Today’s Translation Tuesday feature is from Brazil. Adam Morris’s skillful translation brings out the haunting quality of the piece, a stunning meditation on life and the afterlife.
“In the desert of Itabira
the shadow of my father
took me by the hand.”
—Carlos Drummond de Andrade
The first time I saw you since you died, you were in the living room, in front of my bookcase. The same immaculate beige overcoat as always, the firm press of your shoes crushing the surface of the carpet. You were reordering my books, removing volumes, violating pages, polluting my silence, my secrets. You were pulling from the shelves authors who had taken shelter there long ago, characters and dreams long since forgotten. Without realizing the distance between the two worlds that separated us, without considering that perhaps the cognac and cigarettes or the nightly fumes in which I indulged might be responsible for your return, I went down the stairs into the living room of the big house on Rua da Várzea where you and I and she (do you remember her?) had lived for so long. I ran down the stairs possessed, threw myself in front of you and addressed you with a courage that had never pulsed in me during the entire time you remained among the living. Yes, I addressed you, locked eyes, my rough breath scraping your likeness. And I told you, with the air of a proud drunk: “How dare you touch my books?” And then you looked at me from top to bottom, you turned your back and proceeded with your slow and indifferent work of violation. I considered raining blows upon your back, but before I could, I recalled that day, the day you died. I remembered the pine box padded with satin in which you slept, reposing on the very carpet your feet now tread once more: there it was, with its six bronze rings hanging down in space, solitary, subjugated. I remembered the wreaths, the flowers, the candles. I remembered the relieved goodbye I gave you. Goodbye. No, what pleased me wasn’t the way you arrived by surprise on the eve of the holy days at the end of the year, the lamb across your back, sacrificial knife in hand. It gave me no pleasure to have the entire family reunited in a circle around your presence, your court, in which we, the children, were squeezed all the way back to the patio, where you, pushing all the weight of your knees against the animal’s throat, cut centimeter by centimeter through the white wool, guiding the gush of blood into a vessel from which we’d all partake, mouth to mouth, shoulder to shoulder, hand to hand. All of us, your progeny, would drink together all night long, blessed be Him. No, this isn’t what I found most pleasing about you. I liked the way our gazes would meet when you, distracted and less guarded as you shaved, would look at me in the mirror in the morning, the same way you’re looking at me now, the first time I’ve seen you since your death. You’re looking at me in the living room mirror between taking up each volume, leafing through it, and watching me, framed by the ivory that surrounds the glass, your green eyes roving the room, as though wondering, asking: “Where is everyone?” They’re not here, I reply. They no longer exist, I proclaim. All that’s left of them are portraits on the wall. Yes, it pleases me the way your lost countenance traverses those paintings: sister’s dress reproduced in oil, uncle’s and grandfather’s ties exquisitely done, the basket of flowers that she (do you remember her?) used to carry in the afternoon, so well rendered in glistening green, pink, crimson. And I look at you in the mirror, and say to myself that those eyes of yours no longer exist, your beige overcoat no longer exists, that white hair of yours, oiled at the tips, no longer exists, doesn’t exist, and that all I have to do is turn my back on you and go to bed, and in the morning, find my books on the shelf, perfectly ordered. Just as I left them. Goodbye. I awaken. A beam of light is breaking through the curtain, crossing the quilt and resting on the headboard. I get up, gather the light in my hands and, one foot in front of the other, I go downstairs, convincing myself that your presence was nothing more than a bad dream, nourished by the cold weight that corrodes me from inside. At the bottom of the staircase, standing opposite the mirror, I make certain that you, your gaze, no longer inhabit the frame. And then I go to the shelf, I head straight for them, my books, and I pick up your scent, still fresh, I sense your still-living breath. Out of place, out of order, modified, haughty, the books on my shelf testify that I cannot yet finish this tale, can’t say, “Case closed, period, you no longer exist.” No, the books carry with them a verdict: you and I are closed up in it, this story, and the course of these lines must continue. So let’s continue. What I wanted, what I most wanted from you was for those afternoons when I followed you down the hall to last for all eternity. You’d go upstairs, leaving quickly, looking back and smiling. You’d nimbly leap the stairs with legs infinitely longer than mine. You’d turn to the right. And you’d disappear. And when I finally got there, to the top of the stairs, an interminable tunnel extended before me, illuminated by circumspect chandeliers. Behind which of the many corridor doors were you? The chandeliers swayed like pendulums. Where could you be? That was how the fascination of our juvenile game got its start. One by one, I’d open the doors, and worlds unveiled. A woman filling a jug. A man in bed with two lovers, one young, the other old. A bum and his dog. A chariot. Death. A ferris wheel. Myself, reflected in the mirror. And this familiar door, locked for years, that I now try in vain to open. This door, always this one, with a lock that repels all attacks. So I do what I always did. I knock. I knock. I knock. And the passage opens, revealing the splendor of your office, with its mountainous mahogany shelves filled from top to bottom with leather bound volumes. Upon seeing you seated sovereignly in an armchair, smoking a cigarette and with a book in hand, I think that even death was incapable of depriving you of your beauty. Yes, you remain handsome. I take two steps and enter, in silence. I sit at your feet as I always did. Sensing me there, you glance at me from over the top of the page. Our eyes lock, full of unstated meaning. And as I contemplate the cut of your beige overcoat, the mirrored shine of your polished shoes, the grace and balance of the cane you keep at your right side, next to you, I think that perhaps I am the dead man and you the living one, that I no longer exist and you do, and that if that’s the case, the house on Rua da Várzea is still your legitimate property, and that as such I should withdraw, and that, dead man that I am, I ought to cover myself with earth, go to sleep, finally be far from you. I leave your office. I slam the door. Goodbye. I wake up in the courtyard, mud covering my body. It’s late afternoon; a fine and melancholy rain is falling. I get up. One foot in front of the other, I head up the stairs, searching my pocket for the key I carry with me since you departed. Step by step, stair by stair, I tear from by body clothes caked in mud, I free myself of my jacket, tie, my shirt, pants, socks, underwear, and I rise once more to the top of the stairs. I turn to the right. Freeing myself of every impurity that remains in me, the clothes leave behind my trajectory through the tunnel in which so often I searched for you. Above, the chandeliers sway. Flanking me, infinite doorways await. But the nude man knows these rooms have long been empty. Key in hand, he opens the door to your office. He pulls the hidden trunk from behind the battered shelves, sits in your armchair and, opening the chest, verifies that your overcoat is there, torn and frayed, that broken in two, your cane is there, that your scuffed and lusterless shoes are there, that forever dead at seven o’clock, your pocket watch is there. There it is. I shut the door, close the office. I take a long bath, wash away the dirt. And before turning out the light to sleep, I cast one last gaze over the nude man in the mirror, and he tells me with a smile to calm down, it’s nothing, nothing exists anymore. Goodnight. Goodbye. I sleep. It’s seven o’clock, a winter morning. I turn over beneath the covers, trying to find any excuse to flee from the bus, that convoy of children which in a short while will come by. Winter morning, streets and sidewalks dressed in ice, and not even the smell of coffee inundating my room is sufficient to rouse me. A door opens, it’s you, and a hand comes to rest in my hair, it’s you, and a mouth in my ear whispers things to make me smile, it’s you, and a voice threatens to pull off my covers, it’s you, and says that Saturday will soon be here, it’s you, and finally opening the curtain, the window, the light bursting in, let there be light, it’s you. I awaken thirty-six years later, in this bed, shielding my vision from momentary blindness, and when I manage to discern the edges of the room, I find you in the window, the comforter in your hands, throwing me a final ironic smile before going out, closing the door, saying goodbye. I make up my mind. I run down the stairs, throw myself into the world, leave the house behind—my legs fly over the cobblestones on Rua da Várzea, and when they arrive at the city of the dead and find their way through its labyrinths, they fall to their knees beneath the last cypress, hitting the ground as though knocking against something hard, invisible. And my eyes scour the sayings sculpted into stone, it was you, and fingers bore into the wet earth, groping, it was you, and nostrils inhale your scent, your heat, six feet under, it was you, you were. That’s what I think and repeat to the shadow of the mimosas on our street, as I see, in the distance, the façade of the house emerge. I open the gate. I step onto the wet grass. I pass by the flowerbeds, the fountain. I notice the basket of flowers on the stoop, its tones of green, pink, and crimson. I enter. In the living room, arranged around the table: uncle, grandfather, sister, and you, all turn your eyes upon mine in unison. Yes, you’re well placed at the head of the table, in that chair with the high back. I take a seat at the other end. I feel the smooth texture of the lace tablecloth, the sharp glint of the silverware, the blank portraits on the walls. I notice there’s an empty place setting to your right, I think about her and her basket of flowers. I remember her, may she rest in peace. Then we eat. Together. The five of us, with utter certainty that everything, everything was beginning to end. Mouth to mouth, shoulder to shoulder, hand to hand, we share the same vessels. Silent, resolute, eyes cast down. We eat. Outside, the rain resumes. The supper finished, I get up, I drink from my wine glass, and still standing, I offer you a toast. I look you in the eye, my rough words scraping your likeness: “Father, you are he who once was. Everything’s over, father, you died, father, you don’t exist, father, you no longer exist.” Timidly, self-conscious, uncle, sister, grandfather get up from the table, disappear into the colors of their paintings. And then you get up from the head of the table slowly, come towards me, and with an emptiness creasing your face, you bring your lips to my ears and say words that I could never decipher, smothered by the falling rain. You turn around, you disappear down the corridor, causally extinguishing each of the chandeliers as you go get ready to sleep. I turn my back to you. I move in the direction of the stairs, to my room. I pass before the mirror, in which I sense my imprisoned reflection, closed inside the ivory frame. And as I contemplate my beige overcoat, the green of my eyes, as I look at the white and the oil in my hair, the perfect fit of the cane supporting me, I realize what I will never, ever be able to say: “Case closed, period, you no longer exist.” No, the mirror brings with it a verdict: you, father, are closed inside me. I look down the corridor. The last chandelier goes dark. And lying in my bed, on that last time that I saw you since your death, I realize, father, I conclude, father, that you will always exist. Goodnight. And goodbye.
Krishna Monteiro was born in Paraná in 1973. He studied economics and completed a master’s degree in political science at the Universidade Estadual de Campinas (Unicamp). After a brief career in journalism, he entered the Brazilian diplomatic corps in 2008. He presently serves in the Brazilian embassy in India. In 2015, he made his authorial debut with the book O que não existe mais (What No Longer Exists, Tordesilhas Books). The book, which will be published in France and Romania, was a finalist for the Jabuti Prize in 2016. His second book and first novel, O mal de Lazarus (Lazarus’s Disease), will be published in 2018 by Tordesilhas Books.
Adam Morris lives and works in San Francisco. He has published translations of Hilda Hilst, João Gilberto Noll, Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis, Nuno Ramos, and others. His translation of Beatriz Bracher’s novel I Didn’t Talk is forthcoming from New Directions.