I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
Last night I had a dream. That’s silly, not it at all. That’s not how I wanted to start. “Last night I had a dream”—sounds like some Catholic boarding school diary. It’s not like that at all. But I did in fact have a dream. An unexpected dream, about those two little Buddhas there. I used to dream about them a lot, but I stopped decades ago; everything is decades ago. They’re very small, the details aren’t there, I bought them from a street vendor in Bangkok, they’re of sentimental value. I don’t recall where I read about two small Buddhas, one male, the other female, having sex—those age-old Chinese things; I never get it right, I mix up dates and get all confused. There was a kind of temple, the house of the fortunate Buddhas—isn’t that pretty, the house of the fortunate Buddhas? I think so—with effigies just like these, but enormous. Engaged couples would go there before their marriage to venerate the statues and touch their genitals. It was a kind of apprenticeship or familiarization process, an introduction to a fulfilling sex life. I think they’re in very delicate good taste. In ancient Rome, there was a time when women engaged to be married would caress the glans of Priapus, or sit on it. From what I’ve read, the most frequently used glans, the public glans, so to speak, must have been a veritable easy chair. Priapus was replaced by St. Gonzalo in our polytheistic Catholicism. Catholics are polytheists. Forgive me if you’re Catholic. As a matter of fact, I was also raised as a Catholic, took catechism classes, took first communion dressed in white organdy, spoke only when absolutely necessary on Good Friday, ate nothing but fish every Thursday, and so forth. Not only that, I was brought up to consider Protestants riffraff and I was enraged at Luther, who seemed to me like the devil incarnate, in the World History books. It took me a time to rid myself of that stupidity, and today I even feel a certain fondness for Protestants, except the Calvinists, obviously, and that low-class hysterical evangelism that assails us these days. Church teachings irritate me. I prefer to read the Bible for myself and to think whatever strikes me as correct to think about what I read; I want to find out the good news for myself, not have some priest with the voice of a laryngitic countertenor teaching me idiocies, underestimating my intelligence, and repeating made-up nonsense like the impudence of declaring that in the Pentateuch there are commandments such as remaining chaste, that unbaptized saintly men went to a kind of limbo, and so many other fabrications from the Councils, for I’ve read the Bible from Genesis to Revelation and never seen any of that in it. And why don’t they also observe what’s in Leviticus? They pretend it’s not there. And the Pope is Christ’s vicar? Certain popes, everyone knows what certain popes were like, all of them infallible and so many lowlifes. Anyway. I’m not going to talk anymore about that; it’s a waste of time.
Besides which, there’s nothing wrong with being a polytheist; in some ways it’s much better than believing in just one impossible-to-comprehend God. And besides everything else, I’m tired of not saying whatever comes into my head, and mind you I was never much one for acting like that, but the small degree to which I was is now too much for me. I still have a few carryovers from that imbecilic legacy, from which I have to free myself before I die. The disease, this disease I’m dying from, also contributes to my present mood. I don’t know who it was who said the prospect of being hanged the next morning does wonders for your concentration. An excellent observation. Nothing personal against anybody, I don’t speak to offend anyone in particular; it’s as if it were a generic philosophical attitude. My maternal grandfather was an aristocrat, extremely elegant, who spoke fluent French and German, visited Europe several times, a highly cultured man, but after he reached a certain age he would fart in public. I saw him fart in front of the governor appointed by the dictatorship under the regime of the New State. The governor had come to lunch, and after lunch they were talking in the parlor, with my grandfather raising his rear end at every turn and thunderously breaking wind. When my grandmother complained, he would say that what’s trapped wants to get out and that everybody farted, including the governor, and he wasn’t about to bottle up a fart at his age. Whoever wanted to was free to do so, but he wasn’t going to.
But I was saying that Catholics are polytheists, installing the saints in place of specialized gods. The Greeks and Romans had a minor god for everything, late periods, failed artists, impossible transactions, bad debts, weddings, drunken musicians, farmers, goatherds, everything, everything. Catholics replaced the gods with saints. Musicians? St. Cecilia. People with bad eyesight? St. Lucy. Old maids? St. Anthony. And so forth, as you know. Even places. St. Joseph of Somewhere or Other. Diana of Ephesus, exactly the same thing. The gods weren’t defeated or eliminated, they continue as immortal as ever and merely changed their names, they adapted to the changes. I give real lectures on this, I’m the queen of lectures, at times I must be a bore. But you can rest easy, I’m not going to give you a lecture; after all, you’re being paid, we have to work, let’s get to work. Just one last tiny reference to St. Gonzalo, because now that I’ve started and I’m compulsive, I have to finish. St. Gonzalo doesn’t exist. Or rather, he does exist, but he never existed. To the Church, there is no St. Gonzalo and never was. But a great lacuna was declared, in my opinion because of the lack of Priapus, that clamored to be filled. St. Gonzalo doesn’t exist, but I’ve seen him in processions with priests and the whole bit, and women quietly singing obscenities; he’s a deflowering and consoling saint for lonely women. In the small village near the plantation on the island, according to what my grandfather recounted, there was an image of St. Gonzalo with an outsized wooden phallus larger than his body. The body was made of clay but the phallus was hardwood and set on an axis at its base so that when a string was pulled from behind, it rose and remained erect. I never saw it, but the old black women on the plantation swore that in the old days there was a procession every year with the image of St. Gonzalo and the women would fight over who got to repaint the phallus, which guaranteed success in the world of art, not to mention that the lucky woman would be very well serviced for the next 364 days.
Of course! It’s simple, it’s because I wanted to give it a title. Of course! I’m like what they say Buñuel was like: my method of exposition is digression. I know I’m a long way from being senile. Obviously I’ve rambled a bit, but I’ve always rambled, and St. Gonzalo fascinates me; there was reason for me to recall the dream. Of course it’s because of the title. Erase that from the recording. No, don’t, later you can take everything out, the tape will only officially begin when I say so. Don’t erase anything now. Let me do it, when you put it all down on paper. It’s better this way, we’ll just let everything flow, and later I’ll do the triage, put it in order, etc. Take it easy, take it easy. I don’t even know why this, this—what’s the name of this thing we’re producing? Let’s call it a socio-historic-literary-porno testimony, ha ha. Or sociohistoricliteraryporno, all run together, which must look pretty in German. Yes. No. Yes, I don’t know why this testimony even has to have a title, but why not? Those two Buddhas … Later on I’ll talk about those two Buddhas, but now isn’t the time. Remind me, it’s a very interesting story. But for the moment they interest me because of the title. I think it’s pretty, with a certain rhythm to it, I think it’s nice. This testimony is par la présente called The House of the Fortunate Buddhas. It’s good, among other reasons because it doesn’t mean anything, like all good literary titles. A guy will see it and wonder why the Buddhas; it might generate the wildest explanations. How many people will read this testimony, how will it turn out, is anyone at all going to read it? Yes, they will, because I’ve come up with a more sophisticated scheme than anything you’d find in a spy film. You’re part of it, but I’m not going to tell you how; it doesn’t matter. You transcribe the tapes here, leave the tapes here, all that’ll remain behind is your word. Which may come in handy, you never know. Tell the story, lie a lot if need be, say it’s all true, and it really is. At first I thought I was going to write just for myself and leave it to some resident of Here, There, or Elsewhere, amid great scandal and prudish hemming and hawing, to try to explain everything in keeping with his fossilized standards—what a messed-up species we are, how much time we waste, when there’s so much to be discovered! Here, There, and Elsewhere were countries founded by a great friend of mine, Norma Lúcia—later I’ll have more to say about her, she’s indispensable—all inhabited by scoundrels like old Pedrão, the professor of Roman Law (I’ll talk about him later too) who lived in other countries, in other worlds. Here, There, and Elsewhere, good rogues, they live there and I live here. But I’m not going to leave this to them; I don’t believe in posterity. The title I was going to give it was Memoirs of a Libertine, but I’m not going to call it that; it’s in too good taste for a people that never read Choderlos de Laclos. I’m not going to waste it by throwing pearls before swine. In Here, There, and Elsewhere one can’t be truly refined, with a refined title like that; it has to be pseudo-refined like them, so The House of the Fortunate Buddhas is good enough, it’s calmer, it spares me from irritation spawned by stupidity and ignorance. Of course deep down I hate that title in good taste that I’ve just conceded, but it’s done, and they can like it or lump it, verily I say unto you. I haven’t raised it to an art form like my grandfather, I don’t have the courage to do what he did publicly, I’m still tied down by a lot of absurd hangups. It’s a pity, because Memoirs of a Libertine would be so much better than this faggy Fortunate Buddhas thing, but in this world you can’t have everything, so give them mysterious Buddhas. Anyone who’s stupid should ask God to kill him and the devil to carry him off. In the beginning, I thought I would leave these delusions—as my professor of Forensic Medicine used to say—to be published after my death. But I saw that was dumb; nothing is worth doing after death. I want to walk down the street and see the faces of the people who read it, all of them pretending it has nothing to do with them. None of that petty-bourgeois business of after death. Before death, everything before death, isn’t that what it’s all about? And besides, I’d be taking the chance that they’d find a way to destroy the originals. Don’t ask how; they’re diabolical.
The house of the fortunate Buddhas. Un, deux, trois, okay? The house of the fortunate Buddhas. Preface, introduction, preliminary notes, something along those lines. I decided to give this testimony orally, instead of writing it, for several reasons, the major one being arthritis. Cut that, you clown, I don’t have arthritis and have no plans to get it. All right then, preface. I decided to do this testimony orally instead of in writing mainly because it’s impossible to write about sex, at least in Portuguese, without appearing to have just emerged from some dive in the red-light district, or else write “vulva,” “vagina,” “the grotto of pleasure,” “his tumescent sex,” and “he abruptly penetrated her.” Speaking, it comes more naturally, I don’t know why. What else? I wish I had the ability to utter labyrinthine inanities like certain psychiatrists and sociologists, or some of those French thinkers who appear in the culture section of the newspapers only, in most cases, to disappear immediately afterward, and who say nothing but still intimidate people with their insipid comments. But I don’t know how to do that; it’s one of my shortcomings. Forget it.
Right, what else? I’ve always thought it chic—it must be a by-product of some childhood trauma—to put in the frontispiece “any similarity, etc., etc.,” but in this case it’s just the opposite. Attention: any similarity is well taken. No, that’s too highfalutin, any resemblance is more than merely coincidental; no similarity is coincidental. Names changed to protect the guilty. If the shoe fits, wear it. No, no, that strikes me as a bit facetious. I’m going to reedit everything; I want a decent preface. Let’s write down some topics and I’ll develop them afterward. Topic one. Being a woman, being an older woman? No. No, no, and no! Later I’ll finish this preface, or I won’t do a preface. My grandfather—my other grandfather, the German, an unbearable Prussian, a born Nazi like every other German, although till his dying day he declared himself anti-Nazi, also like every other German—used to say that anything that needed a preface, including work and a woman, in that order of preference, was worthless. Especially women, I think, because he didn’t pay much attention to books, except to trash them and want to burn them all. The only reason he didn’t like Hitler was that Hitler was a low-born Bavarian, not because of Nazism. He held barbecues, got drunk, and burned books. He bought a lot of copies of a work by Eduardo Prado, very famous at that time, so he could later burn them in the barbecue pit. And he gave speeches declaring that Brazilians were stupid and that the only intelligent ones were the cannibals; I never understood what he meant by that. My mother used to tell me that Eduardo Prado was extremely good-looking, with rebellious hair that blew in the wind of the Do Chá overpass. A lady once saw him, my mother told me, and couldn’t control herself, exclaiming: “What a handsome man!” My father had a pathological terror of being cuckolded, and my mother was aware of it, so she would very shamelessly, ingeniously shamelessly—my mother was an encyclopedia of shamelessness—act in a subtly ambiguous way and talk about Eduardo Prado, Douglas Fairbanks, Rudolph Valentino, Ramon Navarro, imitate Mae West, recite Byron and Castro Alves with orgasmic intonations, calling Castro Alves Cecéu as if she’d gone to bed with him the day before; what the old man had to bear in silence was a martyrdom because of the matter of consistency between what he professed and what he really felt. He paid great lip service to being liberal, my poor old man; he died young, younger than I am now, at 66. That’s it, then, no preface. I’ll see about it later. Decisions, decisions. In any case, here’s the story. Oral testimony, dah-dah-dah, I’ve already said that, because it’s easier to say a four-letter word than to write a four-letter word; a passport is needed for works to go from the spoken to the written. Some never make it; humanity is very strange. What else? Explain that I’m a great man and not a great woman? All that’s the foolishness of someone with nothing to do or who’s prisoner of the idiosyncrasies of the language, like those feminist American cretins who wanted to change history to herstory, as if the his at the beginning of the word were the same as the masculine possessive pronoun; human imbecility has no limits. I am a great female man, the same way that the great male men are great male men. Some people look for fights because in Portuguese the name of the species is accidentally masculine and not neuter, as it possibly is in some other language—as if grammar explained anything in this case. Explain that there’s no such thing as great men and great women; there are great male men and great female men. There’s nothing more ridiculous than a gallery of great women this and great women that; I shrivel up with shame. The species is human, like Panthera uncius, Panthera leo, a jaguar or puma, by grammatical happenstance one of them of the feminine gender and the other of the masculine. It’s solely a matter of language. Explain it as one would explain to a Martian. To an Earthling. Listen, Earthling, stop being feebleminded. Well, useless ambitions; let’s get to work. What else? Nothing; I’m really in doubt about this preface. Review the need for a preface.
I hate to say this, but the truth is that I’m a bit nervous. My family always disdained any kind of prissiness; that’s how I was brought up. My family’s not worth a thing, but it’s great, especially the older members. We have fantastic ancestors. All of them crooks, and they hide behind those pre-World War I sets of silverware and dishes and those lordly West Indian manners. My grandfather, as I said, was Prussian, a Prussian from Brandenburg, who hated everybody except Friedrich II. His idea of a wonderful time in Europe was spending four days in Potsdam, drooling in the Orangerie and dreaming of impaling Poles. A really great family. His wife was a Catholic from Westphalia, who bathed only on Saturday and never laughed except for hysterical guffaws that lasted for hours, generally on Sundays, after Mass and before the odious cabbage. A tremendous family. I know my great-grandparents only from the oval portraits scattered here and there. I don’t count the ones in the small museums; I just remember that my great-grandfather João used to terrify me with his creepy bilious eyes, in a portrait surrounded by blond people, in the main parlor of the plantation house in Lençóis. João had a huge number of slaves, and an old Bahian journalist, one of those we pretend to remember and whose name was given to a street in Brotas, published six issues of the fearless independent pro-republic newspaper 14th of August, that journalist, what is his name, wrote—nobody believes it today; human beings are truly stupid—that my great-grandfather had discovered a cure for stammering. The wretch falsified documents and even his own soul—can you believe that the no-good was a mulatto? Dark, as they used to say at the time—and made up a bunch of lies about some number or other of slaves, at least a couple of dozen, whose mouths my ancestor ordered stuffed with hot eggs. He loved to shove a hot egg in somebody’s mouth on any pretext at all, or even without one; they say he even stuck one in the mouth of my great-grandmother Sinhazinha, his wife. He really did order the eggs to be inserted, but obviously the effect was invented by the reporter. Six of those slaves, that scoundrel said, were stammerers and were cured of their stammering after the hot eggs. Naturally he didn’t defend putting hot eggs in anyone’s mouth, but the lesson should be noted that medical science could cure that distressing speech defect through a therapy based on several applications of, I guess, a not-too-hot egg. Mankind is very ungrateful to its benefactors, as my great-aunt Ines used to say; she had an absolute horror of blacks and used to call any white who slept with a black or mixed-blood “buzzard-ass.”
I can see it all as if it were today. The old plantation house in Outeirão, which when I saw it had walls covered with algae ranging from green to black, insects in every corner, bullfrogs that in winter meowed like cats, plants crackling everywhere, a roof overgrown with cypress vines, the occasional emerald-colored snake, the last of the rain still dripping from the trees onto the large-leafed plants below, some foul odors and tepid smells coming from the cracks in the flagstones, birds singing and chirping, a few faded tiles on the walls of the porch, four wild hens pecking underneath the sparse banana plants, stones buried by the mud, lizards climbing the trunks of the mango trees, two or three motuca flies buzzing around, and, in spite of everything, a silence that was painful. Yes. It was that day, in that big old musty house that had a bookcase made of raw sucupira wood whose joints had been warped by the dripping rainwater. I knew that bookcase very well, but even so, or maybe because of that, I began rummaging through the books wrinkled from the humidity, their pages exuding an unforgettable odor, and with every page I turned, that emanation brought a chill to the middle of my back and drove me wild. There were all kinds of books. I remember well O Guarany, with the old-fashioned y-spelling, illustrated with the figure of Pery, also spelled old-style, who I thought exhibited a fascinating bulge on the left side of his feather-duster loincloth, and Salambô, displaying a nearly nude mulatto woman on its cover, Don Quixote in long underwear in the grip of hallucinations, a bound edition of Anatole France disintegrating, everything, everything. What did the voice of my great-grandfather João Ferdinando Bibiano Rafael sound like as he ordered hot eggs stuck into people’s mouths? How did it sound?
I’m fixated in the oral phase, surely the cannibalistic oral phase; I just love any form of ingestion. At that time I was already pretty fixated, today that’s perfectly clear. I’m not one for psychoanalysis. At home, long before Freud, to be sure, it was always thought obscene to go around revealing intimacies and weaknesses to a stranger, but from time to time I use a phrase that employs the jargon of psychoanalysts, which, I don’t know, I think is kind of inevitable for my generation. So, for lack of a better observation, I’m certain I fall in the category of those fixated in the oral phase. I went for years without understanding anything, and the idea works for me. Because I’ve always enjoyed ingesting, except intravenously, and I’ve gone on doing it my whole life, despite being a bit blasé these days. So I stood there, smelling those books and feeling chills run up my spine. I still smell things, but only old books, and, as I said, I’m kind of blasé. It must be age, I’m sure it’s age, not that I consider myself old, of course. But I’ve lived almost seven decades, and something happens in that time. Confusion, I’m getting things all mixed up. I wonder if I’m doing psychoanalysis? Horror, you rent-an-ear, horror. Well, in a certain way you and this recorder are rented ears. I don’t know. Right, it must be age. I detest the phrase “senior citizen,” one more American hypocrisy of the many we’ve imported; Americans are the kings of euphemistic hypocrisy. I can’t stand old people, really old people, who act like they’re happy. Old age is a curse and doesn’t bring anything good. Cut out everything that went before, I don’t think I myself understand a thing of what I just said. I’m the same and I’m not the same. Enough, I have to put some order into this, and even delirium needs to be a little bit organized along some kind of line; it’s necessary to bring method to madness, more or less what Polonius said of Hamlet’s flipping out. Thy son is mad, but there is method in his madness—wasn’t that what he said, more or less? I like Shakespeare, I’ve read him since I was a little girl, even before I could understand a word of him. For that matter, I wonder whether I understand him today. No one understands anything, be it of life or of Shakespeare, who died more than ten years younger than me, without knowing that he was Shakespeare. Voltaire came down hard on Shakespeare, everybody came down hard on Shakespeare, on life … Enough!
His coming, our encounter, that’s what I was going to talk about, to finally begin the testimony. Without showing off, there’s been enough showing off. I can speak of his coming without any embarrassment; it was rather violent, or somewhat violent, if you prefer. He used to play with me and my brother Otávio. We liked him, my grandfather from time to time allowed him to have lunch with us, but he was only one of the little black boys on the plantation, part of that band of slaves that my grandfather owned. They weren’t officially slaves, but they were slaves in fact, and most of them were satisfied, making babies and pulling the wool over my grandfather’s eyes. An interesting figure, my farting grandfather, too bad I never had the opportunity to spend more time with him, physically and psychologically. There wasn’t any way, though he liked me and I liked him. I think he knew all the time that he was having the wool pulled over his eyes. I don’t think he knew—he knew, but of course he didn’t care, he was the very embodiment of a pragmatic-egocentric person. Naturally people like him can no longer exist.
Translated by Clifford E. Landers.
Clifford E. Landers has translated from Brazilian Portuguese novels by Rubem Fonseca, Jorge Amado, João Ubaldo Ribeiro, Patrícia Melo, Jô Soares, Chico Buarque, Marcos Rey, Tereza Âlbues, and José de Alencar and shorter fiction by Lima Barreto, Rachel de Queiroz, Osman Lins, and Moacyr Scliar. Landers received the Mario Ferreira Award in 1999 and a Prose Translation grant from the National Endowment for the Arts for 2004. His Literary Translation: A Practical Guide was published by Multilingual Matters Ltd. in 2001. A professor emeritus at New Jersey City University, Landers lives in Naples, Fla.
João Ubaldo Ribeiro (b. 1941), a member of the Brazilian Academy of Letters, is the author of numerous works of fiction as well as the uniquely Brazilian genre of commentary known as the crònica. In the United States his best-known works include the epic historical novel An Invincible Memory, which he himself translated into English, and The Lizard’s Smile.
Originally published in
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee