PUBLISHERS OF LITERARY FICTION SINCE 1983
My friend Jacinto was born in a palace, with an annual income of one hundred and nine contos in rents from the vineyards, grain, cork trees and olive groves planted on his lands.
In the Alentejo, in Estremadura and the two Beiras - Baixa and Alta - the fields of this ancient landed family - who were already storing grain and planting vines in the days of King Dinis – were bounded by dense hedges which undulated over hill and dale, and by good high stone walls, and by streams and roads. Their estate in Tormes, in Baixo Douro, took in a whole mountain range. Rents flowed in from the estates they owned between Tua and Tinhela, an area covering five leagues, and their thick pine woods darkened the Arga hills all the way down to the sea at Âncora. However, the palace in which Jacinto was born, and where he had always lived, was in Paris, on the Champs-Elysées, No. 202.
One evening in Lisbon, before Jacinto was born, his very plump, very rich grandfather - also named Jacinto, but known to everyone by the nickname Dom Galeão, “Sir Galleon” - was walking down Travessa da Trabuqueta beside a garden wall shaded by a vine trellis, when he slipped on a piece of orange peel and landed flat on his back on the ground. At that precise moment, there emerged from a low door in the wall a swarthy, clean-shaven man, wearing a thick green wool coat and high boots like a picador’s. Smiling and apparently without the slightest effort, he promptly helped the vast Jacinto to his feet, even picking up the gold-handled walking-stick that had skittered away into the gutter. Then, fixing him with dark, thick-lashed eyes, he said:
‘Come now, Jacinto “Galeão”, what are you doing, rolling around in the road at this hour?’
And it was then that a stunned and grateful Jacinto recognised the Infante - Dom Miguel!
From that day forth, he loved the good Infante as – for all his gluttony and his devotion - he had never loved his dinner or his God! In the splendid hall of his house (in Calçada da Pampulha), he hung upon a damask wall the portrait of ‘his saviour’, adorned with palm leaves as if it were a retable, and displayed beneath it the walking stick which those same magnanimous royal hands had raised up from the dirt. While his adorable, beloved Infante languished in exile inVienna, the paunchy gentleman rattled about Lisbon in his yellow carriage, bustling from Zé Maria’s bar in Belém to Plácido’s in Algibebes, bemoaning the fate and plotting the return of that ‘angel’. On that most blessed day when The Pearl appeared in the harbour, bearing the returned Messiah, Jacinto garlanded his house with flowers and erected a monument made out of cardboard and canvas in which Dom Miguel, transformed into St Michael, appeared all in white, with the halo and wings of an archangel, mounted on an Alter stallion and driving his spear into the Dragon of Liberalism, which, as it writhed in its death agony, was depicted vomiting up the Charter of 1826. During the war with ‘that pretender and freemason’, Dom Galeão sent muleteers to Santo Tirso and to São Gens, to provide the King with fine hams and sweetmeats, bottles of his own Tarrafal wine, and silk purses crammed with coins which he rubbed with soap to make the gold shine more brightly. And when Jacinto ‘Galeão’ learned that Dom Miguel, with only two battered old trunks and a mule, had set off along the road to Sines and his final exile, he ran through his house, shutting all the windows as if for a family funeral, and crying out angrily:
‘All right! Then I’m not staying here either!’
For he had no wish to remain in that perverse land which the plundered and banished King of Portugal - that picker-up of Jacintos - was now leaving. He embarked for France with his wife, Senhora Dona Angelina Fafes (of the famous Fafes da Avelã), his son, Jacintinho - a sallow, sickly child, sorely afflicted by pimples and boils - the nursemaid, and a black servant-boy. Off the Cantabrian coast, the ship met with such rough seas that Senhora Dona Angelina, kneeling on the bed in her cabin, her hair all dishevelled, prayed fervently to Our Lord of the Stations of the Cross in Alcântara, promising him a crown of thorns made of gold and adorned with drops of blood made of Pegu rubies. In Bayonne, where they put into harbour, Jacintinho fell ill with jaundice. Next, on a particularly wild night on the road to Orléans, the axle of their coach snapped, and the plump gentleman, the delicate lady from the house of Avelã and the boy had to trudge for three hours through the rain and mud of exile until finally they reached a village, where, after knocking like beggars at various silent doors, they ended up sleeping on tavern benches. And in the Hotel des Saints Pères in Paris, they had to endure a further horror: a fire broke out in the stables immediately underneath Jacinto’s room, and the worthy nobleman, stumbling down the stairs in his nightshirt to the courtyard, stepped with his bare foot on a sliver of glass. Bitterly shaking one hairy fist at the heavens, he roared:
‘Enough is enough!’
That same week, without looking any further, Jacinto ‘Galeão’ bought the palatial residence at No. 202 Champs-Elysées from a Polish prince, who, after the fall of Warsaw, had chosen to become a Carthusian monk. And beneath the lavish gold of No. 202’s stucco ceilings and amid its sprigged silks, Dom Galeão took refuge from all these vicissitudes in a life of utter idleness and good food, in the company of a few fellow emigrés (Judge Nuno Velho, the Count de Rabacena, and other minor figures), until, one day, he died of indigestion brought on by a dish of pickled lamprey sent to him by his agent in Montemor. Their friends assumed that Senhora Dona Angelina Fafes would return at once to Portugal; the good lady, however, feared the journey, the sea, and those carriage axles all too prone to snap. Nor did she wish to leave her confessor or her doctor, who understood her scruples and her asthma so very well.
‘Much as I miss the good water of Alcolena, I’m going to stay here in No. 202,’ she declared. ‘I’ll leave it to Jacintinho to decide what to do once he’s grown up.’
Jacintinho had grown up. Thinner and paler than a wax candle, he was a silent, lank-haired, large-nosed youth permanently bundled up in baggy black clothes a size or so too large for him. At night, unable to sleep for coughing and choking, he would wander the rooms of No. 202 in his nightshirt, carrying a candle; the servants always referred to him as ‘The Shadow’. When the period of mourning for his father came to an end, there surfaced in his silent, hesitant soul an intense desire to take up wood-turning; then, somewhat later, in the sweet flower of his twentieth year, another entirely different sentiment sprang up in him: one of love and admiration for Judge Velho’s daughter - round and plump as a pigeon – who had been brought up in a convent in Paris and was a girl of many talents, for she could enamel and gild, mend clocks and make felt hats. In the autumn of 1851, when the chestnut trees in the Champs-Elysées were already beginning to lose their leaves, Jacintinho began to cough blood. The doctor, stroking his chin and furrowing his vast brow, advised the lad to set off at once for Golfe Juan or for the warm sands of Arcachon.
Jacintinho, however, tenacious as a shadow, could not bear to leave Teresina Velho, after whom he did, indeed, trail across Paris like a slow, silent shade. Then, shadow-like, he married, turned a few more pieces of wood, spat up a little more blood, and passed on - like the shadow he was.
Three months and three days after his funeral, my Jacinto was born.
His grandmother scattered fennel and amber over his cradle to ward off bad luck, and Jacinto grew with all the confidence, vigour and sap of a pine tree growing in the dunes.
He caught neither measles nor worms. Literature, mathematics and Latin poured into him as easily as sunlight through a window. In the playground, whenever he raised his tin sword and bellowed out a command to his schoolmates, he was always the victor, the adored king, to whom the booty of afternoon tea was always surrendered. At an age when most boys are reading Balzac and Musset, he was never troubled by the torments of the over-sensitive; on hot evenings, he never lingered alone at a window, tortured by formless, nameless desires. His friends (there were three of us, including his old black valet, Cricket) always felt for him a pure and genuine friendship, unsullied by thoughts of acquiring a share of his wealth or dampened by signs that there was also a more selfish side to his nature. Lacking sufficient heart to feel any very strong passion, and quite content with this liberating incapacity, he only ever tasted love’s honey – the honey that love reserves for those who gather it as lightly and quickly as bees buzzing by. He was rich and robust, indifferent to both the State and the Government of Men, and his sole ambition, as far as we knew, was to gain a thorough grasp of General Ideas; and his intelligence, in those jolly days of controversies and schools of thought, slipped in and out of the most complex philosophies like a lustrous eel through the clear waters of a pond. His very real, 24-carat value never went unrecognised or unappreciated; and his every opinion or merest facetious remark was immediately met with a wave of sympathy and agreement that lifted him up to the heights and held him there, cosseted and resplendent. Even inanimate objects served him with docility and affection; I cannot recall a single one of his shirt buttons popping off, or some vital piece of paper mischievously hiding from his eyes, or a drawer treacherously sticking when confronted by his haste and vivacity. When, one day, laughing sceptically at Fortune and her Wheel, he bought a lottery ticket from a Spanish sacristan, Fortune, sitting brisk and smiling at her Wheel, immediately ran to him in a flash and presented him with four hundred thousand pesetas. And if, in the heavens, the slow, heavy-laden clouds espied Jacinto out and about without his umbrella, they would hold back their waters until he had passed. Ah, yes, Senhora Dona Angelina’s fennel and amber had triumphantly and forever banished bad luck from his destiny! His adorable grandmother (who, by the time I knew her, had a beard and was extremely fat) often used to quote a birthday sonnet composed by Judge Nunes Velho with the salutary line:
Remember, Madam, that Life is a river…
And a summer river, gentle and translucent, flowing harmoniously over soft, white sand, past happy villages and fragrant groves of trees, could not have offered more security or more sweetness to someone stepping down into a cedar boat – a well-shaded and well-cushioned boat, with fruit to eat and champagne on ice, with an angel at the helm and other angels keeping firm hold of the tow-rope - than that which Life offered to my friend Jacinto.
It was for this reason that we named him ‘the Prince of Great Good Fortune’.
Jacinto and myself - Zé Fernandes - met and became friends in Paris, at the Grandes écoles in the Latin Quarter, where I had been sent by my good uncle Afonso Fernandes Lorena de Noronha e Sande, when the miserable wretches at Coimbra University expelled me for having slapped the vile face of Dr Pais Pita during an afternoon procession down Rua da Sofia.
Around this time, Jacinto had come up with an idea, namely, that ‘a man can only be superlatively happy when he is superlatively civilised’. And by ‘civilised’ my friend meant the kind of man who, through honing his thinking skills on all the philosophy acquired from Aristotle onwards and multiplying the physical strength of his organs by using all the mechanisms invented since Theramenes created the wheel, could make of himself a magnificent, near-omnipotent, near-omniscient Adam ready to reap - within a particular society and within the limits of Progress (at least as far as Progress had got in 1875) - all the pleasures and all the advantages that spring from Knowledge and Power. That was how Jacinto spoke, at length, about his Idea, when we discussed human aims and destinies, sipping our somewhat grubby glasses of beer beneath the awning of some philosophical café-bar on the Boulevard St-Michel.
Jacinto’s ‘Idea’ greatly impressed the other members of our ‘clan’, who - having emerged into intellectual life between 1866 and 1870, that is, between the battle of Sadowa and the battle of Sedan, and having been told constantly ever since by technicians and philosophers that the needle musket had won at Sadowa and the schoolmaster at Sedan - were more than prepared to believe that the happiness of individuals, like the happiness of nations, could be achieved by the unfettered development of Mechanics and Erudition. And in order to condense the brilliance of Jacinto’s idea and to spread it more widely, one of these young men, our inventive friend Jorge Carlande, boiled it down into an algebraic formula:
Absolute Knowledge x Absolute Power = Absolute Happiness
And for days afterwards, from the Odéon to the Sorbonne, the positivist youth of the time praised Jacinto’s metaphysical equation to the skies.
For Jacinto, however, his concept was not merely metaphysical - created for the sheer elegant pleasure of exercising his speculative reasoning powers - it constituted a very real and useful rule, one that could determine one’s conduct and mould one’s life. And so, in accord with his Idea, he purchased the Shorter Encyclopaedia of World Knowledge in sixty-five volumes and installed a telescope in a glass observatory built on the roof of No. 202. Indeed, one hot sleepy August night, it was the telescope that first made his Idea real to me. In the distance, lightning flashed languidly across the sky. Fiacres - slow, open, indolent, and filled to overflowing with pale dresses – were rolling along the Champs-Elysées towards the coolness of the Bois.
‘Here, Zé Fernandes,’ Jacinto said, leaning at the observatory window, ‘you will find conclusive proof of the theory that rules my life. For with these keen, quick eyes of ours, received from Mother Nature herself, we can barely see the lit window in that shop over there, on the other side of the avenue. Nothing more. However, if I add to my eyes the two simple lenses of a pair of horse-racing binoculars, I can see through the glass to the hams, cheeses, jars of jam and boxes of prunes. I conclude, therefore, that it is a grocer’s shop. This, I believe, gives me a positive advantage over you who, with your naked eye, can see only the lit window. However, if, instead of those two simple lenses, I were to use my more scientifically advanced telescope, I could see beyond all that to Mars, with its seas and snows and canals, could see the outline of its gulfs, the whole geography of a planet that exists thousands of leagues from the Champs-Elysées. And what about another still more brilliant idea! Here you have the primitive eye, the eye of Nature, raised by Civilisation to its maximum power of vision. As regards eyes, clearly I, the civilised man, am happier than the uncivilised man because I can discover the realities of the Universe about which he knows nothing and of which he is, therefore, deprived. If you apply that proof to all the organs, you will understand my principle. As for intelligence and the happiness one gains from it through the endless accumulation of ideas, I ask only that you compare Renan and Cricket, my manservant. It becomes clear then that we must surround ourselves with the maximum possible amount of Civilisation in order to enjoy to the maximum the joy of being alive, don’t you agree, Zé Fernandes?’
It did not seem to me irrefutably true that Renan was necessarily happier than Cricket, nor could I see what spiritual or temporal advantage was to be gained from being able to peer through space at the smudgy spots on a planet - or across the Avenue des Champs-Elysées at the hams hanging in a grocer’s shop window. Nevertheless, I assured him that, of course, I agreed with him, because I’m a good fellow and would never try to dislodge from another man’s mind any idea in which he finds security, discipline and a source of energy. I unbuttoned my waistcoat and, indicating the café and its lights down below, declared:
‘Let’s go downstairs and drink the maximum possible amount of brandy and soda - with ice!’
Naturally enough, Jacinto’s idea of Civilisation was inseparable from the image of the City, an enormous City with all its vast organs in powerful working order. My super-civilised friend could not even comprehend how nineteenth-century man could possibly savour the delight of living far from the stores employing three thousand cashiers, the markets receiving the produce from the gardens and fields of thirty provinces, the banks clinking with universal gold, the factories frantically spewing out smoke and smart new inventions, the libraries bursting with the paperwork of the centuries, the long miles of streets crisscrossed in all directions by telegraph wires and telephone wires, by gas pipes and sewage pipes, the thunderous lines of buses, trams, carriages, velocipedes, rattletraps and de luxe coach-and-pairs, and the two million members of its seething wave of humanity, panting as they scrabble to earn their daily bread or under the vain illusion of pleasure.
When, in his bedroom in No. 202 - its balconies open to the lilac trees in the garden - Jacinto unfurled these images to me, he grew larger and positively glowed. What an august creation the City was! ‘Only in the City, Zé Fernandes, can Man proudly affirm that he has a soul!’
‘But what about religion, Jacinto? Doesn’t religion prove the existence of the soul?’
He shrugged. Religion! Religion was merely the over-development of a rudimentary instinct common to all creatures, namely, terror. A dog licking its owner’s hand, from which he might receive either a bone or a beating, is basically a devotee in primitive form, prostrated in prayer before the one God who offers him Heaven or Hell! But the telephone! The phonograph!
‘Yes, take the phonograph! Even the phonograph, Zé Fernandes, gives me a real sense of my superiority as a thinking being and distinguishes me from the beasts. Believe me, Zé Fernandes, there is only the City and nothing but the City!’
Besides (he added), only the City gave him a sense of human solidarity, as necessary to life as warmth. When, at No. 202, he thought of the huddled masses living in the houses of Paris, two million people sweating and labouring in order to create Civilisation (and to maintain the natural dominion of the Jacintos of this world!), he felt a sense of relief and reassurance comparable only to that of the pilgrim who, as he crosses the desert, sits up on his dromedary and sees, ahead of him, the long line of the caravan, bristling with lights and weapons.
Impressed, I murmured:
It was so very different in the countryside where the indifference and impassivity of Nature made him tremble for his fragile, solitary state. It was as if he were lost in a world with which he had no fraternal bonds; no bramble bush would draw in its thorns to let him pass; if he were groaning with hunger, no tree, however heavy-laden, would hold out a compassionate branch to offer him its fruit. Besides, surrounded by Nature, he became suddenly and humiliatingly aware of the uselessness of all his superior faculties. In the company of plants and animals, what was the point of being a genius or a saint? The wheatfields do not understand The Georgics; and it took God’s eager intervention, the overturning of all natural laws and an outright miracle for the wolf of Gubbio not to devour St Francis of Assisi, who smiled at the creature and held out his arms and addressed it as ‘Brother Wolf’. In the country, all intellect grows sterile, and there’s nothing left but bestiality. In the crass kingdoms of Vegetable and Animal only two functions remain - feeding and breeding. Alone and with nothing to do, surrounded by snouts and roots that never cease to graze and suck, suffocating in the warm breath of universal fecundation, his poor soul shrivelled up, became a little crumb of a soul, a tiny guttering spiritual spark on a poor scrap of matter; and in that poor scrap of matter only two instincts stirred, urgent and imperious - the instincts of appetite and procreation. After a week in the country, all that would remain of his noble being would be a stomach and, below, a phallus! And what of the soul? It was swamped by the beast! He needed then to run back to the City and plunge into the purifying waves of Civilisation, to wash himself clean of that vegetable crust and emerge rehumanised, respiritualised and fully Jacintic!
My friend’s elegant metaphors expressed genuine feelings to which I myself was witness and which tickled me immensely on the one trip we made into the countryside together, to the pleasant and friendly forest of Montmorency. Jacinto’s encounter with the Natural World had all the makings of a farce! As soon as he left wooden floors and macadamized roads, any surface that his feet touched filled him with distrust and terror. Any stretch of grass, however parched, seemed to him to ooze some mortal dampness. In each lump of earth, in the shadow cast by each stone, he feared attack by scorpions, snakes, and other creeping, viscous things. In the silence of the woods he heard only the gloomy depopulation of the universe. He could not bear the over-familiarity of the branches that brushed his sleeve or cheek. Scrambling over a hedge seemed to him a degrading act that took him straight back to the very first ape. He was convinced that any flower he had not previously seen in a garden, domesticated by long centuries of ornamental servitude, was sure to be poisonous. And it seemed to him that there was a kind of fickle melancholy about the forms and shapes of certain inanimate things: the futile, sprightly haste of streams, the bald rocks, the contorted trunks of trees and the silly, solemn muttering of leaves.
After an hour in that honest Montmorency forest, my poor friend was left terrified and gasping for breath, already experiencing the slow shrinking and vanishing of the soul that would soon reduce him to being a mere beast amongst other beasts. He only cheered up when we returned to the flagged pavements and gas-lamps of Paris, where our victoria was almost smashed to pieces by a near-collision with a rumbling omnibus crammed with fellow citizens. He begged to be let out of the carriage when we reached the boulevards, in order to allow their rude sociability to dissipate that sense of having been transformed into gross matter, with a head as heavy and vague as that of an ox. And he demanded that I go with him to the Théâtre des Variétés so as to drive out with a few choruses from the operetta La Femme à Papa the importunate memory of the blackbirds singing in the tall poplars.
My delightful friend Jacinto was, at the time, twenty-three years old, and a superb-looking young man in whom the strength of all those past rural Jacintos had re-emerged. The only part of his body that seemed to belong to the more delicate sensibilities of the nineteenth century was his fine, pointed nose with its near-transparent nostrils, which were never still, as if constantly engaged in sniffing out perfumes. His hair, as in more primitive ages, was curly, indeed, almost woolly; and his moustache, like that of a Celt, grew in silky threads which he had to trim and curl. His suits, his thick dark satin ties pinned with a pearl, his white antelope-skin gloves, and the polish for his boots, all arrived from London in cedarwood boxes; and he always wore a flower in his buttonhole, not a real flower, but one skilfully concocted by his florist from the petals of several different flowers – carnations, azaleas, orchids or tulips – all bound together on one stem, along with a sprig of fennel.
In 1880, one grey, chilly, rainy February morning, I received a letter from my good uncle, Afonso Fernandes, in which, after many complaints about his age – he was seventy - his haemorrhoids, and the heavy responsibility of managing his estate - ‘which calls for a younger man with stronger legs’ - he ordered me back to the family mansion in Guiães in the Douro valley! As I leaned against the cracked marble mantlepiece, where, the night before, my mistress Nini had left her stays wrapped up in a copy of the Journal des Débats, I severely censured my uncle for thus nipping in the bud - before it had even opened - the flower of my Juridical Knowledge. In a postscript to his letter, he added: ‘The weather here is grand, almost perfect you might say, and your dear aunt sends you her very best wishes from the kitchen, because today we are celebrating thirty-six years of marriage, and the parish priest and Quintais are coming for supper, and she wants to make her special golden soup.’
Putting a log on the fire, I thought how good Aunt Vicência’s golden soup would be. It was years since I had tasted it, or her roast suckling pig, or her rice pudding! And if the weather really was ‘grand’, the mimosa trees in our garden would be bent low beneath the weight of their yellow blooms. Into the room came a patch of blue sky, the blue of Guiães - for there is no softer, more lustrous blue – and traced green grass, brooks, daisies and clover on the threadbare melancholy of the carpet; my eyes swam with tears. From behind my wool curtains there wafted in a fine, bracing air, smelling of mountains and of pine woods.
Whistling the sweet tune of a fado, I took my old suitcase from beneath the bed and tenderly placed among my trousers and my socks a treatise on Civil Law in order that I might at last, in idle village moments spent lying beneath the beech tree, learn about the laws that govern men. Later that afternoon, I announced to Jacinto that I was leaving for Guiães. My friend drew back, uttering a soft moan of horror and pity:
‘To Guiães! Oh, Zé Fernandes, how awful!’
And all that week, he kept solicitously reminding me of various comforts that I really ought to take with me in order to preserve, in that wilderness so far from the City, at least a little of my soul in a little of my body. ‘Take an armchair! Take the General Encyclopaedia! Take a few boxes of asparagus!’
As far as Jacinto was concerned, being torn from the City made of me an uprooted tree that would never revive. He accompanied me to the train as sorrowfully as if he were attending my funeral. And when he closed the carriage door for me as gravely and finally as if he were closing the iron gate of my tomb, I almost sobbed – out of grief for myself.
I reached Guiães. There were still flowers on the mimosas in the garden; I delightedly drank Aunt Vicência’s golden soup; I put on clogs and helped bring in the crop of maize. And what with harvests and work in the fields, getting burned by the sun at threshing-time, hunting for partridge in the frozen scrub, slicing open fresh melons in the dust of village fairs, eating roast chestnuts around open fires, working by lamplight, building bonfires for St John’s night, making cribs for Christmas-time, I happily spent seven whole years there, years so busy that I didn’t have a moment to open my treatise on Civil Law, and years so uneventful that the only thing I can remember happening is that, on the eve of St Nicholas, the parish priest fell off his mare. From Jacinto I received the occasional note, written in haste amid the hurly-burly of Civilisation. Then, one very warm September, while out picking grapes, my good uncle Afonso Fernandes died as easily - and may God be praised for this grace - as a little bird falls silent at the end of a day spent in full song and full flight. I exhausted the village’s stock of mourning clothes. My god-daughter got married at the village’s annual killing and roasting of the pig. The roof on our house had to be repaired. And I returned to Paris.
No. of pages: 238
Publication date: 09.09.2008
978 1 903517 71 0
978 1 907650 92 5
World English language in this translation.
US rights sold to New Directions.