From Portuguese: EVOLUTION by Machado de Assis

(My translation of the short story Evolução by Machado de Assis, which was first published in the collection Reliquias de Casa Velha in 1906)

My name is Inácio; his, Benedito. I won’t tell you our surnames, for a reason that any discrete person would understand. You’ll have to be content with Inácio and Benedito. It’s better than nothing and is in line with Juliet’s philosophy: “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose / By any other name would smell as sweet.” But let’s turn to Benedito’s smell.

And it’s immediately apparent that he was the least Romeo-like of any man in this world. He was forty-five when I got to know him; I won’t say when that was because everything in this story has to be oblique and mysterious. So, forty-five, and lots of black hair. For the hair that wasn’t black, he used a chemical process that was so efficient that you couldn’t tell the natural from the fake – except when he got out of bed; but no one saw him when he got out of bed. Everything else was natural: legs, arms, head, eyes, clothes, shoes, watch chain, and cane. Even the diamond pin he wore on his tie – one of the most beautiful I’ve ever seen – was natural and legitimate; it has cost him quite a bit; I saw him buying it in the jeweller’s shop; I don’t remember the name of the shop, but it was in the Rua do Ouvidor.

A fine character. No-one’s character changes, and Benedito’s was good – or, more precisely, peaceable. But he was less original when it came to intellect. We could compare him to a busy guesthouse where all sorts of ideas can be heard when the guests are sitting at the table with the owner’s family. At times, two of the guests might be antipathetic to each other, if not outright inimical; but the owner ensured it would never come to blows; he demanded reciprocal tolerance. That’s how Benedito managed to reconcile his vague sort of atheism with founding two religious confraternities – I can’t remember whether they were in Gávea, Tijuca or in the Engenho Velho. So he availed himself, promiscuously, of devotion, irreligion and silk stockings. I never saw his silk stockings, but he didn’t keep secrets from his friends.

We first met when we both happened to be travelling to Vassouras. We’d alighted from the train and got into the carriage that was going to take us from the station to the town centre. We exchanged a few words and soon began talking more freely – as far as that was possible in the circumstances, i.e. we still hadn’t introduced ourselves properly.

Of course, the first subject of conversation was the progress that the railways would bring to Brazil. Benedito could remember when the whole journey was made on the back of a donkey. Then we exchanged some anecdotes, we spoke about a few well-known people, and we agreed that the railways were essential to the country’s progress. Someone who’s never been pulled along behind one of those solid, stolid locomotives can have no idea how they can dispel the tedium of travel. One’s spirit is lifted, one’s muscles relax, one’s heart beats calmly, and one remains at peace with God and men.

“Our children won’t live to see the whole country criss-crossed by railways,” he said.

“No, you’re right… Do you have children?”

“No, none.”

“Nor me… It will take at least fifty years; but it’s essential. I think of Brazil as a little child that’s just learnt to crawl; it will only walk when it’s criss-crossed with railways.”

Benedito’s eyes lit up:

“What a lovely comparison!”

“Never mind ‘lovely.’ What’s important is whether it’s correct.”

“Lovely and correct,” he replied good-humouredly. “Yes, you’re right: Brazil is crawling; it will only begin to walk when we’ve got lots of railways.”

We arrived at Vassouras; I went to the house of the district judge, an old friend of mine; Benedito stayed in the town for a day before continuing to the interior. Eight days later, I returned to Rio de Janeiro, but alone this time. He returned a week after that; we met at the theatre, talked a bit and exchanged news; Benedito ended up inviting me to lunch with him the next day. I duly went, and it was a lunch fit for a prince, enriched by good cigars and lively conversation, although I must confess I’d found what he said during our train ride more engaging – lifting one’s spirit and leaving one at peace with God and with men; but perhaps I was too engaged with the lunch on this occasion. It was really magnificent; and it would have been a great injustice to relegate it to a mere background to chit-chat, elbows on the edge of the table, and looking at the smoke rising from our cigars.

“On my travels just now, I saw how right you were with that idea of Brazil just crawling.”


“Yes, exactly as you were saying in the carriage to Vassouras. We won’t start walking until our country’s criss-crossed with railways. You can’t imagine how true that is!”

He went on to talk about lots of thing: the customs of the people of the interior, the difficulties of their lives, and their backwardness; but he was pleased to see their good heartedness and their hopes for progress. Unfortunately, the government wasn’t abreast of the needs of the country; it even seemed to want to keep it out of step with the other American nations – as if it was indispensable to persuade us that principles are everything and people nothing. People aren’t made for the sake of governments; governments are made for the people; abyssus abyssum invocat.

Afterwards, he took me to see the other rooms, which were all beautifully decorated. He showed me his collections of paintings, coins, antiquarian books, stamps, and weapons; he had swords and épées, but he admitted he didn’t know how to fence. One of the paintings was a beautiful portrait of a woman; I asked him who it was. Benedito just smiled.

I smiled too: “I won’t press you on it.”

“No, no,” he replied hurriedly. “I can’t deny it. I was much in love with her. Pretty, isn’t she? But you can’t imagine how beautiful she was in real life: carmine lips, rosy cheeks, eyes as dark as the sky at night. And teeth like pearls. A wonder of nature!”

We carried on to his office, which was enormous and elegant, although nothing so out of the ordinary. All present and correct. There were two bookcases, full of beautifully bound books, a map of the world, and two maps of Brazil. The ebony writing-desk was a piece of fine workmanship; and on it, lying casually open, was one of Laemmert’s almanaques. The inkwell was made of crystal – “rock crystal,” as he explained, in the same way he’d explained other individual items. There was an organ in the adjacent room. He spoke enthusiastically about it: he played the organ and loved music. He mentioned particular operas and which parts of them he liked best, and he told me that, when he was a boy, he’d started to learn the flute but had soon given it up – which was a pity, he said, because it’s such an emotive instrument. After showing me other rooms, he accompanied me to the garden, which was splendid: a wonderful balance of art enriching nature and nature enriching art. He had roses – “the Queen of Flowers,” he said – of every type and from every region.

I left enchanted.

Subsequently I had occasion to appreciate Benedito’s character further when we met on various occasions, in the street, in the theatre or in the houses of mutual friends.

Four months later, I left for Europe on business, which was going to keep me there for a year. Benedito remained, immersed in the elections because he wanted to be a deputy. It was I who’d encouraged him, not for any particular reason, but just to be agreeable; it wasn’t really much different from praising his waistcoat. But he’d caught hold of the idea and had put his name forward.

One day, when I was crossing the road in Paris, I suddenly bumped into him.

“What on earth…?!”

“I lost the election, so I came to see Europe.”

He didn’t part from me; we travelled together the rest of the time. He told me that losing the election hadn’t put him off having another go. In fact it had made him even more determined. And he told me his great plan.

“I want to see you become a minister,” I said.

Benedito hadn’t expected that. He beamed, but immediately tried to hide his satisfaction.

“Don’t say that. But if I were to be a minister, it would have to be minister for industry. We’ve had enough of political parties; we need to develop the latent power of our country, its huge resources. You remember what we were talking about in the carriage in Vassouras? Brazil is crawling; it will only walk when we have railways…”

I was somewhat amazed: “Quite right! And why do you think I’m here in Europe? I’ve come about a railway. I’ve been arranging things in London.”



I showed him the paperwork: appointments, statistics, publicity material, reports, copies of contracts, and everything about the engineering side of things. He looked at it all as if transfixed and told me he was going to put something similar together. And, indeed, I soon saw him going off to ministries, banks and associations, from which he returned with notes and booklets that he stored in his suitcases; but his enthusiasm waned almost as quickly as it had arrived – it was a passing fad. Benedito immersed himself once more, and with much more pleasure, in the minutiae of political and parliamentary language. He had a whole arsenal of the stuff in his head and often gave me the benefit of it in our conversations; he found it all greatly prestigious and of inestimable value. A lot of it had come via English translation, which he preferred to the others, as the English versions had a hint of the House of Commons about them. He savoured it all so much that I wondered if he’d accept liberty if it didn’t come with all that verbal apparatus; I think not. Indeed, if he’d had to choose, I think he’d have chosen all those short and pithy formulas, some of them beautiful, others sonorous, and all of them axiomatic, and which don’t require reflexion, which fill the silences, and which leave one at peace with God and with men.

We returned to Brazil together; but I remained in Pernambuco, before returning subsequently to London, whence I came to Rio de Janeiro a year later. By that time, Benedito was already a deputy. I went to visit him and found him preparing his maiden speech. He showed me some notes, parts of reports, books on political economy – some of them with the pages marked with strips of paper headed: Exchange Rates, Land Tax, English Corn Laws, Opinion regarding Ab ovo…

He was clearly determined to demonstrate to the practical men of the Assembly that he too was a practical man.

Then he asked me about the company; I told him what there was to know:

“Sometime in the next two years I’m expecting to inaugurate the first stretch of the railway.”

“And what about the English capitalists?”

“What about them?”

“Are they satisfied? Are they optimistic?”

“Very. You can’t imagine.”

I told him some of the technical details, which he listened to absent-mindedly – either because what I had to say was terribly complicated or for some other reason. When I finished, he told me it was good to see me so involved in industry; that’s exactly what we need, and, on that pretext, he did me the favour of reading me the draft of the speech he was due to deliver a few days later. It went like this:

In the midst of the growing agitation of spirits and of the clamour of political parties, which drowns out the voices of legitimate interests, allow me to give voice to the supplication of the nation. Honourable Members, it is time to concentrate exclusively – note that I say ‘exclusively’ – on the material improvement of our country. I am not unaware of what might be said to me by way of objection; I will be told that a nation does not solely comprise a stomach for the purposes of digestion, but also a head to think and a heart to feel. I reply thus: that all of that is of no or little consequence if the nation has not legs to walk; and here I shall repeat what I said, some years ago, to a friend during a journey through the interior: ‘Brazil is a little child that’s just learnt to crawl; but Brazil will only walk when it is criss-crossed by railways…’

I didn’t hear the rest because I was lost in thought – or rather, amazed and astounded by the abyss that psychology had just torn open at my feet. This man is sincere, I thought. He believes what he’s written. And I descended into the abyss, hoping to discern the highways and byways through which that snatch of conversation in the carriage to Vassouras had passed. And I found there – forgive me if I got carried away – I found there one more example of the law of evolution as defined by Spencer. Spencer or Benedito, one of them.


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).

"House by the Railroad," Edward Hopper, 1925


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