Online Exclusives
| All Online Exclusives >


by Graciliano Ramos
Translated from Portuguese by
Annie McDermott
Issue 25 Online Exclusive

Dr. Silveira walked through the antechamber towards the curtained doorway. The elderly attendant stopped him, about to ask for his calling card, but on seeing the look on the doctor’s face and the way he waved his hand as if wafting away an irritating object, he bowed, parted the green drapes and retreated into an alcove, thinking:

“He must be an important politician.”

Dr. Silveira stepped into the governor’s office. He did so as nonchalantly as if he’d been there a thousand times before, and his arms were held out as if for an embrace. An embrace—yes, of course. For he and the man he was visiting had been neighbours, classmates at primary and secondary school, best friends, completely inseparable. Dr. Silveira’s wife had said:

“There’s no point visiting him. I’d forget the whole thing if I were you. You want to steer clear of politics!”

To which he replied:

“What do you mean, ‘politics’? Do you think I care about politics? The point is, we grew up together. We were like this—look.”

He held the middle and index fingers of his right hand alongside each other, horizontally, and wiggled them slightly. Neither one rose higher than the other.

“Like this.”

He stretched out his index finger and slid his middle finger back so that they appeared to be the same length. Unfortunately, however, the two men hadn’t stayed that way. One had studied law, made powerful friends, risen through the ranks and ended up a governor; the other had become a doctor in the suburbs, with very few patients and no car. That’s why his wife had said:

“Don’t go getting ideas, now. There’s no point visiting a man like that. You know what they say: a monkey should stick to his branch.”

“This isn’t about monkeys!” Dr. Silveira retorted. “We were practically brothers. We studied together, lived together. I have to go and see him. If I didn’t, he’d wonder why not. His best friend.”

He combed his hair and put on his least shabby clothes. He felt a bit silly dressing up like that, but after all, it was so long since they had last seen one another, and the man had been like a brother to him.

“See? We were inseparable. Like this.”

He had taken a taxi to the palace. It was the first time he had ever set foot inside, and he made his way across the entrance hall very tentatively. Was the governor’s office on the right or the left? He whispered questions to the sullen officials.

Twenty years ago, his friend, his brother, had failed chemistry. He had got stuck on the atom. Now he was in charge of all this, and what good was the atom to anyone?

Following directions from a security guard, Dr. Silveira had walked a little way down the gloomy corridor, entered the antechamber, reached the curtain and waved aside the elderly attendant, who had retreated into an alcove:

“He must be important.”

Right. Now Dr. Silveira was in the office, having left behind him his hesitations and the instructions of those disagreeable men. He took a couple of steps, arms reaching out as if for an embrace, but saw nothing. Then he skidded on the shiny wooden floor and froze. It occurred to him that slipping over would be a bad thing to do. He must on no account slip over. On the pavement outside he had been walking just fine. But in there, on the varnished wooden floor, all his confidence drained away. A prickling sensation on the soles of his feet; sweat on the soles of his feet. A single slip would be an admission of inferiority.

He drew himself up and peered around, only then noticing his surroundings. What first caught his attention in the room was the absurdly large desk and the absurdly tall chairs around it. He had the sudden wild impression that the desk was bigger than the room. He had never been inside an office before, but had always imagined them to be small. And yet this room was enormous, bounded by windows on one side and books on the other. The side with the books resembled a public library.

He caught sight of a row of thick, elegantly-bound volumes and felt sad. It must be a gigantic set of dictionaries, encyclopaedias, something like that, worth thousands and thousands. He was wrong: it was only a a set of official government records, but they made a great impression on Dr. Silveira anyway, leaving him dreaming of all the scientific knowledge they contained. He placed a cautious foot on the floor in front of him, afraid of slipping again. Nothing to hold onto. His arms, which had been outstretched and ready to embrace his friend, now dropped uncertainly to the sides of his slightly stooping frame.

Moving on from the dozens of thick volumes lining the shelves, his eyes now fixed themselves on the floor, alarmed by the highly polished boards. What a stupid idea, making floors so shiny and slippery. He took a few tentative steps, convinced he was being observed and disapproved of. There were probably other people in the room, maybe even people he knew, people he should have greeted. But he saw only the enormous desk, the unnecessarily large chairs, the big windows and the books, especially that leather-bound collection with gold lettering on the spines. Angry at the shyness consuming him, he lifted his chin and moved forward decisively. A child, a country bumpkin, clumsy and tongue-tied.

He examined his surroundings more closely. At the far side of the desk sat a little man, writing something. Just as Dr. Silveira became aware of him, the figure set down his pen and looked up, revealing puffy eyes and an irritated scowl. Clearly not at all pleased to have his tedious work interrupted.

Dr. Silveira wished he had followed his wife’s advice. What did he know about politics? He should have been calling on his patients instead. What a stupid idea, turning up in the office of such an important man.

A second later, the frustrated expression of the man behind the desk was replaced by a smile of resignation. His old friend had always had that smile, but the frown and the puffy eyes were new. Such a change! And in no time at all.

It really was almost no time at all since the two of them were doing their homework together in Dr. Silveira’s father’s garden, lying on the dry leaves under the mango trees. The girls would be dancing and singing. One of his friend’s aunts used to come to keep an eye on them, bringing with her a pair of spectacles and a novel. She didn’t keep an eye on anything very much, but her presence, and that of the spectacles and the book, were a necessary part of the ritual. It felt like yesterday. The elderly aunt with her nose poking over her novel; the girls dancing and singing; he and his friend lying stretched out on the dry leaves, memorizing their notes.

His friend had failed chemistry. A bright lad, yet so flummoxed by the atom, so utterly unable to comprehend it. How he had wept, swearing revenge on Dr. Guedes, his father’s enemy. It was so unfair—why bother studying at all? They were persecuting an exemplary student, impeccably behaved, the very opposite of a trouble-maker. Such a rotten thing for Dr. Guedes to do. And besides, what good was the atom to someone who was going to become a lawyer? Twenty years. The world can turn many times in twenty years, but still it felt like yesterday.

“How quickly people change!”

His old classmate never used to have puffy eyes or a bad-tempered expression. He had been such a friendly boy, always laughing. That’s why Dr. Silveira had tried to cheer him up, to console him, pointing out examples of important men who had failed their school exams. It was silly to get so upset over one low blow from Dr. Guedes.

Twenty years. Everything was different now. The enormous room, the enormous desk. Dr. Silveira was on one side of it, and from the other, the puffy eyes were calmly observing him. The impatient expression was gone, the smile was gone. All that remained were those exhausted eyes that couldn’t work out who he was. Had he changed so much as to be unrecognizable? Probably. Balding, stooped, pale: he was a different man, there was no denying it. Still young. But a life lived among the dead and the sick left a man fit for nothing. Old. They were both old. Balding, stooped, pale; those puffy, cold, indifferent eyes. If he had seen his friend in the street, he would have walked straight past him, his mind on the hospital, the morgue, the operating table. He would have walked straight past, thinking about an artery that had been severed. Those things mattered so much to him and yet they meant nothing to the man over there, a few feet away, writing. What was he writing? A telegram to the Interior Minister or the Minister for Agriculture. Dr. Silveira would have no idea how to word a telegram to a minister. Or maybe it was just a note to some big-shot farmer. Dr. Silveira wouldn’t even know how to write one of those.

He took a step to the right to get round the desk that way, changed his mind and made to go round to the left instead, then stopped and stayed where he was. It was so stupid to hesitate like that. Sweaty palms, sweaty feet. At least the desk was on a rug so there was no danger of slipping again. He should have been able to stride confidently over to his friend, but those puffy eyes, the hand resting limply on the sheet of paper and the inquiring expression on his motionless face all left Dr. Silveira embarrassed and trembling. He wanted to turn around and leave that sad, silent room; looking over his shoulder, he saw the imposing set of official government records with gold lettering on their leather spines. He could never afford such a collection, not even if he paid in installments. What was he doing in a room full of such fancy books? He wanted to turn around, cross the vast expanse that separated him from the door, push aside the curtain, dodge the attendant and the guard and emerge once more into the street. But no-one goes into a room only to go tearing back out of it like a madman a few moments later. It would be difficult to extricate himself, to get away from those puffy eyes as they strained to remember who he was. He was embarrassed, and realized that he was also embarrassing that stranger whose work he had interrupted: the telegram or note, to some minister or mayor. Those mysterious tasks confused him. He wouldn’t know how to begin writing a note to the mayor.

He realized it had been a mistake not to give the attendant a calling card. There was a certain protocol to be followed, pointless formalities he knew nothing about – and had seen no reason to find out about, since the man on the other side of the curtain had been like a brother to him. Like two fingers, side by side and almost the same length. His wife hadn’t believed his story about the fingers and said he should stay at home in his pajamas, reading his medical magazines. Magazines – of course. There was no way he could have afforded such thick, leather-bound volumes.

An inferior creature. Yes, inferior, no question about it. He moved neither forwards nor backwards. Should he approach from the left side of the desk or the right?

Cramming for exams was such a bore. In the evenings, Dr. Silveira’s father would test them on geography and history to make sure they weren’t wasting their time. The girls there would be singing, dancing round in circles. What had become of them? Far away, married, dead, very different creatures who no longer danced or sang.

His old friend was a different man as well, an amputated finger. All Dr. Silveira wanted was to approach him and say a few words. But the words he had rehearsed were nowhere to be found. How could he get to him? From the right or the left? It would be better to escape, to leave the carpet and cross the gleaming floor, even at the risk of slipping again. He was sweating. It was impossible to avoid those eyes that still didn’t recognize him.

Now he was afraid the man was expecting him to burst into tears, to ask for a job. But he wasn’t going to. He imagined making a show of turning out his pockets, to prove he didn’t need to beg a few paltry pennies from the state coffers. He was content with his life, calling on the poor and the sick, working in the hospital, subscribing to those magazines he so enjoyed. Everything was fine. He wasn’t going to ask for anything. His habits were modest, he had no ambitions. All he wanted was to embrace his friend, congratulate him, spend a few minutes reminiscing about the old days, the class notes they memorized under the mango trees, the girls, the elderly aunt. He wasn’t going to ask for anything. His clothes were threadbare, his shoes were falling apart. Not to mention his bald head and thin, hunched frame. But there were the sick people in the suburbs who believed only in him, and the hospital, which gave him too little money and too much work, and his thrifty wife. He’d be sorry if the hospital were taken away from him. All those interesting cases.

A friendly visit. He was dressed like a beggar. He hadn’t given much thought to his clothes when he left the house. His grubby collar, his tie curling like a piece of string. A mess. Every day, his wife said to him: “Do your jacket up.” He never listened. And now he regretted it, standing there on one side of the desk with his shirt bagging out over his belly.

The man with the puffy eyes thought he was a scrounger, someone after a job, the kind of person who turns up at public hearings clutching letters of recommendation. That’s why his face was so impassive, ready to murmur some abrupt excuse, like a dog protecting a well-gnawed bone. But Dr. Silveira didn’t want his bone. He simply wanted to talk for a few minutes, to remember their school days, the elderly aunt reading her novels, the notes from their lessons, the atom, his father’s impatience. But there was no way of bringing these things up. He and his friend used to be like two inseparable fingers, but they had been parted. How could they overcome that distance between them, the enormous desk surrounded by high-backed chairs? Should he approach from the right or the left? Dr. Silveira took a step in one direction, then the other, and ended up back where he’d started. The man with the puffy eyes didn’t recognize him. Or maybe he did recognize him. Or maybe he didn’t. Could he be a fellow student from a long time ago, someone he knew from somewhere or other? A friend, most likely; the kind you greet with indifference: “Hello there! How are things?” He was trying to remember Dr. Silveira’s name. Someone in his class at primary school, or secondary school or college. He struggled to place him, pen hovering in mid-air, the telegram interrupted. An inconvenient visit, a waste of time.

“Time’s precious for that sort of person: so many minutes for this, so many for that. They don’t fritter away their days in idle chit-chat.”

Important business, public business. Dr. Silveira felt glued to the spot, trapped on the carpet next to a tall chair with an eagle carved on the back. He couldn’t get the leather bindings out of his head. So many books that it was like a library. Thick volumes, with gold lettering on the spines.

Such feeble memories! The elderly aunt leafing through her novel, the girls dancing and singing, the mango trees, the two of them listening to Dr. Silveira’s father’s attempts to explain things. He and that man who was sitting just a few feet away from him looking unimpressed, pen poised in mid-air, telegram interrupted, a vague question in his puffy eyes – “Hello there! How are things?”

What a stupid idea, recalling the useless past. His wife had been right all along. Time to put an end to this as quickly as possible, go back to the suburbs, change into his pajamas and slippers and read his medical magazines.

He took a step forward. He still didn’t know whether he was approaching from the right or the left. In a complete daze. Time to put an end to the matter once and for all. His wife had been right.

“Hello there! How are things?” asked the puffy-eyed man.

Dr. Silveira sat down in one of the unnecessarily large chairs and began stammering. Such tall chairs! He rubbed his hands together. And he asked for a job. Something cushy, a foot in the door in the Public Health Department. He didn’t mention their shared past. Need, poverty, hard times. He rubbed his hands sheepishly, showing off his graduation ring. A job in Public Health.

“Very well,” said the man with the puffy eyes. “Come back another time and we’ll see.”

And he returned his pen to the sheet of paper, clearly intending to carry on with the telegram.

Graciliano Ramos de Oliveira was a Brazilian modernist writer, politician, and journalist. In most of his novels (most prominently in Vidas Secas) he depicts the precarious situation of the poor inhabitants of the Brazilian sertão.
Annie McDermott translates fiction and poetry from Spanish and Portuguese, and her translations have appeared in publications including Granta, World Literature Today, Asymptote, The Missing Slate, and Alba. In 2013 she was the runner-up in the Harvill Secker Young Translators’ Prize, and in 2015 she completed a six-month mentorship with the translator Margaret Jull Costa. She has previously lived in São Paulo and Mexico City, and she is now based in London.