“If hard fate’s not to hem us in
Neither must we hem ourselves in by fact.
Be our setting changeless or bleak
Happy chimeras are not ours to enact,
Only to think—for i’ faith we’re free now
If but we more be of imagination compact.”
—A Living Poet, Still Largely Unknown.
Any building in São Paulo will appear more beautiful if you begin by looking at its upper stories. Above, there are balconies, wild plants, linen curtains; there are jeweled tiles, scalloped decorations, streaks of paint. Someone may even be standing at the window, taking advantage of the open air to pin up laundry or enjoy a coffee. If you allow your eye to drift, however, it will eventually make its way down the levels—passing more familiar urban markers to reach finally the building’s base with its inevitable metal gate, its buzzer, its slightly bored porteiro waiting to let residents in and out.
No public estimate is currently available regarding the number of porteiros in the city. In 2008, there were 414,000 reported; but with a greater metropolitan population soon expected to surpass 20 million and an equivalently rapid rate of construction, the figure now is surely much higher. The average porteiro sits enclosed in his box nearly all day, longer than the New York City doorman or Cambridge University porter. It would be impossible to attempt a survey of his thoughts during this time—impossible even to guess what lies behind the strange look of one in particular, half triumphant, half terribly resigned…
When he received the news from Ouro Preto that his uncle had died, a man unknown to him until then, seventy-three cars had passed his gate since morning. The light had begun its slow slide from sidewalk to lanchonete door: not smoothly, but in sudden tiny movements. Half an hour before midday would come the biggest jump, off the floor and onto the wall. It was this he was waiting for when the postman stopped.
No one else in his building received letters. All the residents were either quite old, past contact with the outside, or quite young, without the need to communicate by hand. The postman’s cheeks were very smooth, and they picked up lines as he pressed against the gate, perspiring a little, to hand over the envelope—“Tudo bem?” With friendly efficiency he pushed off to the next set of flats without waiting for an answer.
With the lawyer’s note in front of him, his first thought was what he might do with the money. It was, he acknowledged dreamily, a staggering sum. Perhaps he would go back to school, or move out to the countryside somewhere cool—Santa Catarina or Rio Grande do Sul, a plot of land closer to Argentina where they said there was snow. His feet would find a home on the living room table, and a boy on the farm would bring in coffee each morning. Spanish language papers would compete with Portuguese headlines, and he’d suck maté from a metal spout. Through the sheer donning of baggy trousers, his everyday “você” would shift without effort into the more aristocratic “tu.” Lost in these dreams, he didn’t hear his wife buzzing, and was forced to suffer her most creative abuses as she wobbled under five grocery bags to the lift.
He really could do anything. And yet the idea when it arrived was not original in the slightest. One copy of every available book in the world, translated into every language, would be available in the bookstore. The premises would be open to all. It was an idea impracticable but necessary: like building a railroad across the vast and infrequently traveled expanses of Brazil.
To begin was easier than he’d anticipated. He staked out a location in an abandoned galleria, hired architects and contractors.City officials were consulted to ensure their pleasure at his progress. Deliberately he avoided the Brutalist architecture in vogue, with its concrete, steel, and angular geometries, seeking instead organic affinities with the environment.
More difficult than the building was the stocking of books. A sheikh arrived with trunks of 12th-century Latin translations made of Arabic medical texts; a Sikh unrolled his turban and revealed a copy of the Adi Granth in archaic Punjabi long thought to have been lost. Hired men traveled to the American Midwest, where poetry chapbooks of high quality, limited print run, and smaller recognition were known to exist in substantial quantities. Beneath the absent moon that “sought itself and afterwards the world” boats glided along wavering waters to destinations unearthly and far-flung… such anyway, sitting in his office, were his romantic visions.
But at last, in only eight months, the thing reached completion. Editions new and old were accessible by means of an enormous spine-like staircase, looping its graceful bulk up dozens of levels. A deceptively spacious café remained open all hours for visitors seeking a midnight drink. In print the day following the grand opening, a Lisbon columnist renowned for his sly sensitivity would confess to readers his tears at the sight of “so brilliant a realization of public space.” Folha de S. Paulo too had sent a reporter to cover the “remarkable rise of a (now literary) gatekeeper”; the questions implied a grand parallel to the rise of Brazil itself.
That first night, after the guests had gone home, he remained in the grand ceilingless atrium on the building’s ground floor. Finishing the plastic cup of champagne in his hand, he looked up at his secular chapel. Despite having created this place ab initio, he never truly had been much of a reader. What pleased him most was the sheer physical weight: the impressive heft, the bindings and glue, the way the books had filled the trucks and planes and boats that crossed the world to arrive at his door.
The store would not, of course, achieve his imagined perfection. But the first indication was surprisingly long in coming. Business was going very well. The variety on his shelves was not frequently remarked upon; most people bought the ten or fifteen books on the recommendation table. But he had always known the rarer selections were simply there for contrast with the common, to exist in exotic proximity—something akin to the way “Siberian” next to “tiger” enhanced the latter word, giving it specificity and meaning.
Once he did look for a book himself, an Enid Blyton novel called The Rilloughby Fair Mystery. The evil-smelling room in his childhood town, charitably referred to as a library, had stocked it; a visit he’d made there with his mother long ago had imprinted the book on his mind, chiefly by virtue of a lurid cover montage. Illustrations of a green glove, chimpanzees, and dancing clowns promised some relationship between the elements, but in hinting alone left the reader to connect the parts. It was with some disquiet that he informed his supplier this treasure was missing from the shelf. To his relief, however, it was in fact found to be there, listed under “Pollock, Mary” and robed in a much chaster binding. From then he made sure every book was available under each one of an author’s pen names.
Then one day, a man entered the store and asked for the first volume of J.G.A. Pocock’s Barbarism and Religion. We don’t have it, he said. Just give me the second volume then, said the man. We don’t have that either, he said: only Peacock’s Berbers and Legions, which is a history of civil war among indigenous peoples west of the Nile,and really covers quite different territory entirely. I’ll take it anyway, the man said, putting three 10 reais notes on the counter. He wore a green sweater; his eyes flicked left and right—intelligently it seemed—behind sleek frameless glasses.
And so the drunken sense of infinity began to ebb. To stock every book might be impossible. But it was the striving to do it which mattered in the end. Far more worrisome was this arbitrariness of demand. People did not ask questions; they simply read what they were given. It would have been easier if he’d run a used bookstore. Selections there depended only on what people owned when they died and hence could be bought up cheap. But in new bookstores arbitrariness was open to control: supply merely meant power. What mattered was not what the books were, but which were available, and the manner in which they were chosen.
Trapped within his paradise, he made increasingly disconsolate trips up and down the stairs, cataloguing an inventory that seemed to grow steadily more random. Everywhere there were traps, gaps, agendas. Though enormous, his store was still prey to whim. Why was Francis McCullagh’s reportage of the Spanish Civil War there, and not his more famous coverage of the Russo-Japanese conflict? How did Eric Hobsbawm get his entire four-volume history of the modern age on the shelves (in multiple copies at that) when other historians were not honored with a single book? What could explain the immense influence of D.H. Lawrence, even his notoriously ill-structured poetry? Why were there so many books about motorcycles?
It even seemed there was no choice but to revel in the arbitrary. Within reason, he could set out almost anything: fishing primers, Albanian geography texts, philosophies of political thinkers far outside the mainstream. He bought specific editions of a series: Vols. 1, 2, and 4, deliberately skipping the middle number. With glue and scissors he altered certain books manually, transferring photographs from one to another, whiting-out sentences in school texts. He commissioned a morose man in a maroon vest, a former trade unionist exiled in Moscow after the military coup, to make translations of Russian literature, insisting on stories most alien to Brazilian experience. The translator asked if he might make liberal renderings into the Portuguese vernacular; he was refused without question.
“But listen: far, far away, on Lake Chad roams a proud giraffe”—so went a beautiful line from Gumilev, a poet he had always loved. No matter how unalterable a situation might seem, there was always some unthinkable and lovely possibility elsewhere. The Russians imagined tropical rainforests and giraffes, because these were what they did not have. He himself had never had been drawn to the Amazon; its magnificence, the beauty of its palm trees, was too easy. His necessary craving was for the snowy inverse: the imaginary furthest from his own reality.
None of these endeavors were carried out to gratify the taste of the public. And as his maneuvers grew bolder, it became impossible for citizens to remain oblivious. So many of them had adapted their buying patterns to his store, however, that they returned regardless, even defending his eccentricities. It was generally agreed there was too much freedom; someone to make choices was needed. Only a very small group opposed him, and he supposed that they did their shopping elsewhere.
The only downside to his newfound happiness was that his wife now expressed doubts about his occupation as well. For a while they fought heavily; then they simply stopped speaking. All their arguments mapped the social onto the minutely personal. Was an infinite supply (an indiscriminate love) possible,or must one supply choosily (a love more judicious)? She accused him of trying to trick her by opposing the two; one could choose freely even what was fated. Finally, over a bottle of oversweet Brazilian wine and a plate of ravioli with sun-dried tomatoes, they decided to separate.
On their last day together they drove a few hours to a beach and took a long walk on the sand dunes. The upper layer of sand ran swift against the denser layer below, and everything was very white and shining. But the wind was so cold they soon retreated back to the car, breaking at a lanchonete on the way home for a cup of chocolate. Inside, the television was on.
Right away you could tell it was a foreign country. Onscreen, men in blue uniforms gauged fuel tank pressure and checked shuttle insulation; the lights of houses near-distant blinked sharply, even as their edges blurred a little in the mist like eyes. The first Brazilian astronaut, Marco Pontes, had trained in this same place in Russia: ridiculously but accurately called Star City. The second one was preparing now to go up. Overcoming a background as a mechanic in the Nordeste, he too had decided to enter the lofty profession.
But she wondered if he was never meant to see the Great Wall of China, or the landmasses and oceans one is told are visible from above. For nothing still was happening. The view had shifted to an empty waiting room, cosmopolitan, complete with Biedermeyer furniture. The astronaut, filmed minutes before taking paces toward the craft, was seen now entering, sitting, folding his hands. Gauges were registering inconsistencies, said a voiceover. A shadow—the lanchonete man was walking past the set with sugar, dumping it with practiced spoonfuls into their cups.
For the second one it must be so much harder. A beaten path seems as if it would be easier to follow. But it is in fact so much more difficult. Everything feels arbitrary as it is done, and in retrospect can appear as only a copy—as if it were fated to be. She could not stand the monstrosity of her husband’s activities. Lives are shaped by unknown influences enough; we must settle for what we are given, making decisions only within that space. In this world, bound as we are firmly to earth, books are one of the few things we can choose.
He only knew that she would rather have him return to his work as porteiro. His sole choice then would be which vegetables to buy for dinner. Stirring his lukewarm drink he watched the astronaut shift uncomfortably in his elegant imported chair. Outside by the yellow church pigeons landed, condensing, just collapsing in toward a point.
When they got home they stood in the hallway, looking again at each other. Confronted with the question of how to fill the time with someone once loved but now distant, they decided to bake honey apples. This is a very simple thing. Cut the stem off four or five apples; core them and pour in honey; set in tin foil and leave to bake two or three hours at low temperature. Allow to cool; eat with fork and knife. The doing of this involves nothing of words at all.
Only after he appeared to be asleep did she take a book and start reading, an oversized blanket pulled close around her. The novel was Russian, as he still cannot fail to remember. She looked so free sitting there turning the pages, as if she could choose or become anything in the world. He looked at her thin hands and the way her brow wrinkled as she tried to make sense of the words. In the light of the lamp her hair glowed a little, almost like a kind of halo. Sitting in his box now he wonders if she had bought the book from his store. But he did not think to ask then. Nor, at that moment, did he desire to know.