ISSN 2359-4101

Brazilian Literature in Translation / Literatura Brasileña en Traducción

Issue / Numero

year/año: 2012
issue/numero: # 06

Opisanie Swiata

Author | Autor: Veronica Stigger

Translated by Zoë Perry

Dear Mr. Opalka,

It is with great regret that I must inform you that your son, Mr. Natanael Martins,

has been admitted to our hospital in serious condition. He has asked that I forward

you the enclosed letter, which he dictated to me under great pains.

Furthermore, I feel compelled to tell you that your son’s progressively weakened

condition has, in recent days, affected his capacity for understanding and

reasoning. Therefore, I would ask you not to focus too closely on the details and

not to judge the letter for what it says, but rather for what it means.

Yours sincerely,


Operating Physician

Dear Father,

I do not feel well. It has been one month since I last walked and I am unable to

spend very long sitting up in bed, where I have been confined since early this year.

I no longer remember what it is like to sit at a table for lunch or dinner and I have

some trouble breathing. My entire body is in pain, especially my legs and arms.

Holding a pen to write requires great effort. For this reason, I am dictating this letter.

The doctors do not know what it is that may have taken hold of me, and their

medicines are no longer are sufficient to relieve my suffering. My few friends have

not visited me with the regularity with which they came in the early stages of my

illness. Mother, as you may already know, passed away two years ago. Luckily, she

did not have to endure my illness, which first manifested itself last summer. I am

alone and very weak. Stuck here in this bed, I have thought only of finding you. I

feel a growing desire to finally meet you.

I asked that they buy the ticket for you to come see me, as I am unable to

leave here. You will just need to go to the port to board the ship. I suggest you go

there by train. Do not even think of taking an unnecessary boat trip. Bring a winter

coat with you. Although it is summer there, there may be cool nights on the ship.

Here in the jungle, as you well know, it is hot year round. And it rains a lot. So bring

a gabardine as well. You can leave your umbrella at home, because I have plenty.

I do not need to tell you that here one does not wear the same clothing as there.

You know that not even the most successful tycoons here wear wool. They prefer

percaline. If you have any clothing in percaline, do not hesitate to bring it. The same

goes if you have silk shirts. It is always good to have a couple of them so as to never

look sloppy. Bring your watch with you and, if convenient, your pillow. There is

nothing like your own pillow. Keep your watch inside the pillow so it will not break.

Consider staying here with me for a few days or, perhaps, even a few months.

Bring everything that is dear to you. Just do not bring money. I do not have much,

but I have enough for the two of us. Do not worry about this. Worry only about

carrying your belongings. If you want to bring your gun, bring it. If you also have a

knife, carry it with you. I do not believe you will need to use it during the trip, but it is

always good to come prepared. Weapons are expensive here, especially guns. They

are more expensive than they are there. I do not know if you like to play cards. If you

do, I have playing cards here. Do not fret about that. I also have books, both literature

and science. I have a lot of travel writing. I bought stacks of them. Mother told

me that you like to travel. As a matter of fact, the books you left are here with me. I

am sure you will be happy to see them again. In short, think of everything important

to you and bring it. There is room to spare in my house, although it is not large. It is

the house that belonged to my mother and my grandparents. I do not know if you

remember it. It is in the woods, in a clearing, among the Brazil-nut trees.

After setting aside everything important, buy a trunk and place everything

inside it. I think it is the best way to bring your things. On the trunk, in big, bold

letters, using black, preferably oil-based, paint, so it won’t rub off, write: MR. OPALKA.

If you are not able to fit everything inside a single trunk, buy another. On each

one, paint: MR. OPALKA. And number them: write No. 1 for the first trunk and No. 2

for the second. Bring a small suitcase or a bag as well. The journey by sea is long.

Therefore you will need a few changes of clothes at hand. You know one cannot

go for longer than a week with only one shirt. And do not forget to also carry a

basket with you. Buy about ten lemons, a bag of sugar, some tea. They can be

useful on the ship. When you are feeling queasy, take a lemon, squeeze it on the

sugar and eat it. You can even make tea. All you have to do is ask for water from

the ship’s kitchen. And buy a couple of bottles of red wine, a bit of butter, bread

and cheese. Even though they serve plenty of food on the ship, it is always good

to be prepared. Also bring a kitchen knife, a spoon and a mug in the basket, along

with the lemons, sugar, tea, wine, butter, bread and cheese. You may wish to bring

other provisions if you like. There will be the train trip before you reach the ship.

Perhaps you should double the amount of everything, except for the lemons, sugar

and tea, which are for the seasickness.

Make sure your trunk does not go wandering during the trip. Do not let it out

of your sight. And keep an eye on your suitcase, too. Do not let other people take

your provisions. I know the trip is long and slow, but the worst part is getting to

the ship. Afterward everything will be fine. When the ship is sailing calmly, you can

climb up on deck. There it is healthier and nicer than in the cabins. When the ship

sways, it is better to stay in bed, because passengers have been known to fall and

break something, or hurt their heads. When going up the stairs to get to the deck,

you must be very careful, because people have been known to fall back down on

the seats of their trousers when the ship sways. You wouldn’t want to lose your

balance and fall down the ships’ stairs on the seat of your trousers, now would

you? I was told a woman hurt herself that way. She broke one of her legs and,

in three days’ time, she was dead. If the beds are bunks, never lie on the bottom

bunks. Those lying up top might vomit on your head. And pay attention: during

the trip, do not listen to anyone and do not let anyone disturb you. Pay no mind to

what others say. People say a lot of nonsense in the solitude of the ocean.

I now realize how silly I must seem to you listing these recommendations. You

are a well-travelled man and certainly know more than I about the routine and requirements

of a journey such as this.

Jean-Pierre will be waiting for you at the docks here. He will bring you to me

immediately. When you arrive at the hospital, it will be easy to tell who I am: I will

be the one who most looks like you.

I beg of you, Father, please come. Come as soon as you receive this letter with

the ticket. I am awaiting you impatiently. Have a good trip.

Your loving son,


How to be happy in Warsaw

He was a squat man, with arms and legs like little logs. Round face, encircled

by thick strands of dark brown hair cut in the shape of a helmet – a strange

haircut, further accentuating the roundness of his face. The underside of his protruding

belly was not contained within his crimson shirt: it sprung forth from below

and through the gaps between the buttons, created by the pressure of his chubby

body under the form-fitting fabric. The only thing gaunt about him was his mustache:

thin, long and with the ends slightly turned upward. It was not the style, nor

would it ever be, but that was how he liked to wear it. Although it was hot that

August, over the crimson shirt and light linen trousers he wore a long, garish silk

kimono, so long it dragged the ground, bringing with it dust, sand, pebbles and

any other detritus it might find along the way. He was lugging four suitcases of

different sizes: one in each hand and two under his stocky arms. Upon seeing Opalka

seated on one of the station benches, engrossed in his newspaper, he grinned.

He hastened his step, tripped on the hem of his kimono and came crashing to the

ground just a few feet from the bench. As he fell, the four suitcases shot forward,

clattering around Opalka’s feet, whereupon they bowled over Opalka’s small trunk,

which in turn toppled his basket. His lemons – one dozen – all rolled out. One of

them spun off toward the tracks, while the others stopped beneath the bench between

Opalka’s legs and around the basket and trunk. The man, having leapt to his

feet, threw himself to the ground, as if into a swimming pool, trying to capture the

lemon. But it was in vain: his arms, too short, could not reach it and the lemon finally

rolled onto the tracks. Opalka, who had been following the scene in astonishment

from behind his newspaper, then began to gather the remaining lemons. But

the man was already on his feet again, dusting off his gaudy kimono, and stopped

Opalka with the flat of his hand. Disobeying him, Opalka laid the newspaper on the

bench beside him, and bent down. When he went to grab one of the lemons that

was close to his left foot, the man gestured with his hand once again and shouted

in German:


Surprised, Opalka stopped, looked at the man and sat up again, giving up on

the lemon. The man smiled at him and, limping, picked up the basket and placed the

eleven lemons, one by one, back inside. Opalka went back to his newspaper. After

filling the basket, the man lifted up the small trunk, whacked it with his right hand to

remove the dirt and leaned it against the bench, next to Opalka’s feet. This distracted

him from his newspaper for a moment, and he looked sidelong at the man. The

newcomer was now arranging his own suitcases. He organized them by size, directly

in front of the bench where Opalka was seated: the smallest one at Opalka’s feet and

the largest in front of the place he had chosen to sit. Finally, the little man took a seat

beside Opalka, who shot him another sideways glance. The man studied every inch

of his kimono and clicked his tongue now and again against the roof of his mouth,

shaking his head from side to side, cross. Opalka could no longer pay attention to

the newspaper. He watched the man who, after clicking his tongue and shaking his

head from side to side, bent down at an angle toward the ground, reaching for the

smallest of his suitcases. As he had not risen from his seat, his body brushed over

Opalka’s knees. Opalka clutched the newspaper against his chest to keep it from being

crumpled by the man’s head. Bopp, in turn, rummaged around and around in his

suitcase, grunting and sighing the whole time. Not finding what he was looking for,

he got up and bent down in front of it. He started rummaging around again, sticking

his head partway inside the suitcase. Opalka shook his paper, as if smooth it, and

went back to reading. But once again his attention was interrupted, this time by a

jubilant exclamation that came from below:


Opalka peered once more over his newspaper and there was the man, now

standing, holding a knife in one hand and an apple, like a trophy, in the other. He

sat down beside him and, before eating, turned to Opalka and asked him in Polish:

“Can I help you?

To which Opalka, taking his eyes from his paper once again, said, also in Polish:


The man frowned, offered the apple to Opalka and repeated:

“Can I help you?”

Opalka lowered the newspaper, looked at the man and replied, again in Polish:

“I’m sorry. But I don’t believe I’ve understood you.”

The man heaved a deep sigh and looked around, as if looking for someone

who could help. He looked at his little suitcase and then down at his hands, now

occupied by the knife and the apple. Opalka, realizing the man’s dilemma, asked

him, still in Polish:

“Can I help you?”

The man turned to Opalka and frowned again. Unsure, he handed him the apple,

waving it gently, making it clear with his gesture that he was offering Opalka

the fruit. Opalka, pretending not to see the apple he was offering him, repeated:

“Can I help you?”

Without saying a word, the man stared at Opalka and then at the apple and the

knife, which were still in his hands. Opalka put the paper down on the seat beside

him and held out both arms, motioning with his fingers for the man to pass him the

apple and knife. The man beamed and handed him the fruit and utensil. Then he

wiped one hand on the other and went to his small suitcase. He rummaged around

in it some more, while Opalka watched with the knife and apple still in his hands.

Finally, he took out a travel guidebook on Warsaw, in English, and two black notebooks,

visibly in use. He returned to his seat beside Opalka, noisily flipping through

of the guidebook. He thumbed through the pages, back and forth, and didn’t seem

to find what he was looking for. Now and then he clicked his tongue and grunted

incomprehensibly in an unidentifiable language. Fed up, he closed the book and

placed it on the seat, right on top of Opalka’s newspaper. He crossed his legs and

took the two black notebooks. He thumbed through one. He thumbed through the

other. He took the first one again, this time turning the pages more slowly, until

stopping on one. A huge grin spread across his face, which had been growing

dispirited. He turned to Opalka and was about to speak, when he realized he was

still holding the apple and knife. The man, who was holding the black notebook in

his right hand, held out his left hand to take back the apple and knife. Opalka gave

him the apple, but couldn’t hand him the knife because the man’s hand was very

small, and couldn’t hold both things at once. The man returned the apple to Opalka

and laid the notebook on his lap. To keep it open the page he was interested in, he

laid the other black notebook across it. Once he’d done that, he took the apple and

knife back. He turned to Opalka and, reading the notebook, said in Polish:

“Would you like some, sir?”

Opalka smiled and thanked him, also in Polish:

“That is very kind of you, but no. Thank you very much.

Then he tugged the newspaper, that was on the seat, from under the guidebook,

and tried to continue reading. The man, in turn, peeled the entire apple

before cutting it into small pieces, which he put in his mouth and chewed happily.

Opalka could not get past one page – he had already read the same paragraph

three times–, because the noise of the man’s chewing distracted him. He attempted,

for the fourth time, to understand what was written when he was startled by

a new commotion. The man, who had just found a worm in his apple, got up to

lob the fruit and knife toward the empty tracks, as he shouted, furious, in his own


“A worm! Yuck!”

He walked to the edge of the platform and spit, onto the ties, the lump of

chewed apple.

“Yuck! Yuck! Yuck!”

Finally, he stuck the middle finger of his right hand down his throat and tried

to vomit, unsuccessfully. He prepared himself to repeat the act, when Opalka, who

watched it all in disbelief, tried to avoid an unpleasant end, telling him in Portuguese:

“Don’t do that. There’s no need. A little worm in your apple won’t do you any harm.”

The man stopped. Stunned, he turned to Opalka and said, now in Portuguese:

“You speak Portuguese! Why didn’t you tell me before?”

“Because I didn’t know you spoke Portuguese,” Opalka replied. “How could I

have guessed?”

“You know...”

The noise of the train pulling into the station muffled the man’s voice, preventing

Opalka from hearing the end of his sentence. When the train stopped, Opalka

said, from then on always in Portuguese:

“Our train’s arrived.” And, given the large number of suitcases the man was

carrying, asked him: “Can I help you?”

The man thanked him for the offer, but rejected his assistance. Opalka picked

up the small trunk and the basket with the eleven lemons, where he had also placed

the newspaper, and boarded the train. From inside his compartment, he looked out

the window and saw the man dropping the four suitcases on the ground. He tried

to pick up of the two largest, holding the smaller ones under his short, stocky arms,

but it didn’t work. When he bent down to grab the larger suitcases, the smaller ones

would invariably fall. Opalka placed the crumpled newspaper in the breast pocket of

this white summer suit and got off the train. He went up to the man and said:

“Let me help you.”

Without giving the man time to reply, he took one small suitcase and one

large suitcase and boarded the train. The man, who could not stop thanking him,

boarded after him, carrying the other two suitcases. Opalka let him go ahead and

then followed him to his compartment. There, he placed the two suitcases he had

helped carry onto the luggage rack overhead. The man tried to do the same, but

his short arms could not reach that high. Opalka took the two remaining suitcases

and placed them beside the others. Then he extended his right hand to the man

and said goodbye, wishing him a pleasant trip. The man shook his hand effusively,

returning the greeting. Opalka then went to his compartment. Upon arriving, he

took off his hat and sat down next to the window. He retrieved his newspaper from

his jacket pocket, gave it a shake in a useless attempt to smooth it and resumed

reading, waiting for the train to depart.

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