HOW TO TREAT ONE’S POSSESSIONS
There is a creature living inside me as if he were at home, and he is. He is a black horse with a shiny coat and although completely wild – for he has never lived inside anyone before nor ever been saddled – although completely wild, this gives him that primitive sweetness of a creature without fear. His nose is moist and fresh. I love kissing that nose. When I die, the black horse will be homeless and suffer a great deal. Unless he can find another home where no one will be afraid of this creature who can be savage and at the same time so gentle. I must warn you that the horse is nameless: you need only call him in order to discover his name. Or perhaps you will not discover it, but once called with tenderness and authority, he comes. If his sense of smell tells him that a body is free, he comes trotting up quietly. But I should warn you not to be afraid when he neighs: you could easily be deceived into thinking some human being is giving voice to pleasure or wrath.
THE BIRTH OF PLEASURE (EXTRACT)
Pleasure brings so much pain that one almost prefers familiar sorrow to unaccustomed pleasure. True happiness cannot be explained or understood. It is best compared to the beginnings of some irretrievable disaster. This complete fusion is unbearably consoling – as if death were our greatest and final good, only it is not death, it is immeasurable life which comes to resemble the splendor of death. One must absorb happiness little by little – for it is emergent life. And let those lacking in strength cover each nerve with a protective membrane, with the membrane of death, in order to withstand life. That membrane might consist of some formal act of protection, of silence or some words without meaning. For pleasure is not to be toyed with. We are that pleasure.
FIVE STORIES ON A SINGLE THEME
This story could be called The Statues. Another possible title would be Murder. Or even How to get rid of Cockroaches. So I shall tell at least three stories and all of them true, because none of the three will contradict the others. Although they constitute one story, they could become a thousand and one, were I to be granted a thousand and one nights.
The first story, How to get rid of Cockroaches, begins like this: I was complaining about the cockroaches. A woman heard me complain. She gave me a remedy for killing them off. I was to mix together equal quantities of sugar, flour and plaster of Paris. The flour and sugar would attract the cockroaches, the plaster of Paris would dry up their insides. I followed her advice. The cockroaches died almost immediately.
The next story is really the first, and is called Murder. It begins like this: I was complaining about the cockroaches. A woman heard me complain. The remedy is prepared. And then murder ensues. The truth is that I had only complained in abstract terms about the cockroaches for they were not even mine: they came from the ground floor and climbed into our apartment through the pipes in the building. It was only when I prepared the mixture that they became mine, too. On our behalf, therefore, I began to measure and weigh the ingredients with somewhat greater concentration. I was gripped by a vague sense of rancor, by a sense of outrage. During the day the cockroaches were invisible and no one would have believed in the hidden evil that was invading our tranquil household. But if the cockroaches, like some dark secret, slept by day, there I was preparing their nightly poison. Meticulous and eager, I prepared the elixir of prolonged death. A nervous fear and my own guilty secret guided me. Now I chillingly desired only one thing: to kill every cockroach in existence. Cockroaches crawl up the pipes while weary humans dream. And now the mixture was ready, white as white could be. As if I were dealing with cockroaches as wily as myself, I cautiously spread the powder which seemed to have become part of my nature. Lying there in bed in the silence of night, I could imagine those cockroaches climbing up one by one into the kitchen where darkness slumbered, a solitary towel watching from the clothes-line. I awoke hours later, startled at having overslept. Dawn had broken. On a nearby hill a cockerel crowed.
This third story I am now about to tell is entitled The Statues. It opens with my complaint about the cockroaches. Then the same woman turns up. And so it goes on until I wake up at first light feeling drowsy and make my way to the kitchen. The pantry floor looks even more drowsy with its tiled perspective. And in the shadows of dawn, there is a purplish hue which distances everything. Looking down, I see blobs of white and shadows at my feet: a multitude of rigid statues scattered everywhere. Cockroaches which had petrified from the core outwards. Some are lying upside down. Others arrested in the midst of some movement which they will never complete. In the mouths of some of the cockroaches there are still traces of white powder. I am the first person to see dawn breaking over Pompeii. I know what this night has been. I am aware of the orgy enacted in the dark. The plaster of Paris must have hardened gradually in many of them as in some vital process, and the cockroaches, with increasingly painful movements, must have eagerly intensified the night’s frenzied pleasures as they tried to escape from their insides. Until they finally turned to stone with innocent terror and an expression, but such an expression, of sorrowful reproach. Others, suddenly assailed by their own core, unaware that their insides were turning to stone, suddenly crystallized like the truncated phrase: I love… Invoking the name of love in vain, the cockroaches sang on a summer’s night. While that cockroach over there, the one with its brown antennae powdered white, must have realized much too late that it had become mummified simply because it had not known how to use things with the spontaneous grace of the in vain: ‘Alas, I looked too closely inside myself! Alas, I looked too closely inside…’ From my impassive height as a human being, I witness a world’s destruction. Dawn breaks. Here and there, the stiff antennae of dead cockroaches quiver in the breeze. The cockerel from the previous story begins to crow.
The fourth story marks a new era in the house. The story begins in the usual fashion: I was complaining about the cockroaches. It continues up to the moment when I discover those statues made of plaster of Paris. Dead, of course. I glance at the pipes where this very night another swarm will appear, advancing slowly upwards in Indian file. Should I administer the lethal sugar night after night? Like someone who can no longer sleep without satisfying this craving for the nightly ritual. And should I spend my sleepless nights on the terrace? Eager to discover those statues my humid nights have erected? I trembled with perverse satisfaction at the vision of my dual existence as a sorceress. I also trembled at the sight of that hardening plaster of Paris, the depravity of existence which would shatter my inner form.
The cruel moment of choosing between two paths which I thought would divide, convinced that any choice would mean sacrificing either myself or my soul. I made my choice. And today I secretly wear the badge of virtue on my heart. ‘This apartment has been disinfected.’
The fifth story is called Leibnitz and the Transcendence of Love in Polynesia. It begins as follows: I was complaining about the cockroaches.
At home I have a painting by the Italian artist Savelli. I valued it all the more when I learned that he had been commissioned to design the stained-glass windows in the Vatican.
However much I study the painting, I never grow tired of it. On the contrary, I always find something new to admire.
In the painting, the Virgin Mary is seated beside a window and it is clear from her swollen belly that she is pregnant. The archangel at her side is watching her. And the Virgin, as if overwhelmed by the archangel’s message, prophesying her destiny and that of future generations, raises her hand to her throat with surprise and anguish.
The angel, who has entered by the window is almost human: but those long wings remind us that angels can move from one place to another without touching the ground. Those wings are quite human: they appear to be made of flesh and the angel’s face is that of a man.
This is the most exquisite and harrowing truth the world has to offer.
All human beings experience annunciation. With pregnant souls we raise our hands to our throats with surprise and anguish. As if each of us had learned at a given moment in life that we have a mission to fulfil.
That mission is by no means easy: each of us is responsible for the entire world.
My taxi was approaching the tunnel which goes to Leme and Copacabana when I saw the Church of St Teresa of Lisieux. My heart beat faster: I recognized in the depths of my suffering soul that I might be able to find refuge in that church.
I asked the taxi-driver to stop, paid him and got out. With humility I penetrated the cool shadows inside the church. I sat down on a pew and there I remained. The church was completely deserted. The overpowering perfume of flowers filled the air and almost suffocated me. Little by little my inner turmoil began to subside into sad resignation: I was offering my soul in exchange for nothing. For it was not peace I felt. I was conscious that my world had crumbled only to leave me standing there, a bewildered, anonymous witness.
I gradually forgot my sorrow and started looking at the statues of saints. They had all been martyred, for that is the path both human and divine. They had all renounced a greater life in favor of a deeper, more bruised existence. None of them had taken advantage of the only life we possess. All of them had been foolish in the purest sense of the word. All had become immortal in order to answer our pleas for mercy. And why, dear God, was it so necessary to sacrifice our most legitimate desires? Why this mortification in life?
I looked round the empty church in search of an answer and saw a great coffin in the center of the main nave. I got to my feet and drew near. Lying there was the effigy of St Teresa of Lisieux, her feet covered with flowers… I stood there staring.
Yet something puzzled me. Any statue I had ever seen of St Teresa depicted her as a young nun carrying flowers in her arms. But this St Teresa was so old that her skin looked like crinkled parchment. Her eyes were closed, her white hands crossed on her breast, the bright, red flowers burgeoning at her feet like a cry of life.
I realized at once that the effigy was not made of porcelain. What could it be then? It looked like wax. But wax would melt in summer or from the heat of the candles, so it could not be wax. I had never seen this material before. I knew that if I touched the effigy I would recognize the texture at once. When I was a little girl, Rosa our maid would get annoyed at my habit of touching everything and she used to say: ‘This girl’s eyes must be in her paws, she can only see things by touching them.’
Only by touching would I find out what that effigy was made of, but if the parish priest were suddenly to appear and catch me he would not be pleased. I looked around me. The church was still empty, so I furtively stretched out my hand to touch St Teresa’s face.
But before I could do so, two girls entered the church. Heading in my direction, they came and joined me beside the coffin. Both girls had a worried expression. We stood there in silence. Until one of the girls said to the other:
—‘I wonder when that lot are going to turn up for gran’s funeral. We can’t keep her lying here in church forever!’
No sooner had she spoken than I understood. Feeling quite sick, I realized this was not St Teresa after all but the corpse of an old woman. I had been about to touch a corpse. Almost. Saved just in time, when the old woman’s granddaughters unexpectedly arrived.
The very idea that I had almost touched a corpse made me go weak at the knees. I struggled to the nearest pew where I slumped down, feeling faint, and barely conscious. My heart was beating in all the wrong places: in my wrists, head and knees, as well as in my breast.
I could sense the pallor of my lips beneath my lipstick. Nor could I understand all this panic simply because I had almost touched a corpse – since death is part of life. Without death, life is incomprehensible, yet I had almost fainted upon touching what was also mine. I felt I had to get out of that church but could not stand. At last, after forcing myself, I struggled to my feet and staring straight ahead of me, I made for the door.
How can I explain what I saw outside? Already feeling dazed, I felt even more dazed as I walked out into the bright sunshine and bustling atmosphere with cars rushing past and everyone alive, so alive – only the old woman was dead although I myself had almost died after inhaling the perfume of those red flowers covering the feet of death.
Out on the street, I stood for ages inhaling the smell of life. It is a combination of flesh, of body odor and petrol, sea-breezes and perspiration under armpits: the smell of what still has to die.
I then hailed a taxi to take me home. I climbed in, pale and shaken, but as much alive as a fresh rose-bud.
A HAPPY MAN
Not so long ago I took a taxi and lit a cigarette. When we stopped at the traffic lights, the driver asked me:
—Have you a match by any chance, lady?
I handed him the box and as he returned it, but before he could thank me, without really thinking I said out of habit:
—Don’t mention it.
Whereupon he replied:
—I haven’t thanked you yet. Why did you say ‘Don’t mention it’?
—Oh, it’s not important.
—Excuse me, but it is important. You should have waited until I thanked you before saying ‘Don’t mention it’.
—It really doesn’t matter, I insisted, somewhat surprised.
—Of course it matters. His tone was that of a man defending sacred laws which had suddenly been violated. It was as if he had trodden on dangerous territory. I took a closer look at him, and saw just how little freedom he enjoyed and how much he needed to feel himself imprisoned, and others, too. I then tried to make amends by speaking to him gently:
—Really, young man, it isn’t all that important…
But he was not to be appeased:
—Next time, lady, you wait until you’re thanked.
There was nothing more to be done. His stubborn attitude was beginning to irritate me. For the rest of the journey we did not speak. And if ever there was mute silence, that was it.
RACING AGAINST THE TYPEWRITER
The world is so enormous, dear God, and to think that one day I shall have to die. How many moments have I left before death comes? I plead for more than moments. Not because those moments are so brief but because they are so rare and loving them can kill. Do I love you, precious moments? Reply, for life is slowly killing me. Do I love you, precious moments? Yes or no? I wish others to know what I shall never understand. I prefer to understand rather than be given explanations. Shall I have to spend my entire life waiting for Sunday to pass? And what about the charwoman from Raiz de Serra who gets up at four in the morning to work all day in the city before returning late at night to Raiz de Serra, where she falls into bed to be up at four next morning to go through the same exhausting routine. I shall tell you my mortal secret: living is not an art. Those who made such claims were lying. Ah! there are certain days when everything becomes so dangerous. But the typewriter goes faster than my fingers. The typewriter writes inside me. And I have no secrets apart from mortal ones. Those are all I need in order to become a creature with eyes, who will die one day. How can I explain what has just occurred to me? For I can now see that there is a price to be paid for everything, and that life is so costly it can even bring about death. To stroll through the countryside with a phantom-child is to walk hand-in-hand with what we have lost and, for all their beauty, those unending fields are of no help: hands clasp like claws for fear of getting lost. Perhaps it would be better to kill the phantom-child in order to be free? But what would then become of those great fields where no flowers have been planted other than that cruel little phantom-child? Cruel, because a child and demanding. Ah! I am too much of a realist. I walk alone with my own ghosts.
THE IMMORTAL MAN
Forgive me if I seem always to be writing about taxi-drivers. One of these days, I shall end up marrying a taxi-driver to avoid listening to any more of their tall stories. The conversation went like this:
—I’m going to sell up and emigrate to the United States.
I said nothing.
—There’s too much red-tape here in Brazil.
I continued to say nothing.
—Well, that’s not exactly true. I’m emigrating because I want them to freeze me.
—When people die in the States, they freeze the corpse and then defrost it later. And I’m scared of dying. Aren’t you?
The answer was no. I felt much more scared of him.
—And what happens when they defrost you?
—I’ll come back to life.
—But surely only to die again?
—Then they’ll freeze me again.
—So, you’ll never die?
Writing for a newspaper is not so demanding: it is light, it must be light, even superficial. Those who read newspapers have neither the will nor time to read in depth.
But to write something intended for a book often demands more strength than one seems to possess.
Especially if it means devising one’s own writing habits, as in my case. When I consciously decided in my early teens that I wanted to become a writer, I immediately found myself in a void. And there was no one to help or advise me.
I had to emerge from that void, to try and understand myself, and to forge, as it were, my own truth. I made a start, but not even at the beginning. The sheets of paper began piling up – nothing I wrote seemed to make sense, my frustration as I struggled to write something worthwhile became one more obstacle in the path of success. What a pity I destroyed the interminable narrative I then started writing under the influence of Hermann Hesse’s Steppenwolf. I tore it up, contemptuous of my almost superhuman efforts to master the craft of writing and come to terms with myself. And no one knew my secret. I did not tell a soul. I lived through that sorrow alone. One thing, however, did occur to me. It was important to carry on writing without waiting for the right moment, because the right moment never comes. Writing has never been easy for me. I knew from the outset this was my vocation. Having a vocation is not the same as having talent. One can have a vocation and no talent – in other words, feel compelled to write without knowing where to start.