Majesty of the Xingu

What a night that was, Doctor. What a night. We walked through the docks in the rain, carrying our bags. As we drew near the old freighter I was gripped by terror. I didn’t want to go on board; I was afraid of the ocean, of the ship. My father grabbed me, tried to force me up the gangplank, and I resisted, I don’t want to, I won’t, I’m scared. A woman saw me crying and took pity on me: come here, come meet my son, he’ll be your friend. And there he was at the top of the gangway: Noel, a handsome, cheerful boy with large, lively eyes. He ran down toward me and grabbed my arm. Don’t be scared, he said in Yiddish, it’s going to be a great trip, you’ll like Brazil, it’s a wonderful place, the sun shines all the time there, people are happy, and there’s always enough to eat.

I stopped crying and let him lead me, laughing as he told jokes and made faces. The ship weighed anchor and, with a lugubrious whistle, moved away from the quay. Many were weeping. Behind them lay Europe, Russia, the shtetl; behind them lay the history of their people. I didn’t care. As far as I was concerned, Europe, Russia, the shtetl could stay behind. I had just found a friend, Doctor, the friend I’d never had in the village. And that friendship, I was certain, would last forever. Noel would be my brother, the older brother I didn’t have. In truth he wasn’t all that much older—a year at most—but he was so sure of himself, so self-assured that he seemed like a little man.

During the voyage—such a long voyage—we were always together. I followed Noel everywhere, I followed his orders. We moved confidently through the ship, which, thanks to him, no longer frightened me. Let’s go to the stern, he’d cry, and I followed him astern. Let’s go to the prow—we went to the prow. To the bridge!—to the bridge. To starboard!—to starboard. To port!—to port. To the engine room!—to the engine room. Noel knew the whole ship. And he knew everyone: the emigrants, of course, most of them Bessarabian Jews, but the sailors, as well, and even the captain. Everybody on the Madeira liked Noel. They liked me, too, even though they paid little attention to me. They referred to me as Noel’s little brother, which made me puff up with pride.

Noel was expansive and struck up conversations with whoever was near, passenger or crew. That was how he made friends with a Russian sailor, a young man, very cheerful. An adventurer, he’d lived in Brazil for several years, and Noel badgered him to talk about the country that was, in the end, our destination. The sailor needed no coaxing. He showed us, using an illustrated book: this here is the forest, you can’t imagine how big this forest is, bigger than France, bigger than England, and the forest has towering trees and beautiful flowers and birds of every color . . . This is the seaside, look how pretty the ocean is . . . Look at the palm trees . . . This here is an animal called an anteater, they have the strangest animals in the world there. And these are Indians . . .

The Indians. There they were, a group of six, a man, three women, two children, naked, their bodies painted. That must have been an important moment, the moment when Noel—even if it was just in a photo—saw Indians for the first time. The moment that perhaps shaped his destiny. I should, Doctor, remember this moment, I should talk about him, describe Noel’s emotions upon seeing the people to whom he would devote his life, but I confess I don’t remember exactly how he reacted. Did he seem interested? Of course he did—Noel was always interested in everything—but how interested was he, on a scale from zero to ten, on a scale from one to five stars? Could that interest be called fascination? Could that interest be called ecstasy? That interest—could it be called a revelation?

I don’t know. Fascination, ecstasy, revelation—I don’t know. I don’t remember. Maybe Noel said something . . . I don’t know. Maybe he laughed. He laughs a lot, Noel does. He’s always laughing in photos. I suppose, then, that when he looked at the photos of Brazilian Indians, Noel Nutels, little Noel Nutels, laughed, laughed hard, laughed delightedly. That’s what I imagine, but it’s only a guess. What I can say with absolute certainty is that I did not laugh. I didn’t laugh. Looking at the Indians, what I felt, Doctor, was fear. That ancestral Jewish fear added to my own terror, the terror provoked in me, for example, by the tiny boots my father made and exacerbated, of course, by the imaginary little Cossack. Now, that fear contained an element of reality. Even the sailor, who didn’t hide his admiration for the Indians—”they’re honest, they’re authentic, they’re great human beings”— commented in a casual tone, Some of them still eat people. Noel apparently didn’t pay much attention to the information (years later, at a conference, he would tell an awestruck woman, “Indians eat you, yes, but they don’t swallow”) but I was frightened. To have escaped the Cossacks only to fall into a cannibal stewpot—was that the fate I’d been allotted? I told my parents the story, asking if they knew if there were Indians in Brazil who ate people. They didn’t know, nor were they interested. They had other worries: uncertainty about the future increased as we approached our destination. This was the topic of many conversations with Noel’s mother, who, because her husband was already in Brazil, had become a sort of advisor for them. Come live with us, she would say, Salomão is already well established, we can help each other. It was a possibility, but the idea of living in a small city didn’t go over well with my father: one village for another, he might as well have stayed in Russia. The truth is that nobody on that ship knew exactly what they were going to do in Brazil. Everybody wanted a better life, but the future was uncertain in a completely different reality. The one who cheered us up was the Russian sailor: take heart, he said, you’ll see, everything will work out in the end.

A good man, that sailor. He was a communist. Like Babel, he believed in Lenin and the Revolution. In fact, he told us it was his last voyage on the Madeira. He wanted to return to Russia and offer his services to the Red Navy. Unlike Babel, however, he did not criticize us for emigrating: he knew that in many cases it was a matter of survival. You’ll help the communists in Brazil, he said cheerfully. What’s more, he worried about the emigrants and their children; he took care of me and Noel during the whole trip. You know I ended up seeing him again, Doctor? Not up close, of course, because I never returned to Russia. But one day the television showed Moscow’s Red Square and some communist veterans holding a small demonstration—I don’t really know what about—and there he was, our friend, the sailor from the Madeira. Quite elderly, Doctor, the anchor made an observation to that effect, saying the demonstrators, old Bolsheviks, were getting along in years. Even as an old man, though, he had the same spirit: he told the reporter interviewing him that he’d rather die than give up his dreams. He was carrying a placard in Russian. I couldn’t read what it said. My vision is failing me, Doctor, I’d even like you to give me an eye exam—if I survive, of course. What was written there? Ne dali konchit, they didn’t let me finish? I don’t know. I just know that it touched me to see that old sailor, defeated but still fighting. There he was, looking at the camera, waving, and thinking, they’re seeing me all over the world, and in Brazil too, and that’s where those little Jewish boys from the Madeira are, and they believe in me, they know I have an ideal, the little Jewish boys know that, and I think the Indians do, too. Believe in me, little Jewish boys, believe in me, Indians; I’m still standing for the Revolution, Isaac Babel left but I stayed, I don’t gallop down the paths of courage and valor, but I still hoist placards. There he was, Doctor, the old communist sailor, and what I wanted to tell him was, Hold firm, comrade, we’re with you, the reactionaries shall not pass—but who was I to say, even in a whisper, even to myself, hold firm? Who was I, Doctor, but a mere spectator? Who was I but someone suffering from ischemic cardiomyopathy, obliged to stifle his emotions because of angina. He would have to hold firm without me, the heroic combatant. He would have to defend his placard alone, with its badly drawn letters, Ne dali konchit.

In general the crew treated us well, Noel and me. The exception was the fireman, a huge Ukrainian who hated us: God punished me, he’d tell anyone who’d listen, when he put me on this ship full of Jews. Noel didn’t pay much attention to the man’s annoyance because he was fascinated by his job. Let’s go see the fireman, he’d say, and we’d go down to the engine room, a cavernous place, deafening and hellishly hot. And there he’d be, half-naked, his torso slick with sweat, throwing pieces of coal into the enormous furnace. Get out of here, he’d yell, you can’t be in here. Noel would ignore him, laugh, make faces. Once the fireman chased after him, grabbed him, lifted him in the air and opened the door of the furnace as if he were going to throw him into the flames. I began to shout, and the Ukrainian, seeing my terror, laughed and laughed—cried, he laughed so hard, the tears making white furrows on his coal-black face. There above us, far from the floor, Noel: quiet, motionless. So quiet and motionless that the fireman, frightened, put him down again. What’s up, little Jew, he said, disconcerted, aren’t you afraid of fire? Noel looked at him without saying anything. He gestured to me and we left, his head held high, defiant.

I admired that in Noel, that courage. And also his exuberance, his ability to make everybody laugh. But also—this head, Doctor, this mixed-up head of mine—I envied him. And do you know why, Doctor? Do you know what I envied about Noel, with a deadly envy? His scar, the scar on his upper lip he was so proud of. That scar had a story, Doctor, a story Noel told me several times, and I always listened eagerly, despite my resentment.

The story: fleeing Ananiev, Noel, his mother, and his aunt catch sight of a band of armed men. They are White Russians on the run, desperate men, capable of anything. Berta pulls her son into her arms and, followed by her sister, runs to take refuge in an old cemetery. They hide in a mausoleum and stay there, holding their breath, their hearts beating furiously. Suddenly, gunshots: Budyonny’s Bolsheviks have arrived at a gallop and taken their enemies captive, and are now summarily executing them, right there in the cemetery. One after another, the White Russians are propped up against the wall that encloses the cemetery. Budyonny quickly reads out the sentence and gives the order: Fire! Gunshots—and the victim falls, to be thrown immediately into a common grave. A horrible scene, and anyone who witnesses it is in obvious danger. To keep Noel from crying and giving them away, Berta covers his mouth, but she’s so nervous she stabs his upper lip with her fingernails, cutting it deeply. Of that wound, a large scar remains.

A mark of heroism, that scar. Because the truth is, Doctor, despite his mother’s fears, Noel didn’t cry. He didn’t cry when he saw those men fall to the ground, pierced by bullets. He didn’t cry when his mother’s nails penetrated his flesh. Can you imagine what that would be like, Doctor, to have your lip torn open by your own mother—a mother whose fingernail suddenly became a weapon, a sharpened blade? It would be impossible to know whether she were perhaps driven by fear or if some other dark emotion were in play, that resentment mothers sometimes feel toward their sons, a resentment that grows when, in the husband’s absence, the mother is forced to face danger alone. At any rate, it’s appropriate to wonder: why didn’t she hold back? Why didn’t she restrain herself? She could have remained motionless. Like her sister. Do you know what her sister was doing at that moment, Doctor? Do you? She was reading the inscriptions in the mausoleum. That’s what she was doing: reading the inscriptions in the mausoleum. And somewhat distractedly she thought, These people lying here rescued us, the house of their death is the sanctuary that will save our lives. But Noel’s mother didn’t sink into such musings. She was there, tense, eyes wild—waiting for the danger to pass, or for her nails to grow? A mother in a moment of danger is fucked, Doctor. A mother in a Russian cemetery watching an execution with wild eyes is fucked. And this shadowy head of mine is fucked, too, Doctor. Horrible things happen inside it, the Black Hand stabs its fingernails into tender, innocent lips. There inside it resentment, that carnivorous plant, sprouts and grows, boiling with sap. Your scar is great, I’d tell Noel, I have one, too, and I’d show him a mark on the palm of my hand, left there by a burn—as a child learning to walk I’d leaned against the red-hot stove. Generously he’d look at the mark, he’d say it was impressive. Impressive my ass, Doctor. Who was I to have an impressive scar? Who was I to have a scar at all? What I had was an internal injury that would never heal: the memory of my brother. Whenever my parents talked about him—and they talked about him all the time—the wound burned like fire. Their memory was an accusation that made me ache. As a doctor, a good man, you must be thinking, Your brother died of tuberculosis, it’s not your fault. I know, Doctor, that my brother died of tuberculosis, the white plague. It’s just that somehow, Doctor, I was his tuberculosis, you know? Somehow I destroyed his lungs. I, his little baby brother, full of envy for the firstborn son, I was the white plague; I, the Black Hand, shaped his destiny. At some point, still in my mother’s womb, I fervently wished for him to die, and at some point the bacilli heard my prayer: bacilli respond to envy, they’re sensitive to it. They set up shop in my poor brother’s lungs and they destroyed him. But sin carries its price. Jehovah marks the envious forever. As Cain discovered, if anything is indelible it’s the mark of Jehovah. Now, my case was different. Cain couldn’t see the mark on his own forehead. There weren’t any mirrors back then, there wasn’t a Loja da Moda where you could buy one; he couldn’t even look at himself in the quiet surface of a lake, because the waters roiled furiously at his approach (or perhaps Cain himself disturbed the waters so as not to see himself in them). He could see in the eyes of his father Adam and his mother Eve, in the eyes of the birds and animals, even in the eyes of the serpent, the horror that his mark provoked, but it was still only indirect evidence. Of course, Cain knew the mark was there and would have done anything to be free of it—he would have worked without pay the rest of his life for any plastic surgeon who freed him from the indictment stamped on his skin.

I didn’t have a mark, but if I’d had one I would have spent the whole day gazing at it, captivated. Like Cain, I wanted to be free of my dead brother’s memory; but unlike Cain, I wouldn’t have minded having a mark on my face, so long as that mark were a scar like Noel’s, larger than Noel’s if possible. If Jehovah had made a Scarface out of me, I wouldn’t have minded. Quite the opposite: that was what I wanted most, that was the glory I dreamed of. But my opportunity had already passed: we were on our way to Brazil, far from Russia, from its bands of armed men and its cemeteries. And even if we’d had to face a dangerous situation like the one Noel and his mother experienced, my chances of arranging for a scarring injury would have been remote. My mother didn’t even have long nails. Also she lacked the flame—holy or demonic, it doesn’t matter which—the flame of free, unrestrained emotion, which glowed like the flames in our stove had glowed, like the flames in the boiler the Ukrainian fireman kept alight. In vain I would have shouted, Stab me with your fingernail, mother, mark me forever, I need a souvenir of the thrilling scene we’re living, the band of armed men that might shoot us at any moment; I need a scar like Noel’s, don’t deny me that. My mother, mutilate her son? No way. To arrange for a scar I’d have had to resort to self-mutilation, which wouldn’t have been so absurd—after all, if the Indians could poke plugs through their lips and ears, I could cut my own upper lip. Except that I didn’t have the courage for it. The missing scar was testament to my cowardice. Scars, Doctor, are for the brave, for those who face danger and survive it. The timorous can only count on the torpid ulcer of their cowardice, the internal wound that will accompany them forever.

Was Noel aware of my envy? If he was, he never talked to me about it. Perhaps to spare me, right, Doctor? Poor thing, my friend, he doesn’t have a scar, but I’m not going to humiliate him because of it. And look at this photo of him: could it be that that moustache, that huge moustache hiding the scar—could it be that Noel grew his moustache, his huge moustache, because of me? Might he have thought, That guy from the Madeira, I think even now he envies me and my scar, I’m going to cover it with a moustache? Noel was good, he was so good he was a saint, a Jewish saint, a merciful Jehovah. I was bad. Bad and envious. Fount of malice, fount of envy.


Moacyr Scliar

Moacyr Scliar was born in Porto Alegre, Brazil in 1937. He is a member of the Brazilian Academy of Letters and the author of more than 60 books published in 18 countries, many of which have won awards or been adapted for the movies, stage, or television. He also writes for newspapers around the world. His books include O centauro no jardim (1980; published in English as The Centaur in the Garden, 2003), Max e os felinos (1981; published in English as Max and the Cats, 2003), A mulher que escreveu a Bíblia (winner of the Prêmio Jabuti, 2000), and Saturno nos trópicos (2003). A majestade do Xingu (1997) received the Prêmio José Lins do Rego from the Brazilian Academy of Letters.

Andrea Rosenberg

Andrea Rosenberg recently completed an M.F.A. in literary translation from the University of Iowa, where she was co-editor of the journal eXchanges. She translates from Spanish and Portuguese. She may be reached at [email protected].

A Majestade do Xingu (Majesty of the Xingu). Copyright (c) Moacyr Scliar, 1998. English translation copyright (c) Andrea Rosenberg, 2009.