Lúcio Cardoso - The book itself is strange, part Faulknerian meditation on the perversities, including sexual, of degenerate country folk; part Dostoevskian examination of good and evil and God, but in its strangeness lies its rare power
Lúcio Cardoso, Chronicle of the Murdered House, Trans. by Margaret Jull Costa and Robin Patterson, Open Letter, 2016.
“A real revolution in Brazilian Literature.” —Benjamin Moser
Long considered one of the most important works of twentieth-century Brazilian literature, Chronicle of the Murdered House is finally available in English.
Set in the southeastern state of Minas Gerais, the novel relates the dissolution of a once proud patriarchal family that blames its ruin on the youngest son Valdo’s marriage to Nina—a vibrant, unpredictable, and incendiary young woman whose very existence seems to depend on the destruction of the household. This family’s downfall, peppered by stories of decadence, adultery, incest, and madness, is related through a variety of narrative devices, including letters, diaries, memoirs, statements, confessions, and accounts penned by the various characters.
Salacious, literary, and introspective, Cardoso’s masterpiece marked a turning away from the social realism fashionable in 1930s Brazilian literature and had a huge impact on the writing of Cardoso’s life-long friend and greatest admirer — Clarice Lispector
"The book itself is strange, part Faulknerian meditation on the perversities, including sexual, of degenerate country folk; part Dostoevskian examination of good and evil and God, but in its strangeness lies its rare power, and in the sincerity and seriousness with which the essential questions are posed lies its greatness." - Benjamin Moser, from the introduction
André’s Diary (conclusion)
18th . . . 19 . . . - (. . . ah, dear God, what is death exactly? When she’s far from me, beneath the earth that will enfold her mortal remains, for how long will I have to go on remaking in this world the path she taught me, her admirable lesson of love, finding in another woman the velvet of her kisses—“this was how she used to kiss”—in yet another her way of smiling, in yet another the same rebellious lock of hair—all the many women one meets throughout one’s life, and who will help me to rebuild, out of grief and longing, that unique image gone for ever? And what does “forever” mean—the harsh, pompous echo of those words ringing down the deserted corridors of the soul—the “forever” that is, in fact, meaningless, not even a visible moment in the very instant in which we think it, and yet it is all we have, because it is the one definitive word available to us in our scant earthly vocabulary . . .
What does “forever” mean but the continuous, fluid existence of all that has been set free from contingency, that is transformed, evolves and breaks ceaselessly on the shores of equally mutable feelings? There was no point in trying to hide: the “forever” was there before my eyes. A minute, a single minute—and that, too, would escape any attempt to grasp it, while I myself—also forever—will escape and slip away, and, like a pile of cold, futile flotsam, all my love and pain and even my faithfulness will drift away forever. Yes, what else is “forever” but the final image of this world, and not just this world, but any world that one binds together with the illusory architecture of dreams and permanence—all our games and pleasures, our ills and our fears, our loves and our betrayals—the impulse, in short, that shapes not our everyday self, but the possible, never-achieved self that we pursue as one might follow the trail of a never-to-be-requited love, and that becomes, in the end, only the memory of a lost love—but lost when?—in a place we do not know, but whose loss pierces us and, whether justifiably or not, hurls us, everyone of us, into that nothing or that all-consuming everything where we vanish into the general, the absolute, the perfection we so lack.)
All day, I wandered about the empty house, unable even to dredge up enough courage to enter the living room. Ah, how painfully intense the knowledge that she no longer belonged to me, that she was merely a thing looted and manhandled by strangers, without tenderness or understanding. Somewhere far from me, very far, they would uncover her now defenseless form—and with the sad diligence of the indifferent, would dress her for the last time, never even imagining that her flesh had once been alive or how often it had trembled with love—that she had once been younger, more splendid than all the youth you could possibly imagine blossoming throughout the world. No, this was not the right death for her, at least, I had never imagined it like this, in the few difficult moments when I had managed to imagine it—so brutal and final, so unjust in its violence, like the uprooting of a new plant torn from the earth.
But there was no point in remembering what she had been—or, rather, what we had been. Therein lay the explanation: two beings hurled into the maelstrom of one exceptional circumstance, and suddenly stopped, brought up short—she, her face frozen in its final, dying expression, and me, still standing, although God knows for how long, my body still shaken by the last echo of that experience. All I wanted was to wander through the rooms and corridors, as bleak now as a stage when the principal actor has left—and all the weariness of the last few days washed over me, and I was filled by a sense of emptiness, not an ordinary emptiness, but the total emptiness that suddenly and forcefully replaces everything in us that was once impulse and vibrancy. Blindly, as if in obedience to a will not my own, I opened doors, leaned out of windows, walked through rooms: the house no longer existed.
Knowing this put me beyond consolation; no affectionate, no despairing words could touch me. Like a cauldron removed from the fire, but in whose depths the remnants still boil and bubble, what gave me courage were my memories of the days I had just lived through. Meanwhile, as if prompted by a newly discovered strength, I managed, once or twice, to go over to the room where she lay and half-opened the door to watch from a distance what was happening. Everything was now so repellently banal: it could have been the same scene I had been accustomed to seeing as a child, had it not been transfigured, as if by a potent, invincible exhalation, by the supernatural breath that fills any room touched by the presence of a corpse. The dining table, which, during its long life, had witnessed so many meals, so many family meetings and councils—how often, around those same boards, had Nina herself been judged and dissected?—had been turned into a temporary bier. On each corner, placed there with inevitable haste, stood four solitary candles. Cheap, ordinary candles, doubtless rescued from the bottom of some forgotten drawer. And to think that this was the backdrop to her final farewell, the stage on which she would say her last goodbye.
A gothic classic of Brazilian literature making its English language debut, Cardoso’s novel is the story of the Menses family, whose desperate existence in a decaying backwater estate is disrupted when youngest son Valdo returns home from Rio with a young bride, the passionate and impulsive Nina. The new mistress of the house becomes a pawn in the simmering rivalry among the Menses brothers—Valdo, cross-dressing recluse Timoteo, and the icy elder Demetrio, who longs only for his ancestral house to be graced by a visit from the local baron—and a subject of gossip for the townspeople, whose letters back and forth form the bulk of the novel. There’s the doctor who examines Valdo after a supposed suicide attempt, maid Betty who is taken into Timoteo’s confidence, and the priest who receives the confessions of Demetrio’s jealous wife, Ana, regarding the suspicious death of the Menses’ gardener. But these concerns are nothing compared to the tragedy that follows Nina’s incestuous affair with Andre, her tortured son, who alone cares for her during a long convalescence. A foreword by Benjamin Moser focuses more on Cardoso’s status as a gay writer and the novel’s influence on fellow Brazilian writer Clarice Lispector than the novel itself. Perhaps this is because, despite all its intrigues, the book reads today as a bloated melodrama whose considerable ambiance is sapped by the monotony of its story line, punctuated by characters (cadaverous brother, snooping maid) that are little more than monster-movie grotesques. - Publishers Weekly
The most authentic thing about you is your sin…Great, long novels are something the reader inhabits for days, like a visit to a foreign country where the history and the customs and the social mores are different and take time to untangle. Even the sins may be different there. Lúcio Cardoso’s Chronicle of the Murdered House is just such a novel. Originally published in Brazil 1959, it has finally been translated from Portuguese by Margaret Jull Costa and Robin Patterson and was issued last year by the fabulous Open Letter. It is currently the only novel by Cardoso (1912-1968) in print in English. This year it won the Best Translated Book of the Year Award for fiction.
As a family, the Meneses have seen better days and finer generations than the three brothers who live together at Chacara, the slowly rotting family estate in the rural state of Minas Gerais. Demetrio, the overly proud head of the family, is married to Ana, a drab and desperately unhappy woman. Timotéo is a cross-dressing alcoholic who rarely leaves his room. And the third brother, Valdo, upsets whatever equilibrium might have still existed at Chacara when he imports Nina, “a poisonously malevolent beauty,” from Rio De Janeiro to be his wife. The claustrophobic grounds of Chacara act like a hothouse, heating up and intensifying the emotions of its inhabitants.
Nina, ambitious, passionate, headstrong, and with a dubious past, acts like a slow-release time bomb. She arrives at Chacara laden with fancy clothes and big city expectations, only to rebel, just as we fully expect her to. She bears Valdo a son and then flees back to Rio alone, leaving the Meneses family to moulder in their petty resentments and personal feuds. But some fifteen or twenty years later, for reasons we do not immediately comprehend, she gains her way back to Chacara despite the doubts of her husband and the anger of Demetrio. Her son Andre is now a young man who strongly resembles his father when he was at that age, and suddenly Andre and Nina are involved in an incestuous affair. Nina wants to relive the passion of years past, while Andre, who never really knew his mother, is unaware that he is standing in for his father. “I could not explain my suffering, nor the many strange reasons jostling inside my head, but of one thing I was sure: I was alive in a ways to which I was utterly unaccustomed, but I was alive—painfully, wretchedly, suffocatingly, voluptuously alive.”
Unbeknownst to everyone at Chacara, when Nina returns she has a virulent form of cancer, which will kill her before too long. When word does get out in the household and as Nina approaches death, the relationships between the family members begin to fray. And at the moment of Nina’s death, all pretense at family unity is over. Before long, Andre chastises his father and the runs away, never to return, and his father, Valdo, eventually decides that he, too, must leave Chacara. Demetrio enters into a prolonged sulk and Ana retires to a dank outbuilding, from which she won’t emerge. The long, noble history of Chacara is almost over. “The entire edifice of our despotic family, built upon pride and position and possessions and money” was “crumbling into dust.”
In the midst of Nina’s wake occurs what must be one of the finest scenes in literature. Her body lies in state, wrapped in white cloth. The family has assembled, along with many locals – including the Baron, the only person in the village that Demetrio wants to impress. All of a sudden, servants enter the room bearing Timoteo in a worn hammock.
He was not just fat, he was enormous, already exhibiting all the morbid signs of the slow, suppurating death that awaits those too long immobilized by their illnesses. He could scarcely move his round, flabby arms, which hung in mountainous folds, drooping lifelessly like the branches of a tree severed from its trunk. It was difficult to even make out his eyes in that mass of human dissipation and sloth: his fat, puffy cheeks formed a mask so exotic and terrifying that he looked more like a dead Buddha than a living creature still capable of speech. His long, unwashed hair hung over his shoulders in two thick braids like forest lianas, swaying and twisting like two gnarled roots spreading out from a trunk battered by the years. Even stranger, this spectacle of a body, which seemed to encapsulate every possible vice of inactivity, had about it something of the sea, the slipping and sliding of invisible tempestuous waters rolling randomly over this amorphous mass, which shone with all the deathly silent pallor of distant lunar wildnesses.
When he descends from the hammock, Timoteo is wearing a patched-up ball gown, necklaces and bracelets, and high heels. He scatters violets on the corpse of Nina and slaps her face, before turning to the astounded audience of mourners, only to collapse in a heap, apparently suffering a stroke. “Among the onlookers it was as if a spell had been broken. I heard cries and voices, while the more attentive among them rushed forward to help. Meanwhile, the others, as if the retreat had sounded, began prudently to leave.”
I know the plot sounds like the outline of a soap opera, but trust me, this is an utterly addictive and brilliant book. Cardoso Chronicle of the Murdered House reads like a great novel of ideas — think Dostoevsky or the Herman Melville of Pierre; or The Ambiguities or Thomas Mann. What is goodness? Sin? Heaven? Hell? God? Chronicle is a novel of obsessions, lies, guilt, silences, and evasions. But above all else, it’s a novel about secrets and the shattering damage they can do within a family and between relationships.
Set at some point in the early twentieth century, the perspective of Chronicle shifts between ten characters: the six primary inhabitants of Chacara, Nina’s maid, the local priest, the local pharmacist, and the local doctor. Some of the chapters are written in the form of diary entries, letters, and confessions penned to the priest, while others are traditional narrations in which we see the events unfold through the eyes of various characters. This allows Cardoso to explore the chasm between the innermost private thoughts and sometimes barely describable emotions of ten contemplative, conflicted individuals and their considerably more restrained social interactions as ordained by a traditional class system and an antiquated sense of propriety. Most of the time, the characters of Chacara (servants excluded, of course), are governed by an overwhelming reticence and can only safely articulate out loud in company a modicum of the powerful amalgam of emotions that lie within. What Cardoso does that makes Chronicle such fascinating reading is to turn each character into a hyper-intense observer of themselves and each other. Here’s Valdo, observing his wife Nina after her final return to Chacara:
I looked at her again, hard, intently, and was filled with an unexpected moment of enlightenment: for the first time, I believed in that illness. God was revealing himself, and I had been given the grace that would once again make me believe in his existence. And yet were those apparent signs enough to guarantee my belief? No, there was something else, and that was possibly what underpinned my certainty. She had entered the room with a carefully rehearsed flourish, she had clearly prepared herself, and was trying, by sheer force of will, to recover her old aplomb. And she had succeeded, the flame was again burning inside her, but it was, alas, only a borrowed flame. She might deceive the others, but not me, because I knew every little thing about her, as if she were my personal territory, because while she might deceive me about other things, I knew all there was to know about her extraordinary capacity for lying and pretense. And that was why I felt so certain about her illness: her need to lie, to dissemble. So it was true, then, she was gravely ill. I watched her sit down, watched as she achieved an entirely artificial and rather strange phenomenon: purely by dint of wanting to be beautiful, she did almost succeed in glowing just as she used to. But hers was now an unsteady light, and there was no spontaneity or confidence in her movements.
Reminiscent of Lawrence Durrell’s four-volume novel with its four narrators, The Alexandria Quartet (1957-1960) (which, curiously, was written at exactly the same time as Chronicle), we often witness the same events through several sets of eyes. Much of the tension in Cardoso’s novel comes from the fact that each character’s vision of the central drama (the Valdo-Nina-Andre relationship) lacks certain and, in each case, different critical pieces of data. For most of the book, as the complex story unfolds across page after page, the reader enjoys the superior position of seeming to know all of the secrets. But ultimately we, too, find that we have not been let in on some of the secrets and that we, too, have misinterpreted some of the clues. The final fifty pages or so are among the most compelling pages I have ever read. Even at nearly six hundred pages, I didn’t want this book to end.
- Terry Pitts sebald.wordpress.com/2017/08/14/chronicle-of-a-sin/
Lúcio Cardoso’s lurid and voluminous masterpiece Chronicle of the Murdered House follows the unraveling of the Meneses family, a once-proud Brazilian clan undone by internal mistrust.
From the moment she descends from Rio to take her place on the Meneses estate, Nina acts as a lightning rod for its residents. She is a sultry and captivating figure around whom their fears and jealousies roil. Her own disappointment at the dilapidated state of the family’s home and fortunes makes these tensions no easier to navigate.
Her brother-in-law shadows her suspiciously, seeing deception in every interaction with the staff. Her sister-in-law hates the way that she tempts others; her husband does not trust her in the least. Bullets are discharged; dark plans are hatched. And whether the suspicions around her are founded or not, they drive Nina out of the country. Her exile, half self-imposed, lasts for over a decade—and when it ends, reuniting her with her son Andres, life on the estate becomes no less tenuous.
A captivating opening reveals devastating secrets, if of dubious veracity, that introduce mistrust of Nina into the audience’s consciousness, too—far before she is allowed to make a case for herself. Accounts trade between members of the family, the diary of a servant, and accounts from priests and doctors intermittently called upon to attend to the decaying clan’s disasters. All are privy to partial truths; all have awed or hateful opinions of Nina. As much as this is a story that involves questionable choices on Nina’s path, it is also one about her redemption, and brutal realities are revealed with sympathy.
Pages pass quickly under the influence of heady intrigue as Nina battles for her rightful place on her husband’s estate and plans punishments for those who undermined her. Even at her most cruel, she comes across as complex: a fading beauty, wronged, furious, pathetic, and ferocious, by turns. Questions are raised: can lines be crossed beyond which forgiveness is not possible? Can love survive severe betrayals? What is the true meaning of absolution? Cardoso’s novel is complex, gorgeous, and heartbreaking, well justifying its place in Brazil’s literary canon. - Michelle Anne Schingler
“Go to the crossroads, bow down to the people, kiss the earth, because you have sinned before it as well, and say aloud to the whole world: ‘I am a murderer!’”— Fyodor Dostoevsky, Crime and PunishmentThe murdered house of Brazilian Lúcio Cardoso’s gothic novel is the Charcara dos Menezes, the country home of the locally prominent Meneses family. Each of the seven deadly sins (and more, besides) thrives within the Chacara’s time scarred walls. However, it is not the Meneses’ immorality, per se, that destroys the house and the proud legacy that it symbolizes, but instead the family’s arrogant certainty of their rightness and their obstinate refusal to embrace the humility necessary to redeem themselves.
The Charcara is home to the three grown sons of the late Dona Malvina Meneses — Demétrio, Valdo, and the recluse, Timóteo. Demétrio, the eldest, manages what little remains of the family’s fortune alongside his wife Ana with whom he shares a passionless marriage (an altogether predictable state of affairs given that Demétrio hand-picked Ana as his future wife when she was only a toddler, in much the same way you might select an unripe banana from the bunch knowing that one day it will suffice as a serviceable, if boring, snack). In contrast to the bland Ana, Valdo’s young wife, Nina, is a vibrant beauty who owns a hyperactive, romantic imagination and adores fancy things, much to the ridicule of penny-pinching Demétrio. It is principally Nina’s (and the Charcara’s) story that Cardoso unspools in a drama involving extramarital affairs, incest, unrequited passions, and revenge; a heavy mix that is leavened at times with touches of melodrama that are a credit to the author’s droll sense of humor.
Chronicle of the Murdered House opens with Nina’s wake as recounted by André, Nina and Valdo’s adult son. André has had no life experience beyond the cloistered grounds of the Charcara. As he recalls various periods of his solitary life we learn that Nina abandoned him in infancy. When she returned to the Charcara fifteen years later to resume her role as wife and mother, innocent André found himself overwhelmed by Nina’s beauty and volatile, passionate nature. Nina allows her affection for André to cross the line from maternal to romantic in an attempt to relive her past, specifically her illicit affair with the Charcara’s gardener, Alberto, all those years ago when she first moved into the Charcara as Valdo’s new wife. These affairs, first with Alberto and then many years later with her own son, bring about startling and enduring repercussions for the entire Meneses family.
The Meneses’ haughty attitude toward outsiders discourages interactions between the family and the locals. Father Justino, the village priest, is the rare visitor to the Charcara, and he has a theory for why evil pervades the household:
“I wondered what made this house so cold, so soulless. And it was then that I discovered the formidable immutability of its walls, the frozen tranquility of its inhabitants. . . . there is nothing more diabolical than certainty.”
For Father Justino, the Meneses’ Godlessness is not a result of their sins, but their self-assured rigidity that cuts-off any willingness to be vulnerable to the chaos of experiencing pain and fear and to change from it. Only through personal redemption, the renewal that comes about through change, will the Meneses’ find proof of God’s grace. Cardoso makes this absence of grace manifest in the physical decay of the Charcara and more profoundly Nina, whose diseased body putrefies in the weeks preceding her death:
Emanating from her, from that whole dying, sweating, trembling creature, came the same strong, warm, unbearable smell . . . She lay limp in my arms, gasping for breath. And down my fists and my fingers ran a liquid which was neither blood nor pus, but a thick, hot substance that dripped down as far as my elbows and gave off a foul, unbearable smell.
Nina’s body has absorbed the stagnant swill that is all that remains of the family’s souls. The body of Timóteo, the third Meneses son, also illustrates this spiritual rot albeit in a different way. Timóteo’s morbid obesity and garish crossdressing turn the family’s exalted sense of itself and vain propriety inside out when he emerges from the room where he has secluded himself for years and humiliates his brothers before the crowd gathered at the Charcara for Nina’s wake:
He was not just fat, he was enormous, . . . He could scarcely move his round, flabby arms, which hung in mountainous folds, drooping lifelessly like the branches of a tree severed from its trunk. It was difficult even to make out his eyes in that mass of human dissipation and sloth: his fat, puffy cheeks formed a mask so exotic and terrifying that he looked more like a dead Buddha than a living creature still capable of speech.
He wore something that could not be called a dress exactly, but which had once been some sort of ball gown — goodness knows when or where — and which was now a faded mauve thing of shreds and patches, all ripped and hastily sewn back together. His wrists and neck were thickly circled with bracelets and necklaces — I had no idea where these had come from, but they were evidently the family jewels . . .
First published in Brazil in 1959, Cardoso’s novel bears the markings of some earlier classics. William Faulkner’s Absalom Absalom and Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks come to mind for their gothic atmosphere and plots involving family dynasties slowly sliding to destruction. It also possesses an unmistakable affinity with Crime and Punishment’s self-righteous protagonist and explicit preoccupation with spiritual redemption. Putting these comparisons aside, Chronicle of the Murdered House earns pride of place as a classic of world literature because it is a complete novel: fully realized characters, expressive writing, an exciting, finely plotted story, and enduring reflections on the human condition. Publisher Open Letter and translators Margaret Jull Costa and Robin Patterson (as well as Benjamin Moser who penned the volume’s poignant introduction) deserve our praise and thanks for recognizing the greatness of this novel and bringing it to life for English language readers. - Lori Feathers
… Once again, there is a storm brewing over the Chácara, and it is an agglomeration of all those wicked, aimless feelings that I see once again building up over the heads of innocent people…Like its protagonist—or, depending on which account herein you believe, antagonist—Lúcio Cardoso’s Chronicle Of The Murdered House has reemerged from seclusion. First published in 1959, it was a postmodernist work that veered from the nationalist literature that had preceded it. Where his forebears sought to represent their country’s social consciousness, Cardoso narrowed his focus to the moral and financial decline of the fictional Meneses, a once-grand family relegated to the Brazilian countryside.
But his twisted tale, which has been translated into English for the first time by Margaret Jull Costa and Robin Patterson, still fits within the discussion of his contemporaries, delving into gender roles and class structure as it does. The social commentary might have been lost on audiences when it debuted, but not his genre bending. Cardoso’s approach is as expansive as the lands on which his charmless bourgeoisie have lived for generations; he was a voracious reader with a preference for Gothic fiction and Russian lit, and those influences are on full display in Chronicle’s framework and themes. From its mysterious opening—which is actually the end of one character’s story—to the exploration of morality, the novel is a near-total manifestation of his talents.
Those who imagine love from afar, like a fruit they have never tasted, have no idea how delicious suffering can be—simultaneously terrible and sweet—because to love is to suffer.
Few authors, Brazilian or otherwise, could deploy such florid language without weighing down their narrative. And yet Cardoso’s purple prose is consistent throughout Chronicle’s nearly 600 pages, which have wisely been sorted into an epistolary format. He’s crafted letters, confessions, and reports from the Meneses and their acquaintances, including a doctor, a pharmacist, and a priest. These missives and documents all have a sense of urgency, even as the writer-narrator’s reliability is left open to interpretation. Discretion was paramount at the time, so someone was bound to be withholding something.
Incomplete though they may be, these accounts all paint the picture of the Meneses’ ancestral estate with the same brush of decay. At first, there’s no heir to whatever fortune may remain, and there is no love between eldest son Demétrio and his wife Ana, a woman bred for marriage to a gentleman and nothing else. Stagnation hangs in the air, which is why Nina’s arrival, despite being the catalyst for the family’s destruction, is still a welcome breeze. The beautiful outsider disrupts the order within the family she marries into and their rural surroundings. She has no interest in reviving whatever dwindling industry the Meneses might have controlled, though—she’s just as self-serving and useless as everyone else. But her vanity changes the landscape irrevocably, claiming multiple lives in the process.
There’s a sense of dread throughout the story, even when Cardoso shifts focus from the melodrama and intrigue to broader themes like propriety and man’s true nature. Humanity’s true nature is represented alternately by Nina and a wolf and snake that are figments of Demétrio and Ana’s imaginations. And though Nina’s marriage to Valdo is more of a love match, it’s the passionless matrimony of Demétrio and Ana that’s the more apt depiction of the once-ideal high-society marriage. Ana is the passive woman we see in works like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, a Gothic horror novel that touched on Victorian values. But that invention, prevalent though it was in Victorian times, was an abomination. Cardoso hints at as much in one of Ana’s confessions: “I stood there like a pathetic creature abandoned by its creator,” she writes about confronting her husband about their loveless union.
Ana isn’t the only face put on all the resentment and repression seen and felt throughout this Chronicle, though she might be the most bitter. Everyone from the gardener to the third Meneses brother, Timóteo, is hiding something or being hidden away. Cardoso was an openly gay man, and the cross-dressing Timóteo is both his stand-in and the avatar for a social order already past its expiration date in the early 20th century. As the novel makes its way to a conclusion both thundering and mewling, Timóteo retreats once more, symbolizing a discussion shelved by Cardoso’s death in 1968. But the gorgeous, deviant story he was able to tell in Chronicle’s pages became one of the hallmarks of Brazilian literature, prompting this English rendition decades later. - Danette Chavez
A wind intermittently relieves the high insistent sun beating down on the far-off province. Inside a crumbling hacienda, a once dangerous woman lies dying. She is rotting from the inside, and the putrid odor penetrates even the thick walls of the old house. None of the members of the faded aristocratic family the woman has married into, nor their servant, nor the priest, seem to know what to do with her. But her son, André, pushes closer while she counters his every advance, “moved solely by despair, or something worse than despair, sharp and unremitting, fermenting in her soul like a concentrated ache, as ferocious as the thing gnawing away at her body. . . .”
Faulkner this could be or Lampedusa or—for the high religious intensity of the prose—Flannery O’Connor. Yet this is the opening scene of the masterwork of Brazilian novelist and playwright Lúcio Cardoso, Chronicle of the Murdered House, originally published in 1959 and now, fifty-eight years later, for the first time in English. The legendary translator Margaret Jull Costa, responsible for the prize-winning English editions of the work of José Saramago and Fernando Pessoa, teamed up with disciple Robin Patterson to translate the novel. With precision, they reveal Cardoso’s extraordinary skill in teasing out the inexpressible.
Cardoso, as the author Benjamin Moser points out in the novel’s introduction, “was a natural writer, a natural talker, and a natural seducer.” He called himself “an atmosphere,” not merely a writer, and made himself the shining star of Brazilian literary life midcentury, transforming the trajectory of Brazilian fiction. At fifty, three years after the publication of Chronicle of the Murdered House, Cardoso suffered a severe stroke; tragically, he never published again.
That Chronicle of the Murdered House is, according to the publisher, the only work of Cardoso’s to be translated into English is perhaps tragic too, for the novel is a work of delicate and baroque beauty. Told through first person accounts of various characters, it is as intricately woven as Faulkner’s 1930 As I Lay Dying and yet possesses a moral imperative all its own. Compassion and tolerance—Chronicle’s denouement is the recognition of these values hard-learned through Cardoso’s experience as a gay boy in backwater Minas Gerais and as a gay man willing to expose himself in order to flaunt those who wished him ill.
Cardoso’s appearance on American bookshelves, belated as it is, is itself the result of Moser’s long-time investigation into another Brazilian author, Clarice Lispector, whose collected Complete Stories were published in English last year (and reviewed in these pages). Why This World, Moser’s 2009 biography of Lispector, reveals the deep connection between the two authors. When he was twenty-six, having escaped Minas Gerais, working in a government propaganda office in Rio, Cardoso befriended Lispector, then an eighteen-year-old; he became her great friend, literary enabler, and muse (he is the basis for the character Daniel in her novel The Chandelier). Had he not been gay, she imagined they would have married.
Cardoso pours his torment and glory into Timotéo, the third son and tortured diva of the Meneses family, whose rupture is at the heart of the book and whose hacienda, the Chácara, is ultimately destroyed. Timotéo delivers the family’s—and the novel’s—surprising moral breakthrough.
Chronicle of the Murdered House spirals back from the opening encounter between André and the dying woman, Nina, to Nina’s arrival at the Chácara in Minas Gerais, lorded over since the death of the matriarch by her eldest son, the severe and plotting Demétrio. Actually, the impetuous Nina doesn’t arrive from Rio when she is supposed to, and this first carefully orchestrated hitch allows the reader to perceive the shame of her fiancé, second Meneses son, Valdo, in the eyes of his older brother. Timotéo, their preternaturally uncomfortable younger brother, hides away, wearing his mother’s dresses, his own power cloaked in madness.
Thus, when finally Nina descends on the Chácara, the reader already senses that she possesses reckless power. In person, it is clear she will drive all of the members of the house to desperation. “She was not only graceful, she was subtle, generous, even majestic. She wasn’t just beautiful, she was intensely, violently seductive,” observes the levelheaded Betty, assigned to be her maidservant, on that first encounter. “She emerged from the car as if nothing else existed outside the aura of her fascination—this was not mere charm, it was magic.”
Having lent Nina a powerful charge of his own starlit essence, Cardoso draws the reader into the whirlwind. Here the novel’s multiple narrator format proves so powerful, as the characters each reveal their guarded secrets. Nina grows quickly bored by the stultified air of the Chácara and seeks relief in hidden corners of the estate. As Demétrio withdraws into harsh silence, his dreary wife, Ana, goes to war with herself and Nina, whom she stalks in the shadows, her inner and outer life in desperate discordance.
Silence, one of the great ineffable subjects of the novel, descends on the Chácara, and becomes an element of cruelty. “It was as if we were living under constant threat of some extraordinary event, which could happen at any moment,” notes Betty, but her words only reinforce what the reader knows: in the silence, secrets mount, intentions grow veiled, distance separates those even living so close together—Cardoso’s frontispiece drawing of the Chácara shows the bedrooms stacked up as if cells of a monastery.
At first for Nina, the landscape is dusty and the hills of the Serra do Baú are as silent and distant as the Meneses family. Then she encounters violets growing in a patch near the gardener’s ramshackle hut and the gardener himself, a lithe young man, Alberto. He will bring her violets. What else Alberto brings her and what she really thinks of him isn’t precisely clear. “I began to imagine him not as a lover, but as a son, to whom I could teach things and warn of life’s dangers, saving him from himself and from others,” Nina writes later in a letter to her husband, Valdo. “Son, lover, what does it matter—loneliness is full of such traps.”
From here, Cardoso begins to move his characters, and the reader, in and out of traps, and some of them are hidden as if in a maze. A gun appears. Valdo injures himself. Alberto commits suicide. Nina and Timotéo, outsiders both, embrace the truth of their subversive souls amidst the tyranny of the “immutable” Meneses. They form a pact not to forget each other; if Nina should die first, he should place violets on her coffin.
In the novel’s frontier, between the violets Alberto places on Nina’s windowsill and the violets Timotéo is to place on her coffin, Nina escapes the Chácara, gives birth to André, gives him up to Valdo, and returns fifteen years later having never met the boy. Will he be her son or lover—or both?
Wondering this as the story turns flagrant, the reader is drawn into a conventional narrative trap. “(She was examining me meticulously, coolly, studying my chest—my ribs visible beneath the skin—pausing to look at a scar or at the point beneath which my heart was beating wildly),” recalls André. But Cardoso has something else in mind that isn’t quite so sorry or sordid. As the story builds to its shocking conclusion, the author’s use of parentheticals (a form of literary silence) mounts. “(Sometimes, succumbing to damp or simply time, a bit of plaster would begin to come loose, and I would carefully stick it back in its original place, as if I were restoring an image about to fade . . . ),” writes Ana as she faces dissolution. Cardoso skillfully reaches for the indescribable, not sin, not truth, but the honesty of youth and the cost of its beauty. “(Beauty is the ultimate goal of our inner fluids, a secret ecstasy, a concordance between our internal world and our external existence . . . ),” Timotéo concludes in his memoir. A complex, normative theology emerges here, which comes as a rush to the breathless reader. Its priest is in fact Timotéo, who turns in a last act performance worthy of Truman Capote. The lipsticked monster finds redemption. O! Why have we had to wait so long for you, Lúcio Cardoso? - Nathaniel Popkin
Fiction and history in Chronicle of the Murdered House, by Lúcio Cardoso
Lucio Cardoso (1912-1968) is one of the leading Brazilian writers of the period between 1930 and 1960. As well as authoring dozens of novels and short stories, he was also active as a playwright, poet, journalist, filmmaker, and painter. Within the history of Brazilian literature, his oeuvre pioneered subjective scrutiny of the modern self, bringing to the fore the personal dramas and dilemmas that underlie perceptions of collective existence. He turned away from the social realism fashionable in 1930s Brazil and opened the doors of Brazilian literature into introspective works such as those of Clarice Lispectorhis greatest follower and admirer.