Those Cousins from Sapucaia! by Machado de Assis
Translated from the Portuguese by John Gledson
1st published in Brazil in the 1880s. From the collection A Chapter of Hats
[the narrator has been to church with his visiting cousins]
It happened at a church doorway…It was a lady, who’d passed by right next to the church, slowly, her head bowed, leaning on her parasol; she was going up the Rua da Misericordia. To explain my agitation, it has to be said that this was the second time I’d seen her. The first was at the races, two months before, with a man who, to all appearances, was her husband, but could just as easily have been her father. She was a bit of a spectacle, dressed in scarlet, with big showy trimmings, and a pair of earrings that were too large; but her eyes and mouth made up for the rest. We flirted outrageously. If I say I left there head over heels in love, I’ll not put my soul in hell – it’s the simple truth. I was giddy, but frustrated too, for I lost sight of her in the crowd. I never managed to see her again, nor could anyone tell me who she was.
observations: An exclamation mark in a title is not usually a good sign, and the title phrase has the terrible ring of a deeply unfunny piece in the [British humour magazine] Punch of the same era. But this story is well up to the standard of the previously-featured others by the same author. The premise is simple – you are going about your life, and you have the chance to do something, and those annoying visitors, the cousins, are in the way and stop you achieving your aim. This narrator imagines to himself the future he could have had with the beautiful lady in red. But later he finds his alternate life has been lived out by someone else, and perhaps he should be grateful to the cousins.
The fascination of his stories is hard to describe. One young woman’s experience is described so: “it wasn’t a whole adultery novel, not even a chapter, just a prologue – but it was interesting and violent.” And that could apply to a lot of the oeuvre: The Fortune-Teller is spooky; The Hidden Cause is so shocking that, supposedly, the BBC refused to broadcast it a few years ago; in Midnight Mass the adultery is revealed by a ‘living breathing euphemism’. A Famous Man is a sad and affecting story about a composer who wishes to be more serious – but there are moments of hilarity where his highly successful polkas are given meaningless titles such as and Hey Lady hang on to that basket and Hurrah for direct elections! (‘It’s not a political statement’ the music publisher says, ‘just a good topical title.’)
Links up with: red dress in Proust, red clothes are important to Adrian Mole’s mother, and a red gown will be made with this material. Machado de Assis has featured before, here and here.
The picture is by Pietro de Rossi, from Wikimedia Commons.