LALT is proud to publish an exclusive preview of Rahul Bery’s English-language translation of José J. Veiga’s Shadows of Bearded Kings as the first installment of an ongoing series dedicated to Brazilian literature. This piece is available on LALT in English and Portuguese; clicking the “Español” link above will take you to the Portuguese-language version.
José J. Veiga’s Sombras de reis barbudos, first published in Brazil in 1972 is a text that is at once familiar and strange, of its time in a way and yet perennially relevant. It has elements of bildungsroman, fantasy, fable, allegory, and could easily be placed within the ‘magic realism’ category. Indeed, Veiga’s early novels were published in the same decades as One Hundred Years of Solitude and Hopscotch, and two of his books were published in English, in the post-boom period. Written during in the midst of Brazil’s two-decade-long dictatorship, it has elements of political allegory, but has a timelessness that means it has resonance in many other contexts, both now and back then. I was not at all surprised to discover that Veiga was very popular in 1970s Czechoslovakia, nor that the Turkish-language rights to Sombras have just been bought. There is so much in it that mirrors our current political and social landscapes: the takeover of public spaces by corporations which can become de facto governments; the horror but also the life-sapping boredom of living under a repressive regime; the way atrocities are carried out not by monsters but by dull bureaucrats, in this instance the Company’s nondescript inspectors. At the same time it offers a very relatable and touching account of adolescence, seen first-hand through the novel’s young narrator, Lucas, and is cut through with a light yet at times devastating irony. Translating the first few chapters of the novel didn’t bring up any huge problems for me, other than the odd aphorism or slang term. Though the novel is recognisably set in the Brazilian interior, somewhere like Veiga’s home state of Goiás, it eschews the more specific regionalism of other 20th century Brazilian novelists like Graciliano Ramos or João Guimarães Rosa, creating a more surreal, fable-like environment, in which we are not at all surprised to see flying men, domesticated vultures or enormous walls separating every street from the next one. I’m honoured to be sharing the first English-translation of any part of this masterpiece, and can only hope it is published in full before long; we need it now more than ever.
Chapter 1: The Arrival
Ok, Mum. I’ll do what you say. I’ll write down the story of all the things that went on here after Uncle Baltazar arrived.
I know the only reason you keep asking is to make me stay indoors, because you think it’s dangerous for me to keep on roaming around outside, even though the inspectors are no longer inspecting as much and as keenly as they used to. Maybe it really will be a good way to pass the time, and anyway I’m tired of wandering the same old places, of the mournful sight of empty houses, doors and windows crashing about in the wind, wild shrubs growing on patios that were once so well maintained, lizards crawling fearlessly over furniture, and opossums making nests in the empty fireplaces, getting their own back for the days when nowhere, not even the backyards, was safe for them.
With the events still vivid in my memory, I thought writing down our story would be easy. But I just sat there, pen and notebook in hand, not knowing how to start. Mum says she won’t read my writing because she isn’t much of a reader and also because she already knows the whole story better than I do. This is obviously another trick, meant to put me at ease. She’s so sly, Mum is, she thinks of everything. I must take care not to leave my notebook lying around, especially if I decide to talk about what happened that time at Uncle Baltazar’s house.
Would I be writing anything at all if Uncle Baltazar hadn’t turned up here, his mind set on establishing the company? I’m not saying I think it was his fault; it was a good idea, and everyone was so excited about it. Anyway, the story I’m going to tell starts with his arrival. Who would have imagined in that time of joy and celebration that such a beautiful dream would end up degenerating into the disastrous Taitara Improvements Company…..? Poor Uncle Baltazar, how he’d suffer if he was still alive today. I think that’s one of the reasons Mum didn’t cry so much when the news finally came.
I was eleven when Uncle Baltazar first showed up. He’d married again, but came alone. Everyone had heard of him because he was meant to be a very rich man. Remembering that time, my father told me that after just a few days here Uncle Baltazar had thought about quitting the Company and going back home. So I’ll ask the question again: if he had gone back, might he still be with us? And if he hadn’t founded the company, would we have endured all that we did? But asking these questions now is as pointless as asking if your neighbour’s calf would still be alive if it hadn’t died. I’m here to talk about what happened, not what didn’t.
Uncle Baltazar. A name, a reputation, dozens of photographs — that was how I knew him. It seems he found it absolutely necessary to have someone take his portrait every month, maybe even every week. He would often send Mum photographs of himself, taken either in a studio by a portrait photographer or out in the open by a friend.
* * *
There’s one I remember particularly well, which shows him at the wheel of a shiny sports car local experts said was Italian, and very expensive: Uncle Baltazar has his left arm resting on the car door, his hair parted in the middle, his open shirt collar folded over his check jacket like a movie star, cigarette and holder in his mouth, and on his face the smile of a very wealthy man. That photograph, with the inscription to Mum on it, was a great hit among our friends, many of whom as well as looking at it themselves wanted to show it to other people. Diligent but vain too, Mum did lend it out; but if someone was late to return it, it would be my job to go and get it back, for a document of such importance could not spend too much time in profane hands.
If I’m going to be completely honest, I can’t fail to mention the disappointment I felt when I first saw Uncle Baltazar outside our front door, getting out of his car. At first I thought it was someone else, a friend or perhaps an employee of his. His hair was much thinner and it wasn’t parted down the middle, I think because it was no longer fashionable to have it like that. And his face wasn’t as boyish as the one in the photographs. But what disappointed me most, frightened me even, was the missing arm. Where was the left arm that had been resting on the car door in that famous photograph? As I saw him lower himself out of the car, aided by the driver, with his empty jacket sleeve tucked into his pocket, the magical image I’d had of my Uncle, the champion sportsman, immediately went up in smoke. I’d seen people with missing legs, missing arms, missing hands, and once I even saw a man with no nose kneeling by my side in church during Holy Week: but none of those people were my uncle. I felt so disappointed that I went and hid in the cellar, and didn’t come out even for dinner. Thinking back to that day, it’s difficult to understand why I behaved like that; it’s as if I was accusing Uncle Baltazar of having cut off his own arm off in order to humiliate me in front of my friends.
But no one worried much about my absence. I only heard Mum calling me once, and I became more and more curious to know why they were so oblivious as to my whereabouts. If no one cared about the fact that I was missing, then something very important must have been going on up there while I hid in the dark making bats out of scraps of paper. I made up my mind to go up before it became too difficult.
First I went to the kitchen to eat something, and considered how I was going to make my entrance into the living room. I was rummaging around the cooking pots when Mum came in to get more coffee, taking me by surprise.
—Really, Lu— she said, sounding like she wasn’t all that concerned.—Your uncle arrives and you just disappear. Could the rabble out on the streets really not have waited?
Just as well she thought that’s what I’d been doing. I already knew it had been foolish to run away from Uncle Baltazar just because he was missing an arm. You don’t stop being human just because you lose an arm or a leg, do you? And what about that lame detective I saw in that film, beating up a whole bunch of consummate criminals? What a shame I hadn’t remembered that film earlier.
Mum was looking at me, and I could tell she knew the truth. But instead of scolding me, she smoothed my hair and said:
—Just eat something and come and talk to him. He has a surprise for you, and he’s keen to know if you like it. I’ll say you had a meeting at school.
I ate quickly, not even touching the pudding. I was still wiping my mouth as I entered the room.
—At last, the scholar has arrived— Uncle Baltazar said, resting his cheroot on the ashtray. —Come here so I can get a good look at you. He’s got his grandfather’s face, hasn’t he, don’t you think Vi? I’ve never seen such a strong resemblance. How’s school going? Good grades? Study hard, but don’t forget to play too. Children who only study and never play end up weedy, with those mean-looking faces geniuses always have, and we don’t want that in our family. Am I right, Horácio?
The question was directed at my father, who was smoking quietly at one corner of the table. Before he had a chance to respond, Uncle Baltazar continued, taking a small, thin package from his pocket.
—I brought this for you. See if you like it.
Mum gestured at me to open the package, while my father continued to smoke, making an clear effort to display his indifference. (I was still unaware of certain issues between my father and Uncle Baltazar.) I tore off the paper to find a small black box with a latch on top. When I opened the box, I couldn’t believe what I saw. Inside it was a gold watch with a gold strap; a real watch, perched upon a velvet cradle.
We tried out the watch on my wrist, and Uncle Baltazar taught me how to adjust the size of the strap, which was loose even on the smallest fitting. Mum told me to wait two or three months, but I wouldn’t hear of it; I said it was fine the way it was and went off, fearful that the watch would be taken away from me. Even my father, who had seemed so distant, laughed and said he doubted I’d have the patience to wait two or three months.
Looking at the watch on my wrist, feeling the weight of it as I lowered my arm, I felt that something wasn’t right: such a valuable object couldn’t really be mine, and this suspicious feeling lasted a good while. But from the moment Uncle Baltazar placed the watch on my wrist I completely forgot he was a cripple. He rested the watch on the table and went about shortening the strap with a single hand, demonstrating just how easy he found this task.
Mum was disappointed to find out that Uncle Baltazar had rented some rooms in the Grande Hotel Síria e Líbano and that he wasn’t going to be staying in our house. But he came almost every day for lunch or dinner, and on Sundays he would take me out for a ride in his motorcar, just me by myself because Mum went once and was sick, and my father was never able to go; when he wasn’t tired he had a headache or had to pay a visit to someone, and I don’t think he ever got into that car.
One day Uncle Baltazar went to fetch Aunt Dulce, and when he came back for the second time there was an even greater celebration, because this time his stay lasted many years.
Translated by Rahul Bery