From Portuguese: The Oracle, by Machado de Assis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

At any rate, he cancelled the journey north.

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

Before long, he was like one of the family.

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

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

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

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

“Ah!”

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

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

“Oh! Thank you!”

“So, you accept?”

“Oh yes! Without a doubt!”

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

“But listen…”

“What…?”

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

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

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

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

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

It was a moving scene.

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

“As you wish.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Thank you.”

They separated.

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

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

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

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

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

“Extraordinary! But what is this oracle?”

“That’s a secret.”

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

“It all depends – on the oracle.”

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

“No, Father, I’m not.”

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

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

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

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

“To what do I owe this visit?”

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

“Ah!”

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

“Who told you?”

“Cecília. She sent us a message.”

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

“On the contrary.”

“Thank goodness for that!”

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

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

“If it’s a No, will you support me?”

“Of course,” said both the nieces.

Soon afterwards their husbands arrived.

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

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

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

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

They all gathered round her.

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

“So, what did Mr Oracle say?”

“Oh! Father! He said No!”

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

“Yes.”

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

“Oh! No!”

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

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

“No need.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What’s this?”

“It’s the reply to your question.”

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

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

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

“You’re my son-in-law!”

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

“But what if this is a forgery?”

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

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

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

Epilogue

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

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

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

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

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

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

Henrique and Cecília couldn’t be happier.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

03/05/2022

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