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The Machine of Being

A Máquina de Ser
by João Gilberto Noll
Translated from Portuguese by
Edgar Garbelotto

Ao sair da Embaixada, parei um pouco no meio-fio e dedilhei no fundo do meu bolso, contra a perna, qual em teclas imaginárias, dedilhei suavemente, talvez interpretando um noturno a me tanger em mais uma cota de evasão diária, cota cada vez maior, já quase a me furtar a linha entre o lazer, o sono, a atividade, a inércia. Eu nunca estivera antes naquela capital a que eu chegava agora para representar o meu país. Era o meu primeiro dia na Embaixada. E eu estava saindo para almoçar, sozinho, como eu gostava sempre de fazer em qualquer lugar. Caminhava a esmo, procurando desatento por algum restaurante. Entrei num deles. Mesas coladas umas às outras, como se esperassem assim dar início a um congraçamento de pessoas de uma mesma instituição. Um casamento, talvez? Sentei a uma das poucas mesas isoladas num canto qualquer. Pedi algum prato típico do país. Disse ao garçom que ele nem precisava arrolar os ingredientes, modo de fazer, nada a respeito. Eu queria surpresa absoluta. Que fosse exótico ou não para os meus hábitos. Eu apenas o provaria no deleite, na insipidez ou no desgosto. Comeria na santa ignorância. Traga uma coca-cola também. Aos poucos iam chegando os comensais do almoço comemorativo.  Mulheres loiras, um certo ar sofrido. Homens em trajes escuros, semblantes discretos. Quem sabe fizessem parte de uma entidade para-policial, talvez de um sistema secreto no saneamento da conduta humana. Atrás das fisionomias dormitava um ultimato à beira de se revelar. Dormitava, certamente se notava: o pulso ainda fraco. Assim que a coisa se mostrasse madura, eles se poriam enfim em luta, então já em gestos extremos. O que mais seriam? Seres sem crianças, sim, que os pudessem amolecer. Não havia ali nenhuma brecha por onde entrar a graça de um menino, atraindo até pessoas de outras mesas com suas traquinagens por entre as pernas dos convivas. Quando o garçom depositava o prato típico sobre minha mesa, o meu celular tocou. Uma ligação do meu país. Na outra ponta da linha um amigo contava dos escândalos dos parlamentares. E a minha filha, perguntei, tens visto? Ele lembrou que eu tinha viajado há poucos dias, que ele ainda não tivera tempo de viajar ao litoral para visitar minha filha. Vivemos num país-continente, ele asseverou todo simplório. Isso estava acontecendo com todos os meus amigos. Eles iam ficando cada vez mais sem tempo para se expandir.

When I left the Embassy, ​​I made a quick stop by the curb and played the imaginary keys of a piano in the bottom of my pocket, against my leg. I tapped softly, perhaps interpreting a nocturne that would give me another measure of daily escapism—a measure growing greater all the time, almost to the point of erasing the line between leisure, sleep, activity, and inertia. I had never been to this capital before, in which I had now arrived to represent my country. It was my first day at the Embassy. And I was going out for lunch alone, as I always liked to do wherever I went. I was wandering, absently looking for some restaurant. I walked into one. Tables were stacked side by side, as if the restaurant was preparing to host a congregation from an institution. A wedding, perhaps? I sat in a corner at one of the few isolated tables. I ordered the country’s specialty. I told the waiter he didn’t need to list all the ingredients or how they prepared the dish or anything at all about it. I wanted absolute surprise. It could be exotic or not, I didn’t care. I would try it regardless of its delight, blandness, or repugnance. I would eat it with full ignorance. Bring a Coke too, please. Gradually, the celebratory luncheon guests were arriving. Blonde women, with a certain air of suffering. Men in dark suits with discreet visages. Perhaps they belonged to a paramilitary entity, or to a secret system designed to sanitize human behavior. An ultimatum on the verge of revealing itself slept behind their faces. Asleep, yes, it was obvious: the pulse was still weak. But, as soon as the thing matured, they’d be ready to fight, and by then, all ready with extreme gestures. What else could they be? Certainly, beings without children to soften them. There was no room for a boy’s grace to enter here, drawing the attention of people from other tables with his romps in between the guests’ legs. As the waiter brought the local specialty to my table, my cell phone rang. A call from my country. On the other end of the line, a friend was telling me about our congressmen’s scandals. And my daughter, I asked, have you seen her? He reminded me that it had been just a few days since I’d left, and that he hadn’t had time to travel to the coast to visit my daughter yet. We live in a continental country, he asserted like a simpleton. This was happening to all my friends: they were more and more unable to better themselves. When they spoke, they talked about what they had known for centuries. And they never added anything new to their already broken speech. This is the central point of our generation: an advanced disease in our words, something that made us swallow the last syllable most of the time, forcing us to retreat into a vacuum that was not exactly a silence, since silence is prior to meaning—homelessly phonetic—while our retreat touched just the nerve of meaning, making it ache. When I heard my friend on the phone quoting a poem by Rafael Quental—the one talking about: the blockade in the dark / among the sheets / burns the morning’s white skirt—I almost begged him to teach me where I had gone wrong in not being able to understand a poem like that anymore. Because now I only knew how to drink a glass of wine at dawn, and that was enough for me to venture out with my ideas a little, which would soon return to me in my natural bed—cloudy, almost bronze—where the waters descended with gentle fate and put my machine of being to work; there, quietly, smoking my pipe, half shrunk under the lampshade so I could stay behind the scenes, without even realizing it myself. I opened my wallet. It was my first time using this country’s currency. The waiter extended the saucer to me, and as I laid the bills on it, his hand unintentionally covered mine. He pronounced pardon in his strange language—a language I feared I would never master enough to conduct any urgent business between our two countries. The waiter lowered his head slightly in a farewell; I lowered mine and got up to leave. Between my table to the exit door, I had to stop here and there, because certain guests of the celebratory luncheon were standing to embrace each other in a not-so-effusive rite—as if parsimonious choreography counted for points in the group’s symbology. I went back to the Embassy, looking into the shop windows. There were not very many. And they weren’t especially beautiful. From the belly of a mannequin spilled a swarm of chocolates. In a men’s shop, there was a porcelain man who turned his pupils as if possessed by a sidereal attack, without any nexus to the immediate occasion. Everything seemed to work for a logic, to which there was no use in retaliating. I wouldn’t say that the events were suffering from a bastard, illegitimate order. It was I who had to learn how to see human luck and include myself in it. I had brought maps showing the country’s various regions. Their customs and traditions, as if they still mattered. According to the brochures, if a visitor traveled to the farthest point from the capital, in the middle of the forest, the belief in life after death would be decimated because the visitor would be swallowed by fast encounters. Yes, it was love, not just pleasure. Now, wandering around the corridors of that castle, the guests had access to the magnetic and magnificent instant of bodies—no, not of souls, but of flesh. At its apex, when the beliefs in a post-mortem world vanished in the vibrations and moans, at that moment we would be magnetized by the theological sum drawn from our holy ignorance. This was a new theology—a sick one, yes, how could it not be after such a wild night in that castle! I walked the streets like a pilgrim without a sect to follow. There was only one substitute for a sect for me, the Embassy, ​​and there I would put my head to work for a useful cause, which in those days was in the form of surveys for a strong technological exchange between our two peoples. As I was thinking about all this, I could see new agricultural machinery plowing the fields of my homeland, in the southern part of the country. I saw a blond man riding a tractor, smiling. He had a golden canine. He smiled, perhaps to a close friend, a relative. I stopped in front of a window and felt the breeze of that foreign city touch me softly. The smile from the man on the tractor struck me somehow. I reciprocated a little, saw a hint of my teeth in the window glass. Yes, I wanted to die, but it was still too soon. I still had this mission for the Embassy, and I knew I would do it well. I only had to activate the machine of being, which had found an interpreter in my body. And I had to make it happen… It always worked… had always, indeed, at least until that point. There was no reason for a damaging failure to drag me down with it. No…I’d spend the afternoon in the Embassy, keep on living. It was necessary to stay until the end of the day. It was necessary to get two internal documents signed, which would motivate some employees to come back the next day to dispatch those papers toward their ultimate goals, until they needed a new signature from me that would lead to other documents. It was necessary, it was necessary, life was lived minute by minute. And I wanted more. Just a little more. The machine of being pushed me up the steps at the Embassy’s gate. I sat down at my desk. I took a handkerchief from my pocket. And I cleaned my sweat.





Noll, João Gilberto. “A Máquina de Ser” from A Máquina de Ser. São Paulo: Nova Fronteira, 2006.

João Gilberto Noll (1946–2017) is the author of nearly twenty books. His work appeared in Brazil’s leading periodicals, and he was a guest of the Rockefeller Foundation, King’s College London, and the University of California at Berkeley, as well as a Guggenheim Fellow. A five-time recipient of the Prêmio Jabuti, and the recipient of more than ten awards in all, he died in Porto Alegre, Brazil, at the age of 70.  
Edgar Garbelotto is a writer and translator born in Brazil and based in the U.S. for the past 20 years. His translation of João Gilberto Noll’s novel Lord was published by Two Lines Press in 2019. His work has appeared in the Kenyon Review Online, Asymptote, Ninth Letter, Little Patuxent Review, and elsewhere. He holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Illinois. Terra Incognita, written in both Portuguese and English, is his debut novel.