Seminar on the Extermination of Rats
The following story first appeared in Glossolalia: Women Writing Brazil, the second issue of PEN America’s translation journal. Glossolalia advocates for writers with limited access to the global reading community. By publishing works from lesser-translated languages, Glossolalia connects storytellers to audiences eager for a vivid, mind-expanding look at experiences unlike their own.
“Seminar on the Extermination of Rats” by Lygia Fagundes Telles was translated by Eric M. B. Becker from the original Portugese.
“My god, what a century!” exclaimed the rats and
they began to chew the building to pieces.
Carlos Drummond de Andrade
The Chief of Public Relations, a young man of medium stature, a smile and eyes that shone brightly, adjusted the knot in his red tie and gently knocked on the door of the Secretary of Public and Private Wellbeing:
The Secretary of Public and Private Wellbeing set his glass of milk down on the desk and spun around on his leather chair. He sighed. He was a pale and flabby man, with a bald, sweaty head and hands like silk. He cast a long glance toward his own feet, the right one wearing a shoe, the left inside a thick wool slipper with a plush outer ring.
“Come on in,” he said to the Chief of Public Relations, who was peeking in through the crack in the door. He folded his hands in front of his chest. “So? Did cocktails go well?”
He spoke softly, with a hint of regret. The younger man puffed out his chest. A faint ruby hue colored his recently shaved face.
“Everything was perfect, Your Excellency, just perfect. We held it in the Blue Room, which is on the smaller size, as Your Excellency knows. Just a few people, just the leadership, it was a cozy meeting, intimate but quite pleasant. I made introductions, everyone sipped their drinks and”—he glanced at his watch—“look at that, Your Excellency, it’s not even six o’clock and they’ve all gone back to their rooms. The Advisor to the President of RATCO is settled in over in the North Wing, next to the Director of the Armed and Unarmed Conservative Classes, who’s staying in the Gray Suite. As far as the American Delegation, I thought it seemed right to settle them into the South Wing. While we’re talking about it, I left them at the pool a short time ago, the sunset is stunning, Your Excellency, just stunning!”
“You said just now, sir, that the Director of the Armed and Unarmed Conservative Classes is in the Gray Suite. Why gray?”
The young man asked to sit down. He pulled a chair forward, but maintained a careful distance from the pillow where the secretary had propped the foot wearing the slipper. He cleared his throat.
“Bueno, I chose the colors with each person in mind,” he began with a slight hesitation. Then he perked up. “The American Representative’s room, for example, is a deep pink. They like bright colors. For Your Excellency, I picked out this pastel blue, since I’ve seen Your Excellency wearing a blue tie on more than one occasion . . . And for the North Suite, gray just occurred to me—does your Excellency not like the color gray?”
With great effort, the Secretary his foot outstretched on the pillow. He raised his hand. He gazed at the hand.
“It’s their color. Rattus Alexandrius.”
“Of the Conservatives?”
“No, the rats. But anyway, it’s not important, please continue. You were saying that the American are at the pool, what do you mean Americans? Did more than one of them come?”
“Well the Representative from Massachusetts came with a secretary, a young girl. And a man with red hair and a checkered suit also came, like a Boxer or German Shepherd, pretty quiet, he’s always standing right next to the other two. I imagine he’s a bodyguard, but that’s a nothing more than a supposition, Excellency. The gentleman in question is an unknown. They only speak English. I took the opportunity to talk with them, it’s not long ago I finished my English course for executives. If the meetings are held in English, as was already suggested, I’ll lend a hand. And since I’ve mastered Spanish perfectly, well, Your Excellency knows, stints in Santiago, Buenos Aires . . . ”
“I was against the nomination. Of this American,” the Secretary interrupted in a gentle but disgruntled voice. “The rats are ours, the solutions need to be ours, too. Why let everyone in on our shortcomings, our faults? We should only show our good side, not only of our society but of our family. Of ourselves,” he added, pointing to the foot resting on the pillow. “Why haven’t I made an appearance yet, do you think? Because I simply don’t want them to see me like this, with a swollen foot, hobbling around. Tomorrow I’ll put a shoe on for the investiture, I’m willing to make that sacrifice. You sir, who are a potential future candidate, you need to learn these things early, son. We should only show our good side, only what makes us greater in the eyes of others. We should keep our slippers behind closed doors.”
“But, if Your Excellency might allow me a word, this American is a specialist in rats, they also have a ton of them in the United States, he could provide very valuable suggestions. In fact, I discovered he is an expert in electronic journalism.”
“Worse still. He’ll run around blathering on and on to anyone who will listen.” The Secretary sighed, trying to adjust the position of his foot. “Anyway, it’s not important. Go on, go on, I asked you to tell me about the fallout. In the press, of course.”
The Chief of Public Relations discreetly cleared his throat, mumbled a bueno and fumbled through his pockets. He asked if he might smoke.
“Bueno, as Your Excellency knows, the fact that we chose this location raised some eyebrows. Why host the VII Rodent Seminar in a country house, far away from everything? This is the first big question. The second is why we spent so much to make this mansion habitable again, a waste considering we could have held the summit at a thousand other locations that already had the capacity to host us. Some Newman from one of the evening papers—I made sure to remember his face, Your Excellency—even managed to be quite insolent in the way he snarled that there were so many available buildings, that there’s even been an uptick in demolitions to solve the excess supply, while we spent millions to restore this ruin . . . ”
The Secretary wiped his bald head with a handkerchief and found a more comfortable sitting position. He began to raise his hand before giving up.
“Millions? It’s billions we’re talking to take care of these little devils, could it be he’s ignored the statistics? I’ll bet he’s a lefty, I’ll bet my money on it. Or, otherwise, a friend to the rats. Anyway, it’s not important, please continue.”
“But these are the harsher criticisms, Your Excellency. A bunch of amateurs. Oh, and that same old line they never tire of banging out, that here we are hosting the seventh seminar and up until now, no results, the rat population has already multiplied by seven thousand since the first seminar, that now we have a hundred rats for every person, that in the favelas there’s not a thousand Marias carrying buckets of water on their heads, as the song says, but a thousand of these enormous rats,” he added with a chuckle. “Always the same thing . . . They can’t accept the fact we’re meeting in this remote location, they say we should meet downtown, right in the thick of the problem. Our Press Officer already made it clear, of course, that this seminar is the command center for a real battle! And that to plot out the coordinates of a joint effort of this nature requires reflection, clarity. Where best for our guests to work if not here, breathing in this fresh air that only the countryside can offer? It’s in this blessed isolation, this intimate contact with nature . . . The Delegate from Massachusetts thought it was a brilliant idea to meet out in the middle of nowhere. Such a nice guy, so humble. Did you know, Your Excellency, that he absolutely loved the heated pool? He was a champion swimmer in the breaststroke, he’s there having a good time, he loved the coconut water! He was telling me something so strange, that the rats at the North Pole have a huge coat of hair to be able to survive in temperatures of -30, they bundle up in their fur, the little rascals. They could live on Mars with such an iron constitution!
The Secretary’s mind appeared to be elsewhere when he evasively murmured, “In any case . . . ” He raised his finger in a request for silence. He looked suspiciously at the carpet and then to the ceiling.
“What’s that noise?”
“A strange sound, don’t you hear it?”
The Chief of Public Relations turned his head, concentrating.
“I don’t hear a thing . . . ”
“It’s already going away . . . ” said the Secretary, lowering his finger. “Now it stopped. But are you sure, sir, that you didn’t hear anything? Such a strange noise, as though it came from the deep in the earth and then rose up through the ceiling . . . You really didn’t hear it?”
The young man opened wide his innocent blue eyes. “Absolutely nothing, Excellency. Was it here in the room?”
“Or outside, I don’t know. As though someone . . . He took out his handkerchief, wiped his mouth, and took a deep breath. “It wouldn’t surprise me in the least if they went to the trouble of bugging the room. Don’t you remember? This American delegate . . . ”
“But Excellency, he was invited by the Director of the Armed and Unarmed Classes.”
“I don’t trust anyone. Or hardly anyone,” the Secretary corrected himself in a whisper. His suspecting gaze stopped at the table. Then shifted to the blue posts of the canopy bed. “Wherever these people are, there’s always these cursed wiretaps. Anyway, that’s not important, carry on, please. And the Press Officer?”
“Bueno, last night he had a little accident, Your Excellency knows what the traffic is like out there! His arm’s in a cast. He can only make it tomorrow, I already took care of the mini-jet,” the young man added enthusiastically. “Backing him up is an entire team prepared for the press coverage. The Press Officer is going to leak the news by telephone bit by bit, building the suspense until the closing ceremony, when all the press will arrive by charter jet—photographers, television stations, foreign correspondents, a grand finale. Finis coronat opus, the end crowns the work.
“All I know is that he should already be here. He’s off to a bad start,” the Secretary expressed his disappointment, reaching for the glass of milk. He took a sip and a disapproving look came over him. “At any rate, what really had me worried is that we’d be incommunicado. I really don’t know if this idea of the Chief of Staff of the President of RATCO is really going to work, this idea of keep the journalists at a distance. I have my doubts.”
“If Your Excellency will forgive me, I think the summit increases in importance by remaining inaccessible. In fact, it’s well known that a certain distance, a certain mystery, generates more excitement than daily contact with the media. Our only source will go about discreetly leaking bits and pieces, stringing them along with our silence until the close of the summit, when we’ll bring out the band. Isn’t is a great plan?”
Drumming with his fingers, the Secretary absent-mindedly tapped the buttons of his vest. He folded his hands and sat staring at his manicured nails.
“A good plan, my young man, is to influence the entire media throughout the entire country from start to finish. This is our objective. Which has already been put at risk by this Press Officer of ours with his broken leg.”
“His arm, Excellency. His forearm, to be exact.”
The Secretary shifted his body from left to right with great effort. He wiped the sweat from his bald head, then from his fingers. He stared at his foot, perched on top of the pillow.
“You’d do well to call him today already, sir, to strategically leak that the rats are under control. No details, you need emphasize only this, that the rats are under our complete control. The call takes a while to complete?”
“Bueno, close to a half hour. Shall I put in the request now, Excellency?”
The Secretary raised a finger. Opened his mouth. Spun his chair toward the window. Repeating the same slow movement, he spun back toward the fireplace.
“Did you hear that? Did you hear that? The noise. It was louder this time!”
The young man cupped his hand around his ear in the form of a conch.
His forehead grew red as he made an effort to concentrate. He rose to his feet and began walking on tiptoe.
“Is it coming from here, Excellency? I can’t hear a thing!”
“It grows louder and then softer. In waves, like the sea. One second it sounds like a volcano breathing, right here and far away at the same time. He’s running back and forth, listen here . . . ” He fell back against his chair, exhausted. He dabbed the sweat from his chin. “Do you mean to tell me, sir, that you didn’t hear anything?”
Perplexed, the Chief of Public Relations arched his eyebrows. He peeked inside the fireplace. Behind a chair. He lifted the curtain and looked out toward the yard.
“There are two employees out there on the grass—drivers, I think . . . Hey, you there!” he called, reaching a hand out the window. Then he closed the window. “They disappeared. They seemed worked up, perhaps they were arguing, but I suppose they don’t have anything to do with the noise. I didn’t hear a thing, Excellency. I hear so badly in this ear!”
“Well, I hear all too well, I must be blessed with an extra eardrum. Really quite amazing. When I was part of the Revolution of ’32, and later, in the ’64 coup, I was always the first to sense anything amiss. The first! I remember one night when I warned the others, the enemy is right here among us, they laughed at me—Baloney, you’ve had too much to drink, we’d had a terrific wine with dinner. Well, when we left to go to bed, we were surrounded.”
The Chief of Public Relations had a look of suspicion on his face as he gazed at the bronze statuette on the mantle, a lavish woman wearing a blindfold, a sword in one hand and a scale in the other. He reached out toward the scale. Swept a finger over one of the dusty plates. He looked at his finger, then cleaned it with a furtive gesture on the back of a chair.
“Would Your Excellency like me to sound out the others?”
In great pain, the Secretary stretched out his leg. He took a deep breath. “Anyway, that’s not important. In these crises of mine I’m able to hear someone strike a match in the other room.”
Somewhere between confused and shy, the young man pointed to the Secretary’s injured foot.
“Is it . . . serious?”
“And it’s hurting now, Excellency?”
“He who gets hurt will be he who has stalled!—he began to sing, his smile widening before quickly fading in the taciturn silence that followed his musical display. He cleared his throat. He adjusted the knot in his tie. “Bueno, it’s a song the people are singing in the streets.”
“The people in the streets, the people in the streets!” said the Secretary of Public Wellbeing, crossing his hands. His voice took on a slight whine. “All you hear these days is about the people in the streets, but they’re nothing more than an abstraction.”
“An abstraction, Excellency?”
“They suddenly transform themselves into reality as soon as the rats begin to chase the favelados from their houses. Or to nibble the feet of inner-city kids, then, yes, the people in the streets begin to exist in the headlines you find in those leftist newspapers. Yellow journalism. In the end, pure demagoguery. Allies of those bomb-throwing subversives, let’s not forget those rat-bastards.” The Secretary took a deep breath and languidly ran his fingers over the buttons of his vest. He unbuttoned the top one. “In Ancient Egypt, they resolved this problem by increasing the number of cats. I don’t know why they don’t demand more of an effort from private citizens, if every family kept a starving cat or two at home . . . ”
“But Excellency, there’s not a single cat left in the city, it’s been a while already that the population ate every last one. I heard they made for great barbecue!”
“Anyway,” the Secretary whispered. He began to wave his arm before giving up. “It’s getting dark, isn’t it?”
The young man stood up and went to turn on the lights. His eyes began dance.
“And at night, all cats are black!” Then, seriously: “Almost seven o’clock, Excellency! Dinner will be served at eight, the tables are all decorated with orchids and fruits. The best the locale can offer, I ordered beautiful pineapples from the North! And what about the lobster? The Executive Chef went wild, he’d never seen lobsters that size. Bueno, I’d thought about a domestic wine that everyone says is top quality, but one thing worried me: what if it gives people a headache? Just the sort of bad luck we need—just imagine, Your Excellency. So I thought it was more prudent to order Chilean wine.”
“From what winery?”
“From Pinochet, naturally.”
The Secretary of Public and Private Wellbeing’s look of resentment shifted to his own foot.
“For me, it’s a soup without salt, just water and noodles. A bit later, perhaps a . . . ” He went quiet. His gaze, full of horror, turned back to the young man.
“Do you hear it now? It’s louder, did you hear that? It’s really loud now!”
The Chief of Public Relations leapt to his feet. He put his beet-red face between his hands.
“Of course I do, Excellency, it’s echoing here in the floor, the floor is trembling! But what is that?”
“I told you, didn’t I? Didn’t I?” asked the Secretary, looking satisfied. “I’ve never been wrong, never! It’s been hours I’m hearing things, but I didn’t want to say anything in case you all thought I was losing it. Listen now! It’s like we were in a volcanic area, as if a volcano was about to erupt right under our feet . . . ”
“A volcano, sir?”
“Or a bomb—there are bombs that give off warnings before they explode!”
“Good god,” the young man exclaimed. He ran to the door. “I’m going to check immediately, Excellency. Don’t worry, it’s all going to be nothing, excuse me, I’ll be back in a second. Good Lord, a volcanic area?!”
When he shut the door behind him, another door opened in front of him, through which peeked a smiling little blonde head. The hairs were done up in a bow with yellow polka dots.
“What’s that?” the voice said in English.
“Perhaps nothing . . . perhaps something . . . ” he responded in English with a mechanical smile. He waved with a flutter of his fingers, his hands like little wings. “Supper at eight, Miss Gloria!”
He quickened his steps when he saw the Director of the Armed and Unarmed Conservative Classes coming from his room with the green velvet walls. He shrunk back to allow the man to pass, bowed—“Excellency”—and started off again before having his path blocked by a wall of velvet.
“What’s that noise?”
“Bueno, I don’t know myself, Excellency, but I’m on my way to check. I’ll be back in a second. It’s really strange, isn’t it? So loud!”
The Director of the Armed and Unarmed Conservative Classes sniffed the air:
“And that smell? The noise grew softer now, but don’t you notice a smell?” He furrowed his brow. “So annoying! Strange smells, noises, and the telephone doesn’t work . . . Why isn’t the telephone working? I need to speak with the president’s office and I haven’t been able to complete the call, the line is dead!”
“Dead? But I made a dozen calls earlier today . . . Your Excellency tried the Blue Room?”
“I just came from there. It’s dead there, too. So annoying! Find my driver, check if the phone in my car is working, I have an urgent call to make.”
“Don’t worry, Excellency. I’ll take care of things and will be back soon. Excuse me . . . ” the young man excused himself, bowing quickly before sneaking off. He set off in the direction of the stairs. He took one step and stopped.
“What’s the meaning of this? Can you tell me what’s the meaning of this?” His hat gone and his apron torn, the Executive Chef came sprinting through the lobby, out of breath. The young man quickly raised his hand before the chef could reach him.
“How is it you walk in here in such a state?”
The man wiped the tomato juice from his hands across his chest. “A terrible thing happened, sir! Just terrible!”
“Don’t shout. You’re shouting, sir, calm down!” The young man took the Executive Chef by the arm, pulled him away into a corner. “Control yourself. Tell me: what happened? Without yelling, I don’t want hysterics, come on now, calm down, what happened?”
“The lobsters, the chicken, the potatoes—they ate everything! Everything! Not even a grain of rice left in the pan. They ate everything and whatever they didn’t have time to eat they carried away with them!”
“But who ate everything? Who?”
“The rats, sir, the rats!”
“Rats? . . . What rats?”
The Executive Chef removed his apron, rolled it up in his hands.
“I’m out of here, I’m not staying a minute more. It’s their world, we’re just living in it. On my mother’s soul, I nearly died of fright when that cloud of rats came through the door, through the window, through the ceiling, the only thing they didn’t carry away was Euclídea and me! They even ate the dishrags. They only let the fridge be because it was closed, but they cleaned out the kitchen, they cleaned it out!”
“Are they still there?”
“No, they left the same way they came in, squeaking like crazy. I could hear the noise a while before made it to the kitchen. I thought it was a water pipe running beneath the floor, then a hammering sound, a whistling sound—Euclídea was making the mayonnaise and thought it was a ghost when everything began to shake and at that exact moment they all came pouring through the window, the door, everywhere we looked there was a ton of them squeaking everywhere. You should have seen those rats—this big! Euclídea jumped up onto the stove, I jumped on top of the table, I even tried to grab one of the chickens one of them was carrying away right under my nose, I hit him with the jar of tomato sauce with all my might and he set the chicken aside, stood on his hind paws, and turned to face me like a man. I swear on my mother’s grave, sir, he looked a man dressed as a rat!”
“My god, what insanity . . . and what about dinner?”
“Dinner? Did you say dinner, sir? There’s not so much as an onion left. A swarm of them spilled the pot of lobsters and the whole bunch of them flew across the floor, it was madness, I have no idea how they didn’t get burned with the boiling water. Good god, I’m out of here this instant!”
“Hold on, calm down. And the rest of the staff—do they know?”
“Staff, sir? Staff? Everyone already left, nobody’s crazy here! And if I were all of you, I’d also get out, you hear? I wouldn’t stay here even if you killed me.”
“Just a moment. Wait! It’s important nobody lose their head, do you understand me? Go back there, sir, open up the cans—the cans are still there, aren’t they? The fridge stayed shut, right? Then there must be something, make a dinner with whatever you can, understood?”
“No way! I wouldn’t stay even if you killed me.”
“Hold on, I’m talking to you: you’re going to go back to the kitchen, sir, and do your job. The important thing is that the guests don’t know anything, this I’ll take care of myself, do you understand? I’m heading back to the city now, I’ll bring a stock of food and a group of men armed until the teeth—then I want to see if one of these bastards comes in here. I’d just like to see them try.”
“But how are you going back, sir? The only way’s by foot, sir.”
The Chief of Public Relations straightened up tall. His face grew red with anger. He closed his eyes and fists as though to punch the wall, but stopped short when he heard voices one floor up. He spoke between clenched teeth.
“Cowards! Bastards! Do you mean to say that the staff took all the cars? Is that it, they took all the cars?”
“They didn’t take a thing, they fled on foot, not a single car would start. José tried them one by one. Get it? The wires were gnawed straight through, they even ate the damn wires. You all can go ahead and stay here—I’m hitting the road right away!”
The young man leaned back against the wall. Now he was livid.
“Which means that the telephone . . . ” he murmured and stood staring at the apron left the floor. A chorus of voices swelled on the floor above. A door slammed shut. He shrunk back even further into the corner when he heard his name: they were screaming for him. Looking on in silence, he watched as a plush slipper landed a few feet away from the torn apron on the carpet: the slipper slid across the floor, the sole turned up, so fast it seemed it had little wheels or was being pulled by an invisible string. It was the last thing he saw. At that exact moment, the house began to shake from at its foundations. The lights went out. Then, the invasion. A thick wall as though a bag of rubbery rocks had been emptied from the roof now rolled in from every side in a rumble of tiny legs, squeaking, and hundreds of black eyes aglow. When the first bite tore a piece of his pant leg, he ran down the hall covered with a fine rug into the kitchen as the rats rained down upon his head, and opened the refrigerator. He threw every plate he could find toward the darkness, tossed cans in the air, used a bottle to jab the two tiny eyes that scampered across empty vegetable crates toward him, repelled them, and with a single leap, jumped inside. He closed the door, but kept the door open a crack with his finger so the refrigerator wouldn’t shut. After he felt the first prick on the tip of his finger, he decided to use his tie instead.
During the rigorous investigation that followed to determine the cause of that evening’s events, the Chief of Public Relations could never say with certainty how long he’d stayed inside the refrigerator, curled up in the fetal position, ice cold water dripping on his head, his hands hardened with cramps, breathing through the tiny crack in the door where every now and then a little snout tried to force the door open. This much he remembered: A sudden silence had spread through the mansion—no one made a peep. Nothing. He remembered opening the door of the fridge. He peeked in. A week ray of moonlight was the only thing that remained in the empty kitchen. He continued walking through the empty house—no furniture, no curtains, not so much as a rug was left. Just the walls. And the darkness. Then, a murmur, a scratching sound, began—it seemed to come from the Debate Room and he gathered that everyone was huddled there, behind closed doors. He also couldn’t remember how he managed to make it to the field, he could never piece together how he fled, running for miles on end. When he stopped to look back, the mansion glowed against the dark night.
Lygia Fagundes Telles, Brazil’s official nominee for the Nobel Prize in Literature for 2016, was born in São Paulo in 1923. She is considered by many to be Brazil’s greatest living writer and published her first book of short stories at the age of 15. She was inducted into the Brazilian Academy of Letters in 1985. She has won more than 25 national and international awards for her writing, including the Prêmio Camões, the most prestigious prize for Portuguese-language writers.
Eric M. B. Becker is an award-winning literary translator, journalist, and editor of Words Without Borders. In 2014, he earned a PEN/Heim grant for his translations of Mia Couto. In 2016, he earned a Fulbright fellowship to translate Brazilian literature. He has translated work by Carlos Drummond de Andrade, Lygia Fagundes Telles, and Noemi Jaffe, among others. His work has appeared in The New York Times, The Massachusetts Review, and World Literature Today.