When the mad philosopher Quincas Borba dies, he leaves to his friend Rubiao the entirety of his wealth and property, with a single stipulation: Rubiao must take care of Quincas Borba's dog, who is also named Quincas Borba, and who may indeed have assumed the soul of the dead philosopher. Rush with his newfound wealth, Rubiao heads for Rio de Janeiro and plunges headlong into a world where fantasy and reality become increasingly difficult to keep separate.
About the Author
Gregory Rabassa is the preeminent American translator of Spanish and Portuguese, whose works include One Hundred Years of Solitude and The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas. Celso Favaretto teaches at the University of São Paulo. David T. Haberly teaches at the University of Virginia.
Read an Excerpt
Rubiao was staring at the cove--it was eight o'clock in the morning. Anyone who'd seen him with his thumbs stuck in the belt of his dressing gown at the window of a mansion in Botafogo would have thought he was admiring that stretch of calm water, but in reality I can tell you he was thinking about something else. He was comparing the past to the present. What was he a year ago? A teacher. What is he now? A capitalist. He looks at himself, at his slippers (slippers from Tunis that his new friend Cristiano Palha had given him), at the house, at the garden, at the cove, at the hills, and at the sky, and everything, from slippers to sky, everything gives off the same feeling of property.
"See how God writes straight with crooked lines," he thinks. "If my sister Piedade had married Quincas Borba it would have left me with only a collateral hope. She didn't marry him. They both died, and here I am with everything, so what looked like misfortune ..."
What a gulf there is between the spirit and the heart! The ex-teacher's spirit, bothered by those thoughts, changed course, looked for a different subject, a canoe passing by. His heart, however, let itself go on beating with joy. What difference did it make if there was a canoe or a canoeist or that Rubiao's wide-open eyes followed him? It, the heart, goes along saying that since sister Piedade had to die, it was good that she hadn't married. There might have been a son or a daughter ... "What a fine canoe!" So much the better! "The way it follows the man's paddle!" What's certain is that they're in heaven!
A Servant brought him coffee. Rubiao picked up the cup and while he was putting in the sugar he was surreptitiously looking at the tray, which was silver work. Silver, gold, they were the metals he loved with all his heart. He didn't like bronze, but his friend Palha told him that it was valuable and that explained the pair of figures here in the living room, a Mephistopheles and a Faust. If he had to choose, however, he would choose the tray--a masterpiece of silver work, of delicate and perfect execution. The servant was waiting, stiff and serious. He was Spanish, and it had only been after some resistance that Rubiao accepted him from the hands of Cristiano, no matter how much he argued that he was used to his blacks from Minas Gerais and didn't want any foreign languages in his house. His friend Palha insisted, pointing out the necessity of having white servants. Rubiao gave in regretfully. His good manservant, whom he wished to keep in the parlor as a touch of the provinces, couldn't even stay in the kitchen, where a Frenchman, Jean, reigned. The slave was downgraded to other duties.
"Is Quincas Borba getting impatient?" Rubiao asked, drinking his last sip of coffee and casting a last glance at the tray.
"Me parece que si."
"I'll be right there and set him loose."
He didn't go. He allowed himself to stay there for a while, gazing at the furniture. Looking at the small English prints that hung on the wall over the two bronzes, Rubiao thought about the beautiful Sofia, Palha's wife, took a few steps and went over to sit down on the ottoman in the center of the room, staring off into the distance ...
"It was she who recommended those two small pictures to me when the three of us were out shopping. She was so pretty! But what I like best about her are her shoulders, which I saw at the colonel's ball. What shoulders! They looked like wax, so smooth, so white! Her arms, too, oh, her arms! So well shaped!"
Rubiao sighed, crossed his legs and tapped the tassels of his robe against his knees. He felt that he wasn't entirely happy, but he also felt that complete happiness wasn't far off. He reconstructed in his head some mannerisms, some looks, some unexplained swaying of the body which had to mean that she loved him and that she loved him a great deal. He wasn't old. He was going on forty-one and, quite frankly, he looked younger. That observation was accompanied by a gesture. He ran his hand over his chin, shaved every day, something he hadn't done before out of frugality and because there was no need. A simple teacher! He wore sideburns (later on he let his full beard grow)--so soft that it was a pleasure to run his fingers through them ... And in that way he was remembering the first meeting, at the Vassouras station, where Sofia and her husband were getting on the train, into the same car on which he was coming from Minas. It was there that he discovered that set of luxuriant eyes that seemed to be repeating the exhortation of the prophet: Come unto the waters all ye who thirst. He didn't have any ideas in response to that invitation, it's true. He had the inheritance on his mind, the will, the inventory, things that must be explained first in order to understand the present and the future. Let's leave Rubiao in his parlor in Botafogo, tapping the tassels of his robe against his knees and thinking about the beautiful Sofia. Come with me, reader. Let's have a look at him months earlier by the bed of Quincas Borba.
This Quincas Borba, in case you have done me the favor of reading The Posthumous Memoirs of Bras Cubas, is that very same castaway from existence who appeared there, a beggar, an unexpected heir, and the inventor of a philosophy. Here you have him in Barbacena now. No sooner had he arrived than he fell in love with a widow, a lady of middle-class station and with scarce means of livelihood, but so bashful that the sighs of her lover found no echo. Her name was Maria da Piedade. A brother of hers, who is the Rubiao here present, did everything possible to get them married. Piedade resisted and pleurisy carried her off.
It was that little novelistic bit that brought the two men together. Could Rubiao have known that our Quincas Borba carried that little grain of lunacy that a doctor thought he found in him? Certainly not. He took him to be a strange man. It's true, however, that the little grain hadn't left Quincas Borba's brain--neither before nor after the malady that slowly devoured him. Quincas Borba had some relatives there in Barbacena, all dead now in 1867. The last was the uncle who left him heir to his goods. Rubiao was left as the philosopher's only friend. At that time Rubiao was running a school for children, which he closed in order to care for the sick man. Before being a school teacher, he'd tried his hand at some enterprises that went under.
His job as nurse lasted more than five months, closer to six. Rubiao's care was superb. It was patient, smiling, multiple, listening to the doctor's orders, administering medicine at the prescribed time, taking the patient out for a walk, never forgetting anything, neither the management of the house nor the reading of newspapers as soon as they arrived from the capital or from Ouro Preto.
"You're a good man, Rubiao," Quincas Borba would sigh.
"That's a fine thing to say! As if you were a bad one!"
The doctor's considered opinion was that Quincas Borba's illness would slowly follow its path. One day our Rubiao, seeing the doctor to the street door, asked him what was the real state of his friend's health. He heard that he was done for, completely done for, but he should be cheered up. Why make death all the worse by letting him know the truth ...?
"None of that, no," Rubiao put in. "For him dying is an easy matter. You've never read a book he wrote years ago, I can't remember, some kind of philosophy ..."
"No. But philosophy is one thing and dying is another. Goodbye."
Rubiao had a rival for Quincas Borba's heart--a dog, a handsome dog, medium-sized, lead-colored with black markings. Quincas Borba took him everywhere. They slept in the same room. In the morning it was the dog who would awaken his master by climbing onto the bed, where they would exchange their first greetings. One of the master's eccentricities was to give it his own name, but he explained that it was for two reasons, one doctrinal, the other personal.
"Since Humanitas, according to my doctrine, is the principle of life and is present everywhere, it also exists in the dog, so, therefore, he can have a human name, be it Christian or Muslim ..."
"Fine, but why don't you give him the name Bernardo?" Rubiao asked, thinking of a political rival in the region.
"That brings us to the personal reason. If I should die first, as I presume I shall, I will survive in the name of my dog. It makes you laugh, doesn't it?"
Rubiao made a negative gesture.
"Well, you should be laughing, my dear fellow, because immortality is my lot or my spot or whatever name you can come up with for it. I will live in perpetuity through my great book. Those who can't read, however, will call the dog Quincas Borba and ..."
The dog, hearing his name, ran to the bed. Quincas Borba, touched, looked at Quincas Borba.
"My poor friend! My good friend! My only friend?
"Pardon me, you are, too, I know that quite well and I thank you very much. But you've got to forgive a sick man everything. Maybe my delirium is starting. Let me see the mirror."
Rubiao gave him the mirror. For a few seconds the sick man studied the thin face, the feverish eyes that revealed the suburbs of death, towards which he was walking with a slow but certain step. Afterwards, with a pale and ironic smile:
"Everything on the outside there corresponds to what I feel inside here. I'm going to die, my dear Rubiao ... Don't wag your finger, I'm going to die. And what is dying, for you to look so horrified?"
"I know, I know, you have your philosophy ... But let's talk about dinner, what will it be today?"
Quincas Borba sat on the bed letting his legs hang down and their extraordinary thinness could be imagined through his trouser legs.
"What is it? What do you want?" Rubiao came over.
"Nothing," the sick man replied, smiling. "Philosophy! You use such disdain when you say that to me! Say it again, go ahead, I want to hear it again. Philosophy!"
"But it wasn't disdain ... Am I capable of disdaining philosophy? All I'm saying is that you can believe that death isn't anything because you've got your reasons, your principles ..."
Quincas Borba searched for his slippers with his feet. Rubiao pushed them over to him. He put them on and began to walk to stretch his legs. He petted the dog and lighted a cigarette. Rubiao tried to dress him and brought him a morning coat, a vest, a dressing gown, a cape, whatever he could find. Quincas Borba rejected them with a gesture. He had a different look now. His eyes, turning inward, saw his own brain thinking. After several steps he stopped for a few seconds in front of Rubiao.
"In order for you to understand what life and death are, it's enough to tell you how my grandmother died."
"What was it like?"
"Have a seat."
Rubiao obeyed, trying to look as interested as possible while Quincas Borba kept walking about.
"It was in Rio de Janeiro," he began, "in front of the Imperial Chapel, which was called the Royal Chapel then, on a day of great celebration. My grandmother came out, crossed the churchyard in order to get to the sedan chair that was waiting for her on the Largo do Paco. People were thick as ants. The masses wanted to see the entrance of the great ladies in all their finery. At the moment when my grandmother was coming out of the churchyard to go to her sedan chair, a short distance away, it so happened that one of the animals hitched to a carriage was spooked. The animal took off, the other one followed suit, confusion, tumult. My grandmother fell, and the mules and the carriage both ran over her. She was lifted up and carried into a pharmacy on the Rua Direita. A blood-letter arrived, but it was too late, her head was split open, a leg and a shoulder were broken, there was blood all over. She died minutes later."
"What a real tragedy," Rubiao said.
"Listen to the rest of it. This is how it all happened. The owner of the carriage was in the churchyard, and he was hungry, very hungry, because it was late and he'd had an early breakfast and hadn't eaten very much. From there he was able to signal his coachman. The latter whipped the mules in order to go pick up his master. The carriage ran into an obstacle halfway there and knocked it down. That obstacle was my grandmother. The first act of that series of acts was a movement of self-preservation: Humanitas was hungry. If instead of my grandmother it had been a rat or a dog, it's certain my grandmother wouldn't have died, but the basic fact would remain the same: Humanitas needs to eat. If instead of a rat or a dog it had been a poet, Byron or Goncalves Dias, the case would have been different in the sense that it would have furnished material for a great many obituaries, but the basic fact would endure. The universe still wouldn't stop because it would be missing some poems that died, nipped in the bud, in the head of a famous or obscure man, but Humanitas (and that's what matters above all), Humanitas needs to eat."
Rubiao listened with his soul in his eyes, as they say, sincerely wanting to understand, but he couldn't grasp the necessity that his friend attributed to the death of his grandmother. Certainly the owner of the carriage, no matter how late he got home, wouldn't die of hunger, while the good lady really died, and forever more. He explained those doubts to him as best he could and ended up asking him:
"And what is this Humanitas?"
"Humanitas is the beginning. But no, I won't say anything, you're not capable of understanding this, my dear Rubiao. Let's talk about something else."
"Whatever you say."
Quincas Borba, who hadn't stopped pacing, stopped for a few seconds.
"Would you like to be my disciple?"
"Good. It won't take you long to understand my philosophy. On the day when you've penetrated it completely, ah!, on that day you'll have the greatest pleasure of your life, because there's no wine as intoxicating as the truth. Believe me, Humanitism is the pinnacle of all things, and I, who formulated it, am the greatest man in the world. Look, do you see how my good Quincas Borba is looking at me? It's not he, it's Humanitas ..."
"But what is this Humanitas?"
"Humanitas is the first principle. All things have a certain hidden and identical substance in them, a principle that's singular, universal, eternal, common, indivisible, and indestructible--or, to use the language of the great Camoes:
A truth there is that moves in things,
Living in the visible and the invisible.
"Well, that substance or truth, the indestructible principle is what Humanitas is. That's what I call it, because it sums up the universe and the universe is man. Understand?"
"Not too much, but even so, how is it that your grandmother's death ..."
"There's no such thing as death. The meeting of two expansions, or the expansion of two forms, can lead to the suppression of one of them, but, strictly speaking, there's no such thing as death. There's life, because the suppression of one is the condition for the survival of the other, and destruction doesn't touch the universal and common principle. From that we have the preserving and beneficial character of war. Imagine a field of potatoes and two starving tribes. There are only enough potatoes to feed one of the tribes, who in that way will get the strength to cross the mountain and reach the other slope, where there are potatoes in abundance. But, if the two tribes peacefully divide up the potatoes from the field, they won't derive sufficient nourishment and will die of starvation. Peace, in this case, is destruction; war is preservation. One of the tribes will exterminate the other and collect the spoils. This explains the joy of victory, anthems, cheers, public recompense, and all the other results of warlike action. If the nature of war were different, those demonstrations would never take place, for the real reason that man only commemorates and loves what he finds pleasant and advantageous, and for the reasonable motive that no person can canonize an action that actually destroys him. To the conquered, hate or compassion; to the victor, the potatoes."
"But what about the point of view of those exterminated?"
"Nobody's exterminated. The phenomenon disappears, but the substance is the same. Haven't you ever seen boiling water? You must recall that the bubbles keep on being made and unmade and everything stays the same in the same water. Individuals are those transitory bubbles."
"Well, the opinion of the bubble ..."
"A bubble has no opinion. Does anything seem sadder than those terrible epidemics that devastate some point on the globe? And, yet, that supposed evil is a benefit, not only because it eliminates weak organisms, incapable of resistance, but because it leads to observation, to the discovery of the drug that will cure it. Hygiene is the offspring of century-old putrescences. We owe it to millions of cases of corruption and infection. Nothing is lost, everything is gained. I repeat, the bubbles stay in the water. Do you see this book? It's Don Quixote. If I were to destroy my copy I wouldn't eliminate the work, which goes on eternally in surviving copies and editions yet to come. Eternal and beautiful, beautifully eternal, like this divine and supradivine world."
Quincas Borba fell silent out of exhaustion and sat down panting. Rubiao hastened to help him, bringing some water and asking him to lie down and rest, but the sick man, after a moment, replied that it was nothing. He was out of practice in making speeches, that's what it was. And, having Rubiao move himself back so he could face him without effort, he undertook a brilliant description of the world and its wonders. He mingled his own ideas with those of others, images of all sorts, idyllic and epic, to such a degree that Rubiao wondered how it was that a man who was going to die at any moment could deal so gallantly with those matters.
"Come, rest a little."
Quincas Borba reflected:
"No, I'm going for a walk."
"Not now, you're too tired."
"Bah! It's passed."
He stood up and laid his hands paternally on Rubiao's shoulders.
"Are you my friend?"
"What a question!"
"As much as or more than this animal here," Rubiao replied in a burst of tenderness.
Quincas Borba squeezed his hands:
The next day Quincas Borba woke up with a resolve to go to Rio de Janeiro. He would be back after a month. He had certain business to attend to ... Rubiao was flabbergasted. What about his illness, and the doctor? The patient replied that the doctor was a charlatan and that illness needed to be distracted, just like health. Illness and health were two pits of the same fruit, two states of Humanitas.
"I'm going on some personal matters," the sick man ended, saying, "and in addition to that I've got a plan that's so sublime that not even you will be able to understand it. You have to pardon my frankness, but I prefer being frank with you, more than with any other person."
Rubiao was positive that with time this project would pass like so many others, but he was mistaken. It so happened that the patient seemed to be getting better. He didn't go to bed, he went out, he wrote. At the end of a week he had the notary sent for.
"The notary?" his friend repeated.
"Yes, I want to draw up my will. Or we can both go to him ..."
The three of them went, because the dog wouldn't let his master leave without accompanying him. Quincas Borba drew up his will with the usual formalities and returned home tranquilly. Rubiao felt his heart pounding violently.
"Naturally I'm not going to let you go to the capital alone," he said to his friend.
"No, it's not necessary. Besides, Quincas Borba's not going, and I don't trust him with anyone but you. I'm leaving the house just the way it is. I'll be back a month from now. I'm going tomorrow. I don't want him to sense my leaving. Take care of him, Rubiao."
"Yes, I'll take care of him."
"By the light that guides me. Do you think I'm a child?"
"Give him his milk at the proper time, his meals as usual, and his baths. And when you take him out for a walk see that he doesn't run off. No. It's best that he doesn't go out ... doesn't go out ..."
Quincas Borba was weeping for the other Quincas Borba. He didn't want to see the dog when he left. He was really crying, tears of madness or affection, whichever they were, he was leaving them behind on the good soil of Minas like the last sweat of a dark soul ready to fall into the abyss.
Hours later Rubiao had a horrible thought. People might think that he himself had pushed his friend into taking the trip in order to kill him quicker and come into possession of his legacy, if he really was included in his will. He felt remorse. Why hadn't he made every effort to hold him back. He could see Quincas Borba's corpse, pale, stinking, staring up at him with a vengeful look. He resolved that in case the trip took a fatal turn he would renounce the legacy.
For his part, the dog spent his time sniffing about, whining, trying to run away. He couldn't sleep restfully. He would get up many times at night, run through the house, and return to his corner. In the morning Rubiao would call him to his bed, and the dog would come happily. He imagined that it was his own master. He would then see that it wasn't, but he would accept the petting and return it, as if Rubiao were going to take him to his friend or bring his friend there. Besides, he'd taken a liking to him, and he was the bridge linking him to his previous existence. He didn't eat for the first few days. He was bothered more by thirst. Rubiao managed to get him to drink milk. It was his only nourishment for some time. Later on he would pass the hours in silence, sad, rolled up into a ball or with his body stretched out and his head between his paws.
When the doctor returned he was astounded at his patient's temerity. They should have tried to stop him. It was certain death.
"Sooner or later. Did he take that dog with him?"
"No, sir, he's with me. He asked me to take care of him and he cried. You should have seen him. I thought he'd never stop. The truth is," Rubiao then said as a defense of the sick man, "the truth is that the dog deserves his master's esteem. He's just like a person."
The doctor took off his broad-brimmed straw hat to adjust the band, then he smiled. "A person? So he's just like a person, eh?" Rubiao repeated it and then explained. He wasn't a person like other persons, but he had touches of feeling, even intelligence. Look, he was going to tell him a ...
"No, old man, not now, later, later, I've got to go see a patient with erysipelas ... If any letters come from him and they're not private, I'd like to see them, hear? And give my regards to the dog," he concluded as he left.
Some people began to make fun of Rubiao and the strange duty of guarding a dog when the dog should be guarding him. The mockery began, the nicknames. Look how the teacher had ended up! Sentry for a dog! Rubiao was afraid of public opinion. It did, in fact, look ridiculous to him. He would avoid other people's eyes, look at the dog with annoyance, curse him, curse life. If it weren't for the hope of a legacy, small as it might be. It was impossible that Quincas Borba wouldn't leave him some remembrance.
Seven weeks later this letter postmarked Rio de Janeiro arrived in Barbacena, all in Quincas Borba's handwriting:
My dear friend,
You must be puzzled by my silence. I have not written you because of some very special reasons, etc. I shall return soon, but I wish to pass on to you right now a private matter, most private.
Who am I, Rubiao? Saint Augustine. I know that you'll smile at that because you're an ignoramus, Rubiao. Our intimacy allows me to use a crueler word, but I make you this concession, which is the last. Ignoramus!
Listen, ignoramus. I'm Saint Augustine. I discovered that the day before yesterday. Listen and be quiet. Everything in our lives coincides. The saint and I have spent a portion of our time in pleasures and heresy, because I consider heresy everything that isn't my doctrine of Humanitas. We've both stolen things, he, as a boy, some pears in Carthage, I, a young man already, a watch from my friend Bras Cubas. Our mothers were religious and virtuous. In short, he thought as I do that everything that exists is good and he demonstrates why in Chapter XVI, Book VII, of his Confessions, with the difference that for him evil is a deviation of the will, a natural illusion of a backward century, a concession to error on Augustine's part, since evil doesn't even exist, and only his first affirmation is true. All things are good, omnia bona, and goodbye.
Goodbye, ignoramus. Don't tell anyone what I have just entrusted to you if you don't want to lose your ears. Be silent, be on guard, and thank your good fortune for having a great man like me for a friend, even if you don't understand me. You will understand me. As soon as I return to Barbacena I'm going to give you, in simple, explicit terms, suitable for the understanding of a jackass, the true notions of a great man. Goodbye. Remember me to my poor Quincas Borba. Don't forget to give him milk, milk and baths. Goodbye, goodbye ... Yours from the bottom of my heart,
Rubiao could barely hold the paper in his hands. After a few seconds he sensed that it might be one of his friend's japes, and he reread the letter. But the second reading confirmed his first impression. There was no doubt about it, he was crazy. Poor Quincas Borba! So his odd ways, his frequent changes of mood, his meaningless drive, his disproportionate acts of tenderness were nothing but the foretoken of the total ruin of his brain. He was dying before he died. So good! So jolly! He had his impertinences, to be sure, but they were explained by his illness. Rubiao wiped his eyes, moist with feeling. Then the thought of the possible legacy came to him, and he was all the more afflicted as he was shown what a good friend he was going to lose.
He tried to read the letter one more time still, slowly now, analyzing the words, breaking them up to catch the meaning better and really to discover if it was the banter of a philosopher. That way of disconcerting a person by playing was well known, but everything else confirmed the suspicions of disaster. Almost at the end now, he stopped, his heart pierced. Might it not be that with the insanity of the testator proven the will would be null and void and the inheritance lost? Rubiao had a dizzy spell. He still had the open letter in his hands when he saw the doctor appear in search of news of his patient. The postman had told him that a letter had arrived. Was that it?
"This is it, but ..."
"Is it some private message ...?"
"Precisely, it has a private message, very private. Personal matters. May I?"
Saying that Rubiao put the letter in his pocket. The doctor left. He breathed deeply. He'd escaped the danger of making public such a dangerous document by which it would be possible to prove Quincas Borba's mental condition. Minutes later he was sorry, he should have turned over the letter, he felt remorse, he thought about sending it to the doctor's house. He called a slave, but when he came Rubiao had already changed his mind again. He thought it would be imprudent. The sick man would soon be back--in a few days--he would ask about the letter, would accuse him of being indiscreet, a snitch ... Easy remorse, which didn't last long.
"I don't want anything," he told the slave. And he thought about the legacy once more. He estimated the figure. Less than ten contos, no. He would buy a plot of land, a house, he would grow this or that, or he would mine for gold. The worst was that if it was less, five contos ... Five? That wasn't much, but in any case it might not go beyond that. Let it be five, it was less but better less than nothing. Five contos ... It would be worse if the will were found null and void. All right, then, five contos!
At the beginning of the following week when he received the newspapers from the capital (Quincas Borba's subscriptions still), Rubiao read this item in one of them:
Mr. Joaquim Borba dos Santos has died after enduring his illness philosophically. He was a man of great learning, and he wore himself out doing battle against that yellow, withered pessimism that will yet reach us here one day. It is the mal du siecle. His last words were that pain was an illusion and that Pangloss was not as dotty as Voltaire indicated ... He was already delirious. He leaves many possessions. His will is in Barbacena.
"His suffering is over," Rubiao sighed.
Immediately after, taking another look at the news item he saw that it spoke of a man of merit, appreciation, to whom a philosophical controversy was attributed. No mention of dementia. On the contrary, at the end it said he was delirious during his final moments, the effect of his illness. So much the better! Rubiao read the letter again and the hypothesis of a jape seemed likely once again. He knew that he had a sense of humor. He was surely poking fun at him. He went to Saint Augustine in the same way as he might have gone to Saint Ambrose or Saint Hillary, and he wrote an enigmatic letter in order to confuse him until he could return and have a good laugh over his success. Poor friend! He was sane--sane and dead. Yes, now he no longer suffered. Seeing the dog, he sighed:
"Poor Quincas Borba! If you only knew that your master was dead ..."
Then he said to himself, "Now that my obligation is over, I'm going to turn him over to my friend Angelica."