 1870)


aving had a bit of a contretemps with the object of my affections, and as happens in such situations, I found myself at a total loss for what to do one evening. I didn’t want to go home, because that would mean waging war with Loneliness and Reflection, two ladies who’ve taken it upon themselves to put a full-stop to lovers’ tiffs.

There was something on at the São Pedro Theatre. Not bothered what it was, I entered, bought a ticket and was just taking my seat when the curtain opened for the first act. It looked rather promising, beginning with a murder and ending with a vow. There was this girl, didn’t know her mother or father, kidnapped by someone in disguise, who I suspected of being said mother or father. There was vague talk about an anonymous marquis, and a hint of a second murder before too long. Intended victim: an old countess. The act finished to much applause.

 No sooner had the curtain come down than the usual kerfuffle began: people marking their seats and going for a breath of fresh air. Fortunately, I was in a seat where I couldn’t be inconvenienced, so I stretched out my legs and looked at the curtain, on which, without any effort on my part, I could see the disgruntled object of my affections glaring at me with clenched fists.

 ’What do you think of it, Mr Amaral?’

I turned. On my left, giving me a friendly smile, was an old man wearing a military greatcoat.

‘Surprised I know your name?’ he asked.

‘I am, rather,’ I replied. ‘I don’t recall having seen you…’

‘That’s because you never have; I arrived yesterday from Rio Grande do Sul; and I’ve never seen you either, but I recognised you immediately.’

‘Ah! They tell me I look very similar to my father. I take it you knew him.’

‘Knew him! We were comrades in arms. The friendship of Colonel Amaral and Captain Mendonça was the stuff of army legend.’

‘Now that you mention it, I do remember my father used to talk a lot about a Captain Mendonça.’

‘That’s me.’

‘It clearly meant a lot to him; he said you were his best and most loyal friend.’

‘The Colonel was unjust there,’ said the Captain as he opened his snuff box. ‘I was more than that; I was the only loyal friend he had. But your father was cautious; perhaps he didn’t want to offend anyone. He was rather weak; the only misunderstanding we had was one night when I called him a fool. The Colonel didn’t like it, but in the end he saw I was right… Fancy a pinch?’


It amazed me that this ‘most loyal friend’ of my father should speak so disrespectfully about him and I immediately had my doubts about their being friends in the army. It confirmed my doubts when I remembered that, when my father talked about Captain Mendonça, he used to say he was an excellent man… with a screw loose.

I looked at the Captain while he inhaled a liberal pinch of snuff and then dusted his shirt with a handkerchief. He was an imposing figure: military bearing, despite a certain emptiness about the eyes, and full beard, like a real old-timer. His clothes were all new and he clearly didn’t have any money worries.

The fellow’s expression wasn’t all that bad, although his face was completely dominated by his empty eyes and pronounced, bushy eyebrows.

We talked about the past; he told me about the Rosas Campaign and the part he and my father had played in it. He was a fine raconteur with an encyclopaedic memory, all seasoned with humorous anecdotes.

After twenty minutes the theatre-goers were beginning to get restless with the length of the interval and started their own overture of stamping feet.

Exactly at that moment a man approached and invited the Captain to a box. The Captain tried to put it off until the next interval but, as the man was insistent, the Captain shook my hand: ‘See you soon.’

Once more I was alone; the stamping feet gave way to the violins and after a few minutes Act Two began.

I couldn’t get into it, so I made myself as comfortable as possible and shut my eyes. Meanwhile the hero was making a speech that tore not only at the heartstrings but also at the rules of grammar.

In no time I was awoken by the voice of the Captain. I opened my eyes and saw him standing in front of me.

‘Know what?’ he said. ‘I’m going for supper; care to join me?’

‘I can’t; awfully sorry,’ I replied.

‘No excuses! Just imagine I’m the Colonel and I’m saying:  “Come along, lad! We’re going for supper!”’

‘But I’m due to meet…’

‘You’re not due to meet anyone!’

Our conversation was giving rise to some tut-tutting, so, given that the Captain looked intransigent and in order to avoid a scene, I thought it prudent to accompany him.

We left.

‘I know it’s a bit late for supper,’ said the Captain, ‘for a lad like you, but I’m an old soldier.’

I said nothing.

To tell the truth, theatre or supper was all one to me: I just wanted to kill time. Although the Captain was a complete stranger to me, his familiar manner and the fact that he’d been my father’s comrade in arms meant that, at that moment, I found his company preferable to that of anyone else.

Anyway, my life had become so boring that a little entertainment from Captain Mendonça was more than welcome. I say ‘entertainment’ because there was something eccentric in his gestures and his eyes. To find a truly original character among the masses of boring humanity, how wonderful!

So off I went with my captain, who carried on talking all the time, me chipping in with the occasional monosyllable.

After a while we stopped in front of an old, dark house.

‘Come on in,’ said Mendonça.

‘Where are we?’ I asked.

‘You don’t know?! Dear me! You must walk round in a daze! This is Guarda Velha Street.’


The old man knocked on the door three times and after a while the hinges squealed and we were walking down a dark, dank corridor.

‘Didn’t you bring a light,’ Mendonça asked someone I couldn’t see.

‘I was in a hurry to open up.’

‘Alright. Close the door. Hold my hand, Mr Amaral; this entrance is a bit tricky; it’s better upstairs.’

I gave him my hand.

‘You’re trembling,’ said Captain Mendonça.

And I was, indeed, trembling: it had suddenly occurred to me that this supposed friend of my father might be nothing more than a thief, and this rabbit warren a trap for innocents abroad.

But it was too late to go back, and any indication of fear would not be advisable. So I tried to sound jocular:

‘Easier said than done not to tremble when walking down a corridor such as this; forgive me, but it looks like the corridor to Hell!’

‘You’re almost right,’ said the Captain as he guided me up the stairs.


‘Yes: not Hell, but Purgatory.’

I shuddered when I heard those words, and all my blood rushed to my heart, which began beating wildly. The peculiarity of the Captain, the peculiarity of the house, everything added up to a feeling of terror. Fortunately we arrived upstairs and entered a gas-lit room that was furnished just like any other room.

Still trying to be jocular and keep my spirits up, I smiled and ventured:

‘Well, well, well! Purgatory doesn’t look so bad after all! Sofas instead of cauldrons!’

The Captain stared straight at me, for the first time, because up till then I’d thought he was cross-eyed.

‘My dear sir,’ he said, ‘if you think you can get hold of my secret like that, you’re very much mistaken. I invited you to supper; you’ll have to content yourself with that.’

I said nothing; the Captain’s words dispelled my fears about why he’d taken me there, but they caused me to suspect he was mad; and a little incident immediately confirmed my suspicion.

‘Boy!’ shouted the Captain; and when the slave boy appeared: ‘Prepare supper, wine from Crate No. 25, go! I want everything ready in fifteen minutes.’

As the boy sped off to carry out Mendonça’s orders, the Captain turned to me and said:

‘Sit down and read a book. I’m going to get changed.’

‘You’re not going back to the theatre?’ I asked.



A few minutes later we were making our way to the dining room, which was at the back of the house. Supper was magnificent; the plate of cold meats at centre stage was surrounded by pastries, cakes and venerable bottles of vintage wine.

‘A banquet!’ I exclaimed.

‘Nonsense! Just a simple supper… nothing special.’

There were three chairs.

‘Sit yourself here,’ he said, pointing to the head of the table, while he himself took the chair on my left. I realised someone else was expected, but I didn’t enquire. Nor was it necessary: after a few seconds the door opposite me opened and a young lady – tall and pale – came in, nodded to me and headed for the chair on my right.

I stood up; the Captain introduced us. She was his daughter and went by the name of Augusta.

The presence of the young lady had a calming effect on me. Not only was I no longer alone with this strange Captain Mendonça, but her presence in that house indicated that, if the Captain was, as I suspected, a lunatic, he was at least a harmless lunatic.

While I set about making myself amicable to the young lady, the Captain niftily carved a big fish, giving a good idea of his proficiency in the gourmet arts.

‘Let’s be friends,’ I said to Augusta, ‘like our fathers used to be friends.’

Two of the most extraordinarily beautiful green eyes looked up at me. Then she smiled and lowered her head with an air either of coquetry or of modesty; it could’ve been either. I looked at the profile of her beautiful, perfectly modelled head; her skin was like satin, her eyelashes long, her hair golden – like the sun, as the poets would say.

Meanwhile Mendonça had concluded his task and started serving us. Augusta fiddled with her knife, perhaps to allow me to see the delicate beauty of her hand and arm.

‘Have you lost your tongue?’ the Captain asked as he put some fish on her plate.

‘I’m just sad, Papa.’

‘Sad?! What on earth’s the matter?’

‘I don’t know; I’m sad for no reason.’

More often than not, ‘sad for no reason’ means bored. That’s how I understood it and, for no very good reason, I felt wounded in my amour-propre. So I tried to cheer up the young lady by chatting away as if among old friends, all the while ignoring Mendonça’s apparently deeply disgruntled state of mind.

Augusta appeared to enjoy the conversation; even the Captain began chuckling in a way that almost made him look sane; I was in excellent form, throwing out one witticism after another, so much so that neither the one nor the other could avoid being drawn into the web of my word play.

By the end of supper we were as thick as thieves.

‘Want to go back to the theatre?’ asked the Captain.

‘Heaven forfend!’

‘So you prefer our company, or rather… Augusta’s.’

I thought this rather forward of the old man. I’m sure I must have blushed, but Augusta was not remotely disconcerted; she smiled and said:

‘In that case, we’re two of a kind because I, likewise, would now prefer your company to the best performance in the world.’

Augusta’s forwardness amazed me even more than Mendonça’s. But it wasn’t easy to ponder such things when her beautiful green eyes were staring straight at me, as if to say: ‘Keep on being nice!’

The Captain got to his feet and said, ‘Let’s go to the other room.’

So we went. I gave my arm to Augusta as the Captain guided us. In ‘the other room,’ which wasn’t the one I’d been in first, Augusta and I sat down while the old man went to light a cigarette from the candelabra. I glanced around the room; it appeared most strange. The furniture was antique, not only in style, but also in age. In the middle there was a large round table, covered with a green rug. On one of the walls some stuffed animals were hanging. On the opposite wall there was just an owl, also stuffed, with eyes of green glass which, although fixed, seemed to follow all our movements.

My fears returned. I looked at Augusta and she looked at me. That young woman was the only link between me and the outside world, because everything else in the house seemed completely fantastical and I no longer doubted the Captain’s words about Purgatory.

We were silent for a few minutes; the Captain walked up and down, smoking, with his hands behind his back: the meditation of a philosopher or the taciturnity of a rogue.

Suddenly he stopped in front of us, smiled and asked me:

‘Don’t you think she’s beautiful?’

‘More than beautiful,’ I replied.

‘Beautiful eyes, aren’t they?’

‘Truly enchanting, extraordinary!’

‘I can be justly proud of her, don’t you think?’

I responded with an affirmative smile. As for Augusta, she limited herself to saying, with delightful simplicity:

‘Papa is even vainer than me; he’s notorious for never tiring of hearing how beautiful I am.’

‘You’ll have noticed,’ said the Captain, as he took a seat, ‘that my little one is rather forward for her gender and age…’

‘I don’t see anything wrong with that…’

‘You don’t need to be polite; it’s the truth. Augusta’s not like other girls who, although they think highly of themselves, just simper when someone pays them a compliment and frown when they don’t.’

‘I’d say she’s an adorable exception,’ I replied, sending a smile in her direction, which she repaid.

‘That she is!’ said her father. ‘She’s an exceptional exception.’

‘An enlightened education,’ I continued, ‘can produce…’

‘Not just education,’ Mendonça interrupted, ‘but her origin as well. Origin is everything, or almost everything.’

I didn’t understand what he wanted to say, whereas Augusta appeared to understand, because she started looking at the ceiling, smiling wickedly. I looked at the Captain; the Captain looked at the owl.

We started talking again for a few minutes, at the end of which the Captain, who seemed to have a one-track mind, asked me:

‘So you think her eyes are pretty?’

‘As I said, they have the rarest beauty.’

‘Would you like to have them?’ the old man asked.

I bowed slightly as I sat there and said: ‘I would be most happy to possess something so exquisite, but…’

‘No need to stand on ceremony; I’ll give you them if you want; if not, I’ll just show you.’

So saying, the Captain got up and went over to Augusta, who lowered her head into his hands. The old man made a slight movement; the girl lifted her head; the old man showed me her two beautiful eyes in his hands.

I looked at Augusta. It was horrible. Instead of eyes, she had two big cavities, like a skull. I can’t describe how I felt; I wanted to scream, but couldn’t; I was frozen to the spot. The girl’s head was the most hideous thing the human imagination could possibly create; imagine a live skull, talking, smiling, looking at me with its two cavities which, just a moment before, had contained the most beautiful eyes in the world. The cavities seemed to see me; with an angelic smile, the girl observed my horrified reaction.

Standing in front of me, the old man said, ‘Have a good look at them; touch them; tell me if you’ve ever seen anything so perfect.’

What could I do, except do as he said? I looked at the eyes the old man was holding, one in each hand. But there was worse: the two eyes were staring at me, full of understanding, just like the cavities in the young lady’s face. Even though separated from that face, they were still alive; the retinas had the same light and the same reflexes. The old man’s hands were looking at me as if they were a face.

I don’t know how much time passed before the captain went over to Augusta again; she lowered her head, and the old man reinserted her eyes.

Utterly horrible!

‘You’ve turned pale!’ said Augusta, obliging me to look at her, now restored to her previous state.

‘Of course I have…’ I spluttered. ‘I’ve just seen…’

‘Incredible things?’ asked the Captain, rubbing his hands.

‘Yes, truly incredible,’ I replied. ‘I didn’t think…’

‘That’s nothing!’ exclaimed the Captain. ‘I’m delighted you’ve found this trifle incredible, because it’s proof that I’m going to stop the world in its tracks.’

I took out my handkerchief to mop my brow. Meanwhile Augusta stood up and left the room.

‘You see how gracefully she walks?’ asked the Captain. ‘That’s all my work… from my own workshop.’


‘It is; she’s my first masterpiece but, from your expression, I don’t think I need to tell you: you look enchanted…’

I bowed my head by way of agreement. What was I to do, a poor, helpless mortal, against a man and a girl who appeared to be in possession of unheard-of powers?!

My only thought was to get out of that house, but without upsetting them. I wanted time to have wings, but it’s precisely at moments of terrible crisis that it goes fatefully slow. I cursed the lovers’ tiff that had caused me to meet this character.

The Captain seemed to guess my thoughts because, after a moment’s silence, he said:

‘You must be enchanted, but perhaps – at the same time – you’re a little shocked and even regret agreeing to come here. But that’s childish: you haven’t lost anything by coming; on the contrary, you’ve gained; you’ve learnt things the world will only learn in the future. That’s good, is it not?’

‘It is,’ I replied, without knowing what I was saying.

The Captain continued:

‘Augusta is my masterpiece. She’s a product of chemistry; it took me three years to give that miracle to the world, but perseverance wins all and I’m blessed with obstinacy. My first experiments failed; three times the little thing emerged imperfect from my alembics. But the fourth time showed what science can do. I fell to my knees before such perfection, the creator adoring his creature!’

I must’ve had horror written on my face, because the old man said:

‘I see you’re frightened, but I think that’s only natural. What can you know about this sort of thing?!’

He got up, walked about a bit and then sat down again. At that moment the slave boy came in with the coffee.

On seeing him, I picked up my courage; I thought he was the only truly human person I could communicate with in that house. I started signalling to him, but he didn’t seem to understand. Then he left, leaving me alone with my interlocutor.

‘Drink your coffee, my friend,’ he said, seeing me hesitate – a hesitancy not caused by fear, but by the lack of any wish to drink anything whatsoever.

I obeyed as best I could.


Augusta came back to the room.

The old man turned to contemplate her; never did a father look at his daughter more lovingly. But it was clear this love was rooted in pride: there was a haughtiness in the Captain’s gaze which is not usually part of paternal affection.

He wasn’t her father, he was her author.

As regards the young woman, she too seemed proud of herself. She basked in her father’s admiration. She knew she was the apple of the old man’s eye and, in return, had nothing but admiration for the author of her life. If the Odyssey had been a young woman, it would have felt just the same under Homer’s gaze.

An extraordinary thing! Despite her mysterious, diabolical origin, that woman made such a deep impression on me; sitting beside her, I felt something new; whether through love, admiration or fatal sympathy, I don’t know.

When I looked into her eyes I could scarcely manage to look away, and yet I’d seen those beautiful, beautiful eyes in the hands of her father and I’d contemplated, with terror, those cavities, as empty as the eyes of death.

Night was slowly drawing in; the noises of the outside world were fading; we were entering a complete, melancholy silence – an appropriate backdrop to the room where I found myself with those companions.

It was time to go; I stood up and started to take my leave.

‘It’s too early,’ said the Captain.

‘But I’ll be back tomorrow.’

‘Come back tomorrow and whenever you like but, for today, it’s too early. It’s not every day you meet a man like me, a brother of God, a god upon earth, because I too can create like Him; even better than him, because I made Augusta and God doesn’t always make creatures like her. The Hottentots, for example…’

‘But there are people expecting me….’

‘That’s as may be,’ said the Captain, smiling, ‘but for now you can’t go…’

‘Why not?’ interrupted Augusta. ‘I don’t see why he can’t go, as long as he comes back tomorrow.’

‘I’ll come back.’


‘I promise.’

Augusta gave me her hand.

‘Agreed!’ she said. ‘But if you don’t keep your promise…’

‘You die,’ added her father

On hearing that last word, I shuddered. Nevertheless, I took my leave as cordially as I could, and departed.

‘Come in the evening,’ the Captain called after me.

‘See you tomorrow,’ I replied.

When I found myself on the pavement, I took a deep breath. I was free. The unimaginable torture was over. I scurried off and arrived home half an hour later.

But I couldn’t get to sleep. I kept seeing the Captain with Augusta’s eyes in his hands, and the image of that young woman floated in the fog of my imagination like something out of Ossian.

Who was that man? Who was that girl? Was she really the old man’s chemical concoction? That’s what they’d both been saying and, up to a point, I’d seen the proof. I might’ve thought they were mad, were it not for the episode with the eyes. And was I myself still in the world of the living, or was I entering the region of dreams and the unknown?

 It was thanks only to my strength of spirit that I resisted; a weaker person would’ve gone mad. And that would’ve been better. What made my situation still more awful and unbearable was precisely that I was perfectly sane. The torture I was going through was the result of the conflict between my reason and my senses: my reason denied what my eyes had seen. How could I reconcile such evidence with such incredulity.

I didn’t sleep a wink. The next day I greeted the sun like a long-lost friend. I was in my own bedroom; my servant brought me a breakfast consisting solely of things of this world; I went to the window and looked out at the National Assembly building. That sufficed: I was still on this earth – just like that accursed Captain and his daughter.

So I started thinking.

Could I make sense of it all? I thought of all the boasts about chemistry and alchemy. I remembered one of Hoffmann’s fantasies, where an alchemist builds a human automaton. Could yesterday’s fantasy be today’s reality? And, if what the Captain said were true, wouldn’t it be wonderful if I could proclaim it to the world?

Everyone’s tempted to jump on a bandwagon and I must confess I immediately wondered whether, anticipating the Captain’s triumph, I might not grab a little of his immortal fame. It was difficult to believe, but who believed in Galileo? Just think how many didn’t believe Columbus. Today’s incredulity is tomorrow’s orthodoxy. A truth unknown is no less true for being unknown. It’s true on its own account, not through public acclaim. I thought of the stars astronomers are now discovering, but which have existed for centuries and centuries.

One way or another I convinced myself there might be something in it and for that reason, no less than on account of my fascination with the young lady’s eyes, no sooner had night fallen than there I was, presenting myself at the Captain’s house in Guarda Velha Street.

He was waiting for me.

‘I deliberately stayed in,’ he said. ‘I expected you’d come and I wanted to show you a chemical composition. I worked all day to get the ingredients ready.’

Augusta welcomed me with truly disarming charm. I kissed her hand, the usual way of greeting ladies before it was ousted by the handshake – a more sober greeting for a more sober century.

‘I missed you,’ she said.


‘But I’m sure you didn’t miss me.’

‘I did.’

‘I don’t believe it.’


‘Because I’m not a bastard daughter. Every other woman is a bastard daughter; it’s only I who can claim to be a legitimate daughter, because I’m the daughter of science and the will of man.’

I was no less impressed by Augusta’s language than by her beauty. It must have been her father who’d given her those ideas. The theory she’d just explained was just as fantastic as her birth itself. What’s certain was that I was beginning to feel quite at home in that house. So it wasn’t long before I was saying:

‘Much as I admire the Captain’s science, may I point out that, even so, all he’s done is apply natural components to create a being which had previously seemed unresponsive to chemical reactions and laboratory equipment.’

‘You’re right up to a point,’ said the Captain, ‘but does that make me any less admirable?’

‘On the contrary! There’s never been anyone who could boast of coming anywhere near you.’

Augusta gave me a grateful smile. I made a mental note of the smile, which must have shown on my face, because the Captain – also smiling – said:

‘After many attempts, my work has resulted in perfection. The product of my penultimate test lacked one little thing, and I wanted it to be just as perfect as the one He made.

‘So what was missing?’ I asked.

‘Don’t you see,’ the Captain continued, ‘how Augusta smiles happily whenever her beauty’s mentioned?’

‘That’s true.’

‘Well, the last Augusta I made in the laboratory was missing that: I forgot to include vanity. If I’d left it like that, I’m sure that, in many people’s eyes, it would’ve been even more perfect than this one. But I think not; what I wanted was to create a work which would equal His. Therefore I reduced everything once more to the primitive state and added more mercury to the mix.’

I don’t think my face gave me away at that moment, but inside I was grimacing. I was prepared to believe in Augusta’s chemical origin, but hearing the details strained that belief.

The Captain continued, looking alternately at me and at his daughter, who appeared entranced by her father’s story:

‘You know that one of the names the ancients gave to chemistry was “the Science of Hermes.” I’m sure I don’t need to remind you that Hermes is the Greek name of Mercury, and mercury is a chemical element. For a human creature to be self-conscious, you need to add an ounce of mercury to the alembic. To make vanity, you double the dose of mercury, because vanity, in my opinion, is nothing less than expanded self-consciousness. I call modesty “contracted self-consciousness.”‘

‘So you think,’ I said, ‘that a vain man is someone with a large dose of mercury in his organism?’

‘Without a shadow of doubt. It can’t be otherwise; man is composed of molecules and chemical elements; the man who knows how to mix them has achieved everything.’


‘You’re quite right: not everything; because the greatest secret consists in a discovery I made about the vital principle. That secret will die with me.’

‘But why not announce it, for the sake of human progress?’

The Captain’s only answer was a scornful shrug of the shoulders.

Meanwhile Augusta had gone to the piano and started playing something I thought was a German sonata. I asked the Captain if he’d mind if I smoked a cigar, and the slave boy came to take orders for tea.


When tea was finished, the Captain said:

‘I’ve prepared an experiment in your honour, Doctor. You know that diamonds are nothing else than crystallised stone coal? A long time ago an outstanding chemist tried to transmute stone coal into diamonds; I read in a journal article that all he managed was to produce diamond dust – nothing else. It was I who did the rest; I’ll show you a piece of stone coal and transmute it into a diamond.’

Augusta was so excited that she clapped her hands. I smiled – surprised by this sudden joy – and asked the reason.

‘I love watching chemical operations,’ she replied.

‘It must be interesting,’ I said.

‘Oh yes! It is! But I wonder if Papa will be able to do something for me.’


‘I’ll tell you later.’

Shortly afterwards the three of us were in Captain Mendonça’s laboratory, which was a small, dark room, full of impressive-looking apparatus. Augusta and I took a seat, while her father started getting ready for the promised transmutation.

I must confess that, despite my curiosity as a man of science, my attention was divided between the father’s chemistry and the daughter’s charms. There really was something fantastical about Augusta: when she entered the laboratory, she took deep, pleasurable breaths, like someone breathing sweet meadow air. It was obvious she was at home here. I took hold of her hand and she – with the giddiness of an ingénue – pulled my hand to her, clasped it with both of hers and placed them in her lap. At that moment the Captain happened to pass by; he noticed, and smiled surreptitiously.

‘You see,’ she whispered in my ear, ‘Papa approves!’

 ’Ah!’ I said, half happy, half amazed at this candour on the part of a girl.

Meanwhile the Captain engrossed himself in transmuting the stone coal into a diamond. So as not to offend the inventor’s vanity, I put a question to him once in a while, to all of which he replied promptly. But my attention was really completely upon Augusta. I could no longer deny that I loved her; and, to my great good fortune, I too was loved. Marriage beckoned. But could I marry her and still be a good Christian? That question somewhat deflated my spirits. Scruples!

The young lady was a chemical product; her only baptism, a bath of sulphur. Everything could be explained by the science of that man, but my conscience recoiled. Why? Augusta was just as beautiful as any other woman, perhaps more so, in the same way that a painted leaf is more beautiful than a natural leaf. She was a product of art; the author’s knowledge had enabled him to strip the human type of its imperfections and create something ideal, unique. Unfortunately it was exactly that which would set us apart in the eyes of the world!

I couldn’t say how long the Captain took to transmute the coal; I spent the time looking at the young lady, particularly her beautiful eyes, in which there was all the vertiginous wonder of the sea.

Suddenly the air in the laboratory became even more acrid; it was too much for me and I felt rather unwell. If Augusta hadn’t asked me to stay by her side, I’d have left.

‘Nearly there! Nearly there!’ exclaimed the Captain ecstatically.

His exclamation was an invitation to draw near; I stood by his daughter’s side. There was a long silence, until the Captain interrupted my reverie by saying:

‘Finished! Here it is!’

And there, indeed, in the palm of his hand, was a diamond of the highest quality – perfect. It was half the size of the original lump of stone coal.  For my part, after the creation of Augusta, nothing could surprise me. I applauded the Captain; as for his daughter, she ran to embrace him and gave him two big hugs.

‘I see now, Captain, that you must be rich. You can transmute as much coal as you like into diamonds.’

‘Why should I?’ he replied. ‘To the eyes of a naturalist there’s no difference in value between diamonds and stone coal.’

‘Yes, but to the eyes of the world…’

‘I’m well aware that, in the eyes of the world, diamonds mean wealth; but only relative wealth. Suppose, my dear Mr Amaral, that the coal mines of the whole world were transmuted into diamonds in a monstrous alembic. The world would immediately collapse into the utmost misery. Coal is wealth; diamonds are superfluous.’

‘I agree.’

‘I did this to show you that I can and know how to, but I won’t tell anyone. It’s my secret.’

‘So you’re not working out of love for science?’

‘No. My love for science is platonic. I work to show that I know how to, that I can create. As for the others, I’m not bothered whether they know or not. They’d call me an egoist; I call myself a “philosopher.” Would you like this diamond as proof of my esteem and a sample of my knowledge?’

‘I would,’ I replied.

‘Here it is; but never forget that this shining stone, so sought-after in the world, and so valuable among men as to cause wars, this stone is nothing more than a piece of coal.’

I slipped that extraordinarily beautiful diamond into my pocket and accompanied them out of the laboratory. What impressed me more than anything else at the moment was the young lady. I wouldn’t have exchanged her for all the famous diamonds in the world. The more time I spent at her side, the more I was fascinated. I felt myself being invaded by the delirium of love; the next day I’d be irretrievably united to that woman; if we were separated, I would die.

When we reached the living room, Captain Mendonça clapped his hand on his temple and asked his daughter:

‘I’ve just remembered! Didn’t you say you had a request?’

‘Yes; but it’s too late now; it can wait till tomorrow. You will come back, won’t you, Doctor?’

‘Of course.’

‘Because,’ said Mendonça, ‘you have to get used to my work… and then you’ll believe…’

‘I believe already. I can’t deny the evidence; it’s you who’s right – the rest of the world knows nothing.’

On hearing my answer, Mendonça radiated pride; his eyes, which looked more hollow than ever, seemed to reflect the vertiginous depths of his spirit.

‘You’re right,’ he said after a few minutes. ‘I’m far ahead of other men. My masterpiece…’

‘…is this,’ I said, indicating Augusta.

‘For now…’ the Captain replied, ‘but I have even more momentous things in mind; for example, I think I’ve discovered how to create geniuses.’


‘I’ll get hold of a man, be he talented, renowned, a mediocrity or a complete idiot, and turn him into a genius.’

‘How easy would…’

‘Not easy at all. All I’m saying is it’s possible. I’ve learnt how to do it… or rather, discovered, with the help of a word I came across in a sixteenth-century Arabic book. Would you like to see it?’

I had no time to reply; the Captain departed and immediately returned with a large book crudely printed with Arabic characters in red ink. He explained his idea to me, but it went over my head: I wasn’t paying much attention; my eyes were drunk with Augusta.

It was midnight before I left. With a tender, pleading voice, Augusta said, ‘You’ll come back tomorrow?’

‘I shall!’

The old man had his back turned; I lifted her hand to my lips and imprinted on it a long, impassioned kiss.

Then I sped away, afraid both of her and of myself.


The next day I received a note from Captain Mendonça first thing in the morning:

Good news! It’s about our good fortune – yours, mine and Augusta’s. Be sure to come tonight.

I made sure.

I was welcomed by Augusta, who squeezed my hands feverishly. We were alone; I made so bold as to kiss her cheek. She went bright red, but immediately repaid the kiss.

‘I received a strange note from your father today…’

‘I know,’ she said. ‘It’s about us two.’

All of this happened at the top of the stairs.

‘Come in! Come in!’ shouted the Captain.

We entered.

The Captain was in the living room, smoking a cigar and pacing up and down with his hands behind his back, just like the first night I saw him. He embraced me and told me to sit down.

‘My dear Doctor,’ he said after we’d both sat down, with Augusta standing by her father’s chair, ‘my dear Doctor, it’s a rare occurrence for fortune to make three people completely happy. Happiness is the rarest thing in this world.’

‘Rarer than pearls,’ I said, a trifle pompously.

‘Much rarer and much more valuable. They say that Caesar bought a pearl for six million sesterces to give to Servilia. How much more was that other pearl worth which he received for free and which gave him power over the world?!

‘What was that?’

‘Genius. Genius is happiness.’

I was rather taken aback by what the Captain was saying. I’d been thinking that the happiness for me and Augusta was meant to be our marriage. When he started talking about genius, I gave the young lady such a disappointed look that she immediately sought to put things right: ‘But, Papa! Start from the beginning.’

‘Quite right! Forgive the sage for forgetting he’s also a father. My dear friend – you’ll allow me to call you such? –, it concerns marriage.’


‘My daughter confided in me this morning that she loves you madly and that her love is requited. Marriage is only a step away.’

‘She’s right! I love your daughter madly too and, with your consent, I’d like to marry her.’

‘You have not only my consent, but also my applause and my thanks.’

Do I need to say that – even though expected – the Captain’s reply filled my ambitious heart with happiness?! I got to my feet and shook the Captain’s hand warmly.

‘I know! I know!’ said the old man. ‘I have experience of these things. Love is almost everything in life; life has two principal aspects: love and science. Whoever doesn’t understand that, doesn’t deserve to live. Power and glory don’t stop Alexander’s skull from being exactly the same as an idiot’s. Earthly greatness is as nothing in comparison with a flower on the bank of a river. Love is about the heart, science about the head; power is simply the sword…’

‘I interrupted this rather tedious lecture about human pomp by saying to Augusta that I wanted to make her happy and to help her make her father’s old age full of peace and joy.

‘You don’t need to worry about that, Son-in-Law. I’ll be happy come what may. A man of my calibre is never unhappy. My happiness is in my own hands; it doesn’t depend on empty prejudice.’

We spoke a bit more in the same vein, before Augusta entered the conversation: ‘But, Papa, you haven’t told him our conditions yet.’

‘Don’t be impatient, my sweet; the night is young.’

‘What’s that?’ I asked.

Mendonça replied: ‘It’s a condition my daughter reminded me of; and which I’m sure you’ll accept.’

‘Of course!’

‘My daughter,’ continued the Captain, ‘wishes to have a husband who’s worthy both of her and of me.’

‘Don’t you think I…?!’

‘You’re excellent, all things considered, but you’re lacking one little thing…’


‘Wealth!? I don’t need any more wealth! What you’re lacking, my dear sir, is exactly what I’ve got too much of.’

I nodded, but only as a formality, because I didn’t have the slightest idea what he was talking about.

The Captain immediately put me straight: ‘You lack genius.’


‘My daughter was quite right in thinking that, as the descendant of a genius, she can only marry another genius. I’m hardly going to entrust my creation to the rough hands of a Hottentot! And even though, compared with the generality of men, you are indeed a man of talent, in my eyes you’re no more than a very poor sort of animal, for the same reason that four candelabras may illuminate a room but won’t illuminate the heavens.’


‘If you don’t like that comparison, let me put it to you more plainly: at sunrise the most beautiful star is worth nothing. You’d make a pretty star, but I am the sun and, as against me, a star is no more than a lighted match or a glow-worm.’

The Captain looked quite diabolical when he said this; his eyes looked emptier than ever. I was afraid that my Captain, despite being a sage, was having a fit of madness. How to escape from under his claws? And would I have the strength in the presence of Augusta, to whom I was bound by a fatal attraction?

It was she who intervened:

‘We already know all that,’ she said to her father, ‘but it’s not about saying he’s worthless; it’s about saying he’s going to be worth… everything.’

‘How come?’ I asked.

‘By giving you genius.’

Despite the conversation we’d had about this the previous night, I didn’t immediately understand; but Mendonça graciously explained his idea more simply.

‘After profound and persevering investigation, I’ve discovered that talent is a little quantity of ether contained in a cavity of the brain; genius is the same ether to the power of ten. All that’s needed in order to mutate a man of talent into a genius is to introduce ninety nine extra units of pure ether into that cavity. That’s precisely the operation we’re about to carry out.’

I can leave the reader to imagine my shock on hearing my future father-in-law’s horrendous plan, shock which only redoubled when Augusta said:

‘How absolutely wonderful that Papa’s made this discovery!’ You won’t mind undergoing the operation today?’

Were they two lunatics? or had I found myself in a world of phantasmagoria? I looked at both of them; they were both smiling serenely, as if what they’d just said was the most natural thing in the world.

Little by little I calmed down. I reminded myself how strong I was and that it would take more than an old man and a weak girl to force me to undergo an operation I considered neither more nor less than murder.

‘The operation will take place today,’ said Augusta after a few moments.

‘Not today,’ I replied. ‘Tomorrow at this time, without fail.’

‘Why not today?’ she asked.

‘I’ve got lots to do.’

The Captain smiled, like someone not about to be fobbed off.

‘Dear Son-in-Law, I’m old and know all about lying. The postponement you want is a crude diversion tactic. Just think how much better it would be to become a great light to humanity today, a little God, than to remain a simple man – like all the others – until tomorrow!

‘Definitely, but we’ll have more time tomorrow…’

‘All I need is half an hour.’

‘Alright, today. But I just need three quarters of an hour, after which I’ll come back and put myself at your disposal.’

Old Mendonça made out he accepted my proposal.

‘That’s fine; but let me show you I’ll be as good as my word: come to the laboratory and see the ether I intend to place in your brain.’

We went to the laboratory. Augusta took my arm; the Captain walked ahead with a lantern. The laboratory was lit by three candles in the form of a triangle. On another occasion I might’ve asked why the candles were positioned like that; but at that moment all I wanted was to be as far as possible from that house.

And something, somehow, held me there, made it almost impossible to break free: Augusta! That young lady had a power over me which was simultaneously sweet and painful; I felt like her slave; it was as if my life were one with hers – a vertiginous fascination.

The Captain removed a vial of ether from a wooden box. Or rather, he told me what was in it, because I couldn’t see anything. When I pointed this out, he said:

‘Do you need to see genius? I’m telling you I’ve got ninety-nine units of ether in there; together with the one unit nature’s already given you they’ll form one hundred perfect units.’

The young lady took hold of the vial and examined it against the light. As for me, I tried to dissuade the Captain by means of my naiveté: ‘Are you telling me that’s top-class genius in there?!’

‘I am. But why rely on words? Find out for yourself.’

Having said that, he grabbed my arm with such force that I staggered. I realised the decisive moment had arrived. I tried to escape from the old man, but I felt three or four drops of a freezing-cold liquid on my head; my strength drained away, my legs turned to jelly and I fell on the floor, motionless.

I couldn’t begin to describe, here, the torture I endured; I saw and heard everything without being able to say a word or make the slightest gesture.

‘So you want to resist, you rascal?!’ said the chemist. ‘You want to resist your good fortune?! What foolish ingratitude! Tomorrow you’ll be embracing me out of sheer ecstasy.’

I turned my eyes to Augusta; she was preparing a long probe, while the old man was deftly inserting into the vial the thinnest imaginable rubber tube, which was destined to transport the ether from the vial to the interior of my brain.

I don’t know how long these preparations for my torture lasted; I know they both came up to me, the Captain carrying the probe, his daughter the vial.

‘Be careful not to let any ether escape, Augusta,’ said her father. ‘Bring that candle. Good! Now sit on the stool. I’m going to drill into his head. Once I’ve got the probe in place, feed the tube into it and open that little spring. Two minutes will be enough; here’s my watch.’

I heard all this soaked in cold sweat. Suddenly my eyes started sinking into my skull; the Captain’s features became enormous and weird; a yellowish green light filled the whole room; little by little the objects started dissolving, and everything around me became submerged in dark shadow.

I felt a sharp pain at the top of my head; a foreign body was penetrating right into my brain. I don’t know what happened then. I think I must have fainted.

When I awoke, the laboratory was deserted; both father and daughter had disappeared. I thought I could see a curtain in front of me. I heard a loud, harsh voice:

‘Come on! Wake up!’

‘What’s happened?!’

‘Wake up! If you want to sleep, you should do it at home, not in the theatre.’

I opened my eyes wide; in front of me I saw a stranger; I discovered I was sitting in a seat in the São Pedro Theatre.

‘Off you go!’ said the man, ‘I want to lock up.’

‘Has it finished?’

‘Ten minutes ago.’

‘I’ve been asleep all that time?’

‘Like a log.’

‘Oh my God!’

‘You didn’t do yourself any favours either; everyone round you was laughing. Fast asleep during a performance! And it didn’t look like you were having sweet dreams…’

‘No, I had a nightmare… I do apologise; I’m off now.’

And I left, promising myself the next time I had a lovers’ tiff not to resort to ultra-romantic drama: too heavy.

I was just about to step out on to the street when the doorman called me and gave me a note from Captain Mendonça. It said:

Dear Doctor,

It’s ten o’clock. I came in a little while ago, but when I saw you fast asleep I thought it better not to disturb you, but I’d be much obliged if you’d pay me a visit when you can.

Although I knew the real Mendonça was not the same as the one in my dream, I didn’t go to visit him. Let the cynics say what they like… Oh, Superstition! Thou art Queen of the World!


The Rua da Guarda Velha, where Captain Mendonça lives, is frequently mentioned in Machado’s works. It was situated on a reclaimed swamp beside the Morro do Castello (Castle Hill) and is shown in section 13 of the 1886 map below.

Machado lived nearby, in the district of Catete, from 1876 to 1884. From 1856 to 1858 he had worked as a typographer at the Imprensa Nacional (like Lima Barreto’s father), which was in the Rua da Guarda Velha and where he became friends with the director, Manuel Antônio de Almeida, author of Memórias de um Sargento de Milícias (Memories of a Militia Sergeant). The building (with the Morro do Castello in the background) is shown below, c. 1886.

In 1888 the Rua da Guarda Velha was renamed Treze de Maio (13 May) in commemoration of the day on which the law abolishing slavery was signed. (The ‘guarda’ had referred to a sentry post – subsequently a police station – set up to supervise slaves who came to the street to draw water from a reservoir.) In 1923, on the occasion of his conversion to spiritism, Coelho Neto gave a speech in the Salão da Guarda Velha in the Rua Treze de Maio.

As to the Morro do Castello, in the process of construction of the Avenida Central in 1905, galleries were discovered beneath it, which led immediately to speculation that they contained treasures hidden there by the Jesuits before their expulsion from Brazil in the eighteenth century. (There was a Jesuit college on the hill.) Later that year, Lima Barreto wrote a series of feuilletons – O Subterrâneo do Morro do Castelo (Beneath Castle Hill), based on the subsequent excavations – for the Correio da Manhã, the newspaper from which he was sacked in 1909 after publication of Recordações do escrivão Isaías Caminha. The Morro, which had become an island of poverty, was razed to the ground in 1922. The photo below shows it, topped by the ruins of the former college, during the process of demolition.

In his novel Esaú e Jacó, Machado writes about the Morro do Castello as follows:

There are many people in Rio de Janeiro who have never been there, many who have died and never went, many yet to be born and yet to die who will never go. Few people can say they know a whole city.

The area, which has the oldest street in Rio, the Largo—formerly Rua—da Misericórdia, is now in the city centre again, but reminders of its watery past were unearthed when the metro was being built in the 1970s: remains of boats and, beneath the Glória metro station, the skeleton of a whale.

From Portuguese: Burials at Inhaúma, by Lima Barreto

(A translation by Francis K Johnson of Os enterros de Inhaúma, which was published in Feiras e mafuás in 1922)


erhaps it’s just me, but the Inhaúma municipal cemetery doesn’t give me any of the feeling of peace, resignation and melancholy, the ineffable poetry of the Beyond, that I find in other cemeteries. I think it’s ugly, impersonal, with a touch of inland revenue about it. But even though the cemetery itself doesn’t interest me, I always pay attention whenever I see a funeral procession on its way there, no matter whether rich or poor, on foot or in motor vehicles.

The poverty of most inhabitants of the suburbs helps preserve that rural custom of carrying the loved one on their shoulders. It’s a sacrifice that confirms a true friendship and is one of the most sincere and devout ways in which the living can pay homage to the dead.

When I see them passing, I always wonder how long they’ve already been carrying that voyager to such distant lands, and it always strikes me they’ve still got a fair way to carry their friend. I usually watch the funeral processions when I’m sitting at the corner of José Bonifácio Street and Royal Road. In the mornings I like to read the papers in a bar down there. When the mornings are clear I can see, apart from the newspapers – printed in that special dark-blue ink – , an old farmhouse nearby, its top half orangey-coloured; I can see oxcarts, pack mules carrying panniers of coal, carts loaded with bananas, small herds of cattle, with their herdsman riding behind, his right foot always wrapped in rags.

At times I take a longer break from reading the newspaper and cast my eyes lazily over the soft, green carpet of the meadow opposite, losing itself in the distance.

I start daydreaming about life in the country; I wonder what it used to be like here. Indians, cane plantations, slaves, tree trunks, kings, queens, emperors – all this blends with the sight of those mute objects that say nothing of the past.

Suddenly there’s the bell of a tram, a car horn, a lorry carrying beer bottles; the bucolic scene fades and, with it, nostalgia for those long-gone times when the carriages of Don João the Sixth used to pass by here. It all disappears and I’m listening to the hammering of iron at a factory being built nearby.

But the funeral of a child is approaching, and off I go again.

The coffin is being carried by girls. It’s tiny, but still heavy. I can see clearly that it’s a struggle.

They’re dressed in white, with high-heeled shoes. Taking the weight of the little coffin as they walk along the potholed road, it’s not easy for them to fulfil their pious task. And, again, I remember how far they’ve still to go! But at least they’re about to be free of one torment: the paving in Senator José Bonifácio Street. They’re entering Royal Road, in the stretch where the Municipality’s done no more than pile up stones, leaving the ancient public way in the state of virginal nudity in which it was born. It’s been like that for years.

As soon as the little pallbearers step on to the packed clay of the old path, I imagine the relief they must feel from their feet to their heads. And then I see it in their faces. Behind them come other girls, who’ll promptly take turns in the touching mission of carrying a dead child to its last dwelling in this world; and, straight after them, closing the cortege, sombre gentlemen in black, hat in hand, together with simple artificial wreaths and cheap, woodland flowers wrapped in palm leaves.

The paving of Senator José Bonifácio Street, which must have been laid down at least fifty years ago, consists of misaligned cobbles and is full of unexpected bumps and holes. It’s bad for the dead. It even brought one back to life…

Let me tell you. The hearse was pulled by mules. It had come from over in Engenho Novo, and all was going well. The mules were keeping up a regular pace at the front and the hearse was followed by friends of the deceased, in six or seven two and four-wheeled calashes. When the cortege got to Todos os Santos station, it turned right from Arquias Cordeiro Street, down into José Bonifácio Street. The hearse and the calashes immediately started bouncing like storm-tossed boats. Everything inside them was shaking. The coachman on the hearse could hardly keep his seat, swinging from left to right and right to left like a mast in a fierce gale. Suddenly, before they got as far as the ‘Two Brothers,’ the hearse tipped into a pothole, swung violently to one side, the coachman was spat out, the straps securing the coffin snapped, the coffin came sliding down and smashed into the cobbles and – oh, the horror! – from inside there emerged a foot, the foot of the deceased, on his way to burial: quick, alive, very much alive. Once he’d put two and two together, he couldn’t contain his fury and let out a curse:

‘A pox on the poxy municipulty what leaves this poxy road in such a poxy state! Me on me way to me final rest! Thanks to ye an yer neglectance I’m come back to this world to hear me wife’s complanations about the cost of livin’ what’s nohow the fault of mine and put up with the impertinations of me boss Mr Selrão on account of ’is ’emorrhoids what’s also nohow the fault of mine. Ah! Poxy municipulty, did ye ’av an ’ed I’d show ye ’ow strong me fist is!  I’d kill ye for bringin’ me back to this poxy life!’

I wasn’t a witness to the incident; I didn’t even live in the area at the time; but I have it on the highest authority that it’s true. Anyway, there was another very interesting funeral when I was living there, and I heard about it immediately afterwards, from people who’d been present.

It was a Felisberto Catarino who’d died: a polisher and upholsterer in a furniture workshop in Cascadura. He used to live in Engenho de Dentro in his own house with a bit of land where there were some orange trees and a big, shady mango, beneath which he and his friends and colleagues used to meet up on Sundays for a drink and a game of bisca.

He was very popular, both at the workshop and in the neighbourhood, so it was no surprise his funeral was a big event. From where he used to live, it was a long haul to Inhaúma cemetery, but his friends wouldn’t be dissuaded: they were going to carry him there themselves. They had a tipple at the house in his honour and another at every public house they passed along the way. Once they’d got out of town, even the pall-bearers were leaving the coffin by the side of the road and going into the pubs ‘to gather strength.’ At one of the last stop-offs, the current team of pall-bearers agreed among themselves to leave their heavy load for the others and slip ahead to the cemetery gates. (It has to be admitted that, by now, both they and the others were worse the wear for drink.) The other teams came, separately, to the same agreement about slipping ahead; and so the whole cortege, divided into groups, set off for the gates of the consecrated ground, leaving the coffin with the mortal remains of Catarino abandoned at the roadside.

At the cemetery gates they all waited to see the coffin being borne in by one of the other groups; but there was no bearing in. After a while, one of the bolder members of the cortege turned to the others and put this question:

‘Would you not be thinking as we’ve lost the deceased?’

‘How so?’ asked the others in unison.

‘Well now, he’s not here and we are.’

‘That’s very true,’ said one of them.

Another suggested:

‘Will we not go and find him? Wouldn’t that be the best thing?’

And they all set to and went off to look for the overlooked…

Oh, you sad funeral processions to Inhaúma! Were it not for those occasional picturesque – nay, rocambolesque – touches giving us so much cause to think, no one would notice you; and you wouldn’t have the opportunity to convince us that there are worse things than dying.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Translator’s note (2): The Todos os Santos station mentioned in this story was opened in 1868. All that remains of it are some ruins by the side of the track. The photo below is from 2009.

From Portuguese: Brother Simão, by Machado de Assis

(My translation of the short story Frei Simão, which was published in Jornal das Famílias in 1864 and, in book form, in Contos fluminenses in 1870.)



rother Simão was a Benedictine monk. You’d have thought he was fifty when he died, but in fact he was only thirty-eight. The reason for that premature ageing was the same as for his having entered the cloister at the age of thirty and, as far as one can tell from some fragmentary memoirs he left, it was a sufficient reason.

Taciturn and distrustful by nature, he used to spend entire days in his cell, leaving it only at meal times and for the divine office. He didn’t have any friends at all in the monastery, because he wasn’t even open to the preliminaries of making a friendship.

In a monastery, where the communion of souls should be easier and more profound, he seemed an exception to the rule. One of the novices gave him the nickname ‘The Bear,’ which caught on, although it didn’t really go beyond the novices. As for the professed monks, they felt a certain respect and admiration for him, despite any aversion caused by his solitary spirit.

One day it was announced he’d become seriously ill. Help was called and every possible care provided, but his illness was terminal: he died five days later.

During those five days of his illness, with at least one monk continually in attendance, he hadn’t said a word; it was only on the last day, when his final moment was approaching, that he sat up in his bunk, asked the abbot to come closer and whispered in his ear, in a strange, strangulated voice:

‘I die hating humanity.’

When he heard these words and the way they were said, the abbot retreated to the wall. Meanwhile Brother Simão fell back on his pillow and slipped into eternity.

After it had paid the respect due to its dead brother, the community asked its leader what the dreadful words were that had shocked him so much. The abbot obliged, crossing himself at the same time. The monks, however, thought those words could only refer to some past secret, no doubt important, but not sufficient to explain the abbot’s horrified reaction. So the abbot explained that, when he heard Brother Simão say those words, accompanied by that tone of voice and that piercing look, it had occurred to him he was mad; and, even more, that he’d been mad when he entered the monastery – the taciturn life of a hermit to which he’d dedicated himself being symptomatic of a sort of mild and pacific mental disturbance; the monks said they thought it almost impossible that insanity wouldn’t have become evident in a more obvious way in the course of eight years; but the abbot persisted in his opinion.

Meanwhile an inventory was made of the deceased’s possessions, among which was found a neatly tied roll of papers, labelled as follows: ‘Notes for Memoirs, Brother Simão de Santa Águeda, Benedictine monk.’

This roll of papers was a great discovery for the curious community: at last the mysterious veil covering Brother Simão’s past would be lifted slightly and perhaps the abbot’s suspicions would be confirmed. The roll was opened and read out in front of everyone.

In the main it contained incomplete and intractable fragments – jottings and notes – but, even so, there was enough to conclude that, for some time, he really had been mad.

Ignoring those parts of the Memoirs that have no importance whatsoever, the narrator will avail himself of the parts that are less irrelevant or less obscure.



rother Simão’s notes don’t say anything about where he was born, nor do they mention the names of his parents. What we do know about his youth is that, when he’d finished his basic education, he couldn’t follow a literary career as he’d wanted, because he had to become a book-keeper in his father’s firm.

At that time a female cousin of Simão was living in his father’s house; she was an orphan, and Simão’s father had been entrusted with her education and upkeep. Evidently Simão’s father had enough money for that. As for the father of this orphan cousin, he’d gone from riches to penury, having lost all his money on gambling and ill-fated business ventures.

The orphan was called Helena; she was beautiful, sweet and extremely good. Simão, who’d been brought up alongside her, living under the same roof, couldn’t resist his cousin’s outstanding charm and beauty. They fell in love. Their dreams of the future revolved around marriage, which seems the most natural thing in the world for loving hearts.

It didn’t take long for Simão’s parents to find out the two of them were in love. But I should say – even though there’s nothing explicit about it in the monk’s notes –, I should say that the above-mentioned parents were uncommonly selfish. They were ready enough to provide Helena with her daily bread, but letting their son marry the poor orphan was out of the question. They’d set their sights on a rich heiress and, as far as they were concerned, she was the one their son would marry.

One afternoon, when the boy was getting on with entries in the master ledger, his father walked into the office wearing a serious sort of smile and told his son to stop working and listen. The boy obeyed.

‘You’re going to leave for the province of ***,’ his father said. ‘I need to send some letters to Amaral, my business partner, and because they’re very important I don’t want to trust them to our hit-and-miss postal service. Would you prefer to go by steam boat or in our ketch?’

The old businessman had put the question carefully, in such a way that his son had to reply, but couldn’t object. Well aware of that, the boy looked down at the floor and replied: ‘I’ll go whichever way you prefer, Father.’

Mentally thanking his son for being so compliant, thus saving him the price of a steam-boat ticket, the father went off happily to tell his wife that the boy had no objections at all.

That night the two lovers had a chance to meet alone in the dining-room and Simão told Helena what had happened. They both shed some furtive tears and hoped he’d be away for no more than a month.

At the supper table, Simão’s father talked about the boy’s journey and about how it should only take a few days, which gave fresh heart to the two lovers. The rest of the evening was spent with the old man giving his son tips about how to behave in the business partner’s house. At ten o’clock they all went off to bed as usual.

The days passed quickly until the day finally dawned when the ketch was due to leave. Helena emerged from her room with her eyes red from crying. In reply to her aunt, who asked her brusquely what the matter was, she said her eyes were inflamed from reading too much the previous evening. Her aunt told her to abstain from reading and to bathe her eyes in marshmallow water.

Meanwhile her uncle called Simão over, entrusted him with a letter for the business partner and embraced him. Suitcase and servant were ready. It was a sad parting. The parents wept a little; the girl wept a lot.

As for Simão, his eyes were dry and burning. He wasn’t good at crying and therefore suffered even more.

The ketch set sail. As long as he could see land, Simão stayed on deck, but when – in Ribeyrolles’ picturesque phrase – the walls of his mobile prison closed in, he went down to his cabin, sad and heavy-hearted. A presentiment was telling him, inside, that he’d never see his cousin again. It seemed like he was heading into exile.

When he arrived at his destination, he went to look for his father’s business partner and gave him the letter. Mr Amaral read the letter, looked at the boy and, after a long silence and much twiddling of the letter, he said:

‘Right. You need to stay here now, until I carry out your father’s request. In the meantime my home will be your home.’

‘When will I be able to return?’ Simão asked.

‘In a few days, as long as things don’t get complicated.’

In Amaral’s mouth, this ‘as long as’ sounded like the main thing he had to say. The letter from Simão’s father read as follows:

My dear Amaral,

I have serious reasons for needing to send my son away from this city. Please keep him there as long as you can. I have informed him that his voyage has been necessitated by my need to complete some business with you. Please make the little fellow think that he will be coming home in next to no time. Having entertained, in your youth, the ill-conceived idea of becoming a novelist, you should not have any difficulty in contriving such pretexts and eventualities as will result in his not returning until I summon him.

I remain, as always etc.



ays passed and more days passed, without any hint of a time for going home. The ex-novelist was, indeed, imaginative and didn’t tire of thinking up new obstacles in such a way as to convince the boy.

Because, however, lovers are no less ingenious than novelists, Simão and Helena discovered a way of writing to each other and thus each of them was able to find consolation for the absence of the other in the form of paper and ink. (So Héloïse was quite right when she said the art of writing was invented by a lonely lover.) In those letters the two of them vowed to be ever faithful.

After two months’ fruitless waiting and busy correspondence, Helena’s aunt came across one of Simão’s letters – his twentieth, if I’m not mistaken. There was a great to-do in the house. Her uncle, who was in the office, rushed out to discover what it was all about. The result was that ink, pens and paper were banished from the house and the unfortunate girl was kept under rigorous watch.

So the letters to the poor deportee became less frequent. He wrote asking the reason in long, tearstained letters but, as the vigilance in his father’s house had acquired extraordinary dimensions, all Simão’s letters were ending up in the old man’s hands, who – after appreciating the style of his son’s amorous epistles – had them burnt.

Days and months passed by, without any letter from Helena. The seam of the business partner’s imagination was wearing thin and he was hard pressed to find new ways of holding on to the boy.

A letter arrived for Simão. It was a letter from his father. The only difference from the others he’d received from his father was that this was longer – much longer. The boy opened the letter and read it, pale and trembling. The distinguished businessman related in the letter that Helena – that fine girl whom he’d intended to become his daughter through marriage with Simão – had died. The old man had added some homely words of consolation (which he’d plagiarised from a recent funeral notice he’d seen in the papers). The final consolation was that Simão should sail back to discuss his future with his father.

The last sentence read:

In any case, things have not worked out as I intended; I have not been able to marry you to Helena, given that God has taken her from us. But you must come home, my son; come home, where you will find consolation in marrying another girl, Counsellor ***’s daughter, who is of age and a good match. Do not be disheartened and please think of me.

Simão’s father wasn’t well-versed in his son’s love and, even if he were, he’d have needed the eyes of an osprey to plumb its depths. Pain of this kind is not assuaged by a letter, nor by wedlock. It would have been better to summon him home and then prepare him for the news; but doing it cold like this, by letter, was certain death for the boy.

Although Simão was still physically alive, his spirit was dead, so dead that he left that place with the intention of finding his own grave. It might have been helpful, at this point, to include some of Simão’s notes about the suffering the letter caused him; but they’re full of mistakes and I don’t intend to correct the monk’s honest but artless writing.

The grave he chose was a monastery. He sent a reply to his father, thanking him in respect of the counsellor’s daughter, but averring that henceforth his life belonged to God.

His father was amazed. He never suspected anything like that could enter his son’s head and hurriedly wrote to persuade him to change his mind, but without success.

As to the business partner, he’d lost any desire to continue playing a part in a plot that was becoming thicker and thicker, and he was quite happy to see the boy leave for the monastery.



 long time after the events I’ve just narrated, Brother Simão de Santa Águeda was entrusted with a religious mission in his native province. He made his preparations and embarked.

Although the mission wasn’t in the State capital but in the interior, when he got to the capital he thought he should visit his parents. They’d changed, both physically and mentally, no doubt through the pain and remorse of having forced their son to take that fateful decision. They’d sold the firm and were living off the proceeds.

It was with real emotion and true love that they welcomed him. After shedding tears and proffering heartfelt words, they broached the purpose of his visit: ‘What brings you, my son?’

‘A priestly mission: I’ve come to preach, to exhort the Lord’s sheep never to stray from the true path.’

‘Here in the capital?’

‘No, in the interior, beginning in the town of ***.’

The old couple turned pale, but Simão didn’t notice. He departed the next day, not without some further efforts by his parents to make him stay. Although they themselves had no intention of raising the painful subject, they were aware he hadn’t once mentioned Helena.

Some days later, in the town Brother Simão had mentioned, people were impatient to hear the missionary preach. The old church was full to overflowing.

At the appointed hour, he ascended the pulpit and began his sermon. Before long half the congregation had left in disgust. The reason was simple: accustomed as they were to vivid evocations of hellfire and brimstone – and suchlike pearls – from the ordinary run of preachers, they were hardly going to enjoy listening to simple, mild and reasoned language based on the words of the founder of our religion.

The preacher was about to finish when a married couple hurriedly entered the church; he was a small-holder, a decent type of man, not too badly off what with his piece of land and his willingness to work; she was a woman renowned for her virtue but who always seemed irredeemably sad. After blessing themselves with holy water they positioned themselves where they could easily see the preacher.

A scream rings out. Everyone runs to the woman, who’s just fainted. Brother Simão has to interrupt his discourse while she’s attended to, but there’s a gap in the crowd around her. He can see her wan face.

It’s Helena.

At this point in the monk’s manuscript there are eight lines of dots, as if to say ‘I’ve no idea what happened next,’ although what did happen next was that no sooner had he recognised her than he resumed his sermon; but it was now something else: a discourse with neither head nor tale, no subject, nothing but delirium.

General consternation.



rother Simão remained delirious for several days. With care and attention he came round and everyone thought he was better, except the doctor, who wanted to continue the treatment. The monk, however, insisted on returning to the monastery, and there wasn’t a person on earth who could have stopped him.

The reader will have had no difficulty in realising that Helena had been forced to marry by her uncle and aunt.

The effect of seeing Simão was traumatic. She died two months later, leaving her husband – who had truly loved her – inconsolable.

Back in the monastery, Brother Simão became even more solitary and taciturn. A touch of insanity remained.

We already know the circumstances of his death and the impression it made on the abbot.

For a long time, out of piety, the empty cell of Brother Simão de Santa Águeda remained shut. It wasn’t opened till some time later, when an old layman was admitted; with the help of a donation he’d managed to get the abbot to allow him to end his days among doctors of the soul. It was Simão’s father, the mother having died.

The word was – during that old man’s last years – that he was even madder than his son.


A quote from Gilberto Freyre may help to explain why the congregation, ‘accustomed as they were to vivid evocations of hellfire and brimstone,’  would have been quite so disgusted by Brother Simão’s simple sermon. In his 1957 book Ordem e progresso, Freyre refers to the ‘over-valuation’ of oratory, eloquence and rhetoric in Brazil during this period and calls the phenomenon ‘a sticky and contagious flower.’


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: Grandad Andrade, by Artur Azevedo

(My translation of the short story Vovó Andrade, which was published in Contos Cariocas in 1928)


e turned up one fine day at Mrs Eugênia’s lodging house, accompanied by three trunks and a small iron chest. He’d asked for the cheapest room and had haggled about the price of meals on the grounds that he was used to just one a day, and a very, very modest one at that.

No one knew whence the old man came, nor did he tell them, although he wasn’t exactly taciturn. He liked a chin-wag, but if some nosey parker asked personal questions all he’d do would be give them to understand, one way or another, that he’d had a hard life, had suffered a lot and had moved far from his home so that no one could remind him of the past.

All that was known was that he was called Andrade, was Portuguese and had emigrated, as a little child, to one of our provinces, where he’d lived for almost sixty years.

He didn’t allow anyone to come into his room: he dusted and swept it himself, spending hours and hours there on his own, with the door locked, opening and reorganising the chest and the trunks over and over again.

One of the guests, Braguinha, a book-keeper for an important firm, said he could hear the clink of gold coins in the old man’s room.

‘He’s like Uncle Gaspar in the The Chimes of Normandy,’ said this Braguinha with a conviction that transmitted itself to the other guests.


And he might well have been! Old Andrade’s clothes were threadbare, his hat was battered, his shoes were coming apart, and it was with a deep sigh that he paid his modest rent at the end of each month.


The landlady, who was a widow with three lovely sons, the oldest of them thirteen, also became convinced that old Andrade was an out-and-out miser; she’d probably have suggested he look for accommodation elsewhere, were it not that he’d shown himself unusually affectionate to the three boys right from the start, telling them highly entertaining stories. Who’s kind to my kids, my best friend is, as they say.

‘I love children,’ he’d say to Mrs Eugênia. ‘Which is no surprise, given that I’ve got no one in the whole wide world: I’m all on my own.’

‘Completely?’ Not one relative?..’

‘Not even relatively speaking, Mrs Eugênia! Death’s taken all my loved ones and left me all alone in this vale of tears.’


Barbosa, a middle-aged trader and a friend of Mrs Eugênia’s late husband, often visited her and – man of the world that he was – gave her practical advice. The gossips said it was something more than simple advice, but I don’t have any additional information on that point, nor is it important to the story.

The truth is that, after her husband’s death, Dona Eugênia had found herself in a tricky situation, and it was her late husband’s friend who’d provided the necessary capital for her to establish the lodging house, which was now prospering.

One day, Mrs Eugênia told him how the presence of the mysterious old man bothered her, and how she’d have sent him packing if he hadn’t been so friendly to the boys. Barbosa replied:

‘Send him packing?! What an idea! On the contrary: hold on to him. Good luck walked into your house the moment he turned up!’

‘Good luck?’

‘Yes, good luck! He’s old, miserly and without heirs… Send him packing?! What an idea! Be more than kind to him and make your boys love and respect him.’

Barbosa always had the last word in that house. A few days later, Mrs Eugênia offered old Andrade a bigger room for the same price – not only bigger, but more spacious, more airy, better furnished, with a sprung mattress and with two windows looking out on the garden.

What’s more, she more or less forced him to have two meals a day, like the other guests, and in the morning she sent him hot chocolate or café au lait, with biscuits.

The old man wept tears of gratitude, amazed – as he said – at so much kindness towards a poor, useless old devil who didn’t even have anywhere to drop dead.

With the skill of a diplomat, Mrs Eugênia managed to find out when the old man’s birthday was and, when the day arrived, he was given a present of new clothes and shoes. He no longer lacked for anything.

Seeing that the old man seemed to like him, and in the hope of being left something after his death, Braguinha, too, began being extra nice to him, giving him expensive cigars, interesting books, illustrated magazines etc.

But the old man didn’t change his solitary habits. No one entered his room, where he’d still spend hours and hours each day – opening and shutting the chest and the trunks.

One day, when he went to pay his rent to Mrs Eugênia, she said to him:

‘Please don’t be offended if I ask you to keep your money; you don’t need to pay anything at all; your rent’s not going to make me richer or poorer; all I want is for you to be like one of the family in this house.’


This situation lasted quite some time. Old Andrade was treated like a lord, nothing but the best.

He’d got to the stage of expressing his likes and desires, and the slightest hint was enough for either the widow or Braguinha to supply them.

But, on the advice of the prudent Barbosa, Braguinha was kept at a distance: he was a dangerous rival. Thanks to the efforts of the widow and Barbosa, the book-keeper found himself obliged to move. Nevertheless, he continued to visit the old man whenever he could, but it was difficult, given that the widow liked to keep her precious guest to herself.


Andrade had already been in the house for two years when, one night, finding himself alone with Mrs Eugênia, he said to her:

‘I’d like to tell you something, my dear protectress. I’m old – I could die at the drop of a hat…’

‘Don’t say that; you’ve got many years ahead of you!’

‘I always keep with me the key to an iron chest that’s in my room. The chest is ridiculous, a fantasy, because all I’ve got is four cents and some worthless bits and pieces. Anyhow, I want you to know that my will’s in that chest…’

‘Your will!’ said the lady; ‘but you don’t have anything to leave!’

‘That’s where you’re wrong, dear lady – in those trunks I’ve got lots of things – of no value, that’s true, but, if I passed away without making a will, they’d be seized by the Portuguese consulate and sold at public auction. That’s what I want to avoid, by making my own dispositions.’

This revelation caused the kindnesses heaped on the old man to be multiplied. They took him to the theatre, to parties, on walks; they filled him with quince jam and fine wine. The boys became accustomed to calling him ‘Grandad Andrade.’

And he became expensive. The only reason they didn’t provide a doctor and apothecary for him was that, being as healthy as a horse, he didn’t need them.

And he was still just as reticent about his past; there was still the same mystery about it; and there was still no way of getting him to tell.


Mrs Eugênia was beginning to get impatient.

‘That old fellow’s quite capable of outliving all of us!’

‘Patience; you’ll just have to put up with him; all it means is that his capital will be gaining interest,’ said Barbosa. ‘And, at his age, he can’t last much longer.’

And he didn’t.

On the very day when he’d been a guest of the house for five years, Grandad Andrade was struck dead by a stroke. To celebrate the fifth anniversary of their relationship, Mrs Eugênia had laid on a magnificent dinner, with plenty of wine – and he’d overdone it.

The boys, who were grown up now – the oldest was almost eighteen –, wept tears of real sadness. The widow was eager to open the chest and would have done so if the discrete Barbosa hadn’t stopped her.

‘Don’t touch anything. I’ll call the authorities.’

An official came from the consulate and opened the chest. What it contained was an envelope on which were written the words ‘My last will and testament,’ together with about three hundred thousand reais in Treasury notes and silver and gold coins, the ones Braguinha had heard clinking.

Two of the trunks were full of old metal, rags and other useless stuff, and the other one contained objects of some value: the clothes and other things that Grandad Andrade had been given as presents during his five years in the lodging house.

His last will and testament said:

‘Finding myself reduced, in my seventies, to penury, without family or friends, and after a whole life of work and ill fortune, I was faced with a choice between begging and suicide. I opted neither for the one nor the other: I moved away from my home, I pretended to be rich and miserly, two old trunks and an iron chest – the last relics of better times – being sufficient for that. Thanks to that ploy, I managed to get everything I lacked and more. Some will say I was a scoundrel; others, a philosopher. It’s all one to me.

‘In the chest you’ll find sufficient for my burial.’


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Translator’s note:

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

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

From Portuguese: Mr Barreto, by Machado de Assis

(My translation of the short story O caso Barreto, first published in the newspaper A Estação  in 1892 and in the collection Relíquias de Casa Velha in 1938.)


on’t be late tomorrow, Mr Barreto,’ said his section head. ‘We have to deliver this copy to the Minister.’

‘No problem. I’ll come early.’

‘But if you go to the dance, you will wake up late.’

‘No, Sir. I’ll get up early.’

‘Is that a promise?’

‘I’ll get up early. Don’t worry. I’ll see to the copy. Bye for now.’

Continue reading From Portuguese: Mr Barreto, by Machado de Assis

From Portuguese: Fish and Theology, by Coelho Neto

(A translation by Francis K Johnson of Nas águas do mar, which was published in the collection A bico de pena in 1904.)


is most eloquent pulpit wasn’t adorned with precious carvings or gold leaf, had never seen chisel or gouge, wasn’t ensconced in artificial foliage, and no cherubs circled it in jocund rout, blowing trumpets and playing the lyre. No, the pulpit where he was most eloquent was a huge, rugged cliff, bare and black, rammed into a narrow beach. The waves seethed at its foot, which was swathed in putrid seaweed. That’s where the seagulls landed when the sky was blue, where the petrels took refuge when gales lashed the seas, and it was from that spot that the saint spoke to the fishes.

From Portuguese: Food and Drink, by Artur Azevedo

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Cooking salt?!’

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

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

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

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

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

The old actor gave a malicious smile.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And so he did.

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

‘But… your reply?’

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

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

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


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

Your dear friend,


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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Translator’s note:

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

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