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Authors: Jean-Marie Blas de Robles

Where Tigers Are at Home

BOOK: Where Tigers Are at Home
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Copyright © Editions Zulma, 2008
Originally published as
Là où les tigres sont chez eux
by Editions Zulma, Paris
Translation copyright © Mike Mitchell 2011
First published in the UK by Dedalus Ltd in December 2011
Production Editor: Yvonne E. Cárdenas

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:
www.otherpress.com

The Library of Congress has cataloged the printed edition as follows:

Blas de Roblès, Jean-Marie, 1954–
    [Là où les tigres sont chez eux. English]
    Where tigers are at home / Jean-Marie Blas de Roblès ; translated from the French by Mike Mitchell.
           p. cm.
    eISBN: 978-1-59051-563-1
    1. Foreign correspondents—Brazil—Fiction.   2. French—Brazil—Fiction.   3. Kircher, Athanasius, 1602-1680—Fiction.   4. Science—History—Fiction.
I. Mitchell, Michael, 1941-   II. Title.
    PQ2662.L354L313 2013
    843′.914—dc23

2012015748

Publisher’s Note:
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.

v3.1

For Laurence
Virgile, Félix and Hippolyte

In memory of Philippe Hédan

Contents

No one can walk beneath palm trees with impunity,
and ideas are sure to change in a land where
elephants and tigers are at home.

—GOETHE
Elective Affinities

PROLOGUE
ALCÂNTARA:
Whipping-post Square

“M
an’s swelling his pointed dick! Squaaawk! Man’s swelling his pointed dick!” Heidegger’s harsh, nasal, drunken-sounding voice echoed around the room.

Eléazard von Wogau looked up from his reading in sudden exasperation; half swivelling around in his chair, he grabbed the first book his hand lit on and threw it as hard as he could at the bird. At the other end of the room the parrot, with a vigorous, multicolored ruffling of feathers, rose from its perch just enough to avoid the missile. Father Reilly’s
Studia Kircheriana
landed with a crash on the table beyond it, overturning the half-full bottle of
cachaça
. It shattered on the spot, soaking the book that had fallen apart.

“Oh, shit!” Eléazard groaned.

For a brief moment he wondered whether to get up and try to save the book from further damage but then, catching the Sartrian look of the large macaw, which was pretending to be searching for something in its plumage, its head thrown back in an absurd
attitude, its eye crazed, he decided to return to Caspar Schott’s manuscript.

It was pretty remarkable, if you thought about it, that such a find was still possible: a completely unpublished manuscript that had come to light in the course of an inventory at the National Library in Palermo. The librarian had not thought the contents worthy of anything more then a brief article in the library’s quarterly bulletin together with a note to the director of the local Goethe Institute. It had taken an exceptional concatenation of circumstances for a photocopy of this handwritten manuscript—the biography, written in French by an obscure German Jesuit, of another, equally forgotten Jesuit— to reach Brazil and Eléazard’s desk. In a sudden access of zeal, the director of the Goethe Institute had taken it upon himself to communicate the discovery to Werner Küntzel, the Berliner who for several years had been attempting to demonstrate how the binary language of computers was rooted in the scholasticism of Ramon Llull and its later variants, notably that of Athanasius Kircher. Always inclined to get carried away, Küntzel had immediately proposed it to the Thomas Sessler publishing house. Balking at the cost of translation, the publisher agreed in principle to a subscription edition and, on Küntzel’s advice, had commissioned Eléazard to establish the text and provide a commentary.

You old bugger, Werner, Eléazard thought with a smile, you’ve really no idea …

He hadn’t seen him since the distant days, already disappearing in the mists of time, of their meeting in Heidelberg, but he well remembered his weasel face and the nervous twitch causing the obscene quiver of a little muscle in his cheek. It suggested repressed tension, ready, it seemed, to explode at any minute, with the result that it sometimes made Eléazard forget what he was saying, an effect perhaps more or less consciously intended by Küntzel.
They had corresponded from time to time, although in fairly formal tones on his part, and Werner had never received more than a postcard, occasionally two, in response to the long letters in which he went into detail about his life and his successes. No, really, he didn’t realize to what extent his own life had changed, nor what resources he had had to find to return to his old love. No doubt he knew Kircher’s works better than anyone—fifteen years of close acquaintance with a famous unknown are generally sufficient to procure one that useless privilege—but Werner had no idea how far behind he had left his youthful ambitions. Eléazard had long since consigned the thesis he had been working on in Heidelberg to oblivion, even though he continued to evoke its shade as the sole motivation for an obsession that kept surprising him a little. He had to admit: he collected anything closely or distantly connected with the life of that grotesque Jesuit with the same obsessiveness as some people collect bottles of whiskey or cigarette packets long after they’ve stopped drinking or smoking. First editions, engravings, studies or articles, scattered quotations, everything was grist to his mill to fill the void left by his long-ago abandonment of university life. It was his way of remaining faithful, of satisfying, even if at the same time mocking, an appetite for knowledge of which, long ago, he had not shown himself worthy.

“Soledade!” he shouted without turning around.

It wasn’t long before the young mulatto’s strange, beaming clown’s face appeared. “Yes,
Senhor
?” she said in her velvety voice and with the intonation of someone wondering what could be wanted of her so abruptly.

“Could you make me a
caipirinha
, please?”


Pode preparar me uma caipirinha, por favor?”
Soledade repeated, imitating his accent and errors of syntax.

Eléazard repeated his request by raising his eyebrows, but she just wagged her finger at him, as if to say, “You’re incorrigible!”

“Yes,
Senhor
,” she said before she went, not without making a face from which the tip of a pink tongue protruded.

A mixture of African and Indian, a
cabocla
as they said here, Soledade had been born in a village of the Sertão. She was only eighteen but from adolescence she had had to move to the town to help feed her overnumerous brothers and sisters. For five years the interior regions everywhere had suffered from drought; the peasants were reduced to eating cactus and snakes, but they could not bring themselves to abandon their patch of land and preferred to send their children to the large towns on the coast where they could at least beg. Soledade had been luckier than most: with the help of one of her father’s cousins she had found work as a servant with a Brazilian family. Shamelessly exploited and thrashed for the least failure to carry out her employers’ orders, she had been delighted to accept an offer of work from a Frenchman whose eye she had caught at a
feijoada
given by his colleagues from the office. Denis Raffenel had been more attracted by her smile, her silky black skin and her beautiful young girl’s body than by her domestic skills; but he had treated her kindly, not to say respected her, so that she was perfectly content with the double wages he paid and the minimum work she was asked to do to earn them. Three months ago Eléazard’s divorce had happened to coincide with the departure of this heaven-sent Frenchman and he had asked her to come and work for him, partly to please Raffenel but mostly because he was alone. Since she knew him from having seen him several times when he visited Raffenel and since he was French as well—she would have died rather than go back to work for the Brazilians—Soledade had accepted immediately, though she did demand the same wages, a pittance to be honest, and a color television. Eléazard had agreed and one fine day she had moved in.

Soledade did the washing, the shopping and the cooking, cleaned the house when it suited her, which was rarely, and spent
most of her time watching the insipid soaps on TV Globo, the national channel. As for the ‘special’ services she had provided for her previous employer, Eléazard had never requested them. He had never even entered the little room she had chosen for herself, out of indifference rather than thoughtfulness, for which Soledade seemed grateful.

He watched her as she came back, once more enjoying her casual gait, her very African way of sliding over the ground with the irritating slap of her bare feet. She placed the glass on his desk, made a face at him again and left.

Taking a sip of his drink—Soledade got the perfect balance between
cachaça
and lime—Eléazard gazed out of the window in front of him. It gave directly onto the jungle or, to be more precise, the
mata
, that luxuriance of tall trees, twisted lianas and foliage that had retaken possession of the town without anyone objecting. From his first floor Eléazard had the feeling he was plunging straight into the heart of organic life, a little like a surgeon bent over a stomach open to his curiosity alone. When he had decided to leave São Luís to buy a house in Alcântara he had been spoiled for choice. The old baroque town, the jewel of eighteenth-century architecture in Brazil, was falling into ruin. Ignored by history since the downfall of the Marquis de Pombal, engulfed by the forest, insects and damp, it was inhabited by a tiny population of fishermen too poor to live anywhere but in shacks made from corrugated iron, clay and cans or in tumbledown hovels. From time to time a grower would appear, wild-eyed at having stepped out of the great forest so abruptly, to sell his harvest of mangoes or papayas to the dealers who went to and fro between São Luís and Alcântara. It was there that Eléazard had bought this immense, dilapidated house, one of the
sobrados
that in former times had contributed to the beauty of the town. He had acquired it for what seemed to him next to nothing but which represented a substantial sum for
most Brazilians. Its façade looked straight out onto Pelourinho Square, with the abandoned Church of São Matias on the left, and on the right, also open to every wind that blew, the
Casa de Câmara e Cadeia
, which is the town hall and prison. In the middle of the square, between the two ruins, of which only the walls and roof were left, the
pelourinho
still stood, the ornate stone column where refractory slaves used to be whipped. A tragic symbol of civil and religious oppression, of the blindness that had led some to massacre thousands of their fellow men with a clear conscience, the whipping post was the only one of all the monuments of the town that had remained intact. Even though they allowed their pigs to wander freely inside the church and the town hall, none of the
caboclos
who lived there would have allowed the least indignity to be inflicted on this testimony to thousands of years of suffering, injustice and stupidity. For nothing had changed, for nothing would ever shake those three interlinked pillars of human nature, and in that column, which had defied the ravages of time, the locals saw the symbol of their poverty and degradation.

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