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|Series Editors' Introduction||ix|
Periculum dicendi non recuso
La Vérité, toute la vérité, rien que la vérité
My worthy colleagues in the press, and all those illustrious publicists who weary Heaven and earth with their proofs that Brazil is truly coming of age, will decide whether Providence would smile or frown upon us if another Timon appeared, of the Furies' lineage, and with the poisonous lash of his pitiless scourge avenged the crimes and vices that sully our times.
--João Francisco Lisboa,
Jornal de Timon, Prospecto
Un Oyseau qui se nomme cigale estoit en un figuier, et François tendit sa main et appella celluy oyseau, et tantost il obeyt et vint sur sa main. Et il lui deist: Chante, ma seur, et loue nostre Seigneur. Et adoncques chanta incontinent, et ne sen alla devant quelle eust congé.
--Jacques de Voragine,
La Légende Dorée
Between the ages of thirteen and twenty-five, João Romão worked for the proprietor of a dingy and squalid but profitable tavern and general store in the back streets of Botafogo. João spent so little during those dozen years that, when his employer returned to his native Portugal, the young man received, in payment for his labors, not only the bar and its contents but 1,500 mil-réis in cash.
An established proprietor in his own right, João toiled even more feverishly, possessed by such a thirst for riches that he patiently endured the cruelest hardships. He slept on a straw mat on the counter, using a burlap sack stuffed with straw for his pillow. His meals were prepared, for 400 réis a day, by Bertoleza, a black slave some thirty years old. Bertoleza sold food at a stand in front of her shack and belonged to an old, blind master who resided in Juiz de Fora. She lived with a Portuguese who owned a handcart, with which he made his living downtown.
Bertoleza worked as hard as her lover. Her stand was the busiest in the neighborhood. In the morning she sold cornmeal mush, and at night she fried fish and strips of marinated liver. She sent her master twenty mil-réis a month, but even so she had set aside almost enough to buy her freedom. One day, however, her man, after running half a league pulling an especially heavy load, collapsed and died in the street like a worn-out beast of burden.
João Romão acted very upset over this misfortune. He shared his neighbor's grief and mourned so convincingly that the good woman opened her heart to him and recounted all her worries and afflictions. Her master was trying to skin her alive! It was no joke for a poor woman to scrape together twenty mil-réis a month! She told him about the money she had secretly saved to buy her freedom and finally asked him to keep it, because once thieves had stolen into the back of her shack and robbed her.
From then on, João Romão became Bertoleza's banker, lawyer, and advisor. Before long he controlled all her earnings, paying and collecting her debts and sending her master twenty mil-réis a month. He opened an account for her; and whenever she needed money, she hastened to his tavern and received it from his hands--from "Seu João," as she called him. Seu João noted these small transactions in a little book on whose brown cover one read, half in clumsy handwriting, half in letters clipped from newspapers: "Bertoleza: Deposits and Withdrawals."
João won the woman's trust so completely that after a while she made no decision without him and accepted all his advice. Those who wanted to discuss business with her would not bother to seek her out but rather went straight to João Romão.
Before they knew what had happened, the two were lovers.
He suggested that they live together, and she gladly agreed because, like all colored women, she wanted to keep away from blacks and instinctively sought a mate of superior race.
With Bertoleza's savings, João Romão then purchased a small plot next to his tavern and store. There he built a small house with two doors, divided down the middle parallel to the street. The front half was her stand, while the back served as a bedroom, furnished with Bertoleza's trashy belongings. Besides their bed, it contained an old chest of drawers made of jacaranda wood and adorned with knobs of tarnished brass, an oratory lined with colored paper and crammed with saints, a large trunk covered with rawhide, two stools carved from solid blocks of wood, and a formidable coatrack, nailed to the wall, on which they hung their cotton quilt at night.
The tavern-keeper had never possessed so much furniture.
"From now on," he told her, "everything's going to be easier. You'll be free. I'll make up whatever you can't afford."
That day he kept running off on mysterious errands, and a week later he showed up bearing a piece of paper covered with scribbles that he read aloud to Bertoleza.
"No more masters!" he declared when he had finished, while her eyes filled with tears. "You're free! From now on, what you make is for you and your children, if you ever have any. No more twenty mil-réis a month for that old blind pest!"
"Poor man! I had no business complaining. He owned me so I paid him like I was supposed to do."
"Maybe so, but that's over with! It's a new life!"
For the first time, they opened a bottle of port and toasted the great event. Actually, that document was purely João Romão's handiwork. Even the stamp he had cleverly affixed to make it look more official hadn't cost him a penny, since it had already served another purpose. Bertoleza's master, who never found out what had happened, heard only that his slave had run off to Bahia after her lover's death.
"Let that blind man try and find her!" the tavern-keeper thought to himself. "We'll see if he's got what it takes to fight to get her back!"
Nonetheless, he didn't feel entirely easy until three months later, when he learned that the old man had died. The slave, of course, formed part of his sons' inheritance, but there was nothing to fear from two wealthy profligates squabbling over an estate. The last thing they'd think of was tracking down a Negress they hadn't seen in years. "What the hell! He got enough with what he squeezed out of her!"
Bertoleza now played a triple role: vendor, maid, and lover. Though her toil never ceased, she was always smiling. At four in the morning, she was already hard at work making breakfast for their customers, and after that she would prepare lunch for the workers at a quarry behind the tavern. She cleaned house, cooked, stood behind the counter when João was busy elsewhere, and sold food at her stand in her spare time. When night fell she headed for the tavern again, where she tended a clay brazier on which she fried liver and sardines that João Romão, dressed in shirtsleeves and wooden clogs, bought each morning on the fishermen's beach. And the damned woman even found time to wash and mend not only her own clothing but his--though, in fact, he possessed so little that in an entire month his laundry amounted to a few pairs of denim pants and cheap cotton shirts.
João Romão never took a day off, nor did he attend mass on Sundays. Everything from his tavern and Bertoleza's stand went straight into his strongbox and thence to the bank. Their savings grew so fast that when some land behind the tavern was put up for auction, he bought it and immediately set to work building three two-room houses.
What prodigies of cunning and frugality he realized in their construction! He was his own bricklayer; he mixed and carried mortar; he cut the stone himself--stone he and Bertoleza stole from the quarry at night, just as he robbed all the nearby construction sites.
These robberies, painstakingly planned, were always successful thanks to the fact that in those days policemen were rarely seen around Botafogo. Every evening João Romão noted the sites at which materials had been left, and a few hours later he and Bertoleza would set to work carrying planks, bricks, roof tiles, and sacks of lime into the street so stealthily that not a sound could be heard. Then one of them would pick up a load and set out for home while the other stood guard, ready to sound the alarm if necessary. When one returned, the other would set off.
They took everything, including bricklayers' ladders, sawhorses, benches, and carpenters' tools.
And the fact was that those three two-room houses, so ingeniously constructed, were the point of departure for a huge slum later dubbed São Romão.
Twenty-four square feet today, another thirty-six tomorrow, a few more the day after--the tavern-keeper gradually annexed all the territory behind his store; and as his conquests grew, so did the number of houses and tenants.
Always carelessly dressed, unaware of Sundays and holidays, never missing a chance to get his hands on another's money, leaving his debts unpaid whenever he could but always collecting what he was owed, cheating his customers with short weight and scant measure, buying for a song whatever slaves could steal from their masters' houses, paring his own expenses to the bone, piling privation upon privation, toiling with Bertoleza like a pair of yoked oxen, João Romão ended up purchasing a good part of the quarry that, at dusk each day, he sat in his doorway and stared at with covetous longing.
He hired six men to wield pickaxes and another six to fashion paving stones, and then he really began to make money--so much money that within a year and a half, he had bought up all the land between his row of houses and the quarry: that is, a plot about 500 by 120 feet, level, dry, and ideal for construction.
At the very same time, a large house to the right of his tavern was sold. Only sixty feet separated the two structures, and so the house's entire left side, some seventy feet long, looked out on his plot through its nine large windows. The purchaser was a Portuguese named Miranda, who owned a wholesale dry goods store on Rua do Hospício. Once the house had been thoroughly cleaned, he planned to move in with his family. His wife, Dona Estela, a pretentious lady of aristocratic airs, could no longer endure life in the center of town, and his daughter, Zulmira, was unnaturally pale and needed fresh air to flu out and grow stronger.
This was what he told his associates, but the true cause of his move was an urgent need to get Dona Estela away from his clerks. Dona Estela was fond of extramarital adventures; during thirteen years of marriage, she had given her husband all sorts of unpleasant surprises. Within two years of their wedding, he had caught her in flagrante delicto . His first furious impulse was to kick her and her accomplice out together. But his entire credit was based upon her dowry: some eighty contos in real estate and government bonds. Moreover, a sudden separation would lead to gossip, and a respectable businessman could ill afford to air his conjugal troubles in public. He prized his social position above all else and trembled to think of being poor again, without money or the energy to start over from scratch now that he had grown accustomed to luxury and privilege.
Terrified by these thoughts, he contented himself with a simple separation of bedrooms. Each slept alone, they no longer ate together, and their sole conversation was a few awkwardly muttered words whenever they chanced to meet.
They hated and scorned each other, and this scorn slowly turned into intense revulsion. Zulmira's birth made things even worse; the child, instead of bringing her parents together, pushed them farther apart. Estela fought against her maternal instincts, knowing the girl was her husband's, while he detested the child because he believed he was not the father.
One night, however, Miranda, who was hot-blooded and not yet thirty-five years old, found himself in an intolerable state of sexual arousal. It was late and there were no servant girls around. He thought of his wife but rejected the idea with scrupulous repugnance. He still hated her. But the very fact that he had forbidden himself to touch her, his obligation to despise her, fed his lust, turning his wayward spouse into a kind of forbidden fruit. Finally, though his loathing was in no way diminished, he headed for her room.
The woman was fast asleep. Miranda crept up to her bed. "I should turn back!" he thought. "I'm making a fool of myself!" But his blood pulsed with desire. He hesitated a second, motionless, staring down at her.
Estela, as though sensing her husband's gaze upon her body, rolled over on her side, revealing a plump white thigh. Miranda could bear no more. He fell upon the woman, who, more surprised than angry, pulled away but then quickly embraced her husband. She allowed him to seize her loins and mount her, while she pretended to sleep, unaware of what was happening.
Ah! She had been sure that Miranda, too cowardly to abandon her, would sooner or later seek her bed. She knew he was strong in lust and weak in self-control.
Once the act had been consummated, the husband was overcome by remorse. Without the courage to say a word, he gloomily crept back to his room.
How he rued what he had done, blinded by desire!
"I'm an idiot!" he thought uneasily, "a first-class idiot!"
The next day, they both avoided each other in silence, as though nothing unusual had occurred the night before. One might even say that after that event, Miranda's hatred of her grew. And that evening, when he was alone in his room, he swore a thousand times never again to sully his self-esteem with such madness.
But a month later the poor man, overwhelmed again, returned to his wife's room.
Estela welcomed him as she had the first time, pretending to be asleep. But just as he mounted her, the trollop, unable to control herself, suddenly burst out laughing right in his face. The poor devil stopped short, disconcerted. He drew back, shuddering like a rudely awakened sleepwalker.
The woman, who saw what was in the offing, gave him no chance to flee. She twined her legs around his, clasped him to her, and blinded him with kisses.
They uttered not a word.
Never had Miranda seen her so swept away by passion. He was astonished. He felt as though he were in the arms of an adoring lover. In her he discovered the heady charms of a skillful and seasoned courtesan. In the scent of her skin and hair he sniffed perfumes he had never known. Her smell was different, as were her moans and sighs. And he enjoyed her, he enjoyed her madly, deliriously, with the deep satisfaction of an animal in heat.
And she enjoyed herself too, excited by a sense of wickedness rooted in their separation. She enjoyed the immorality of that act, debasing each in the other's eyes. She writhed, gnashed her teeth, and grunted beneath a hated enemy she liked more than ever as a man, clasping him in her naked arms and thrusting her wet and burning tongue into his mouth. Then her entire body would shudder with a guttural, muffled moan. She gasped and writhed, flinging wide her arms and legs, tossing her head with its glazed eyes and looking as though she had been crucified in her bed.
This time Miranda stayed the night, and from then on their sexual relations were better than ever, though their dislike of each other had in no way diminished.
For ten years they lived happily in this fashion, but now, long after Estela's first infidelities, Miranda found himself less subject to attacks of lust. She, on the other hand, seemed as eager as ever and flirted with his clerks whenever they ate with the family.
This was why Miranda bought the building next to João Romão's tavern.
The house itself was good. Its sole defect was the lack of space around it, but a remedy was at hand: he could buy another sixty square feet between it and the quarry and ten or fifteen more on the side facing the tavern.
Miranda called upon João Romão and asked if he would consider selling. The tavern-keeper refused.
"You're wasting your time and your breath," Bertoleza's lover replied. "Not only won't I give up an inch of my land, but I'll make you an offer for your backyard."
"But then I'd have no yard, no garden, nothing."
"That wouldn't bother me."
"Come, come! Let's be serious. How much do you want?"
"I told you what I had to say."
"At least sell me those sixty feet out back."
"I wouldn't part with one inch."
"You're not being very neighborly, you know? I'm asking for my daughter's sake. The poor girl needs room to breathe and run around."
"Well, she won't get it, because I need all the property I've got."
"Why not? What the devil can you do with a piece of useless ground between my house and that hill? And besides, you already own so much land?
"Don't worry. You'll see if it's useless or not."
"You're just being stubborn! Listen, if you let me have those sixty feet out back, the boundary on your own property would run straight to the quarry and I wouldn't have a strip of someone else's land in back of mine. In any case, I'm not going to build a wall until you change your mind."
"Then you'll never have a wall, because I already said everything I have to say."
"But my God, why? Think what you're saying! You can't build anything there. Or do you think I'll let you have windows right up against my property?"
"I don't need windows up against anyone's property."
"And I won't let you build a wall that'll block off my windows."
"I don't need a wall on that side."
"Then what the hell are you going to do with all that land?"
"That's my business. You'll find out in good time."
"You'll be sorry you didn't sell me that land."
"I can stand it. All I have to say is anyone who tries to fool with my business is going to wish he hadn't."
A cold war then broke out between the Portuguese who sold dry goods and the one who sold groceries. The former decided not to build a wall around his property till he had bought the plot between his house and the hill; and the latter still hoped to pry loose at least a few yards from his neighbor. Those few yards would be worth their weight in gold once he carried out a scheme he had been hatching lately: to construct a huge, unprecedented warren of two-room houses, a slum that would overshadow the smaller ones scattered around Botafogo.
This was his goal. For a long time, João Romão had lived for this idea alone. He dreamed of it every night. He showed up wherever construction materials were auctioned, buying used lumber and secondhand tiles, bargaining for bricks and lime. He dumped it all in his backyard, which soon began to look like an enormous barricade, so varied and bizarre were the objects piled up there: boards and slats, tree trunks, masts from ships, rafters, broken wheelbarrows, clay and iron stovepipes, dismantled braziers, piles and piles of bricks in every shape and size, barrels of lime, mountains of sand and red earth, heaps of tiles, broken ladders and everything else under the sun. And João, who knew how easily such things could be stolen, bought a fierce bulldog to stand watch over them at night.
This watchdog was the cause of constant quarrels with Miranda's family, which was forced to stay indoors after ten to avoid being bitten.
"You'd better build that wall," João said with a shrug.
"I won't!" replied his neighbor. "If you want trouble, you're going to get it."
On the other hand, whenever one of the tavern-keeper's hens wandered onto Miranda's property, it immediately vanished. João Romão protested vehemently against these thefts, warning that he had a gun and threatening retribution.
"Well, then build a wall around your coop!" Estela's husband replied.
A few months later, João Romão, after trying one last time to buy a few square yards of his neighbor's property, decided to start building.
"Never mind," he told Bertoleza as they lay in bed. "Never mind; I'll still get my hands on that land. Sooner or later I'll buy it--not just ten square feet but thirty, fifty, his whole yard and his house too."
He spoke with the conviction of one who feels he can accomplish anything through perseverance, through mighty efforts, and through the power of money--money that only left his clutches to return multiplied a hundredfold.
Ever since this fever to possess land had taken hold of him, all his actions, however simple, had pecuniary ends. He had one purpose only: to increase his wealth. He kept the worst vegetables from his garden for himself and Bertoleza: the ones that were so bad that no one would buy them. His hens were good layers but he himself never ate eggs, though he loved them. He sold every single one and contented himself with the food his customers left on their plates. It had gone beyond ambition and become a nervous disorder, a form of lunacy, an obsessive need to turn everything into cash. Short and thickset, always unshaven and with his hair cropped short, he came and went between his quarry and his tavern, between his tavern and his garden, glancing hungrily about, seizing with his eyes what eluded his claws.
Meanwhile, the street filled with people at an astonishing rate. The construction was shoddy, but there was a great deal of it: Shacks and small houses sprang up overnight. Rents rose, and properties doubled in value. An Italian pasta factory was built, and another that made candles. Workers trudged by each morning, at noon, and again in the evening, and most of them ate at the cheap eating-house he had set up under the veranda behind his store. Other taverns opened, but none was as crowded as his. Business had never been so good; the rascal had never sold so much--far more than in previous years. He even had to hire two clerks. Merchandise wouldn't stay put on his shelves, and the counter where it was sold grew shinier and more worn. The coins rang as they tumbled into his till, whence they flooded into his strongbox in larger denominations and finally to the bank as contos .
After a while, he began to buy less from wholesalers and ordered some products directly from Europe--wine, for example. Before, he had purchased it in demijohns, but now he bought barrels straight from Portugal. He turned each barrel into three by adding water and rum. Likewise, he ordered kegs of butter, crates of canned goods, big boxes of matches, oil, cheese, crockery, and much else besides.
He built a storeroom and a new bedroom, abolishing Bertoleza's stand and using the extra space to expand his tavern and store, which doubled in size and acquired two new entrances.
It was no longer a simple general store but a bazaar where everything could be bought: dry goods, hardware, china, paper and pens, work clothes, fabric for women's garments, straw hats, inexpensive scents, combs, kerchiefs with love poetry embroidered on them, and cheap rings and jewelry.
All the neighborhood riffraff ended up there or in the eatery next door, where men from the factories and quarry would meet after work, drinking and carousing till ten at night amid the mingled smoke from their pipes, the frying fish, and the kerosene lamps.
João Romão supplied all their needs, even lending them money to tide them over until payday. The workers' entire salaries ended up in his pockets. Almost everyone borrowed from him at 8 percent monthly interest--a little more than they would have paid had they possessed something to pawn.
Although those small houses were badly built, they filled up as quickly as they were finished and tenants moved in before the paint was even dry. For workers, they were the best places to live in Botafogo--especially for those at the quarry, which was a stone's throw away.
Miranda was beside himself with rage.
"A slum!" he bellowed. "A slum! God damn that son of a bitch! A slum right under our noses! The bastard's ruined our new home!"
He spewed forth curses, vowing vengeance and howling with rage over the dust that invaded his rooms and the infernal noise of those masons and carpenters who worked from dawn to dusk.
Miranda's protests, however, didn't stop the houses from rising, one after the other, and filling with tenants as they inched toward the hill and then turned and advanced on his yard, like a stone-and-mortar snake threatening his home.
Miranda hired some men to build a wall around his property.
What else could he do? The devil was capable of extending that slum right into his sitting room!
The two-room houses finally stopped when they reached Miranda's wall and turned again to create a large quadrangle, one side of which was right up against his backyard. The space in the middle resembled the courtyard at a military barracks, large enough for an entire battalion to drill in.
Ninety-five houses made up the huge slum.
When they were finished, João Romão had a wall ten feet high built on his side of those sixty feet in back of Miranda's house. Topped with pieces of glass and broken bottles, the wall had a large gateway in the middle. Next to it, a red lantern hung above a yellow board, on which the following words were clumsily lettered in red paint: "São Romão: Houses and Washtubs for Rent."
The houses were rented by the month, and the tubs by the day. Each tub, including water, cost 500 réis, not counting soap. The women who lived there were allowed to use them free.
Thanks to its abundant fresh water, found nowhere else in the neighborhood, and to that large courtyard in which clothes could be hung to dry, all the tubs were soon in use. Washerwomen came from all over town. Some traveled great distances; and as soon as a house, a spare room, or a corner to throw down a mattress became vacant, a horde of would-be tenants sallied forth to fight over it.
The place took on the air of a huge, open-air laundry, bustling and noisy. Wattle fences surrounded small gardens planted with vegetables and flowers: brightly colored patches amid the gray slime from overflowing washtubs and the sparkling white of raw cotton on rubbing boards. The wet clothes drying in the sun sparkling like a lake of molten silver.
And on the muddy ground covered with puddles, in the sultry humidity, a living world, a human community, began to wriggle, to seethe, to grow spontaneously in that quagmire, multiplying like larvae in a dung heap.