It was a kind of summer club, a great square house painted yellow and a veranda filled with vast greenness that opened on an avenue where magnificent plane trees inhabited the night.
It smelled of the sea and of fruit. Lengthy harmonies seemed suspended from the trees and the stars. And among the white houses, in the dark blue night, passed the rolling of the sea.
Alexis Levitin's thirty-six books of translation include Clarice Lispector's Soulstorm and Eugenio de Andrade's Forbidden Words, both from New Directions. Recent books include Santiago Vizcaino's Destruction in the Afternoon (Diálogos Books, 2015), 28 Portuguese Poets (Dedalus Press, 2015), Eugenio de Andrade's The Art of Patience (Red Dragonfly Press, 2013), Ana Minga's Tobacco Dogs (The Bitter Oleander Press, 2013) and Salgado Maranhão's Blood of the Sun (Milkweed Editions, 2012).
more fiction by Sophia de Mello Breyner Andresen
All this surrounded the club and its walls and windows, its doors and chairs. And even more, it surrounded, intensely, one by one, each person there.
One entered the hall through a large door that was always open.
The hall was enormous and in the middle there was a nostalgic palm tree. The decorations were from 1920, in a special style that only existed in that region.
On green benches, lining the white walls, covered half way up by green trellis-work, there were small groups of people seated before green tables.
There were three dark groups of men and two lighter groups of women of a certain age.
As I crossed the great hall, I said "good evening" to the various groups. Then I took a look through the game room door, which was made of glass. The card players seemed like condemned men trying to amuse themselves calmly during their last hours. They were abstracted, in abeyance, and didn't notice me. I went back across the hall and entered the ballroom.
It was orchestra day. The orchestra came twice a week from a near-by beach resort. The musicians were thin and young and wore old smoking jackets, slightly tarnished from use and from the humidity of maritime winters. They were failed musicians: with little artistry, little money, and no fame. They must have been either resigned or seething. I hope they were seething: that would be less sad. A man in revolt, even if inglorious, is never completely defeated. But passive resignation, resignation through a progressive deafening of one's being, that is a complete failure and without cure. But those in revolt, even those for whom everything—lamplight and the light of spring—hurts like a knife, those who cut themselves on the air and in their very gestures, are the honor of the human condition. They are the ones who do not accept imperfection. And therefore their souls are like a vast desert without shade or freshness where the fire burns without being consumed.
And so there we were laughing, conversing, dancing, while the musicians, in their old smoking jackets, played on.
Sometimes someone would complain that they were playing badly.
Through the open windows the music would float out and lose itself among the foliage of the plane trees, mixing with the slight tremor of the breeze and the deep reverberation of the sea.
The ballroom was long and wide. There were two doors leading to the veranda, two doors leading to the entrance hall and a fifth door that lead to a smaller hall which served as a passage and connection between the ballroom and the bar.
At the back of the ballroom there was a stage where the musicians would play, but on which no dramatic event was ever enacted. But it was known that in the past there had been theatrical presentations.
Along the wall to the left of the stage there were three windows that opened on to a quiet little street where hardly anyone ever went by.
Sometimes in between dances we would come and lean out at the windows: across the way was a house with white walls, where the moonlight turned blue and where the shadows of leaves filled with gestures appeared, quivering, restless and alive.
And we would stretch out an arm and pull from the branches a leaf, which we would slowly crunch between our teeth.
Then we would breathe in the aroma of the linden trees and lift our heads to the sky filled with stars and say:
"What a beautiful night!"
At other times, when we didn't dance, we would talk in small groups, seated on the long sofas covered in green that lined the walls. There would be the light murmur of adolescent loves. It was like the murmur of the breeze. For it was the beginning of life and so far nothing had happened to us. So far, nothing was grave, tragic, naked and bloody.
And the night outside, with its mixed aromas, with its murmurs and its silences and its shadows and lights, seemed the face of a promise.
But I don't think that anyone there at that time really thought about the future. Only perhaps two or three, whose lives, later on, so efficient and well organized, always had the air of something previously arranged. But only those. All the others made no plans about the future. For them, the present was a limitless expanse of the available, of suspense and of choice. They didn't plan the future—merely, in a vague way, they awaited it.
And so vaguely that often it was as if they were awaiting not the future, but the past.
For there one talked a great deal about the past. Constantly in those conversations stories were told of earlier generations, stories of a time when existence was more defined and visible, a time when feelings turned to actions and destinies were utterly fulfilled.
Sometimes, all of a sudden, deep inside a mirror there would be a splendor that was the splendor of some ancient time. And then it was as if the ancient nights of August and the long-gone September afternoons could, like D. Sebastião, come back again.
On the avenues, among the linden trees, on the verandas, in the sound of footsteps along the streets of sand and gravel, turning over loose stones, in the sea, like a seashell repeating the roar of a tempestuous past, and even in the floor, the tables, the chairs, there seemed to be suspended the hope of a return.
And as the night deepened and almost everyone would leave, as it grew later and later, the expectation would become almost conscious, almost visible. One might have said that lost time was rising up and turning tangible.
People would drift off, the halls would grow empty, and a question and silence would hover in the air, as if something, something obscurely desired and promised, had not occurred.
The musicians would put away their instruments and close the piano. Dark and thin, they would come down the steps from the stage and then disappear, I suppose through a trapdoor, for I never saw them leave by any ordinary door. Or perhaps they just dissolved into thin air. Or perhaps they were gods from Persia and had come during the night on a magic carpet in order to contemplate, disguised as musicians, the end of Western sensibility.
For the expectation, the expectation of fantastic things, visible and real, the expectation of things destined, promised, sensed, was growing almost lucidly hallucinatory.
Leaning against the doorpost, a lone man, tall and thin like a tree in winter, took out his pocket watch and checked the time. Then he quickly put the watch away, as if he were ashamed of time.
We were all waiting.
Already there were not many of us and the ballroom lights went out, the great hall was deserted, in the game room there were only four card players still waiting for death, and when we entered the bar a man, the same one as always, turned round on his high bar stool and, bringing his glass with him, came to sit with us at a table.
And it was hard to say from what era he came; for he clearly had the voice, the gaze, the gestures of a figure from stories of olden times. But not the destiny, not the lived life. It was as if he had rejected all destiny, all lived life, as if it were something alien, exterior and false, and for him that moment, that bar, that table, that conversation, that glass were enough.
It was as if he had wanted to keep his being totally separate from lived life, since in life there was no act in which being could be realized and concrete existence was just debasement, falsification, profanation.
And so he had decided to use his own life as if it didn't belong to him, to use it the way the musicians of the orchestra used their rented evening jackets.
The late hour was diffusing, multiplying, and isolating everything.
Almost everyone was gone, and emptiness was settling gently on the tables and chairs, while the night, with the vast shadows of its trees mingling with the sound of the sea, came in through the open window.
And the man who had come to sit with us spoke on, mixing his words with time, the night, the tumult of the sea, the breath of the breeze among the leaves. And from his words a great image grew forth, blossoming out and spreading towards countless spaces.
His sensibility was so perfect that even on the very wood of the table his hand reposed with tenderness. As he spoke, his eyes widened, blue with the blue of an alcohol flame. And his gaze grew boundless and impersonal as if he were seeing something else beyond us. Perhaps:
The distant memory of a land
Eternal but long lost and we not knowing
If we've lost it in the past or in the future.
And, as he went on talking, the image born from his words would take shape within the souls of those listening to him, like a myth. He was like a limit, like a boundary marker that said:
"From this point on the sea is no longer navigable."
And yet, he could not be mistaken for a god. Among the gods to be and to exist are united. In him lived life wasn't even the servant of being, wasn't even the ground on which being set foot, but was mere chance without nexus, a failed meeting, an accident without form and without truth, a disdained accident.
I was seated opposite him, on the other side of the small table. For a long time he remained silent. Then he leaned over the table and said:
There is a sea,
A far and distant sea
Beyond the farthest line,
Where all my ships that went astray,
Where all my dreams of yesterday
Outside the street lights had long ago been extinguished.
It was late. And the gleam of the late hour gently glided over the hands and the glasses on the polished table top.
The moon had already disappeared and a mist, airy and white, was beginning to rise from the sea and come through the open window.
"The mist has come back," someone said.
We looked out the window. The fragrance coming now from outside was fresher and smelled more of the sea.
Now and then far off one could hear the whistling of trains. They were the endless freight trains with early morning goods, their cars laden with salt, cattle, wood, and stones. And the signal woman, standing tall, held up a green lantern at the end of her extended arm. And a long trail of melancholy seemed to settle and then slowly dissolve over the lands through which the train was passing.
It was late.
A waiter, half asleep, was wandering among the tables.
"Look at this," said one of my friends, pointing to some pages in an opened illustrated magazine.
Cities and more cities bombed out, ships, canons, planes, war machines, the ridiculous Führer, captain of stupidity, bestiality and disaster, leading his people.
And suddenly a rapid-fire, violent discussion arose. But, despite the discussion and the photographs, the war seemed unreal and abstract, as if we were talking about the invasion of the barbarians or the torments of the year 2000. The war was far away.
Then the man with the pocket watch arose and said:
"I'm going to listen to the news."
Behind him the door swung to and fro.
A few moments later one could hear from the near by hall the sound of the wireless mixed with scraps of music and foreign tongues.
Then a voice began to speak clearly.
I got up and went to listen.
Rommel is retreating in the desert, the news was saying.
And suddenly, for me, through the power of a name, the war became real.
I went back to the bar and sat down again at the same table, in the midst of all the talk.
Rommel was retreating in the desert.
And I tried to imagine the blue night of the desert where the silent men were retreating. I tried to imagine the shadows and the sweetness of the sand, the clear brilliance of the stars, the mystery, the tensely-felt presence of an invisible enemy, the edge of death, the terror, the passion and the dense, sharp and exact weight of each moment. And I tried to imagine the men. The men: Οι άνθρωποι. The men: clearly defeated, fighting in retreat, surrounded by death, measuring out their gestures, measuring the measure of the efficacy of their gestures, battling each foot of the way, knowing their cause unjust, their battle lost. Clearly defeated, battling beneath the clear brilliance of the stars.
And it was late.
So late that we all got up and left, while, half asleep, the waiter took from our table all our glasses which, bumping against each other, continued to clink and tinkle on his tray.
Outside, no sooner had we passed through the door leading onto the veranda, than a vast breath from the sea covered us, surrounded us, invaded us.
The mist from the sea had transfigured everything.
Now there was only the smell of the sea. The passionate aroma of seaweed dripped from the trees. Moon and stars could not be seen. Not even the plane trees could be seen. All one could see were white walls in the white mist. Everything was motionless and in suspense.
All one could hear was the voice of the sea, astonishingly real, endlessly remaking itself.
And it seemed as if the vast, violent green depths of the sea, as if it were our natural destiny, was calling us.