PUBLISHERS OF LITERARY FICTION SINCE 1983
Translator: Margaret Jull Costa Cover design: Marie Lane
My name is Teodoro and I was once a scribe at the Ministry for Internal Affairs and Education.
At the time, I lived at 106 Travessa da Conceição in a guesthouse run by the splendid Dona Augusta, the widow of Major Marques. I had two fellow lodgers: Cabrita, who was as thin and yellow as a funeral candle and worked as a clerk on the city council, and the vigorous, exuberant Lieutenant Couceiro, who played the guitar extremely well.
My existence was one of sweet regularity. During the week I would sit down at my office desk, put on my silk oversleeves and set to work covering sheets of official notepaper in my exquisite italic script, always using the same glib phrases: Esteemed Sir, I have the honour to inform you …, I have the pleasure of sending Your Honour …, Illustrious Sir …
On Sundays I rested. Installed on the sofa in the dining room, my pipe clenched between my teeth, I would gaze admiringly at Dona Augusta whose custom it was, on holy days, to massage away Lieutenant Couceiro’s dandruff with the judicious application of eggwhite. That was always a delightful time of day, especially in summer: the hot breath of noon would waft in through the half-open windows along with the distant ringing of the bells of Conceição Nova and the cooing of doves on the verandah whilst, inside, the monotonous drone of flies hovered above the old cambric cloth (formerly Madame Marques’ wedding veil) draped over the sideboard to protect the plates of cherries. The lieutenant, wrapped in a sheet like an idol in a cloak, would drift slowly off to sleep beneath the gentle friction of Dona Augusta’s loving hands and she, sticking out one plump, white little finger, would plough through the Lieutenant’s thinning but lustrous hair with a fine-toothed comb … In the emotion of the moment I would exclaim to the charming lady:
‘Ah, Dona Augusta, what an angel you are!’
She would laugh and call me ‘Pipsqueak’ and I would smile, not in the least offended. In fact that was the name the whole house knew me by. Why? Because I was skinny, always took care to enter a room right foot first, trembled at the mere sight of a mouse, kept a lithograph of Our Lady of Sorrows that had once belonged to Mama above my bed and had a pronounced stoop. The stoop, alas, was the consequence of the many times I had bent my back before the dons at University, retreating from them like a startled magpie, and before the directors-general at work, in whose presence I practically touched my forehead to the ground. Indeed, such an attitude is only proper in a young graduate, the very basis of order in a well-organized state and, besides, it guaranteed me my Sunday peace, an adequate supply of clean linen and twenty mil-réis a month.
I cannot deny, however, that at the time, as Madame Marques and the jovial Lieutenant Couceiro both had the wit to acknowledge, I did harbour certain ambitions. I do not mean that there stirred in my breast any heroic desire to rule from some lofty throne over vast hordes of people nor that my mad soul longed to ride through the Baixa in a company carriage, with a lackey trotting behind me. No, what consumed me was the desire to partake of champagne suppers at the Hotel Central, to clasp the delicate hands of a viscountess in mine and, at least twice a week, to fall asleep in dumb ecstasy on the cool breast of some Venus. Oh, you young men making your happy way to the opera house, in your expensive overcoats and gleaming white cravats! Oh, you carriages crammed with lovely Andalusian women, rattling elegantly off to see a bullfight – how I sighed for you! For then, the certain knowledge that my measly twenty mil-réis a month and my pipsqueak looks excluded me for ever from such social pleasures would pierce my heart like an arrow which, shot into the trunk of a tree, remained there for a long time afterwards, poised and quivering!
But for all that, I never thought of myself gloomily as a ‘pariah’. The humble life has its compensatory pleasures: opening up that day’s Diário de Notícias on a bright, sunny morning, with a napkin round your neck and a grilled steak on the plate before you; savouring the sweet idyll of summer evenings spent sitting on the public benches in the park; or listening to the armchair politicians running down the country as you sip your coffee at night in the Café Martinho … I never much suffered from unhappiness; I lacked the necessary imagination. I did not torment myself by prowling longingly about the fringes of fictitious paradises that emanated only from my own eager heart like clouds of mist rising from a lake. I did not gaze up at the luminous stars and sigh for a love like Romeo’s or for the social success of a Camors. Being a practical sort of person, I aspired only to what was reasonable, tangible, to what others like myself had already attained, to what a graduate might realistically hope to achieve. And I became resigned to my fate, like someone at a table d’hôte meal chewing patiently on a mouthful of dry bread while he waits for them to serve up a delicious charlotte russe. Happiness would arrive one day and to hasten its arrival I did everything that a good Portuguese and a constitutionalist could do: I prayed every night to Our Lady of Sorrows and bought lottery tickets, the cheapest available.
In the meantime, I did my best to amuse myself. And since the convolutions of my brain did not equip me to write poetry, which was what so many of my colleagues did to avenge themselves on the tedium of their profession, and since my salary, once I’d paid the rent and bought my cigarettes, was insufficient to accommodate any vice, I had acquired the discreet habit of scouring the local flea market for incomplete sets of old books and at night in my room I would gorge myself on those curious texts. They always bore portentous titles: The Ship of Innocence, The Miraculous Mirror, The Despair of the Disinherited … The antiquated typeface, the yellowing, worm-eaten paper, the sombre, monkish binding, the little green ribbon marking one’s place – all that enchanted me! The ingenuous words set down in large clumsy print bathed my whole being in a kind of serenity, the sort of penetrating peace one might feel at the end of a quiet afternoon, standing by a ruined monastery wall at the bottom of a valley, listening to the sad babble of a stream.
One night, years ago now, I had begun reading a chapter in one of those ancient folios entitled ‘The Abyss of Souls’ and I was just drifting off into a pleasant state of drowsiness when one particular passage suddenly stood out from the dull, neutral tone of the rest of the page, like a new gold medal gleaming against a dark carpet. I give below the exact words:
In the depths of China there lives a mandarin who is richer than any king spoken of in fable or in history. You know nothing about him, not his name, his face or the silks that he wears. In order for you to inherit his limitless wealth, all you have to do is to ring the bell placed on a book by your side. In that remote corner of Mongolia, he will utter a single sigh. He will then be a corpse and at your feet you will see gold beyond the dreams of avarice. Mortal reader, will you ring the bell?
Startled, I stared down at the open page. That question: Mortal reader, will you ring the bell? struck me as playful, even absurd and yet it troubled me terribly. I wanted to read on but the lines on the page slipped away from me like frightened snakes and, in the emptiness they left behind, pale as parchment, there remained only that strange demand, gleaming blackly up at me: Will you ring the bell?
No. of pages: 176
Publication date: 18.06.2009
Re-print date: 05.10.2018
978 1 903517 80 2
World English language in this translation.