Editor’s Note: The following excerpt is available in English and Portuguese edition. Clicking “ESPAÑOL” will take you to the Portuguese text.
Translator’s Note: 25 Notecards Made of Paper
1) Very little attention is paid to the physical place—the city, the province, even the country—where a translator works or from which they hail.
2) Much in contrast to the treatment of the author, who, in cases of great exaggeration, is sometimes understood to embody vast swathes of territory merely by virtue of writing or residing there.
3) The author lives and works somewhere on earth.
4) The translator lives and works inside a book.
5) The author is made up of the local or regional or national stuff.
6) The translator is made of books.
7) Place and tome.
8) The book at hand is a novel called Man Made of Paper by João Almino, author and Brazilian.
9) In terms of place, Almino deals, in this book and others (notably Enigmas of Spring and Free City), with Brasília, the nation’s capital.
10) Yet here and elsewhere in Almino’s oeuvre, books and fictions abound and intrude.
11) Man Made of Paper, for instance, is narrated by a book.
12) Memorial de Aires (1908) by Machado de Assis, to be specific.
13) And for that matter, Brasília itself is a fiction, written upon the land in 1960 (a tale of which is recounted in the also-fictional Free City).
14) And for that matter are all other cities fictions? Cantons too, and nations even?
15) What can exist if not a fiction first?
16) Tome and place.
17) And whither the translator?
18) Since you ask: Tulsa, Oklahoma.
19) How now?
20) Well, there’s a collection of us translators here, call it a library made of people made of books made of paper.
21) Brought, no doubt, by the Tulsa Artist Fellowship.
22) Nurtured, no doubt, by this journal and that published down the road in Norman, Oklahoma.
23) Does us, all here, constitute a scene?
24) A scene and a setting, meaningful enough.
25) But this is neither the tome nor the place.
A Chapter of Man Made of Paper
“Death is a hypothesis, Aires rebutted, perhaps a fable.”
Machado de Assis, Esau and Jacob
“The eye of man serves as a photograph of the invisible, as the ear serves as an echo to silence.”
Machado de Assis, Counselor Aires’ Memorial
“I certainly still remember things and people from way back, delights, landscapes, habits too, but I’m not dying of longing for anything. Here I am, here I live, and here I shall die.”
Machado de Assis, Counselor Aires’ Memorial
The Not-So-Original Sin and the Aching Knee
Flor placed me on a short bookshelf between a chest of three drawers and a writing desk covered with disordered papers. I don’t want to give weight to these trifles, which I shouldn’t let distract from my concentration on the essential story. If what I’m telling you is, in fact, a story.
If it has a plot, then I should speak of a tall, elegant young man whom Flor met when she decided to take the diplomatic service exam. He was First-Secretary and named Zenir Ussier, nicknamed Zeus.
With an exchange of glances, Flor and Zeus thought they knew everything about each other, a known defect of the hasty. They recited my sentences from memory. Thus, it was only a few short steps from books to bed.
Let’s turn to these steps. Zeus invited her to a party. If I don’t reproduce the dialogue here it’s because there is nothing original in the prolegomenon to sex. Many years later, she tried to transcribe the long conversation for a short story never published. From the original, she preserved an exchange of impressions about me and about the career she was embracing. She edited the text, filled in gaps, and created a linearity that never really happened, for there were moments of hesitation, of silence, and of overlapping words.
On a cloudy Saturday, Zeus brought to Flor’s apartment, on the C block of 307 South, the various copies and editions he had of my memoirs as well as some xeroxed study guides for the exam she was preparing for.
Nothing remained of the aspiring diplomat, for he devoured her with his eyes. He examined her from top to bottom while she examined the study guides.
She was brutally tossed against the bookshelf, which started to wobble. Although I wanted to respond casually, I fell to the floor, shut. Couldn’t see anything. I heard prolonged sighs and screams met with even louder screams. The pleasure would be even greater if I tore down the barrier of decency here. It wasn’t without risk, but what sort of risk was it? Nothing like going off to war, surviving out in the jungle, or even taking on a diplomatic hardship post.
The sex was violent and consensual.
I was shut and thus I remained, on the ground, silent. Not out of modesty. I couldn’t speak. “You swear you were a virgin?”
I cannot testify that this question was asked beside a blood-stained bedsheet, because I couldn’t see, but it was neither an expression of doubt nor of apprehension.
You all may think that it isn’t my place—me, the old counselor—to meddle with the private lives of anyone at all, and much less to make it public. And I wouldn’t do so if this encounter hadn’t yielded consequences that, to this day, while Flor is living in a distant country, are spoken of in the halls of chancellery.
I shouldn’t get ahead of myself. How to get from this to that? From the pain of the loss of virginity to the joy of receiving a top classification on a difficult exam?
The answer is to close one’s eyes and change the subject. Have I already used this trick before? I cannot be limited to themes or to narrative concatenation if in real life things do not ensue in a linear manner; if life consists of fleeting pleasures and long sufferings, of plans as well as surprises. And so much more so in a memoirist narration or whatever else you all want to call what I’m relating to you; a narration in which memory is permeated by digressions brought on by pages closed shut.
I’ll hurry along to a digression. In Rio, as I got older, all my bones ached. Rheumatism, which I especially suffered in one of my knees. Ah, old age… Even so, as early as I was able, I’d take a walk from Botafogo Beach to Russel Beach.
Well, relief finally came. In Brasília my rheumatism ended. Not because of the city itself, nor was it some miracle; it was because I now had paper instead of bones.
Nor did Flor’s knee ache, and, if sometimes it did, it was alleviated by her boyfriend, Cássio, who was good in bed and in the kitchen.
“What would you advise me to do here, sir? You’re a counselor, aren’t you, Counselor Aires?”
Flor lit a cigarette with a gold lighter—a present from Zeus—leaning against the window that looked out onto the inner courtyard where children played.
I started to think that the phone calls and flowers from Zeus, who had just left for a diplomatic post in Europe and seemed to me to be the most enamored of the two, were sufficient for the decision to be made. And without meaning to, I kept bringing them closer together. But in Flor ideas and desire rarely coincided. She’d resist his advances with indignation and end up surrendering to his affection. Then jump straight from pleasure to regret. It wasn’t rational, her doubting, volatile feeling, she knew that. But it also wasn’t something that could be subdued by reason.
“You, sir, are going to accompany me for the rest of my life,” Flor told me. “I trust you.”
I had to accept it. She did what she wanted with me, which wasn’t much. And it was all confined to words.
“Will you advise me, Counselor?”
If I’d been able to talk, I would have said that it is retrograde for women to suffer on account of their husbands and then consider the pain divine. It would have been an insult to insinuate that the career she was embarking on was that of marriage, which is what would happen if her boyfriend Cássio didn’t give up his own career in order to follow hers.
My judgment proved old fashioned. A recent graduate with an engineering degree and out of work, Cássio was inclined to go jobless. He was content with being a husband. He’d do the shopping and take care of the house and meals.
Was it passion that she felt for Zeus? It was something else. An intense connection, with highs and lows. They shared an interest in me. She admired his fondness for cinema and photography.
She hesitated to accept his offer of a photo shoot. Pictures in black and white, taken in the most traditional manner, with a Leica, and developed in the makeshift darkroom he shared with a friend. They had the effect of raising Flor’s self-esteem. Her body in the photographs revealed a beauty she had not expected. Some of the photos bothered her and she wanted to destroy them; her in a hammock with frontal nudity, her with her back to the camera on the bed…
She had known men that were attractive, sensitive, intelligent, but none whom she could imagine as a lifelong companion. Did such a man exist? Tender? Understanding? Handsome? Wasn’t Cássio all those things? Wasn’t he the one who had proposed to her? Would someone better come along? What exceptional qualities should her ideal man possess? She started to think that in terms of her career it might be better to stay single. She had no vocation for marriage.
“Why get married, Counselor?”
She read pride and honor in me. Translated my positions on moderation and prudence into the possibility of marrying Cássio. She could live together with him just fine. The ideal man didn’t exist anyway. The decision was simply between getting married or not.
Perhaps you all would have disagreed. You would have wanted to advise her to put off marriage, to marry someone else entirely, or not to get married at all. The wedding took place at the Our Lady of Fatima Church, its walls covered in Athos Bulcão’s azulejo tiles and known as Tiny Church. The priest was so happy he could’ve been mistaken for the groom. The groom himself was dressed in solemnity and shyness that were taken for respect and admiration for the bride. I imagine, though I can’t swear to it, that, more than him being understanding and loving, what contributed to Flor’s decision was that Cássio was a towering man with an athletic build, shown off on rare occasion the way he was at that moment, in an impeccable grey pinstripe suit.
The bride had had a tendency to put on weight in her adolescence, but when I met her she was only fat with ideas. She didn’t wear a traditional wedding dress. Mint-colored, it ended halfway down her legs and left her beautiful shoulders bare. You all might imagine her as a dreamy type, pale, makeup applied to perfection, one of those romantic characters from the nineteenth century. But no, and not only because she’d lightly applied blush to her cheeks. The imperfection of her features revealed her strength of personality. The sweetness manifested in her mouth—small and nicely traced by her lipstick—contrasted with her aquiline nose and the curiosity, vigor, and sparkle of her large eyes. Her very white teeth were also very straight. And, if I hadn’t known her up close, I would have sworn that she’d at some point danced ballet, so erect was her pose and so light her gait, full of grace.
I’ve already told you all that I am unable to speak, but I forgot to add that I do have a sense of smell. On those first nights after the wedding, the scent of semen. Flor was 23 years old, Cássio was 22, and six months later Daniel was born, not prematurely.