ISSN 2359-4101

Brazilian Literature in Translation / Literatura Brasileña en Traducción

Issue / Numero

year/año: 2012
issue/numero: # 06

The Wooden Machine

Author | Autor: Miguel Sanches Neto

Translated by John Whitlam

From the chapter entitled HANDS

"An inventor belongs to a country that does not yet exist,” Rischen said

to the priest as they wandered around the untidy rooms where the

exhibition was still being set up.

The man had a propensity for bursts of enthusiasm. He had created a

ventilator to grade coffee which would ensure a better quality product, and had an

absolute belief in the country, not the country outside, with all its limitations, with

its fledgling industry, but in another which would take its place. Nationalism was

another form of religion, a faith in what we cannot yet see.

Azevedo had seen Rischen’s ventilating machine, a simple mechanism,

steam-powered, with pulleys, belts and a bean separator. The fan blew aside the

lightest beans, creating a standard by weight, unlike the sifting system which selected

the beans by size, without eliminating those that had dried up.

Rischen, who was from the city of Rio de Janeiro, explained how the mechanism

worked with pride, not in having invented the sorting device, but in the fact

that this was possible in the tropics.

“We will produce more coffee because our land is good. But we will produce

higher quality coffee because we will have appropriate machinery.”

Hearing the word ‘machinery’, the priest felt sad. Machinery was a collective

noun, and he envisioned a ventilator like that on every coffee plantation, but when

he thought about his own machine, he had the feeling it would only ever be a oneoff,

never to be multiplied, the beginning and end of a species that would never

reproduce. He could not imagine a stenography machine recording the speeches

in every provincial assembly. An Adam without issue.

“Coffee will soon be a byword for this country. Our wealth lies in the union of

farming and industry.”

“You should write that down,” said the priest, out of politeness.

Rischen realized at that moment that his entire discourse negated the stenography

machine, which did not fit into this paradise of agriculture wedded with

industry, and he tried to be kind.

“That’s the history that future generations will write on your machine, Father,”

he said.

The over-patriotic tone did not go down well with Azevedo because of its


“I hope at least it writes more sincere love letters.”

“What do you mean ‘more sincere’? All love letters are sincere.”

“Love letters come from our hands. Writing is very close to the body, intimately

attached to the person who loves. The machine will create detachment, making

the words more impersonal.”

Rischen pondered this statement for a while, unable to understand how anyone

could want literature – and there was no more heartfelt literature than love

letters – to be detached from people. He walked over to a table where there was

a copy of a local newspaper, read a few lines, and returning to the priest, handed

it to him.

“You’re right. Even when an author belongs to this romantic school of ours,

the printed word is colder.”

He then took his leave saying he had to visit his factory. There was a joyful

haste about him, as if the future was waiting for him at the door of the Technical

School. He said a formal goodbye to his friend and left with a dramatic flourish,

snapping an imaginary cord that bound them together.

From the chapter entitled CIVILIZATION

Mr Stein was an importer of mainly British products and had grown rich from

trading in Brazil. His firm, Stein & Stein, had made a name for itself supplying

the most advanced equipment and sundry innovations to rich farm owners. He

therefore regarded himself as the very embodiment of civilization and saw the

letter as a denial of his hard work, as if importing goods had not contributed to

the more sophisticated standard of living the capital had managed to achieve. If it

came down to what was produced in this country, they would be reduced to living

virtually like savages. An industrial revolution is not invented overnight. And Brazil

was still living in the darkest of nights, and it would be a long time before dawn

would break in these damned tropics. There was so much talk of light, of sun, but

he – who spent his life cooped up in his shop or in his house, he who was familiar

with the power of mould in the residences of the capital – knew that out there,

whatever time of day it was, there was nothing but night, a long night, incongruously

sunlit though it often was.

The fact that the letter had been sent to him was either a mistake or a joke.

He had no industry at all; on the contrary, he competed with the poor-quality local

products (and always won). If it was intended to provoke him, it deserved an appropriate

response; if it was a mistake, some corrective embarrassment was in order.

He had often wondered if it was not time to leave this swamp where he had

been wallowing for over two decades. He could not bring himself to go out into the

fetid streets of the capital. He could not stand the slaves with vats of human waste

on their heads, carrying away the detritus of homes after eight o’clock at night,

all of them on their way down to the sea, filling Rua do Ouvidor. This was Brazil,

an enormous vat of shit, slopping over and soiling the people carrying it and the

streets as well. Walking around the city, at any hour, meant stepping in live faeces.

For this reason he went out as little as possible and tried to recreate English comfort

and cleanliness in his own home.

Waggishly, he then set to thinking up a list of Brazilian products that could

represent the country. One of them would certainly be the system of waste carriers.

The shit shifters. The detritus hat. The poo porters. The sewage slaves. He

thought of sending a black man to the exhibition with a well fermented vat of

human waste on his head. He would parade before the Emperor and the corseted

ladies dressed in the latest Paris fashions.

When he had newly arrived there, he wanted to take advantage of the much

vaunted virtues of the beaches and considered renting a house for the purposes

of bathing in the sea. He even looked into the best spots for bathing. But after

witnessing with his own eyes and nose the procession of waste vats heading down

to the sea, and realizing that the awful smell that came from the quayside was not

actually from some rapidly putrefying local species of fish, he gave up the on the

idea. As time went by, he gave up on other things too, to the point where now there

was nothing left to keep him in the country. He had no desire to witness this paroxysm

of nationalism, which was exactly what the Exhibition was. He laughed at his

idea. Shit was representative of the country because it was a product of the animal

industry: man ate the fruits of the earth and the liquids from here, which turned

into this heady perfume. The vats, which were produced in workshops around the

city, were made from Brazilian wood. The waste carriers did exactly the job they

were intended for. Laughing at his own diatribe, he imagined how successful this

would be in London. A mobile sewerage system, as used in Brazil.

The other example of savage science that he could send to the Exhibition was

a particular treatment for inflammation. It had been one of his salesmen, returning

from Manaus, who had told him of this method. In the middle of the jungle, with no

medical care available, the indigenous and local inhabitants used alligator faeces

as medicine. They leave the droppings to dry in the sun until they turn white and

have the consistency of a crumbly biscuit, and then they sprinkle them on a poultice

with milk, applying this to the affected area. They also use a tea of this musk

to cure chest infections. This was the industry that should take on the world. It was

not the stuff of scientists, but of medicine men, with their superstitious beliefs.

Robert had already forgotten his irritation entirely and was now enjoying

compiling his list of great things from Brazil. He recalled a pain treatment used by

Amazon Indians recounted to him by the same employee. When an Indian is stung

by some spider or other, of the many that infest those forests, he knows it will

be extremely painful, so he gets a friend to stick a tube up his rear end and blow

through it hard. This relieves his suffering. Robert could have an etching done of

an Indian blowing through a bamboo tube up another’s backside, showing the look

of lecherous pleasure on the victim’s face and explaining this innovative method,

which ought to be introduced in all hospitals; it would certainly be very useful in

wartime, with injured soldiers deprived of the company of the opposite sex; that

way they would get some pleasure and a little relief. Together with the etching he

would send a printed explanation of the beneficial effects of this technique.

There was also a process for improving conception among tribal males. As in

colder climes, there are men here too who are infertile, leading to marital discontent.

But such difficulties would be a thing of the past if they were to adopt the

tradition of the Indians from the Quatrimanhi river, a tributary of the Rio Negro.

There you can find a tribe who, in their desire to increase their numbers, have a

habit of splitting young men’s penises to halfway down their length, which has

immediate effects on reproduction. The women start getting pregnant more often.

Not to mention the additional pleasure they must feel on realizing that it is not just

one penis that is penetrating them, but a little monster with two heads. For the

Exhibition, Robert could make a wooden replica of this two-headed penis, from

good Brazilian wood.

This was how he whiled away his evening in his two-storey house in Rua dos

Pescadores, with the doors and windows closed at all times in an attempt to shut

out the hubbub outside, the unbearable ringing of the bells of so many churches,

from small to large, the endless gossip in the shops, the wild shouts of those

driving vehicles, as well as the creak of wheels scraping on the rough gravel of the

street, the shameless barking of freely roaming dogs, in their lascivious dealings,

the indecent mooing of the dairy cows and their calves kept in neighbouring yards,

the tearful voices of beggars and drunken slaves, as well as the infernal cries of

hawkers selling water, coal, chickens, vegetables, cane juice, sweets, candied fruits,

dolls and even pigs, live pigs, that would be bled in backyards, adding to the din of

the unbearable city. This horrible music had the effect of expanding his catalogue

of national aberrations and he imagined the effects it would have on a population

who now dreamed of a homegrown industry. There is no industry without a system,

and systems only thrive where reason prevails. And this was a world of confusion.

Lastly, he recalled the case of turtle butter, sold on a few stalls in Passo de Vero-

Peso, the origin of which Robert had sought to discover when he first lived here.

It was another example of local industry. They dig up river banks in the Amazon

in search of turtle eggs deposited at low tide. They fill a small canoe with these

and then the men crush them with their feet as if treading clay or grapes. While

doing this, they pour on a certain amount of river water. The job of separating the

substances found in the eggs is left to nature, with the fatty part soon rising to the

surface. This fat, which still contains impurities, is heated in large pans to finally

purify it. It is then put into jars and sold for various purposes. It is used for lighting,

but also as a condiment and to preserve food. It is an industry in which man has

little or no work to do.

He could even send along some etchings showing scenes of cannibalism in the

jungles of Brazil, extolling the virtues and aroma of human flesh. He would send a

chunk of salted monkey meat and invite the public to pull strips off the leg of the

young warrior from the Timbiras tribe. Doesn’t this country pride itself on the cattle

slaughtered for public consumption? The local newspaper published news from the

abattoir almost every day: “176 head of cattle were slaughtered yesterday for consumption

in the city, including 4 calves which were sold for between 160 to 200 réis

a pound.” Reviving the old taste for human flesh would be to show who were are.

It was while considering these and other acts of vengeance that Mr Robert ate

his dinner, then smoked a Havana cigar and did his accounts. When the black maid

who moved around the house as if she owned it came to look for him in the study,

she found him cheerfully smiling at his ledger of incomings and outgoings. Business

had been no better or worse that day, but he did not hide his contentment.

Ana moved closer to the boss’s chair and put her foot on his leg. He lifted

her skirt and took hold of her firm legs. He took off the ankle boots she wore in

imitation of European fashion. He gradually moved his hand up towards her thigh,

encountering the same rock-hard firmness. He then knelt down, and she covered

his head and almost his whole body with her voluminous skirt, feeling the snuffling

of the animal who was drinking at her loving cup.

She was known in the house, and even in the shop, as the mistress of the

master. Surrendering to her charms, he would always abuse her verbally while she

dominated him, but today he was a thirsty young boy sucking up her fluids.

When they lay down on the bed with the mosquito net, after rolling around on

the rug in the study, he said:

“Shall we make a little Brazilian?”

Ana smiled in agreement, but had her wiles to avoid having a child who could

then be sold with her on the slave market as just another item on the list of coloured

goods. The auctioneer would even add information in the auction catalogue

about a slave with refined manners, suitable for nursing the children of her future

masters: a girl with good milk and an infant. Mr Robert would be a representative

of the country’s industry, producing another child for the glory of Brazil.

But he did not make any arrangements the next day, only doing so weeks later.

He left it to the last minute to send in his contribution, ignoring the request from

the commission that they be informed in advance of the nature and dimensions

of the product. On 2nd, shortly before the opening of the Exhibition, the employees

of Stein & Stein delivered an enormous box, which was only accepted out of

deference to the sender. The inspectors gave instructions for moving it, sending it

to a room at the back of the School where there was a growing collection of the

most diverse products which had been submitted after the deadline. But there was

no room for it there, so as it was from an English merchant, the workers decided

to open the box then and there, still in the courtyard, with a lot of people around,

to see if it could be accommodated in one of the rooms that were already set up.

Father Azevedo was also there, walking through the rooms looking at the other

products. He paid no attention to what the workers were doing before the uproar

that was to ensue.

Using tools, two slaves carefully pulled out the nails. It could be some easily

breakable object. As soon as the main lid was removed, the slaves were unable to

contain their gales of laughter. The inspector who was overseeing the work from

some distance away moved closer and flew into a rage.

“What an outrage!”

He set off in search of a member of the commission to report the case and to

see what should be done. Employees always want to know what they should do

when anything even slightly untoward happens. That is why there were so many

bosses in government departments, for decisions of this kind. Prompted by the inspector’s

brusque movements and the laughter of the slaves, exhibitors and workers

gathered around.

“Old Robert’s gone off his rocker,” someone commented.

“At least he’s got a sense of humour.”

“And no good sense.”

“Too true.”

“I don’t think we invented it.”

“I’d give it a gold medal if I was on the jury.”

“What’s going on here?”

“Oh, my goodness!”

And the voices were lost in the hubbub that ensued. Everyone was talking at

once, making it impossible to pinpoint who said what or to catch the comments

in their entirety:

“... typical of a foreigner who ...”

“... think about what this means ...”

“... maybe he’s right ...”

“... the impertinence of them ...”

“... maybe they don’t exist where he comes from ...”

The security guard had to break up the crowd of onlookers to make way for

the director of the Commission, José Agostinho Moreira Guimarães, to inspect the

object. But he did not even look at it properly before turning to the people and

saying that there had been a mix-up.

“This object” – he chose the word very carefully – “was to be sent to an auction

house. As Mr Robert had promised to send something to the Exhibition, his

employees were not entirely clear as to his wishes and have delivered this to the

wrong place.”

No one believed the story, nor was it intended that they should, but some

explanation had to be given.

“Now I advise all of you to resume your tasks. The Emperor will soon be arriving.”

People moved away, but not very far, and waited around in the courtyard to

see what would happen. It was some time before the lid was placed back on the

box, but not hammered down. From time to time, a member of the Commission

would appear, and with a grim look, peer inside at the contents which did not even

need to be put on display to arouse interest.

“Where can we send this?” asked Dr José Agostinho.

“To the Palace,” answered one of the inspectors.

“Certainly not! We cannot compromise the Imperial family.”

“Perhaps to the Navy Arsenal?”

“That won’t do either. Let’s return it to its owner.”

When the lid was nailed down and the box started to be carried away, which

involved crossing the entire courtyard and going out through the main door,

someone from one of the rooms shouted that the Empire was dependent on this

great invention.

And everyone laughed, even those who thought it was an outrage for Mr Robert

to have sent a whipping post to the National Exhibition. It was big enough for

five slaves, bound to it both by their hands and feet and by their necks. He had inherited

this piece of Brazilian ingenuity when he bought the house where he lived.

He had never used it and had often thought of selling it to an auctioneer or one of

his customers, for whom it might still have some use, but it had remained on his

property, forgotten about. It was old and stained, perhaps with blood or vomit, but

it was made of hardwood. And it could last for another fifty years. It would make

a big hit in London.

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