PUBLISHERS OF LITERARY FICTION SINCE 1983
ALCÂNTARA: Whipping-post Square
‘Man’s swelling his pointed dick! Squaaawk! Man’s swelling his pointed dick!’ Heidegger’s harsh, nasal, drunken-sounding voice echoed round the room.
Eléazard von Wogau looked up from his reading in sudden exasperation; half swivelling round in his chair, he grabbed the first book his hand lit on and threw it as hard as he could at the bird. At the other end of the room the parrot, with a vigorous, multicoloured ruffling of feathers, rose from its perch just enough to avoid the missile. Father Reilly’s Studia Kircheriana landed with a crash on the table beyond it, overturning the half-full bottle of cachaça. It shattered on the spot, soaking the demolished book.
‘Oh, shit!’ Eléazard groaned.
For a brief moment he wondered whether to get up and try to save the book from further damage but then, catching the Sartrian look of the large macaw, that was pretending to be searching for something in its plumage, its head thrown back in an absurd attitude, its eye crazed, he decided to return to Caspar Schott’s manuscript.
If you thought about it, it was remarkable to make such a find today: a completely unpublished manuscript that had come to light in the course of an inventory at the National Library in Palermo. The librarian had not thought the contents worthy of anything more then a brief article in the library’s quarterly bulletin together with a note to the director of the local Goethe Institute. It had taken a remarkable concatenation of circumstances for a photocopy of this handwritten manuscript — the biography, written in French by an obscure German Jesuit, of another, equally forgotten Jesuit — to reach Brazil and Eléazard’s desk. In a sudden access of zeal, the director of the Goethe Institute had taken it upon himself to communicate the discovery to Werner Küntzel, the Berliner who for several years had been attempting to demonstrate how the binary language of computers was rooted in the scholasticism of Ramon Llull and its later variants, notably that of Athanasius Kircher. Always inclined to get carried away, Küntzel had immediately suggested it to the Thomas Sessler publishing house. Balking at the cost of translation, the publisher agreed in principle to a subscription edition and, on Küntzel’s advice, he had commissioned Eléazard to establish the text and provide a commentary.
You old bugger, Werner, Eléazard thought with a smile, you’ve really no idea…
He hadn’t seen him since the distant days, already disappearing in the mists of time, of their meeting in Heidelberg, but he well remembered his weasel face and the nervous twitch causing the obscene trembling of a little muscle in his cheek. It suggested repressed tension, ready, it seemed, to explode at any minute, with the result that it sometimes made Eléazard forget what he was saying, an effect perhaps more or less consciously intended by Küntzel. They had corresponded from time to time, although in fairly formal tones on his part, and Werner had never received more than a postcard, occasionally two, in response to the long letters in which he went into detail about his life and his successes. No, really, he didn’t realise to what extent his own life had changed, nor what resources he had had to find to return to his old love. No doubt he knew Kircher’s works better than anyone — fifteen years of close acquaintance with a famous unknown are generally sufficient to procure one that useless privilege — but Werner had no idea how far behind he had left his youthful ambitions. Eléazard had long since consigned the thesis he had been working on in Heidelberg to oblivion, even though he continued to evoke its shade as the sole motivation for an obsession which kept surprising him a little. He had to admit: he collected anything closely or distantly connected with the life of that grotesque Jesuit with the same obsessiveness as some people collect bottles of whisky or cigarette packets long after they’ve stopped drinking or smoking. First editions, engravings, studies or articles, scattered quotations, everything was grist to his mill to fill the void left by his long-ago abandonment of university life. It was his way of remaining faithful, of satisfying, even if at the same time mocking, an appetite for knowledge of which, long ago, he had not shown himself worthy.
‘Soledade!’ he shouted without turning round.
It wasn’t long before the young mulatto’s strange, beaming clown’s face appeared. ‘Yes, senhor?’ she said in her velvety voice and with the intonation of someone wondering what could be wanted of her so abruptly.
‘Could you make me a caipirinha, please?’
‘Pode preparar me uma caipirinha, por favor?’ Soledade repeated, imitating his accent and errors of syntax.
Eléazard repeated his request by raising his eyebrows, but she just wagged her finger at him, as if to say, ‘You’re incorrigible!’
‘Yes, senhor,’ she said before she went, not without pulling a face from which the tip of a pink tongue protruded.
A mixture of Negro and Indian, a cabocla as they said here, Soledade had been born in a village of the Sertão. She was only eighteen but from adolescence she had had to move to the town to help feed her over-numerous brothers and sisters. For five years the interior regions everywhere had suffered from drought; the peasants were reduced to eating cactus and snakes, but they could not bring themselves to abandon their patch of land and preferred to send their children to the large towns on the coast where they could at least beg. Soledade had been luckier than most: with the help of one of her father’s cousins she had found work as a servant with a Brazilian family. Shamelessly exploited and thrashed for the least failure to carry out her employers’ orders, she had been delighted to accept an offer of work from a Frenchman whose eye she had caught at a feijoada given by his colleagues from the office. Denis Raffenel had been more attracted by her smile, her silky negro skin and her beautiful young girl’s body than by her domestic skills; but he had treated her kindly, not to say respected her, so that she was perfectly content with the double wages he paid and the minimum work she was asked to do to earn them. Three months ago Eléazard’s divorce had happened to coincide with the departure of this heaven-sent Frenchman and he had asked her to come and work for him, partly to please Raffenel but mostly because he was alone. Because she knew him from having seen him several times when he visited Raffenel and because he was French as well — she would have died rather than go back to work for the Brazilians — Soledade had accepted immediately, though she did demand the same wages, a pittance to be honest, and a colour television. Eléazard had agreed and one fine day she had moved in.
Soledade did the washing, the shopping and the cooking, cleaned the house when it suited her, which was rarely, and spent most of her time watching the insipid serials on TV Globo, the national channel. As for the ‘special’ services she had provided for her previous employer, Eléazard had never requested them. He had never even entered the little room she had chosen for herself; indifference rather than solicitousness, for which Soledade seemed grateful.
He watched her as she came back, once more enjoying her casual gait, her very African way of sliding over the ground with the irritating slap of her bare feet. She placed the glass on his desk, pulled a face at him again and left.
Taking a sip of his drink — Soledade got the perfect balance between cachaça and lime — Eléazard gazed out of the window in front of him. It gave directly onto the jungle or, to be more precise, the mata, that luxuriance of tall trees, twisted lianas and foliage which had retaken possession of the town without anyone objecting. From his first floor Eléazard had the feeling he was plunging straight into the heart of organic life, a little like a surgeon bent over a stomach open to his curiosity alone. When he had decided to leave São Luís to buy a house in Alcântara he had been spoilt for choice. The old baroque town, the jewel of 18th-century architecture in Brazil, was falling into ruin. Ignored by history since the downfall of the Marquis de Pombal, engulfed by the forest, insects and damp, it was inhabited by a tiny population of fishermen too poor to live anywhere but in shacks made from corrugated iron, clay and cans or in tumbledown hovels. From time to time a grower would appear, wild-eyed at having stepped out of the great forest so abruptly, to sell his harvest of mangoes or papayas to the dealers who went to and fro between São Luís and Alcântara. It was there that Eléazard had bought this immense, dilapidated house, one of the sobrados that in former times had contributed to the beauty of the town. He had acquired it for what seemed to him next to nothing but which represented a substantial sum for most Brazilians. Its façade looked straight out onto Pelourinho Square, with the abandoned Church of São Matias on the left and on the right, also open to every wind that blew, the Casa de Câmara e Cadeia, that is the town hall and prison. In the middle of the square, between the two ruins, of which only the walls and roof were left, the pelourinho still stood, the ornate stone column where refractory slaves used to be whipped. A tragic symbol of civil and religious oppression, of the blindness which had led some to massacre thousands of their fellow men with a clear conscience, the whipping post was the only one of all the monuments of the town that had remained intact. Even though they allowed their pigs to wander freely inside the church and the town hall, none of the caboclos who lived there would have allowed the least indignity to be inflicted on this testimony to thousands of years of suffering, injustice and stupidity. For nothing had changed, for nothing would ever shake these three interlinked pillars of human nature, and in that column, which had defied the ravages of time, the locals saw the symbol of their poverty and degradation.
Elaine, his wife, had never been able to bear this place where everything bore, like a stigma, the mould of deterioration, and this epidermal discharge had doubtless played a part in their separation. One more item in the multitude of faults which had been hurled at him out of the blue one evening the previous September. All the time she was talking, his mind had been filled with the standard image of a house eaten away by termites which suddenly collapses without the least sign of the impending disaster having been visible. The idea of trying to vindicate himself never entered his head, as it doubtless never enters the head of all those who are surprised one day by a slap in the face from fate: can you imagine justifying yourself when faced with an earthquake or an exploding mortar bomb? When his wife, suddenly an unknown woman, had demanded a divorce, Eléazard had submitted, signing everything he was asked to sign, agreeing to all the lawyer’s requests, just as people allow themselves to be transported from one refugee camp to another. Their daughter, Moéma, was no problem, since she was of age and led her own life; that is, if one can call her way of shirking all obligations day in, day out, ‘leading a life’.
Eléazard had chosen to remain in Alcântara and it was only recently, six months after Elaine had left to go to Brasilia, that he had started to go through the debris of his love, less to see what could be salvaged than to find the cause of such a mess.
Thinking about it, Werner’s proposal had come at just the right time. The work on Caspar Schott’s manuscript would be a kind of safety rail, forcing him to concentrate and persevere in a way that would be therapeutic. And even though there was no question of forgetting, nor ever would be, at least it would allow him to make the intervals between upsurges of memory longer.
Once more Eléazard leafed through the first chapter of the Life of Athanasius Kircher, rereading his footnotes and certain passages as he did so. God, wasn’t the opening terrible! Nothing more irritating than that stilted tone, the tone of all hagiographies, to be sure, but which here scaled the heights of platitude. The pages stank of candles and cassocks. And that tedious way of reading into childhood the signs of future ‘destiny’! In retrospect it always worked out, of course. A real pain in the arse! as Moéma said of anything, however minor, that got in the way of what she called her freedom but which was basically nothing but irrational and pathological egoism. The only one he felt attracted to was Friedrich von Spee, despite the inanity of his poems.
‘Man’s swelling his poor dick! Squaawk, squaaaawk!’ the parrot screeched again, as if it had waited for the moment when it’s utterance would have the greatest effect.
As resplendent as it’s stupid, Eléazard thought, regarding the animal with disdain. A common enough paradox, alas, and not only in the great macaw of the Amazon.
He’d finished his caipirinha. A second — a third? — would have been welcome, but the idea of bothering Soledade again made him hesitate. After all, in Portuguese soledade meant ‘solitude’. ‘I live alone with Solitude…’ he said to himself. There are pleonasms which have a kind of excess of truth in them. It could have been a quotation from the Romance of the Rose: ‘When Reason heard me, she turned away and left me pensive and mournful.’
In which we hear of the birth & early years of Athanasius Kircher, the hero of this history.
On this day, dedicated to Saint Genevieve, the third of the year 1690, I, Caspar Schott, sitting like some student at a desk in this library of which I have charge, undertake to relate the life, exemplary in every detail, of the Reverend Father Athanasius Kircher. Out of modesty this man, whose edifying works have put the stamp of his intelligence on our history, hid behind his books; people will, I am sure, be grateful to me if, as is my heartfelt desire, I gently lift this veil, in all propriety, to throw light on a destiny which glory has rendered immortal now & for evermore.
Setting out such an arduous task, I put my trust in Mary, our mother, whom Athanasius never invoked in vain, as I take up my pen to bring back to life the man who was my master for fifty years & who bestowed on me, I make bold to assert, his true friendship.
Athanasius Kircher was born at three o’clock in the morning of the second day of May, the feast of Saint Athanasius, in the year 1602. His parents, Johannes Kircher & Anna Gansekin, were fervent & generous Catholics. At the time of his birth they lived in Geisa, a small town three hours from Fulda.
Athanasius Kircher was born, at the beginning of a period of relative concord, into a pious & close-knit family & into an atmosphere of study & contemplation which, I am sure, was not without influence on his future vocation, especially since Johannes Kircher possessed an extensive library so that as a child Athanasius was constantly surrounded by books. It was always with emotion & gratitude that, later on, he would mention to me certain titles he had held in his hands in Geisa, in particular the De Laudibus Sanctae Crucis of Rabanus Maurus, through which he had practically learnt to read.
Favoured by nature, learning even the most difficult of subjects was literally child’s play for him, but despite that he showed such application that he outshone his classmates in everything. There was never a day when he did not come back from school with some new decoration pinned to his coat, rewards with which his father was justifiably well pleased. Appointed class prefect, he assisted the master by explaining Canisius’ catechism to the first-years & heard the juniors’ lessons. At eleven he could already read the Gospels & Plutarch in the original. At twelve he won all the disputations in Latin hands down, could declaim better than anyone & wrote prose & verse with astonishing facility.
Athanasius was particularly fond of tragedy & at the age of thirteen his father gave him, as a reward for a particularly brilliant translation from Hebrew, permission to go to Aschaffenburg with his classmates to see a play: a company of wandering players were putting on Flavius Mauricius, Emperor of the East there. Johannes Kircher sent the little band in the care of a local farmer who was going to the town — two days’ walk away from Geisa — by cart & was to bring them home once the performance was over.
Athanasius was carried away by the talent of the actors & their truly magic ability to bring to life a figure he had always admired. On the boards, before his very eyes, the valiant successor to Tiberius once more defeated the Persians amid sound & fury; he harangued his troops, drove the Slavs & the Avars back over the Danube, eventually reestablishing the greatness of the Empire. And in the last act, when the traitor Phocas killed the model Christian horribly without sparing either his wife or his sons, the crowd very nearly tore the poor actor playing the role of the vile centurion to pieces.
Athanasius took up Mauricius’ cause with all the hotheadedness of youth & when it was time to return to Geisa our madcap refused to go in the cart with his companions. The farmer who was in charge of the children tried in vain to hold him back: aspiring to an heroic death & ablaze with desire to emulate the virtue of his model, Athanasius Kircher had decided to go alone, like a hero of Antiquity, to face the Spessart forest, which was notorious not only for its highwaymen but also for the wild beasts that were to be found there.
Once in the forest, it took less than two hours for him to lose his way. He spent all day wandering to & fro, trying to find the road they had taken coming, but the virgin forest grew thicker & thicker & he was seized with dread as night approached. Terrified by the phantasms his imagination saw in the darkness & cursing the stupid pride which had sent him on this adventure, Athanasius climbed to the top of a tree so that he would at least be safe from the wild beasts. He spent the night clutching onto a branch, praying to God with all his heart, trembling with fear & remorse. In the morning, more dead than alive from weariness & trepidation, he plunged deeper into the forest. He had continued like that for nine hours, dragging himself from tree to tree, when the forest started to thin out, revealing a large meadow. Joyfully Kircher went to find out where he was from the labourers who were gathering in the harvest — the place he was looking for was still two days’ walk away! Furnishing him some provisions, they set him on the right path & it was five days after leaving Aschaffenburg that he returned to Geisa, to the great relief of his parents, who thought they had lost him for good.
Having exhausted his father’s patience, Athanasius was sent to continue his education as a boarder at the Jesuit college in Fulda.
True, discipline there was stricter than in the little school at Geisa, but the masters were more competent & were able to satisfy the young Kircher’s insatiable curiosity. There was also the town itself, so rich in history & architecture, the church of St Michael, with its two dissymmetrical towers, & above all the library, the one founded with his own books by Rabanus Maurus so long ago & where Athanasius spent most of his free time. Apart from Maurus’ own works, in particular the original copies of De Universo & of De Laudibus Sanctae Crucis, it contained all sorts of rare manuscripts, for example the Song of Hildebrand, the Codex Ragyndrudis, the Panarion of Epiphanius of Constantia, the Summa Logicae of William of Ockham & even a copy of the Malleus Maleficarum, which Athanasius could never open without a shudder.
He often talked to me about that last book, every time he recalled his childhood friend, Friedrich von Spee Langenfeld. He was a young teacher at the Fulda seminary &, recognising in Kircher the qualities that distinguished him from his fellow students, it was not long before he became attached to him. It was through him that Athanasius discovered the darker side of the library: Martial, Terence, Petronius… von Spee introduced him to all these authors, whom propriety insists should not be read by innocent souls; & if the pupil emerged from this dubious trial strengthened in his aspiration to virtue, that still does not exonerate his master, for ‘vice is like pitch, as soon as you touch it, it sticks to your fingers.’ We are, however, all the more willing to forgive him this slight bending of the rules of morality because his influence on Kircher was solely beneficial: did he not go out with him every Sunday to the Frauenberg, the Hill of Our Lady, to relax in the abandoned monastery & talk about the world as they contemplated the mountains and the town below?
As for the Malleus Maleficarum, Athanasius well remembered his young mentor’s anger at the cruelty and arbitrariness of the treatment inflicted on those supposedly possessed by the devil who were caught in the net of the Inquisition.
‘How can you not confess to having killed your mother & father or fornicated with the devil,’ he said, ‘when your feet are being crushed in steel shoes or they’re sticking long needles into you all over your body to find the witches’ mark which does not feel pain and which proves, according to the fools, that you have had dealings with the devil?’
And it was the student who felt the need to calm his master down, urging him to be more prudent in what he said. Then von Spee would start to whisper, out there on the hillside, quoting Ponzibinio, Weier or Cornelius Loos in support of his outburst. He was not the first, he insisted, to criticise the inhuman methods of the inquisitors, in 1584 Johann Ervich had denounced the ordeal by water, Jordaneus the witches’ mark, & as he said this von Spee got carried away again, raising his voice and striking terror to the heart of the young Athanasius, who admired him all the more for his reckless courage.
‘You see, my friend,’ von Spee cried, his eyes shining, ‘for one genuine witch — & I am prepared to doubt whether there ever was one — there are three thousand feeble-minded simpletons & three thousand raving madmen whose problems fall into the competence of doctors rather than inquisitors. It is the pretext that these things concern God & religion which allows these cruel supposed experts to have their way. But all they reveal is their own ignorance & if they attribute all these events to supernatural causes, it is because they are ignorant of the natural reasons governing things!’
Throughout his life Kircher repeatedly told me of his fascination for this man & the influence he had had on his intellectual development. Occasionally the young teacher would read him some of the magnificent poems he was writing at the time, those that were collected after his death under the titles of Counter-Nightingale & Golden Book of Virtue. Athanasius knew several of them by heart & on certain evenings of anguish in Rome, he would declaim some in a low voice, as you would say a prayer. He had a marked preference for The Idolater, a poem the Egyptian colouring of which he found particularly delightful. I feel as if I can still hear his resonant voice reciting it in a solemn, restrained style:
O mighty pennate Ishtar, adorèd, benefic,
Wellspring, lunar brilliance, cat-queen edenic!
With the salamander, live adornment of thee,
Andrognous, its lip tingled: Tutankhamen,
Hermes, puppets, sybils lie carolling welcome
loyalties — elders deploying stichomythia.
He would finish with his eyes closed & remain silent, absorbed by the beauty of the lines or some memory connected with the text. I would take advantage of that to slip away, sure as I was that I wold find him on the morrow back in his usual high spirits.
In 1616 von Spee was transferred to the Jesuit college in Paderborn, where he was to complete his noviciate & Athanasius, suddenly tired of Fulda, decided to go to Mainz to study philosophy. The winter of 1617 was particularly hard. Mainz was buried beneath the snow, all the rivers around were frozen over. Athanasius had flung himself wholeheartedly into the study of philosophy, above all that of Aristotle, which he loved & assimilated with astonishing rapidity. But having learnt from his experiences at Fulda, where his fellow students had sometime reacted brutally to his subtlety of mind, Athanasius worked in secret & refused to reveal how much he had learnt. Feigning humility & even stupidity, he was looked upon as an industrious pupil limited by his lack of understanding.
A few months after his arrival in Mainz, Kircher expressed the desire to enter the Society of Jesus. Since he was not, to all appearances, intellectually gifted, it took an approach by his father to Johann Copper, the Jesuits’ superior in the Rhineland, before the latter accepted his candidacy. His departure for the noviciate in Paderborn was put off until the autumn of 1618, after he had taken his final exams in philosophy. Athanasius was delighted by the news, doubtless in part at the prospect of seeing his friend von Spee again.
That winter ice-skating was all the rage; Athanasius developed such skill in this activity that he derived sinful satisfaction from showing off in front of his companions. Filled with vanity, he liked to use his agility & the length of his slides to leave them behind. One day, when he was trying to skate faster than one of his fellow students, he realised he could not stop on the ice: his legs went in different directions & he took a severe fall on the hard-frozen ground. This fall, which was a just punishment for his conceit, left Kircher with a nasty hernia & various abrasions to his legs, which the same pride made him keep hidden.
By February these wounds had become infected. Not having been treated, they started to suppurate badly & in a few days poor Athanasius’ legs had swollen so much that he could only walk with extreme difficulty. As the winter intensified, Athanasius continued to study in the worst conditions of cold & discomfort imaginable. Afraid of being rejected by the Jesuit college, where he had only been accepted with great difficulty, he remained silent about his state, with the result that his legs got progressively worse, right up to the day he was to leave for Paderborn.
His journey on foot across the Hesse countryside was veritable torture. In the course of the days & nights of the walk Athanasius recalled his conversations with Friedrich von Spee about the tortures inflicted by the inquisitors on those accused of witchcraft: that was what he was having to endure & it was only his faith in Jesus & the prospect of soon being reunited with his friend that helped him to withstand as best he could the sufferings of the flesh. Limping terribly, he reached the Jesuit college in Paderborn on 2 October 1618. Immediately after they had expressed their delight at seeing each other again, von Spee, who was there to receive him, squeezed his secret out of him. A surgeon, who was called urgently, was horrified at the state of his legs; he found them already gangrenous and declared Kircher beyond hope. Thinking an incurable sickness was enough in itself, Kircher said nothing about his hernia. The superior of the college, Johann Copper, came to tell him gently that he would have to return home if his health had not improved within the month. However, he called all the novices together in prayer to ask God to relieve the poor neophyte.
After several days during which Athanasius’ agonies only increased, von Spee advised his protégé to appeal to the Virgin, who had always watched over him. In the church in Paderborn there was a very old statue of the Virgin Mary which was said to have miraculous powers. Its fame was widespread among the ordinary folk of the region. Kircher had himself taken to the church & for a whole night he begged the Madonna to look down mercifully on the affliction of her sick child. Towards the twelfth hour he tried out his limbs to see if his supplication had been granted & was filled with a wonderful feeling of satisfaction. No longer doubting that he would be healed, he continued to pray until morning.
Waking a few hours later from a dreamless sleep, he found that both legs had healed & that his hernia had gone!
Look as he might through his spectacles, the surgeon was forced to admit the miracle had happened: to his great astonishment he only found scars & no trace of the infection which ought to have utterly destroyed his patient. Thus we can well understand the special devotion Athanasius retained throughout his life for Our Lady, who had succoured him in his ordeal, indicating how Kircher was predestined to serve God within the Society.
ON THE WAY TO CORUMBÁ: ‘The Death Train’
Uncomfortable on the hard seat in her compartment, Elaine looked out of the window and watched the landscape passing by. She was a beautiful woman of thirty-five, with long, brown, curly hair which she wore in a loose, artistically tousled chignon. She was wearing a lightweight, beige safari jacket and matching skirt; she had crossed her legs in such a way that, without her noticing or perhaps without thinking it important, revealed rather more than she should of the suntanned skin of her left thigh. She was smoking a long menthol cigarette with the touch of affectation that revealed her lack of experience of that kind of thing. On the other seat, almost opposite her, Mauro had made himself comfortable: legs stretched out under the seat across the compartment, hands behind his neck, headset over his ears, he was listening to the cassette of Caetano Veloso, swaying his head in time to the music. Taking advantage of the fact that Elaine was turned to the window, he looked at her thighs with pleasure. It was not every day that one had the opportunity to admire the more intimate anatomy of profesora von Wogau and many students at the University of Brasilia would have liked to be in his place. But he was the one she’d chosen to accompany her to the Pantanal because of his brilliant performance in the viva for his doctoral thesis in geology — passed with distinction, if you please! — because he had the handsome looks of an unrepentant Don Juan, and also perhaps, though to his mind it really didn’t come into consideration, because his father was governor of the state of Maranhão. ‘Cavaleiro de Jorge, seu chapéu azul, cruzeiro do sul no peito…’ Mauro increased the volume, as he did every time his favourite tune came round. Carried away by the beat of the song, he started humming the words, drawing out the final ‘oo’ sound as Caetano used to. Elaine’s thighs quivered a little every time the train jolted; inwardly he rejoiced.
Disturbed in her daydream by her companion’s irritating chirping, Elaine suddenly looked round and caught him examining her thighs.
‘You’d do better to show an interest in the landscape we’re passing through,’ she said, uncrossing her legs and puling her skirt down.
Mauro switched off his Walkman at once and took out his earphones. ‘I’m sorry, I didn’t hear. What did you say?’
‘It’s not important,’ she said with a smile, touched by Mauro’s worried expression. He was sweet with his dishevelled hair and the embarrassed look of a child caught in the act. ‘Look,’ she went on, pointing out of the window, ‘there are geologists who come from all over the world to see that.’
Mauro glanced at the lunar landscape moving almost imperceptibly across the window frame; bizarre lumps of red sandstone looking as if they’d been dropped there, haphazardly, by some gigantic creature. ‘Precambrian ruiniform reliefs, highly eroded,’ he said with a slight frown, as if reciting a lesson.
‘Not bad… But you could have added, “A magnificent prospect with a savage beauty that gives humans a sense of their fragility here on Earth.” Unfortunately that’s never in the geology manuals, not even in another form.’
‘You’re just making fun of me, as usual,’ Mauro sighed. ‘You know very well that I’m sensitive to that aspect of landscape, otherwise I’d have chosen history or maths. To tell the truth, I’m starting to get tired.’
‘Me too, I have to admit. This journey’s interminable, but remember that we’re going back to Brasilia by plane. The Department hasn’t a lot of money, so we had to come to a compromise. Having said that, I’m not at all unhappy that we’re taking this train, it’s something I’ve been dreaming about for ages. A bit in the same way as I dream of going on the Trans-Siberian Railway some day.’
‘The Death Train!’said Mauro in funereal tones. ‘The only train in the world where you never know if it’s going to arrive…’
‘Oh, don’t start that, Mauro,’ Elaine said with a laugh, ‘you’ll bring us bad luck.’
The Death Train, so called because there were always accidents happening or an armed attack, linked Campo Grande with Santa Cruz in Bolivia. Just before the border it stopped at Corumbá, the small town where the two travellers were to meet up with the rest of the team, two professors from the University of Brasilia: Dietlev H. G. Walde, a specialist in palaeozoology and Milton Tavares Junior, head of the Department of Geology. To economise on cost, Elaine and Mauro had gone by van to Campo Grande, the last town accessible by road before the Mato Grosso. They had left the van in a garage — Dietlev and Milton, who had done the first stage by plane, were to pick it up on the way back — and waited at the station until dawn. The train was a veritable antique on wheels, with a steam engine worthy of the Far West, slatted-wood carriages in faded colours and arched windows. The compartments resembled ships’ cabins with their mahogany veneer and a tiny cubicle with a little wash-basin in pink marble. In one corner there was even a nickel-plated steel fan mounted on a universal joint which at the time it was built must have been the height of luxury. Now the tap, eaten away by rust, merely managed a hint of moisture, the handle for opening the window went round and round without engaging, the wires of the fan seemed to have been torn off years ago and there was so much grime everywhere, and the felt of the seats was so badly torn it was impossible to imagine at what distant time in the past all this could have been the very latest in up-to-date comfort.
The heat was starting to get uncomfortable; Elaine wiped her forehead and unscrewed her water bottle. Under Mauro’s amiable gaze she was trying to avoid spilling water over herself every time the train jolted when they heard heard angry shouts from the corridor. Drowning out the racket from the axles, a woman’s voice seemed to be trying to rouse the whole world. They saw several people rush towards the rear of the train, followed by an obese conductor, uniform unbuttoned, cap askew, who stopped for a moment, panting, by the open door of their compartment. The shouts continued even louder, until they were cut off abruptly by two dull thuds that shook the partition and made the window and the fan vibrate.
‘I’ll go and have a look,’ Mauro said, getting up.
He pushed his way through the luggage blocking the corridor and came to a small group of people round the conductor. Armed with a little axe — ‘only to be used in case of fire’ — he was trying to wreck the carriage, starting with the lavatory door.
‘What’s going on?’ Mauro asked one of the peasants watching the scene impassively.
‘Nothing. Just a desgraçado who’s robbed a woman. He’s shut himself in there and refuses to come out.’
For a good ten minutes the conductor continued to attack the locked door. He took a step back, struck the door a powerful blow with the axe, sending an aftershock through the fat of his double chin, paused a moment to catch his breath, then continued. Mauro was dumbfounded by the profound serenity of the violence and, even more, by the appreciative nods of the audience.
When the door had finally been broken down, they saw a poor drunk asleep on the lavatory, a wallet on his knees. After having checked then pocketed the stolen item, the conductor set about extracting the sleeper from his bolt-hole. With the help of one of the passengers, he carried him out onto the platform at the end of the carriage, waited a few seconds, then pushed him off. Mauro gasped as he saw the body fall onto the embankment like a sandbag. The man turned onto his side, as if making himself more comfortable, put his hand over his face and continued to sleep.
‘If I could only get my hands on the bastard who stole my passkey!’the conductor muttered as he replaced the axe. Then, turning to Mauro, he said, ‘It was a good door, solid, they don’t make them like that any more.’