Category Archives: Translations

From Czech: THE POET by Karel Čapek

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


It was an entirely routine case: at four in the morning a car had run over a drunk old woman in Žitná Street and had sped off. And now the young Trainee Detective Inspector Mejzlík was tasked with finding out which car it was. A trainee inspector takes something like that seriously.

“Hm,” said Detective Inspector Mejzlík to Police Constable 141, “so you saw, from a distance of three hundred yards, the car speeding away and a body lying in the road. What did you do first of all?”

“First of all, I ran to provide first aid to the lady who’d been run over, sir.”

“First of all, you should have observed the car and only then have taken care of the old granny. But perhaps” – Inspector Mejzlík scratched his head – “perhaps I’d have done the same. So you didn’t get the number of the car. But did you get anything else about it?”

Constable 141 hesitated. “I think it was a sort of dark colour. sir. Maybe blue or red. It wasn’t easy to see, because of the smoke from the exhaust.”

Inspector Mejzlík frowned. “Jesus Christ! How am I supposed to locate the car? Am I meant to run up to every driver and ask, ‘Did you run over an old granny by any chance?’ Well, what would you do?”

Constable 141 shrugged his shoulders in lower-rank helplessness. “Well, one witness appeared, sir, but he doesn’t know anything either. He’s waiting over there, sir.”

Inspector Mejzlik was feeling more and more annoyed. “Well, bring him over.”

When the witness came over, the inspector looked at his crib sheet and, without even looking at him, asked mechanically, “Name and address?”

The answer came loud and clear. “Jan Králík, mechanical engineering student.”

“So you were present at four o’clock this morning when an unidentified car ran over Božena Macháčková.”

“Yes, and I can confirm that the driver was culpable. You see, Inspector, there was no other traffic on the road. If the driver had slowed down at the crossroads…”

How far away were you standing?”

“About ten yards. I was accompanying my friend from… from a café, and when we got to Žitná Street…”

“What’s your friend’s name? I haven’t got a note of that.”

“Jaroslav Nerad, the poet,” the witness replied, with a note of pride. “But he wouldn’t be able to tell you anything.”

Inspector Mejzlík realised he was clutching at straws. “Why not?”

“Because he… he’s a poet. When the accident happened, he burst into tears and ran off home like a little child. The thing is, we were in Žitná Street when, all of a sudden, a car came speeding up behind us…”

“What was its number?”

“Sorry, Inspector. I didn’t notice. I was just watching as it sped towards us, and I was just saying to myself that…”

“What make of car was it?”

 “A four-stroke combustion engine, but I don’t know anything about makes of cars.”

“And what colour was it? Who was in it? Was it open-top or not?”

The witness looked confused. “I don’t know. I think it was black, but I didn’t really notice because, when the accident happened, I was saying to Nerad, ‘Look! Those scoundrels have run someone over, and they’re not going to stop.”

Inspector Mejzlík wasn’t happy. “Hm… That’s certainly an understandable and ethically correct reaction, but I’d have been happier if you’d noticed the car number. It’s amazing, sir, how inattentive people are. Of course you know the driver is guilty, and you know those people are scoundrels, but you don’t think to look at the number plate. Everyone can judge, but to observe things really closely… Thank you, Mr Králík. I won’t detain you any longer.”

An hour later, Constable 141 rang the doorbell at the house of Jaroslav Nerad’s landlady. Yes, the poet was at home, but he was sleeping.

A few moments later his little, anxious eyes were peeping round the door at the constable. Somehow he couldn’t remember exactly what had happened, but he did understand, eventually, why he needed to go to the police station. But he wasn’t keen on the idea. “Do I have to? The thing is, I can’t remember anything. Last night I was a bit…”

“Pissed?” suggested Constable 141 sympathetically. “I understand, sir. I’ve known a lot of poets. So, get yourself dressed, please. Shall I wait for you?”

This led to a discussion between the poet and the constable about the best places to go at night, about life in general, about unusual phenomena in the skies, and many things besides. Politics was the only subject neither of them was interested in. So their journey to the police station was accompanied by a friendly and informative conversation.

Inspector Mejzlík was waiting for him. “You are Mr Jaroslav Nerad, poet. And you witnessed an unidentified car running over Božena Macháčková.”

The poet took a deep breath. “Yes.”

“Could you tell me what the car looked like? Was it open-top or closed? What colour was it? Who was inside it? What was its registration number?”

The poet racked his brains for a few moments. “I don’t know. I didn’t notice.”

But the inspector was insistent. “Don’t you remember any details at all?”

“None at all. I never pay any attention to details.”

The inspector assumed an ironic tone. “So if you didn’t observe the details, would you care to say what you did observe?”

“The general mood. You know, the empty street… the beginnings of daybreak… the woman lying there…”

And then it struck him. “I’ve just remembered I wrote something about it when I got home!” He rummaged in his pockets and pulled out a quantity of envelopes, bills and suchlike. “No, that’s not it,” he muttered. “Nor this… Hold on, maybe this.” He was staring at the back of an envelope.

“Would you be so good as to show me that?” asked Inspector Mejzlík.

“It’s nothing,” said the poet. “But if you like, I’ll read it to you.” At which point his eyes bulged and, drawing out the long syllables in a sing-song voice, he recited the following:

Dark houses march left right halt

dawn plays its mandolin

girl why do you blush

let’s go 120 horse-power

to the end of the world

or Singapore

Stop stop the car flies

our great love bites the dust

trampled girl flower

swan’s neck breasts

the drum sticks drum

why do I cry so

“That’s it.”

“Would you mind awfully,” said the inspector, “to tell me what that’s supposed to mean?”

The poet looked surprised. “Well, of course it’s that terrible accident. Don’t you understand it?”

The inspector frowned. “I think not. Surprisingly enough, I didn’t manage to recognise in it that, on Žitná Street at 4 a.m. on the 15th of July,  a car with registration number such and such ran over a sixty-year-old beggar called Božena Macháčková; and that she was taken to the General Hospital, where she is in a critical condition. As far as I am aware, sir, your poem makes no allusion to those facts. So, no, I didn’t understand it.”

The poet rubbed his nose. “The details you’ve just mentioned are just the raw, outward reality, Inspector. But a poem is the inner reality. A poem contains free, surreal ideas that evoke reality in the mind of the poet. Do you see? Visual and aural associations, for instance. If the reader surrenders to them, he’ll understand.”

A note of admonishment had crept into Jaroslav Nerad’s voice.

“What nonsense, Mr Nerad! Let me have your masterpiece for a moment, would you? Thank you. Right, here we have, hm… ‘Dark houses, march left right halt.’ Kindly tell me what that’s meant to mean.”

“Well, that’s Žitná Street,” explained the poet calmly. “Two rows of houses, you know?”

“And why couldn’t it be the Národní Avenue just as well? … Eh?”

The answer was immediate. “Because that’s not so straight.”

“Well, continuing… ‘Dawn plays its mandolin’… That’s fair enough. ‘Girl, why do you blush’… Where did she come from?”

“The blush of dawn,” said the poet laconically.

“Ah! Sorry… ‘Let’s go 120 horse-power to the end of the world’… What about that, eh?”

“The car must have been coming.”

“And was it 120 HP?”

“That I can’t say, but it means it was going fast. As if the driver wanted to fly to the end of the world.”

“Ah, like that. ‘Or to Singapore’… Why on earth to Singapore exactly?”

This was met with a shrug. “I don’t know. Maybe because Malaysians live there.”

“And what did that car have to do with Malaysians? What, I ask you?”

For a while, the poet knitted his brow and shifted about uncomfortably as if that one had really got him cornered. But eventually he said, “Maybe the car was brown. Something was definitely brown. Why would I have said Singapore otherwise?”

“So there you have it,” said the inspector. “The car was red, blue or black. What am I meant to make of it all?”

“Choose brown,” said the poet. “It’s a pleasant colour.”

Inspector Mejzlík read on: “Our great love bites the dust. Trampled girl flower.” That’s the drunken beggar woman, is it?”

The poet became annoyed. “I’m not going to say ‘drunken beggar woman,’ am I? She was simply a woman. Don’t you understand?”

“Oh! Right! … And what about ‘swan’s neck breast, the drum sticks drum’? Is that what you call ‘free association’?

Here the poet felt really confused himself. “Let me see it again.” He gazed at the piece of paper. ‘Swan’s neck breast, the drum sticks drum.’ What’s that meant to mean?”

“That’s exactly what I’m asking,” muttered the inspector rather contemptuously.

“Hold on.” The poet frowned again. “There must have been something there that reminded me of… Listen! Doesn’t the number two remind you of a swan’s neck?” He pulled a pencil out of his pocket and wrote a 2.

“Ah!” Now it was Inspector Mejzlík’s turn to frown. “And what about ‘breasts’?”

“That’s easy, isn’t it? Number 3 – two semicircles.”

“And then you’ve got ‘The drum sticks drum’.” A note of excitement was entering the inspector’s voice.

The poet thought again for a moment. “A drum and drum sticks… A drum and drum sticks… That could be number 5, couldn’t it? Look!” and he drew a number 5. “The belly is like a drum, and above it are the drum sticks…”

“Wait!” said Inspector Mejzlík. He wrote down 235. “Are you sure the car’s number was 235?”

“I didn’t notice the number at all,” said Jaroslav Nerad. “But there must be something in it. Where else could it have come from?” He gazed at the poem again. “And, you know what? That’s the best part of the whole poem.”

Two days later, Inspector Mejzlík paid a visit to the poet. The poet wasn’t asleep this time. He had a young woman with him, and his efforts to find a free chair for the inspector proved fruitless.

“Don’t worry!” said the inspector. “I only popped in to say that the car really did have registration number 235.”

The poet looked non-plussed. “Which car?”

“Swan’s neck breasts, the drum sticks drum,” said the inspector, without stopping for breath. “And Singapore as well!”

“Ah! I wondered what you were talking about for a moment,” said the poet. “So you see – inner meaning. Would you like me to read you some other poems, now that you’ll be able to understand them?”

“Not just now,” said Inspector Mejzlík hurriedly. “When I’ve got another knotty case.”



From Czech: THE THEFT OF DOCUMENT 139/VII(C) by Karel Čapek

(My translation of Karel Čapek’s short story Ukradený spis 139/VII, odd. C, which was published in Povídky z jedné kapsy in 1929)


At 3 a.m. the telephone rang at garrison headquarters.

“Col. Hampl here, from the general staff. Send me two military policemen immediately. And tell Lt. Col. Vrzal… Yes, yes, from Intelligence… to get over here right away. Yes, now, in the middle of the night! Yes, by car! Yes, now, damn it!”

And that was that.

Lt. Col. Vrzal arrived an hour later at the house, which was out in one of the posher suburbs. He was greeted by an elderly and terribly anxious man in civies, i.e. in shirt and trousers.

“Lt. Col., the most god-awful thing has happened… Sit down, sit down… A bloody wretched stupid stupid thing! A right ruddy bastard of a thing! Can you imagine? The day before yesterday the chief of general staff gave me a document and said, ‘Work on this at home, Hampl. The fewer people who know about it, the better! Don’t say a word in the office. So, off you go! I’m giving you leave to work on it at home. But be bloody careful! Bloody careful.’”

“What sort of document was it?” asked Lt. Col. Vrzal.

Col. Hampl hesitated for a moment.

“Well, I suppose you better know. It was from Section C.”

“Ah!” Lt. Col. Vrzal began to look extremely concerned. “And…?”

“Well, it’s like this… I was working on it all day yesterday. But what the ruddy hell am I meant to do with it at night? Stick it in a drawer? That would never do… I don’t have a safe. And if someone knew I’d got the document, I dread to think what’d happen. So, for the first night, I hid it under the mattress. And it got pretty well scrunched up, believe me!”

“I expect so,” said Lt. Col. Vrzal.

“No surprise there,” sighed the colonel. “My wife’s even heavier than me… So the next night she suggested putting it in an empty macaroni tin and keeping it in the pantry. Because she locks the pantry at night and keeps the key with her. You see, we have a terribly overweight maid, who’ll eat anything she can lay her hands on. My wife said nobody would ever think of looking for it there. Well, I thought that was a good idea…”

Lt. Col. Vrzal interrupted: “Has your pantry got a secondary window on the inside?”

“Blast it!” groaned the colonel. “That never occurred to me! No, just the outside. I was so busy thinking about the Sázava case and other stupid things like that, that I completely forgot about the window! Damn the bloody thing!”

“And so…?” asked the lieutenant colonel.

“Well, what do you expect? At two in the morning, my wife hears the maid shouting her head off downstairs. So she goes down, and there’s Mára bawling, ‘There’s a thief in the pantry!’ So my wife runs for the key and wakes me up. I grab my handgun, run downstairs and unlock the pantry and… Bloody hell! The window’s been prised open and the macaroni tin’s gone. And so has the thief.” The colonel heaved a sigh. “End of story.”

Lieutenant Colonel Vrzal drummed his fingers on the table. “Did anyone know you had that document at home, Colonel?”

A picture of woe, the colonel shrugged his shoulders. “I don’t know, my friend. The ruddy spies aren’t so thick as you might think.”

But then he remembered he wasn’t speaking to a mere private. “I mean to say, Lieutenant Colonel, they’re very clever people. But I didn’t tell anyone, without a word of a lie. And in any case, how could they know it was in the macaroni tin?”

“Where were you when you put the document into it?” asked the lieutenant colonel.

“Here, at this table.”

“And where was the tin?”

“Hold on a minute… I was sitting here and I had the tin in front of me.”

The lieutenant colonel leant against the table and stared at the window opposite. In the dewy dawn he could make out a red-roofed and grey-walled house. Deep in thought, he asked, “Who lives there?”

The colonel thumped the table. “Ruddy hell! That never occurred to me! I think he’s a Jew, the man who lives there. He’s a bank manager or something. God damn it! I can see it now! Vrzal, I think we’re on to something!”

“May I take a look at the pantry?” the lieutenant asked warily.

“Certainly. Come with me. This way.” And the colonel eagerly led the way.

“Here it is. The tin was on the top shelf over there… Mára, this is none of your business! Be off with you to the attic or the cellar!”

The lieutenant colonel put on a pair of gloves, clambered up to the window and had a good look at it. “Prised open with a chisel. The frame is soft wood, Colonel. A boy could have done it easily.”

“Damn it!” hissed the colonel. “Can’t we even make a half-decent window in this country?”

There were two figures on the other side of the grill.

“Are they the military police?” asked Lt. Col. Vrzal. “Good. I’ll take a look from outside. But I must request that you don’t leave the house without permission, Colonel.”

“OK,” said the colonel. “But why?”

“So that you’re here in case… The two soldiers will remain where they are, of course.”

The colonel took a deep breath and swollowed with difficulty. “I understand… Would you like some coffee? I could get my wife to make some.”

“There’s no time for that now,” said the lieutenant colonel rather sharply. “Of course, don’t say a word about the stolen document to anyone. Unless… unless you get a phone call. And something else: tell the maid the thief only stole some tins.”

“But listen,” begged the colonel. “You will find that document, won’t you?”

“I shall certainly look for it,” replied the lieutenant colonel, clicking his heels.

The colonel spent the rest of that morning slumped in an armchair like a broken man. When he wasn’t expecting the two military policemen to come and arrest him at any moment, he was trying to think what Lt. Col. Vrzal was doing in order to bring the huge, clandestine machinery of the secret service to bear on the problem. But then, imagining the hoo-ha that must have broken out at headquarters, he groaned.

“Karel,” said his wife for about the twentieth time – she’d made sure to hide his gun in the maid’s wardrobe – “wouldn’t you like something to eat?”

“Leave me in peace, for Christ’s sake!” he growled. “I think the Jew next door must have seen it.”

Sighing, his wife returned to the kitchen in tears.

The doorbell rang. The colonel stood up and straightened himself, so as to submit to his imminent arrest with appropriate military dignity. And he wondered which officers they’d sent.

But instead of officers, it was a little red-haired fellow who entered the room, with a bowler hat in his hands. He had squirrel-like teeth.

“How do you do, sir? My name is Pištora. I’m from police headquarters.”

“What do you want?” the colonel blurted out, trying to shift his stance, at the same time, from Attention to At ease.

Detective Constable Pištora grinned, in rather too familiar a way for the colonel’s liking. “I believe your pantry’s been burgled. And here I am!”

“And what’s it got to do with you?” snapped the colonel.

“Well,” replied Detective Constable Pištora, still grinning, “this is our patch. Your maid, she mentioned to the baker this morning that your pantry had been burgled, and so I says to the superintendent, ‘How about if I hop over there and take a look?’”

The colonel was already shaking his head. “It’s not worth it. They only took… they only took a tin of macaroni. You can forget about it.”

“That’s strange,” said Detective Constable Pištora, “that they didn’t snaffle anything else.”

“It is strange, Detective Constable Pištora, but it’s none of your business.”

But the detective constable merely smiled beatifically as a thought occurred to him. “I bet someone disturbed them!”

“Yes, no doubt. And now I bid you good day, Detective Constable.”

“Ah! But!” said the detective constable, smiling and frowning at the same time. “I think I need to take a look at your pantry before I take my leave, don’t you?”

The colonel was about to explode, but instead he just sighed. “Come on then.” And he led the little man to the pantry.

The detective constable’s eyes darted about the narrow room. “Well, well, well! Window prised open with a chisel. Must’ve been Pepek or Andrlík.”

“What on earth are you talking about?” asked the colonel.

“It was either Pepek or Andrlík who done it. But I think Pepek’s in the clink at the moment. If it had been just the glass that was taken out, that would’ve been Dundr, Lojza, Novák, Hosička or Kliment. But this job’s down to Andrlík.”

“I sincerely hope you’re right, Detective Constable.”

But the detective constable was frowning again. “Or… or perhaps there’s another pantry specialist in the district. But surely not? That’s to say, Mertl also does windows with a chisel, but he never goes for pantries, sir, never.” Detective Constable Pištora grinned. “I think I’ll go and have a feel of Andrlík’s collar.”

“And give him my regards while you’re at it,” growled the colonel.

It’s unbelievable, he thought when he was left once more to his own gloomy ruminations, it’s unbelievable how incompetent our police are! If only they’d look for finger prints or footprints! A specialist approach. But to go about it in such an airy-fairy way! … They’d be no match for one of those foreign spies! … I wish I knew what Vrzal’s up to.

Unable to resist, he reached for the phone. After half an hour of huffing and puffing, he finally got through. “Hello, Lieutenant Colonel,” he said in a mellifluous voice. “Hampl here. I was wondering… how far… I know you can’t say anything, but I only… I know, but if you’d just kindly tell me if it’s already… Ruddy hell, still nothing? … Yes, yes, I know it’s a difficult case, but… Just a moment, please, Vrzal. A thought just occurred to me. What about if I offer ten thousand to whoever catches the thief. I don’t have more, but you know, for a job like that… Yes I know that wouldn’t be possible, it would be a private matter. I couldn’t do it in my official capacity… Or what about making the offer to the police detectives, eh? … No, of course you wouldn’t know about that. But if you somehow hinted to them that Colonel Hampl has promised ten thousand… OK, so leave it with your station manager. Yes, please, my friend! … Forgive me for interrupting you… Thank you.”

Colonel Hampl felt much relieved after this generous decision on his part. He felt that at least now he was himself involved in some way in the hunt for that damned, thieving spy. He lay down on the sofa, because all the alarums and excursions had tired him out, and he was soon dreaming of a hundred, nay! two hundred, nay! three hundred men – all of them red-haired and squirrel-toothed like Detective Constable Pištora – searching trains, stopping cars speeding to the borders, waiting for their prey behind street corners and suddenly stepping out with the words, “I arrest you in the name of the law. Come with me and keep your mouth shut.” And then he dreamt that he was doing a balistics exam at the military academy.

Groaning, he awoke and found himself bathed in sweat.

Somebody rang the doorbell. The colonel jumped to his feet and tried to arrange his thoughts. But the squirrel-toothed detective constable was already entering the room.

“It’s me again!” he said. “It was him, sir, just as I said.”

“Who?” asked the colonel, still struggling to reorganise his thoughts.

“Who?” Detective Constable Pištora was so taken aback by the question that he even stopped grinning. “Who else? I told you Pepek’s in Pankrác jail.”

“Why on earth do you keep going on about that Andrlík fellow, Detective Constable?”

The detective constable’s eyes were almost popping out of their sockets in disbelief. “Because it was him who stole the macaroni from the pantry of course! We’ve got him down the police station already. So that’s that, but I just wanted to ask… He – Andrlík – says there wasn’t any macaroni in the tin, it was just some bumf. So, is that right?”

“My good man,” exlaimed the colonel hurriedly, “where is that… erm… bumf?”

Detective Constable Pištora grinned. “In my pocket… Now where have I…?” He started searching his pockets. “Aha! Is this it?”

With tears of relief in his eyes, the colonel snatched the precious, crumpled Document 139/VII(C) from the constable’s hand. “My dear man,” he sighed, “I can’t thank you enough…” He turned and called his wife. “Come here, my dear. It’s Sergeant… Inspector… erm…”

“Constable Pištora,” said the little fellow, giving a full-on squirrel smile.

“He’s found the stolen document,” the colonel continued shouting to his wife. “Do come here, and bring the cognac and some glasses… Constable Pištora, I’d… you’ve no idea… that’s to say, so that you know… Have a drink, Constable Pištora.”

The constable grinned. “But it was nothing! … Just some bumf, sir! And I almost forgot: the tin’s at the police station, Madam.”

“Blow the tin!” said the colonel, now with a big smile on his face himself. “But my dear Constable Pištora, how did you manage to find the document so quickly? Your good health!”

“Cheers!” said the constable. “But, heaven help us! It was really nothing. When it’s theft from a pantry, we go after Andrlík or Pepek. But Pepek’s doing two months at Pankrác. If it’s an attic, we go for Písecký, Tondera the Cripple, Kaner, Zima or Houska…”

“But… but… but… Constable. Listen, what about if it’s a case of espionage? Prosit, Constable!”

“Thank you kindly… Well, espionage, we don’t cover that. But brass keys, that would be Čeněk or Pinkus, copper wire we’ve only got one, Toušek, at the moment, and if it’s beer pipes, that would have to be Hanousek, Buchta or Šlesinger. We’re on to it straight away, sir. And safe-breakers… we get them from all over the republic. So many of them! Twenty-seven at the last count, but six of them are in the slammer.”

“Serves them right,” said the colonel bloodthirstily. “Drink up, Constable!”

“Thank you very much,” said Constable Pištora, “but I don’t drink a lot, me. Thank you, cheers! … All these… these crooks and criminals, they’re not too bright, sir. Each of them’s only got his only little trade, and he plies it until we catch him. Like this Andrlík. Ah! he thinks, as soon as he clocks me approaching. That’ll be Constable Pištora about that pantry. ‘Constable, it weren’t nothing, all I got was some bumf in a tin. And I had to scarper before I could do anything else.’ ‘Doesn’t matter,’ I say to him, ‘you’ll get a year at least all the same, you twit.’”

“A year’s prison?” asked Colonel Hampl, sympathetically. “Isn’t that a bit much?”

“But it’s burglary,” said the constable, displaying his teeth once more. “So, my regards, sir. I’ve still got a shop-window to do. That’ll be Kleček or Rudl… If you should need anything else, just ask at the station. All you have to do is say Constable Pištora.”

“Please, Constable Pištora. I wonder if you would… erm… for your help… That’s to say, those papers are… nothing special certainly, but all the same… I wouldn’t want to lose them, you know. So, perhaps you’d accept this for your help,” and he pressed a fifty-crown note into the constable’s hand.

Surprise and gratitude caused Constable Pištora to put on a serious face. “But there’s really no need,” he said, as he hurriedly pocketed the banknote. “It wasn’t anything… Thank you very much, sir. And if you ever need anything else…”

“I gave him fifty crowns,” the Colonel told his wife in the warm after-glow of his benevolence. “Twenty would have been enough for a PC Plod like him, but…” – waving his hand magnanimously – “the main thing is, the ruddy document’s been found.”


From Czech: UNBREAKABLE, by Hana Hindráková

October 2019

I recently translated a novel by the Czech author Hana Hindráková. It’s called Unbreakable (Nezlomný in Czech) and is based upon the life of a street child in Kenya who grew up to become the director of a centre for street children. The press release reads as follows:


And that happened literally overnight, during the book launch of the English translation of her latest novel Nezlomný – Unbreakable, which is published by Moran Publishers in Kenya.

The book launch took place on 10 September 2019 from 2 pm in the main hall of the Kenyan National Library. Despite the African understanding of time, it really did commence at 2 pm, by which time the hall – which has capacity for 150 people – had filled up with about 400.

Six-year-old Moses, a former street child, started the event with a short prayer. “When Moses prays, God listens,” said Joseph “Njoro” Njoroge, the main hero of this book, and director of the Global Hope Rescue and Rehabilitation Centre for street children. After this, everyone sang the Kenyan national anthem.

After a performance of dance by boys from Joseph’s centre, there were a number of speeches by the book’s “godparents”, including the Kenyan MP Joseph Manje and Dr Adam Piňos. Dr Piňos was deputising for the Czech Ambassador in Kenya, Martin Klepetko, who had been suddenly called to a diplomatic briefing with the Kenyan Minister of Foreign Affairs and was therefore unfortunately unable to take part in the book launch.

“This is an amazing event that has important diplomatic significance,” Dr Piňos said.

During the event, most of the copies that had been made available were bought, and three days afterwards a third of the print-run had been sold. There is a great deal of interest about the book in Kenya, and a second print-run will follow soon. In addition to Kenya, the book is being sold in other East African countries where Moran Publishers operate.

“It’s like a dream,” said the author Hana Hindráková, smiling. I’ve never before given so many interviews on the day of a book launch or sold 500 books or had so many photos taken. She was the principal guest of the live morning show on Metropol TV, and she was also interviewed by the well-known Kenyan television station KTN and by other journalists, of whom there was a large number at the book launch.

“And I hope,” Hana added, “that the book will help to change attitudes towards street children and their general situation. As soon as you manage to imagine what lies behind their stories, you look at them in a completely different way than as little, stinking thieves.” And she explained that she and the book’s translator, Francis K Johnson, had decided to donate their royalties to Joseph’s centre for street children.


From Portuguese │ CLARA DOS ANJOS, by Lima Barreto │ Contents and Introduction


IntroductionAbout Lima BarretoTranslator’s NoteThe Short StoryThe Novel

INTRODUCTION: The Three Claras of Lima Barreto

By Mauro Rosso

(Translated by me)

Clara dos Anjos, published here for the first time in English translation, is one of Lima Barreto’s most important works and is of unique relevance, not only because it was his first work of fiction, but also on account of the way in which it represents and synthesises his literary evolution, marking how his literary ideas changed, and determining the principal direction that his writing was going, eventually, to follow. There are three versions of it: a completed novel, a short story and an incomplete novel. Across the three versions, a clear picture emerges of the various ways in which Barreto approached the question of the position of women in society, a question of extreme social, cultural and political importance for Brazil at the beginning of the 20th century.

Lima Barreto and Rio de Janeiro

Clara dos Anjos fully justifies the description of Barreto as ‘the most Carioca of Brazilian writers’, because it presents life in the suburbs of Rio de Janeiro at a time – the first decades of the 20th century – when huge urban, architectural, social and cultural changes were taking place. So much is this the case that, in Clara dos Anjos, the city itself becomes a protagonist (even more so than in Barreto’s other fiction), even though – or perhaps because – everything is concentrated in one specific area (the district of Todos os Stantos, where Clara lives). Through the optic of that suburb, the work presents a rich picture of the cultural and social life of the city. In short, the work has the social and cultural DNA of Rio de Janeiro on every page.

Barreto had a visceral relationship to his home city: he used to say it lived in him just as much as he lived in it. And, in that sense, the city was a sort of laboratory in which he could study Brazil and think deeply about society – and all its manifest contradictions – in the newly republican Brazil.

Indeed, one of the most striking characteristics of Barreto’s oeuvre is how it chronicles the life of Rio in a way that is unmatched by any other writer of the time. And his love for the city made him a traditionalist. Even though he feigned contempt for the past as ‘a sump of prejudice’, he was equally up in arms against each and every inroad of modernisation, be it the cinema, skyscrapers (and the consequent destruction of old buildings that were ‘intimately linked to the history and the soul of Rio’) or – last but not least – football.   

In that way his work was an extraordinarily accurate reflection of the time, which witnessed the advent of the Republic and contained all sorts of contradictory movements within the overall process of modernisation – backwardness and stagnation on the one hand, civility and evolution on the other. And, having become the political, economic, administrative and cultural centre of the country, Rio de Janeiro displayed those characteristics in ample measure. These were the paradoxes Barreto would have had in mind when he referred to ‘the physical city and the symbolic city, the urbs and the sub-urbs’, the former being the republican metropolis, modernised according to an essentially foreign template and which Barreto denounced for ‘excluding the people’, the latter being the shabby city of the slums, of boisterous street markets and amusement parks, of yellow fever and of the ‘animal game’ – a lottery that originated in 1892 as a way of raising money for the zoo in Rio and subsequently became hugely popular (even though, since 1946, it’s been illegal.

Despite being a chronicler of his ‘beloved suburbs’, however, Barreto also harboured an intense dislike of the rich districts and everything they stood for: the dandies, the bourgeoisie, the ‘academic’ intellectuals, the pseudo literati and their dinner parties.  He loved ‘those gloomy streets, those humble cottages, bursting with children and domestic animals, those country habits, the hearty Sunday lunch, the chit-chat at the shop door and all those people who were prisoners of their environment’.

Lima Barreto and Women

Thinker and campaigner as he was, and never divorced from the problems of his time, Lima Barreto could not but consider the situation of women in Brazilian society at the beginning of the 20th century, a time of such wide-ranging and profound social transformation. He portrayed women as prominent characters in his short stories and novels, and wrote about them in articles and essays published in newspapers and magazines. And he did this in an ambiguous way, sometimes criticising, even attacking, them, sometimes defending and, very frequently, exalting them. He called himself an ‘anti-feminist’ and was openly opposed to feminist movements, whilst, at the same time, being a staunch advocate of women’s education. He was against the entry of women into the civil service, but defended divorce and justified adultery by women (seeing both as a form of revolt against the male oppressor and the concept of marriage imposed by society). Imbued with the outlook of his time, he portrayed women as they were generally seen, whilst denouncing as absurd their dependence on men.

The accusation of misogyny sometimes levelled against Barreto is totally false. The women he criticised were, above all, the bourgeois women, the snobs, whereas he was sympathetic to proletarian, suburban women. One of the biggest interpretative mistakes is to suggest that he was against the movements and actions in favour of women’s emancipation. For him, the feminist movement of the time was not working or fighting in defence of women; it was ‘fragile, inconsistent, innocuous, and concerned itself only with perfumes, accessories and trivia’; it looked down on working-class women and ignored their demands for better conditions; in short, it simply divorced itself from the question.

Both in his fiction and his non-fiction, Barreto always devoted a significant amount of space to women, portraying and commenting on: women’s situation with respect to marriage; the moral code imposed on women by men and by society; the unfair way in which women’s adultery was viewed by the law; women’s lack of educational and professional opportunities; prostitution; and all of this cut across by the always present and relevant racial (and social) question, as is made clear in Clara’s concluding words in the completed novel: ‘In this life, we’re nothing.’

It is true that his articles and essays – whether about feminism, the women’s movement, the vote for women, women’s rights, women’s literature, or whether about everyday life, fashion, behaviour or female customs – always display a critical, ironic stance, and that the way women are portrayed in his short stories and novels shows them dependent on men and submissive to the social ‘norms’ of the age. But it is also true that, on innumerable occasions, he shows them acting and behaving progressively, and as superior to men.  Examples are: Olga in Triste fim de Policarpo Quaresma; Edgarda in Numa e a ninfa; Efigênia in O cemitério dos vivos; Cecília in Diário íntimo; Cló, Adélia, Lívia and other women in his short stories.

Barreto’s writing about women should be viewed in the light of his position in respect of marriage. He thought the way society elevated men, as if they were automatically gifted with exceptional attributes, made it impossible for wives to enjoy a fulfilling emotional life and left them repressed and frustrated. It should be emphasised that Barreto respected the institution of marriage and saw it as almost the only way for women to achieve fulfilment; it was just that he was unable to overlook the reality of marriage in that bourgeois, republican society: for men, a sort of ‘commercial transaction’, ultimately reducing the wife to ‘a stepping-stone for the husband’; for women, on the other hand, a way of realising themselves through dedication to ‘the superior man’, especially when he was deified by addition of the title ‘Doctor’. And, as a general rule, women went along with this flawed attitude, which led so often to deception and bitterness.

Barreto paid particular attention to women’s education, both as it was and as it should be. He was a trenchant critic of the lack of educational opportunities for women and he spoke with passion about the absolute need to provide them with those opportunities. Indeed, most women at the start of the century saw education simply as a way of making themselves more appealing to their male companions; they were not looking for intellectual emancipation. And it was the latter that Lima was advocating by campaigning for better educational opportunities for women. In general, women were largely restricted to their homes, which reflected the cultural mores of the time, and they were thought of as sentimental/emotional rather than intellectual/philosophical. Lima considered that to be the cause of so much unhappiness for women, both inside and outside marriage. He saw women’s education as essential for improving men’s education and for good citizenship, because the fate of the generations to come – and of society as a whole – depended on the education given to children.

Lima Barreto and Politics

Lima Barreto paid more attention to politics than to any other theme. None of his contemporaries wrote so much on the subject or, by extension, about social questions. His ‘militant literature’, as he called it, went hand-in-hand with his focus on the margins of society; and his critical view of society was complemented by a genuine and irreversible commitment to the struggle for social change, so that, in his articles in the press, he attacked the whole panoply of power and, in his fiction, he denounced the profound injustices in Brazilian society.

All Barreto’s work evolved on the basis of, and around, a central theme: power and its exercise – power seen and described by him as ‘the various combinations of elements, vectors and procedures interwoven in society and comprising prisons, both large and small, both visible and invisible, that tend to restrict and constrain men’s thought, to limit their possibilities for personal, cultural, professional and social fulfilment and for them to have their just place in society.’ He analysed power at every level: the government, ideologies, cultural institutions such as the press, science, and the general models that determined everyday behaviour and relationships. And, in all this, he showed himself to be, above all, an anti-capitalist.

He was an implacable critic of the supposed modernity the Republic claimed to be implementing, an opponent of all forms of assimilation of foreign values (especially football, cinema and other cultural imports), and an often intransigent defender of ‘Brazilianism’, which – he maintained – should permeate ‘the authentic national language’. But he was also an active opponent of the ultra nationalism that emerged at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th, questioning the erroneous self-image Brazil was creating, and revealing, one by one, the ultimate ridiculousness of the nationalistic clichés and myths. (In Triste fim de Policarpo Quaresma, he implicitly parodies the jingoistic booklet by Afonso Celso, the son of Barreto’s protector, entitled Why I’m proud to be Brazilian (1901), which was very popular at the beginning of the 20th century and which gave rise to the expression ufanismo (ultra nationalism). He himself tried to map out a patriotism with a historical and social conscience that would emphasise citizenship, be both anchored in real Brazilian culture and resistant to cosmopolitanism and would embrace the ethnic, social and cultural cross-fertilisation in the country.

All of this can be clearly seen in the tripartite development of Clara dos Anjos.

A similar change of direction can be seen in the novels Recordações do escrivão Isaias Caminha, which was also begun in 1904 (and completed in 1905), and  Vida e morte de M.J. Gonzaga de Sá, which was written during the same period as Isaias Caminha.

Those two books share many philosophical and ideological themes, but Barreto was more interested in publishing Isaias Caminha, Gonzaga de Sá not being published until 1919 (at the insistence of Monteiro Lobato, its eventual editor).

As mentioned previously, Barreto gave up his idea of writing a historical novel about slavery in Brazil in favour of critical, incisive observation of the political and institutional life of the Republic, becoming the Republic’s arch-critic in the process.

The unfinished 1904 version of Clara dos Anjos could be said to have prepared the ground for those two 1905 novels (Isaias Caminha and Gonzaga de Sá), Isaias Caminha  morphing from a work about racial prejudice to one with a wider psychological and existential theme, and from a denunciation of social and racial discrimination to a critique and satire of the journalistic and literary worlds. (This is a good example of ‘intentional fallacy’, an expression coined by the French critic Pierre Macherey in his work Pour une théorie de la production littéraire, which has to do with how an author’s preliminary, a priori ideas, when conceiving a work, can be overturned and altered during the actual construction of the narrative – as if the author were ‘discovering’ the story. Thus the change of course that took place after Barreto’s initial conception of Clara dos Anjos, towards the narrative threads that were going to predominate in Isaias Caminha and  Gonzaga de Sá, proved to be the direction he would take until the end of his (short) literary career.

The notes and sketches for Clara dos Anjos constitute,  in themselves, a foundation for Isaias Caminha which, in certain subtle ways, incorporates the projected work about slavery, but with a different focus and literary structure, especially in view of the political context, identified by Barreto as oligarchic, sectarian and elitist.

Together with those two novels that followed in its wake, Clara dos Anjos synthesises Barreto’s philosophical and ideological evolution even more than his literary evolution. And it does so especially in the shift from an ethnic focus to a more all-embracing fictional world.

It would not be out of place to see this process in the light of the ‘religious perception of art’ proposed by Tolstoy in his famous essay ‘What is Art?’, because it was the main – and crucial – influence on Barreto’s literary career, particularly with respect to the transformation of his literary ideas, the adoption of a new thematic direction in his fiction, and his concept and advocacy of ‘literature as mission’.

Literature as mission

Most writers, like most intellectuals, welcomed the advent of the Republic enthusiastically, but their enthusiasm waned when they experienced the reality of the first years of the new regime. Nevertheless, the general rule, whether in the sphere of journalism or, especially, of literature, was that they had to defer to a greater of lesser extent to the tastes and preferences of readers if they were not to suffer cultural and professional ostracism (and the financial consequences). The need to be in tune with a city that was buzzing with the urge to modernise and the desire to get rich quick caused writers to produce material that was superficial and ephemeral in style, language, form and content, i.e. ‘adapted to the taste of the petite bourgeoisie created by the Republic’.

On the other hand, in resolute opposition to almost all the contemporary styles of writing, and particularly the predominant aristocratic style, there was Lima Barreto. Despite being a respected writer of articles and essays for the newspapers, and recognised as an exceptional novelist for the highly praised Recordações do escrivão Isaias Caminha (1909) and Triste fim de Policarpo Quaresma (1915), he absolutely refused to turn either his journalistic work or his literary work – whether fictional or non-fictional – into ‘an instrument of propaganda for the republican dream of false progress and false civilisation’. He maintained that his was ‘a militant literature, works that debate the questions of the age (…) as opposed to the sort of literature that limits itself to questions of form, to sentimental love stories and to the idealisation of nature’.

Unlike most of his contemporaries, whose writing was as ornate as it was vacuous, snobbish and futile – totally in accordance with literature as ‘society’s smile’, as advocated by Afrânio Peixoto – Barreto brought to his fiction the militant sense of ‘a social mission, with a view to contributing to the happiness of a people, of a nation and of humanity’. In his opinion, literature had to be ‘militant’, with a clear, defined objective, as he stated in an interview published in A Época on 18 February 1916:

We don’t want this ethereal literature any more, a literature that’s false and aimless, full of curlicues and affectation, and not like literature used to be; nor do we want this descriptive literature, searching for beauty in the form of gods that are dead and gone and are now no more than mannequins, because the spirit that animated them evaporated once their worshippers were dead. Let’s say No to literature that’s purely contemplative, all about style, without a thought for anything other than poetry and which has been given the imprimatur of a high society stupefied by money, and which is so readily churned out by pseudo intellectuals, graduates and politicians… A work of art should say what simple facts don’t say. That’s my aim. I’ve brought all my honesty and courage to literature. It’s my life’s purpose and all I ask from literature is the one thing it can give me – glory!

Thus, through the vigorously ideological slant of both his fictional and non-fictional output, Barreto sought ethical meaning through the politicisation of literature. He made this clear in the only lecture he was due to give (in Rio Preto, São Paulo, in February 1921). He ended up not giving the lecture, but it was published, under the title ‘The Purpose of Literature’, in the Revista Souza Cruz in Rio de Janeiro in 1921 – together with an excerpt from the novel O cemitério dos vivos. In it, he wrote:

Beauty doesn’t reside in form, in visual enchantment, in the proportion and harmony of parts, as our latter-day Hellenists believe. Without denigrating perfection of form or style, the beauty of an important literary work must reside principally in the exteriorisation of certain specific thoughts that are of interest to humanity… And the purpose of literature is to spread that great ideal of fraternity and justice among people, to make it real and easily accessible. That’s the way for it to fulfil its mission – a mission that is almost divine. There is no other spiritual activity of our species that is greater than Art – and especially Literature, to which I have dedicated myself and to which I am married; as a result of its contagious power, no other means of communication between men has had, has or will have such a great destiny within our sad humanity.

Whether in his novels or his short stories, or whether in his essays and articles, Barreto always criticised modernity in so far as it resulted in social oppression and political hypocrisy, as was frequently the case in the implementation of the Republic. His choice of militant literature determined the marginal – and ‘revolutionary’ in the opinion of many researchers – character of his work: his critical view of society, politics and culture brought him bitter rewards – public denigration, poverty, alcoholism and illness, including internment in psychiatric hospitals – but he resolutely refused to compromise his principles in order to gain popularity. That is to say, he would not turn himself into a bourgeois writer by kowtowing to the political, economic, social and cultural interests of the Republic. Nothing ever made him bow to those values.

Clara dos Anjos

Clara dos Anjos appears among Lima Barreto’s fictional works in three versions, under the same title in each case. These were written at different times and differ in themselves, not so much on account of the plot, which stayed basically the same (a mulatto girl from a poor family in a suburb of Rio de Janeiro is seduced by a white man and then abandoned), but of the principal themes on which Barreto focussed in the course of time.

The first version, of 1904, comprises just four chapters of an incomplete novel, which were inserted in Diário íntimo (after being seduced and disgraced, Clara is taken advantage of by various men). The second version is a short story that was published in the collection Histórias e sonhos (after being seduced, Clara faces up to her disgrace and lives a sad life of poverty). The third version, the completed novel (where the narrative focusses on the minute details of the seduction), was written between December 1921 and January 1922, but only saw the light of day after Barreto’s death. First of all, the chapter ‘The Postman’ was published in the journal Mundo Literário  in May 1922, with the introduction: ‘a previously unpublished excerpt from the novel Clara dos Anjos, which is due to be published shortly’. Then, between January 1923 and May 1924, it was published in 16 instalments in the Revista Souza Cruz. It was not published as a book until 1947, being the last of Barreto’s fictional works to be published.

The significant differences between the three versions have to do with the changes in Barreto’s focus, reflecting developments in his thinking and ‘literary aesthetics’ over the course of time. From his initial focus on the situation of the blacks in the city of Rio, in 1904, to a focus, in 1921–2, less on the racial question and more on poverty and social injustice in general, regardless of race. This was characterised as a ‘social novel’, with the author emphasising the tragic fate of men and women – indiscriminately – who were forced by poverty to live lives of shame. It is worth noting , in this sense, the difference in the way in which Barreto treats tragedy, a literary category he never really engaged with until this, his final work. Nevertheless, despite the move from the pre-eminence of the racial/social theme of the first text to the multiple – social, economic, psychological – themes of the last, racial discrimination and prejudice were a constant, integral theme throughout his fiction.

So, in its three versions, Clara dos Anjos represents a crucial, and intentional, change of focus from the question of negritude and the situation of the blacks in Brazil – the initial idea for the novel and for an (unrealised) History of Slavery in Brazil – to a full-scale novel, but with a more political focus on Brazilian institutions and society – and this also applies to his later novels and short stories.

There is no indication whatsoever, however, that Barreto ‘abandoned’ or distanced himself from his political ideals, i.e. from the ideological fulcrum at the very heart of his life and work. Never…

The question of ethnicity and ‘its influence on our nationality’ was always present – in his own DNA, at the core of his social conscience, in his non-fiction (especially his essays) and in his fiction. And it is particularly present in the three versions of ‘Clara dos Anjos’ – in a more focussed and central form in the incomplete novel, still with a significant presence in the short story, and integrated into a wider, political view in the completed novel.*

* An example of how Barreto neither distanced himself nor deviated from a preoccupation with the condition of the blacks in Brazil and the exploitation of the black race by the slave-owners is a drama he wrote in 1905 entitled ‘The Blacks’. This was one of only two dramas he wrote – and which he called ‘dramatic exercises’ – and it is very little known, having hardly been brought to the public’s attention at all; the texts of the two pieces – the other one was called ‘The Poet’ – were originally published in the 2nd edition of Histórias e sonhos (BARRETO, 1951) and subsequently only in my book Lima Barreto e a política: os ‘argelinos’ e outros contos (ROSSO, 2010)

Mauro Rosso


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

From Czech: THE BLUE CHRYSANTHEMUM by Karel Čapek

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



o let me tell you – said old Fulinus – how Klára came into the world. It was that time when I was managing Prince Lichtenberg’s park in Lubenec. And the old prince, he was some connoisseur, Mr Čapek, believe me! He used to get mature trees sent over from Veitsch in England, and when it came to Dutch tulip bulbs – seventeen thousand! But that’s by the by. It was when I was walking down the street in Lubenec one Sunday that I met Klára. She was the village idiot – a deaf-mute and as mad as a hatter, but wherever she went she hee-hawed, but hee-hawed like the happiest person in the world. What is it, Mr Čapek, that makes those village idiots so happy? I was just going to get out of her way, so that she wouldn’t give me a kiss, when I noticed she was carrying a bouquet. Just some dill and some common-or-garden weeds from the meadows but, all of a sudden, I noticed something that made me stop in my tracks. In amongst it all, Mr Čapek, that nutty woman had a big, blousy chrysanthemum, which was blue! And what a blue, Mr Čapek! A bit like Phlox Laphamii, but with a touch of slate-grey and with a deep-pink border. And the inside was a beautiful saturated blue, like Campanula Turbinata. But even that’s not everything. The point is, Mr Čapek, in the case of the Chrysanthemum Indicum, a colour like that was – and to all intents and purposes still is – completely unknown! Some years ago I visited old Veitsch, and Sir James was boasting about how, the year before, they’d had a chrysanthemum – imported from China – that had bloomed with a touch of lilac but unfortunately it had died in the winter. And here was this cackling scarecrow of a woman with a chrysanthemum as blue as the bluest blue you can think of!

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From Portuguese: The Man Who Spoke Javanese, by Lima Barreto

(My translation of the short story O homem que sabia javanês – The Man Who Spoke Javanese – by the Brazilian writer Lima Barreto, which was published in the Gazeta da Tarde in 1911)




 was in a coffee shop, telling my mate Castro how I’d conned people in order to earn a living. Once, when I was in Manaus, I’d even had to pretend I hadn’t been to university so that my clients wouldn’t think me unqualified for being a fortune-teller-cum-magician.

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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)




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.

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From Czech: AMONGST PEOPLE by Karel Čapek

(My translation of Karel Čapek‘s short story Muž, který se nelíbil, which was published in Povídky z jedné kapsy in 1929.)

“I’ve got something for you,” said Mr Pacovský to Sergeant Kolda.

Before the Austro-Hungarian Empire collapsed, Mr Pacovský used to be in the mounted police, but after the war he just couldn’t adapt to the new situation. So he retired and travelled a bit before, finally, leasing the Bella Vista inn. Although it’s rather out of the way it’s beginning to become quite popular with tourists.

“Sergeant Kolda,” said Mr Pacovský, “I don’t get it. This fellow Roedl has had a room here for a fortnight. Which is no problem: he’s paying his way, doesn’t get drunk and doesn’t gamble, but… could you come and take a look at him some time?”

“What’s the matter with him?” asked Sergeant Kolda.

“That’s just it!” blurted out Mr Pacovský. “I’m damned if I know. There’s nothing special about him, but… How should I say it? I just don’t like the look of him!”

Sergeant Kolda scratched his head: “Roedl, Roedl… The name doesn’t ring a bell. What does he do?”

“I don’t know,” said Mr Pacovský. “He says he works in a bank, but I can’t get him to say which bank. There’s something fishy about him. He’s polite and everything, but… He never gets sent any post. It’s like he’s hiding from people. And I don’t like it.”

“How do you mean,” asked Sergeant Kolda, “‘he’s hiding from people?’”

“Well… he’s not exactly hiding from people,” said Mr Pacovský, “but… who on earth wants to go to the countryside in September? And whenever a car stops in front of the inn, he’s off to his room like a flash, even if he’s in the middle of his dinner. So, as I say… I don’t like the look of our Mr Roedl.”

Sergeant Kolda scratched his head again. “You know what, Mr Pacovský? How about this? Tell him you’re closing the inn for autumn. Let him go to Prague or wherever and then he can be someone else’s problem. Easy!”

The next day, which was a Sunday, a young Constable called Hurych – aka Márinka or Panenka – was returning from a walk. On the way he thought he might stop off for a drink and so, when he emerged from the woods, he headed directly to the Bella Vista. And, at the very moment when he was lingering at the back door of the inn to take a few puffs on his pipe, he heard a window being opened on the first floor at the rear of the building, and something hitting the ground with a thud. So he ran back to the courtyard and caught hold of a man who’d just jumped out of the window.

“What on earth are you doing?” he demanded. “Jumping out of the window like that?”

Apart from being pale, the man he was holding by the shoulder didn’t look overly concerned.

“Why shouldn’t I jump out of the window?” he replied, almost in a whisper. “I live here.”

“Well, even if you do,” said Constable Panenka after a pause for thought, “it doesn’t seem right to be jumping out of the window.”

“I didn’t know it was illegal to jump out of windows,” said the man, in a matter-of-fact way. “Ask Mr Pacovský. He’ll confirm that I live here. My name’s Roedl.”

“OK,” said Constable Panenka. “But show me your papers first.”

“Papers…?” said Mr Roedl. “I don’t have any papers with me, but I can write off for them.”

“We’ll do that ourselves,” snapped Constable Panenka. “Come with me, Mr Roedl.”

“Where?” said Mr Roedl, who’d gone even paler. “What right… what right have you to arrest me?”

“Because I don’t like the look of you, Mr Roedl,” said Constable Panenka. “Now kindly come quietly.”

At the police station, Sergeant Kolda was sitting behind the desk in his slippers, smoking his long pipe and reading the official bulletin. When he saw Panenka coming in with Mr Roedl, he wasn’t amused:

“Christ Almighty, Márinka! What the hell? Can’t I even have a bit of peace and quiet on a Sunday? Why do you have to bring people in on a Sunday, of all days?”

“Sir,” declared Constable Panenka, unperturbed, “I don’t like the look of this man. When he saw me entering the Bella Vista he jumped down into the courtyard from a window and wanted to get lost in the woods. And he’s got no papers on him. So I arrested him. He says his name is Roedl.”

“Ah!” said Sergeant Kolda, suddenly interested. “Well, well, Mr Roedl. So you’re here at last.”

“But you can’t arrest me,” said Mr Roedl.

“No, we can’t,” agreed Sergeant Kolda. “But we can keep you here, can’t we? Go back to the inn, Márinka, search Mr Roedl’s room and get his things brought over here… Have a seat, Mr Roedl.”

“I… I refuse to say anything,” spluttered Mr Roedl. “I shall make a complaint!… I protest!…”

Sergeant Kolda sighed. “Bloody hell, Mr Roedl! I really don’t like the cut of your jib. So I’m not going to waste my time. Sit there and keep your mouth shut.”

Having said that, he picked up the bulletin again and carried on reading. And it wasn’t until some minutes had passed that he said:

“Do you know, Mr Roedl, I can see in your eyes that’s something’s not right with you. If I were you, I’d spill the beans and have done with it. But if you don’t want to, you can have it you own way.”

Even paler, and with sweat running down his face, Mr Roedl sat there. Sergeant Kolda watched him for a while. Then, harrumphing, he got up and went over to rearrange the mushrooms he was drying under the stove.

“Look, Mr Roedl,” he began again after a while, “we’ll find out who you really are and then you’ll be sitting in the clink with no-one at all to talk to. Don’t be an ass!”

But Mr Roedl remained resolutely silent and Sergeant Kolda, muttering to himself in annoyance, began cleaning his pipe.

“Well,” he said, “look at it this way. It could take up to a month for us to find out who you are. But that month won’t be knocked off your sentence. And that would be a pity, wouldn’t it?”

“And if I talk,” said Mr Roedl, “that would…”

“That would mean you’ll be remanded in custody,” Sergeant Kolda explained, “and that’ll be taken into account. But as you wish. I don’t like the look of you and I’ll be glad when they take you off to the regional court. So that’s how things stand, Mr Roedl.”

Mr Roedl sighed. His eyes flitted around the room and he looked even more woebegone and haunted than before. “Why does everyone say they don’t like me?” he asked, barely audibly.

“Because you’re afraid,” Sergeant Kolda replied calmly. “You’re hiding something, Mr Roedl, and no-one likes that. Why don’t you look people in the eyes? You’re hot and bothered, aren’t you Mr Roedl?”

“Rosner,” came the anxious correction.

Sergeant Kolda thought for a moment. “Rosner, Rosner… Now, which Rosner would that be? The name sounds somehow familiar.”

“Ferdinand Rosner.”

“Ferdinand Rosner,” repeated Sergeant Kolda. “That’s definitely familiar. Ferdinand Rosner…”

“The deposit bank in Vienna,” offered the pale, crestfallen man.

“Ah, yes!” cried Sergeant Kolda. “Now I remember: embezzlement! Yes, yes… Rosner. My dear Mr Rosner, we’ve had an arrest warrant out for you for the last three years!… So you’re Mr Rosner.”

Sergeant Kolda seemed to enjoy repeating the name.

“But why didn’t you tell us straight away? I was almost going to kick you out… Guess what!” he shouted at Constable Hurych, who was just entering, “it’s Rosner, the embezzler.”

“But…” came a single, painful monosyllable from Mr Rosner.

“But you’ll get used to it, Mr Rosner,” said Sergeant Kolda. “You should be glad it’s out in the open. But, dear me, where have you been hiding for the past three years?”

“In sleeping cars and in swish hotels – the sorts of places where they don’t ask who you are and where you’re from.”

“Well I never!” exclaimed Sergeant Kolda, rather more sympathetically. “You were having the life of Riley, weren’t you?”

“Yes and no,” said Mr Rosner. “I couldn’t go into any old pub, where the cops might come and poke around, could I? I had to live beyond my means, like it or not! And I never stayed at a place longer than three nights, except here – and that’s where you caught me.”

“Never mind!” said Sergeant Kolda. “The money had run out, hadn’t it, Mr Rosner? So it was the end of the road, however you look at it.”

“It was,” agreed Mr Rosner. “But let me tell you, I couldn’t have endured carrying on. Christ! This is the first time in three years I’ve had a proper chat with anyone! I couldn’t even have a decent meal in a restaurant – as soon as anyone started staring at me, I’d be looking to take my leave. I imagined every other person was working for the police. Even Mr Pacovský.”

“Well, that’s hardly surprising,” said Sergeant Kolda. “He used to be a policeman.”

“Exactly,” muttered Mr Rosner. “So how can you ever escape? And why did everyone look at me like that? Do I look like a criminal or something?”

Sergeant Kolda took a good look at him. “Well, to tell you the truth, Mr Rosner, I don’t think you do now. Now you look pretty much like an ordinary person. But a while back, my friend, I really didn’t like the look of you. I don’t know, something about you… Well, Márinka will take you to the court. It’s not six yet, so they’ll discount today from your sentence. And if it wasn’t Sunday today I’d take you there myself, so you could see… erm… that I don’t have anything against you. It must have been the result of not having a home to call your own, Mr Rosner. But now you’ll be OK. Arrest him, Márinka!”

“You know what, Márinka?” said Sergeant Kolda later that evening. “I was getting to like that Mr Rosner. Quite a nice fellow, wasn’t he? I don’t think they’ll give him more than a year.”

“I asked them to give him two blankets,” said Constable Panenka, rather sheepishly. “He’s not used to sleeping on planks.”

“Quite right,” said Sergeant Kolda. “And I’ll tell the guard to have a chat with him every now and then. So he can see he’s back amongst people.”

From Portuguese: With Muffled Drum, by Machado de Assis

(My translation of the short story Marcha Fúnebre by Machado de Assis)


ne night in August 1866, Senator Cordovil was having difficulty sleeping. He’d come away early from the Fluminense Casino, soon after the Emperor had left, and had felt perfectly well, both mentally and physically. Indeed it had been an excellent evening, especially as one of his enemies, who had a heart problem, had died at about ten o’clock, the news arriving at the Casino shortly after eleven.

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From Portuguese: Our Song, by Machado de Assis

(My translation of the short story Cantiga de esponsais by Machado de Assis – 1839-1908)


magine it’s 1813. You’re in the Carmelite Church, listening to one of those marvellous old masses that used to be the essence of public entertainment and musical artistry. You know what a sung mass is; you can imagine what a sung mass would have been in those far-off times. I’m not asking you to concentrate on the priests and sacristans, nor the sermon, nor the eyes of the Cariocan girls (already beautiful in those days), nor the mantillas of the dour senhoras, nor the shoes, hairdos, pelmets, lights, incense… none of that. I’m not even talking about the orchestra (which is excellent). I’m just pointing out the white-haired old man who—with all his devoted soul—is conducting the orchestra.

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From Portuguese: Looking after, by Machado de Assis

(My translation of the short story O enfermeiro by Machado de Assis)


o you think what happened to me in 1860 warrants a few pages? Fair enough, but on condition you don’t let anyone see it until I’m dead. You won’t have to wait long, maybe a week, if not less; I don’t have any illusions about that.


From Portuguese: The Clairvoyant, by Lima Barreto

(My translation of the short story A Cartomante, by Lima Barreto, which was published in Histórias e Sonhos in 1951)

No doubt about it: only the evil eye could explain all the trials and tribulations of the past five years. Whenever he tried to achieve anything, it all went wrong. Take, for instance, his application for the public health job; no sooner had he secured the backing of a government bigwig than politics did a flip-flop. And if he bought a lottery ticket, it would always be the next group of numbers or the one just before. Everything seemed to be telling him he’d never get on in life again. If it wasn’t for his wife’s sewing, they’d really have been in dire straits. It was five years since he’d earned anything at all; and on the rare occasions he’d had such a thing as a banknote in his pocket it had been at the cost of grovelling to friends and acquaintances.