From Portuguese: THE LIBRARY by Lima Barreto

(My translation of the short story A biblioteca)


he older he got, the clearer was his memory of his childhood home. It was over there near Conde Street, where the noisy old ‘Puffing Pedros’ used to clatter down the Tijuca line, scattering sparks as they went. It was a three-storey mansion surrounded by meadows full of fruit trees; there was no shortage of rooms and alcoves, which were inhabited by family – both immediate and extended –, servants and slaves; just behind the façade and snaking across the whole length of the building was the staircase, which was lit by a large stained-glass skylight. Hardwood had been used throughout; the floors were made of ipê-peroba planks almost as wide as the tree trunks from which they came. Even the shower block and the carriage shed were made of good-quality wood, all covered by fine, heavy tiles. What was memorable about the furniture and fittings? Those chairs of jacarandá-cabiúna wood, including the massive settle with its three arched backrests, which looked more like a bed than something for a living room; those huge, heavy console tables and especially, on top of them, those enormous vases of Chinese porcelain, which you don’t see any more; those immense ancestral portraits all over the walls – where had it all gone?! He didn’t know… Had he sold it off, all that stuff? Some of it; and a lot of it he’d given away.

But some of it had gone to his late brother, who was Brazilian consul in England, where the family had remained; and some to his sister who was up in Pará with her husband… Put simply, it had all disappeared. What really surprised him was the disappearance of the silverware, the spoons, the knives, the tea strainer… And what about the candle snuffer? What fond memories of that useless old thing! Made of silver! He could see it in his mother’s hands when, during those long evenings, in the dining room, waiting for tea – what wonderful tea-times! – she used to trim the wicks of the candelabra without missing a beat of the story she was telling us about Prince Tatu…

Over to one side, in a hieratic pose like a sculpture on a Theban tomb, old Aunt Benedita would be sitting, bolt-upright against the high, narrow backrest of the jacarandá-wood chair, with her forearms on the armrests, and her feet on the footstool, attentively observing the domestic scene with her sharp, old-woman’s eyes. Then servants and slaves on chairs round the wall, and their children squatting on the floor, listening… He’d been a child…

The usual, every-day tea set was so beautiful! Black porcelain, with ornaments in relief and subtle touches of glinting enamel – where had that come from?! From China? from India?

And the tub made of bacurubu wood, in which Inácia, his nanny, used to bath him – where was that now? Ah! All those changes! He wished he’d never sold the family home…

Home is where all the family memories are. Once it’s gone, it’s as if it takes its revenge, dispersing the family relics, which somehow conserved the soul and the essence of departed loved ones… But he wasn’t able to keep that great big place going… Not the way things were, what with legislation, progress…

All that lumber, all those things, which were of no great value when he was a boy, would’ve been worth a lot today… He still had the teapot, a scummer, a gueridon with inlaid work… He was convinced that if he’d kept the house, he’d still have it all today; he’d be able to look at his father’s severe, aquiline profile in the portrait by Agostinho da Mota, a teacher at the academy; and also the figurine in Sèvres porcelain portraying his mother when she was a girl – the local artists never managed to catch her likeness on canvass. But he hadn’t been able to keep the house… The size of families in Rio de Janeiro was gradually diminishing, and the house was too big for his own family. And then the share-out of what was left, declining income, all of that had taken the house from him. It wasn’t his fault; it was inexorable social progress…

After his forty-fifth birthday he often remembered the old house and, whatever his mood, the memories were more and more vivid. His father, Counsellor Fernandes Carregal, a lieutenant colonel in the engineer corps and a teacher at the Central School, was likewise the son of a sergeant-major in the Engineer Corps and a teacher at the Royal Military Academy, which Count Linhares, one of Dom João the Sixth’s ministers, had founded in Rio de Janeiro in 1810 ‘in order to promote the study of pure science in Brazil’ as it says in the Academy’s charter. As is well-known, that Academy was the forerunner of the Polytechnic and the now-extinct Praia Vermelha Military School. Carregal’s son, however, hadn’t been to any of those institutions; and, although he was a pharmacist, he’d never felt attracted by his father’s specialism – chemistry. His father had dedicated himself to it in a very Brazilian way: his passion for it was almost entirely… bibliographical. His specialist library was both comprehensive and valuable. He owned genuine incunabula – if that’s the word – of modern chemistry. Whether originals or translations, the library contained real gems. There were almost all of De Lavoisier’s memoirs, in addition to his extraordinarily erudite Traité élémentaire de chimie, présenté dans un ordre et d’après les découvertes modernes.

In the words of his son, the old professor could never hold that venerable book in his hands without succumbing to emotion.

‘You see the evil of men, my son! Lavoisier published this marvellous work at the beginning of the Revolution, which he sincerely welcomed… But the Revolution sent him to the guillotine. You know why?’

‘No, Papa.’

‘Because, before the revolution, he’d been a tax collector, or something like that. And the reason for that, my boy, was just to finance his experiments. So, that tells you what the world is like and that, in order to serve humanity, you have to be superhuman.’

Apart from the Lavoisier – the crown jewel of his collection – Counsellor Carregal had: Dalton’s New System of Chemical Philosophy; Priestley’s Expériences sur les différentes espèces d’air; the works of Guyton de Morveau; Berzelius’s Traité in the translation by Hoefer and Esslinger; the Statique chimique by the great Berthollet; Liebig’s Organic Chemistry, in the translation by Gerhardt; all of them old and venerable books. The most modern work was Wurtz’s Lessons on Chemical Philosophy of 1864, but it was clear it had never been opened. There were even some enormous books on alchemy, dating back to the beginnings of typography, which would have been read by monks or necromancers standing at tall desks; among these was a copy of Le livre des figures hiéroglyphiques, attributed to the French alchemist Nicolas Flamel.

Plus many more books on different – but equally valuable and weighty – subjects: a copy of Euclid’s Elements, in Latin, printed in Uppsala in Sweden at the end of the sixteenth century; Newton’s Principia – not a first edition, but nevertheless a precious edition from Cambridge; and copies of Mécanique analytique by Lagrange and Géométrie descriptive by Monge.

And this rich library of works on the physical and mathematical sciences was the library which, for almost fifty years, Counsellor Carregal’s son had been moving with him arduously from house to house ever since he lost his father and sold the mansion in which those books had lived, quietly and comfortably, for years and years.

Perhaps you’re thinking it was all dry stuff, but that’s not the case. It also contained other expressions of the human spirit, for example: the Latin classics; Bougainville’s Le voyage autour du monde; Rousseau’s La nouvelle Héloïse with dry-point engravings; a beautiful edition of Os Lusíadas in Elzevir typeface; and a copy of O Brasil e a Oceania by Gonçalves Dias, dedicated, in the author’s own hand, to Counsellor Carregal.

Fausto Carregal – that was the son’s name – had never been separated from this library he’d inherited. For better or worse he’d dissipated everything else he’d inherited; but he’d kept the Counsellor’s books intact and had preserved them religiously, even though he didn’t understand them. He’d studied a bit, enough to become a pharmacist, but he’d always been distant from the heart of books, namely from thinking about and becoming deeply absorbed in them.

As soon as he could, he got himself a civil service job that had nothing to do with his degree; he immersed himself in his bureaucratic functions, forgot the little he had learned and got as far as section head; but he never abandoned either his father’s books or the old mahogany bookcases inlaid with mother-of-pearl.

What he hoped was that one of his children would come to understand those books, and he devoted all his paternal efforts to that end. He managed to get his son Álvaro, the eldest, into the Pedro the Second College but, by the second year, Álvaro had turned his attention to the young ladies, had got engaged and – scarcely nineteen years old – had got himself a poorly paid job in the postal service; he married soon afterwards. Their life now was that of a poor married couple with lots of children; sadder still because, although their home was joyless, neither was it exactly disharmonious. Husband and wife each did their bit to carry the load…

The second son hadn’t wanted to continue his education. He’d got an office job at some firm and joined a rowing club; now he was on a good wage and going off to sports events every Sunday in plus fours and a spotless panama hat with an idiotic little pennant stuck in the hat band.

Fausto’s daughter was living in Niterói, where her husband was an employee at the town hall.

Only Jaime, his youngest child, was still living at home; so good, meek and affectionate to his father, that he’d always seemed destined to be the intelligent one, the intellectual of the family, the worthy heir of his grandfather and great-grandfather. But that’s not how it turned out; nowadays Fausto remembered sadly how, when Jaime was little, he used to say to his wife, before he set out for the office:

‘Take good care of Jaime, Irene! He’s the one who’s going to read my father’s books.’

As a child, Jaime had been so weak and sickly, despite his bright, lively eyes, that his father had feared he was about to lose his last hope of an heir who’d really appreciate the Counsellor’s library.

When Jaime was born, the oldest was nearly twelve years old; Fausto had been overjoyed by that unexpected birth, but it had filled his wife with worry.

When Jaime was four, Fausto could already see which way the wind was blowing with his two elder sons and he’d lost hope that either of them would ever be able to understand the books of their grandfather and great-grandfather, those books like embalmed corpses in the shelf graves of those mahogany bookcases, awaiting an intelligence among the descendants of their first owners capable of returning them to the full and complete life of thought and fecund mental activity.

One day, when he was thinking about his father and his youngest child – his last hope for the library – it occurred to Fausto that, despite his father’s love for chemistry, he’d never actually seen him with test tubes, graduated cylinders or retorts. All he’d been interested in was books. As had been the way with erudite Brazilians, his father had a horror of laboratories and conducting experiments; and he himself…

His son Jaime, however, would be different. He wanted to see him soldering, using a Bunsen burner, a pipette, a laboratory flask…

‘He’s going to outdo his grandfather, Irene! He’s going to make discoveries. Just you wait and see!’

But his wife, the daughter of a doctor who’d become famous while still young, had no enthusiasm for that sort of thing. Life, for her, was a question of living as simply as possible: no big efforts – or even little efforts – to stand out from the common run of things; no onwards and upwards; everything down to earth, very down to earth… Live your life, full stop! What was the point of learning or reputation? They were much more likely to bring problems than money. That was why she’d never gone out of her way for her sons to learn anything other than reading, writing and arithmetic; and, even then, only so they could get jobs that weren’t manual, dirty or beneath their status.

As Jaime grew up, he remained meek, restrained, very well-behaved; but with some strange quirks. He had problems with lighted candles placed on top of furniture, because they reminded him of the candles he’d seen round a corpse at a nearby house; thunder sent him off crouching in a corner, quiet and frightened; lightning scared him so much that he trembled, and then he’d burst into weird laughter… But he wasn’t unwell; he actually grew into quite a strong lad. There were nights, however, when he had a sort of fit, followed by uncontrollable weeping, and this came and went for no reason at all. As soon as he was seven years of age, his father couldn’t wait to give him his first primer, because he’d noticed, with great satisfaction, that his son was curious about books and about pictures and illustrations in the papers and magazines. He used to look at engravings for hours, absorbed, staring at them with those brown eyes, those honest, innocent…

He placed the primer in his hand: ‘A – E – I – O – U. Say A.’

The little one would say ‘A’; his father: ‘E’; Jaime: ‘E’; but whenever he got as far as ‘O,’ it seemed as if he were mentally exhausted; he’d clam up suddenly, stop paying attention, stop listening to his father; and if his father insisted or told him off he’d burst into tears:

‘I don’t want to, Papa! I don’t want to!’

He spoke to friends of his who were doctors. They advised him to wait until the child was older; so he waited another year, during which he tried to encourage his son by constantly reminding him:

‘You need to learn to read, Jaime. People who can’t read don’t get anywhere in life.’

In vain: it all turned out just like before. When Jaime turned twelve, Fausto took on a teacher with the gift of patience, a retired civil servant, to see if he could inculcate at least a modicum of reading and writing in his son. The teacher did indeed set out with great patience and perseverance, but caused the child – who’d been incapable of rancour up until then – to lose his meek-and-mildness.

Except when his father was present, Jaime had only to hear his teacher’s name and he’d erupt into insults and sarcastic remarks about the old man’s appearance and mannerisms. At the end of two years the exhausted former bureaucrat gave his notice, having managed to teach Jaime no more than a smattering of reading and arithmetic.

Fausto looked around for a solution, but found nothing. He spoke to doctors, friends, acquaintances. His son’s case was exceptional; it was pathological. If there was a solution, it wasn’t to be found here, only in Europe… The child didn’t know how to learn properly, couldn’t even read, write or do sums properly! Oh my God!

What to do occurred to him without any great upheaval, without any sudden violence; it came slowly, stealthily, gently, on tiptoe, like the fatal conclusion it was.

In the morning, old Carregal had the habit of reading the daily papers in the room where his father’s books and bookcases were. As the years passed and his disappointment increased he did this more and more religiously, as an act of devotion to his father’s memory. Sometimes he wept at the sight of all those thoughts buried alive there; alive, but unable to fertilise other thoughts… Why hadn’t he studied?!

Through this daily devotion he persuaded himself that, although he didn’t understand those profound and ancient books, he did respect and love them just like his father – forgetting that, to love them truly, it would first be necessary to understand them. Books are gods who need to be contemplated analytically before they can be adored, and they don’t accept adoration in any other way…

That morning he’d gone to read the papers in the room where the books were, as usual, but he couldn’t read the papers.

He started looking at the volumes in their mahogany setting. He saw his father, the mansion, the house slaves, the children, his grandfather’s official uniform, the portraits… He remembered his father even more clearly; he saw him reading, surrounded by those portraits, at a great table, taking a pinch of snuff now and then from a little tortoiseshell box, then sneezing and dabbing his nose with a big Alcobaça handkerchief, reading all the time – with a stern expression – those bulky, revered books.

Tears came to the eyes of that old grandfather, but he had to staunch them immediately: his youngest son was just entering the room. At that moment, however, Jaime didn’t have a second thought for those venerable ancestral volumes. A cocky and burly sixteen-year-old, he had neither worries nor doubts. He was completely uncorrupted by ideas and well-nourished by the narrow boundaries of his mind. Without more ado he asked his father: ‘Papa, can I have five crowns to go to the football match this afternoon?’

The old man looked at his son. He looked at his stupid and strong adolescence, at his unattractively shaped head; he had a good look at that last fruit of his flesh and blood; and he was not reminded of his father. He replied:

‘Yes, son. I’ll give it you in a minute.’

And then, as if those words had brought to mind something he’d forgotten, he added after a pause:

‘Tell your mother to send for a can of kerosene from the shop before it shuts. Don’t forget, do you hear?!’

It was Sunday. They had lunch. Jaime went off to the football match; his mother went to visit their daughter and grandchildren in Niterói; and old Fausto Carregal remained alone in the house, because it was the cook’s day off.

For a seventy-year old, Fausto Fernandes Carregal, son of Engineering Corps Lieutenant-Colonel and Central School Professor Counsellor Fernandes Carregal, was still a strong man. Having given a final adjustment to the point of his white goatee beard, he started – all on his own, slowly but surely, in twos, in fours, in sixes, like a priest performing a sacred rite – carrying the books which had belonged to his father and grandfather out into the back yard. He made several piles of them, here and there, carefully doused each pile in kerosene, and set fire to each one in turn.

At first it wasn’t possible to see the flames, because of the thick, black smoke, but as soon as the fire had taken hold they burst out victoriously in vivid, coruscating yellow, the colour which – popular wisdom has it – is the colour of despair.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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