Category Archives: Short stories

From Czech: Midnight Mass, by Jan Neruda

(My translation of the short story Svatováclavská mše by Jan Neruda, which was published in Povídky malostranské in 1877)

Portrait by Jan Vilímek

I  was sitting at the bottom of the steps leading up to the choir lofts and could hardly breathe. Through the iron grill of the door, which stood ajar, I had a good view of the nave – as far as the silver tomb of St Jan on the right and the sacristy on the left. Benediction had finished a long time ago and St Vít’s cathedral was empty except for two people: my mother, who was kneeling at the tomb, lost in prayer; and the old sacristan, who was making his last round before locking up. He walked past me, only a few paces away, and turned to the exit under the royal oratory, where I could hear him turning the key in the door and then trying the handle to make sure it was locked. Then he carried on and, as he did so, my mother got to her feet, made the sign of the cross and walked off beside him, and both of them were soon hidden from view by the tomb. For a few moments I could only hear the echo of their footsteps and snatches of conversation before they reappeared over by the sacristy. I heard him shut the door and, once again, there was the sound of locking and making sure with the handle. Then they continued to the exit on the right. There were two metalic clicks, after which I was alone in the cathedral and unable to get out. A wave of heat seemed to sweep across my back – a strange feeling, but not unpleasant.

Continue…

From Portuguese: “Anacleto’s Wife” by Lima Barreto

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

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

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

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

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

Not surprisingly, his wife started expressing disapproval.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

• • •

Clasics in Ñspel: A Haunted House, by Virginia Woolf

tvr aur y woc ɖr wz a dor śutñ. Fṛm rūm t rūm ɖe wnt, hand in hand, liftñ hir, oṗnñ ɖr, mcñ śr—a gostli cupl.

“Hir w left it,” ś sd. N h add, “Ǒ, bt hir tù!” “It’s upsterz,” ś mrmrd. “N in ɖ gardn,” h ẃisprd “Qaytli,” ɖe sd, “or w śl wec ɖm.”

Bt it wz’nt ɖt y woc s. Ǒ, no. “Ɖ’r lcñ fr it; ɖ’r drw̃ ɖ crtn,” wn mt se, n so rīd on a pej or tū. “Nǎ ɖ’v faund it,” wn wd b srtn, stopñ ɖ pensl on ɖ marjin. N ɖen, tîrd v rīdñ, wn mt rîz n si fr wnslf, ɖ hǎs ol emti, ɖ dorz standñ opn, onli ɖ wŭdpijnz bublñ wɖ cntnt n ɖ hum v ɖ ʈreśñmśīn sǎndñ fṛm ɖ farm. “Ẃt dd I cm in hir fr? Ẃt dd I wont t fînd?” Mî handz wr emti. “Phps it’s upsterz ɖen?” Ɖ aplz wr in ɖ loft. N so dǎn agn, ɖ gardn stil az evr, onli ɖ bc hd slipt intu ɖ gras.

Bt ɖe hd faund it in ɖ drw̃rūm. Nt ɖt wn cd evr si ɖm. Ɖ windopeinz rflectd aplz, rflectd rozz; ol ɖ līvz wr grīn in ɖ glas. F ɖe muvd in ɖ drw̃rūm, ɖ apl onli trnd its yelo sîd. Yt, ɖ momnt aftr, f ɖ dor wz opnd, spred abt ɖ flor, huñ upn ɖ wōlz, pndnt fṛm ɖ sīlñ—ẃt? Mî handz wr emti. Ɖ śado v a ʈruś crost ɖ carpit; fṛm ɖ dīpist wlz v sîḷns ɖ wŭdpijn drù its bubl v sǎnd. “Sef, sef, sef,” ɖ puls v ɖ hǎs bìt softli. “Ɖ treźr berid; ɖ rūm . . . ” ɖ puls stopt śort. Ǒ, wz ɖt ɖ berid treźr?

A momnt lêtr ɖ lît hd fedd. Ǎt in ɖ gardn ɖen? Bt ɖ triz spun darcnis fr a wonḍrñ bīm v sún. So fîn, so rer, cūli sunc bnʈ ɖ srfis ɖ bīm I sòt olwz brnt bhnd ɖ glas. Deʈ wz ɖ glas; deʈ wz btwn s; cmñ t ɖ wmn frst, hundṛdz v yirz ago, līvñ ɖ hǎs, sìlñ ol ɖ windoz; ɖ rūmz wr darcnd. H left it, left hr, wnt Norʈ, wnt Īst, sw ɖ starz trnd in ɖ Suɖn scî; sòt ɖ hǎs, faund it dropt bnʈ ɖ Dǎnz. “Sef, sef, sef,” ɖ puls v ɖ hǎs bìt gladli. “Ɖ Treźr yrz.”

Ɖ wind rorz p ɖ aṿny. Triz stūp n bnd ɖs we n ɖt. Mūnbīmz splaś n spil wîldli in ɖ ren. Bt ɖ bīm v ɖ lamp fōlz stret fṛm ɖ windo. Ɖ candl brnz stif n stil. Wonḍrñ ʈru ɖ hǎs, oṗnñ ɖ windoz, ẃisṗrñ nt t wec s, ɖ gostli cupl sīc ɖer jô.

“Hir w slept,” ś sz. N h adz, “Cisz wɖǎt numbr.” “Wecñ in ɖ mornñ—” “Silvr btwn ɖ triz—” “Upsterz—” “In ɖ gardn—” “Ẃn sumr cem—” “In wintr snôtîm—” Ɖ dorz g śutñ far in ɖ distns, jntli nocñ lîc ɖ puls v a hart.

Nirr ɖe cm; sīs at ɖ dorwê. Ɖ wind fōlz, ɖ ren slîdz silvr dǎn ɖ glas. Ǎr îz darcn; w hír no steps bsd s; w si no ledi spred hr gostli clǒc. Hiz handz śīld ɖ lantn. “Lc,” h briɖz. “Sǎnd aslip. Luv upn ɖer lips.”

Stūpñ, holdñ ɖer silvr lamp abv s, loñ ɖe lc n dīpli. Loñ ɖe pōz. Ɖ wind drîvz stretli; ɖ flem stūps slîtli. Wîld bīmz v mūnlît cros bʈ flor n wōl, n, mītñ, sten ɖ fesz bnt; ɖ fesz ponḍrñ; ɖ fesz ɖt srć ɖ slīprz n sīc ɖer hidn jô.

“Sef, sef, sef,” ɖ hart v ɖ hǎs bìts prǎdli. “Loñ yirz—” h saiz. “Agn y faund m.” “Hir,” ś mrmrz, “slīpñ; in ɖ gardn rīdñ; lafñ, rolñ aplz in ɖ loft. Hir w left ǎr treźr—” Stūpñ, ɖer lît lifts ɖ lidz upn mî îz. “Sef! sef! sef!” ɖ puls v ɖ hǎs bìts wîldli. Wecñ, I crî “Ǒ, z ɖs yr berid treźr? Ɖ lît in ɖ hart.”

CLASICS IN ÑSPEL

ÑSPEL

From Czech: A STAR VANISHES, by Karel Čapek

(My translation of Karel Čapek‘s short story Zmizení herce Bendy, which was published in Povídky z jedné kapsy in 1929)

Jan Benda disappeared on the second of September. He’d been known as The Brilliant Benda ever since he shot to fame as a young actor.

Nothing had seemed out of the ordinary on the second of September. The cleaner had arrived at 9 a.m. and had found the bedclothes all over the place and the flat like a pigsty. Which was perfectly normal. Jan wasn’t at home, but that wasn’t unusual either, so she gave everything a quick once-over and continued on her way. All fine, except that, from that time onwards, there was neither sight nor sound of The Brilliant Benda.
Even that, however, didn’t particularly surprise Mrs Marešová – that was her name. These actors, they’re like gypsies: here today, gone tomorrow, off performing or galavanting God knows where.
But on the tenth of September there was cause for concern. Jan should have turned up at the theatre for the rehearsals for King Lear. Apprehension turned to panic when he didn’t even appear for the dress rehearsal. The theatre phoned Jan’s friend Dr Goldberg to see if he knew what was going on.
Dr Goldberg was a surgeon who’d made a fortune out of inflamed appendixes. (Inflamed appendixes were a sort of Jewish speciality.) He was a stout man with thick, gold-framed glasses and an equally stout heart of gold. He was passionate about art, the walls in his flat were full of pictures, and he was a devotee of Jan – to which the actor responded with benevolent contempt, mixed with magnanimity in allowing Dr Goldberg to foot the bill. The sight of The Brilliant Benda’s tragic mask of a face alongside the doctor’s beaming smile had become a fixture of their Sardanapalian excursions. That was the flip side of the great actor’s fame. (To be fair to the doctor, it should be pointed out that he only drank water.)
So, they phoned Dr Goldberg to find out where Jan was. The doctor didn’t have a clue, but he did offer to try and find out. What he didn’t say was that he himself had been searching for him for a week, looking in all the night spots and excursion hotels with mounting apprehension. He had a nasty feeling that something untoward had happened.
As far as Dr Goldberg could make out, he was the last person who’d seen The Brilliant Benda. Some time at the end of August, the two of them had gone on an epic pub crawl through Prague. But then Jan had stopped turning up at any of their regular meeting places. Thinking that Jan might be unwell, the doctor went to his flat one evening – that would have been the first of September. No one came to the door when the doctor rang the bell, but he could hear a sort of rustling sound inside. He rang repeatedly for a good five minutes before there was the sound of footsteps, the door opened, and there was The Brilliant Benda in a dressing-gown. The famous actor was unkempt: dirty, tired-looking, unshaven and his hair a mess.
“Oh, it’s you,” he said. “What do you want?”
“What’s happened to you, for God’s sake?” the doctor blurted out in amazement.
“Nothing. I’m not going anywhere, do you understand? Leave me in peace.”
Whereupon The Brilliant Benda slammed the door in Dr Goldberg’s face. And the very next day, he disappeared.
The doctor squinted behind his thick lenses. Something wasn’t right. All he’d managed to find out, from the caretaker of the block of flats where Jan lived, was that, later that same night, about 3 a.m., a car had stopped in front of the building. No one had got out, but the driver had given a blast of the horn. After which, the caretaker had heard someone leaving the building and shutting the front door, and the car driving away. No, he hadn’t seen what sort of car it was. At 3 a.m., you don’t get out of bed if you don’t have to. But, by the sound of the horn, the driver was in an awful hurry.
Mrs Marešová had said that, before his disappearance, the famous actor hadn’t left his flat for a week (unless at night). He looked as if he hadn’t shaved and hadn’t even washed. He had food brought to him in the flat, he drank cognac, and he lounged about on the sofa. That’s all.
But now that other people were beginning to worry about Jan’s disappearance, Dr Goldberg went to see her again.
“Do you remember what Mr Benda was wearing when he left the flat?”
“Nuffin,” said Mrs Marešová. “That’s exacly what I don’ like about it. ’e weren’t wearin’ no clothes. I knows all ’is clothes, an’ they’re all ’angin’ in the flat. There ain’t a thread missin’.”
“You don’t mean to say he left in his underwear?!”
“Not even in ’is underwear, an’ not even in ’is shoes. It’s very odd, sir. You know, I’ve got a list of all ’is clothes coz I takes ’em to the laundry. They’ve just washed ’em, and I checked it all afterward. Eighteen shirts, not one missin’. Not one single ’ankerchief. Nuffin. Jus’ one little case missin’, what ’e always takes with ’im. If ’e left, ’e mus’ve been stark naked.”
The doctor’s brow wrinkled.
“My dear madam, when you came next day in the morning, hadn’t something been disturbed? You know, something knocked over, or a door broken down…?”
“No, jus’ the same mess as always. ’e kep’ the place like a pigsty, that Mr Benda, sir. But there weren’ no, like, special mess, nuffin like that. But where could ’e ’ave gorn, when ’e din’ even ’ave ’is braces on ’im?!”
Doctor Goldberg, of course, didn’t know any more than she did. So, as a last resort, he turned to the police.
·

“Alright,” said the police inspector, after the doctor had told him everything he knew. “we’ll look into it, Doctor. But according to what you’ve just told me, a whole week locked in his flat, unshaven and unwashed, lounging on the sofa, knocking back the cognac, and then disappearing, naked as Adam in the Garden of Eden, I’d say it all points to… erm…”

“Insanity?”
“Yes. Could be suicide whilst out of his mind. And, you know what? When it comes to The Brilliant Benda, that wouldn’t surprise me at all.”
“But, in that case, wouldn’t his body be found, at least? And then, how far could he get, start naked?! And why would he take his case with him? And that car, waiting outside…? Doesn’t it look more like deliberate disappearance?”
“Debts,” said the police officer all of a sudden. “Did he have any debts?”
“No… Or rather, he had debts coming out of his ears, but he never gave them a second thought.”
“Or… what about a skeleton in the cupboard? A love affair gone terribly wrong? Or anything at all weighing on his mind?”
Dr Goldberg hesitated for a fraction of a second before replying, “No, nothing I’m aware of.”
He did remember a couple of things, but he kept them to himself. In any case, they could scarcely have anything to do with the actor’s disappearance. I’m sure the police will do all they can, he told himself.
·

But when he got home, he had a good think about what he knew of Jan in that respect. Not that there was much:
1. He had a lawfully wedded wife somewhere abroad, but that was as far as that went.
2. He had a mistress in Holešovice.
3. He had a relationship – indeed, what is commonly called a “scandalous relationship” – with Gréta Korbelová, the wife of the prominent industrialist. Gréta desperately wanted to be a famous actress, so Mr Korbel had stumped up the money for some films in which his wife had, of course, a starring role. So, it was known that Jan and Gréta were lovers, that Gréta visited him regularly and wasn’t even bothering to be circumspect any more. But Jan never talked about such things. He dismissed the whole thing with hauteur and with a cynicism that Dr Goldberg, truth to tell, found chilling. No, no one could make head nor tail of Jan’s personal affairs. How could the doctor know if there was something terribly unsavoury behind it all? But, in any case, it was up to the police now.

Of course, the doctor didn’t know how the police would go about investigating the matter, and so he waited, with growing disquiet, for some news. A month had already passed since the actor’s disappearance, and people had started talking about The Brilliant Benda in the past tense.
·

One evening Dr Goldberg bumped into old Mr Lebdušek, the actor. In the course of their conversation, the subject of Jan’s disappearance popped up, naturally enough.

“My goodness! What an actor he was!” said Mr Lebdušek. “I remember him when he was about twenty-five. I tell you, the way he played Osvald! So convincing that even young medical students went, to see what paralysis really looks like. It was round about then that he first played King Lear. Although, to tell you the truth, I can’t really comment on his acting, because I was so fascinated by his hands. He had the hands of an 80-year-old. Withered, dessicated, pitiable. I still don’t understand how he did it. I can do make-up, of course, but no one could do it like Jan. Only an actor can really appreciate it.”
Dr Goldberg felt a melancholic glow at listening to this thespian appreciation of The Brilliant Benda.
“A proper actor, Doctor! I remember the rollicking he gave the wardrobe director that time. ‘How can I play the king,” he bellowed, “if you’re going to put that awful lacy stuff on the coat?! He wouldn’t put up with any nonsense. When he was going to play Othello, he searched through all the antique shops until he found just the right genuine Renaissance ring. He had to wear it on his finger if he was going to be Othello! He always said he performed better if he was wearing something original. It wasn’t really even acting any more, it was… transmogrification!”
It seemed that Mr Lebdušek wasn’t quite sure if that was the correct word, but he continued:
“Between scenes, he was as foul-mouthed as a butcher’s boy, and he’d lock himself in his dressing-room so that no one could bother him. It all got on his nerves really. That’s why he drank so much… I’m going to see a film in the cinema here, Doctor. Nice to meet you. Good night.”
“Do you mind if I go with you?” asked Dr Goldberg, who had no plans for the evening.
·

It was some kind of seafaring film, but he didn’t have much idea of what it was about because he was listening, almost with tears in his eyes, as Mr Lebdušek carried on talking, sotto voce, about The Brilliant Benda.

“He wasn’t an actor; he was the very devil! One life wasn’t enough for him, that’s what it was. In real life, he was a pig, but on the stage, he was the most kingly king or the most trampish tramp. He could gesture, doctor, as if ordering people about came as naturally to him as breathing. And yet his father was a travelling knife sharpener… Look at that ship-wrecked fellow: he’s on a desert island, but his finger nails are perfectly manicured, the idiot! And you can see how his beard’s been stuck on. If Jan had the role, he’d have grown a proper beard, and he’d have long, dirty finger nails… What’s the matter, Doctor?! Are you unwell?”
“You’ll have to excuse me,” the doctor muttered as he got to his feet. “I’ve just remembered something. Lovely to meet you.”
As he headed for the exit, he kept thinking, Jan would have grown a proper beard. Jan was growing a proper beard. Why didn’t it occur to me sooner?!
·

“The police headquarters!” he shouted, as he climbed into the nearest taxi; and when he was finally standing in front of the desk sergeant, he alternately demanded and begged, for the love of God, that a check be made immediately as to whether the body of a tramp had been found anywhere on the second of September. Somewhat to the doctor’s surprise, the desk sergeant promptly went off to check, or to ask someone, although probably more to relieve his boredom than out of real zeal, or even interest. Meanwhile, the doctor had started sweating, because something awful had occurred to him.

“Well, sir,” said the desk sergeant when he returned, “a gamekeeper found the body of an unidentified vagrant, about forty years old, in the Křivoklátsko Woods on the morning of the second. On the third, the body of an unidentified man, about thirty years old, was pulled out of the Elb. He’d been in the water for maybe two weeks. In Německý Brod, on the tenth, an unidentified man, about sixty years old, was found hanging…”
The doctor interrupted him. “Have you got any more details about the vagrant?”
The desk sergeant looked him in the eyes. “Murder. According to the report from the local police station, his skull had been bashed in with a blunt instrument. The postmortem found that he was an alcoholic and that the cause of death was injury to the brain. Here’s the photograph… They made a right mess of him.”
The photograph showed the body of the man from the waist up. He was dressed in rags, and his calico shirt was open. Where the forehead and eyes should have been, there was just a dreadful tangled mass of hair and something else that could have been either skin or bone. Only the man’s stubbly chin still looked human. Dr Goldberg started shaking uncontrollably. Was that… Could it be Jan?
When he felt able to speak, he asked, “Did he… did he have any distinctive features?”
The desk sergeant looked into a folder.
“Hm. One metre eight, grey hair, decayed teeth…”
The doctor sighed loudly with relief: “It can’t be him then. Mr Benda’s teeth were as healthy as a wild animal’s. It’s not him. Forgive me for troubling you, but it can’t be him. That’s out of the question.”
·

Out of the question, he repeated to himself when he got home. He might still be alive. Perhaps he’s sitting in the Olympus or the Black Duck at this very moment.

That night he went walking through Prague again. He drank his glass of water in all the pubs where The Brilliant Benda used to be the centre of attention, and he peered through his gold-rimmed glasses into every corner. But Jan was nowhere to be seen. In the small hours, pale and wan, he told himself, aloud, that he was an idiot, and he slunk off home.
·

The next morning, he went to a regional council office and asked to see the director. Fortunately, it turned out that, at some time in the past, the doctor had excised the man’s inflamed appendix, sewn up the wound and presented him with the offending object in a little bottle of alcohol. And thanks to that by no means superficial aquaintance, two hours later, with a warrant for exhumation in his hand, he was observing, alongside a very disgruntled local doctor, the body of the unknown tramp being dug up.

“The Prague police have already enquired about it, Dr Goldberg. There’s no chance of it being Mr Benda. It’s just a filthy nobody.”
“Did he have lice, Dr Černý?” Dr Goldberg asked.
“I don’t know. You won’t be able to make out anything, Dr Goldberg. His body’s been buried for over a month…”
When the soil was dug out, Dr Goldberg had to order some spirits: the only way to get the gravediggers to lift and carry to the mortuary the object that was lying, sewn into a sack, at the bottom of the grave.
Dr Černý stopped outside the mortuary and took a packet of cigarettes out of his jacket pocket.
“I’ll leave you to go and look at it yourself, Dr Goldberg.”
After a while, Dr Goldberg came stumbling out. He was deathly pale.
“Come and look, Dr Černý.”
Inside he pointed to the place where the man’s head had been. Then, with a pair of tweezers, he rolled back what used to be the man’s lips, revealing the dreadfully decayed black and yellow teeth.
“And now…” he said.
He poked the tweezers between two teeth and pulled out a piece of the black decay. This revealed that the teeth were actually strong and shiny. But that was all that Dr Goldberg could stand; he hurried from the mortuary with his hands clasped to his head.
Eventually, pale and crestfallen, he came back in.
“So there you have it, Dr Černý. Bitumen, that actors stick to their teeth when they play decrepit old men or tramps. Your ‘filthy nobody’ was an actor.” He waved his hand impatiently. “And a great actor, at that.”
·

That evening, Dr Goldberg went to see Mr Korbel, the industrialist. He was a big, strong man with a square jaw and a body like a heavyweight boxer.

They were sitting in armchairs in the lounge. The curtains were drawn, and the only light came from a lamp on the wall.
“I’ve come about… about the actor Jan Benda, Mr Korbel.”
“Ah!” the industrialist placed his hands behind his head. “Has The Brilliant Benda turned up again?”
“Sort of. I think you should be interested… because of that film you wanted to make with him… or rather, to finance.”
“What film? I don’t know anything about a film.”
“I mean the film in which Mr Benda was meant to play a tramp… and in which your wife would be the female lead. That was the real reason for it, your wife.”
“That’s none of your business. I suppose Benda told you some story… There was nothing definite… Benda told you, didn’t he?”
“Not at all! You told him not to tell anyone. You wanted to keep it all under wraps. But you do know that Jan had started letting his hair and beard grow, so that he’d end up looking like a tramp. He took details like that very seriously, didn’t he?”
“I don’t know what you’re on about,” Mr Korbel barked. “I haven’t got anything else to…”
“Filming was due to start on the second of September, wasn’t it? The first scene was scheduled for the Křivoklátsko Woods at daybreak: a tramp wakes up at the edge of a glade… in the mist… he brushes the leaves and pine needles from his rags… I’m imagining how Jan would have played it. I know he’d have got into character by wearing the worst rags and the most battered old shoes possible. He had a box full of that sort of stuff in the loft. That’s why after his… disappearance, none of his clothes were missing. It’s amazing it didn’t occur to anyone! It might have been expected he’d have turned himself into a real tramp, the tattered sleeves, the rope around the waist… it was what he did: getting the costume right.”
“So what?” said the big man, leaning back in his armchair so that the light from the lamp no longer fell on his face. “I don’t understand why you’re telling me all this.”
“Because,” the doctor continued imperturbably, “at about 3 a.m. on the second of September, you stopped for him in… probably in a hired car. I think your brother would have been driving, him being reliable and all that. As you’d arranged with Jan, you didn’t go up to the flat but just tooted the horn. After a while, he emerged… or rather, a dirty, dishevilled old tramp emerged. You told him to hurry up, because the director had already gone ahead. And you drove to the Křivoklátsko Woods.”
“I don’t suppose you know the car’s registration number,” Mr Korbel said sarcastically.
“If I knew that, they’d already have arrested you. You were at the place by daybreak. It’s a sort of glade, or rather a grove of ancient oak trees. A beautiful scenario, I’ll grant you that. I think your brother would have stayed in the road by the car and pretended to be mending something in the engine. After leading Jan four hundred paces from the path, you said, ‘This is the place.’ He’d have asked where the director was. And that’s when you gave him the first blow.”
“With what?” came the voice from the shadows.
“With a lump hammer. Because a monkey wrench would have been too light for a skull like Jan’s, and you wanted to make it completely unrecognisable. After you’d killed him, you went back to the car. ‘All done?’ your brother asked. And you said nothing, because, after all, murdering someone is no small thing.”
“You’re mad,” said the voice in the shadows.
“No, I’m not. I just wanted to let you know how I think it might have happened. You wanted to put an end to Jan because of the scandal with your wife. It was all becoming too public…”
“You stinking Jew!” thundered Mr Korbel. “How dare you!”
Dr Goldberg adjusted his glasses, to make himself look sterner.
“I’m not afraid of you, Mr Korbel. It doesn’t matter how wealthy you are, you can’t do anything to me. How could you harm me, anyway? By refusing to let me remove your appendix perhaps? But I wouldn’t recommend that anyway.”
A chuckle came from the shadows.
“Listen. If you were convinced about just a tenth of what you’ve just been blabbering about, you wouldn’t have come to me, you’d have gone to the police, wouldn’t you?”
“But that’s the point,” said Dr Goldberg. “If I could prove even a tenth of it, I wouldn’t be here. But I don’t think it will be proven. It won’t even be proven that that dirty old tramp was The Brilliant Benda. That’s precisely why I’ve come.”
“To threaten me, eh?”
Mr Korbel reached for the electric bell.
“No, just to scare you. You don’t have much of a conscience, Mr Korbel. You’re too rich for that. But knowing that someone else knows the full horror, knowing that someone else knows you’re a murderer, and that your brother’s a murderer, that you both murdered Jan Benda, a knife-sharpener’s son, an actor – that will disturb your smug equanimity. You won’t have any peace for as long as I live. I’d prefer to see you on the gallows, Mr Korbel, but while I’m alive, I’ll make the lives of you and your brother a misery. Mr Benda was a bad lot. I should know better than anyone how evil he was, how vain, how cynical, how shameless and whatever else. But he was an actor. None of your millions can equal that drunken actor, nor compare with that regal gesture. That pretend, but amazing, magnificence.”
Dr Goldberg clasped his hands.
“How could you do it? You’ll never have peace. I’ll never let you forget. Till my dying day, I’ll remind you. What an artist! Do you hear?”

TRANSLATIONS FROM CZECH

From Czech: FOOTPRINTS, by Karel Čapek

(My translation of Karel Čapek‘s short story Šlépěje, which was published in Povídky z jedné kapsy in 1929)

Mr Rybka was on his way home that night. He was in a very good mood, mainly because he’d won his game of chess (An excellent checkmate with the knight), but also because it had been snowing and he loved how it crunched under his boots amidst that marvellous, pure silence. Dear God, how beautiful! The town seems to shrink and slip back in time. Conjures up nightwatchmen and stagecoaches. Strange, how snow looks old-fashioned and rustic.

Crunch, crunch. He sought out untrodden snow, just for the pleasure of that crunching sound; and because he lived in a quiet, leafy lane, the further he went, the fewer the footprints in the snow. Well, well! Two sets of footprints ending at this gate – a man and a woman, probably a married couple. I wonder if they’re young. Anyway, may God go with them… A cat’s left its pawprints in the snow here. Like little flowers. I hope your paws aren’t too cold, pussy cat. And now there’s just one set of footprints. A man’s. Deep. A chain of them, straight and clear. A walker out on his own. I wonder which of my neighbours it could be. So few people walk along here. No wheel marks. Out on the edge of things. By the time I get home, the lane will have pulled its snowy eiderdown right up, and it’ll be thinking it’s just a children’s playground. Pity that the old newspaper lady will be criss-crossing all over it in the morning. Like a hare…

Suddenly he stopped. He was just about to cross over the snow-white lane to his front gate when he noticed that the single set of footprints he’d been following had left the pavement and headed towards his gate. Who could it be? He stared at the clear footprints.

There were five of them; and right in the middle of the lane, they came to a halt with a sharp print of the left foot. Beyond it, there was nothing, just snow. Undisturbed, untouched.

I must be going doolally! Or perhaps he came back to the pavement.

But the pavement in front of Mr Rybka was completely covered with a layer of smooth, fresh snow.

Well I’m blowed! Don’t say the footprints carry on on the other pavement.

Skirting round the unfinished chain of footprints, he went over to the other side. But there wasn’t a single mark on the pavement over there. The whole lane ahead shone with silky, pristine snow. A wonderful sight. No-one had been there since the snow had started falling.

Well I never! Perhaps whoever it was went back to the pavement stepping into his own footprints. But in that case, he’d have had to walk backwards because they all aim… Why would he do that? And even if he did walk backwards, how would he have managed to fit his boots precisely into those footprints?

Shaking his head, he unlocked the gate and entered his house. Although he knew it was nonsense, he looked around to see if there weren’t any snowy footprints. But of course, that was nonsense.

Maybe I imagined it.

He opened a window and leant out. The five sharp, deep footprints – coming to a halt in the middle of the lane – could clearly be seen in the light of the streetlamp. He rubbed his eyes.

God damn it! I read a story once about a single footprint in the snow, but here there’s five of them, and then nothing. Where could the fellow have gone?

Shaking his head once more, he started to get undressed. But then he stopped all of a sudden and went to the telephone.

“Hello! Sergeant Bartošek? There’s something strange here. Very strange… If you could send someone. Or even better, come yourself… Thank you. I’ll wait at the corner… It’s too difficult to explain over the phone… No, I don’t think there’s any danger… It’s just these footprints that stop all of a sudden… I haven’t the faintest idea whose footprints they are! … Fine, I’ll be waiting for you.”

He got dressed and went out again, taking care not to disturb the footprints either in the road or on the pavement. Shivering with cold and impatience, he waited for Sergeant Bartošek on the corner of the lane. All was quiet, and our planet shone in the universe.

“Nice and quiet here,” said Sergeant Bartošek, sounding fed-up. “I’ve had one fisticuffs and one drunk so far. Great fun… So, what’s been going on here then?”

“Follow those footprints, Sergeant,” said Mr Rybka, his voice quavering. “Just over there.”

The Sergeant turned on his torch.

“A beanpole of a man. Almost one metre eighty, I’d say, from the depth of the prints and the length of the steps. Good shoes – hand-made most likely. Not drunk, walking deliberately. Can’t see what’s the problem, sir.”

Mr Rybka pointed at the unfinished line of steps in the lane. “That is!”

“Aha!”

Without more ado, the Sergeant headed to the last footprint, where he squatted and shone his lamp at it.

“It’s nothing special. Perfectly normal. A firm footstep. His weight was mainly on the heel. If he’d taken another step, or a jump, his weight would have transferred to the ball of the other foot. Do you see?”

“So that means…?” Mr Rybka asked impatiently.

“That means… That means he didn’t go any further.”

“So where did he go?” spluttered Mr Rybka.

The Sergeant shrugged. “Not a clue, sir. Do you have any idea?”

“Do I have any idea?! All I want is to know where he went. Look! Here’s his last step, and where’s the next? There isn’t any next step!”

“I can see that. But why should it bother you where he went? Is it somebody from your house? Is somebody missing? Why should it worry you, for heaven’s sake!”

“B… but there has to be an explanation. Do you think he might have walked backwards in his own footsteps?”

“No chance. When a man walks backwards, he takes shorter steps and he keeps his legs further apart, for balance. And he doesn’t raise his feet so much, so he’d have scraped the snow with his heels. These footprints have been made only once. You see how sharp they are?”

“But if he didn’t go back, where did he go?”

“That’s his business. Look! As long as he didn’t break the law, it’s no business of ours. We’d need to have an accusation of some sort, so that we could carry out an initial investigation…”

“So, are you telling me someone can simply disappear in the middle of a lane?!”

“You’ll just have to wait, sir. If he’s gone missing, I’m sure his family or someone will report it in due course. And then we’d search for him. But until that happens, it’s no business of ours. That’s not how it works.”

Mr Rybka was beginning to get angry.

“Don’t get me wrong, but I’d think the police should be a teeny-weeny bit interested if someone walking calmly along disappears all of a sudden in the middle of a lane!”

“Calm down, sir. Nothing happened to him. There are no signs of a struggle. If someone had attacked or kidnapped him, there’d be signs of it in the snow. So, I’m sorry, sir, but there’s nothing for me to do here.”

Mr Rybka clasped his hands together. “But Sergeant, at least explain to me… It’s a complete mystery!”

“That it certainly is, sir. You’ve no idea how many mysteries there are in this world of ours. Each house, each family, is a mystery. As I was on my way here, I could hear a young woman sobbing in that little house over there. But mysteries… Mysteries aren’t our business, sir. We’re paid to keep order. I hope you don’t think we hunt down criminals out of mere curiosity! We hunt them down so that we can lock them up, sir. Law and order is what we’re about.”

“In that case, is it law and order if someone in the middle of the lane… if someone in the middle of the lane goes straight up into the sky?”

“That depends on the case, sir. According to the regulations, if someone’s in danger of falling from a great height, they should be secured. The first time is a warning, the second time’s a fine… If this man rose up into the sky voluntarily, a policeman would have warned him to attach a safety belt. But in this case, I’m sorry to say there was no policeman on hand. If there had been, you’d be able to see the footprints of the policeman. And, in any case, it’s possible that the man disappeared in another way, isn’t it?”

“What other way?”

“Difficult to say. Maybe a sort of ascension, or Jacob’s ladder… Ascension could be considered kidnapping. If it was accompanied by violence, that is. But I think it normally occurs with the agreement of the person concerned. It’s possible that the man knows how to fly. Haven’t you ever felt as if you’re flying, sir? Someone just lifts their feet a little bit, and off they go… Some fly like a balloon, but me, when I dream that I’m flying, I have to keep pushing myself away from the ground with a foot every now and then. I think it’s the effect of the heavy uniform and the sword. Perhaps the man fell asleep and began flying in his sleep. There’s no law against that, sir. Except if it was a busy road, of course. In that case an officer would need to have a word. Or… I’ve got it! … levitation. The transcendentals believe in levitation, and transcendentalism’s not illegal. A certain Mr Baudyš told me once that he’d seen it with his own eyes. Who knows whether there’s any truth in it?”

“But surely, you’re not telling me, Sergeant, that you believe in it yourself! That would be against the laws of nature…”

Sergeant Bartošek gave a shrug.”

“Yes, I know, I know. But people break all sorts of rules and regulations. If you were a policeman, sir, you’d know more about that sort of thing…”

He waved his hand.

“So, I wouldn’t be surprised if they break natural laws as well. Nothing as strange as folks. Anyway, good night, sir. Getting proper cold now.”

“Wouldn’t you like a cup of tea… or a glass of slivovice before you go?”

“Why not? Why not, indeed? When a body’s wearing this uniform, he can’t even go into a pub, you know. That’s why policemen drink so little.”

“A mystery,” he said, as he sat on the settee watching the snow melting on the tips of his boots. “Ninety-nine percent of people would walk beside those footsteps and not notice anything. And you yourself wouldn’t notice ninety-nine percent of things that are devilish mysterious. Order isn’t mysterious. The law isn’t mysterious. And therefore, sir, the police aren’t mysterious. But everyone else walking down the street is mysterious by the very fact that we haven’t got anything on them. Except if they steal something. Then they stop being mysterious because we lock them up and that’s that. At least we know what they’re doing, and we can keep an eye on them through the little window, can’t we? You know how you see in the newspapers ‘Mysterious discovery of body’? What’s so mysterious about the discovery of a body? When we come across one, we measure it, photograph it and dissect it. We know every thread of clothing, what the person last ate, what the cause of death was etcetera etcetera. Not only that, but we’ll know if it’s most likely that the person was killed for money. It’s all clear and documented… I like my tea nice and strong, please… All crimes are clear, sir. You can see the motives and everything connected to them. Mysterious, on the other hand, is what your cat’s thinking, or your servant, or why your wife looks so wistfully out of the window. Everything, sir, is mysterious except for criminal cases. A criminal case is a cut and dried piece of reality, a sort of extract that we’ve shone a light on. You know, if I was to have a look around here, I’d find out all sorts of things about you. But instead, I’m looking at the toe caps of my boots because I’ve got no official reason to take an interest in you. That’s to say, you haven’t been accused of anything.”

The sergeant took a sip of his hot, strong tea.

“It’s a strange misconception,” he continued, “that the police – and particularly detectives – are interested in mysteries. We couldn’t care two hoots about mysteries. What we’re interested in is what’s not right. We’re not interested in crime because it’s mysterious, sir. We’re interested in it because it’s forbidden. We don’t hunt down scoundrels out of intellectual curiosity, we do it so we can arrest them in the name of the law. Take, for instance, road sweepers. They don’t sweep the streets so as to read human traces in the dust. They do it to clean up the dirt and filth of everyday life. Order isn’t mysterious, not one little bit. But keeping order, sir, is a pig of a job. Anyone who wants to do it has to be prepared to stick his fingers into all sorts of mess. But someone has to do it, just like someone has to slaughter calves. To slaughter calves out of curiosity would be barbarous. It has to be done as a trade. When something is someone’s duty, at least he knows he’s entitled to do it. For instance, justice has to be beyond doubt, just like the times table. I don’t know if you could prove that every theft is bad, but I could prove to you that every theft is forbidden, because I’d keep arresting you. If you scattered pearls on the road, a policeman would order you not to make a mess. But if you started performing miracles, we couldn’t do anything unless it gave rise to public scandal or a disorderly crowd. In short, for us to get involved, there has to be some sort of impropriety.”

“But, Sergeant,” Mr Rybka objected, shuffling disconsolately in his chair, “is that all? This case concerns… concerns something so strange… so mysterious… and you…”

The sergeant shrugged. “…and I let it be. If you like, sir, I’ll get the footprints removed so you can go to bed without worrying. More than that I can’t do for you. Listen! Do you hear those footsteps? That’s our patrol. And it’s now two hours and seven minutes after midnight. Good night, sir.”

Mr Rybka accompanied the sergeant to the gate, from which the unfinished and inexplicable line of footprints could still be seen.

A policeman was approaching on the opposite pavement.

“Anything new, Mimra?” the sergeant shouted over to him.

“Nothing really, sir. In No. 17 over there, the cat was meowing outside, so I knocked them up to let it in. At No. 9, they hadn’t closed the gate properly. On the corner, where they’d been digging the road, they forgot to leave a red light. And one of the shop signs at Maršík the grocer’s has come loose. They’ll need to take it down in the morning so that it doesn’t fall on someone’s head.”

“That’s all?”

“That’s all,” replied Mimra. “They’ll need to grit the pavements in the morning so someone doesn’t break their leg. The bells should be rung everywhere at six.”

“That’s good,” said Sergeant Bartošek. “Good night!”

Mr Rybka looked once more at the footprints leading nowhere. But where the last prints were, there were now the very definite prints of PC Mimra’s service boots. And those prints continued from there in a regular and clearly visible line.

“Thank God for that,” Mr Rybka muttered to himself as he went back in.

TRANSLATIONS FROM CZECH

From Portuguese: The Prettiest Girl in Rio, by Artur Azevedo

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

I

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

II

B

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

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

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

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

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

‘You mean that seriously?’

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

‘He’s a clerk!’

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

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

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

‘But we could make Fadinha see that…’

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

‘But…’

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

‘I…’

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

‘But you’re talking twaddle!’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Eh?!.. What do you mean?..’

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

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

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

III

R

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Thank you, Baron.’

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

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

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

‘Thank you very much, Baron Sir.’

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

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

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

Fadinha interrupted:

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

‘I’ve already said “No”!’

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

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

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

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

IV

A

nd now for the explanation of the phenomenon:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Sr. Motta’s not in.’

‘Alright, you may go.’

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

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

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

‘That’s why I asked if you know him.’

There was a pause.

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

‘No, I didn’t know him.’

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

‘No!’

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

‘I think, perhaps…’

‘Well, that’s her!’

‘And is she really pretty?’

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

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

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

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

‘Alexandre.’

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

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

‘Well?’

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

V

I

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

VI

W

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

‘Well? Did you go?’

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

‘I don’t understand.’

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

‘You didn’t see her?’

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

‘Really?’

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

‘And what did the old woman say?’

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

‘You don’t think she was.’

‘Of course I don’t think so.’

‘You’ve got a rival.’

‘I thought as much.’

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

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

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

‘What’s your advice?’

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

There was a long silence.

‘Do you like her?’

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

‘Are you prepared to be her husband?’

There was another silence, even longer than the first.

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

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

‘You didn’t say anything…’

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

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

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

‘I shall fight!’

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

‘He’s going to marry her.’

TRANSLATIONS FROM PORTUGUESE

From Portuguese: The Oracle, by Machado de Assis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

At any rate, he cancelled the journey north.

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

Before long, he was like one of the family.

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

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

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

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

“Ah!”

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

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

“Oh! Thank you!”

“So, you accept?”

“Oh yes! Without a doubt!”

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

“But listen…”

“What…?”

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

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

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

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

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

It was a moving scene.

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

“As you wish.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Thank you.”

They separated.

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

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

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

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

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

“Extraordinary! But what is this oracle?”

“That’s a secret.”

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

“It all depends – on the oracle.”

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

“No, Father, I’m not.”

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

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

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

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

“To what do I owe this visit?”

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

“Ah!”

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

“Who told you?”

“Cecília. She sent us a message.”

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

“On the contrary.”

“Thank goodness for that!”

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

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

“If it’s a No, will you support me?”

“Of course,” said both the nieces.

Soon afterwards their husbands arrived.

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

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

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

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

They all gathered round her.

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

“So, what did Mr Oracle say?”

“Oh! Father! He said No!”

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

“Yes.”

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

“Oh! No!”

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

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

“No need.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What’s this?”

“It’s the reply to your question.”

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

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

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

“You’re my son-in-law!”

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

“But what if this is a forgery?”

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

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

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

Epilogue

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

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

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

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

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

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

Henrique and Cecília couldn’t be happier.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

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

Machado de Assis (Joaquim Maria M. de A.), a journalist, short-story writer, feuilletonist, novelist, poet and playwright, was born in Rio de Janeiro on 21 June 1839, and also died there, on 29 September 1908. He was the founder of Chair No. 23 of the Brazilian Academy of Letters. A good friend and admirer of José de Alencar, who died about twenty years before the establishment of the Academy, it was natural that Machado should choose the name of the author of O Guarani as his patron. He was President of the Brazilian Academy of Letters for more than ten years, the Academy becoming known, familiarly, as ‘The House of Machado de Assis.’

He was the son of Francisco José, a labourer, and Leopoldina Machado de Assis. His mother died when he was little, but information is scarce about his early years. He was brought up on Livramento Hill and was an altar server at Lampadosa church.

Without the means to have proper schooling, he published his first literary work – a poem called Ela (She) – in the Marmota Fluminense magazine in 1855. The next year he got a job at the National Press Works as an apprentice typographer.

By 1859 he was a proof-reader and correspondent for the Correio Mercantil newspaper and in 1860 he became a member of the editorial staff of the Diário do Rio de Janeiro newspaper. He also wrote regularly for the magazine O Espelho, where he made his debut as a theatre critic, for the Semana Ilustrada – from 1860 to 1875 – and for the Jornal das Famílias, where he mainly published short stories.

His first book, Queda que as mulheres têm para os tolos (How Women are Attracted to Fools), was printed by Paula Brito in 1861, although he was described as its translator. In 1862 he became theatre censor, an unpaid role, but one which gave him free entry to performances. He also began to collaborate with O Futuro, which was produced by Faustino Xavier de Novais, the brother of his future wife.

His first book of poetry, Crisálidas (Chrysalids), was published in 1864. In 1867 he was appointed assistant director of the government bulletin Diário Oficial. Three months after Faustino Xavier de Novais’s death in 1869, he married his friend’s sister, Carolina Augusta Xavier de Novais. She was a perfect companion during the remaining 35 years of his life and introduced him to the Portuguese classics and the works of various English authors.

His first novel, Ressurreição, was published in 1872. Shortly afterwards he was appointed first official at the state secretariat of the ministry of agriculture, commerce and public works, thus embarking upon the civil service career that would be his main source of income throughout the rest of his life.

In 1874 he began to publish, in instalments in the Globo newspaper, the novel A mão e a luva (The Hand and the Glove). He also wrote feuilletons, short stories, poetry and serialised novels for newspapers and magazines such as O Cruzeiro, A Estação and Revista Brasileira.

One of his plays, Tu, só tu, puro amor (You, just You, Pure Love) was staged at the Imperial Dom Pedro II Theatre in 1880. From 1881 to 1897 he published his best feuilletons in the Gazeta de Notícias.

1881 saw the publication of the book which would give a new direction to his literary career – Memórias póstumas de Brás Cubas (The Posthumous Memories of Brás Cubas), which had been published in instalments in the Revista Brasileira from 1879 to 1880. He also revealed himself as an extraordinary short story writer in Papéis Avulsos (Loose Pages, 1882) and in a number of subsequent collections of short stories.

In 1889 he was promoted to director of commerce at the ministry.

He had continued to work for the Revista Brasileira in the period when it was under the direction of his great friend José Veríssimo. The group of intellectuals connected with the Revista had the idea for creating a Brazilian Academy of Letters and, when the Academy was inaugurated in 1897, he was elected President, a task he devoted himself to for the rest of his life.

His oeuvre covers practically all literary genres. His first works of poetry were the Romantic Crisálidas (1864) and Falenas (Moths, 1870); this was followed by indianism in Americanas (1875) and parnassianism in Ocidentais (Occidentals, 1901).

The Contos fluminenses (Rio Stories) were published in 1870 and the Histórias da meia-noite (Midnight Stories) in 1873; the novel Ressurreição (Resurrection) in 1872, A mão e a luva in 1874, Helena in 1876 and Iaiá Garcia in 1878, all of which were considered part of his Romantic period. From that point onwards he moved into the phase of his masterpieces, which evade literary categorisation and which make him the greatest Brazilian writer and one of the greatest authors in the Portuguese language.

During his life, his work was edited by the Livraria Garnier from 1869; in 1937, W. M. Jackson, of Rio de Janeiro, published the Obras completes (Complete Works) in 31 volumes. Raimundo Magalhães Júnior organised and published, in Civilização Brasileira, the following volumes of Machado de Assis: Contos e crônicas (Stories and Feuilletons, 1958); Contos esparsos (Random Stories, 1956); Contos esquecidos (Forgotten Stories, 1956); Contos recolhidos (Collected Stories, 1956); Contos avulsos (Separate Stories, 1956); Contos sem data (Undated Stories, 1956); Crônicas de Lélio (Lélio’s Chronicles, 1958); Diálogos e reflexões de um relojoeiro (Dialogues and Reflections of a Watchmaker, 1956). In 1975 the Machado de Assis Commission, which was established by the ministry of education and culture and was chaired by the president of the Brazilian Academy of Letters, organised and published, also in Civilização Brasileira, the Edições críticas de obras de Machado de Assis (Critical Editions of the Works of Machado de Assis), in 15 volumes, comprising short stories, novels and poetry by that greatest of Brazilian writers.

Publications: Desencantos, comedy (1861); Queda que as mulheres têm para os tolos, prose satire (1861); two comic plays: O protocolo and O caminho da porta (1863); Quase ministro, comedy; Crisálidas, poetry (1864); Os deuses de casaca, comedy (1866); Falenas, poetry (1870); Contos fluminenses, short stories (1870); Ressurreição,  novel (1872); Histórias da meia-noite, short stories (1873); A mão e a luva, novel (1874); Americanas, poetry (1875); Helena, novel (1876); Iaiá Garcia, novel (1878); Memórias póstumas de Brás Cubas, novel (1881); Tu, só tu, puro amor, comedy (1881); Papéis avulsos, short stories (1882); Histórias sem data, short stories (1884); Quincas Borba, novel (1891); Várias histórias, short stories (1896); Páginas recolhidas, short stories, essays, plays (1899); Dom Casmurro, novel (1899); Poesias completas (1901); Esaú e Jacó, novel (1904); Relíquias da casa velha, short stories, criticism, plays (1906); Memorial de Aires, novel (1908).

Published posthumously: Crítica (1910); Outras relíquias, short stories, criticism, theatre (1932); Crônicas, feuilletons (1937); Correspondência (1932); Crítica literária (1937); Páginas escolhidas (1921); Casa velha (1944).

To mark the centenary of Machado’s birth, in 1939, Monteiro Lobato wrote the following at the request of the Argentinian newspaper La Prensa:

‘The short stories of Machado de Assis! Where can we find stories more perfect in form, more sparkling with ideas and more permeated by philosophy? Where can you find stories more universal and more human whilst simultaneously local and individual? We’d need to go to France to find one of his brothers in the person of Anatole France. But Anatole France blossomed in the most propitious of gardens, amidst a highly developed civilisation, encouraged by all sorts of awards, and surrounded by all the finesse of comfort and art; Machado de Assis was born into poverty, amidst the squalor of colonial Rio, and received no awards other than his own auto-approval, and his monthly wage was scarcely enough to live on. Rather than having readers throughout the world, like Anatole France, Machado de Assis had just half a dozen friends as his readers. The paltry sum for which he sold the copyright for all his works to the Garnier publishing house […] shows clearly how limited was his readership.

Even so, despite all these limitations, it was his pen that produced the first masterpiece of Brazilian literature, Memórias Póstumas de Brás Cubas (The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas), a book that’s going to surprise the world one day. They’ll all be saying: ‘How on earth could this have appeared in such an inferior country, in a South American backwater?!’

And then he gave us Dom Casmurro (Mr Grumpy), that perfect novel, and Esaú e Jacó (Esau and Jacob) and Quincas Borba and, finally Memorial de Aires, a work that brings style and romance to emptiness, to the emptiness of old age, to the emptiness of his own almost seventy years.

In between the novels, he was producing short stories – and what stories! What marvellous stories, different from anything produced in Brazil, or in the whole of America! Stories without tricks, without stage props, without lots of landscape, everything based on the most meticulous design, like the paintings of Ingres. Human types and more human types, souls and more souls – an immense procession of figures more vivid even than their models. And with what style, with what purity of language!

There are few great heights in Brazilian literature: plenty of writers, plenty of books, plenty of printed paper, but also plenty of vain pretension and, in recent times, plenty of impostors. But all those defects have been redeemed by the appearance of works of eternal value, works that will endure as long as the language in which they were written. ‘Missa do Galo’ (Midnight Mass), ‘Uns Braços’ (A Pair of Arms), ‘Conto Alexandrino’ (An Alexandrian Tale), ‘Capitulo dos Chapeus’ (A Chapter of Hats), ‘Anedota Pecuniária’ (A Pecuniary Anecdote) [Translations of the first four are available in John Gledson’s A Chapter of Hats (2008)] – it’s difficult to choose between Machado’s stories, because they’re all drawn from the same spring. Ah! If only Portuguese wasn’t this clandestine language…

Before writing these lines, I re-read several of Machado de Assis’s works and it’s only because I promised La Prensa I would that I forced myself to speak about him, so little, so insignificant, so miserable did I feel! I felt ashamed of judgements I’d made previously in which, either out of snobbery or stupidity, I’d dared to make ironic remarks about such work. And, given that I didn’t withdraw from this undertaking, at least it gives me a chance to undergo public penance – because, in all honesty, I find it grotesque that anyone nowadays should dare to speak about Machado de Assis without removing their hat. Our attitude should be marked by complete and reverential humility. If anyone doubts that, let them re-read ‘Conto Alexandrino’ or ‘Missa do Galo.’

In your presence, Machado, we’re all bit players…

The wariness with which Machado de Assis lived his life in Rio de Janeiro was supremely felicitous in his case – a difficult case, of extreme intellectual superiority allied to extreme awareness that it wouldn’t do to flaunt it, in view of the colour of his skin and his mundane job in public administration. How many proud but empty ministers must have been his legal and social superiors – superior to him, who was, simply on his own merits, the highest of the highest in Brazil! Time’s broom has already swept the names of all those bigwigs, all those ‘superiors,’ into the bin; but the name of Machado de Assis continues to rise higher and higher.

He was oddly gregarious. He always liked literary associations and societies, going so far as to found an academy of ‘immortals’ (the Brazilian Academy of Letters), of which he was the president, and he was the only one who really became an immortal, without the quotation marks. The explanation may reside in his innate need to observe ‘the puppet show’: gathering the puppets around whatever human stupidity, he had them conveniently to hand for his study, just as, in his laboratory, an anatomist has a collection of rabbits, dogs and monkeys in cages for his experimentation.

Machado’s philosophy was permeated by melancholy: he’d studies the guinea pigs too much, he knew the human soul too well. A calmly resigned philosophy, the ultimate point of which appears in Brás Cubas, that hero of self-satisfied vulgarity, who concludes his posthumous memoirs with the balance sheet of his earthly existence, a positive balance sheet. How come, positive? ‘I didn’t have children, I didn’t pass on to any other being  the legacy of our misery.’

The life of Machado de Assis also had a positive balance. He didn’t have children and, given that he couldn’t pass on his genius, at least he didn’t pass on to any other being the colour of his skin, his stutter, his epilepsy, his disenchantment with the puppets. And there could have been nothing more generous in his life. What a terrible thing for any being – even for a being of some capacity – to carry the stupendous burden, for your whole life, of being the child of Machado de Assis!

‘Do you know who that is, the sad old crow coming out of that office?’

‘That miserable-looking mulatto, the one with the hunchback?’

‘Yes, that one. That’s the son of Machado de Assis…’

Just imagine the look of pious sympathy this piece of information would evoke!

Nature permits geniuses only one child: their work. Machado de Assis understood this better than anyone and, having given the world this most beautiful child, he walked sadly away from the madding crowd, with the tranquillity of those who’ve succeeded in the most challenging of all tasks – that of not leaving behind the merest shadow of pain.’

For his part, Lima Barreto – who was initially often referred to as the true successor of Machado – was less fulsome in his praise:

Not denying his merits as a great writer, I’ve always found a considerable aridity in Machado, a marked lack of sympathy, a lack of generous impulses, some puerile characteristics. I’ve never imitated him and he’s never been my inspiration. You can mention Maupassant, Dickens, Swift, Balzac, Daudet, perhaps, but Machado, never! You could go as far as Turgenev or Tolstoy in order to find my exemplars; but Machado, no! […] Machado wrote […] hiding what he felt so as not to be humiliated […] I’m not afraid to say what I think and what I feel, without calculating whether I’m going to be humiliated or praised. I think that’s a big difference.

(Obras Completas de Lima Barreto, Correspondências, Vol.2, 1956).

From Czech: LAST JUDGMENT, by Karel Čapek

(My translation of Karel Čapek’s short story Poslední soud, which was published in Povídky z jedné kapsy in 1929)

Kugler was a notorious criminal who had several murders to his account. Despite being the subject of various arrest warrants and being pursued by a whole army of policemen and detectives, he vowed he’d never be taken alive. And he wasn’t. That’s to say, not alive. His final – ninth – murderous exploit was shooting a policeman who was trying to arrest him. Before he died, the policeman fired seven bullets at Kugler, three of which were perfectly lethal. And thus, our man escaped earthly justice.

His death was so sudden that he didn’t even have time to feel any particular pain. As his soul left his body, it might have wondered at the marvels of the other world, a world beyond space, a dim and endlessly deserted world. But it didn’t wonder. For a man who’s even been in jail in America, the other world is simply a new environment where, with a bit of pluck, he’ll get by like anywhere else.

Finally, there came the inevitable Last Judgment. Because there’s permanent martial law in Heaven, his case was decided directly by the judges, rather than a jury, which – with his record – he might have expected. The courtroom was simply arranged, just like on earth; for reasons that will become evident, there was no cross by which witnesses might stand to take their oath. The judges were three old, meritorious officials who looked strict and thoroughly miserable. The formalities were boring: Ferdinand Kugler, unemployed, born on such and such a date, died… Here it became apparent that Kugler didn’t know the date of his death; and it became apparent to him that this didn’t help his case.

“What are you guilty of?” asked the presiding judge.

“Nothing,” came Kugler’s resolute reply.

The judge sighed: “Call the witness!”

A huge, powerfully built and extraordinary-looking old man sat down opposite Kugler. He was wearing a blue cloak that was studded with golden stars. When he entered, the judges had got to their feet, as had Kugler, who couldn’t help but be awe-struck. And it was only after the old man had sat down that the others resumed their seats.

“Witness,” said the presiding judge, “Almighty God, this Court of Last Judgment has called you to testify in the case of Ferdinand Kugler. Being All-Truthful, you don’t have to swear. All we ask, for the purposes of the hearing, is that you keep to the point and don’t wander off into matters that aren’t relevant to the law. And no interruptions from you, Kugler! As He knows everything, there’s no point in contesting anything. Witness, please testify.”

Having said all that, the presiding judge placed his elbows comfortably on the desk in front of him and took off his gold-rimmed spectacles, evidently prepared for a rather long speech from the witness. The older of the two other judges arranged himself comfortably for sleep. The recording angel opened the Book of Life.

God, the witness, cleared his throat and began:

“Yes, Ferdinand Kugler, the son of a factory worker, was spoilt ever since he was little. You were a very naughty boy! He loved his mother to bits but was ashamed to show it because he was rebellious and disobedient. Do you remember how you bit your father’s thumb when he was trying to smack you for stealing roses from the notary’s garden?”

“They were for Irma, the tax inspector’s daughter,” said Kugler.

“I know,” said God. “She was seven years old at the time. And do you know what happened to her afterwards?”

“No, I don’t.”

“She married Oskar, the factory owner’s son. He passed on an infection to her, and she died during a miscarriage… Do you remember Ruda Zárubov?”

“What happened to him?”

“He went to sea and died in Bombay. The two of you were the worst boys in the whole town. At the age of ten, Ferdinand Kugler was a confirmed liar and thief; he got into bad company, people like Dlabol, that alcoholic beggar, with whom he shared his food.”

The presiding judge waved his hand to indicate that this probably wasn’t relevant; but Kugler himself asked shyly, “And… what happened to his daughter?”

“To Marka?” said God. “She went off the rails altogether. She became a prostitute at the age of fourteen and died when she was twenty; she remembered you when she was in her death throes. When you were fourteen, you used to get drunk and run away from home. Your father worried himself sick, and your mother couldn’t stop crying. You dishonoured your home, and not a single young man would come into the house of a thief to woo your pretty sister Mamička. She’s still living all alone in poverty, trying to make ends meet with the meagre earnings from the little jobs that kind people deign to give her.”

“What’s she doing at the moment?”

“Right now, she’s at the Vlčeks’ shop buying thread so that she can sew until it gets dark. Do you remember that shop? You bought a rainbow-coloured marble there once; and on the very first day you lost it and couldn’t find it anywhere. Do you remember how you blubbed about it?”

“Where did it roll off to?” Kugler asked eagerly.

“Into the drain under the gutter. And it’s still there, thirty years later. It’s raining there now, and that glass marble is shivering in the cold, gurgling water.”

Overcome, Kugler bowed his head; but the presiding judge put his glasses back on and said:

“We must get to the point, witness. Did the accused commit murder?”

God the witness shook his head.

“He killed nine people. The first one in a brawl. For that, he was sent to prison. The second was an unfaithful girlfriend. He was sentenced to death for that, but he escaped. The third was an old man he robbed. The fourth was a night watchman.”

“Did he die?” Kugler blurted out.

“Yes, after three days,” said God. “He died in terrible pain, and he left behind six children. The fifth and the sixth victims were an old married couple; he killed them with an axe and discovered only sixteen crowns, even though they had twenty thousand hidden away.”

“Where?” shouted Kugler. “Where?”

“Under the straw mattress,” said God. “In a canvas sack, where they kept the money they made from usury and avarice. He killed the seventh person in America – an immigrant, a fellow-countryman, as helpless as a child.”

“So it was under the mattress,” Kugler muttered in amazement.

“Yes,” continued the witness. “The eighth got in Kugler’s way when he was being chased. Kugler’s arthritis was playing up at the time, and he was crazy with pain. My, how you suffered! The last one was the policeman he shot dead just before he died himself.”

“Why did he commit the murders?” asked the presiding judge.

“Like other people,” answered God, “from anger, from lust for money, sometimes with malice aforethought, sometimes on the spur of the moment. He was generous and he helped people sometimes. He was kind to women, he loved animals and he kept his word. Do you want me to list his good deeds?”

“No thank you,” said the presiding judge. “That won’t be necessary. Accused, do you have anything to say in your defence?”

“No,” said Kugler indifferently. It was all one to him by this stage.

“The court will withdraw to consider the matter,” said the presiding judge, and the three judges left the courtroom. God and Kugler remained in the courtroom.

“Who are they?” asked Kugler, nodding towards the judges as they left.

“People like you,” said God. “They were judges on earth, so they carry on judging here.”

Kugler bit his fingers.

“I thought… I mean, it’s no concern of mine, but… I’d have thought you’d do the judging, given that…, given that…”

“Given that I’m God,” the large old man completed the sentence. “But that’s the point, isn’t it? Because I know everything, I can’t be the judge. That wouldn’t be right. You don’t know who turned you in that time, do you, Kugler?”

“No, I don’t,” said Kugler, surprised.

“It was Lucka, the waitress. She did it out of jealousy.”

“Excuse me,” Kugler interrupted, “but you forgot to mention I shot that scoundrel Teddy in Chicago.”

“Not at all!” God objected. “He just about survived. He’s still alive. I know he’s an informer, but he’s a good man otherwise. He loves children. You mustn’t think that everyone is a complete and utter scoundrel.”

“Why don’t you… why don’t you, God, do the judging on your own?” asked Kugler, perplexed.

“Because I know everything. If the judges knew everything – absolutely everything –, they wouldn’t be able to judge either. All they could do would be to understand everything, so much so that their hearts would break. So how could I judge you? The judges only know about your crimes. I know everything about you. Everything, Kugler. And that’s why I can’t judge you.”

“But why do those people… why do they carry on judging… in Heaven as well.”

“Because people belong to people. As you can see, I’m just the witness. But when it comes to punishment, you know, it’s people who decide here in Heaven as well. Believe me, Kugler, it’s quite OK: human beings shouldn’t face any justice other than human justice.”

At that moment, the judges returned from their deliberations, and the presiding judge declared the last judgment in a firm voice:

“Ferdinand Kugler, for nine crimes of murder, including murder aforethought and murder with robbery, for the crime of carrying a gun, and for the theft of roses, the court condemns you to a lifetime in Hell. Next case, please. Is the accused František Machát here?”

TRANSLATIONS FROM CZECH

From Czech: A MURDEROUS ATTACK, by Karel Čapek

(My translation of Karel Čapek’s short story Vražedný útok, which was published in Povídky z jedné kapsy in 1929)

That evening, Councillor Tomsa was sitting downstairs enjoying listening, through his headphones, to a beautiful recording of Dvořák’s Dances on the radio. But no sooner had he said to himself, Now, that’s what I call music!, when there were two loud bangs outside and glass came raining down on his head from the window just above him.

Whereupon he did what I suppose any of us would do: first he waited to see what would happen next, then – when nothing else did happen – he took off the headphones and glowered as he tried to work out what had actually happened. And it was only at that point that he really took fright, because he realised that someone had fired two shots through the window. A bullet had lodged itself in the door opposite. His first impulse was to run out into the street and grab hold of the hooligan by the collar; but when you’re getting on in years and cultivate a certain dignity, that impulse tends to give way quite rapidly to a second: call the police.

“Hello, send an officer immediately. Someone just tried to murder me.”

“Where are you?” said the sleepy, indifferent voice.

“I’m here, at home,” shouted Mr Tomsa, as if it were the policeman’s fault. “It’s scandalous – to shoot out of the blue at a peaceable citizen who’s sitting at home minding his own business! This has to be investigated most rigorously, Officer! It would be a fine state of affairs if…”

“OK,” said the sleepy voice. “I’ll send someone.”

The councillor’s impatience knew no bounds; it seemed that he was waiting for hours, but in fact it was only after about twenty minutes that a cool, calm and collected police officer turned up, who proceeded to inspect the holes in the window with great interest.

“Someone shot at the window, sir,” he said matter-of-factly.

“I already know that!” spluttered Mr Tomsa. “I was sitting by the window, wasn’t I!”

“Seven millimetres calibre,” said the officer, as he prised the bullet out of the door with a knife. “It looks like from an old army revolver. Look, the fellow must have been standing on the fence. If he’d been on the pavement the bullet would have lodged itself higher up. That means he was aiming at you, sir.”

“How odd!” Mr Tomsa replied sourly. “I was almost convinced he only wanted to hit the door.”

“And who did it?” asked the officer, without missing a beat.

“You’ll have to forgive me,” said the councillor. “I can’t give you his address; I didn’t actually see him, and I forgot to invite him in.”

“That makes it difficult,” the officer replied calmly. “So who do you suspect?”

That did it for Mr Tomsa. “Suspect!” he growled. “I didn’t even see the scoundrel, man! And even if he’d waited for me to blow him a kiss through the window, I wouldn’t have recognised him in the dark. Do you really think I’d have bothered you if I’d known who it was?”

“I quite understand,” said the officer soothingly, “but maybe you could think of someone who, say, would have something to gain from your death, or who’d want revenge for something… I mean, it wasn’t an attempted robbery; a robber doesn’t shoot if he doesn’t have to. But perhaps someone’s got it in for you. It’s up to you to tell us, sir, and then we can investigate it.”

That stopped Mr Tomsa in his tracks; he hadn’t thought about that side of things.

“I haven’t a clue,” he said hesitantly, as he contemplated his quiet life as an official and a bachelor.

“Who could possibly have it in for me? On my honour, I’m not aware of having any enemies at all.”

He shook his head.

“No, it’s out of the question. I don’t have any disputes with anyone, Officer. I live alone, I don’t go anywhere, I don’t stick my nose into anybody’s business… Why would anyone want to take revenge on me?”

The officer shrugged his shoulders. “That I can’t answer, sir. But perhaps something will occur to you by tomorrow. You won’t be afraid here, will you?”

“I won’t,” said Mr Tomsa.

How strange! he thought when the officer had left. Why, indeed, would someone want to shoot me? I’m virtually a recluse; I do my work in the office, and I go home – I don’t really have anything to do with anyone. So why would they want to shoot me?

He was starting to feel very sorry for himself. And very bitter.

The ingratitude! There I am working my socks off, taking work home, hardly spending anything on myself, not living it up, like a snail in its shell, and – bang! – someone wants to kill me. Dear God! Where do people get such anger? What have I ever done to anyone? How could someone hate me like that?

But then – sitting on the bed and with the shoe hed just taken off in his hand – another thought occurred to him:

Perhaps it was a mistake. Yes, of course! A mistake. They got the wrong person. Whoever it was thought I was someone else, someone he had it in for!

He sighed with relief.

But the original thought returned: Why would someone hate me so much?

The shoe fell out of his hand.

Well, there was that, he remembered, feeling a little embarrassed. That stupid thing I said the other day, but it was just something I said without thinking. Roubal is my friend, after all. I shouldn’t have said that about his wife. But everyone knows she’s seeing other men. He even knows it himself. It’s just that he pretends not to. But I shouldn’t have let that slip, idiot that I am…!

The councillor remembered how Roubal has swallowed heavily and had dug his fingernails into the palm of his hand.

Dear me, how I must have hurt him! He loves his wife. Loves her like crazy! Of course, I immediately changed the subject. But the way he was biting his lips! He certainly has cause to hate me.

Councillor Tomsa felt like a heap of woe.

But I know he didn’t try to shoot me. That’s impossible! Even though, I could hardly wonder if…

Councillor Tomsa stared gloomily at the floor. And then he remembered something else, something he’d have preferred not to remember.

The tailor! Fifteen years he’d been doing my tailoring, and then they told me he was very ill with TB. It’s natural, isn’t it? that you wouldn’t want to keep taking clothes so that a consumptive can cough all over them. So I stopped going to him… And then he came begging, that he hadn’t got any work, that his wife was ill, that he needed to find places for his children. Please would I give him my custom once more?

Christ! How pale he was, and how the sweat was running down him! “Mr Kolinský, I said, look, it’s no good, I need a better tailor, I wasn’t happy with your work.”

“I’ll try to do better, sir,” he muttered, sweating with fear and embarrassment. It’s a wonder he didn’t burst into tears! And I… I of course sent him away with a “We’ll see” – something these poor fellows must be only too familiar with.

Mr Kolinský might well hate me. How awful, to have to go and beg someone to help keep body and soul together, only to be dismissed with such indifference. But what was I meant to do?

I’m certain it couldn’t have been him, but…

The councillor’s conscience was weighing him down more and more. And something else he remembered:

That was awkward as well, the way I laid into the office servant. I couldn’t find that file, so I called the old fellow up and shouted at him as if he was a naughty boy. And in front of the others! “What a mess, you idiot! I said. It’s like a pigsty! I’ve a good mind to sack you.”

And then I found the file in the drawer of my own desk! And the old man just stood there, stood there trembling and blinking…

The councillor came out in a hot sweat.

But you don’t apologise to subordinates, even if you’ve been a bit unfair. Although you could hardly be surprised if they hate their superiors! How about if I give him some old clothes? Except that would be humiliating for him…

The councillor couldn’t lie down anymore; even the blanket was suffocating him. He sat on the bed with his arms round his knees and stared into the dark. And then he remembered something else:

That incident with that young Moravian in the office. He’s educated and writes poetry. But when he didn’t draw up that document properly, I said “Do it again” and I meant to throw it on his desk, but it fell under his legs, and he went all red – even his ears – as he bent down to pick it up… I could kick myself! After all, I rather like the young fellow, and to humiliate him like that, even if unintentionally…

Then another face popped up in his mind: the pale and puffy face of his colleague Wankl.

Poor old Wankl! He wanted to be office manager, the job I had. He’d have got a couple of hundred crowns a year more, and he has six children… Apparently he’d have liked to have paid for singing lessons for his daughter, but he couldn’t afford it. But I got the job because he’s such a plodding old workhorse – and his wife’s a real old shrew, terribly thin from all that scrimping and saving. All Wankl eats at midday is a dry bread roll.

Poor old Wankl! How must he feel when he sees me, with no family to look after, so much better off than him? But is that my fault? I always feel rotten when he gives me those resentful looks…

The councillor wiped the anxious sweat from his brow. And then he remembered something else:

Yes, the other day the waiter in the pub swindled me out of a few crowns, and I called the manager, who sacked him on the spot. “You thief,” he hissed at him, “I’ll make sure you never get a job in any other pub in Prague!” And the fellow sloped off without saying a word… You could see his shoulder blades under his coat.

The councillor couldn’t even endure sitting on the bed any longer; he went and sat by the radio and put on his headphones. But the radio was mute, there were no programmes at this time of night, so he put his head in his hands and remembered the people he’d met, all those strange people, all those young people, who he’d never understood and never thought about.

In the morning he stopped at the police station, rather pale and embarrassed.

“So,” asked the officer. “Have you remembered someone who might have something against you?”

The councillor shook his head.

“I don’t know,” he said hesitantly. “You see, there are so many of them, so many, that…”

He waved his hand disconsolately.

“Look, a fellow has no idea how many people he’s wronged. I certainly won’t be sitting by that window anymore, that I can tell you. But I just dropped by to ask you to forget about it.”

TRANSLATIONS FROM CZECH

From Czech: THE FORTUNE TELLER by Karel Čapek

(My translation of Karel Čapek’s short story Věštkyně, which was published in Povídky z jedné kapsy in 1929)

 

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nyone with half a brain will realise that this incident couldn’t have happened here or in France or Germany. As is well known, here and in those countries judges are required to punish wrong-doers according to the letter of the law rather than according to their ineffable acuity as superior gentlemen. This story involves a judge who made a judgement based not on the relevant sections of law but on his trusty common sense. So, as you will see, it has to do with England or, to be more precise, London, or, to be even more precise, Kensington; or perhaps Brompton or Bayswater – anyway, somewhere thereabouts. The judge was His Honour Judge Kelly and the woman who was the object of his ineffable acuity was Miss Edith Myers.

Continue reading From Czech: THE FORTUNE TELLER by Karel Čapek

From Portuguese: And the Sabiá Sings, by Aluísio Azevedo

(My translation of the short story No Maranhão, by Aluísio Azevedo, which was published in Pégadas in 1897)

When I was thirteen, up there in Maranhão, one of the families that was closest to mine was that of old Cunha. He was a good man, who’d retired after having made his money in the retail trade. His wife was Dona Mariana.

They had two children: Luís and Rosa – or Rosinha, as we called her. Luís was a year older than his sister and a few months younger than me.
You could say we were brought up together, because when I wasn’t at their place they were at ours.
The Cunhas lived in a large and beautiful colonial-style house, the back of which – as with all those houses along the shore – looked directly out to sea.
Apart from that house, Cunha had another place, where he went frequently with his family on Sundays, in their own boat.
They nearly always took me with them. The place was called “Boa Vinda” and was on the banks of the River Anil, not too far from Vinhais.
Those trips to Boa Vinda are among my fondest childhood memories. Brought up, as I was, by the seaside, I loved the water. At twelve years of age I was not only a strong swimmer but could steer a boat, take down a sail in a storm and row just as well as any fisherman on the prowl for piaba fish.
We used to leave São Luís in the small hours, arriving at Boa Vinda at dawn.
How delightful, the boating on the river! What beautiful, fresh mornings spent gliding between mango groves and scenting, on the breeze, the salty smell of the not-far-distant sea! And how pleasurable those lunches under the roof of the veranda, sitting on wooden benches around the linen-covered table, drinking new cashew wine from glazed terracotta mugs! And then… time to play! Running through the scrubland, hair blowing in the wind – foot-loose and fancy-free!
Then, in the evenings, when nature began its melancholy decline into night, we’d all sit on the terrace in front of the house and listen to the sweet, plangent song of the sururina birds, as they settled down for sleep in the surrounding bushes. Eventually, Luís would go to get his flute, Rosinha her violin, and – to their accompaniment – I’d sing some beautiful old Maranhão songs.
Dona Mariana and Cunha loved to hear me sing. At that time, my voice was still fresh and innocent – as was my soul.
Afterwards the plates and things were packed away in a large basket, which we carried on to the boat and then spread a canvas sail over it. Finally Luís, Rosinha and I sat on top of it, Cunha took up position at the helm with his wife by his side, and three slaves took the oars to row us back to the city.
Whereas the morning voyage had been cheerful and lively, the return at night always seemed slow and sad. Dona Mariana would keep dropping off to sleep, and Cunha would talk to us about what we’d be doing at school the next day. Luís would usually lie down, with his head on his sister’s lap, and I’d stretch myself out on the canvas, gazing at the stars.
On one of those nights when we were returning home, there was a beautiful moon. And the moonlight! As if it were specially for night-time voyagers on the water – conjuring up, ahead of us, white, sighing phantoms, which sped across the water, alternately appearing in their silver shrouds and then vanishing – like anguished drowned souls.
We’d already left Vinhais far behind and were gradually passing the large old properties on the Caminho Grande, which look out, on one side, on to the River Anil. Propped up with a cushion, Dona Mariana was dozing as usual, resting her head on the palm of her hand; Rosinha – with one arm over the side of the boat – was dreamily trailing the tips of her fingers in the rippling water, which sparkled at each pull of the oars; Luís was humming distractedly; old Cunha was bent over the handle of the tiller, with his big, carnaúba-palm hat pushed to the back of his head – shirt and cotton-duck coat open at the chest – while he gazed at the beaches as they slid by, as if the beauty of that northern night and the loneliness of that beautiful blue river had ensnared his bourgeois soul and miraculously carried him off to some poetic dreamworld.
But no! After a prolonged period of silence he sighed, turned to me, and said:
“What a waste of money! What utter carelessness! … Look at those overgrown ruins! It was a good forty years ago they started building. A big customs house… but they never got any further. Just like the Sagração wharf and the Mercês embankment. Scandalous!”
As I looked at those ruins, which seemed to grow in the moonlight, Cunha’s indignation continued to rumble over the lugubrious waters of the Anil, railing against all those accursed presidents of the province who’d taken so little care of our poor, beloved city.
Meanwhile, as our boat pushed sluggishly on, all that steeply sloping part of the city came opening up alongside us.
And it wasn’t long before the Praça dos Remedios came into sight in the distance, looming over the beach like a fortress from the times of war.
We could hear the leaves rustling in the casuarina trees.
“There it is!” shouted Cunha, pointing towards the shore. “Why squander money on a statue like that when there are so many things we really need but no one cares about…”
I looked in the direction he was pointing and saw – very tall, very white, and very sad-looking in the moonlight – the statue of Gonçalves Dias in the middle of the Praça dos Remedios.
I could summon up neither the spirit nor the words to protest against what old Cunha was saying. All I knew about Gonçalves Dias was that he was a poet who died tragically. Nothing more.
“Indeed!” growled Cunha. “The money it must have cost to hoist that big booby sky-high on to that humongous marble stick! A fortune! Everyone in Maranhão contributed! Whereas they couldn’t cough up even a couple of réis for the Campos Melo warehouse, which business has been crying out for for ever. A pack of idiots! I swear it makes me so angry, I almost regret taking out citizenship!”
I turned to look at the statue once more and – I don’t know why – Cunha’s words no longer filled my young mind with the respect they always used to command. Instead they upset me, like a blasphemy spat out at a sacred image. At home, all my family venerated the memory of our national poet and, at the school where I learnt to write the Portuguese language, my teacher always referred to him as “the great Gonçalves Dias.”
But I still said nothing in the poet’s defence – the poet who’d sung about the palm trees of Brazil. Instead I gazed more intently at that white, stone figure, who, in turn, was looking out, in mute glory, at that same sea that had become his sepulchre. And I thought he was so calm, so elevated, so distant from me and Cunha. So much so that I eventually blurted out:
“But Senhor Cunha, if the people made that statue for him, it must have been because the poor man deserved it!”
“Deserved?! How? What did he do? … My country has palm trees where the sabiá sings. The birds of my homeland sing sweeter by far?! That’s all he did! Write poems!”
And, beside himself with anger, off he went again, with a new tirade against the madmen who raise statues to poets instead of building the warehouses the retail trade so desperately needs.
Just at that moment, however, the boat came directly opposite the Praça dos Remedios.
The moon – lost and alone in the luminous sky – was bathing that rigid, white marble figure in its mysterious rays. And Rosinha, who’d paid no attention to our conversation, began to sing, in her high, crystalline voice, one of the most popular songs in Brazil:
If you’d like to know why
I sometimes fly
Away in my dreams
To that angel who sings
Up there in the sky,
Come with me, love,
To the heavens above
And then you’ll know why
I fly, and the sabiá sings.

In her innocence, and in sight of the statue, she’d unwittingly rebutted her father’s vituperation, paying the poet the highest compliment: reciting his words without mentioning his name.

I’m not superstitious, and I wasn’t back then, but I really did get the impression, at that moment, that the statue smiled.
A trick of the light. Of course.