ISSN 2359-4101

Brazilian Literature in Translation / Literatura Brasileña en Traducción

Issue / Numero

year/año: 2012
issue/numero: # 03

Dreams in Yellow

Author | Autor: Luiz Antonio Aguiar

Translated by Tony Waugh

Paris, September 03, 1914.

My dearest sister:

Every now and then my memories return to that last year we lived in Arles. I
was then a boy, and, in the first months of that year of 1888, the family had some
good new to celebrate. Our mother had just announced that she was pregnant –
you, Marcelle, would be born in the summer, and I already knew that my little baby
sister would be my best plaything... At least until you started to get a will of your
own and decided to stalk me. And then the tables were turned, since you had
suddenly decided that I was your favorite, or, rather, your servant, to remain always
at your beck and call. And this was well before you learned to babble out my name,
stressing the last syllable in order to demand my attention: Ca-mi-lle!

But, at that particular moment, they weren’t playing their usual roles. There
they were: her, in the kitchen, making as much noise as possible in her struggle
with the plates and platters; him, at the table, just staring at the spoon in his hand,
held up before his face – which was all he had left of his interrupted diner. I also
stared at the spoon, wondering what Joseph would do with it. The fact was that
this was not our normal way of finishing dinner, and neither of us knew whether or
not we should get up from the table.

Long minutes later, as though she had sent us both to stand in the corner and
now thought that we had been sufficiently chastised, we heard Augustine let out
a long, suffering sigh in the kitchen. Then, she reappeared in the room to finish
clearing the table, picking up the breadbasket and, of course, my father’s spoon,
which she snatched from his hand with a bitter smack of the lips. My father just sat
there, in silence. My mother was in the doorway, almost back in the kitchen, when
she stopped, turned on her heels and, visibly disgusted with herself, asked:
— And what did he say? Is the great painter satisfied with our spring?

My father smiled, glanced at me out of the corner of his eye looking for
complicity, and said:
— He said that we still need the miracle of the yellow!

My mother screwed up her face and turned up her eyes to heaven, as though
recriminating herself for having given in to her husband, only to hear a load of
nonsense, before muttering under her breath and disappearing back into the
bowels of the kitchen. My father nodded his head thoughtfully, weighing the words
pronounced by Mister Van Gogh. And he stayed like that until my mother finally
called him up to bed.

On one of those occasions — at a time when I was still a little scared and
unsure —, after dropping off the package, as usual, beside the canvases stacked on
the floor, I pulled off my cap, moved further into the room and asked:
— Why do you sign your paintings as Vincent?

I had wondered about this ever since the first time I had come into his room.
At first, I thought he hadn’t heard me, but maybe his mind just had a way to go
before it arrived back in the room. In fact, I began to think that he wasn’t going
to answer me at all. But then, just as the last drop of my courage evaporated, his
brushstrokes became less frenetic, slowed and then stopped: he placed his brush
carefully on the palette, laid the palette on a stool from where he retrieved his pipe:
he put the pipe-stalk in his mouth and stared at the painting, studying it carefully
and, finally, blew out a long stream of smoke and, without looking at me, said:

— It’s my name. I’m called Vincent.
I already knew that. Disappointed with the meager results of so much effort,
I insisted:
— But I’ve always heard that painters sign their work with their last name. you
should sign as van Gogh.
— I should...? – he asked, finally looking at me. I mean, he didn’t actually look
at me: he sort of gave me a sideways glance.
— Ah-hah! -, I confirmed.
— Well... I’m not a van Gogh.

That’s what he said, between another two or three puffs of his pipe. I didn’t
understand a thing, but what could I do? He had already turned back to his painting.
Once again, it was as though I wasn’t there.

The fact is that I was a little confused and, consequently, didn’t say much
when I was in his presence. I didn’t know where to start. And then, there was
always something new to intrigue me, something else would grab my attention in
that world of paintings...

There were the vases full of sunflowers, and I tried to count the flowers in
each painting. There were twelve, fourteen, fifteen sunflowers; some disappeared
overnight, others budded on the canvas, opened their petals, and died.
It was like a flowerbed, cultivated and cared for daily by Mister Van Gogh.
His sunflowers fascinated me. They seemed to talk together, to whisper on the
canvas. They seemed to smile or to cry. They seemed to call out to my eyes. They
seemed never to have been pulled from the earth.
There was also a pair of shoes, but they brought no great please to my eyes. It
was just two shoes, dropped any way on the floor. A pair of old, worn-out, muddy
shoes, used to traipse through the fields all day long. I knew that Mister Van Gogh
was wearing them, even if I couldn’t see them on the canvas. Of course, Mister Van
Gogh was there in the painting, it was just that he was invisible. When I saw that
painting for the first time, a clot formed in my throat, as though I was going to cry:
the feeling scared me so much that I turned to the artist and blurted out:

— Is it true that you’ve never sold even one painting?...
And, of all the questions bottled up inside me, that was the only one I could
put into words. Except it wasn’t at all what I wanted to know about him, or to hear
from his lips. It was nothing more than provocation. I was repeating something I
could imagine my mother asking, and she, in turn — although she might say such a
thing, and even use it as ammunition against my father — would only be passing on
village gossip. I was struck dumb. I immediately realized that I had done something
really stupid, and I was afraid that he would bundle me up and toss me out the
door. And that was probably what I deserved...

However, as always, his reaction was in slow-motion. He stopped his painting,
drew on his pipe and blew out a puff of smoke. They his eyes slid away, as though
he was looking deep inside himself.

I was used to seeing that figure at his painting, completely unmoving before
the canvas, except for his hand and a frown on his face that would deepen and
then relax, like the creases that appeared on his forehead as he lost himself in his
work – and his face never completely relaxed. Every time I entered or left the room,
I would examine him out of the corner of my eye. I couldn’t help it. It was always the
same pose, the same scene, and even that had become a mystery; a sight I wanted
to absorb and fix in my mind, while I could.

And, although I couldn’t put my questions into words, I still wanted answers.
But, as usual, he didn’t answer that question either. He just gave me a small, faded
smile, while his eyes filled with a sadness I had never seen before. His disconsolate
smile seemed to say: The world wasn’t made for someone like me... a sadness that
frightened me. I never thought that there was anyone whom the world wouldn’t
recognize as one of its own.

Throughout that whole autumn, it seemed that a group of people would be
hanging around the Place Lamartine, waiting for him to leave Chez Jaune so that
they could follow him surreptitiously. The townspeople took turns, since nobody
wanted to miss the antics of Arles’ latest attraction. I have to confess that, when
my father told us what was going on, even I was interested. On the other hand, I
couldn’t help but feel sorry for Mister Van Gogh.

As soon as the light began to fade, he would go out to paint. When he arrived
at his chosen spot, he would set up the easel and start to light his stubs of candle. He
would mount some of them on the easel itself. Others, he would set around the brim of
his straw hat. And then he would start into painting his night scenes, under the starlight.

Maintaining their distance, the curious villagers would comment, wonder and laugh.

If you got close enough to the crowd, you could always hear someone referring
to Mister Van Gogh as the Crazy Redhead, usually followed by a mocking snort.

Overcome by curiosity, I broke down one night and went to see him. Mister
Van Gogh was in the Place du Forum, right in the center of town. I didn’t want to
get too close to him, afraid that he might greet me right in front of the whole town,
but I also would have felt like a worm if I had joined the crowd of gawkers, who
were only there to poke fun at my father’s friend. So I kept my distance from both,
switching my attention between watching the painter and listening to the barely
disguised mockery of the crowd that had stalked him from the Place Lamartine.

I can’t deny that Mister Van Gogh, with his candlelit hat, made for quite a
strange sight. And the scene was made even more unreal by the way he was totally
absorbed in his work, completely unaware of the attention he was drawing, and
the way he scraped up great globs of paint from the palette, not with a brush, but
with an old table-knife, whose tip he had snapped off to serve as a spatula. That
night, he was painting the Café Terrace, and the place was busy, with all the tables
full of customers, waiters bustling back and forth, people going in and out, and
carriages and carts rumbling up and down the street.

Then, quite suddenly, he stopped painting and stood back. Alarmed, the group
of mockers fell silent, as though afraid that Mister Van Gogh would turn on them
and demand satisfaction. But he never spared them a glance. What he did do was
step away from his easel and move out into the middle of the cobblestone terrace,
where he took a stance right in front of the tables, brush and palette held firmly in
his hands and the candlelit hat on his head. From time to time, a drop of wax would
trickle off the brim of his hat and land on Mister Van Gogh’s neck or, more often,
on his beard, where it would harden into an odd stalactite; but he paid no heed. He
was entirely focused on his subject, his concentration flitting from the café’s gas
lamp to the windows that gave out onto the street, and then on to something else,
but always coming back to the gas lamp.

One by one, the people in the café stopped whatever it was they were doing.
The waiters stopped their bustling about; the diners fell silent and put down their
wineglasses. And they were all looking expectantly at Mister Van Gogh, while he, in
turn, seemed to be staring back at them. I think that I was the only one who knew
what was going on; I mean, I was the only one who knew why Mister Van Gogh
was acting the way he was, why he was staring so enigmatically at the people who
were glaring back at him. I was suddenly worried; I thought: “If they realize what
he is doing, they will surely think that Mister Van Gogh has lost his mind. They’ll
grab him right here, strap him into a straightjacket and send him off to the asylum
in Saint-Remy”...

Mister Van Gogh wasn’t looking at them at all. And the scene he was looking
at, what he wanted to put on his canvas, I got to see it only two days later; that is,
I saw his finished painting of the Café Terrace. People emerging from the shadows
of the street, or being swallowed up by those same shadows, the glow in the many
tones of gold that spilled over the tables, the shine of the gas lamp that had held him
mesmerized, as it clung to the walls, highlighted the relief of the cobblestones and
made the café stand out from the rest of the scene, just like the stage in the center
of a darkened theater. The people were blotches of paint in movement, dissolved
in the midst of colors and shade, figures that only attained an identity, not from
the expressions on their faces, nor from their defined silhouettes, because they had
neither one not the other, but rather as characters in the whole composition. And,
away up there, the stars. They were also alive, as alive as the people, or even more
so. And they were looking down. The stars were the audience; everything else was
part of the spectacle.

It seemed as though everyone in the square was waiting for Mister Van Gogh
to do something really weird. For him to start, who knows, yelling and screaming,
jumping up and down, waving his arms about, something like that. Even I didn’t
know what to expect, and I became really worried: I could feel my hands and my lips
begin to tremble. And he just stood there, running his eyes over everything, for one
moment, for two and then three, until, once more abruptly, he turned about-face,
strode back to his easel, blew out the candles and packed up his materials. I know
that I was the only one in the whole square to hold a private and silent celebration
on seeing him simply walk away. As he passed by the group of mockers, not only
did each and every one of them look away, but he also silenced their whispered
comments... Although a few grunts of “Crazy Redhead” were flung at his back
while he was still in earshot, and someone did spit out the word “Outsider!” from
between clenched teeth.

But I’m sure he never heard the insults. And I’m also sure that he didn’t see any
of the people who were in the square or in the café that night. If he saw anything
at all beyond his painting, it would have been the stars.

He imagined things, such as...

It was after midnight when Mister Van Gogh came into the Alcazar, in the
Place Lamartine, to get her. He would just have finished working and his eyes were
on fire from having painted so long by candlelight. He would hold back on the
threshold of the night-time café, like a hesitant pilgrim on the lip of the devil’s oven.
Inside the café, the sulfur gave off waves like veils of yellowish smoke and it was
this witchlike light that dropped from the fixtures in the ceiling. There would be
people curved over the tables as if incapable of getting up, and their drunken eyes
could no longer make out who was in the place: they couldn’t make out a thing; not
the tables in the corner, or the counter at the back, or the billiard table in the center
of the room. All they would be able to see were the ever hotter and ever ruddier
walls, and a green ceiling threatening to crush them. There would be one person
standing, immobile, in the middle of the scene, the proprietor; wearing a white suit
and an empty expression on his face, his eyes, though wide open, were sightless,
because he also was drunk; without being able to move a step in any direction,
he was forced to remain where he was, without lifting a foot from the ground, his
body slowly, almost imperceptibly, swaying back and forth. Anyone who entered
the room, and who remained there, could end up just like him, or like one of the
figures staked to the billiard table.

Then, Mister Van Gogh would see her, Raquel, and she would be at a table
on which piles of books would be stacked up to protect her, as though she was in
a trench – French novels, the most popular romances of the moment, on sale at
the book stalls found in the streets of Paris, and, untouched by the surrounding
atmosphere, she would be reading one of them, but she would raise her scintillating
eyes and celebrate the arrival of Mister Van Gogh with contentment. Getting up,
she would hold out her hand to him; he would take it and they would leave together.

Outside, the smiling stars would be waiting for them and, between one twinkle
and another, would suspend their dance in the skies.

Nothing I write here explains why Mister Van Gogh put an end to his life, nor why
he was denied, right up until his last breath, recognition of the human and artistic
beauty of his paintings, nor why almost everyone he met turned his face away. And
it certainly doesn’t explain the wealth of emotion and affliction just knowing him
caused in me. Nothing here explains anything; it’s just a means to help me tell the
story. Except that I’ve just had a vaguely outlined thought that Mister Van Gogh’s
suffering and distress are somehow related to the same limitations among men,
those very limitations that are drawing us into this war, which demands that I kill
or die without any apparent reason to do so. However, right now and above all,
my struggle concerns neither this war nor the interests behind it, whatever they
may be, but rather how to survive the whole debacle. Therefore, I have to believe
that there is a counterpart, that there is an Arles to return to when this insanity is
finally over, corn fields dreaming of the miracle of yellow, couples finding, in one
another and with hands held, consolation in this world, starry nights, the laughter
of out dearly-departed father, the beaches at Saint-Mairies and their dunes, the
point at Langlois, Mme. Augustine’s soup, you, you above all, and Armand. I must
remember that Mister Van Gogh painted not only for himself, but so that people
could see his work and, if possible, love it. So who knows? The world may change.

From your loving brother, C.

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