Authors: Edgard Telles Ribeiro
Copyright © 2010, 2014 by Edgard Telles Ribeiro
Originally published in Portuguese as
O punho e a renda
by Editora Record Ltda,
Rio de Janeiro, first edition, 2010; second edition (revised by the author), 2014.
Translation copyright © 2014 by Kim M. Hastings
from “Burnt Norton,” the first of the
, by T. S. Eliot. Copyright © 1936 by Harcourt Brace & Company.
Production Editor: Yvonne E. Cárdenas
Text Designer: Julie Fry
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without written permission from Other Press LLC, except in the case of brief quotations in reviews for inclusion in a magazine, newspaper, or broadcast. For information write to Other Press LLC, 2 Park Avenue, 24th Floor, New York, NY 10016. Or visit our Web site:
The Library of Congress has cataloged the printed edition as follows:
Ribeiro, Edgard Telles.
[Punho e a renda. English]
His own man / by Edgard Telles Ribeiro; translated from the Portuguese by Kim M. Hastings.
. Brazil — Politics and government — 20th century — Fiction.
2. Dictatorship — Brazil — History — 20th century — Fiction.
. Hastings, Kim M., translator.
869.3′42Z — dc23
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
For Ivan Junqueira and Luiz Augusto de Araujo Castro
I don’t claim to paint things in themselves, but only their effect on me
In the presence of certain realities, art is trivial or impertinent
Writing a country’s history may be difficult, but tracing a man’s story presents its own challenges. For a country, there is a vast array of information in the form of books and treaties, maps and images, leaders, legends, and archives. But a man? What kind of history does he have? Where would his secret maps be found? Or his boundaries? What might be hidden beneath his façade or detected in his gaze should he give in to temptation and study himself in the mirror one night?
My first memory of Max dates back to 1968 in Rio de Janeiro and was to some extent foreboding: his shadow cast over my desk at the ministry. Without my hearing his footsteps or picking up on his presence in some way, he had appeared behind my high-backed wooden chair and casually leaned over the document I was working on. I was writing by hand, as was customary at the time, on loose sheets of paper that would later be typed up by my secretary. At the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (which I had joined slightly less than a year earlier), such familiarity — appearing out of nowhere and peering at what a colleague was drafting — was a privilege reserved for senior personnel.
The shadow hadn’t set off any alarms for one prosaic reason: right then, my eyes were staring off into the distance, searching for the word that would best complete the sentence I was struggling with. Although the text, on the whole, was decidedly bland, that particular line wasn’t. Given how dear symmetry is to the young, the irrelevance of the whole demanded a term
that would glint like a blade in the sun. “
,” the shadow murmured.
As I turned toward the voice, the stranger cocked his head and smiled, repeating as if in encouragement: “
. That’s the word you need there. From the Latin.”
By then I was standing. I knew him only by sight; he worked at the secretary-general’s office. Extending a hand, he introduced himself. “Marcílio Andrade Xavier. You can call me Max.”
“My initials. My ex-wife came up with it.” Leaning against the desk, he crossed his arms, giving the conversation just the right touch of informality. “She couldn’t pronounce my full name. She was American.” He corrected himself: “She
American. She’s alive. Very much so, in fact.” He laughed somewhat bitterly, then added, “The name caught on here at Itamaraty because of the initials we use on our memos. So I became Max for good. With any luck, for posterity.”
I smiled at the joke but still wondered what he was doing in my office.
“I came to invite you to lunch,” my visitor explained. “At the suggestion of a mutual friend, whose name I won’t reveal just yet. He asked that we join him in his office and wait while he finishes up a report. He assured me that your dynamic personality puts you high on the list of lunchable colleagues.”
“According to him, you’re among the few people one can share a meal with and not suffer the after effects of
brought on by the rampant tedium of our environment.”
,” I ventured.
And so, laughing and exchanging half a dozen phrases in Latin, we went out in search of our mutual friend. I remember feeling quite pleased with this new colleague, and more than a little gratified to be receiving the attention of someone higher up — adviser to the second-in-command at the ministry, no less.
The conversation flowed easily. When we’re young, with our whole life ahead of us and a vague sense of immortality hanging over our heads, we crave virtuosity of every kind. Shining the spotlight on ourselves, we make outrageous statements and conjure affinities that will root us in familiar ground.
Max and I shared at least one affinity. A meaningful one, we would soon find out as we strolled between stairways and corridors: a passion for reading. We had devoured the same authors: Joyce, Proust, Flaubert, Chekhov, Fitzgerald, Machado, Borges, but also (and with equal appetite) Debray, Gramsci, Chomsky, Lukács.… As such, we spoke by way of metaphors. We could, whenever necessary, place unbridgeable barriers between us and our colleagues. This was largely because many of them seemed incapable of voicing a single thought unless it was first strained through the filter of reason and simmered over a low flame. But not so between the two of us — as became clear in fifteen minutes of conversation. In an environment where discretion prevailed, our behavior bordered on the irreverent. Without taking chances, of course — we avoided criticizing our leaders too pointedly, or exposing those in power to their own vulnerabilities.
Affinities of this nature pave the way for greater expectations — and for probing questions. Max showed curiosity regarding my background. He knew I was the son of a diplomat, but this alone wasn’t enough for him. He was interested in verifying the legends that circulated about my father at the ministry. Had he really come from such humble beginnings? Gone through the public school system? Toiled as a geography teacher at suburban schools? How had he managed to work his way into Itamaraty?
“He studied theology as a young man,” I explained. “He read a lot.…”
“Even so,” Max persisted. “Quite an accomplishment.”
And it was. My father’s obituary the previous year had made a point of saying so. The paper had emphasized his origins. Only
a rare few of his social class spoke other languages or had the wherewithal to devote themselves to studies that would grant them access to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Max’s persistence made me realize that the subject was of great importance to him. As for myself, I don’t recall being curious about his family roots just then. The urge to dig deeper would come as the years went by, spurred by a succession of events that gradually provoked the need for some explanation.
Deciphering Max’s inner workings thus evolved from initial feelings of affection to an atmosphere verging on unease and, later, duress. During this slow process, I would find out that Max descended from the more modest branch of the Andrade Xavier family, who hailed from the interior of Minas Gerais (and not Rio de Janeiro). This made him “doubly unlucky,” as he put it — given how near and yet removed he was from the wealthier, more aristocratic branch of the family. Max had lost his father while still a young boy. Following that loss, his mother had seen all the doors of her husband’s family close for reasons never explained. At the ministry, where Max felt he rightfully belonged, he had found the opportunity to reclaim the social status of his childhood.
This made me understand why the subject of ancestry, which didn’t matter much to me, was a concern for him, tied up as it was to his distant past. Why else would he have dedicated himself to painstakingly tracing the genealogies of his colleagues and superiors? And why would he feel compelled to refer to the good marriages some had made as being merely alliances that would advance their careers? I surmised that his marriage to the American, which had lasted just two years (“a youthful mishap,” he liked to call it), must have failed since it didn’t serve this purpose.
Be that as it may, and concerning this social topic, I came away from our lunch with the clear impression that in my new friend’s mind, the simple fact of my father’s acceptance into
Itamaraty had made him an aristocrat and, by extension, made me a second-generation member of a stately family. Those were probably the real roots of my “lunchable” status.
I remember trying my best that day to live up to expectations created about me. I spoke of films and literature. I praised
Eros and Civilization
. Having read Marcuse earned me points. I cited verses by Pound. I talked about politics, sports, and samba. Lowering our voices, we criticized the military and the coup of 1964 with a frankness unusual even among the younger set. I also knew to laugh at Max’s stories (which were quite good) and those of our mutual friend (which weren’t bad). We swapped secrets about women over dessert.