From Portuguese: CAZUZA’S ONE AND ONLY MURDER by Lima Barreto

(My translation of the short story O único assassinato de Cazuza, which was published in Contos reunidos in 1949. There’s a strong autobiographical element in this story.)

Hildegardo Brandão, known to his friends as Cazuza, had got to the age of fifty and a bit, and was down but not out. After acute crises of despair, bitterness and resentment brought on by the injustice which had thwarted him in all his worthy ambitions, a sort of grave and calm beatitude had descended on him, as if he were preparing himself for death.

He’d tried everything and—more or less—had failed in everything: tried to graduate, they wouldn’t pass him; tried administration, pipped for promotion by colleagues not half as good as him at anything, not even at bureaucracy; and he’d tried writing… not completely without success, but that was because he’d gone at it devil-may-care—he’d burnt his boats. Even so, they’d still turned up their noses. One time they thought him inferior to So-and-So because he didn’t have a Morocco-leather suitcase; another time he was inferior to such-and-such an anthologist because, when Such-and-Such was attached to the Brazilian Consulate in Paris, he’d been given a real Indian-bulrush walking stick as a present from Siam. So what with one thing and another he’d got fed up and decided not to play. At forty-five years of age, with a modest income and a little house in a distant suburb, he’d bunkered down there, cutting himself off from the world like Captain Nemo. He made his last book purchases and never again appeared in Ouvidor Street. Nor did he ever regret his independence and his intellectual honesty.

At fifty-three years of age, he was—so to speak—alone, with no close relatives. All he had were the black couple who were his neighbours and who he helped out with a bit of money each month.

On weekdays his life went like this: in the morning he had his breakfast and went to the local store—where he got his supplies—to read the papers and to indulge, moderately, in a few glasses of pinga, a drink he’d abused, unfortunately, in his youth. Then he’d go home, have lunch and read his books, because he’d accumulated a little library of more than a thousand. If he got tired, he’d have a nap. After dinner, if it was a nice evening, he’d go for a walk here and there in the neighbourhood, with such a distant and taciturn air that the odd embracing couple wouldn’t even notice him.

On Sundays, however, he broke this routine, making his one and only visit. This was to a friend, a doctor of real talent but who’d also had his setbacks. His ability had never been properly recognised, because his spelling was eratic, he wrote “Yours faithfully” when it should have been “… sincerely” etc., etc.

They’d been fellow students years ago and were great friends, so much so that they could dispense with niceties: a glance was sufficient for the one to understand the other. So, on Sundays, after he’d had his breakfast, Hildegardo used to go to his friend’s house nearby, where he’d read the papers—the doctor would have certain newspapers and Hildegardo would bring others—and have a hearty lunch with the family.

On that Sunday, Cazuza went to make his usual visit to Dr Ponciano. The doctor was sitting in a rocking-chair and his friend was sitting in one of those things they call a “canvas chair”, with a writing-desk between them. The room was spacious and light, the walls adorned with anatomical drawings. When he’d finished reading the dailies, Hildegardo said:

‘I don’t know how anyone can live in the interior of Brazil.’


‘They kill each other right, left and centre, for the least thing. Their petty political niggles make them so enraged that one faction thinks nothing of killing off the other, sometimes in the cruellest way imaginable; and the only objective is domination, to be the boss-man of local politics—that’s to say, when it’s not a dispute over family, inheritance, land or something even less significant. I never read the papers without being disgusted by these reports. We’re not talking about here and there: it’s the whole of Brazil. You don’t even have to go far from Rio. Horrible! In addition to the murders carried out by gunslingers—awful word!—there are those perpetrated by the police and other supposed forces of law on adversaries, or putative adversaries, of the local governors. It’s enough to murmur something to have a convoy of them turn up, farmhouse turned upside down, crop destroyed, cattle rustled, folk imprisoned or beaten up—workers who deserve respect. When I read this sort of news, I think to myself that the success of these people in the assembly, in the senate, in the ministries, even in the presidency of the Republic—stands on crime and murder. What do you think?’

‘When it comes to that, here’s not so different from the interior. Someone once said that if you haven’t sent a human being from this world to the next you can’t have a successful political career in Rio.’

‘That’s true, but at least, here, people of a more delicate nature can abstain from politics; you can’t do that in the interior. Relationships come into play, requests for favours—and you’re on board. Such an enclosed world makes it inevitable: an apparently insignificant good turn for a friend, things go well, but one fine day that friend—for whatever reason—splits from his old boss and you, out of loyalty, go with him. And behold! You’ve just put yourself in line to be castrated or beaten to death like a rabid dog. And to think I wanted to go and live in the interior! Thank you, Jesus!’

‘Didn’t I always tell you all that stuff about a peaceful country life is baloney. When I was a doctor in the interior, you couldn’t but notice that pathological cult of the Tough Guy, which is the cause of so many stupid murders. I could tell you no end of stories about those hillbillies boasting about their murders, but it’s a waste of breath. The only people it could possibly interest are criminologists.’

‘What I think,’ said Hildegardo, ‘is that the exodus from the country to the cities is at least partly a result of the lack of security in the outback. Any little army corporal is a Caesar in those parts, so just imagine what a police-chief or a deputy can do. Dreadful!’

The two of them fell silent and quietly began to smoke. Each of them was thinking about the same thing: how to find a solution to such a wretched state of affairs. When they’d finished smoking, Ponciano said dejectedly,

‘There’s no remedy,’ which was corroborated by Hildegardo: ‘No, I can’t think of anything either.’

They remained silent for a while. Hildegardo started reading another paper and then turned to his friend:

‘God forgive me, but I’m more afraid of killing than I am of dying. I can’t understand how those politicians out there… how they can be happy, when their route to the top is lined with crosses. I’m sure that, if I did commit a murder, I—who’ve never had any daydreams like those of Raskolnikov—would feel what he felt: from that moment my relationship to humanity would be completely different; and no punishment would ever outdo—from that moment—my remorse and guilt, which would be like his remorse and guilt. What do you think?’

‘Me too, but you know what they say, those politicians who rise to the heights with dozens of murders behind them?’


‘That we’re all murderers.’

Hildegardo smiled and replied as cool as a cucumber:

‘I agree. I’m a murderer too.’

The doctor was surprised:

‘You’re what, Cazuza?!’

‘I’m a murderer,’ Cazuza repeated.

‘What on earth do you mean?! Just a moment ago you were saying…’

‘Let me tell you. I was seven years old and my mother was still alive. You know that, to all intents and purposes, I didn’t know my mother.’

‘I know.’

‘I only remember her in her coffin, when my father, weeping, took me by the hand to sprinkle holy water over her corpse. I’ve missed her my whole life long. Perhaps I wouldn’t have been so rebellious, so glum and distrustful; perhaps I’d have been happier with my life if she’d lived. With her leaving me when I was a child, I had to grow up quickly, but equally quickly I came to feel disgust for life, I became withdrawn because I didn’t trust anyone, I bottled up my pain instead of telling someone about it—which is always a relief. So, at an unusually early age I became bored and tired with life, I became a sort of misanthrope.’

Cazuza’s friend noticed the swell of emotion beneath these words and that there were tears in his eyes, so he cut short his distressing confession with an ironic exhortation:

‘Cazuza! Cazuza! You were going to tell me about this evil murder.’

Hildegardo/Cazuza composed himself and went back to the beginning.

‘I was seven years old and my mother was still alive. We were living in Paula Matos… After my mother died, I never went up that hill again…’

‘Tell the story, damn it!’ spluttered an impatient Doctor Ponciano.

‘The house was on a steep slope. At the front the roof was level with the road, whereas, at the back, in order to get to the yard you had to climb down a wooden ladder, which had more than twenty rungs. I was going down the ladder one day, distracted, and when I put my bare foot on the ground I stood on a chick and killed it. I flew back up the ladder, weeping, sobbing, bawling: “Mummy, I killed..! Mummy, I killed..!” I couldn’t finish the sentence; I could hardly speak for sobbing. My mother came running and asked: “What’s the matter, Cazuza?! Who have you killed?!” Finally I managed to say: “I killed a chick, with my foot.” And I told her how it happened.

‘My mother chuckled, made me drink some passion-flower tea and sent me to sit in the corner. “Sit there, Cazuza, and wait for the police to arrive.” And I stayed sitting there in the corner, as quiet as a mouse, shuddering at the slightest sound from the road, because I really did believe the police were coming.

‘That’s the only murder I’ve committed. I don’t think it’s in the same league as those which can get you the top political jobs because, up until today, I…’

Dona Margarida, Doctor Ponciano’s wife had come to interrupt their conversation: ‘Lunch is on the table, gentlemen.’


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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