For João Luiz Ferreira, civil engineer
The insuperable problem with real life – and what makes it insupportable for a truly idealistic person – is that, if one lives according to ideals, qualities become faults, with the result that accomplished people very often fare less well than those motivated by selfishness or simple routine.
I, The Guitar Lesson
II, Radical Reforms
III, News from Genelício
IV, The Disastrous Consequences of an Official Proposal
V, The Figurine
I – The Guitar Lesson
olicarpo Quaresma – better known as Major Quaresma – got home at 4.15 p.m., as he’d been doing for more than twenty years. After leaving the ordnance office in Rio, where he was under-secretary, he’d shop for food: fruit, cheese (sometimes) and bread from the French bakery (without fail).
This never took him more than an hour; at 3.40 (on the dot) he’d catch the tram; and he’d enter his house, in a remote area of São Januário, at 4.15 (on the dot). It was like the apparition of a comet or the occurrence of an eclipse – in short, a phenomenon capable of precise mathematical prediction.
The neighbours were well aware of his habits, so much so that, in Captain Cláudio’s house, where dinner was served about 4.30, as soon as she saw him passing, the captain’s wife would call out to the maid:
“Alice, it’s nearly time! Major Quaresma’s just gone by.”
It had been like that for almost thirty years. The Major lived in his own house and had other sources of income apart from his salary. He could therefore afford to live more affluently than his office job might suggest, and he was treated in the neighbourhood with due respect and consideration.
He didn’t encourage anyone to visit him. Indeed he lived in monastic seclusion, although he was perfectly polite to the neighbours, who, in turn, regarded him as a weird misanthrope. So he had no friends in the area, but also no enemies. The only ruffled feathers had been those of the locally renowned Dr Segadas, who’d taken objection to Quaresma owning books:
“What’s the point if he hasn’t got a degree? It’s just pedantry!”
The sub-secretary didn’t show his books to anyone, but when he opened the windows of his library you could see, from the road, that the shelves were full from top to bottom.
Such were his habits. Recently, however, there’d been a change, which had caused some comment in the neighbourhood. The only people who used to visit him were his friend Vicente Coleoni and Vicente’s daughter Olga, Quaresma’s god-daughter, but in the last few days someone else had been seen entering his house: a short, thin, pale man, carrying a guitar in a suede bag. At the very first sighting, the neighbours were intrigued. A guitar! In such a respectable house! What could it possibly mean?!
That same afternoon, two ladies (one of them a local beauty) could be seen taking a walk: up and down, very slowly, and whenever they passed by the weird sub-secretary’s open window, they craned their necks.
Their spying was not without success. The major was sitting on the sofa beside the little man. He was holding the instrument in the playing position and was listening attentively:
“Like this, Major.” The strings vibrated vaguely, after which the maestro said, “That’s Re. OK?”
Further surveillance was unnecessary: the neighbourhood immediately concluded that the major was learning to play the guitar. But why?! Such a serious man getting involved in that sort of thing!
It was a sunny afternoon – the fierce, implacable March sun. At about four o’clock, the windows on both sides of a deserted road in São Januário were suddenly full of faces. There were even young ladies at the window of the general’s house. What was happening? A battalion on the march? A fire? Nothing of the kind! Head down, Major Quaresma was walking up the road, with that disreputable instrument under his arm.
It’s true the guitar was decently wrapped up in paper, but the shape gave it away. In view of this scandal, the respect in which Major Policarpo Quaresma was held in the neighbourhood diminished somewhat. “This’ll be his undoing,” they said. “The lunatic!” He, however, not noticing the diminished respect, blithely continued his study of the guitar.
Quaresma was a skinny little man. He wore a pince-nez and was always looking down, except for when he did fix on someone or something, when his eyes, behind the lenses, took on a penetrating gleam, as if he wanted to reach the soul of the person, the nub of the thing.
But then he’d look down again, as if guided by the point of his goatee. He always wore a striped morning coat. Black, blue or grey, but always a morning coat. And it was only rarely that he didn’t wear a top hat, made to an old-fashioned design – he could state the period precisely.
When he got home that day, his sister opened the door and asked, “Have you had dinner?”
“Not yet. Hold on a bit, Ricardo’s coming to dinner.”
“Policarpo! Have some sense! A respectable middle-aged man like you, with a good job, getting mixed up with that street musician! Probably a scoundrel! It’s not right!”
The major set down his parasol – an antique, with a wooden rod and a curved handle inlaid with mother-of-pearl – and replied:
“But you’re completely wrong, Adelaide. To say everyone who plays the guitar is disreputable is just prejudice. Modinha music is the truest expression of our national poesy and it has to be played on the guitar. It’s we who’ve abandoned the modinha even though, in the last century in Lisbon, it used to be held in esteem. Padre Caldas used to perform it for noblewomen. The Englishman Beckford couldn’t praise it enough.”
“But that was in another age! Nowadays…”
“What difference does that make, Adelaide?! It’s important not to let our traditions and genuine national customs die out…”
“All right, Policarpo! I’m not going to argue with you. Feel free to carry on with this nonsense.”
The major went into a nearby room, while his sister headed for the interior of the house. He got undressed, had a wash, put on his home clothes, went to the library, sat down in a rocking chair and relaxed.
The room was huge, with windows looking out on a side street, and it was full of iron bookshelves.
There were eight four-tiered ones and some small ones for larger books. If you had a close look at that extensive collection of books, you’d see the governing principle behind it, and you’d be amazed.
Fiction was represented only by authors who were Brazilian (latu sensu): Bento Teixeira, he of the Prosopopéia; Gregório de Matos, Basílio da Gama, Santa Rita Durão, José de Alencar (everything), Macedo, Gonçalves Dias (everything) and many, many more. You could guarantee not one author over eighty years of age – whether native Brazilian or naturalised – was missing from the major’s shelves.
The History of Brazil was overflowing: the chronicles of Gabriel Soares and Gândavo; Rocha Pita, Frei Vicente do Salvador, Armitage, Aires do Casal, Pereira da Silva, Handelmann (Geschichte von Brasilien), Melo Moraes, Capistrano de Abreu, Southey, Varnhagen, in addition to others of greater rarity or lesser fame. And as for voyages and explorations, what a treasure trove! Hans Staden, Jean de Léry, Saint-Hilaire, Martius, Prince Maximiliano de Wied-Neuwied, John Mawe, von Eschwege, Agassiz, Couto de Magalhães and, if one also found there Darwin, Freycinet, Cook, Bougainville and even the famous Pigafetta, the chronicler of the voyage of Magalhães, that’s precisely because all these voyagers wrote – either briefly or extensively – about Brazil.
Then there were the subsidiary books: dictionaries, manuals, encyclopaedias and compendia, in various languages.
So you can see that his preference for the poetry of Porto Alegre and Magalhães had nothing to do with an irredeemable ignorance of the literary languages of Europe. Quite the contrary: the major was reasonably familiar with French, English and German – although he didn’t speak them, he could read and translate them fluently. The reason had to be sought in an idiosyncrasy that was the guiding force of his life: Policarpo was a patriot. Ever since he was about twenty, he’d been consumed by love of his country. And it was no common love, nothing for show, nothing hollow; it was serious and all-absorbing. Nothing to do with political ambition or career advancement; what concerned Quaresma or, rather, what patriotism made him concerned about, was anything and everything to do with Brazil. This led him to meditate about the country’s resources in order to indicate remedies and progressive measures based on full knowledge of the problems.
His birthplace was a bit of a mystery, but it definitely wasn’t São Paulo or Rio Grande do Sul or Pará. If you accused him of any kind of regionalism, you’d be wrong. What Quaresma was, before anything else, was Brazilian. He had no preference for this or that part of Brazil, so much so that what made him most passionate wasn’t just the pampas and cattle in the south, or São Paulo’s coffee, or the gold and diamonds of Minas, or the beautiful bay of Guanabara, or the height of the Paulo Afonso waterfall, or the poetry of Gonçalves Dias, or the derring-do of Andrade Neves – it was all of it together, fused and melded under the starry flag of the Southern Cross.
When he turned eighteen he applied to be a soldier but had been ruled unfit, which really upset him but didn’t turn him against his country. The health commissioners who’d rejected him were Liberal appointees, so he became a Conservative and continued to love ‘the land of my birth’ more dearly than ever. Prevented from embarking on a glittering military career, he turned to the civil service, in particular the military branch.
He was happy there. Every day, in the midst of soldiers, cannons, veterans, and paperwork swelling with quantities of gunpowder, names of rifles and technical terms for artillery, he inhaled that breath of war, bravura, victory and triumph – the very breath of Brazil.
The relaxed office schedule had allowed him plenty of time to study, in particular to study Brazil, its natural riches, its history, geography, literature and politics. He knew all about: the different sorts of minerals, vegetables and animals in Brazil; the price of the gold and diamonds exported from Minas; the Dutch Wars and the Paraguayan War; the sources and courses of all the Brazilian rivers. He’d defend tooth and nail the pre-eminence of the Amazon against the claims of any other river in the world. In doing so, he went so far as to chop a few kilometres off the Nile, the main rival of ‘his’ river. And woe betide you if you objected! Although usually calm and courteous, the major would become agitated and rude if the length of the Amazon was compared unfavourably with that of the Nile.
He’d been learning Tupi-Guarani for a year. Every morning, before ‘Aurora, with her roseate fingers, opened the way for pale Phoebe,’ he’d have his nose, until lunchtime, in Montoya’s Arte y diccionario de la lengua guaraní ó más bien tupí; he studied that mongrel language with passion and dedication. As soon as the lower orders in the office found out he was studying the language of the Tupiniquim tribe, they nicknamed him Ubirajara, after the hero of José de Alencar’s novel. When Azevedo, one of the clerks, was signing in one morning, he quipped, without noticing who was standing behind him:
“Good heavens! Ubirajara’s late!”
Quaresma was well-respected by everyone in the ordnance office on account both of his age and erudition, and of his modesty and honesty. Although he guessed the reference was to him, he maintained his dignity. Far from losing his temper or shouting, he just straightened up, adjusted his pince-nez, raised his index finger in the air and remarked:
“Your sarcasm is misplaced, Senhor Azevedo. Someone who works silently for the greater good of Brazil scarcely deserves ridicule.”
That day the major said little. It was his custom, when the staff left their benches for the coffee break, to impart some of the fruits of his studies to his colleagues, for instance the discoveries he’d made, in his office, about Brazil’s riches. One day it would be how he’d read somewhere about the discovery of oil in Bahia; another day it was a new type of rubber tree that grew by the River Pardo in Mato Grosso; yet another day, some savant or celebrity whose great-grandmother had been Brazilian; and when he had no such discoveries to relate, he’d resort to cartography and expatiate on the courses and navigability of rivers, and how little was needed to make them navigable from mouth to source. (He was crazy about rivers, but mountains left him cold. Or rather, all except little ones…)
His colleagues would listen respectfully and no-one, other than our friend Senhor Azevedo, would dare dispute anything, let alone venture a witticism. They’d make up for it, however, behind Quaresma’s back, where he was the butt of their jokes:
“What a bore, that Quaresma! He thinks we’re back at school! ‘Now children, blah, blah, blah…’ Aargh!”
That was his life, half in the office, where he wasn’t understood, and half at home, where… he wasn’t understood. On the day he discovered his nickname, he kept himself to himself, and he only said anything at all because, when he was leaving the wash room before going home, he heard someone mutter:
“Dear God! When on earth will I be able to go to Europe?!”
Quaresma couldn’t contain himself. He looked up, adjusted his pince-nez and said, in a voice that was fraternal but firm:
“How ungrateful! Your own country is so beautiful, so rich, and you want to visit others?! As for me, if I ever get the chance, I’ll explore Brazil from end to end!”
His interlocutor grumbled that all there was in Brazil was fever and mosquitoes, which Quaresma countered with statistics proving beyond doubt that Amazonia had one of the healthiest climates on earth. It was simply that effete people got sick there and gave the wrong impression…
That’s how he was, Major Policarpo Quaresma, who’d just got home, at 4.15 p.m. (on the dot), as he did every afternoon except on Sundays, with the precision of the apparition of a comet or the occurrence of an eclipse.
In other respects he was no different from you or me, unless you’ve got ambitions to become a politician or get rich, because he didn’t. Not in the least.
Sitting in his rocking chair in the epicentre of his library, he opened a book and immersed himself in reading. It was dear old Rocha Pita, the beguiling author of The History of Portuguese America. He’d just got to the famous sentence: In no other part of the world is the sky so serene or the aurora so beautiful; in no other part of the world are the sun’s rays so golden… when he was cut short by a knock at the door. He went to open it himself.
“I hope I’m not late,” said the visitor.
“Not at all. Just on time.”
In came Senhor Ricardo Coração dos Outros, a man renowned for his skill at singing modinhas and playing the guitar. At first his fame had been limited to a little suburb, where he and his guitar would feature at social evenings, just like Paganini and his fiddle at the parties of dukes; but little by little, his fame had spread through the suburbs, putting down roots, so that he’d ended up as part of the landscape. Don’t think, however, that Ricardo was any old modinha singer, i.e. a bit of a layabout. Not at all: Ricardo Coração dos Outros was an artist, and one who honoured with his presence the most distinguished families in the suburbs of Méier, Piedade and Riachuelo. Hardly an evening would go by without an invitation. Whether at the house of Lieutenant Marques, Dr Bulhões or Seu Castro, his presence was highly sought-after. Indeed, Dr Bulhões was especially appreciative: when the troubadour sang, the doctor would become delirious with ecstasy. “I love singing,” he said once, in the train, “but only two singers fit the bill for me: Tamagno and Ricardo.” The doctor had a great reputation in the suburbs, not as a medical doctor – he couldn’t even give you a prescription for castor oil – but as an expert on the law in relation to telegrams: he was a section head in the telegraph secretariat.
Thus was Ricardo Coração dos Outros held in widespread esteem by the high society of the suburbs, which is a very special high society, being high only in the suburbs. In general it comprises civil servants, tradesmen, medical doctors with small surgeries, and lieutenants of various shapes and sizes; and it presides over those remote potholed regions – and over the parties and balls of those remote potholed regions – more securely than the bourgeoisie of Petrópolis and Botafogo preside over Petrópolis and Botafogo. It’s only there, in the parties and balls and in the streets, that one of the representatives of high society will give an ordinary bod a good looking-over, as if to say, “Call round one day and I’ll give you something to eat.” In other words, the main source of pride for the suburban aristocracy is having breakfast and dinner every day, plenty of beans, plenty of dried meat and plenty of stew – that’s why they see themselves as the last word in nobility and distinction.
Outside the suburbs, in the Rua do Ouvidor, in the theatres or in the great city-centre galas, these people fade away; they evaporate, and their wives and daughters – whose beauty entrances handsome young men day in, day out, at those interminable suburban balls – are no longer beautiful.
After being poet and singer for that strange aristocracy, Ricardo spread his wings and moved into the city proper. His fame had reached São Cristóvão and soon (so he hoped) he’d get an invite from Botafogo, because his name was already being mentioned in the newspapers, and his work and his poetry were the subject of discussion…
But what was he doing there, in the house of someone so grave and dignified? You’ve already guessed. He was definitely not coming to help the major in his study of geology, poetry, mineralogy or Brazilian history.
No, as you and the neighbours have already guessed, the presence of Coração dos Outros was purely for the purpose of teaching the major to sing modinhas and to play the guitar. Simple.
In accordance with his ruling passion, Quaresma had been pondering, for some time, what might be the most authentic poetico-musical expression of the Brazilian soul. He’d consulted the historians, the chroniclers and the philosophers, and he’d come to the conclusion that it was the modinha, with guitar accompaniment. Armed with that certainty, he didn’t hesitate: he set about learning that most truly Brazilian of instruments and unlocking the secret of the modinha. Although he was starting from scratch, he wanted to take lessons from the top virtuoso in the city, with a view to refining the modinha and bringing out the original essence of its art.
He was about to have a lesson with Ricardo but, before that, the disciple had specially invited the teacher to partake of his dinner; and that’s why the famous troubadour had arrived early at the sub-secretary’s house.
No sooner had he sat down than Ricardo asked, “You know how to play a D sharp now, Major?”
Off he went to unveil his sacred guitar; except that there wasn’t time: Dona Adelaide, Quaresma’s sister, came in and announced that dinner was on the table. If they didn’t come at once, the soup would be cold.
“You must excuse us, Senhor Ricardo,” said the old lady. “The dinner is nothing special. I wanted to make chicken and peas, but Policarpo wouldn’t let me. He told me peas are a foreign vegetable and I should use guando beans instead. Whoever heard of chicken with guando?!”
Coração dos Outros ventured to remark that it might be OK; there was no harm in trying out something new.
“He’s got a bee in his bonnet, Senhor Ricardo. This business of only eating Brazilian food. So we have to eat all sorts of muck. Ugh!”
“Now, now, Adelaide! You and your dislikes! Our country, which has every climate in the world, can produce everything necessary even for the most demanding stomach. You’re just making a fuss.”
“For example, butter which immediately goes rancid.”
“That’s because it’s made from milk. If it was made from that foreign stuff, manufactured out of waste fat, perhaps it wouldn’t go off… That’s how it is, Ricardo. No-one wants to eat Brazilian food…”
“No, they don’t, as a rule,” said Ricardo.
“But they’re wrong… They should be protecting our Brazilian industries… Take me, for example: I won’t use foreign stuff. My clothes are Brazilian, my shoes are Brazilian and so on.”
They took their seats at the table. Quaresma picked up a little crystal decanter and poured two glasses of parati.
“That’s part of the Brazilian campaign as well,” said his sister, smiling.
“Indeed it is, and it’s a magnificent aperitif. None of that vermouth rubbish! This is pure alcohol, good stuff, made from sugar cane, not from potatoes or maize…”
Ricardo raised his glass delicately and devoutly to his lips, as if about to drink from the sacred chalice.
“Good, eh?” said the major.
“Magnificent,” said Ricardo, smacking his lips.
“It’s from Angra. And you’re about to taste what wonderful wine we have from Rio. We have great wines… Better than Burgundy any day! Better than Bordeaux! In the south we have much better wines than those…”
That set the tone for the meal, with Quaresma lavishing praise on Brazilian products – Brazilian lard, Brazilian bacon, Brazilian rice –, with an occasional objection from his sister, and with Ricardo saying: “It is, it really is,” while rolling his little eyes, wrinkling his little forehead so that it disappeared under his shaggy hair, and forcing his hard little face to adopt an expression of utter delight.
After dinner they went into the garden. And behold! Not one flower…! That is, you could hardly call the wretched balsam weed, the gladioli, the gritty-leaved glory bushes, the melancholy noelenes and the other prime examples of our Brazilian fields and meadows… you could hardly call them flowers. As in everything else, the major’s horticulture was fundamentally nationalist. Not a rose, not a chrysanthemum, not a magnolia (all of them exotic plants); our land has others more beautiful, more expressive, more aromatic. Like the ones in the major’s garden.
Once more, Ricardo duly agreed, and the two of them returned inside while the dusk stole slowly, slowly over the garden, like a lengthy and heartfelt goodbye from the sun, as it spread its sad, deliquescent poesy over the earth.
Scarcely had the gas lamps been lighted than the maestro picked up the instrument, tightened the strings and picked out a scale, leaning over the guitar as if he wanted to kiss it. After testing the tuning, he turned to his disciple, who was already holding his own guitar.
“OK, Major. Play the scale.”
Quaresma flexed his fingers and tuned the guitar, but he had neither the firmness nor the lightness that the maestro had just demonstrated.
“Look, Major. You do it like this.”
He demonstrated the position of the instrument: the body lightly secured by the right hand, the left arm extended along the neck. Then he explained:
“Major, the guitar is the instrument of passion. For it to speak, you have to love it… In order to get it to say what you feel, you have to cradle it… to cradle it with tenderness and love, like your lover, like your bride…”
In the presence of his guitar, Ricardo became eloquent and loquacious, alight with passion for this neglected instrument.
The lesson lasted fifty minutes. The major felt tired and asked the maestro to sing. This was the first time Quaresma had made this request. The maestro was flattered, but professional vanity demanded he demur.
“Oh, dear me! I don’t have anything new, just one of my own compositions.”
“Why not sing somebody else’s?” said Dona Adelaide.
“Oh, dear God, Senhora! I only sing my own. You know Bilac, the poet? He wanted to compose a modinha for me, but I wouldn’t accept it. “Seu Bilac,” I said, “you don’t understand the guitar.” You see, it’s not a matter of writing verses that say something nice; the essential thing is to find the words the guitar asks for, the words the guitar wants. For example, if I’d said – as I originally intended – in my modinha ‘Your Foot’: Your foot is like unto a leaf of clover – it wouldn’t have gone with the guitar. Shall I show you?”
Accompanying himself on the instrument, he sang softly, Your-foot-is-like-un-to-a-leaf-of-clo-ver.
“You see?” he continued. “It doesn’t go. But now listen to this: Your-foot-is-like-un-to-a-myrrh-flow-er. That’s something else, isn’t it?!”
“It certainly is,” said Quaresma’s sister.
“Sing that one,” said the major.
“No,” said Ricardo. “It’s an old one. I’ll sing ‘The Promise’ instead. Do you know it?”
“No,” said brother and sister.
“Oh, it’s almost as well known as Raimundo’s ‘Doves’!”
“Well, perhaps you’d sing it, Senhor Ricardo,” said Dona Adelaide.
Finally Ricardo Coração dos Outros tuned his guitar once more, and began, in a tremulous voice:
By the most Sacred Sacrament I vow
I shall be your lover, I shall…
“You see?” he said, during a pause, “What imagery! What imagery!”
He continued. Windows were opened. A group of boys and girls gathered on the pavement to listen to the troubadour. Feeling the interest from outside, Coração dos Outros made his diction more distinct and took on a fierce expression, which he imagined to be intense tenderness; and when he finished, applause sounded outside.
A young woman came in, looking for Dona Adelaide.
“Have a seat, Ismênia,” said Adelaide. “It won’t take long.”
Ricardo straightened himself on his chair, glanced at the young woman, and continued his disquisition on the modinha. Availing herself of a pause, Quaresma’s sister asked Ismênia, “So when are you getting married?”
The usual question. She inclined her sad little head – which was crowned with magnificent auburn hair with hints of gold – and replied:
“I don’t know… Cavalcanti graduates this year. We’ll fix the date then.”
This was said haltingly, with remarkable languor.
The young woman – the daughter of Quaresma’s neighbour, the General – wasn’t ugly. You could even say – the few and badly designed features of her face being overlaid with a suggestion of goodness and kindness – that she was appealing.
Her engagement had been going on for years; her fiancé was training to be a dentist – a two-year course which he’d managed to draw out to four. And Ismênia was left to answer that everlasting question: “So when are you getting married?”
“I don’t know… Cavalcanti graduates this year. We’ll…”
Not that she was bothered. Only one thing was important in her life: getting married; but she wasn’t in a hurry. She’d got hold of a fiancé; the rest was just a question of time.
After replying to Dona Adelaide, she explained the reason for her visit.
She’d come, on behalf of her father, to invite Ricardo Coração dos Outros to sing in their house.
“Papa loves modinhas,” said Ismênia. “He’s from the north; and you know, Dona Adelaide, how the northerners like modinhas. You’re all invited.”
So off they went.
II – Radical Reforms
ajor Quaresma hadn’t left the house for at least ten days. He’d been filling his time, in his cosy and quiet home in São Cristóvão, in the most pleasant and useful way he could think of. After getting dressed and having breakfast, he’d sit on the living-room sofa and read the newspapers. He read several, because he was always on the lookout for some curious piece of news or some hint of an idea that might be useful to his beloved Brazil. Although he was on leave, he maintained his office-day habits, in that he took breakfast early, at 9.30.
After lunch he’d go for a stroll through his orchard, where Brazilian fruit trees had pride of place and the Brazilian cherry and grape trees were cultivated according to the latest pomological advice, just as if they were proper cherries and proper grapes.
His strolls were slow and philosophical. While chatting with Anastácio, his black servant of some thirty years, about the distant past – the princesses’ weddings, the collapse of Viscount Souto’s Bank etc. – he’d continue thinking about his latest concerns. After about an hour, he’d return to the library and immerse himself in the journals of the Historical Institute, in Fernão Cardim, in the correspondence of Manuel de Nóbrega, in the annals of the National Library, and in von den Steinen, taking copious notes, which he diligently filed. He was studying the indigenous peoples of Brazil. Or rather, he wasn’t exactly studying them, because he’d already done that, in respect both of their language, which he could almost speak now, and their ethno-anthropology. No, what he was doing was teasing out some ideas from his previous studies, with a view to drawing up a system of ceremonies and celebrations based on the customs of our forest dwellers and covering every aspect of social life.
For a proper understanding of why he was doing this, you need to bear in mind that the major was about to reap the fruits of thirty years of patriotic meditation, study and reflection. He was driven by his fixed conviction that Brazil, his great love, was primus inter pares in relation to all the other countries of the world. He felt an inner urge to action, to turn his ideas into reality. Only slight improvements were needed – a tweak here and there –, because he thought it was only a matter of time before this great Country of the Southern Cross would be superior to England.
It possessed every climate, every type of fruit, mineral and useful animal, the best arable land and the bravest, most hospitable, intelligent and amenable people in the world. What more did it need?! Time and a little originality. He no longer had the slightest doubt. (Any doubts about the originality of indigenous customs and usage were completed overturned after he took part in ‘Tangolomango, the Sorcerer’ in a party at the general’s house.)
The fact was that the visit of Ricardo and his guitar had awoken in the intrepid general (and his family) a taste for genuine Brazilian festivities, songs and customs, so to speak. They all wanted to feel, to dream and to poetise in the way of the common people in olden times. General Albernaz remembered he’d seen ceremonies of that sort when he was little, and his wife, Dona Maricota, even remembered some verses by Reis. Seeing it as an excuse for parties, their children – five girls and a boy – applauded their parents’ enthusiasm. But the modinha was weak fare; there was need for something more demotic, more characteristic, more extravagant.
Quaresma was delighted when Albernaz decided to organise a northern-style chegança dance-drama for the anniversary of his enlistment. That’s how it was in the general’s house: every anniversary was celebrated – about thirty a year, not counting Sundays, holidays and saints’ days (which were also occasions for song and dance).
Hitherto the major had not thought much about traditional festivals and dances, but he immediately saw the highly patriotic significance of what the general was doing. In short, he gave his neighbour every encouragement. But who would be the director? And who would provide the words and music? Someone remembered Ma Rita, an old black woman who lived in Benfica. She used to do the washing for the Albernaz family. So, on one crystal-clear April afternoon, off they went, General Albernaz and Major Quaresma, eager and enthusiastic.
There was nothing martial about the general. He didn’t even wear a uniform (or perhaps he didn’t have one). During the whole of his military career, he hadn’t seen a single battle, he’d never led any troops or done anything connected with his profession or his artillery course. He’d always been an aide-de-camp, adjutant, chief clerk, chief storekeeper, chief this and that, and he was secretary of the supreme military council when he was promoted to general on retirement. His habits were those of a good section head, and his intelligence was not much different from his habits. He had no understanding of war, strategy, tactics or military history. All he knew about the latter were the battles of the Paraguayan War, which, for him, was the most extraordinary war of all time.
The grandiose title of general, calling to mind the superhuman deeds of Caesars, Turennes and Gustavo Adolfos, ill-fitted that placid, ordinary, affable man, who was only interested in finding husbands for his five daughters and pulling strings to get his son through the Military College exams. But it wasn’t the thing to doubt the general’s military prowess. He was, himself, aware of his unduly civilian demeanour and tried to compensate by occasionally recounting a battle scene or a military anecdote. “That was in Lomas Valentinas,” he’d say… If someone asked: “Did you take part in the battle?” he had a ready answer:
“I couldn’t. I was taken ill and came back to Brazil the day before. But I heard from Camisão and Venâncio that things were bad.”
The tram that took them to old Ma Rita’s was going through Pedregulho, one of the most interesting parts of the city: in the old days it was a gateway to the city and the terminus for the packhorse route from Minas, which branched towards São Paulo and opened up communications with Curato de Santa Cruz.
Along that route the packhorses carried gold and diamonds – and latterly general provisions – from Minas to Rio. It was scarcely a hundred years ago that the carriages of El Rei Dom João VI – as heavy as ships and swaying over four widely spaced wheels – used to pass by here on their way to the distant Santa Cruz. It’s unlikely it would have been a very imposing spectacle: the Court was in financial trouble and the king indolent but, despite the bedraggled soldiers mounted on nags, the spectacle would have had a certain grandeur, not in itself, but on account of the grovelling respect everyone had to show to His Lamentable Majesty.
In this country, nothing lasts; everything is provisional, soon forgotten. There was nothing there to commemorate the past. The houses, with their large, squarish, latticed windows, were less than fifty years old.
Quaresma and Albernaz carried on to the terminus without a thought for any of that. Rather, their attention turned to the horse-racing district, which was full of coach-houses and stud-farms and where the posts of the gateways, the lintels of doors and any other prominent places were decorated with big horseshoes, horses’ heads, panoplies made of whips, and other equestrian symbols.
The house of the old black woman was further on from the terminus, near the railway station on the Leopoldina line. So off they went, passing the station on the way. In a large yard, black from anthracite dust, there were piles of firewood and huge bins with sacks of charcoal; further along there was a marshalling yard where some of the locomotives were being shunted and others – stationary – were blowing off steam.
Finally they turned into the dirt track where Ma Rita had her house. It hadn’t rained for some time, so the track was passable. Beyond lay the mangrove swamps, vast and gloomy, extending towards the back of the bay until disappearing on the horizon at the foot of the blue mountains of Petrópolis. They arrived at the old woman’s house, which was low and whitewashed, with a roof of heavy Portuguese tiles. It was set back a little from the alleyway. To the right of it there was a rubbish heap containing kitchen waste, rags, seafood shells and shards of earthenware crockery – a treasure trove for archaeologists in the distant future; to the left was a papaya tree and, up against the fence, a rue shrub. They knocked on the door and a little black girl appeared at the open window.
They went to the window and explained why they’d come, after which the girl shouted into the interior of the house:
“Nana! Two gentlemens wan’ speak wid you.” Then she turned to the general and his companion and said “Come in, please.”
The room was small, without a ceiling. On the lower two thirds of the walls, pictures from old calendars, images of saints, and illustrations from newspapers jostled for space. Our Lady of Penha was flanked by portraits of Victor Emmanuel (sporting an enormous, dishevelled moustache) and – cut out from a calendar – the head of a reclining woman, who seemed to be looking dreamily at St John the Baptist, her next-door neighbour. Above the door leading to the interior of the house, a little bracket lamp was spreading soot over a porcelain Immaculate Conception.
It didn’t take long for the old woman to arrive. Wearing a smock with lace ruffles – which gave a glimpse of her withered breasts – and two rows of beads round her neck. she was limping and had her left hand placed on her left leg, as if to guide it.
“Good afternoon, Ma Rita,” said the general.
Her response suggested she didn’t recognise him, so the general asked:
“Don’t you recognise me any more?! I’m the General, Colonel Albernaz.”
“Ah! Seu Colonel!.. Been long time. How’s nhã Maricota?”
“She’s well… My dear Ma Rita, we’d like you to teach us some songs.”
“Me?! You jokin’ me, Seu Colonel!”
“Not at all! Come now, Auntie Maria Rita… You don’t forget anything!… Surely you know ‘Whip My Woolly Bully’?”
“Not no more, Seu Colonel!”
“Well what about ‘Bull Bernardo’?”
“Dat been old slave time one… Why you wan’ know dat, Seu Colonel?”
Speaking with a drawl, and with an empty look in her eyes, she smiled sweetly.
“It’s for a party… What songs do you know?”
Giving a flash of her immaculate teeth, Ma Rita’s granddaughter, who’d been listening quietly up till then, decided to join in: “Nana don’ remembah nuttin.”
The general, who the old woman called Colonel, because that was his rank when she knew him, ignored the girl’s remark and insisted:
“How could you have forgotten?! Nonsense! Surely you remember something, Ma?!”
“‘Beetle Bubu’ all I knows.”
“Well, sing that one, then!”
“You mus’ knows it yo’self, Seu Colonel. Don’ you knows? Yes, you knows!”
“No, I don’t. If I knew it, I wouldn’t have come here! You can ask my friend, Major Policarpo, whether I know it. Do I know it, Major?”
Quaresma shook his head energetically, so the old woman, perhaps feeling nostalgia for the days when she was a slave at some filthy-rich mansion, lifted her head as if to nudge her memory, and intoned the following:
Come come, Beetle Bubu,
Stop what you is do do!
Beetle Bubu, come come,
Bring me back my yum-yum!
“No, no, no!” groaned the general. “That’s just some an old nursery rhyme. Don’t you know anything else?!”
“No, Seu Colonel. I forgot.”
The general and the major left, downhearted. The major was particularly dispirited. How could the people have forgotten their traditions from just thirty years ago?! How quickly their festivals and songs had disappeared from living memory! It was a demonstration of weakness in comparison with those resilient peoples who’d preserved their traditions for centuries! Something had to be done. Tradition had to be cultivated, kept alive in people’s memories and customs…
Albernaz had his own reason to be grumpy. He’d been expecting a show stopper for his party, but had returned with nothing. It was almost like waving goodbye to the marriage of one of his four daughters – the fifth was already engaged, thank God!
It was now dusk and they arrived home perfectly aligned with the melancholy of the hour.
Their disappointment was short-lived, however: they heard from Cavalcanti, Ismênia’s fiancé, that a literary man who lived nearby was an enthusiast for popular Brazilian stories and songs. So off they went to see him. He was an old poet whose heyday had been back in the 1870s, a sweet, ingenuous old man who’d been forgotten as a poet in his own lifetime. Nowadays he spent his time publishing collections of popular stories, songs, proverbs and sayings, which no one read.
He was overjoyed when he found out why these two gentlemen were paying him a visit. Quaresma was animated and spoke enthusiastically – as did Albernaz, because a piece of folklore at a party would be just the thing to enhance his house, attract people and… marry off his daughters.
The poet’s room was large, but so full of tables and cupboards overflowing with books, files and tin cans that you could hardly move. There was a tin can with the label ‘Santa Ana dos Tocos’ and a file with ‘São Bonifácio do Cabresto.’
“You’ve no idea,” said the old poet, “what riches are hidden in our popular poetry! Just a few days ago I received a letter from Urubu-de-Baixo, contained a beautiful song. Would you like to hear it?”
The collector rummaged in some files and finally extricated a piece of paper:
If God had had a care
For a wretched wretch like me
He’d have made her find somewhere
For me in her heart to be.
The love I have for her
Is too big for my breast!
So it’s flown up in the air
And now it’s going west.
“Isn’t that lovely?!”
“But just wait till you hear about Monkey Business, which is a collection of popular stories about our simian cousins! It’s really and truly an epic of popular comedy!”
Quaresma was looking at the poet with the surprised delight of someone who’s just come across another human being in the desert; and even Albernaz had adopted an alert expression, as if he’d caught some of the folklorist’s enthusiasm,
The old poet returned the song from Urubu-de-Baixo to its file, and immediately turned to another file, from which he took several sheets. Then he carried them over to his visitors and announced:
“I’m going to read you one of the little monkey stories that our people tell… I’ve already collected forty and I intend to publish them under the title Master Simeon’s Tales.”
Without checking whether or not they wanted to hear it, he began:
Master Simeon Goes to Court.
A band of monkeys was making merry, swinging from tree to tree by the side of a ravine when, all of a sudden, one of them noticed a jaguar had fallen in. The monkeys took pity on the creature and decided to save it. So they tore down some lianas, made a long rope out of them, tethered themselves to one end of the rope and threw the loose end to the jaguar. All heaving together, they managed to pull the jaguar out, after which they untied themselves and ran off quickly – all except one! Master Simeon hadn’t untied himself quickly enough, as a result of which he was now in the Jaguar’s clutches.
“Comrade Monkey,” said the jaguar, “I have a favour to ask. I’m hungry: would you mind if I eat you?”
Master Simeon implored, pleaded and wept; all to no avail – until, that is, he pointed out that it should really be decided by a judge. So off they went, Master Simeon still in the jaguar’s clutches. The judge was a giant tortoise, whose hearings took place on the riverbank, with him installed on top of a boulder. Once they’d arrived, Master Simeon argued his case.
After hearing him out, Judge Tortoise ordered, “Clap your paws!”
Although he was firmly in the jaguar’s clutches, Master Simeon could still clap his paws. Then it was the jaguar’s turn to argue his case. As before, Judge Tortoise ordered, “Clap your paws!”
The jaguar had no option but to let go of Master Simeon, who escaped, as did the judge, who threw himself into the water.
Having finished the story, the old man turned to his visitors.
“Interesting, isn’t it?!”
“Within our people there’s great spirit, great creativity, prime material for some interesting fabliaux… It’s just awaiting a writer of genius to fix it all in immortal form!.. Ah! And then…!”
As he said this, a beatific smile slowly spread across his face, and una furtiva lagrima appeared in each of his eyes.
“But now,” he continued, once the surge of emotion had passed, “let’s get down to business. ‘Bull Bernardo’ and ‘Whip My Woolly Bully’ are probably too obscure for you… Better to take it step by step, start with something simple… ‘Tangolomango’, for example. You know it?”
“No,” they both replied.
“It’s great fun. If you’d arrange ten children, and an old-man mask and exotic clothes for one of the gentlemen, I’ll take charge of the rehearsals.”
The big day arrived. The general’s house was full. Cavalcanti had come, and he and his fiancée, on their own in a window bay, seemed the only ones who weren’t interested in the jollities. He was talking a lot and grimacing; she was rather reserved, but gave her betrothed a look of gratitude from time to time.
Quaresma had the part of ‘Tangolomango, the Sorcerer’. He’d donned one of the general’s old overcoats and a huge old-man mask, and entered the room leaning on a curved staff in the form of a crozier. The ten children sang in unison:
Mama has ten children.
She keeps them in a pot.
Along comes Tangolomango.
The pot is less one tot!
The major strode forward, beating his staff on the floor and thundering “Hu! Hu! Hu!” The children fled and he eventually managed to catch one of them. And on he went, to the great amusement of one and all until, during the fifth verse, he got short of breath, everything went black and he fainted. They took his mask off and shook him a bit, and Quaresma came to.
However, you’d be wrong to suppose this mishap put him off folklore. On the contrary: he read all the publications he could get hold of about it. It wasn’t until some weeks later that his enthusiasm cooled, when he discovered almost all these traditions and songs were actually foreign – even Tangolomango. It would be necessary, therefore, to come up with something original, sui generis, authentically and indisputably Brazilian.
This led him to study the customs of the Tupinambá Indians and, as one idea led to another, he soon widened his scheme. And that’s the reason why he was drawing up a code of relationships, greetings, domestic ceremonies and festivals, all based on Tupi principles.
He’d been devoting himself to that arduous task for ten day when – on a Sunday – he was interrupted by a knock at the door. He opened the door, but didn’t shake hands. Instead he burst into tears, howling and tearing his hair, as if he’d just lost a close relative. His sister came running, as did Anastácio, while Vicente and Olga – the visitors – remained standing on the doorstep in amazement.
“Whatever’s the matter, my dear fellow?!”
“What is it, Policarpo?!”
The major carried on weeping for a little. Then he dried his eyes and explained, as if nothing had happened:
“The thing is, you see, you don’t have the slightest idea about things in own country. You wanted to shake my hand, but that’s not Brazilian! Brazilians should weep when they meet their friends. That’s what the Tupinambás used to do.”
Vicente, Olga and Dona Adelaide exchanged glances, without knowing what to say. Had he gone mad?! What a carry-on!
“But, Senhor Policarpo,” said Vicente. “that’s all well and good about being Brazilian, but isn’t it rather sad?”
“It is, it is,” said Olga. “It makes it look like something bad’s going to happen…”
Vicente was Italian by birth. It will be worthwhile to explain how they came to be friends. Vicente used to be an itinerant fruit and vegetable seller and had supplied Quaresma’s house for over twenty years. When they first met, the major already had some patriotic notions, but he wasn’t above chatting to Vicente. In fact, he rather liked the sight of him sweating under the weight of his baskets, with red cheeks on his white, recently arrived, European face. But, one fine day, Quaresma was strolling absent-mindedly through the Largo de Paço, thinking about the architectural wonders of Valentim da Fonseca’s fountain, when he bumped into the salesman. He spoke to him with his natural cordiality and noticed something serious was weighing on the lad’s mind. Not only did Vicente occasionally let slip an exclamation that had nothing to do with what they were talking about, but he was pursing his lips, grinding his teeth and furiously clenching his fists. Quaresma asked what the matter was and found out it had to do with money he’d lent a friend that hadn’t been repaid. Vicente was now on the brink of penury: hence his murderous mood. Such was his ferocity that the major had to use all his charm to dissuade him from his intention of killing his ex-friend. And not only that: he himself lent money to Vicente. That allowed the Italian to set up a greengrocer’s shop, which did well – well enough for him to become a wholesaler, get rich, marry, and have the daughter you’ve already met, whose godfather was the major. Needless to say, Quaresma didn’t notice the contradiction between his patriotic ideas and his charitable act.
It’s true that, at the time, his patriotic ideas were rather vague, but they were there, wafting through his head and exerting some tenuous influence on him – the whims of a lad of not much more than twenty years of age, whims which only needed time to mature and blossom into action.
Thus it was that he welcomed Vicente and Olga in totally authentic Guaitacá manner. And the reason he didn’t do so in the dress of that interesting tribe, wasn’t because he didn’t have it. It was simply that he hadn’t had time to get changed.
“Have you been reading much, Uncle Poli?” his god-daughter asked, fixing him with her big, bright eyes.
There was great affection between the two of them. Quaresma was normally rather reserved and shy when it came to demonstrations of affection. Nevertheless, he was aware that Olga occupied, in his heart, the place of the children he’d never had and never would have. And she – accustomed to forthright and unembarrassed speech – didn’t hesitate to show her affection for him, especially as she sensed in him some sort of superiority, a longing for the ideal, a determination to pursue a dream, an idea, a flight towards exalted spiritual regions, something she’d never come across in anyone else. Her admiration for him wasn’t the result of education. She was no better educated than other girls of her age and station. No, it was something peculiar to her, perhaps to do with her European antecedents, which made her rather different from our Brazilian girls.
That explains the luminosity of her gaze when she asked, “Have you been reading much, Uncle Poli?”
‘I have, indeed, dear Olga. You wouldn’t believe the great works I’ve got in mind: radical reforms, the emancipation of a whole people.”
Vicente had gone to the interior of the house with Dona Adelaide, and Quaresma and Olga were chatting together in the library. Olga noticed something had happened to Quaresma. He – who used to be so shy, a man of such few words – was now so sure of himself! What on earth?! Surely not?! It wasn’t possible… But who knows…? And what joy there was in his eyes, the joy of a mathematician who’s just solved a problem, the joy of a happy inventor!
“I hope you’re not going to get mixed up in some sort of conspiracy!” she said, giving him a roguish look.
“Don’t let it alarm you! It will happen in its own good time. No need for violence…”
At that point, Ricardo Coração dos Outros entered, in his long-tailed serge morning coat, and carrying the suede bag containing his guitar. The major made the introductions.
“I already know you by name, Senhor Ricardo,” said Olga.
Coração dos Outros looked highly flattered. The twinkle in his eyes seemed to make his little face expand, and his skin – which was normally taught, with the tonality of old marble – somehow became soft and young. This young lady, who looked rich, well-educated and pretty… she’d heard of him! What joy! He… he who’d always been awkward in the presence of young ladies, whatever their status… he suddenly became lively, chatty, charming, knowledgeable and eloquent.
“So you must have read my verses, Senhora?”
“No, I haven’t had that pleasure, but I did read, some months ago, a review of one of your pieces.”
“In O Tempo, was it?”
“It was very unjust!” Ricardo added. “All the critics have a thing about metre. They say my poetry isn’t poetry… But it is! It’s poetry for the guitar. I’m sure you know, Senhora, poetry for music is rather different from ordinary poetry. So it’s no surprise my poetry, which is written for the guitar, will have a different metre and style. Don’t you agree?”
“I do indeed,” she replied. “It’s just that it seems to me you write poetry for the music, and not music for the poetry.”
She gave him a slow, enigmatic smile, her bright eyes upon him, whilst you could see, in Ricardo’s little, mousey eyes, a struggle to divine exactly what she meant.
Quaresma, who had kept quiet up till that point, intervened:
“Olga, Ricardo is an artist… He’s endeavouring to make the guitar respectable.”
“Yes, I know, Uncle Poli…”
“Between you and me, Senhora,” said Coração dos Outros, “it’s a lost cause here in Brazil. But the guitar is well respected in Europe… Major, what’s the name of that poet who wrote in colloquial French?”
“Mistral,” replied Quaresma, “but it’s not colloquial French, it’s Provençal, a language in its own right.”
“Yes, that’s the one,” said Ricardo. “Well, Mistral is well respected, isn’t he? And I’m doing exactly the same for the guitar.”
He looked triumphantly from one to the other. After a moment’s pause, Olga said:
“Keep trying, Senhor Ricardo. It’s a worthy cause.”
“Thank you. You may be sure, Senhora, the guitar is a fine instrument and is very difficult to play. For example…”
“Pshaw!” Quaresma broke in. “Other instruments are more difficult.”
“You mean the piano?” asked Ricardo.
“I do not mean the piano! I mean the maracá and the inúbia.”
“I don’t think I know them.”
“You don’t know them?! That’s a good one! They’re the most authentic Brazilian instruments imaginable, the instruments of our predecessors, the instruments of that brave people that struggled – and still struggles – for possession of this beautiful land. Instruments of the Indians!”
“The Indians! You can’t be serious!” exclaimed Ricardo.
“Yes! The Indians! What’s wrong with that?! Léry says they’re sonorous instruments, very pleasant to listen to… And if they don’t count because they’re Indian, then the guitar is worthless too… It’s an instrument of vagabonds.”
“Vagabonds, Major?! Come, now!”
This developed into a heated discussion between the two of them, while Olga watched – amazed, confused and unable to explain this sudden transformation in the mood of meek and mild Uncle Poli.
III – News from Genelício
o when are you getting married, Ismênia?”
“In March. Cavalcanti has graduated now, and…”
At last, the general’s daughter could give a clear reply to the question regularly put to her during the previous five years. Her fiancé had finally completed his dentistry course and had arranged the wedding for three months time. Great was the family’s joy and, because such joy demanded a party, a party was duly announced for the Saturday after the day on which Cavalcanti formally requested her hand.
The bride-to-be’s sisters, Quinota, Zizi, Lalá and Vivi, were even happier than the bride-to-be. It was as if her marriage would unblock their own paths to marriage, and as if she had been the main obstacle.
Having been engaged for five years, however, Ismênia already felt half-married. And that feeling, together with her natural insipidity, meant she didn’t feel the least bit happier than before. She felt exactly the same. Marriage, for her, was nothing to do with passion, or even with feelings or emotions: it was purely and simply an idea. Her rudimentary intelligence had separated the idea of marriage from thoughts of love, pleasure, liberty (of sorts), motherhood and even from thoughts of her fiancé. Ever since she was a girl, she’d heard her mother say: “You need to learn how to do this, because when you get married…” or “You need to learn to sew buttons, because when you get married…”
At every moment of every day: “…because when you get married…” and the girl had been led to believe that marriage was the be-all and end-all of existence. Education, personal satisfaction, joy… all of that was irrelevant; life came down to one thing: marriage.
In any case, it wasn’t just within her own family that she met the same preoccupation. At school, in the street, in the houses of friends and acquaintances, all she heard about was marriage. “Did you know Lili got married, Dona Maricota? Not a very good match: her husband’s not much to write home about”; or “Zezé’s desperate to get married, but – my God! – she’s so ugly!”…
Life, the world, the rich variety of feelings and ideas, our personal right to happiness…, it all seemed trivial to her little brain. And getting married had assumed such importance and such a sense of duty that not getting married, staying single, being a maiden aunt, seemed like a crime, a disgrace.
Given her wishy-washiness, her inability to feel anything profound or intense, her lack of anything sufficiently combustible to light up a passion or even a strong emotion, the idea of marriage had got encrusted within her skull – a barnacled obsession.
Not that she was ugly: she had light, coffee-coloured skin, mild features, and a button-like snub nose; she was neither too short nor too thin; and she had an aura of such passive goodness and physical and emotional indolence that she was a fine example of the sort of girl that boys call… “nice.” But her outstanding feature was her fine head of hair: auburn, with a hint of gold, and silky just to look at.
Her courtship with Cavalcanti had begun when she was nineteen – an easy conquest for the future dentist, given the weakness of her will and her fear of remaining unmarried.
Her father hadn’t been too pleased. The general had always kept up-to-date in the matter of his daughters’ boyfriends. “Keep me informed, Maricota,” he used to say. “Constant vigilance!.. Prevention is better than cure… We don’t want some good-for-nothing rolling up…” When he found out that Ismênia’s suitor was a dentist, he wasn’t impressed. “What sort of creature is a dentist?!” he asked himself. “A semi-uniformed citizen, a sort of barber.” As he himself was only on half-pay and an allowance, he’d have preferred a government official. but when his wife convinced him that dentists could earn a lot, he relented.
So Cavalcanti started to visit the house in the capacity of ‘fiancé in mufti’, i.e., as he hadn’t formally requested her hand, the engagement was not yet ‘official’.
A year later, having heard of the difficulty his future son-in-law was having in completing his studies, the general was prompt and generous in helping him out: he paid for his fees, his books etc. And it not infrequently happened that, after a long discussion with her daughter, Dona Maricota would have a word with her husband: “Chico, would you let me have twenty thousand réis? Cavalcanti needs to buy an anatomy textbook.”
The general was loyal, good and generous; apart from his military pretensions, there wasn’t a bad bone in his body. Not only that, but the need to marry off his daughters made him even more amenable when it came to their interests.
Every time, he heard his wife out, scratched his head, and handed over the money; and in order to cut down on his future son-in-law’s living costs, he was always inviting him to dinner. And that was how the courtship had been going.
“At last!” Albernaz said to his wife, when they’d retired to bed after the day in which he’d given his formal consent to Cavalcanti’s request. “It’s coming to an end!”
“Thank God!” said Dona Maricota. “Our ship’s nearly in port.”
But the general’s look of resigned satisfaction was feigned: the fact was, he was overjoyed. Whenever he met a friend in the street, at the first opportune moment he’d say:
“It’s hell on earth, this life! Just think, Castro: as well as everything else, I’ve got to arrange my daughter’s wedding!”
“Which one?” Castro asks.
“Ismênia, the second oldest,” Albernaz replies, before immediately adding, “You’re lucky! You only had sons.”
“Ah! My dear friend,” says Castro, archly, “I learnt the recipe. “Why didn’t you?!”
As soon as they’d parted, however, off goes Albernaz to the stores and the crockery shops, to buy more plates, more jam jars and a centrepiece for the table, because the celebration had to be imposing and give an impression of abundance corresponding to his great happiness.
On the morning of the engagement party, Dona Maricota was actually singing. That was a rare event but, on particularly happy days, she would sing an old aria, something from her childhood. Her daughters recognised this as an auspicious sign and hurried to ask for this, that or the other.
Dona Maricota was very active, very diligent; no other housewife was more economical or more thrifty, could make her husband’s money go further, or get more work out of the maids. As soon as she woke up, she set everything in motion, both maids and daughters. While Vivi and Quinota went to get the cakes, and Lalá and Zizi helped the maids tidy the house, she and Ismênia set about turning the dining room table into a thing of taste and splendour. And before the morning was far advanced it was already a sight to behold. Dona Maricota was very happy; she didn’t understand how any woman could live without getting married. It wasn’t just the dangers facing unmarried women, the lack of support and protection; it was that it seemed dishonourable, not right. Her contentment was not due simply to steering the ship home, as she said – it had a more profound source, in her maternal and familial feelings.
So there she was, happy and buzzing as she set the table; and there was her daughter, cool and indifferent.
“My dear!” said Dona Maricota, “anyone would think it wasn’t you who was getting married! What a glum face! What a Gloomy Gladys you are!”
“But Mama! What do you expect me to do?!”
“Not to giggle and run about like a flibbertigibbet, but also not to be a Gloomy Gladys. I’ve never seen anything like it!”
For about a hour, the girl tried to look very happy, but then her wishy-washiness, her emotional vacuity, got the better of her again and it wasn’t long before she’d fallen back into her characteristic morbid lassitude.
Lots of people came. Apart from girls and their respective mothers, the invitees included Rear Admiral Caldas, Dr Florêncio (the hydrological engineer), Honorary Major Inocêncio Bustamante, Senhor Bastos (the bookkeeper and relative of Dona Maricota) and other very important people. Ricardo hadn’t been invited: the general was worried about the effect his presence at a respectable party might have on public opinion. Quaresma had been invited, but hadn’t turned up. As for Cavalcanti, he’d already dined with his future parents-in-law.
At 6 p.m. the house was full. The girls surrounded Ismênia, showering her with compliments, but not without hint of jealousy in their faces.
A tall, fair-haired girl called Irene, advised her, “If I was you, I’d buy everything at Parque.” (They were talking about Ismênia’s trousseau.) None of them were married, but that didn’t stop them giving advice or knowing where bargains could be had, which items were essential and which could be dispensed with. They knew everything.
Armanda – with a bewitching gleam in her eyes – said:
“Just yesterday I saw a delightful marital suite in a store in the Rua da Constituição. Why not go and see it, Ismênia? It looks cheap.”
Ismênia was the least enthusiastic of them. She hardly replied and, even when she did, her answers were monosyllabic. But there was a moment when she did smile in a way that was almost cheerful and relaxed; it was after Estefânia, a graduate and student teacher, who had a ring on her finger with more stones in it than a jeweller’s shop, placed her full lips to the bride-to-be’s ear and whispered something. And then, as if in response to Ismênia’s reply, Estefânia’s sultry, roguish eyes widened, and she said, in a stage whisper:
“No! I don’t believe it!.. But everyone says it’s not… I know…”
All Ismênia had actually said, in her parsimonious way, was “I haven’t a clue.”
While they were talking, they were all keeping an eye on the piano. The lads and some of the men were standing round Cavalcanti, who looked very solemn in a big black morning coat.
“So, Doctor, you’ve finished, eh?” someone said, as a sort of compliment.
“I have indeed! But it was a lot of work. You’ve no idea the obstacles I had to overcome! I had to make heroic efforts!..”
“Do you know Chavantes?” another man asked.
“I do. He’s a great laugh…”
“Was he your colleague?”
“He was, or rather, he was studying medicine, but we both enrolled in the same year.”
Before Cavalcanti knew it, someone else was saying:
“It must be very nice to have a degree. If I’d listened to my father, I wouldn’t be racking my brains now over credit and debit columns. If I prick myself nowadays, no blood comes out!”
“But in fact a degree is hardly worth it nowadays, dear sir,” Cavalcanti said modestly. “With these private academies… Can you believe they’re already talking about a Private School of Dentistry! That’s the limit! It’s a difficult and expensive course. It needs cadavers, equipment, good teachers. How are private schools going to run it, if even the government can hardly manage?!..”
“Well, Doctor,” someone else chimed in, “my congratulations! And I say to you what I said to my nephew when he got his degree: Keep drilling!”
“Ah! Your nephew has a degree?” Cavalcanti enquired politely.
“Yes, in engineering. He’s in Maranhão, working on the Estrada de Caxias.”
“A good career.”
In the pauses of conversation they all looked at the newly minted dentist as if he were a supernatural being.
For all those people, Cavalcanti had ceased to be simply human, he was a human being plus something sacred, something essentially superior; and their current image of him had nothing whatever to do with what he might know or have learnt. Some of them may have thought he still looked ordinary, but his essence had changed, it was a different essence from their essence, he’d been anointed by goodness-knows-what that was vaguely outside earthly nature, something almost divine.
However, the group around Cavalcanti, who was in the living room, were the less important men. The general had remained in the dining room, smoking, and was surrounded by the men who were more important, on account either of titles or age. This group included Rear Admiral Caldas, Major Inocêncio, Dr Florêncio and Captain Segismundo of the Fire Brigade.
Inocêncio took the opportunity to speak to Caldas about military legislation. The rear admiral was an extremely interesting man. He was almost the mirror image, in the navy, of Albernaz in the army. He’d never set foot on a ship, with the exception of the Paraguayan War, and then only for a short while. The fault, of course, was not his. As soon as he’d been promoted to first lieutenant, he’d gradually withdrawn into his shell and abandoned his circle of friends, with the result that, without pushing himself and without friends in high places, he’d been forgotten and had never seen active service. It’s a curious thing, this business of military commissions: they’re given on merit, but only to the well-connected.
Once – it’s true – when he was a lieutenant commander, he’d been commissioned to take charge of a ship – the battleship Lima Barros – in Mato Grosso. So off he went, but when he presented himself to the fleet commandant, he discovered there was no such ship on the River Paraguai. After a few enquiries, someone suggested the Lima Barros might be part of the Alto-Uruguai squadron. He had a word with the commandant, who recommended he hot-foot it to the said squadron in Rio Grande.
So he packed his bags and off he went to Alto-Uraguai, where he eventually arrived after a difficult and tiring journey. But the Lima Barros wasn’t there either. Where could it be?! He would’ve sent a telegram to Rio de Janeiro, but was afraid of getting told off, especially as he wasn’t in their good books. He ended up spending a month in Itaqui, without his salary and not knowing what to do until, one fine day, he decided to go to the extreme north. On passing through Rio, he presented himself – as was custom and practice – to the Admiralty, where he was duly arrested and sent for court martial.
It turned out that the Lima Barros had sunk during the Paraguayan War.
Although he was absolved, he never again found favour with his superiors. They all regarded him as a buffoon, a pantomime captain searching far and wide for his pantomime ship. They left him ‘high and dry’, as they say in the navy, and it took him nearly forty years to progress from midshipman to frigate captain, which was where he was stuck until he was promoted automatically to rear admiral on retirement. And thereafter he concentrated all his resentment against the admiralty into a dogged study of each and every law, decree, permit or consultation paper that might have anything to do with the promotion of officers. He purchased legal compendiums, kept a file of relevant laws and reports, and filled his house with all that wearisome administrative literature. He bombarded the admiralty with demands for amendment to the terms of his retirement, and this went on for months and months, involving endless departments, the naval council and the supreme military tribunal. All to no avail. Recently he’d appointed a lawyer to help him pursue his case through the federal courts, and off he went, from office to office, rubbing shoulders with bailiffs, clerks, judges, lawyers and all those unpleasant judicial people who seem to have been contaminated by all the misery they deal with.
Inocêncio Bustamante – a mixture of pig-headed and servile – was another chronic claimant. A volunteer during the Paraguayan war, with the rank of honorary major, there wasn’t a day when he didn’t go to headquarters to check on the progress of his claims and those of others. He’d submitted claims for admission to the invalids’ asylum, promotion to lieutenant-colonel, this medal, that medal etc.; and if he didn’t currently have a claim himself, he went to check on other people’s, even if it concerned a maniac who, being an honorary lieutenant in the regular forces (two stripes) and also in the national guard (two stripes), was demanding promotion to major on the grounds that two and two make four.
Knowing about the rear admiral’s meticulous studies, Bustamante asked his advice.
“I’ll need to think about it,” said Caldas. “The army’s not my speciality, but I’ll look into it. The army’s in such a mess too!”
The rear admiral then scratched one of the white sideburns that gave him the air of a commodore or a Portuguese landowner – there was Lusitanian blood coursing in his veins.
“In my day,” Albernaz said, “there was order! There was discipline!”
“They’re all a waste of space nowadays,” said Bustamante.
Segismundo decided to weigh in as well: “I’m not a military man, but…”
“Nonsense!” said Albernaz vehemently. “You and our friends here are the true soldiers! Soldiers who never lay down their arms! Isn’t that so, Caldas?!”
“It most certainly is,” said the admiral, still fondling his sideburns.
“As I was saying,” Segismundo continued, “although I’m not a military man, I make so bold as to say our forces are in a bad way. Where are you when we need you, Count Porto Alegre?! Where are you Baron Caxias?!”
“They’re no more, my dear fellow,” murmured Dr Florêncio.
Caldas ventured a witticism:
“I don’t know why not. Science can do anything nowadays, can’t it?”
Albernaz got hot under the collar and grumbled:
“All these namby-pamby lads with their algebra and geometry! I’d like to have seen them at the Battle of Curupaiti! Eh, Caldas?! Eh, Inocêncio?!”
Dr Florêncio was the only civilian among them. An engineer and public servant, the passage of the years, together with his comfortable life, had caused him to lose whatever knowledge he might have had when he left school. (He was actually more like a guard in a plumbing warehouse than an engineer.) He lived near Albernaz and almost every afternoon he’d come over for a game of solo with the general. Dr Florêncio asked, “You were at the Battle of Curupaiti, weren’t you, General?”
The general replied without missing a beat and without the least embarrassment:
“No, I wasn’t. I was taken ill and came back to Brazil the day before. But friends of mine were there: Camisão, Venâncio…”
Everyone fell silent and gazed at the darkening sky. From the window of the dining room, you couldn’t even see the mountains. The horizon was hemmed in by the backs of the neighbouring houses, with their gardens (in which you could hear the chicks cheeping), lines of washing and chimneys. A bare tamarind tree was pining for the wide open spaces. The sun had already disappeared beneath the horizon, and pale smudges of gas lights and lanterns began appearing in the neighbourhood.
It was Bustamante who broke the silence:
“This country’s gone to the dogs. Would you believe the ministry’s been sitting on my lieutenant colonel claim for six months?!”
“No!” they all exclaimed. “Disgraceful!”
Night had fallen. Dona Maricota bustled into the dining room, beaming with happiness.
“Are you praying?” And she immediately added, “You’ll allow me to have a word with Chico, won’t you?”
Albernaz left his friends and went into a corner of the room, where his wife said something to him sotto voce. He listened and then returned to his friends, opining on the way:
“If people aren’t dancing, it’s because they don’t want to. Am I stopping anyone?!”
Dona Maricota came over to her husband’s friends and explained:
“You know how it is: if you don’t encourage them, no-one will choose a partner and there won’t be any dancing. And there are so many boys and girls. It’s a shame!”
“Very well! I’m on my way,” said Albernaz.
He left his friends and went into the lounge.
“Come along, girls! So, what’ll it be?! Zizi, a waltz!”
Off he went, personally sorting out dance partners. “No, General, I’ve already got a partner,” said a girl. “Doesn’t matter!” he replied. “Dance with Raimundinho. The other one can wait.”
After getting the dance going, he returned to his friends, sweating, but satisfied.
“Who’d have a family, eh?! Drives one mad! You made the right choice, Caldas, not getting married!”
“But I’ve got a bigger family than you: eight nephews and nieces for a start, and goodness knows how many cousins!”
“Let’s play solo,” said Albernaz.
“How? There’s five of us,” said Florêncio.
“That’s fine. I don’t play,” said Bustamante.
“OK, just the four of us, and dealer stays out,” said Albernaz.”
The cards were fetched, as was a little three-legged table. The players took their seats, the pack was cut and it fell to Florêncio to deal. The game began. Albernaz played with his head drawn back and an expression of deep concentration in his eyes. Caldas was sitting ramrod straight and playing with the sang-froid of an English lord admiral. Segismundo was playing carefully, with a cigarette in the corner of his mouth and his head inclined to one side to avoid the smoke. Bustamante had gone to the living room to watch the dancing.
They were well into the game when Quinota, one of the general’s daughters, crossed the room for a glass of water. Waiving his cigar, Caldas asked her, “So where’s Genelício, Quinota?”
The girl turned her face to him coquettishly and tut-tutted, pretending to be annoyed:
“How should I know, Admiral?! I don’t run round after him.”
“No need to be huffy, Quinota! Just a question…” said Caldas.
The general, who was engrossed in examining his hand, interrupted this conversation by saying in a grave voice, “Pass.”
Quinota left the room. The Genelício they’d been talking about was her boyfriend. He was also a relative of Caldas, and regarded his marriage into the Albernaz family as a foregone conclusion. The courtship was looked on favourably by everybody. Dona Maricota and her husband treated him like Prince Charming. He worked at the Treasury and, despite being under thirty, was already threatening to have a great future. There was no greater flatterer and no one more submissive. Totally without shame! His bosses and superiors had never had so much incense wafted around them. When it was time to leave, he’d hang around, washing his hands three or four times, so as to walk out together with the director. Then he’d accompany the director, talking shop, giving his opinion about this and that and criticising this or that colleague, and he’d stand with him till his tram came if the man was going home. If a minister entered the office, he’d elect himself as his companions’ spokesman and give a little speech and, without fail, he’d honour ministers’ birthdays with a sonnet – a sonnet which always began “Hooray” and always ended, likewise, “Hooray! Hip, hip, hooray!”
The template was always the same: he just changed the name of the minister and the date.
The next day, the papers would publish the sonnet under his name.
In the space of four years, he’d already been promoted twice and now he had his sights on a senior post in the accounts department.
He was simply a genius at adulation and working his way up. And he didn’t limit himself to his sonnet and to little speeches; he sought other opportunities as well. Once in a while, to impress the ministers and directors with his erudition, he’d churn out a long article about public accounting for the newspapers. These articles were no more than extracts from fusty decrees, spattered here and there with quotations from French and Portuguese authors.
Surprisingly enough, his colleagues respected him; they were greatly impressed by his knowledge and treated him like a genius – a genius of the bureaucratic arts. It should also not be forgotten that Genelício’s solid administrative position was reinforced by a legal course, which he was yet to finish. And all of that could hardly fail to attract the match-making attentions of General and Senhora Albernaz.
Outside the office, he strutted about in a way that his weedy figure would have made comical, were it not warranted by the great help he was giving the state. A model employee!
The game continued in silence, and the night advanced. There were just a few comments at the end of each round and, at the beginning, those time-honoured words: ‘solo’, ‘kitty’, ‘double’, ‘pass’. Otherwise the game was played in silence whilst, from the living room, came the festive hubbub of dancing and conversations.
“Look who it isn’t!”
“Genelício!” said Caldas. “Where have you been, my boy?”
Genelício put down his hat and his walking stick on a chair and greeted the assembled company. His little, already slightly stooping figure, his pinched face and blue-tinted pince-nez told you everything you needed to know about his job, his tastes and his habits. He was a clerk.
“Nothing special, dear fellows! Just a few professional matters.”
“Going well, is it?” asked Florêncio.
“Couldn’t be better! The minister’s promised… A dead cert! I’m well in!”
“I’m very glad to hear it,” said the general.
“Thank you. Have you heard the latest, General?”
“Quaresma’s gone round the bend.”
“What?! Who told you that?”
“That guitar fellow. He’s already in the mental hospital…”
“I knew it!” said Albernaz, “That proposal could only come from a madman.”
“But that’s not all, General. He wrote a document in Tupi and sent it to the minister.”
“That’s what I was talking about.”
“Who’s this Quaresma?” asked Florêncio.
“A neighbour of ours. Works in the ordnance office. Don’t you know him?”
“Short fellow? Pince-nez?”
“That’s it,” said Caldas.
“It’s no surprise,” said Dr Florêncio. “All those books! His mania for reading!..”
“Why did he need to read so much?” asked Caldas.
“A screw loose,” said Florêncio.
Genelício added authoritatively:
“He’s not even a graduate. Why on earth get involved with books?!”
“That’s true,” said Florêncio.
“Books are just for eggheads, for doctors,” said Segismundo.
“Somebody who hasn’t got an academic title,” said Genelício, “shouldn’t really be allowed to have books. Then you wouldn’t have all this nonsense. Don’t you agree?”
“Absolutely!” said Albernaz.
“Absolutely!” said Caldas.
“Absolutely!” said Segismundo.
They fell silent for a while and concentrated on the game.
“Have all the trumps gone?”
“You should have counted them, my friend.”
Albernaz lost and silence took hold of the room. Cavalcanti was about to give a recital. He strode, beaming, across the room and planted himself by the piano. Zizi was the accompanist. After Cavalcanti had cleared his throat, a reedy voice duly emerged:
Life is a comedy that makes no sense,
A little story of blood and dust,
A darkling desert…
The piano groaned.
IV – The Disastrous Consequences of an Official Proposal
he events alluded to by those grave characters assembled around the solo table on that memorable afternoon of Ismênia’s engagement party had taken place with lightning speed. The strength of the ideas and feelings nurtured within Quaresma had suddenly burst forth in a helter-skelter of extraordinary events. The first event was surprising, but it was followed by more and still more, in such a way that what had initially seemed an eccentricity, a bee in his bonnet, soon took on the appearance of outright insanity.
It was just a few weeks before the engagement party, at the opening of a session of the assembly; the secretary found himself having to read out a peculiar proposal, a proposal that, for such a document, was about to attract an unusual amount of publicity and chatter.
The muttering and kerfuffle characteristic of the concentration indispensable to the exalted work of legislation did not permit the deputies to hear what was being said; but the journalists near the table heard it and promptly burst out laughing, much to the detriment of the solemnity of the place. Laughter is contagious. The secretary himself began laughing, discreetly, in the middle of his reading; by the end of it the president was laughing, the minute clerk was laughing, the messenger was laughing – the whole table and everyone around was laughing, laughing helplessly, trying to contain themselves but with such little success that there were even tears rolling down cheeks.
Anyone who knew what that document represented in the way of effort, work and generous, altruistic dreams must have felt deeply sad on hearing the hearty laughter it attracted. Perhaps the document that had just arrived at the assembly table merited fury, disgust, cutting remarks from opponents, but not this hilarity, this innocent, unthinking hilarity, as if they were laughing at clowns tumbling about and making silly faces amidst a whirl of circus ponies.
Those who were laughing, however, didn’t know why; they just saw it as an opportunity for a bit of harmless fun. And as the rest of that day’s session was a dull affair, the next day’s newspaper columns relating to assembly proceedings had a field day with the proposal, which read as follows:
Policarpo Quaresma, a Brazilian citizen and civil servant – being convinced that the Portuguese language has merely been borrowed by Brazil, and further being certain that, on account of that fact, our manner of speaking and writing in general, but particularly in the field of literature, finds itself in the humiliating position of continually being severely criticised by the proprietors of that language; and knowing also that authors and writers in our country, particularly the grammarians, do not understand correct grammar, with the result that bitter arguments take place ever day amongst the most eminent scholars of our language – availing himself of the right conferred upon him by the Constitution, respectfully requests that the National Congress declare Tupi-Guarani to be the official national language of the Brazilian people.
Setting to one side the historical arguments underpinning his idea, the petitioner respectfully points out that language is the highest manifestation of a people’s intelligence, its most vital and original creation; and that the political emancipation of the country therefore demands, as its complement and consequence, its idiomatic emancipation.
Further, Honourable Congressmen, Tupi-Guarani, an agglutinative and highly original language, is the only language capable of translating the beauty of Brazil, of putting us in a correct relationship to our nature, and it is perfectly adapted to our vocal and cerebral organs, because it is the creation of peoples who have long lived here and still live here, and who are thus physiologically and psychologically organised in a Brazilian way, avoiding, as a consequence, those sterile arguments that arise from the difficult adaptation of a language from another part of the world to our cerebral organisation and our vocal apparatus, which does so much to hinder our scientific and philosophical progress.
In the certainty that the sage legislators will know how to put this proposal into effect, and conscious that the Assembly and the Senate will consider its importance and usefulness, the Petitioner requests that it be approved.
Duly signed and stamped, the major’s proposal became the subject of conversation for days afterwards. It was printed in all the papers, together with facetious commentaries, and everyone joked about it, everyone had a laugh at Quaresma’s expense. And they didn’t stop there; malign curiosity always wants more. They wanted to know who he was, what he did, if he was married or single. A weekly illustrated magazine published a caricature of him, and people pointed him out in the street.
Not to mention those jolly little weekly papers that specialise in ridicule! They had the most brutal fun with the poor major. The sheer scale of it was an indication of how happy the editors must have been to have found such an easy target; they simply couldn’t get enough of “Major Quaresma said this” and “Major Quaresma did that.”
One paper – in addition to references elsewhere – devoted a whole page to the major’s evident desire to bring back cannibalism. The main cartoon was titled ‘The Abattoir of Santa Cruz à la Major Quaresma’, and it showed a line of men and women marching into said slaughter-house. Another showed Quaresma Family Butchers, and this time the caption read:
Housewife: Do you have beef tongue?
Butcher: ‘No, we’ve only got lady’s tongue. Would you like some?
The comments – funny or not – went on and on, and the absence of any news about Quaresma himself in the middle of all this only whetted appetites still more. For two whole weeks, the sub-secretary’s name was everywhere.
All of this pained Quaresma profoundly. Having lived virtually on his own for thirty years without coming up against the world, he’d become hypersensitive and was capable of being hurt deeply by the least thing. Living, as he did, immersed in his dreams, incubated and kept alive by the warmth of his books, he’d never been a target for criticism and had never sought publicity. Outside of his books he hardly knew anyone; and even in the case of the people he spoke to, it was only throw-away banalities, everyday remarks, things that had nothing to do with his heart or soul.
Not even his god-daughter managed to bring him out of himself, even though he thought more of her than of anyone else.
Being shut up in himself like this made him look somehow distant from everything – from competition, from ambition –, because none of those things that make up the world’s normal struggle and strife had entered into his character.
Uninterested, as he was, in money, glory or position, and living in his own dreamland, he had acquired an innocence and a purity of heart that is sometimes characteristic of men with a fixed idea, great scholars, sages and inventors, people who become more tender, more ingenuous and more guileless even than the damsels of olden-time poetry.
It’s rare to meet men of that sort, but they do exist and, when we meet them, we feel – even if they have a touch of madness about them – greater sympathy for our species, greater pride in being human and greater hope for our happiness.
Although he was exasperated by the continual jokes in the newspapers, and the way in which people looked at him in the street, the only result was that his fixed idea became even more fixed. Being the butt of a joke here, a lampoon there, made him analyse his idea in greater depth, weighing up all its aspects, examining it in detail, comparing it to similar things, calling to mind authors and authorities; and the more he did so, the more convinced he became that the criticism was inane and the mockery without foundation; and his idea took hold of him, subjugated him and absorbed him more and more.
Whereas the newspapers had reacted to his proposal with largely inoffensive sarcasm, his department reacted with fury. In the bureaucratic environment, independent superiority – made and organised from materials other than official documents, knowledge of regulations, and good calligraphy – is regarded with petty resentment, as if the possessor of that superiority were a traitor to paper-pushing mediocrity and anonymity. This is not just a question of promotion or pecuniary interest; it is also a question of amour-propre, of wounded feelings, at the sight of that colleague – that galley-slave like the others, subject to the same regulations, whims of section heads and haughty looks of ministers – assuming some right to infringe those rules and regulations.
Such a person is viewed with the thinly veiled hatred with which the common murderer views the marquis who’s murdered the marchioness and her lover. Although both are murderers, even in prison the nobleman brings the air of his world with him, a suggestion of refinement and an inadaptability that offends his humble colleague in crime.
Thus, when someone turns up in a department and seems bigger than his job title, it doesn’t take long for the backbiting, the whispers and the snide remarks to start – a whole green-eyed arsenal worthy of a woman who’s become convinced that the woman next door is better-dressed than her.
More good-will, or at least tolerance, is shown to colleagues renowned for knowledge of the rules, penmanship, application to work – even if they’re graduates or doctors – than to colleagues renowned in the wider world. In general the incomprehension of their colleague’s work or merits is total and none of them can get their head round this individual – this clerk just like them – doing anything that could interest other people or provide subject matter for a whole city.
So Quaresma’s sudden and ephemeral notoriety caused irritation among his colleagues and superiors. “Whoever saw anything like it?!” said the secretary. “That idiot daring to present such a thing to the Congress. What a nerve!” Passing by the secretariat, the director looked at Quaresma out of the corner of his eye and wondered whether a reprimand was called for. The archivist was the least severe, contenting himself with a brusque “Lunatic!”
The major was well aware of that poisonous atmosphere and those allusions but, while it made him feel ever more miserable, it also redoubled his resolve. He didn’t understand how his proposal could have stirred up such storms, so much ill will; something so innocent, a patriotic suggestion that deserved and merited everyone’s agreement; and he cogitated, returned to his idea and examined it even more closely.
The extensive publicity stirred up by the event even reached the regal little palace of Quaresma’s old friend Coleoni. Rich on the profits from building construction, and now a widower, the former fruit and vegetable salesman had retired from business and was living quietly in the grand house that he himself had built and which had all his favourite architectural curlicues: ornamental pots on top of the cornice, a huge monogram over the front door, two ceramic dogs on the gate posts etc.
Resting on a high basement, the house was in the centre of its grounds; there was a reasonably large garden at the front and sides, adorned here and there with multi-coloured spheres; and there was a veranda and an aviary, where the sad birds died slowly in the heat. It was a bourgeois edifice, typical of the national taste: showy, expensive and built with little regard for climate or comfort.
Inside, the dominant style was whimsy, everything being a cross between baroque fantasy and wild eclecticism. There was furniture upon furniture, carpets, pelmets, bibelots… and his daughter’s maverick imagination brought even more chaos to that collection of expensabilia.
Coleoni had been a widower for some years. An old sister-in-law was in charge of the house, and Olga took care of entertainment and parties. He accepted this sweet tyranny with good grace.
Although he wanted a good marriage for his daughter, he didn’t want to go against her wishes, and put no obstacles in her way. Initially he thought of giving her to his assistant or foreman, a sort of architect who sketched – rather than designed – houses and grand buildings. But first he sounded out his daughter. Finding neither resistance nor acceptance, he convinced himself that the girl’s ethereality, that distant heroine’s air, her intelligence, her capriciousness, would not combine well with the rustic simplicity and coarseness of his assistant.
She needs to marry a doctor, he thought. That’s the thing! He almost certainly won’t have a cent, but that doesn’t matter. I’m rich.
He’d come to see the title of doctor as the Brazilian equivalent of marquis or baron. Every country has its nobility: over there, it’s viscounts; here it’s graduates, doctors, dentists; and he thought a few million réis well worthwhile to get his daughter thus ennobled.
Sometimes, however, he got a little cross with his daughter’s fancies. Although he liked to go to bed early, he had to endure innumerable nights in the Lyric Theatre and at balls; he liked to sit in his slippers and smoke his pipe, but was obliged to walk round the streets for hours and hours, popping into one fashion house after another just for half a metre of ribbon, some hairpins or a bottle of perfume.
It was amusing to see him in textile shops, so indulgent towards the daughter he wanted to ennoble, opining about the fabric, finding this one prettier than that, but without any understanding of it, which was especially evident when it came to paying for them. Nevertheless, full of perfectly paternal tenacity and innocence, he did his best to find out what it was all about.
Up until then he’d been doing rather well, taking the rough with the smooth. The only thing that really bothered him were the visits from his daughter’s school friends and their mothers and sisters, their air of sham nobility, their affected disdain, letting the old tradesman know how far he was from the circle of Olga’s friends and colleagues.
Nevertheless, he didn’t get too upset about it: having got where he wanted, he had to play by the rules. So, when visitors of that type arrived, Coleoni almost always withdrew to the interior of the house. But it wasn’t always possible to do that; he had to be present at the big parties and receptions he gave, and it was then that he most felt the veiled disdain of the upper echelons of Brazilian society. He’d always worked in trade, with few ideas beyond his sphere of work, and he couldn’t dissimulate; consequently he had little interest in tittle-tattle about weddings, balls and expensive journeys.
Once or twice he’d be invited, by a more sensitive soul, for a game of poker; he always accepted and always lost. He got so far as forming a poker circle in his house, of which the well-known lawyer Pacheco was a part. Coleoni lost – a lot –, but that wasn’t why he gave up playing. After all, how much was he losing? A few thousand – nothing to speak of! The fact was, however, that Pacheco played with six cards. The first time Coleoni noticed, he put it down to simple absent-mindedness on the part of the distinguished journalist and lawyer. An honest man wouldn’t do that! But what about the second time? And the third?
So much absent-mindedness wasn’t possible. Convinced that Pacheco was cheating, he said nothing, restraining himself with a dignity one would hardly expect of an old fruit and vegetable seller. When they played for a fourth time and the same thing happened, Vicente lit his cigar and observed, as if it were a matter of nothing, “Did you know they’ve got a new system of playing poker now in Europe?”
“What’s that?” someone asked.
“It’s only a little difference: they play with six cards, or rather, just one of them does.”
Making out he hadn’t got the message, Pacheco continued playing and winning. When he graciously took his leave, at midnight, he made just a few comments about the game. He didn’t return.
As was his habit, Coleoni was reading the papers one morning, with the sluggishness of someone little accustomed to reading, when his eye fell upon the proposal made by his friend from the ordnance office.
He didn’t understand too well what it was about, but the papers had such unrestrained fun with it that he imagined his old benefactor must have inadvertently got himself embroiled in some criminal conspiracy.
He’d always thought – and still thought – of Quaresma as the most honest person in the world; but who knows? Hadn’t he behaved rather strangely the last time Coleoni visited him? Perhaps it was just a joke…
Although he’d become rich, Coleoni still had a high opinion of his reclusive friend. Not only did he feel towards him the gratitude of a simple man towards his benefactor, but he respected the major both as a civil servant and as a very knowledgeable man.
Coleoni was European, from a humble, village background, and had that deep respect that country people had for anyone who worked for the state; and although, during all his years in Brazil, he hadn’t noticed any great confluence of titles and knowledge, he did have great respect for his friend’s erudition.
So it was no surprise that it grieved him to see Quaresma’s name connected to something the papers found reprehensible. He read the proposal again, but still didn’t understand it. He called his daughter.
He pronounced his daughter’s name almost without an Italian accent; but when he spoke Portuguese, his voice became strangely husky, and he sprinkled his speech with Italian expressions and exclamations.
“Olga, what eez olla zeess about? Non capisco…”
The girl sat herself down in a chair and read the report about the proposal, together with the commentary.
“Didn’t you understand it? Uncle Poli wants us all to speak Tupi instead of Portuguese.”
“How cumma? We olla speeka Portoogeeza nowaday, don’ we?”
“We do, but he wants us to speak Tupi from now on.”
“Yes, all the Brazilians – everyone.”
“Ma che cousa! Eez no’ possible!…”
“Well, the Czechs have their own language, but they were forced to speak German when they were conquered by the Austrians; the people of Lorraine, in France…”
“Per la madonna! Germann eez a language, no’ like-a dat mumbo-jumbo, ecco!”
“Mumbo-jumbo is what they speak in Africa, Papa; it’s Tupi here.”
“Per Bacco! Eet olla cumma to zee same ting… Ee ’as gonna mad!”
“Not at all, Papa.”
“’ow cumma? How could a man in ’eez rightta mindda say zeess?”
“It might not be sensible, but it doesn’t mean he’s mad.”
“It’s an idea, Father, a plan; perhaps it looks absurd at first sight, eccentric, but it’s not completely mad. Perhaps it’s a rather bold suggestion, but…”
Try as she might, she couldn’t judge what her godfather had done by the same criteria as her father. He was speaking common sense; she was voicing her love of great things, of audacity and devil-may-care. She remembered that Quaresma had spoken to her about emancipation; and if her innermost feeling wasn’t admiration for the major’s audacity, it certainly wasn’t disapproval or pity; it was a feeling of sincere empathy at seeing how misunderstood was the action of that man she’d known for so many years, doggedly following his dream, in obscure isolation.
“’ee eez gonna ’ave a break-a-downa after zeess,” said Coleoni.
He was right. The archivist’s verdict had become the received wisdom in corridor discussions, and the suspicion that Quaresma was mad was rapidly becoming a certainty. Initially the sub-secretary coped well with the storm but, when he noticed that people were questioning his knowledge of Tupi, he could scarcely contain his anger. How blind they were! Hadn’t he studied Brazil minutely for thirty years, for which purpose he’d found it necessary to learn the rebarbative German language; and they thought he couldn’t speak Tupi, the one and only Brazilian language – what a base suggestion!
If they wanted to consider him mad – let them! But to doubt his competence – no! And he tried so hard to think how he could rehabilitate himself that he kept getting distracted and making mistakes in writing and in everyday tasks. He was living two lives: one taken up with his mundane duties, and the other, with proving he could speak Tupi.
One day, the secretary didn’t turn up and the major stood in for him. They were working on a big file, part of which he’d drawn up himself. He’d just started to write the clean copy of a document about Mato Grosso, where there was mention of Aquidauana and Ponta-Porã, when he overheard Carmo, at the back of the room, saying sarcastically:
“Hey, Homer! Knowing a language is one thing, speaking it is another.”
Quaresma didn’t even raise his eyes from the sheet of paper. Whether because of the Tupi words it contained, or whether because of Carmo’s caustic remark, what’s certain is that, unwittingly, he started translating it into that indigenous tongue.
When he finished, he realised what he’d done, but he was immediately distracted by other work that was brought to him for approval. Then there were yet other concerns to preoccupy him, and so the document in Tupi went off with the others. The director signed it without even looking, and the Tupinambá script was duly delivered to the ministry.
The commotion it caused there! “What language is this meant to be?!” They consulted Dr Rocha, the most able man in the secretariat, who wiped his pince-nez, picked up the paper, turned it backwards and forwards and upside-down and concluded it was in Greek, on account of the yy.
Dr Rocha was regarded as a sage in the secretariat, because he was a bachelor of law and, especially, because he hardly said anything.
“But is it permissible,” asked the secretariat head, “for the authorities to communicate in foreign languages? I think there’s a directive from ’84… Would you have a look for it, Dr Rocha?…”
Although they went back and forth through the legislation, and asked if anyone at the other desks could remember anything, nothing relevant was found. Finally, after mulling it over for three days, Dr Rocha went to the secretariat chief and said, with absolute certainty in his voice, ‘The 1884 directive was about orthography.”
The director looked at his subordinate admiringly; how could one not admire such zeal, intelligence and… assiduity?! He was subsequently informed there was nothing in law about the language of official documents but that, nevertheless, it appeared irregular to use one that was not the language of Brazil.
Bearing in mind this information and various other advice, the minister returned the document to the ordnance office, together with a reprimand.
What a morning that was in the ordnance office! You could almost hear the furious drumbeat, messengers came and went like nobody’s business, and everyone was asking after the secretary, who’d not yet arrived.
“Reprimanded!” the director muttered to himself. So much for his promotion to general! He’d spent years dreaming about those stars and to see them slip away from him now, just because of some prank by one of the clerks!
If only there were some way out of it… But how?!
The secretary arrived and was summoned straight to the director’s office. Having been appraised of the problem, he examined the document and recognised Quaresma’s handwriting. “Send him here,” said the colonel. On his way to the colonel’s office, the major had been thinking of some verses in Tupi he’d read that morning.
“So, you think you’ll have some fun with me, is that it?”
“I don’t understand,” Quaresma replied in amazement.
“Who wrote this?”
The major didn’t even need to look at the document: as soon as he saw it, he remembered the mistake he’d made.
“I did,” he admitted straight away.
“So you admit it?”
“I do. But you don’t know, Senhor…”
“What do you mean: ‘You don’t know!’?!”
The director stood up, his lips white and his hand raised to his head. He’d been thrice offended: in his personal honour, in the honour of his caste and in that of the educational establishment he’d attended – Praia Vermelha, the leading scientific establishment in the world. And not only that: he’d written a story in The Prytaneum, the college magazine; it had the title ‘Longing’” and had been much praised. Thus, given that he’d passed all the exams with distinction, two laurel wreaths adorned his forehead: one for wisdom, another for art. So many distinctions, plus the rarity of finding them – even in Descartes or Shakespeare – combined in one person, transformed that ‘What you don’t know’, coming as it did from a mere amanuensis, into an insult of the first order.
“‘You don’t know!’ How dare you say such a thing?! Have you, perchance, studied Benjamin Constant? Are you conversant with Mathematics, Astronomy, Physics, Chemistry, Sociology and Ethics? So how do you dare?!… I suppose just because you’ve read a few novels and know a few words of French you think you’re the equal of someone who has Grade 9 in Calculus, 10 in Mechanics, 8 in Astronomy, 10 in Hydraulics and 9 in Descriptive Grammar? Well?!”
He shook his fist furiously and looked savagely at Quaresma, who could already see himself before the firing squad.
“No buts! Consider yourself suspended with immediate effect.”
Quaresma was a sweet-tempered, good and modest man. It would never have entered his head to call the director’s wisdom into question. He had no pretensions to wisdom and had said what he said merely by way of prefix to an apology; but when he found himself swept up in that flood of erudition and titles, he lost his train of thought, together with his power of speech, and there was nothing more he could say.
Dejectedly, like a condemned criminal, he walked out of the office, while the colonel continued glaring at him furiously, savagely, as if wounded in the very depths of his being. Back at his workplace, the major collected his hat and walking stick and – in his desire to get away – went stumbling out like a drunk, without saying a word. He walked around a bit and went to pick up some books from a bookshop. At the tram stop, he bumped into Ricardo Coração dos Outros.
“Bit early, Major?”
“Yes, I am today.”
There was an awkward silence, until Ricardo came up with a few words:
“Looks like you’ve got something on your mind, Major – something important.”
“I have, my friend, something I’ve been thinking about for a long time.”
“It’s good to think and it’s a consolation to dream.”
“Perhaps, but it also makes us different from the others, it completely separates people…”
They each went their way. The major took the tram, and Ricardo casually descended the Rua do Ouvidor, with his mincing step and his trousers turned-up over his ankles, and holding his guitar, in its suede cover, under his arm.
V – The Figurine
his must have been at least the eleventh time she’d ascended that wide, stone staircase. On one side was a marble statue of Charity, on the other, of Our Lady of Mercy, both of them from Lisbon. Once more she entered through the portico, with its Doric columns, crossed the paved atrium, leaving – on her left and right – Pinel and Esquirol, meditating about the dreadful mystery of insanity. Once more she ascended another carefully polished staircase and went to see her godfather up there – a sad figure absorbed in his dreams and his mania. Her father brought her sometimes, on Sundays, when he came to fulfil his duty as a friend by visiting Quaresma. How long had the major been there now? She couldn’t remember exactly: three months, four at the most.
The name of the building was scary just by itself. The asylum! Something like a graveyard for the living, a semi-burial, a burial of the spirit, of the reason that guides us – and once it’s gone our bodies rarely recover. Our health isn’t dependent on it, of course, and there are many who even seem to acquire more vivacity, to have their existence prolonged, once it escapes through whatever orifice on its way to wherever.
With what terror – as if of something supernatural, of an invisible and omnipresent foe – the poor heard the name of that establishment on the Praia das Saudades! “Better a quick death,” they’d say.
At first sight it was difficult to understand why people were so afraid of the building. Certainly it was enormous, it looked forbidding – half hospital, half prison, with its high railings and barred windows – and it extended for hundreds of metres along the Praia das Saudades, at the mouth of the bay, looking out on the immense, green sea but, when you entered, all you saw were a few men – calm, pensive, deep in meditation, like monks praying.
The silence, the light and the respectful atmosphere, upon entering, was immediately enough to dispel the popular idea of insanity: hubbub, grimacing faces, fury, a babble of nonsense.
There was none of that; instead there was perfectly natural calm, quiet and order. It was only in the visiting room, when you examined more closely those disturbed faces, with their air of bewilderment, some of them idiotic and expressionless, others absent and submerged in an intimate and endless dream, and when you saw how the agitation of some contrasted so vividly with the listlessness of others – it was only then that you really felt the horror of insanity, its dreadful mystery, that inexplicable flight of the spirit from supposed reality to the appearances of things, if not the appearances of appearances.
Anyone who’s had to confront that existential enigma feels fear, feels that the germ of it lies somewhere within us and that, at any moment, it could invade us, take hold of us, wipe us out and bury us in an absurd and desperate looking-glass world, inversely mirroring ourselves, other people and the whole world. Every madman carries within him his own, unique world: what he was before madness is something utterly different to what he becomes after.
That change doesn’t begin – you don’t feel it begin – and it almost never ends. How had it been with her godfather? First of all, that proposal… But what was that, after all? A caprice, a fantasy, a thing of no importance, the inconsequential idea of an old man. Or that document about Mato Grosso? A trifle, a simple result of distraction, something that happens all the time… And finally? Outright insanity, a ghastly, insidious insanity that robs us of our soul and replaces it with another, a lesser soul… So, finally: outright insanity, egomania, agoraphobia, persecution complex, imagining that our friends and betters are our enemies. How sad to see it! The first phase of his delirium: agitation, meaningless talk, talk with no connection to the world outside him or to past events, talk impossible to know whence it came or how it could possibly relate to him. And the terror suffered by sweet-natured Quaresma? The terror of one who’s seen such a cataclysm as has set him atremble from top to toe, has made him indifferent to everything outside his own delirium.
His house, his books, his money all belonged in another world. None of that mattered to him now, none of that existed or was important. They were shadows, mere appearances; what was real was his enemies, those terrible, nameless enemies of his delirium. His elder sister was left perplexed, dumbstruck, disoriented, without the least idea what to do. Brought up in a house where there was always a man – her father and then her brother –, she knew nothing about dealing with the world, the authorities or influential people. At the same time, in her inexperience and sisterly tenderness, she wavered between belief that her brother was right and suspicion that, purely and simply, he was mad.
Had not her rough-and-ready father (whom Olga loved even more on that account) taken matters in hand, looked after the interests of Quaresma’s family and managed to get his threatened dismissal converted into retirement, what would have become of him? How easily everything can collapse! That methodical, moderate and honest man, with his secure employment, seemed impregnable; but all it needed was a tiny grain of madness…
Her godfather had been in the asylum for some months now, and his sister couldn’t visit him: it had been such a shock to her to see her brother transformed, in that quasi-prison, into someone else, that it had all proved too much for her nerves as well.
So Olga and her father visited, sometimes just her father, sometimes Ricardo, and those three were the major’s only visitors.
That Sunday was particularly beautiful, especially in Botafogo, near the sea, with the soaring mountains silhouetted against the silk of the sky. The air was soft and the sunshine so sweet on the pavements.
On the way, in the tram, her father would read the papers and she would be lost in thought, occasionally flicking through one of the illustrated magazines she’d brought to distract her godfather.
Although he was a private patient, she initially felt a certain embarrassment at mixing with the other visitors.
It used to seem to her that her status had placed her above the need to witness misery; but she’d repressed that egoism and snobbery, and now entered perfectly naturally, which only served to make her look even more graceful. She loved making those sacrifices, that self-denial; she was conscious of the grandeur of it and was secretly pleased.
There were other visitors in the tram, and they all piled out at the asylum entrance. As at the doors of all our social infernos, they included all sorts of people: high-born and low-born, rich and poor. It’s not just death that makes us equal; madness, crime and disease also run their lathe across our invented distinctions.
Well-dressed and badly-dressed, elegant and poor, ugly and handsome, intelligent and ignorant, they all entered respectfully, solemnly, with a touch of fear in their eyes, as if penetrating another world.
No sooner had the visitors reached their relatives than the packets were unwrapped: sweets, tobacco, socks, slippers, sometimes books and newspapers. Some of the patients talked to their relatives; others stayed quiet, in a fierce, inexplicable mutism; others were indifferent; and so varied were the ways in which relatives were received that you almost forgot the dominion the illness exercised over all those unfortunate people; so great the variation from case to case, it almost seemed like personal caprice, the dictates of each patient’s free will.
She was thinking about how varied, how diverse is our life, how it has more sad aspects than happy and how – in that variety of life – sadness is more various than joy, as if it were sadness that sets the very rhythm of life.
This thought, ironically, almost made her happy, for her intelligent and curious nature found pleasure in the simplest discoveries.
Quaresma had improved. His over-excitement had gone and the delirium seemed about to disappear completely. Once he realised where he was, there was a necessary and salutary reaction: he must be mad, otherwise they wouldn’t have taken him there…
When he met his friend and his god-daughter, there was even a smile beneath his moustache, a moustache that had turned grey. He had lost some weight, there were white strands in his black hair, but his general appearance was the same. He hadn’t completely lost his gentle, considerate way of talking, but when the mania took hold he became curt and suspicious. He was pleased to see them:
“So you’ve come… I was waiting for you…”
They said hello and he even gave his god-daughter a big hug.
“She eez well,” said Coleoni. “She senda her bes’ weeshes and say she ’as no’ cumma because…”
“Poor thing!” said Quaresma, and he hung his head as if trying to suppress a sad memory. Then he asked:
Delighted and emotional at seeming to see her godfather escape from being semi-entombed in insanity, Olga hastened to reply:
“He’s fine, Uncle Poli. He came to see Papa a few days ago and told him your pension has almost been finalised.”
Coleoni had sat down and Quaresma did likewise. Gazing at her godfather with her bright eyes, Olga remained standing, the better to see him. Meanwhile, guards, interns and doctors passed by with professional indifference. The groups of visitors didn’t exchange glances, as if not wishing to recognise each other afterwards in the street. Outside, it was a lovely day, the air soft, the sea infinitely melancholy, the mountains sharply outlined: nature – beautiful, imposing and indecipherable. Coleoni, the most assiduous visitor, was also impressed that day by his friend’s improvement; his satisfaction was evident in his face and in a slight smile:
“You lookin’ mucha better now, eezn’ eet? Would you like-a to go outside?”
Quaresma didn’t reply immediately; he thought for a moment before saying in a clear but halting voice:
“It’s best… to wait a moment. I’ll be able… I’m sorry to inconvenience you… You’ve been so kind… May heaven repay you!… It’s in adversity… one knows one’s friends…”
Father and daughter exchanged glances; the major lifted his head and seemed to be on the brink of tears. Olga hurried to change the subject:
“Do you know what, Uncle Poli? I’m going to get married!”
“She eez!” said her father. “Olga eez getting’ married an’ we ’ave cumma to letta you know.”
“Who’s the bridegroom?” asked Quaresma.
“It eez a lad…”
“You don’t say!” her godfather interrupted, smiling.
His visitors were so glad to see him coming out of his shell and even making a joke.
“He’s Armando Borges. He’s studying for his doctorate. Are you happy for me, Uncle Poli?” asked Olga.
“So it will be after he finishes his course?”
“Yessa, we hope-a so,” said the Italian.
“Do you love him?” the major asked.
Olga didn’t know what to say. She’d have liked to say yes, but the true answer was no. And why, after all, was she getting married? She didn’t know… Because it was expected, something outside of her… She didn’t know… Was she in love with another? The answer was also no. None of the boys she knew had made a deep impression on her, none of them had that je ne sais quoi in their mind or their soul – no matter how embryonic – that could fascinate her, subjugate her. She didn’t know exactly what it was, she didn’t know herself well enough to know precisely what qualities she’d like to see in a man. Something of the hero? Something out of the ordinary? The strength to undertake great things? In the mental confusion of her tender years, at a time when our ideas and desires are an inchoate whirl, Olga was unable to locate that necessary desire, that necessary way of imagining – let alone of loving – her ideal man.
She did well in not waiting for that unimaginable ideal man. It’s so difficult to see that unimaginable ideal in a man not yet thirty, that it was highly likely she’d mistake a cloud for Jupiter… She was getting married partly because of convention, partly out of curiosity and partly to expand her horizons and quicken her feelings. All of this flashed through her mind before she replied, without conviction, to her godfather’s question: “Yes, I do.”
The visit didn’t last much longer. It was sensible to keep it short, not to demand too much concentration from the convalescent. But it was clear that both of them had a spring in their step as they left.
Some other visitors were already waiting for the tram outside the entrance. The next stop was the terminus; as there was no tram there yet, they decided to walk, passing along the front of the asylum. When they were halfway, they came across an old black woman, standing weeping by the railings. Coleoni – ever considerate – went up to her:
“What eezza da matter, my dear?”
The poor woman stared at him with her moist, tender eyes, eyes full of irredeemable sadness, before replying:
“Ah, Sinhô!.. Is so sad… My son, such good boy, poor ting!”
She carried on crying. Coleoni felt a tear coming to his own eye. After a moment, his daughter, who’d been looking on attentively, asked:
“Has he died?”
“Perhap’ dat been betta, Sinhazinha.”
Between her tears and her sighs, she said that her son didn’t recognise her any more, didn’t respond – he was like a stranger. Wiping away her tears, she added, “Dey gone put di evil eye on him.”
The two of them walked sadly away, carrying in their hearts a bit of that humble pain.
The day was cool and you could see the breeze starting to pluck little white waves from the surface of the water. The Pão de Açúcar, black and solemn, stood proud above the frothing waves – a shadow among the brightness of the day.
Someone was playing a violin in the Institute for the Blind, but the plangent, drawn-out voice of the instrument seemed to come from the sadness and solemnity of everything around.
When the tram eventually arrived, they climbed aboard and got off at the Largo da Carioca. It’s lovely to see the city on a day of rest, when the shops are closed, the narrow streets deserted, and footsteps echo as if in a silent cloister. The city has become like a skeleton, stripped of the flesh of movement – the movement of carriages, carts and people. Shopkeepers’ children are outside, riding bicycles or throwing balls, and their games make the contrast with the day before even stronger.
People weren’t accustomed to go to the city’s beauty spots. All you saw were occasional passers-by – like Coleoni and his daughter – on their way to or from a visit. The Largo de São Francisco was silent and the statue in the middle of its little garden – which has since disappeared – seemed no more than a stage prop. The sluggish trams were arriving, with few passengers, in the square. Coleoni and his daughter took one to Quaresma’s house. The evening was approaching and people dressed in their Sunday best could be seen in the windows. Blacks in bright clothes, smoking cigarettes or big cigars; groups of shop salesmen with showy flowers in their lapels; girls in well-starched muslin; antediluvian top hats alongside heavy, black-satin dresses draped on the ample frames of sedentary matrons; thus was Sunday adorned: with the simplicity of the humble, the riches of the poor and the ostentation of the foolish.
Dona Adelaide wasn’t alone: they found her in conversation with Ricardo, who’d come to visit. When Coleoni knocked at the front door, Ricardo was telling the old lady about the latest feather in his cap.
“I don’t know what to do, Dona Adelaide. I don’t keep my music, I don’t write it down – it’s a real headache!”
It was, indeed, enough to put any composer in a flap. Senhor Paysandón, of Córdova in the Republic of Argentina, and well-known as a composer in that city, had written requesting samples of his music and songs. Ricardo was in a pickle: he had the words but not the music and, even though he had it all off by heart, writing it down just like that was beyond him.
“It’s the pits!” he continued. “It’s not about me, it’s about Brazil, it’s about Brazil losing a chance to become known abroad.”
Quaresma’s elder sister wasn’t particularly interested in guitars. In her youth she’d seen them only in the hands of slaves and suchlike, and she couldn’t accept that the instrument was a fitting object of interest for persons of a certain standing in society. But she put up diplomatically with Ricardo’s obsession, not least because – despite herself – she was beginning to admire this famous troubadour of the suburbs. The root of her admiration lay in the sympathy he’d shown throughout her and Policarpo’s crisis. He’d proved himself a trusty friend, running errands here and there, undertaking little tasks, and all with the greatest goodwill and diligence.
At the moment it was he who was sorting out the retirement arrangements for his former pupil – not an easy task, that of ‘liquidating a pensioning-off procedure,’ in the official jargon. Once retirement was solemnly decreed, the documentation had to do the rounds of several sections and officials before it could be finalised. Nothing has more gravitas than an official saying: “I’m still doing the calculations,” after which the matter drags on for a month or more, as if it were a matter of celestial mechanics.
Coleoni was the major’s executor but, as he didn’t understand bureaucracy, he’d entrusted that part of his responsibility to Coração dos Outros.
Thanks to Ricardo’s popularity, straightforwardness and affability, he’d got the better of the bureaucrats, and the pension was due to be released shortly.
When Coleoni entered, followed by his daughter, that’s the first thing Ricardo told him. And then both he and Dona Adelaide asked for news of the major.
Adelaide had never really understood her brother, and understood him even less since his breakdown; but that didn’t prevent her having profound sisterly sympathy and ardently desiring his recovery.
Ricardo was very fond of the major, and was very appreciative of his moral and intellectual support. Although others liked listening to him sing as a matter of simple entertainment, the major was the only one to understand what he was trying to achieve and the patriotic nature of his work.
It was ironic that it was now – when he’d achieved fame after many years of hard work – that Ricardo was really suffering. The thing was that a Creole had appeared on the scene, singing modinhas and gaining a renown to rival that of Ricardo.
There were two factors that put him off his rival: firstly, he was black; and secondly, his theories.
It wasn’t that he had any particular dislike of blacks: it was just that a black person becoming famous by playing the guitar would diminish the prestige of the instrument still further. If his rival had played the piano and had won fame on that account, no problem; on the contrary, his talent would have elevated him via the prestigious instrument. But playing the guitar, as he did, it was the opposite: the prejudice against his colour would rebound on the mysterious instrument that Ricardo so loved. And apart from that, those theories! I ask you! He thinks a modinha should mean something and look like a poem! What nonsense!
Ricardo couldn’t get his unexpected rival out of his head – a rival who was suddenly standing in the path of his marvellous ascent to glory. He needed to send him packing, to trounce him, to show himself incontestably superior; but how?
Advertising was no good: his rival did that too. Ideally he’d get some éminence grise – some literary giant – to write an article about him and his work. Victory would be assured! But it would be difficult. Our Brazilian literati were so stupid and seemed to think culture could only be French… He thought about founding a magazine, The Guitar, in which he’d challenge his rival and destroy him through the power of argument.
But how? The answer had to be Quaresma who, although currently detained in an asylum, was fortunately on the road to recovery. So he was really happy when he heard that his friend was much better.
“I couldn’t go today,” he said. “I’ll go next Sunday. Has he put on weight?”
“A little,” said Olga.
“We hadda goodda chatta,” added Coleoni. “’ee was really please’ whenna we toldda heem Olga eez gettin’ marrie’.”
“You’re getting married, Dona Olga?! Congratulations!”
“Thank you,” she said.
“When will it be,” asked Dona Adelaide.
“Some time at the end of the year… Plenty of time…”
She was immediately bombarded with questions about her fiancé, and there was lots of talk about the wedding.
She found it all irritatingly intrusive; she’d have liked to change the subject, but they kept returning to it, not only Ricardo, but also old Dona Adelaide, who’d become more talkative and inquisitive than usual. Having to go through this at every visit almost made her regret agreeing to get married. But finally she found a subterfuge:
“How’s the general?”
“I haven’t seen him, but his daughter often comes over here. I think he’s alright; but Ismênia’s down in the dumps… poor thing!”
So Dona Adelaide told them about the little tragedy that had befallen the general’s daughter. Three or four months ago, Cavalcanti, that fly-by-night, had taken a river-boat to the interior, whence he’d sent neither letter nor postcard. Regarding it as a permanent separation, Ismênia – who was otherwise so incapable of deeper feelings and so insipid, both mentally and physically – took it badly: an all-consuming catastrophe.
It was as if all marriageable young men had ceased to exist and finding another would be impossible – completely beyond her. What a problem! Courtship, billets-doux, nods and glances, dancing, strolling side by side – she’d never be able to do any of it again. There was no doubt about it: she was condemned to not marrying, to being an aunt, to a lifetime of spinsterhood. The thought terrified her. She could hardly remember what her fiancé looked like – his staring eyes, his big, bony nose; but never mind that: what came to her mind every morning when, once again, there was no letter, was that other, that terrifying thought, the thought of never marrying. It was a punishment… Quinota was about to get married, Genelício was sorting out the paperwork; but she, who’d expected so much, who’d been the first to get engaged, she’d been cursed, publicly humiliated. It even looked as if the two of them took pleasure at Cavalcanti’s inexplicable disappearance. How they’d laughed during the carnival! How happy they’d been to contrast their jollity with her premature widowhood! The energy they’d put into throwing confetti and squirting water pistols! The emphasis on their happiness, their glorious, enviable march towards marriage, in contrast to her abandonment!
It wasn’t so much their cheerfulness (indecent and hostile though it seemed); it was the open mockery of her sister’s constant “Come and join in, Ismênia! He’s far away! Make the most of it!” That’s what filled her with fury, the fury of the weak, a fury that corrodes the gut for lack of a way to break out.
Attempting to escape this black cloud, she gazed at the puerile fripperies in the street, the multi-coloured paper decorations and the iridescent streamers hanging from the balconies; but the real balm for her torpid soul were the marching bands and the noise of all the kettledrums, bass drums, tambourines and cymbals. Submerged under those waves of noise, she started calming down, as if the thought that had persecuted her for so long had been banished from her head.
The extravagant fancy-dress Indians, all those symbols of a savage (truth to tell) mythology, alligators, snakes, turtles – alive, more than alive! –, were transmuted, despite the poverty of her imagination, into happy, comforting images of crystalline rivers, immense forests, places of purity and rest.
The songs – shouted, bawled out, in relentless cacophony – also helped assuage the hurt that lay stifled, repressed and contained within her, the hurt that needed to explode in shouts and screams, if only she’d had the energy to trigger that explosion.
Her fiancé had left a month before the carnival and, after that great Carioca party, her pain was even more intense. Without the habit either of reading or of conversing, and without any domestic activity whatsoever, she passed her days – whether sitting or lying – in the grip of a single word: spinster. How sweet it was to cry!
When it was time for the post to be delivered, there was always a ray of hope. Perhaps this time? But the letter never came, and that word always returned: spinster.
After telling them about poor Ismênia’s misfortune, Dona Adelaide added, “He deserves to be punished, don’t you think?”
Coleoni tried to brighten the tone:
“Der eeza nuttin’ to despair about-a. Lot of people are lazy about-a writin’…”
“But three months, Senhor Vicente!” said Dona Adelaide. “Lazy about writing?!..”
“He won’t come back,” said Ricardo, authoritatively.
“And is she still expecting him, Dona Adelaide?” asked Olga.
“I don’t know, my child. No-one understands the girl. If she says half a dozen words, that’s too much. She seems completely listless, anaemic. Anyone can see she’s suffering, but she won’t say a word.”
“Is it pride that stops her?” asked Olga.
“No, no… If it was pride, she wouldn’t mention her fiancé at all. It’s more like lack of spirit, apathy… It’s as if she’s afraid that speaking will make things even worse.”
“Anda what her parent’ say?” asked Coleoni.
“I don’t really know. but as far as I could see, the general’s not too put out and Dona Maricota thinks he should rustle up a new fiancé.”
“That’s the best bet,” said Ricardo.
“I think she must be out of practice, though!” said Dona Adelaide, smiling. “Her first fiancé’s been gone so long…”
The conversation had already turned to other subjects by the time Ismênia herself came to make her daily visit to Quaresma’s sister.
She greeted everyone, and everyone could feel her anguish. Her suffering had made her face more animated.
Her eyelids had a purple tinge, and her little, grey eyes were brighter and wider. She asked after Quaresma’s health, after which there was silence for a while. Finally Dona Adelaide asked, “Have you received a letter, Ismênia?”
“Not yet,” she replied, almost under her breath.
Ricardo shifted on his chair, brushing against a chest of drawers with his arm as he did so, which caused a bisque-porcelain figurine to topple over. It smashed, almost silently, into countless pieces on the floor.