Translated from the Portuguese by Adam Morris
“Vita brevis, sensus ebes, negligentiae torpor et inutiles occupationes nos paucula scire permittent. Et aliquotients scita excutit ab animo per temporum lapsum frudatrix scientiae et inimica memoriae praeceps oblivio.”
“The brevity of life, the failing of the senses, the numbness of indifference and unprofitable occupations allow us to know very little. And again and again swift oblivion, the thief of knowledge and the enemy of memory, makes a void of the mind, in the course of time, even what we learn we lose.”
“[ . . . ] Je saisis en sombrant que la seule verité de l’homme, enfin entrevue, est d’être une supplication sans réponse.”
— Georges Bataille
A cross on the brow
The facts of what I was
Of what I will be:
I was born a mathematician,
I was born a poet.
A cross on the brow
The dry laughter
I discover myself a king
Sequined in darkness
Time and wisdom.
God? A surface of ice anchored to laughter. That was God. Even so he tried to cling to that nothing, sliding frozen somersaults until finding the anchor’s thick rope and descending descending in the direction of that laughter. He touched himself. He was alive, yes. When the child asked his mother: and the dog? The mother: the dog died. And so he threw himself on a patch of earth curdled with squash, hugged himself against one, a twisted cylinder with an ochre head, and choked out: died how? died how? The father: woman, this boy’s a fool, get him off that squash. He died. He fucked himself said the father, just like that, he brought the clenched fingers of his left hand down against the flattened palm of his right and repeated: he fucked himself. This is how he learned of death. Amós Kéres, 48 years old, mathematician, stopped his car on the top of a small hill, opened the door and got out. From where he was he saw the university building. Whorehouse Church Government University. They all looked alike. Whispers, confessions, vanity, speeches, vestments, obscenities, brotherhood. The dean: Professor Amós Kéres, certain rumors have come to my attention. Okay. Care for a coffee? No. The dean removes his glasses. Gently chews one of their tips. Sure you don’t want some coffee? No thank you. Well, let’s see, I understand that pure mathematics avoids the obvious, do you like Bertrand Russell, Professor Kéres? Yes. Well, you should know that I never forgot a certain phrase from one of those magnificent books. One of my books? Have you written a book, Professor? No. I refer to the books of Bertrand Russell. Ah. And the phrase is this: “obviousness is always the enemy of correctness.” Of course. Well then, what I know about your classes is that not only are they not at all obvious, they…excuse me, Professor, hello hello, of course my love, obviously I love you, I’m busy right now, of course my dear, then I’ll take him to the dentist, I know I know . . . Amós passed his tongue over his gums. He should go to the dentist too (of course he had to go), with age everything gets worse he told me the last time I went, when was that again? it doesn’t matter, but he said Mr. Kéres there’s a tension all along your jawbone, the tension of a bankrupt executive, it’s amazing, don’t you wake up with pain in your jaw? I do. Then it looks like we need to adjust your arch. How much? Ah, it’s a difficult procedure. But how much? (but, my love, the boy’s just whining, he has to go, dentists these days are all hot babes, let me talk to him, just a second longer, Professor). Of course. Ah, it’s pricey, look we need to align all the top teeth and almost all of the bottom ones, and the bottom ones are extremely important, you should never lose a bottom tooth, they’re supports for future bridges, and yours down here is all worn away. (hey kid, daddy wants you to go to the dentist, don’t start with this, sure I’ll buy those sneakers, candy, I know, what? shorts? ah, I can’t promise it, all right I’ll take you I’ll take you, ok kid, hello, obviously it’s me my love, yes he’s going, I get home early yeah, bye-bye). Well now, where were we Professor Kéres? I respond: the obvious. Ah yes. He put his eyeglasses back on: you don’t seem to be taking me seriously. How’s that? I noticed that you had a bit of a smile there, let’s say, Professor, a bit of a condescending smile, as if you thought I were . . . silly? Just your impression, I was also recalling a phrase. Go ahead, Professor. And so then I say the phrase: “Hence we invent some new and difficult symbolism, in which nothing seems obvious,” and he rather liked it. Who’s that? Bertrand Russell. Ah. Let’s proceed, Professor, I can’t stay much longer, so please just take a leave of absence, 20 days, relax. But sir, you still haven’t been clear with me about the rumors. Very well: there are obvious signs of wandering off. Pardon? Of aloofness, if you like, yes, of aloofness on your part during classes, sentences that break off and only continue after 15 minutes, Professor Kéres, 15 minutes is too much, they say you simply disconnect. I disconnect? What sentences were they? It doesn’t matter, please just rest, take vitamins, tranquilizers. He takes off his glasses again, covers his top lip with his bottom one, sighs, smiles: let’s go let’s go, don’t worry yourself, you’ve always been impeccable, just excellent, but between us . . . The dean clasps me by the arm, squeezes his fingers around my wrist: between us, they’re not understanding anything anymore. Who? Your students, Professor, your students. Strange I said, in the last class we rethought diapers, beginnings . . . the square root of a negative number. I cited a mathematician from the 12th century, Brahmin Bhaskara: “the square of a positive number, as with a negative number, is positive. Thus the square root of a positive number is double, positive and negative at the same time. There is no square root of a negative number, since the negative number is not a square” nevertheless Cardan, in the 16th century…The dean bit his lower lip, or rather the right corner of the lower lip, stared at me for a while, and extended his hand: good luck, Professor, a leave of absence. I cross the patio. Then corridors, lawns. When I was a kid the writing teacher would ask us for three short stories. Short stories, boys and girls, do you know what short stories are? The nerds raised their hands. Very good, whoever doesn’t know can ask the others, very good. Two of my classmates showed me imbecilic little stories, the rustling of the fluttering leaves on the branches breezes on the face, etc. I wrote:
First tale (aka “short stories”) — Dear Mommy, I’m sick and tired of your nonsense about morality and family at the dinner table. I’ve seen you sucking Daddy’s cock plenty of times. Leave me in peace. Signed, Junior.
Second tale (aka “short stories”) — My love, think it over, you’re 50 and I’m 25. You say that it’s the spirit that matters. I understand, my love, but I gotta split. Don’t get depressed. We’ll still see each other now and then, okay? Signed, Laércio. All this was talk I heard while drinking guaraná on a balcony at a department store. He was a big strong guy, and she was squat and black-eyed.
Third tale (aka “short stories”) — His name is Sun and Adultery. My husband’s is Elias. My children are named Enilson and Joaquim. I want them all to die. Except him. (That first one, light and bed.) I’m very sorry, my God, but there it is. Signed: Lazinha. I like this one a lot. Adultery seemed to him in adolescence a beautiful word. Now too. After AIDS, less so. Light and bed was an inspiration. The teacher slapped him in the face. All the rest of the rustling of the fluttering leaves on the branches, breezes on the face, were awarded with a picnic. Only tip-top grades for those nerds. Amós was expelled. He flunked the year. He caught pneumonia. His classmates sent him a short poem: He thought he was a smarty-pants, the slick and lively sly guy / but the only one to get fucked / was Amós, little wise-guy.
Stuck between walls
I’m myself and the die:
I live separate from myself.
On all four sides
A taste for alacrities:
The chance to be thrown
Down your deep tunnel.
He had understood only in that instant. And now never again? He recalled everything perfectly. He had gone like always to the top of that little hill. He liked to be there, where you could still glimpse some dusky greens, a hurried lizard scurrying across a trail, and if he turned his back on the university building he would see fields of cotton and coffee. He would stay there just looking. Emptied. Sometimes he would ponder his modest destiny. Had he cherished any illusions? As a youth, he desired the non-obvious to be demonstrated, a short and harmonious equation that would scintillate the as-yet unexplained. Words. These were the fine veins that he never had managed to wholly extract from the mass of hard and rough earth where they lay deposited. He didn’t want deceiving effects, or empty sonorities. As a child, he never figured out how to explain himself. A hurricane of questions whenever he’d taken an aimless walk, just over that way to see the neighbors’ dog or the flock of parakeets that came around in the late afternoon, I just went overthatway, that’s all. They’d say: why? What for? What dog? At this hour? To see what about the dog, what parakeet? I’d respond: Over that way because they’re pretty. He’d blush saying the words over that way because they’re pretty. Later, he’d get furious, when they’d ask him about feelings. How to formulate exact words, various letters brought together, chained, short or long words, to extract from inside himself those fine veins that lay untouched there inside him? They were there, he knew it, but how to extract them? Everything would come undone. He liked reading Japanese poets. One of them, Buson, has a poem like this:
Behold the mouth of Emma O!
It seems that she’s about to spit
Poetry and mathematics. The black stone structure breaks and you see yourself in a saturation of lights, an unexpected clarity. An unexpected clarity was what he felt and understood at the top of that small hill. But he didn’t see shapes or lines, didn’t see contours or lights, he was invaded by colors, life, a flashless dazzling, dense, comely, a sunburst that was not fire. He was invaded by incommensurable meaning. He could say only that. Invaded by incommensurable meaning. And the previous night? His wife, the singular Amanda, ranted and raved from one corner of the room to another, her dark arms rising up and tumbling down agitatedly: Amós, numbers are fine when it comes to a bank account, okay? The nightgown is pale green, cotton, the one that sticks to her tits, her belly, he thinks I couldn’t have married or had a kid, and then the kid comes into the room: mom, dad is good at math, tell him to do this problem here. No way I say. I touch myself. I’m also in light-green pajamas. She’s crazy about matching colors. I look at the headboard. In the middle there’s a circular weaving, branchlike. What color? Light green. I feel a bit nauseous. All beds should be dynamited. This one. I look at the back of my hands, the veins seem more pronounced, I think of what these hands might have done. Carpentry would have been nice. Tables chairs, why not lecterns? Would I be kneeling now? Cots. Just a single person fits in a cot. Those narrow ones. The boy starts crying. I say give it to me later. Amanda: what’s the big deal, he did the problem himself and just wants to check? It’s bedtime. The boy keeps crying. What a sham all this of kids and marriage, I think of a shot in the chest and the other one’s still ranting eternally in her light-green nightgown, her tits, her thighs. A shot in the chest. It’s necessary to love, Amós, after all she is your wife, he’s your son. Go to bed, son, do it yourself, it’s better for you. The boy leaves. Come here, Amanda. She doesn’t come. It’s a long lecture. A few bits stayed with me: dinner, friends’ house, restaurants, sometimes dancing, why not. Amanda dragged on. Her arms continued their aerial battle. Dancing. I’m remembering Osmo, whose friend was he? I’m not sure, I know he killed one or two women because of this obsession with dancing. He was all tangled up with God, in abysses (he was a philosopher), and they were always wanting to dance. I try to make Amanda lie down. She wants to keep lecturing. A shot in my chest or in hers? I tell her to lecture lying down. She finally lies down. Just what is it between me and Amanda? What are feelings anyway? How is it that they vanish without a thread of vestiges? Were they ever there? Everything leaves a trace. In death, bones, later ashes. Vestiges in an urn. Someone’s footstep. He was wearing sneakers. This one was wearing boots. Look at the mark of the heel, right there. Threads of hair remain everywhere. Preserved teeth. They never go away if they’re well preserved. In the mouth they rot. In a metal box, that little tooth there: forever. Your little baby tooth, look, son. And a fully grown man of 50. That tooth there. Toujours. In aeternum. Where are you going, Amós? I’m going to go get my tooth from the drawer. Now? Yes now Amanda. I open the drawer and peer in. It’s there. Well now it won’t be. I go to the toilet. I flush. It winds its way down through the pipes, I presume, winds its way down, and then to the sewer? Forever in the sewer? Or will it get all worn down as it would in a mouth? Sewer-mouth. What did you do, Amós? Mouth-sewer. Mewer. I respond to the others. To some. I forget the “consider” “therefore” “let us assume” “thence it follows” and attempt the incoherency of many words, at first spelling some secretly beside my heart, for example, Life, Understanding, and if a question comes my way, empty a brass cylinder on the person who asks, died eh? died of letters. How so? Well, he asked this mathematician something and the guy hadn’t spoken anything but numbers for years, you see, and hemorrhaged words. What? Just that, spurts of words. The other couldn’t take it. The most learned cadaver that I ever saw, a beautiful thing, man, all darkened with letters.
Hilda Hilst (1930–2004) was born into one of the oldest families in São Paulo province and was regarded as one of the most beautiful debutantes of her generation in 1950s Paulista high society. By age 30, Hilst had rejected the constraints of bourgeois lifestyle, abandoning her promising law career and marriage prospects to smoke and drink with poets and artists at a time when such behavior was considered worthy only of prostitutes. After retreating from city life at age 36, Hilst spent decades in semi-isolation at the Casa do Sol (House of the Sun), an estate she constructed on lands inherited from her father’s coffee plantation. There, surrounded by a rotating cast of artists, poètes-maudits, occasional lovers, and a pack of dogs sometimes numbering more than one hundred, Hilst produced one of the most daring and original bodies of work in Latin American literary history. With My Dog-Eyes (Com meus olhos de cão), originally published in 1986, recounts the final days of Amós Kéres, a professor of pure mathematics who has begun a descent into madness. The first full-length book of Hilst’s prose to be translated to English, The Obscene Madame D (translated by Nathanaël), was released in 2012.
Adam Morris is a writer and translator living in San Francisco. Recent work has appeared in Public Books, Barge, The Coffin Factory’s O-bits fiction, Salon, and the Los Angeles Review of Books. He is a recipient of the 2012 Susan Sontag Foundation Prize for Literary Translation. His full translation of With My Dog-Eyes will be published in 2014.