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 he runs away, never to return. 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’s 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.