Translated by Margaret Jull Costa and Robin Patterson. Rochester, NY: Open Letter, 2016. 592 pages. $17.95.
A wind intermittently relieves the high insistent sun beating down on the far-off province. Inside a crumbling hacienda, a once dangerous woman lies dying. She is rotting from the inside, and the putrid odor penetrates even the thick walls of the old house. None of the members of the faded aristocratic family the woman has married into, nor their servant, nor the priest, seem to know what to do with her. But her son, André, pushes closer while she counters his every advance, “moved solely by despair, or something worse than despair, sharp and unremitting, fermenting in her soul like a concentrated ache, as ferocious as the thing gnawing away at her body. . . .”
Faulkner this could be or Lampedusa or—for the high religious intensity of the prose—Flannery O’Connor. Yet this is the opening scene of the masterwork of Brazilian novelist and playwright Lúcio Cardoso, Chronicle of the Murdered House, originally published in 1959 and now, fifty-eight years later, for the first time in English. The legendary translator Margaret Jull Costa, responsible for the prize-winning English editions of the work of José Saramago and Fernando Pessoa, teamed up with disciple Robin Patterson to translate the novel. With precision, they reveal Cardoso’s extraordinary skill in teasing out the inexpressible.
Cardoso, as the author Benjamin Moser points out in the novel’s introduction, “was a natural writer, a natural talker, and a natural seducer.” He called himself “an atmosphere,” not merely a writer, and made himself the shining star of Brazilian literary life midcentury, transforming the trajectory of Brazilian fiction. At fifty, three years after the publication of Chronicle of the Murdered House, Cardoso suffered a severe stroke; tragically, he never published again.
That Chronicle of the Murdered House is, according to the publisher, the only work of Cardoso’s to be translated into English is perhaps tragic too, for the novel is a work of delicate and baroque beauty. Told through first person accounts of various characters, it is as intricately woven as Faulkner’s 1930 As I Lay Dying and yet possesses a moral imperative all its own. Compassion and tolerance—Chronicle’s denouement is the recognition of these values hard-learned through Cardoso’s experience as a gay boy in backwater Minas Gerais and as a gay man willing to expose himself in order to flaunt those who wished him ill.
Cardoso’s appearance on American bookshelves, belated as it is, is itself the result of Moser’s long-time investigation into another Brazilian author, Clarice Lispector, whose collected Complete Stories were published in English last year (and reviewed in these pages). Why This World, Moser’s 2009 biography of Lispector, reveals the deep connection between the two authors. When he was twenty-six, having escaped Minas Gerais, working in a government propaganda office in Rio, Cardoso befriended Lispector, then an eighteen-year-old; he became her great friend, literary enabler, and muse (he is the basis for the character Daniel in her novel The Chandelier). Had he not been gay, she imagined they would have married.
Cardoso pours his torment and glory into Timotéo, the third son and tortured diva of the Meneses family, whose rupture is at the heart of the book and whose hacienda, the Chácara, is ultimately destroyed. Timotéo delivers the family’s—and the novel’s—surprising moral breakthrough.
Chronicle of the Murdered House spirals back from the opening encounter between André and the dying woman, Nina, to Nina’s arrival at the Chácara in Minas Gerais, lorded over since the death of the matriarch by her eldest son, the severe and plotting Demétrio. Actually, the impetuous Nina doesn’t arrive from Rio when she is supposed to, and this first carefully orchestrated hitch allows the reader to perceive the shame of her fiancé, second Meneses son, Valdo, in the eyes of his older brother. Timotéo, their preternaturally uncomfortable younger brother, hides away, wearing his mother’s dresses, his own power cloaked in madness.
Thus, when finally Nina descends on the Chácara, the reader already senses that she possesses reckless power. In person, it is clear she will drive all of the members of the house to desperation. “She was not only graceful, she was subtle, generous, even majestic. She wasn’t just beautiful, she was intensely, violently seductive,” observes the levelheaded Betty, assigned to be her maidservant, on that first encounter. “She emerged from the car as if nothing else existed outside the aura of her fascination—this was not mere charm, it was magic.”
Having lent Nina a powerful charge of his own starlit essence, Cardoso draws the reader into the whirlwind. Here the novel’s multiple narrator format proves so powerful, as the characters each reveal their guarded secrets. Nina grows quickly bored by the stultified air of the Chácara and seeks relief in hidden corners of the estate. As Demétrio withdraws into harsh silence, his dreary wife, Ana, goes to war with herself and Nina, whom she stalks in the shadows, her inner and outer life in desperate discordance.
Silence, one of the great ineffable subjects of the novel, descends on the Chácara, and becomes an element of cruelty. “It was as if we were living under constant threat of some extraordinary event, which could happen at any moment,” notes Betty, but her words only reinforce what the reader knows: in the silence, secrets mount, intentions grow veiled, distance separates those even living so close together—Cardoso’s frontispiece drawing of the Chácara shows the bedrooms stacked up as if cells of a monastery.
At first for Nina, the landscape is dusty and the hills of the Serra do Baú are as silent and distant as the Meneses family. Then she encounters violets growing in a patch near the gardener’s ramshackle hut and the gardener himself, a lithe young man, Alberto. He will bring her violets. What else Alberto brings her and what she really thinks of him isn’t precisely clear. “I began to imagine him not as a lover, but as a son, to whom I could teach things and warn of life’s dangers, saving him from himself and from others,” Nina writes later in a letter to her husband, Valdo. “Son, lover, what does it matter—loneliness is full of such traps.”
From here, Cardoso begins to move his characters, and the reader, in and out of traps, and some of them are hidden as if in a maze. A gun appears. Valdo injures himself. Alberto commits suicide. Nina and Timotéo, outsiders both, embrace the truth of their subversive souls amidst the tyranny of the “immutable” Meneses. They form a pact not to forget each other; if Nina should die first, he should place violets on her coffin.
In the novel’s frontier, between the violets Alberto places on Nina’s windowsill and the violets Timotéo is to place on her coffin, Nina escapes the Chácara, gives birth to André, gives him up to Valdo, and returns fifteen years later having never met the boy. Will he be her son or lover—or both?
Wondering this as the story turns flagrant, the reader is drawn into a conventional narrative trap. “(She was examining me meticulously, coolly, studying my chest—my ribs visible beneath the skin—pausing to look at a scar or at the point beneath which my heart was beating wildly),” recalls André. But Cardoso has something else in mind that isn’t quite so sorry or sordid. As the story builds to its shocking conclusion, the author’s use of parentheticals (a form of literary silence) mounts. “(Sometimes, succumbing to damp or simply time, a bit of plaster would begin to come loose, and I would carefully stick it back in its original place, as if I were restoring an image about to fade . . . ),” writes Ana as she faces dissolution. Cardoso skillfully reaches for the indescribable, not sin, not truth, but the honesty of youth and the cost of its beauty. “(Beauty is the ultimate goal of our inner fluids, a secret ecstasy, a concordance between our internal world and our external existence . . . ),” Timotéo concludes in his memoir. A complex, normative theology emerges here, which comes as a rush to the breathless reader. Its priest is in fact Timotéo, who turns in a last act performance worthy of Truman Capote. The lipsticked monster finds redemption. O! Why have we had to wait so long for you, Lúcio Cardoso?