The Old Man, the Mist, and a List of Dreams

Translated by Eric M. B. Becker


Image: Guangzhou, Tomás Franco

It’s early yet to write about China, it’s too late to write about China, it all depends on the true age of your soul (and this you’ll never know) so you offer your reader three options: a scene in some Cantonese town square, a prediction about what you might remember about The Script Road literary festival in Macau, or a guide to dreaming for the jet-lagged insomniac.

1.


Image: Coloane, Tomás Franco

You’re sitting there, legs crossed, on a bench in the town square. You notice a building under construction, right there in front of your eyes, covering the better part of your field of vision. The building has curved roof tiles and various sculptures interspersed along its straight lines: they’re miniatures of people, animals, homes, and you immediately think back to the pagoda you saw yesterday, built to house ten thousand golden Buddhas that no one will ever see, a matryoshka of that which exists, that which doesn’t exist, and that which cannot be seen. You uncross your legs, feeling the need to stretch. With both feet firmly on the ground you turn your eyes to a tree losing its yellow leaves. The leaves float slowly to the ground. An old man draws close. He pulls up next to you, stands there, arms behind his back, and begins to speak. You listen for twenty, thirty seconds, and gently nod your head. He draws letters in the air: U and S. You’re unsure whether he’s asking if you’re from the United States, or if he’s asking if you have US dollars, or if he means us, the two of us, here and now, in the present or for infinity. Whatever the case, you respond “Brazil,” he furrows his brow and tries repeating himself, but in his mouth the phonemes are like a key that doesn’t fit, that doesn’t allow him to pronounce this word that could be his name, or the name of the god of the religion of which he’s a follower. He releases his arms from behind his back at the velocity of the falling yellow leaves. He grabs your hand. He contemplates the veins on the back of your hand, and slides his fingers along the length of yours. He rubs his palm against your palm, you’re uncertain whether this gesture remits cleanliness or magic, and then he traces the lines of your hand with his finger. You can’t tell whether he’s unriddling the story of your life, or predicting, from the little folds in the corner of your palm, how many children you’ll have. Or if he’s discovered the day of your death with a simple glance at the wrinkles in your folded palm. You don’t know, you’ll never know, what the old man wanted to know when he stood there examining your hand. He laughs, you laugh, he gives a shallow bow, you follow his lead and seek out in his eyes cataract vestiges and you aren’t sure if, looking at you so intensely, the old man is proposing some ancestral recovery—at that moment you even imagine that he’s trying to tell you that he can see your ancestors standing right behind you. You don’t know if he wants to know if you’re an architect or just unhappy, but you suspect that no, this isn’t what he seeks. Or he simply wants your spare change to buy something to eat, you think, looking at the worn-out sandals he wears over socks, but just imagine the offense he’d take if that’s not it, and you wave good-bye and stand up, the old man bows again, and then he begins to follow you, the good-bye, even this good-bye, was yours alone, the old man’s walking right next to you, smile still on his face, and you’re unsure whether he’s your friend forever now or if he’s protecting you or if you’re protecting him. You continue walking, he continues at your side, you smile, he smiles, he bows, you cross the bridge, he crosses, too, you turn right, and he follows. At some point he’ll peel off, but you don’t know when and you also don’t know why.

2.


Image: Coloane, Tomás Franco

It’s night in Macau and your face changes color as you walk—a Wong Kar Wai film, he’ll tell you—you look up and can’t tell whether the Grand Lisboa Casino stretches on for another twenty or fifty or two hundred meters into the mist, a Méliès film, you order a beer in the tiny little store, you point and the girl at the counter punches the price into her calculator, you pay, she gives you your change, and by the time you hear the sound of the can cracking open, neither of you have any further interest in each other, and you, not knowing how to say good-bye, make some gesture she doesn’t see, and which if she did see wouldn’t know how to react to, a Sofia Coppola film.

The next day you walk to the beach covered in mist and hear a dog barking from mainland China, but you can’t see mainland China and you begin to think that the invisible is the mother of all things in China while Ítalo Calvino is the father. Or it’s backward, or none of this, but after all you’re here to talk about the festival, and since it’s your first and being that it’s so complex, it’s early yet to write about China. You leave China for the time when your soul is a bit more experienced, and you make a list of the things you think you’ll later guard in your memory:

- Swedish fiction writer Bengt Olsson becomes, without hesitation, your spiritual guru. He finishes one book on a Friday and already begins the next one on Monday and that’s all writing is, an endless turning of pages with a no-less-endless stubbornness toward seeking the best way to tell stories that have been told thousands of times before. The infinite nature of this work reveals itself to be a clarification of the infinite finality of all things—the consciousness of temporality as an aesthetic North. You grab a copy of Gregorius, his prize-winning novel, and request an autograph. Timid, he smiles.

- Bissau-Guinean poet Ernesto Dabo: you’re going to hear him sing and his voice like the sea at rest—in Créole and in Portuguese—will be a permanent shell held to your left ear. His book Mar Misto is dedicated to his father, Bascar Dabo, “for his repulsion of hate and selfishness.”

- Portuguese novelist and poet Paulo José Miranda gives you his book—O Mal (Evil)—a work of fiction that depicts in masterstrokes the strained relationship between Portugal and Macau, and, with reference to the latter’s transition from being the former’s colony, suggests that “the image that we always projected of ourselves was an imagined one, like someone who, confronted by suffering, rather than resolving his own problems, dreams of his own nonexistence.”

- Portuguese poet Matilde Campilho—who exudes the most serious loveliness and who, among all the Portuguese that you’ll ever meet, is the biggest prankster—you already know from FLIP (International Literary Festival of Paraty). With each reading it’s as if her work gives birth to an entirely new voice, force of nature that she is.


Image: Marcelino Freire, Felipe Munhoz, and Carol Rodrigues

- With your friends Marcelino Freire and Felipe Munhoz from Brazil, you take part in a panel that ends up being mostly about politics, because that’s inevitable, and you learn about the inevitability of politics in any aesthetic negotiation. And you learn the opposite, as well. And one day yet you’ll hone in on these two vectors—and these two friends will be there to help you.

- You want to talk to festival director Helder Beja about everything but there isn’t enough time, he knows so much and is so serene. Another lesson about temporality.

- American writer Adam Johnson overcomes his difficulty creating images for the mysteries of North Korea in his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Orphan Master’s Son. You buy the book and he asks if he can join your fan club, without knowing you. You tend to like artists like this.

- Gil Mac’s interactive performance piece Oráculo: he gives you a tarot reading and aligns your life with that of Camilo Pessanha, the Portuguese poet who lived in Macau. You want to spend more time in this, the darkest and dampest city you’ve ever seen, and want to read more Pessanha.  

3.


Image: Big Buddha, Tomás Franco

And finally, that list of dreams.

- You return to live in an old house, from your childhood or an earlier marriage, and lie down on the bed, close your eyes, listen to the lazy drops of this Chinese rain, and get up to notice that the ceiling is made of loose tiles and the bed is being flooded and the room is being flooded, and then you go to the kitchen and open the pantry door and out comes a horse at full gallop, and then a peacock, and finally a flock of swallows.

- You return to live in an old house from some other time in your life, a house without glass in the window frames, only giant square holes. The house has a good cross-breeze, nice, fresh air, but you can’t stand the thought of all those spiders that might enter during the night.

- Your best friend holds a girl in his lap, you look more closely and it’s a doll, but it moves so naturally, and has the skin of a newborn, you inquire after it, it’s a baby girl robot, ordered off the Internet, she arrives in a box, you hug her, tell her you love her, and all of the sudden she’s like this, like a little joey. You ask, what are you doing, and your best friend, he responds: taking her to school every day, giving her a bath, feeding her, caring for her, no?

- You raise your arms at a political rally and another arm comes from behind and wraps around you, an enormous hand resting over your left breast. You turn around but can’t find the arm’s owner, he disappears in a sort of fade-out through the white mist. You try to remove it, the hand won’t budge, it even grabs your frightened nipple.

- An enormous wave of black water rises up and freezes before your body. It doesn’t take you, but is glued forever to your eyes that are closed.

- Footbridges, stairs, and escalators connect an entire city in the air. As you walk through them your soul reaches heights both elevated and ancestral, or perhaps simply old. Returning to street level, the soul returns to the mediocrity of its bodily age. You want to go back to the escalators but your time in the city has come to an end. You lament this.

- An enormous sleeping snake is placed right at the curb of an abandoned street. It attacks as soon as it hears the footsteps of revolutionaries cornered by troops and wraps around as many as it can, suffocating them. The rest, if truly united by the cause, will make valiant efforts to save their comrades and will be the first to be swallowed up by the gigantic snake, whose species can swallow up to fifteen entire adult humans. This is a military tactic, a surprise attack. You aren’t any of the characters in this dream.

- You miss your flight.

- You miss your train.

- You walk miles and inches, you walk distances you can’t quantify, you walk a lot, and, most likely, you’re not wearing pants.

- You got a tattoo and from a distance it’s a mandala full of secrets, but up close it’s a little dog that eats its own tail, and the design doesn’t look very good, and neither does the color.

- Smells become colors. And Red China becomes ocher, including in your hands. An old man smells your hands; he tells you the smell is ocher.

- You’re not dying, but you’re also not living, you and your fifteen concubines become statues, colorful and well-fashioned statues, on the top of a building that’s fifteen hundred years old.

 

The original Portuguese-language text can be found here as part of a collaboration with Brazilian literary journal Revista Pessoa.

Eric M. B. Becker is editor of Words without Borders. He is also an award-winning journalist and literary translator. In 2014, he earned a PEN/Heim Translation Fund Grant for his translation of a collection of short stories from the Portuguese by Neustadt Prize for International Literature winner and 2015 Man Booker International Finalist Mia Couto and was resident writer at the Louis Armstrong House. He has translated the work of numerous Brazilian writers, including 2016 Nobel nominee Lygia Fagundes Telles, Carlos Drummond de Andrade, Elvira Vigna, Noemi Jaffe, Alice Sant'anna, and 2015 Jabuti Prize winner Carol Rodrigues. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in The New York Times, World Literature TodayAsymptote, and The Massachusetts Review, among other publications. In 2016, he edited the Glossolalia anthology of Brazilian women writers with Mirna Queiroz, forthcoming from PEN America. He currently lives in Brazil, the recipient of a Fulbright grant to translate the work of Edival Lourenço and Eric Nepomuceno.