Xirú by Damián Cabrera is a multilingual lyric novel set in Ciudad del Este—a Paraguayan city in the Triple Frontier shared with Argentina and Brazil. The title refers to the Portuguese word of Guaraní origin used by Brazilians to refer to Paraguayans at the border, which shifts from meaning “friend” to “invader” or “fool.” The novel is written predominantly in Spanish but is interlaced with Portuguese and Guaraní, rendering a cacophony of languages audible but at times only legible for a resident of the region. Throughout the text, the Guaraní permeates the Spanish grammar: the noun is transposed to the end of a sentence, making it intentionally clunky. In the following excerpt the Spanish text has been translated into English, the Portuguese into Spanish, and the Guaraní into Portuguese; the untranslatable Guaraní words remain unaltered but defined in the footnotes.
Listen to Damián Cabrera read "Xirú" in the original Portunhol Selvagem.
“No hay problema,” Silvio got out of the dominant species,1 “todo bien.” Combed his blond hair back with his fingers and sneezed. Each time his foot hit the floor, the dust lifted and settled again on the foot. He and Seu Washington Cavalcante entered the bar, and Silvio shot a look of contempt at his patrón who returned to the truck for the revolver. The dust cloud the truck kicked up remained static in the air; a stagnant storm cloud with a kind of barrier halo, an enclosure Silvio wanted to transpose, because Silvio wanted to escape, race across the sown fields with his long rhea legs until he reached some place where no one could see him, or better yet, where he could spend that night without seeing anyone.
He paused a while at the door, attracted to the besouros’ tapping on the bulb in the hallway; coleopterans seduced by the light: such effort to penetrate the glass limit and reach the flame that would kill them upon touch.
The tables were splattered with beer. The xirú2 were rejoiceful and chatty, until they saw Seu Washington Cavalcante’s face and began to stutter; Silvio’s face, a face tight with modesty, blushing and childlike.
Silvio’s face, though his was the third generation inhabiting that place, was still the face of his colonist grandparents. When he spoke—he was unaware of this—his pink lips would part and the blond musketeer would straighten to address the xirú at the other table, whose heads sank between their shoulders, buried in murmurs. Aside: Silvio saw them and saw his patrón, saw and refused to recognize himself.
Seu Washington’s exclamations were insults disguised as compliments. Miguel wanted to sheath his guitar, but Silvio stopped him with a heavy blow on the table that splashed beer everywhere (César turned blue); the settler ordered them three beers in exchange for some music. The boys agreed and Miguel coaxed some polka chords from his instrument. The immigrant’s gripes followed, and without missing a beat, he fanned his hands to reproach the musician’s blunder.
“Toca una de Sérgio Reis.”
“No conozco ninguna de Sérgio Reis. Pero puedo tocar una de Nando Reis.”
“¿Nando Reis? ¡No! Chitãozinho y Xororó.”
Gabriel stepped on Miguel’s foot with such force that he stood violently spilling a glass of beer on the table. “And on top of it all, you speak to him in Portuguese,” thought Gabriel. César clenched his fists. Miguel sat back down and sang. Miguel sang and everyone listened. César let out an excessive “¡Hurraaa!”
“And on top of it all you speak to him in Portuguese,” Silvio thought and thought about his school teacher who, overwhelmed by the number of Portuguese-speakers asking her to translate, taught in Portuguese in the colony, disserving the Paraguayan students who badly knew Spanish.
High-heeled boots with shiny buckles. Seu Washington’s words crashed uselessly against this competing focal point; a series of whistles spasmodically escaped Silvio, who stifled a cackle; Seu Washington watched him inquisitively and watched the xirú de mierda joke boisterously.
A swelling tide flooded the little bar when Silvio tightened his stomach to contain the hiccups of laughter. But the patrón’s warning suffocated them violently: “Vigila a los sin tierra, Silvio. Me cuentas de cualquier novedad.”
“Todo bien,” unbuttoned shirt revealing a diminutive blond bellybutton, “no hay problema.” Something irritated his leathery hands and jaw when the old man, scratching his jowl, whispered something in his ear about the four boys; a shadow he disdained and wished to expunge.
Silvio wanted to split, to the banana plantations, like a Pombéro,3 so he would not have to listen to such nonsense. While Silvio, without moving, crossed the threshold and walked along the pavement until he plunged into the scrubland, he listened to the boys talk about Seu Washington’s soybean plantations and contemplated a shower of feathers that the ants would not get a chance to clear.
“¡Dale, Silvio, espabílate!” Snap out of it.
1 Phrase used by soybean farmers in Paraguay to refer to their pickup trucks. ↩
2 Untranslatable Portuguese word of Guaraní origin used by Brazilians to refer to Paraguayans in the Triple Frontier. Its polysemic nature is evidenced as the meaning of the name shifts throughout this ambiguous territory from “friend” to “invader” or “fool.” ↩
3 Untranslatable Guaraní word that refers to a mythical dwarf. Those that traverse the forest must leave him offerings of tobacco and honey. If they do not, he physically assaults the men, sexually assaults the women, and claims their children as his own. ↩
“Xirú” © Damián Cabrera. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2020 by Elisa Taber. All rights reserved.