Category Archives: Machado de Assis

Translations of some of the short stories of the famous Brazilian author Machado de Assis.

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 Mercantilnewspaper 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 CruzeiroA 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 Brasileirafrom 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).

From Portuguese: With Muffled Drum, by Machado de Assis

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

O

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.

Continue reading From Portuguese: With Muffled Drum, by Machado de Assis

From Portuguese: Our Song, by Machado de Assis

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

I

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.

Continue reading From Portuguese: Our Song, by Machado de Assis

From Portuguese: Looking after, by Machado de Assis

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

S

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.

Continue…

From Portuguese: Captain Mendonça, by Machado de Assis

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

H

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

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

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

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

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

‘Surprised I know your name?’ he asked.

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

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

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

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

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

‘That’s me.’

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

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

‘Thanks.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘I can’t; awfully sorry,’ I replied.

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

‘But I’m due to meet…’

‘You’re not due to meet anyone!’

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

We left.

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

I said nothing.

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

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

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

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

‘Come on in,’ said Mendonça.

‘Where are we?’ I asked.

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

‘Ah!’

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

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

‘I was in a hurry to open up.’

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

I gave him my hand.

‘You’re trembling,’ said Captain Mendonça.

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

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

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

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

‘Almost?’

‘Yes: not Hell, but Purgatory.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘No.’

II

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

‘A banquet!’ I exclaimed.

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

There were three chairs.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘I’m just sad, Papa.’

‘Sad?! What on earth’s the matter?’

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

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

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

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

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

‘Heaven forfend!’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Don’t you think she’s beautiful?’

‘More than beautiful,’ I replied.

‘Beautiful eyes, aren’t they?’

‘Truly enchanting, extraordinary!’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘So you think her eyes are pretty?’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Utterly horrible!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Ah!’

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Captain continued:

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

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

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

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

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

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

I obeyed as best I could.

III

Augusta came back to the room.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘It’s too early,’ said the Captain.

‘But I’ll be back tomorrow.’

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

‘But there are people expecting me….’

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

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

‘I’ll come back.’

‘Promise?’

‘I promise.’

Augusta gave me her hand.

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

‘You die,’ added her father

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

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

‘See you tomorrow,’ I replied.

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

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

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

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

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

So I started thinking.

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

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

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

He was waiting for me.

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

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

‘I missed you,’ she said.

‘Really?’

‘But I’m sure you didn’t miss me.’

‘I did.’

‘I don’t believe it.’

‘Why?’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘So what was missing?’ I asked.

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

‘That’s true.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Everything?’

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

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

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

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

IV

When tea was finished, the Captain said:

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

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

‘I love watching chemical operations,’ she replied.

‘It must be interesting,’ I said.

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

‘What?’

‘I’ll tell you later.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Finished! Here it is!’

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

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

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

‘Yes, but to the eyes of the world…’

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

‘I agree.’

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

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

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

‘I would,’ I replied.

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

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

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

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

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

‘Of course.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘How?’

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

‘How easy would…’

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

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

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

‘I shall!’

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

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

V

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

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

I made sure.

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

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

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

All of this happened at the top of the stairs.

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

We entered.

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

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

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

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

‘What was that?’

‘Genius. Genius is happiness.’

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

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

‘Ah!’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘What’s that?’ I asked.

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

‘Of course!’

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

‘Don’t you think I…?!’

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

‘Wealth?’

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

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

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

‘Ah!’

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

‘But…’

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

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

It was she who intervened:

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

‘How come?’ I asked.

‘By giving you genius.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Why not today?’ she asked.

‘I’ve got lots to do.’

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

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

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

‘All I need is half an hour.’

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

Old Mendonça made out he accepted my proposal.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Come on! Wake up!’

‘What’s happened?!’

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

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

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

‘Has it finished?’

‘Ten minutes ago.’

‘I’ve been asleep all that time?’

‘Like a log.’

‘Oh my God!’

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

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

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

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

Dear Doctor,

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

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

TRANSLATOR’S NOTES

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From Portuguese: Brother Simão, by Machado de Assis

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

I

B

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

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

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

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

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

‘I die hating humanity.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

II

B

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My dear Amaral,

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

I remain, as always etc.

III

D

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

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

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

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

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

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

The last sentence read:

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

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

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

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

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

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

IV

A

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

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

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

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

‘Here in the capital?’

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s Helena.

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

General consternation.

V

B

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TRANSLATOR’S NOTE

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

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From Portuguese: Mr Barreto, by Machado de Assis

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

‘D

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

‘No problem. I’ll come early.’

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

‘No, Sir. I’ll get up early.’

‘Is that a promise?’

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

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

From Portuguese: Life Eternal, by Machado de Assis

(My translation of the short story A vida eterna)

E

veryone agrees that nothing compares to that state of being neither asleep nor awake when the soul frees itself from affliction and seeks rest from the cares of life. For me, at least, I must say I’ve never experienced more pleasurable moments, especially when my stomach’s full and I’m inhaling the smoke of a fine Havana.

After an ample, refined supper, in the company of my good friend Dr Vaz, who’d appeared at my house for the first time in two years, we went – the two of us – to my study and started talking about the past, like two oldies whose grammar of life no longer has a future tense.

Vaz was sitting in the leather-upholstered easy chair – you can still find them in sacristies – and I was stretched out on the similarly upholstered sofa. We were both smoking excellent cigars that I’d been sent as a present a few days before.

Our conversation started desultory and became even more so, until each of us, without removing our cigars, closed our eyes and entered into the state I’ve just alluded to, hearing the mice in the wainscot, but completely oblivious one of the other.

It would have been natural to pass on to real sleep and I’d have arrived there, were it not for three resounding knocks on the door. I stood up in surprise. Vaz remained in the same position, which made me suppose he must be asleep; if he’d been only half-asleep, like me, the knocking would have produced the same effect.

I went to see who was knocking. It was a tall, thin individual with a cloak wrapped round him.. No sooner had I opened the door than the man entered without so much as ‘By your leave.’ I waited for him to explain the reason for his visit, but I waited in vain, because the stranger sat down comfortably in a chair, crossed his legs, took his hat off and began to tap on its crown, producing a sound I wouldn’t know how to describe, but which must have been some demented symphony, because it looked like he’d come straight from the Red Beach Lunatic Asylum.

I glanced over at my friend, who was deep asleep in the easy chair. The mouse saturnalia continued in the wainscot.

I remained standing for a few moments to see if the stranger would deign to say anything. Meanwhile, despite the unpleasant impression I had of the man, I assessed his appearance and attire.

As I say, he was wrapped in a cloak. When he sat down, the cloak fell open and I saw white leather shoes, yellow trousers and a green waistcoat – colours which look good on a flag, but you couldn’t say they adorn or embellish the human body.

His features were even stranger than his clothes: squint-eyed, big moustache, Roman nose, wide mouth, salient chin, mauve lips, bushy eyebrows, long eyelashes, a perpendicular forehead and – crowning everything – grey, unkempt hair.

When he’d finished tapping out the tune on the crown of his hat, the stranger raised his eyes to me and said:

‘Sit down, dear fellow!’

What audacity! Giving me orders in my own house! I should have sent the fellow packing without more ado; his tone was so imperious, however, that I obeyed willy-nilly and went to sit down on the sofa. From there, with the light of the lamp that hung from the ceiling, I could see his face better and my second impression was even worse.

‘My name is Tobias. I’m a graduate of mathematics.’

I bowed slightly.

The stranger continued:

‘I think I’m going to die tomorrow… Don’t be alarmed! I’m sure that, tomorrow, I’ll be going to the other world. It’s no problem. “To die, to sleep,” as the poet says. Nonetheless, I don’t want to leave this world without fulfilling a pressing, inescapable duty. Have a look at this.’

He took a little picture from his pocket and handed it to me. It was a miniature, a portrait of an extraordinarily beautiful young woman. I returned the picture to my interlocutor and awaited an explanation.

‘This portrait,’ he continued, looking at the miniature, ‘is of my daughter Eusébia. She’s twenty-two and as rich as Croesus, because she’s my sole heir.’

I’d have been amazed at the contrast between the stranger’s wealth and his appearance, had it not been that I was already convinced he was mad. What I was thinking about was how to get this man out of the house, but I confess I was afraid there’d be a struggle, so I waited to see how things went.

Meanwhile I was asking myself how it was that my slaves had allowed a stranger to get as far as the door of my study even though I’d given strict orders that this sort of thing shouldn’t happen. I was already pondering what type of punishment I’d impose for such carelessness – or connivance –, when the stranger shot these words at me:

‘Before I die, I want you to marry Eusébia. That’s the proposal I’ve come to make: if you agree to marry her, I’ll leave you this wad of notes right here, as pin money; if you refuse, I’ll simply put a bullet from this revolver through your head.’

And he lay the wad of banknotes on the table, together with the cocked revolver.

The scene was taking on a dramatic aspect. My first impulse was to wake up Dr Vaz and see if I could get the man out of the house with his help; but I was afraid – and with good reason – that if the stranger saw what I intended he’d put into effect the second part of his proposal.

There was only one thing to do: play for time.

‘My dear Mr Tobias, it goes without saying that I feel enormously flattered by the proposal you’ve put to me. Nothing could be further from my mind than to refuse the hand of such a beautiful creature – or the banknotes. Look at me, however! I’m seventy years old! Miss Eusébia is only twenty-two! Don’t you think it’d be too much to impose me on your daughter?’

Tobias smiled, glanced at his revolver, and started tapping on the crown of his hat again.

‘Far be it from me,’ I continued, ‘to wish to offend you; on the contrary, if I were thinking of myself, I wouldn’t say a word; but it’s purely for the sake of that most gentle gentlewoman – I’m already in love with her, despite my seventy years –, purely for her sake that I draw attention to the disparity between us.’

I raised my voice as I said this, to see if I could wake up Dr Vaz. But my friend continued fast asleep in his chair.

‘I don’t want to know about your age,’ said Tobias, putting his hat on and picking up his revolver. ‘What I want is you and Eusébia to marry. Today. If you refuse, I’ll kill you.’

He pointed the revolver at me. What could I do, despite all my qualms, other than accept the girl and the money?

‘I’ll marry her!’ I blurted out.

Tobias put the revolver back in his pocket and said:

‘Good! Get changed.’

‘Now?!’

‘Now. Get changed while I have a read.’

He stood up, went to my bookshelves, took out a volume of Don Quixote, and went to sit down again. Whilst I – more dead than alive – went to get my coat from the wardrobe, the stranger took out some glasses and prepared to read.

‘Who’s this, sleeping here so peacefully?’ he asked as he cleaned his glasses.

‘That’s Dr Vaz, dear sir. Shall I introduce you to him?’

‘No, it’s not necessary,’ Tobias replied with a malicious smile.

I got myself ready slowly in the hope that something would happen to interrupt that unpleasant scenario. What made it worse was I’d started shaking – I was all fingers and thumbs.

Once in a while I glanced at the stranger, who was calmly reading Cervantes’ immortal work.

The clock struck eleven.

Suddenly it occurred to me that, once in the street, I’d be able to find a policeman, alert him to my predicament and free myself from the awful fate of having Mr Tobias as father-in-law.

But there was another option, an even better one: wake up Dr Vaz before leaving – which would only be natural – and get rid of the stranger with his help.

Whereupon I got dressed as fast as I could and put myself at Mr Tobias’s disposal. He closed the book, went to replace it on the shelf, wrapped himself in his cloak and said: ‘Let’s go!’

‘Would you mind if I wake up Dr Vaz first? He can’t stay here. He needs to go back home.’

As I said this, I stepped towards the chair where Vaz was sleeping.

‘No need,’ said Tobias. ‘We’ll be back soon.’

I didn’t insist: there was still the chance of coming across a policeman, or perhaps one of the slaves – as long as I’d have time to say something. But the slave option proved impossible: when we left my study, the stranger gave me his arm and guided me rapidly down the stairs and out to the street.

A carriage was standing outside the front door. Tobias gestured for me to get in.

I hadn’t foreseen this. My legs went weak and I lost all hope of giving my executioner the slip. It was dangerous – nay, impossible – to resist: the man had the trump card in his pocket and what’s more, I told myself, one doesn’t argue with a lunatic.

We got into the carriage.

I don’t know how long we travelled or which way we went, but I’d guess we passed everything that was passable in Rio de Janeiro. After several centuries of the most extreme anguish, we stopped in front of a house that glowed like a lantern.

‘This is it,’ my companion said. ‘We can get out.’

The house was a real palace, the entrance ornamented with Doric columns, the vestibule paved with black and white marble and illuminated by a stupendous antique bronze chandelier.

The two of us ascended a magnificent marble staircase. At the top there were two little statues, one of Mercury, the other of Minerva. When we reached them my companion pointed them out and said:

‘You know what they represent, my dear Son-in-Law? Minerva is Eusébia – Knowledge; Mercury is me – Commerce.’

‘So you’re a businessman?’ I asked the stranger ingenuously.

‘I used to be a merchant in India.’

We passed through two rooms and when we reached the third we came across an old man. Tobias introduced me:

‘This is Dr Camilo da Anunciação; take him to the guest room while I go and get changed. I’ll see you soon, my dear Son-in-Law.’

And he turned his back on me.

The old man – I subsequently discovered he was the major-domo – took me by the hand and led me to a great hall, where the guests were.

Despite the profound effect of the adventure itself, I have to confess I was more and more amazed by the sumptuousness of the house, and not only its sumptuousness, but also the taste and artistry with which it was all put together.

The guest room was closed when we got there; the major-domo knocked three times, and a valet – also old – came to open the door and took hold of my hand. The major-domo remained outside.

I’ll never forget my first sight of that room when the doors opened. Everything was strange but magnificent. Against the far wall there was a big, imitation-bronze eagle, made of wood, with its wings extended as if about to take flight. From the eagle’s beak there hung a mirror, the lower part of which was clasped in its claws in such a way that it leant forward in the usual fashion of wall mirrors.

Instead of paper, the walls were lined with white silk; the ceiling was artfully wrought; large candelabras, magnificent furniture, a profusion of flowers, carpets – simply, everything that luxury and taste might suggest to a rich man’s soul.

There were only a few guests and by some coincidence – like the major-domo and the valet and my future father-in-law and, indeed, like me too – they were all old.

After the servant introduced me, those present greeted me with such attentiveness that I couldn’t help but feel well-disposed towards them. I sat in a chair and they came to form a circle round me, all smiles and happiness at seeing the son-in-law of the ‘Incomparable Tobias’ – that’s how they called the man with the revolver.

I answered their questions as best I could and it seemed that all my replies caused them satisfaction, because I was swamped with more and more praise and compliments.

One of the guests – a man of about seventy, breast covered with medals, bald – said amidst universal acclamation:

‘Tobias couldn’t have found a better son-in-law even if he’d taken a lantern and searched the whole city – what am I talking about?! – the whole Empire! Anyone can see that Dr Camilo da Anunciação is a perfect gentleman, distinguished by his talents, his gravitas and, not least, by the admirable white hair adorning his head, which makes him more fortunate than I, who lost mine long ago.’

Then he sighed so profoundly he seemed to be entering his death throes. Applause welled up over the final words of the orator.

I’d scarcely mouthed a ‘Thank you’ before I had to prepare myself to listen to another discourse, directed to me this time by a retired colonel, and then a final one from a lady who hadn’t taken her eyes off me ever since I came in.

When she’d finished speaking, the Colonel said: ‘Wouldn’t you agree, Countess, the young men of today are as nothing alongside this patriarch, Tobias’s future son-in-law?!’

‘I couldn’t agree more, Colonel! When it comes to bridegrooms, only the last century can provide adequate ones. Weddings nowadays?! Heaven help us! The bridegrooms are no more than fops and dandies! No gravity! No dignity! No honesty!’

The conversation continued on the same lines. They subjected the past century to a wide-ranging investigation and – perhaps it’s just an old man’s prejudice – they spoke so well and made such fine and telling points that I couldn’t help but admire.

But, during all this, I was anxious to get to know my bride. That was all I was curious about now; and if, as I imagined, she was both beautiful and extremely rich, what more could I ask?!

I made so bold as to put a question to that effect to a lady who was sitting beside me, opposite the Countess. She told me my bride was at her dressing table and it wouldn’t be long before I saw her. She added that she was as radiant as the sun.

Meanwhile, an hour had gone by and neither my bride nor her father, the Incomparable Tobias, had appeared in the room. What could have delayed my future father-in-law? One didn’t need all that time to get dressed. I must confess that, despite the scene in my study and the circumstances in which I’d met the man, I’d have been calmer if he’d been present. You see, I’d already seen the old fellow in my house and had got used to his gestures and his way of talking.

After an hour and a half the door opened to admit a new guest. Imagine my amazement when my eyes alighted on my friend Dr Vaz! Unable to stifle a shout of surprise, I ran to him.

‘You?! Here?!’

‘Some friend!’ replied Vaz, smiling. ‘You get married and don’t even invite your old chum! If it wasn’t for this letter, I’d still be stranded in your study.’

‘What letter?’ I asked.

Vaz opened the letter he had in his hand and gave it me to read, while the other guests stood back a little and contemplated this scene – unexpected as it was, both for me and for them!

The letter was from Tobias and was to the effect that, since I was due to get married that evening, he was taking the liberty – as father-in-law – of inviting Vaz to be present at the ceremony.

‘How did you get here?’

‘Your father-in-law sent a carriage to collect me.’

At this point I had to agree, in my mind, that Tobias merited the title of Incomparable just as much as Aeneas the title of Pious. Now I understood that the only reason he hadn’t wanted me to wake Vaz was so I could have this pleasant surprise later.

My friend, of course, wanted me to tell him all about how I came to be getting married so suddenly and I was on the point of obliging him when the door opened and in walked the owner of the house.

He was different.

He was no longer wearing the weird clothes, nor did he have the peculiar air about him that he had when I’d seen him in my study; he was now dressed with the sober elegance that befits an old man, and the most amiable smile was hovering on his lips.

‘So, my dear Son-in-Law,’ he said to me after he’d greeted everyone, ‘what do you say to your friend’s arrival?!’

‘I say, my dear Father-in-Law, that you’re a diamond. You can’t imagine the pleasure this surprise has given me, because Vaz is my oldest and dearest friend.’

I took the opportunity to introduce Vaz to all the other guests, who were in general agreement that Dr Vaz was a friend worthy of Dr Camilo da Anunciação. The Incomparable Tobias expressed his firm hope that, within a short while, he’d be personally tied to both of us in such a way that the three of us would be known as ‘the bosom pals.’

A clock struck midnight on some church tower – I don’t know which – nearby. The Incomparable Tobias rose to his feet and said to me:

‘My dear Son-in-Law, let’s go and pay our respects to your bride. The wedding hour’s approaching.’

Everyone stood up and headed for the door, with me, Tobias and Vaz in front. I must say, of all the incidents that night, this was the one that affected me most. The idea of going to see a beautiful maiden, in the blossom of her youth, who was going to be my wife – the wife of an old philosopher who’d long ago seen through life’s illusions – that idea, I confess, was flabbergasting.

We passed through a hall and arrived in front of some double doors, which stood ajar, leading to a brilliantly illuminated room. Two valets opened the doors wide and we all entered.

On the other side of the room, seated on an exquisite blue divan, was Miss Eusébia, ready for me and dazzlingly beautiful. I’d seen many fascinating women in my life, but none of them came anywhere near this one. She must have been created by some oriental poet. When I compared my old age with Eusébia’s youth I felt ashamed and was on the point of refusing to get married.

I was introduced to my bride by her father, and she received me with such affability and tenderness that my qualms were soon completely assuaged. After two minutes I was besotted.

Fixing her bright, pellucid eyes on me, she said: ‘My father could not have chosen a better husband for me; I sincerely hope I shall prove myself worthy.’

I gibbered something – I don’t know what – in reply; I had eyes only for her. Eusébia rose to her feet and said to her father ‘I’m ready.’

I requested that Vaz be one of the witnesses, which was accepted; the other witness was the Colonel. The Countess would be the bridesmaid.

We departed for the chapel, which was a little distance away in the same house; the priest and sacristan were already there. Like everyone in the house except Eusébia, they were both old.

My bride said ‘Yes’ with a firm voice, I in a feeble whisper; our roles seemed reversed.

After we’d exchanged our vows, we listened to a short sermon from the priest about the duties imposed by marriage and the sanctity of the sacrament. The priest was a well of knowledge and a miracle of concision: he said a lot in just a few words. (I subsequently discovered he’d never studied proper oratory.)

After the wedding ceremony there was a light tea and a little music. The Countess danced a minuet with the old fellow with all the medals, and that was the end of the party.

On the way to my apartments, accompanied by all the guests, I discovered that Vaz would sleep there that night at the express invitation of the Incomparable Tobias, who’d shown the same kindness to the others.

When I found myself alone with my bride, I fell to my knees and said:

‘I’ve lived so long to receive only now – one foot in the grave – the greatest good fortune any man could ever have, because the love of a woman like you is truly a present from heaven! I speak of love, but I don’t know if I have the right to… because I’m old and you…’

‘Be quiet! Be quiet!’ said Eusébia, greatly perturbed.

And she collapsed on to the sofa, hiding her face in her hands.

I was astounded and, for some minutes, remained kneeling, stock-still, without knowing what to say.

Eusébia seemed to be weeping.

Finally I lifted myself up, went to the sofa, and asked her why.

She didn’t reply.

It struck me that perhaps Eusébia had loved someone else and that, as a punishment for the crime of that love, they were forcing her to marry an elderly stranger – someone she couldn’t love.

Something of Don Quixote awoke within me. She was a victim: therefore I must save her. I bent down and told her what I suspected and what I’d resolved.

I was expecting to see her clasp my knees in gratitude for the noble impulse behind my words, but – to my surprise – all I saw was a look of pity, and all I heard, as she shook her head, was:

‘You poor, poor man! It’s you who’s the victim!’

‘Me?!’ I exclaimed, a shudder running through me.

‘Yes, you!’

Cold sweat broke out on my forehead, my legs began to shake and, to stop myself from toppling over, I sat down beside her on the sofa. I asked her to explain herself.

‘I suppose I might as well,’ she said. ‘If I hid it from you, I’d be an accomplice in the eyes of God, and God knows I’m only a passive tool in the hands of all those men. Listen! You’re my fifth husband. Every year, on the same day and at the same hour, this house is the scene of the ceremony you’ve just witnessed. And afterwards they all bring me here with my new husband, who…’

‘Who what?!’ I asked, sweating.

‘Read this,’ said Eusébia. She went to a chest of drawers and took out a parchment. ‘I discovered this just a month ago; for only one month have I known the reason why I must marry each year.’

Trembling, I opened the parchment she’d handed me and read – horror-struck – the following words:

‘Elixir of eternal life, found in Egyptian ruins in the year 402. In the name of the Black Eagle and of the Seven Little Children of the Septentrional, salve! When there come together twenty people desirous of the inestimable privilege of Life Eternal, let them form a secret society and have for supper ever year, on St Bartholomew’s Day, an old man of over sixty years of age, roasted in the oven, and washed down with pure wine.’

Could anyone possibly understand my situation?! In front of me was Death, certain Death, painful Death; but, at the same time, all I’d just learnt was so outlandish – the purchase of eternal life through a cannibal banquet – that my spirit hovered between doubt and fear; I believed, I didn’t believe; I was afraid, and I was asking ‘Why?!’

‘That is the fate which awaits you!’

‘But this is madness!’ I exclaimed. ‘To buy eternity with a man’s death?! And, in any case, how do you know this parchment has anything to do…?’

‘Because I do,’ Eusébia replied. ‘Haven’t I just told you this was my fifth wedding?! Where are my four previous husbands? All of them entered this room, only to leave half an hour later. Each time, someone came to call them – under some pretext or other – and I never saw them again. I suspected it must mean something awful. Now I know!’

I started walking to and fro, feverishly; was it true I was going to die? Was this my last hour alive? Sitting on the sofa, Eusébia’s gaze flitted between me and the door.

I stopped in front of her and asked: ‘But that priest, mademoiselle…?! ‘Is that priest in on it too?’

‘He’s the head of their society.’

‘And you, mademoiselle..?! You’re an accomplice: your words were nothing but a trap! If it wasn’t for them, I’d never have agreed to marry you…!’

‘Oh, sir!’ she replied, her cheeks wet with tears. ‘I’m weak, yes, I am, but I’m not an accomplice. What I said to you… I was forced to say it.’

At that moment I heard slow footsteps: it was them, of course.

Eusébia – terrified – rose from the sofa and dropped to her knees at my feet, murmuring: ‘I’m not to blame for anything that happens, but forgive me for being the unwitting cause!’

I stared at her and told her I forgave her.

The footsteps were getting nearer.

I got ready to go down fighting, quite forgetting that, apart from having no weapon, I had no strength at all.

Whoever was approaching arrived at the door and knocked. I didn’t reply straight away, but as the knocking became insistent I asked:

‘Who’s there?’

‘It’s me,’ Tobias replied softly. ‘Would you mind opening the door?’

‘Why?’

‘I need to tell you a secret.’

‘At this hour?!’

‘It’s urgent.’

I looked questioningly at Eusébia; she shook her head.

‘Let’s leave the secret for tomorrow, Father-in-Law.’

‘It really is very urgent,’ Tobias replied, ‘and to save you the trouble I’ll open the door myself with another key I’ve got here.’

I ran to the door, but it was too late; Tobias was at the threshold, beaming as if entering a ball-room.

‘My dear Son-in-Law,’ he said, ‘would you accompany me to the library? I’d like to tell you an important secret about our family.’

‘Wouldn’t tomorrow be better?’ I said.

‘No, it has to be now!’ Tobias replied, frowning.

‘I don’t want to!’

‘You don’t want to..?! But you must.’

‘I’m perfectly aware I’m your fifth son-in-law, my dear Mr Tobias.’

‘Ah! You know..! Eusébia’s told you about the other weddings. So much the better!’

And turning to his daughter he hissed, icily:

‘There’s a price to pay for indiscretion.’

‘Mr Tobias, she’s not guilty.’

‘Was it not she who gave you that parchment?’ Tobias asked, pointing at the parchment, which was still in my hand.

We froze!

Tobias took a little whistle from his pocket and blew it; other whistles were blown in response and, within a few minutes, the boudoir had been invaded by all the old people in the house.

‘Supper time!’ said Tobias.

I grabbed hold of a chair and was on the point of throwing it at my father-in-law when Eusébia caught hold of my arm.

‘He’s my father!’

‘That won’t help you, Eusébia,’ Tobias said with a diabolical smile. ‘You’re going to die.’

And grabbing her by the neck he handed her over to two of his lackeys, saying: ‘Kill her!’

The poor girl screamed, but in vain: the two lackeys bundled her out while the other old people caught hold of my arms and legs and carried me in procession to a hall that was covered totally in black. I arrived there more dead than alive. And the priest was already there, dressed in his cassock.

Before dying I wanted to see my poor friend Vaz, but the Colonel told me he was sleeping and wouldn’t be leaving the house: he was next year’s supper.

The priest offered to hear my confession, but I refused to receive absolution from the very person who was going to kill me. I wanted to die impenitent.

They laid me out – with my hands and feet bound – on top of a table, and then they all surrounded me. Behind my head stood a lackey, a dagger in his hand.

Then the whole company began chanting something. The only words I could make out were: ‘In the name of the Black Eagle and of the Seven Little Children of the Septentrional.’

Sweat was pouring down me; I could hardly see. Despite my seventy years – an age at which one no longer feels nostalgia for this world – the idea of dying was horrible.

The chanting stopped and the priest said, loud and slow:

‘And now..! Let the dagger do its work!’

The blade flashed in front of my eyes and buried itself completely in my heart; blood gushed out of my chest and soaked the table; my death throes; my last breath.

I was dead – really dead – and yet I heard everything around me; I still had a certain consciousness of this world to which I no longer belonged.

‘Has he died?’ asked the Colonel.

‘Completely,’ replied Tobias. ‘You can call the ladies now.’

The ladies – eager and curious – arrived shortly.

‘Well?’ asked the Countess. ‘Do we have our man?’

‘Behold!’

The women came up to me and I heard their unanimous cannibal approval; they all agreed I was plump and should be an excellent dish.

‘We can’t roast him whole: he’s too big and fat; he won’t fit in the oven. We’ll just have to quarter him. Knives!’

Those words were said by Tobias, who immediately proceeded to allocate tasks: the Colonel would cut off my left leg, the one with all the medals my right, the priest one arm, Tobias himself the other, and the Countess – a connoisseur of the human nose – would cut off mine to have with the giblets.

The knives arrived and the operation began; I must say I didn’t feel a thing; I only knew they’d cut off a leg when it landed on the floor with a thump.

‘Good! Into the oven,’ said Tobias.

Suddenly I heard Vaz’s voice.

‘What’s all this, Camilo! What’s all this?!’ he was saying.

I opened my eyes and found myself lying on my sofa at home; Vaz was standing beside me.

‘What the Devil’s the matter with you?!’

I looked at him in amazement and asked: ‘Where are they?’

‘They who?’

‘The cannibals!’

‘You’re mad, old fellow!’

I looked at myself: I had my legs, my arms and my nose. The room was my room. Vaz was the same old Vaz.

‘That must have been some nightmare!’ he said. ‘I was asleep and you woke me up with your yelling.’

‘Thank heavens!’ I said.

I got up, drank some water and told my friend about the dream. He roared with laughter, but decided to stay with me that night. The next day we woke up late and ate a hearty breakfast. When he left, Vaz said to me:

‘You should write down your dream for the Family Digest.’

‘I might just do that, old fellow.’

‘Do! I’ll send it to Garnier.’

TRANSLATOR’S NOTE

Translator’s note: The last word of this story, ‘Garnier,’ refers to a famous publishing firm in Rio de Janeiro whose publications included the Jornal das Famílias – here, the Family Digest –, which was in circulation from 1863 to 1878.

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).