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
It couldn’t be real.
I put down the book with the feeling that something sinister was happening. I know it’s common for life to imitate art and vice versa, but not in such a scabrous way. The main character in that story was me, a bizarre me, disguised with another name but still me, me down to the last detail. I easily recognized myself in those pages, daily scrutinizing my feces, intrigued with the possible meaning of the strange, multiple fecal shapes floating in my toilet bowl. Who else in the world, besides me, kept a notebook of excrement?
I reread the story three times to make sure I wasn’t misinterpreting it. I admit that I am a compulsive reader and that I often rewrite in a dilettante fashion stories by my favorite writers. Not that I’m a critic or a plagiarist, or even worse, lack imagination. I rewrite them out of a sense of justice. Some characters deserve a better fate. Raskolnikov, for example, should never have been sent to Siberia, much less married that bore Sonya. In my Crime and Punishment, which is called Crime Without Punishment, Raskolnikov, besides killing the two useless old women, commits a series of murders and thereby improves humanity, which was in fact his original plan. And my Lolita doesn’t end up in some godforsaken part of the world. She drugs and castrates the pedophile Humbert Humbert, after first having the presence of mind to rob him.
“You have what someone once called an inventive memory,” said Eunice, my librarian friend and sole reader. “You and liars.”
But this time there was nothing in the story except myself, a me with my old habit of observing my feces developed to the point that, starting from that practice, the author created a new science, appropriately christened copromancy: divination through examination of the shape of the fecal bolus.
It was already past 1:00 when I put down the book and went to take a shower, thinking about how the writer could have gained access to my private life. Who had told him about my habits? Someone who lived in my building? A nosy neighbor? Belmiro, the doorman?
I had my coffee naked to enjoy the cool from the air conditioning. When I began shivering from the cold, I got dressed and went down Marrecas toward Senador Dantas. At the door to the building I ran into my crippled guy selling tapioca cookies. He was waiting for me. I was part of his daily accounts. I bought two packages, opened one, and went on walking, eating those noisy, bland things that everyone in Rio loves.
Summer had already begun. And it’s true that in Rio de Janeiro summer works in perpetual motion: season in and season out all we have is excruciating heat in which walking two blocks is enough to make you look like a wet dishrag. That’s the price we pay to live in a landscape that “shatters the retina.” Heat, sun, sweat—all those things disorient me. I don’t like going out of the house.
I continued walking, puzzled. How is it possible that the author of “Lúcia McCartney,” The Savage of the Opera, and The Brotherhood of Swords was interested in shit the same way I was? Could he be trying to establish some kind of connection with me? A partnership? At what level?
In any case, it wasn’t he but I who’d had the idea of replacing the narrow toilet with one with a large bowl. I had carefully researched a way to allow my excrement to float without losing its original form, had gone through several catalogs of sanitary porcelain fixtures until finally finding one that didn’t constrain my feces.
The phrase “God made our shit for a reason” was also mine, something I always said as I leaned over the toilet to sketch my fecal output. Though I don’t believe in God, I do believe in rules, which is the same thing. I’ve learned thoroughly the Kantian teachings that everything on the planet happens according to laws, know there are principles ruling all phenomena and the way they interconnect, and also am aware that, although we don’t know those rules, they exist, and our shit is no exception.
I recall clearly the day I wrote the phrase “feces are a cryptogram.” How could it be there, printed in that book that had just been published?
I took from my pocket the notebook where I regularly draw my eliminations and checked the latest entries.
Could it be that excreting ciphers and codes was something common to many, or even all, human beings, including renowned writers? How could anyone write that sentence if they were not stealing it from my imagination?
A pity that the writer hadn’t clarified in his story the semantic and hermeneutic aspects of his decipherment process. That could be proof of the plagiarism. Yes, that was definitely plagiarism, if not literary—after all, I’d never written a similar story—at least of life, for that was my history, my life, a fact that made the story even more frightening.
Was it right to literarily clone a person’s life while he was inadvertently pursuing his own destiny? And what if that plagiarism interfered with my future? Was I now condemned to die on the eighth, like the character in “Copromancy”? I had never seen my feces braid into the number eight. What if it was an omen?
The thought terrified me.
Did that author have the power to read my mind? To steal my ideas? How? A special camera hidden in my house by spies disguised as residents of my building?
I didn’t say any of that to Eunice when I entered the National Library. I handed her a package of cookies and invited her for coffee before resuming my activities as archivist.
“Mind if I keep this book a couple more days?” I asked, showing her the copy of Secretions, Excretions, and Follies.
“That won’t be necessary. I have a present for you,” she said, placing on the counter a package wrapped in silver paper with gold stars.
“What’s this?” I asked.
“Today’s your birthday,” she replied.
I hadn’t remembered the date. “I don’t like this. You shouldn’t spend money on me,” I protested.
“I’ll spend my money as I please,” she said. “And you deserve it. You’re so good to me, you bring me cookies when you drop by, and you invite me to the movies. Who else can I talk to about books? The other employees are a bunch of ignoramuses. How can anyone spend the day in a place like this and not like to read? Go ahead. Open it.”
I felt bad. It was out of self-interest that I flattered Eunice, though I did like her. Eunice took care of the coming and going of novels I wanted to read, often xeroxing them for me, despite it being against library rules.
I opened the package and saw at once the flowing hair of Botticelli’s Venus marking the cover of Secretions, Excretions, and Follies, the same book I was reading. Brand-new. A cold terror ran down my spine.
“Pay attention to the detail on the first page,” she said enthusiastically.
I opened the book and saw the inscription: “To Jonas, my dear colleague in the craft, a big hug, Rubem Fonseca.”
“How did you get this?” I asked in amazement.
“It was easy. He shows up here now and then.”
“Are you kidding me?”
“I was the one who helped him the first time.”
Eunice told me that Rubem Fonseca still had authorization from the library administration to visit the Fichet safe, the place where the most valuable holdings were kept, and that Darlene, who was responsible for that department, always accompanied him.
“I was dying to tell you,” continued Eunice, “but your birthday was coming up and I preferred surprising you. I even asked Darlene not to shoot off that big mouth of hers. He’s researching a Bible. How about that?”
“Darlene can give you the details.”
“Are you sure it’s a Bible? Isn’t Rubem Fonseca an atheist?”
“Is he? I don’t know. All I know is he’s a gentleman. You read all that profanity in his literature, all that eroticism, and think right away you’re dealing with a brute. Big mistake. Every time he comes by here, he says, ‘Hello, Dona Eunice,’ ‘Good afternoon, Dona Eunice.’ Just like that. He knows my name. Saturday I bought the book, and yesterday when he arrived I mentioned your birthday and said you also wrote. He called you ‘colleague in the craft,’ isn’t that nice?”
“Gone to lunch. Did you like the gift?”
I thanked her, asked Eunice to let me know if he showed up again, and went to the archives section more confused than when I came in.
Was this really happening? Why hadn’t Darlene told me? Who was lying? Could Eunice be a spy for the writer? The problem was that Eunice and Darlene didn’t know about my feces album or my practice of drawing sketches of my excrement. Those aren’t the kind of habits you tell a woman about. I can barely manage to shit if I know some female friend is in my house, and to me that’s precisely where a relationship starts to fall apart, in the bathroom. There are certain intimacies you can’t share with the person with whom you make love. To be sure, I’d never made love with Eunice, and not because of her harelip. I have nothing against ugly women, but neither do I have anything in their favor. I prefer pretty ones. Eunice had a lot of qualities, but charm and beauty weren’t her strong suit. Maybe she’d been rummaging around in my desk drawers. But, even if she knew my secret, why would she betray me?
It was more likely that Darlene was the spy. She had access to all the rooms of my apartment, to my closets and drawers, might perfectly well have found my notebooks, not only the small one I use for quick notes, but also the album with its more elaborate drawings and phenomenological considerations about my feces.
I left there filled with demoniacal thoughts, feeling myself part of some macabre plot.
Darlene called me as soon as she returned from lunch. “Like, my mojo worked,” she said with her characteristic lack of verbal manners. “Now you’re crawling at my feet ‘like a rat.’ I found out you called me eight times, isn’t that right?”
I went to look for her in the rare books section.
“Why didn’t you ever tell me about Rubem Fonseca?”
She wrapped her arms around the back of my neck. “How about a hi-there-Darlene-how-are-you first?”
“Hi there, Darlene, how are you? Show me the Bible that Rubem Fonseca is researching.”
“You like this blouse?” she asked, referring to the tight-fitting leopard-skin print whose low-cut neckline was insufficient to hold back her sexual desires. “I bought it thinking of you and paid next to nothing. Very sensual, don’t you think?”
“Very. What about the Bible?”
She sighed, as if not believing in our future, got the four-sided key, and opened the Fichet safe.
“What does he want with that Bible?”
“It’s a very special book,” she said. “There are only seven or eight of them scattered around the world, and that’s reason enough by itself for someone to come here and do research, don’t you think?”
As we talked, Darlene carefully handled the copy. “But maybe he’s going to, like, write a novel that, you know, tells the story of a woman like me, whose job is taking care of rare works.”
I had seen many valuable items in that section, such as books of hours illustrated in gold and lapis lazuli, with psalms written in literary calligraphy and illustrations of heaven and hell so stunning that anyone would feel unworthy merely to look at them. The Mainz Bible wasn’t the most beautiful, but I knew its value put us among the eight greatest national libraries in the world.
“What did you talk about?” I asked.
“He does his research off in his corner, silently, and I stay here, keep to myself, like, each of us doing our thing.”
“So you don’t want to tell me.”
Darlene laughed. “Are you jealous?”
“I think people are deceiving me,” I said, unsure whether I should lay my cards on the table.
Her eyes widened and she put her hands on her hips. “I just love it. I love a jealous man, like the kind who raises a fuss about your bikini. Are you going to raise a fuss about my bikini?”
Darlene knew how to make me feel uneasy.
“Just because of that, I’m going to tell you everything. Well, first, he’s already rounded the Cape of Good Hope, beyond good and evil, which by my calculations means he’s pushing eighty. But he’s in good shape. What else? He didn’t strike me as the dilettante type, interested in talking about nothing but his own books, which nowadays is rarer than any of the manuscripts we have here. Isn’t it impressive how people talk about themselves? Eunice, for example. Me me me!”
“He’s reserved, all the time taking notes.”
“What kind of notes?”
“How should I know? I’m not indiscreet or impolite. Look how beautiful this page is. Had you ever seen this Bible before?”
Darlene turned the pages carefully, positioning herself so that I was forced to maintain a certain distance from the volume. “Every time I have in my hands works of this kind,” she continued, “I think to myself: there’s a chain that unites all of us, unites Gutenberg, who published this Bible in 1462, to the first person who bought it, and then the second, and the third, and so on, all the way to Dom João VI, a centuries-old chain that unites all who read it, bought it, sold it, that began with Gutenberg and ends here, and since I’m the end of that chain I can say I’m a very special girl who joins hands with figures like Gutenberg, Dom João, Camões, Mozart, and Machado de Assis. Nothing wrong with that, is there? That’s what I told Rubem Fonseca the first time we spoke. And he replied that there are in fact people who possess my super talent, who can see up close, know what I mean? You could, he told me, become accustomed to those rarities and handle them bureaucratically. Because, like, that’s our tendency, we transform everything into habit and routine. Like, the way you are. You live it up with me on the weekend and barely say hello when we meet at work. Did you ever think about that?”
I didn’t have a way to ask any more questions. In any case, there wasn’t much to do there. I went back to my office, after promising Darlene I’d take her to the movies that night. In exchange, she would inform me the next time Rubem Fonseca came to the library.
I spent the rest of the afternoon in agony, looking at the hundreds of folders that had accumulated around me. There had once been fewer. And I had been more enthusiastic about my work. I had an additional desk, from the time when the head of the library was considering hiring another archivist to help me. It had been a long time since anyone had talked about that, maybe because there’s no room for anybody else in this space.
I’m concerned about how fast the papers multiply. At night, I imagine, they copulate like rabbits. Once, a friend of mine who’s a ballerina with the Municipal Theater dropped by here for coffee and was flabbergasted at the sight. “This would make a wonderful set,” she said. “Imagine all these piles on a stage, alongside a single table, with the sound of rain …” I paid no attention to the rest of her idea, such was my sadness at hearing her describe my place of work. “It could be worse,” as Darlene once said. “Just think if you were a court clerk, taking care of certificates, receipts, and deeds.”
My documents weren’t valuable, but they were a far cry from being just a pile of paper. What irritated me was the fact that I couldn’t go from my chair to the window because of the sea of paper between us. I missed the time when I could open it to let in light and watch the movement on Araújo Porto Alegre, the mass of lost souls wandering about, cripples, paralytics, the lame, with their chewing gum and candies that only get sold when there’s a show at the Municipal.
Around 4:00 it occurred to me that it would be good to make a sweep of the scene. The idea that there could be eyes and ears in the walls watching my private moments put an end to any remaining inclination toward work. I disassembled the telephone, turned drawers inside out, rummaged through the stacks of papers. If the author was pursuing me, at least he was leaving no sign of his crime.
I also rechecked my fecal cryptograms to see if I could find some clue, some clarification as to what was going on. What had Rubem Fonseca come to look for in the library? What connection did our holdings have to the science of copromancy?
The technique of copromancy demands deep concentration, and at that moment I lacked the peace of mind necessary for the practice of any hermeneutic exercise. Besides which, I could feel the physical presence of something blocking my comprehension, something between me and the sign, a stranger, an intruder, a type of gaseous mass that was anesthetizing me and keeping me bound to my desk without divining a letter, an image, a message, anything.
At the end of the afternoon I stopped by Darlene’s section and we went to see Michael Almereyda’s Hamlet, starring Ethan Hawke. It wasn’t easy to dissuade her from the idea of seeing Chocolat, directed by Lasse Hallström. “I don’t go to Lasse Hallström films,” I explained, “he’s what’s someone called ’Miramax’s favorite prostitute.’”
“And who said I care about Hollywood directors and sluts?” Darlene said. “I want to see Johnny Depp, who’s the very reincarnation of a Greek god. He’s the return of Hellenism.”
In the bus, on the way back from the theater, Apoena, Darlene’s mother, called and asked her daughter to return immediately.
“Something must’ve happened,” Darlene said. “My mother’s not an alarmist. Can you excuse me?”
Actually, I felt relieved. I was bombarded by confused thoughts, and maybe Eunice could help me. I reached her on her cell phone, on her way home, and invited her to have a snack at a bar near the Odeon.
“Is it to celebrate your birthday?”
“Yes,” I replied.
“I’m already on the bus, but if you don’t mind waiting half an hour we can even get dinner someplace.”
We agreed to meet at a barbecue restaurant in Lapa, which quickly proved to be a mistake, as neither one of us is a glutton or a confirmed meat-eater, and so we spent the better part of the time shooing away the waiters who kept interrupting our conversation with their skewers of chicken, pork, beef, liver, and other bloody cuts.
At one point Eunice told me of her plan, if one day she opened a publishing house, to launch In Search of Lost Time in 60 volumes.
“If the series were published in small installments, easily digestible, maybe people would read Proust. The problem with Proust is the size. Seven books. Who reads a brick nowadays? A book has to be slim, fit in your purse.”
I said that her idea would be a failure, at least financially. “The question isn’t one of compacting,” I said, “because that’s done all the time with abridgements, annotated versions, literary guides to Shakespeare, Dante, Ulysses, all the greats. They even have children’s versions in comic books now. But none of that has led to more reading and greater knowledge of the classics. The ideal would be to publish the seven volumes of Proust as a single one, with five thousand pages. What the editorial market wants nowadays,” I went on, “contrary to what you said, is precisely bricks, because the reader is lazy. If you buy a hundred-page book and don’t read it, you feel you’re throwing money away, and that’s frustrating. Who wants to be frustrated? But if you buy a Thomas Pynchon, that’s different. It’s heroic to read Thomas Pynchon, it’s heroic to read Don DeLillo, it’s heroic to read all those thousand-page Americans. And readers aren’t heroes. They buy things to read during long vacations, in eternity, in other words, never.”
Eunice laughed, her cheeks flush from the effect of the alcohol. The moment had come.
“We’re true friends, aren’t we?”
“Of course we are,” she replied.
“If Darlene didn’t get in the way we’d be even better friends.”
“Would you tell me if there was something going on against me at the library?”
I leaned closer and lowered my voice.
“Do you know if they put in any wiretaps or cameras in my office?”
“Why would they do that? Are you being investigated?”
I paused before continuing, this time in an even lower tone.
“Rubem Fonseca,” I said, showing her the book she had given me as a gift.
“I don’t understand.”
“Did he ask about me?”
Eunice looked at me in astonishment.
“Did he ask? Did he speak of me? Mention my name?”
“I didn’t know you knew him.”
“I don’t know him.”
“Then how could he ask about you?”
“That’s the question. Do you think he could be pursuing me?”
I noticed that her lip had turned pale. Maybe she knew something.
“There have been other cases,” I said, “of similar invasions. Kidnappings.”
Eunice continued to look at me, startled. “He didn’t say anything about our language?” I insisted.
“Cryptographic language. Codes. Signs. You know what that is?”
“Good God. What are you talking about? I’m starting to get scared.”
I looked deep into Eunice’s eyes. I know when people are lying. She wasn’t bluffing, and to calm her I broke into forced laughter, which in reality sounded quite natural and was a specialty of mine. I had learned years before that laughter is a kind of eraser. It doesn’t matter what was spoken, if you laugh afterward people forget everything you said. Or they think you weren’t serious. Or both.
Translated from the Portuguese 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.
Patricia Melo, born in São Paulo, came onto the scene in the mid-’90s with her debut novel, Acqua Toffana. Readily acknowledging her intellectual debt to Rubem Fonseca, she has produced a series of popular and critical successes, all of them translated into English. Her second novel, The Killer, won international acclaim and was followed by In Praise of Lies, Inferno, Black Waltz, Lost World, and her work in progress, Jonas, from which this excerpt is taken.
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