Now that I’ve explained the title, I turn to writing the book. First, though, let’s go over the motives behind my putting pen to paper.
I live alone with a servant. The house I live in is my own. I decided to have it built with the aim of satisfying a desire of mine so personal that I’m embarrassed to put it into print, but here goes.
One day, many years ago, I decided I would build in Engenho Novo a replica of the house I grew up in on the old Rua de Matacavalos, a house that would look and be laid out in the same way as the old one, which no longer stands. The builder and painter understood the instructions I gave them very well: it’s the same two-storey building, three windows in the front, a verandah out back, the same bedrooms and living rooms. In the main living room, the paint work on the ceiling and walls is more or less identical: garlands of tiny flowers carried in the beaks of large birds are spaced out in intervals. In the four corners of the ceiling are the figures of the seasons, and in the centre of the walls are the medallions of Caesar, Augustus, Nero and Massinissa, their names underneath… Why these four I don’t understand. When we moved into the house on Matacavalos, it had already been decorated this way a decade earlier. It must have been the taste at the time in the Americas to incorporate a classical flavour and ancient figures into paintings. The remainder of the house is in much the same style. I have a small yard, with flowers, vegetables, a casuarina tree, a well and a washing stone. I have old china and old furniture. Now at last, as before, there is the same contrast between life within the house, which is tranquil, and life without, which is rowdy.
Clearly my aim was to tie together the two ends of my life and revive adolescence in old age. Well, sir, I managed neither to recreate what had been nor what I had been. As with all things, even if the exterior remains the same, the character underneath is different. If only other people were missing, one can more or less get over their loss. But I lack something of myself, and this lack is everything. What we have here, if I may make such a comparison, is like the dye put in beards and hair that only conserves the external habit, as they say in autopsies; what’s inside does not take to dye. A certificate stating that I am twenty years of age might deceive a stranger, as might any false document, but not me. The friends I have left are of recent times; those from times long past have gone to study geology in God’s acre. As for my female friends, I’ve known some for fifteen years, others less, and almost all of them believe in their own youthfulness. Two or three have others believing in it, but the language they use has you reaching for a dictionary so often that it’s tiresome.
Even so, a life that’s different does not mean a life that’s worse, just not the same. In certain respects, that old life appears stripped of the charms I once found in it; but it’s also lost many of its painful thorns, and I still retain, in memory, some sweet and happy recollections. Truth to tell, I go out sparingly and I speak even less. I do little recreationally. Most of my time is spent tending to my vegetables, gardening, reading; I eat well and I don’t sleep badly.
Now, just as everything becomes wearisome in the long run, so too did this monotony end up exhausting me. I wanted some variety, and I thought to write a book. Jurisprudence, philosophy and politics came to mind, but they did so without the necessary excitement in tow. Later I thought of writing a History of the Suburbs, although one less dry than Padre Luís Gonçalves dos Santos’ memoirs about the city.1 It was to be a modest project, but it demanded documents and facts for a start, all long and dull. It was then that the busts painted on the walls spoke to me and said that, because they weren’t able to bring back the days long since gone, I should take up a pen and recount some of them. Maybe their recounting will beguile me and the old shades come lightly to pass by, as they did for the poet — not the one from the train, but the author of Faust: “You’ve come again, restless shades…?”2
I was so delighted with this idea that even now the pen trembles in my hand. Yes, Nero, Augustus, Massinissa and you, great Caesar, who urge me to write my own commentaries, I thank you for your counsel, and I will put to paper the reminiscences that come to me. In this way, I will relive what I lived then, and I will strengthen my hand for some other greater work. OK then, let’s begin by evoking a celebrated November afternoon, one which I’ve never forgotten. There have been others, better and worse, but that one never faded from my mind. You’ll come to understand why, reading.
1 A reference to Memórias Para Servir à História do Reino do Brasil (Memoirs Contributing to the History of the Kingdom of Brazil), which recounts events in Brazil during the time João VI of Portugal had moved his court to Rio de Janeiro from Lisbon (1809-1821) to avoid Napoleon and the French army.
2 In the notes to John Gledson’s translation of Dom Casmurro, it’s claimed that this line is the first in Goethe’s Faust. While it certainly looks like the line comes from Goethe’s Faust, I couldn’t track it down — and it’s definitely not the first line of the masterwork.