After a quarrel, an ageing lawyer leaves his wife and travels from Brasília to the dry, lawless backlands of Brazil’s northeastern plateau, where he grew up. He has vague plans to start a new life, to buy a ranch and farm cotton, but unresolved childhood obsessions, fantasies, traumas resurface, threatening to overwhelm his very sense of identity. Consumed with thoughts of revenge against the man who murdered his father when he was only two, he discovers that he may in fact have been the lovechild of his rich godfather―the man who ordered the hit―and may therefore be the half-brother of the girl for whom he harbored an adolescent sexual fixation. In this masterful novel rich in local color, João Almino creates a complex, damaged narrator inexorably dragged down into the vortex of his own treacherous memories.
The Last Twist of the Knife is translated from the Portuguese by Elizabeth Lowe and available now from Dalkey Archive Press.
It might have been that year or some other year that the litany of sounds was the same, bats flying at dawn, trees stripped of their leaves, green only in the juazeiro tree, in the xique-xique and mandacarú cactus, animal carcasses along the dusty roads that exhaled their hot breath, the sun burning and drying up the world, and drying me up inside. In short, the same desolation, now traveled by some tanker truck and waiting for the Francisco River transposition.
Or maybe it had been winter, because I remember water in the reservoir, the shiny light green of the thorny squat trees, the green field behind the reservoir, and I woke up early to go to the barn to milk the cows. I’m not sure, and I apologize to anyone reading this. Or, forget that, I won’t apologize, because I shouldn’t have to ask to be forgiven for my contradictions if they are the very contradictions of the backlands, dry or wet, contradictions that still exist today. When it’s dry, the landscape is gray, marked with boulders and skulls; I’m not exaggerating. When it’s wet, too wet, it frightens people and causes disasters.
It’s a holiday and I stayed at home. I thought that Patrícia would want to upset me. She has ignored me, at least until now. I’m free to continue these notes about my times in Black Creek, Várzea Pacífica, back when Clarice was so important to me. One day, who knows, I’ll show these pages to her.
It may be that I don’t even remember correctly. It may be that the reality of that past exists only in my imagination. I must be mixing up several droughts and several floods. So, yes, I must apologize for this confusion to anyone who happens to read these notes, written quickly and without regard for style or vocabulary.
I look at my past not with pride, but with resignation. Much of the turbulence that tormented me has subsided. What aroused passion in me is now filed in my memory like photographs in an album with pages yellowed by time. Some of the photos are covered in mold. Others are so stuck together that when you try to peel them apart, they tear, leaving white gashes.
Clarice is the exception. My memory of her is as clear as a photograph kept with care in the bottom of one of my drawers. In it she looks at me with an expression that I feel is one of love, and which even today sends quivers through my body.
I recover pieces of myself to create this contradictory and true story that torments me. That’s why I have to share it. It is as contradictory and true as the backlands; my mother punished me and protected me, and my godfather, Clarice’s father, was severe and affectionate. I accepted their mood changes the same way I accepted the mood changes of nature. I thought my joys and sorrows were normal.
In winter, rain covered the green land, our boots trampled mud over the floor, the conversation and laughter lingered on the porch of the big house of my godparents, the songs of the cowboys rose up from the pastures, the mosquitos bit me in our red brick house. I’d roll myself up in the hammock, cover myself with the sheet, leaving just my nose exposed, and listen to the raindrops on the roof.
At the height of the drought, the merciless sun punished Black Creek Ranch and blinded me. The dust whipped the gray fields, with its bare trees, dazed people stewing with irritation in the heat, the wells were dry, the reservoir and the barn were empty, the cattle had migrated to Piauí.
Here again I might be mixing up time periods. Forgive me. I may be conflating the drought of one year with the prolonged summer of another. But I’m not inventing anything; at most it’s my memory that betrays me here and there. It’s my age; at seventy your memory falters. What is true is that the landscapes of the drought always display the same calcified trees, the same ashen ruins and the same irritation. I think that above all it is the landscapes of the drought that brand backlands people like me.
I visit here on holidays, I don’t even know why. Today I imagine there are speeches and protests. I prefer to concentrate on my notes. I’ve dug deep for my oldest memories.
There must be others, but the ones that came to me first were from that day when I was six, propped up against a corner of the porch balustrade of the big house of my godfather, Clarice’s father, I was listening to the Hitachi battery powered radio, a novelty freshly arrived in Black Creek, which livened up the verandah with forró music interrupted by squeals due to the bad transmission. The radio battery was charged by a wind turbine, now disconnected. In another corner of the balustrade sat Clarice’s grandmother, Dona Leopolda, fat, round-faced and jowly, wearing a floral dress to mid-calf. She was making cigars, cutting the strings of tobacco with a sharp knife as she puffed on a pipe, blowing smoke rings. An empty white hammock swung on the porch, rocked by a strong northeast wind. From the porch you could see a room that was separate from the house, and through the doors, saddles and halters, lengths of stretched leather, barrels on the floor, and vests hanging on hammock hooks. Perhaps it is my memory of one day. Or perhaps, more likely, of many days that repeated themselves exactly, without adding or taking away anything.
Arnaldo, who also lives close to the little ranch I want to buy and with whom I’ve already been in touch, called me to go to the reservoir and fetch water. He lived with his father, Mr. Rodolfo, and his mother, Miss Vitória, and a throng of brothers and sisters, on the neighboring farm, owned by my godfather’s brother, whom I called “Uncle.” We went with Quinquim, whose belly was bloated with parasites, but who was thin everywhere else; he was the color of spoiled milk and mentally retarded; he lolled his tongue and had just two friends: me and the donkey Gray. Gray knew the way to the reservoir, he went first. Every day he carried the water. Sometimes he came back on his own, he didn’t need people, and he would wait for us to unload the jugs.
I considered Arnaldo to be my superior, and with reason. He knew the names of all the livestock—cows and calves—he knew how to help Quinquim with the water jugs and he filled the four clay barrels that rested on a wood platform in the shed next to the big house—Arnaldo tells me they’ve now been replaced by the cistern. Next to them we placed strings of garlic, onions, clay cooking pots, and bags of salt. Early in the morning we would bring in the cans of milk, which in a corner of the kitchen were to be turned into fresh curd cheese or coalhada.
There are things, as I’ve already said, that I don’t quite remember; I’m sorry. I don’t know if it was that day or some other day when the mute who lived on the ranch of Clarice’s uncle, whom I called “Uncle,” bathed naked in the reservoir. Since she was deaf, she didn’t hear the noise of our footsteps, mine and Arnaldo’s. If she saw us, she pretended she didn’t, and we pretended not to believe that she was pretending. It wasn’t the first time. Even though we made fun of her when she made faces and incomprehensible noises with her tongue, she was the main attraction of the walk. We told Miguel, Clarice’s brother, exaggerating the beauty of her thighs, and he was mad with envy. But we couldn’t truthfully say that her face was pretty, even though her long, blond, straight hair fell over her shoulders beautifully, because, this we agreed, the ugliness of her face frightened us.
When I think of the upcoming trip to Black Creek, the past takes on a gray cast, vague and out of focus. Here and there are lights that illuminate it, tears in the dark and without continuity: the wrinkled face of my grandmother, my mother’s chintz dresses, the white jacket and shiny boots of my godfather, Clarice’s father, the bells swaying on the necks of the milk cows when they go out to pasture early in the morning and on their return to the barn in the afternoon, the top that I played with on the cement sidewalk of the big house, the parrots flying when the hot northwest wind arrived, stirring the dry branches, my little white lamb that I rode before taking it to the pen in the late afternoon, the vest, chaps, breastplate and leather hat of Mr. Rodolfo, father of my friend Arnaldo and husband of the lovely Vitória.
Vitória… should I also talk about her? I remember that in the window of her poor house, she would give me a mysterious smile with her perfectly straight teeth, wearing a light dress with a neckline that showed the crease between her breasts. No, no I won’t talk about her. It’s just a passing image, a smile in a window, a boy’s desire.
Looking at the ashes of the past, I see callused hands on the handle of the spade and others, delicate, Clarice’s, caressing my chickenpox blisters, which she wanted to pop. I see the cotton fields, white, very white, the hills rising and falling into the distance and Arnaldo calling me to hunt doves. I’d keep him company while he did his chores, always riding the donkey. And then I hear his complicit laughter on the way, harsh voices giving me orders, others warming me.
I close my eyes. In the distance appears the landscape of the reservoir, the brightness punctuated by ducks and herons. Are they still there? Sometimes I would go down with Arnaldo, leading the donkey to the water’s edge to graze on grass, melons or squash. The melons were spread like weeds, a green carpet in the middle of the corn fields. We’d fill the jugs and Gray would strain to climb the rocky hill so that we could deposit the cargo in the barrels in the storehouse next to the big house.
My father doesn’t appear in these shafts of light that I see through the drawn curtains of the past. I lie. He appears, a lot, when I see, astonished, what I didn’t see then: the knife tearing open his belly, the blood flowing like a river along the ground, the corpse propped against a door in an alley of Várzea Pacífica, the little town near the ranch at Black Creek where we lived…
And then perhaps what I saw at the age of just two, I’m not sure, the images are out of focus: a deep grave, a mound of dirt with flowers and a cross… He’s in a terrible story that torments me always. Or else he’s in a photograph with mother, a photograph touched up with color, in which mother’s black face is pink and her lips are covered with a red lipstick I never saw her wear in real life. A framed photograph hanging on the wall of our poor house of red brick.
Father’s assassin roils something inside me, something that will explode, I’m certain. Revenge? When I get to Black Creek and above all when I visit Várzea Pacífica, I will still face this fact of the past that doesn’t stop tormenting me. I will have to face the assassin.
Translated by Elizabeth Lowe