Zoë Perry is the recipient of a 2015 PEN/Heim Translation Fund Grant for her translation of Opisanie swiata, the award-winning debut novel by Brazilian writer Veronica Stigger. With her translation, Perry introduces to the English-speaking world a stunning novel by a young writer on the cutting-edge of Brazilian literature. Read Perry’s essay on translating Stigger here.
The train had barely departed when the man entered Opalka’s compartment, exultant. “Aha! I finally found you!” he exclaimed with open arms.
Opalka, engrossed in his newspaper, was startled by the unexpected appearance. The man, without asking for permission, sat down beside him.
“I forgot to ask your name.”
Allowing no time for a reply, he got up again, stood in front of Opalka, and extended his right hand. “My name is Bopp. Very pleased to meet you.”
Opalka closed his paper with a sigh, stood up and, shaking Bopp’s hand, replied: “I’m Opalka. Pleasure.”
Bopp motioned for Opalka to return to his place by the window. He sat back down and Bopp settled in beside him, inquiring unceremoniously: “Where did you learn Portuguese? It’s unusual for a Pole to know Portuguese. You are Polish, aren’t you?”
“Yes, I am.”
“Well, then, it’s unusual for a Pole to know Portuguese. And you speak the language very well. Very well indeed. Portuguese is not a difficult language, but it isn’t exactly easy either. Especially for a Pole. They have very different phonemes. But you, sir, pronounce everything perfectly.”
Opalka did not reply. He just smiled and bowed his head gently in gratitude. Then he opened his paper once more, hoping to continue reading it. Bopp attempted to speak, but realized Opalka wasn’t paying attention. He came closer, until their shoulders touched, and Opalka followed him out of the corner of his eye. Curious, Bopp craned his neck to one side, trying to see what Opalka was reading. His face hovered inches from Opalka’s; his breath fell against his cheek. Opalka pretended not to feel anything. With Bopp on top of him, Opalka couldn’t concentrate, but pretended to still be reading intently. Bopp lowered his head closer to the newspaper, as if having trouble seeing the small print. Opalka rolled his eyes and sighed deeply. Bopp dipped further down, sandwiching himself almost entirely between Opalka and the paper. Opalka recoiled, freeing space for Bopp’s intrusion.
“It’s no use! I can’t understand Polish!” Bopp said suddenly, correcting his posture and looking at Opalka. “It’s hard. Very hard. Infinitely harder than Portuguese or German.”
Opalka agreed with a slight nod. He shook the newspaper and resumed reading. Bopp, not knowing what to do, began to examine Opalka, watching him so intently he seemed to be counting the wrinkles on his face. Then he scrutinized every corner of the train compartment, as if looking for the most appropriate place to hide some treasure. He got up, went to the window, and stood there for a while, looking out at the endless fields. With the rocking of the train, his kimono floated gently over Opalka’s newspaper. Irritated, he rolled his eyes each time the fabric landed atop the text he was reading. The two remained silent for some time until, all of a sudden, Bopp asked:
“Where was it that you learned Portuguese?”
Opalka took a deep breath and looked at Bopp, who was still standing in front of him, almost on top of him due to the confined space of the compartment.
“In Brazil,” he replied.
“In Brazil? How interesting!” said Bopp, beaming. He added proudly, “That’s where I’m from.”
“That doesn’t surprise me,” said Opalka, guarded.
Paying little heed to Opalka’s remark, Bopp asked:
“When were you in Brazil?”
“A long time ago,” replied Opalka brusquely, shaking out the newspaper as if to resume reading.
“How long ago, exactly?”
“A while ago.”
“How long of a while?”
“It was 1900, a little after 1900. You probably hadn’t been born yet.”
“That really was a long time ago,” agreed Bopp, who sat quietly for a few seconds before adding, “I was born at the turn of the century. Perhaps I had already been born.”
“Perhaps,” said Opalka, trying to end the conversation.
Bopp sat down again next to Opalka before continuing:
“I don’t think you’d recognize the country. A lot has changed.”
Opalka nodded, opening his newspaper once again. Bopp continued probing.
“And where are you going?”
“To Brazil,” replied Opalka, without taking his eyes off the paper.
“What a coincidence! We were just talking about Brazil. I have a gift for you, then.”
Bopp got up and left the compartment, dragging his silk kimono across the floor. Opalka raised his head and looked around. He was alone again. He seized the opportunity to read his newspaper, finally able to turn the page. But the peace and quiet didn’t last long. Soon Bopp returned with a brown book in his hands, entitled: The South American Handbook. Contented, he handed it to Opalka as he sat down again beside him.
“It’s yours. So you can find out more about Brazil—and Latin America, should you extend your trip. As I said, the country has changed. It’s quite different from what it was at the turn of the century. Where are you going in Brazil?”
“To the Amazon, but—”
“To the Amazon? The rainforest? Really?” asked Bopp, excited, interrupting Opalka. “I’ve been there!” he told him, getting up from his seat and waving his arms wildly. “I was in the middle of the jungle. I lived there. In the middle of the jungle. In a wooden house, sleeping in a hammock made of buriti fibers. Do you know what buriti is? It’s a type of palm tree there. Sometimes,” he went on, quelling his excitement and settling in again next to Opalka, “when it was really hot, I would hang my hammock between the trees and sleep under the heavens. That was when I used to hear the oddest, most indescribable sounds. There are strange sounds in the forest,” he said, lowering his voice. “Especially at night. One hears unbelievable things. I think there are ghosts there. Beings of the jungle. Have you ever been to the Amazon? Nobody leaves the forest the same as they entered it. No sir. Being in the jungle, it changes a man.”
Bopp stopped speaking for a moment. He looked into the distance, as if his memories were tucked away somewhere beyond the horizon of the view from the train window. Opalka, who had closed his newspaper, didn’t know if he should open it again or wait. He had already become aware that Bopp never kept quiet for more than a few seconds. First he looked at him, and then, to where he was looking.
“Oh, now I really miss it,” said Bopp, turning back to Opalka. “Sometimes, when I wake in the middle of the night, I can smell the forest. No matter where I am, I can smell the forest. But the sensation soon passes. It doesn’t last long, just long enough to bring me back to the jungle. I’m not from there, but I miss it greatly, the forest, that endless stretch of the world. If I could choose a place to call my own, to be all mine, I’d choose the Amazon. I’d choose my hammock between the trees, my hammock made of buriti.”
Bopp stared out the window before continuing to speak.
“It was there, in the forest. Between the trees. Right there, where the old lady appeared. I was lying in my hammock, taking a nap, when the woman approached me without a sound, not even the crackle of a dry leaf under her feet. Nothing. In total silence. There was no one around. Just me. It was New Year’s Day, right after lunch. It was sunny and very hot. Infernally hot, and muggy.” Bopp paused before continuing, now looking at Opalka, who watched him intently. “The woman was quite small, she couldn’t have stood over five feet tall. Thin and very wrinkled. She had long, straight white hair, and a sort of goatee on her chin: a half dozen long gray hairs. She looked about a hundred years old. Her skin was golden and shiny, maybe from sweat. Or from some oil she’d applied. I don’t know where she came from; I only noticed her when she was standing in front of me. She was dressed like a man. She wore dark, navy blue trousers and a long white shirt, untucked, that went down to her knees. She wasn’t wearing a hat. The whiteness of her hair reflected the light, which made it gleam even whiter. She came up to me and wished me a happy new year. I returned the greeting, but she did not move on. At first she just stood there quietly. She walked to a tree and broke off the dry, dead branches within her reach. Then she approached me again and asked if I was from there. I said I wasn’t, and she inquired if I was traveling for leisure. I said yes, and then she wanted to know if I traveled a lot. I said yes again. I told her I love to travel, love seeing new places. She asked where I had been. When I told her about the South of Brazil and the region where I’m from, the neighboring countries I’d been to, the North, the Northeast, the capital cities where I’d lived, the places in Europe I’d been, she tutted and waved her right hand in the air, as if shooing away a mosquito from her face. ‘No, no, no,’ she told me. ‘Traveling means going to Egypt, to Libya, to Turkey. You, my boy,’” continued Bopp, speaking in a high-pitched voice in an attempt to imitate the old woman’s speech, “‘should look up the Young Men’s Christian Association and travel there. To Egypt, to Libya, to Turkey. Work your way there. Get a job on the boat. It can be cooking, or cleaning. But work your way there. That way you can earn some money and spend as long as you like abroad. Work over there, too. While you’re still young. I’ve traveled a lot,’ she went on. ‘I saw Egypt, Libya, Turkey. I spent two years abroad. Working the whole time. Working and traveling. But pay close attention,’ she told me, finally, her finger pointed at my nose, ‘You have to come back. Stay a year, or two, three. But come back. Go and come back. You have to know how to come back.’”
Bopp fell silent and lowered his head. After a while Opalka went back to reading his newspaper. Every now and then he would glance over at Bopp, who sat quietly. He had placed his hands on his thighs and stroked his kimono as if it were a cat’s back. When Opalka finally finished reading the paper, he peeked at Bopp from the corner of his eye. He remained surprisingly mute, his gaze downcast. Opalka took the guidebook he’d given him. He ran his right hand over the cover and flipped through the pages, stopping now and again whenever something caught his attention. Occasionally he looked over at Bopp, still sitting in silence.
“Thank you for the guidebook,” Opalka said “But I’m not going to Brazil for leisure.”
“Oh, you’re not?” replied Bopp, emerging from his trance. “But you can keep it anyway. You might have a day off from work and want to look around.”
“I’m not going for business, either.”
“Oh, no? Well, then…” Bopp grinned and gave Opalka a wink. “Are you going to see the cururu toad? Oh, it’s impossible to resist the cururu.”
“No, not this time. I went for the cururu toad last time I went, when I was young, younger than you.”
“So this is not your first trip to the Amazon?”
“Pardon my curiosity and indiscretion, but if you’re not going for leisure, or for business, or to see the cururu toad, then why are you going?”
“To see,” Opalka hesitated, “my son.”
“Your son lives in the Amazon?” asked Bopp, regaining his enthusiasm.
“What does he do?”
“I don’t know.”
“You mean, you don’t know how to say it in Portuguese?”
“No. I mean I really don’t know.”
“How can you not know what your son does?” asked Bopp, grinning.
“I didn’t know I had a son,” Opalka replied dryly.
Bopp fell silent. At that moment he became aware of how difficult it was to stop smiling. Opalka lowered his head and picked up the guidebook again. Bopp looked silently at his travel companion. Opalka ran his hand over the cover again before opening it. He skipped over the advertisements on the first few pages and began to read the preface, which commenced with a healthy dose of self-praise: “This book is not only a comprehensive guide for businessmen, but also an indispensable companion for vacationers.” Bopp knew that guidebook by heart; he didn’t need to read it over Opalka’s shoulder. So, he went back to looking out at the view. The fields always looked the same. The same animals. The same few, tiny houses. The same people. Bopp remembered how, when he was little and his parents would take him on train trips, his father would make him count the cows he saw at pasture. This would entertain him the whole trip. But it also distressed him, because he was never able to count them all and would lose count. By the time he’d finish counting those standing closest to the tracks, he’d lose sight of the ones in the rear. If he started counting from the rear, the result was no better; when he got to the front, the front was no longer the same. The landscape would have changed. The train would have already moved on and left those cows behind. And then he would fall into a fit of despair. He wanted to start from scratch, but that was no longer possible. There was no way to make the train go back. When he’d lost count more than once, when he’d lost count two or three times, little Bopp—who up to that point had been giggling, boyish and carefree—would burst into tears. He cried because he no longer knew how many cows had gone by and wanted to prove to his father that he could count them all. But he never could. At those times, his father would smile and hug him tight. He would tell him to pretend the journey was just beginning and suggest they both begin counting the cows again. When they would lose count or weren’t fast enough to count them all, the two would laugh. Bopp would laugh until he cried, and before they knew it, they would have arrived at their destination.
Bopp turned to Opalka and, with a smile, announced:
“I’ll go with you. I’ll go back to Brazil with you. We’ll go together to the Amazon to see your son.”
Veronica Stigger was born in 1973 in Porto Alegre, Brazil, and has lived in São Paulo since 2001. She is a writer, art critic, and university professor. She holds a PhD in Art Theory and Criticism and completed post-doctoral work in Italy and Brazil. Coordinator of the Creative Writing program at the Academia Internacional de Cinema (AIC) in São Paulo, she is also Professor of Art History at the Fundação Armando Álvares Penteado (FAAP). She has published 10 books, including collections of short fiction and children’s literature. Opisanie swiata is her first novel.
Zoe Perry is a Canadian-American translator who grew up in rural southeastern Kentucky, and is currently based in London. She has translated work by several contemporary Portuguese-language authors, including Rodrigo de Souza Leão, João Ximenes Braga, Mia Couto, Gonçalo M. Tavares, Lourenço Mutarelli, and Sérgio Rodrigues. She blogs about untranslated Brazilian books at gringareads.com. In 2015, Zoe was selected for a literary translation residency at the Paraty International Literary Festival (FLIP) in Brazil, sponsored by the British Council.
This piece is part of PEN’s 2015 PEN/Heim Translation Series, which features excerpts and essays from recipients of this year’s PEN/Heim Translation Fund Grants.
Since 2009, the Fund’s annual contribution for grant awards has been augmented by support from Amazon.
This translation is available for publication. Publishers and editors who wish to express interest in this project are invited to contact PEN Literary Awards Coordinator Arielle Anema ([email protected]) or Translation Fund Advisory Board Chair Michael F. Moore ([email protected]) for the translator’s contact information.