It’s a discouraging sign of the state of translated literature in this country that The Last Will and Testament of Senhor da Silva Araújoby Germano Almeida arrived here only after appearing in Spanish, German, French, Italian, Dutch, Norwegian, and Swedish translations. The English translation from the original Portuguese is by Sheila Faria Glaser, and in a nice touch she is credited on the cover.
Published in 2004 by New Directions, this is a short novel that seems slight at first but becomes unexpectedly affecting before the end. One of the few works of literature available from the African archipelago of Cape Verde, it tells the story of a local businessman backwards: beginning with his death.
Senhor da Silva Araújo, known as Napumoceno, is the owner of an import-export business. The company imports staples such as rice, sugar, grain, and lard, and exports goat skins and orchil (a purplish-blue dye extracted from a type of lichen).
Napumoceno, at least is his later years, is considered a rather dull fellow by his friends and neighbors, remarkable only for the habit of buying a new suit every two years. His greatest coup as a businessman comes by accident: having mistakenly ordered 10,000 umbrellas when he meant to buy 1,000, he makes a killing when a prolonged rainy spell starts just as the ship is arriving with his stock.
Napumoceno leaves behind him a will that is 387 pages long — an epic document that wears out several witnesses called upon to read it out loud. By the time the reading is finished, the witnesses have a new understanding of this buttoned-down man, including more than one passionate love affair and the birth of a daughter whom he cannot acknowledge.
The Last Will and Testamentis set in Mindelo, a port city on the island of São Vicente. We don’t learn much, however, about the landscape, weather, language, food or customs of the island, perhaps because we see the story through the workaday viewpoints of its characters.
We get a much better sense of the rustic island of São Nicolau through the memories of Napumoceno, who grew up there. (Like Garcia Marquez in The Autumn of the Patriarch, Almeida conveys the flow of time and memory through flowing run-on sentences.) Here he is speaking to his soon-to-be-lost love Adélia.
She laughed, called him a silly, and he also laughed, and their hands met though they hadn’t sought each other out and they surprised themselves at the gesture and their hands became suddenly moist, each was overcome by modesty and he let go and took out a cigarette and began to speak of his childhood in S. Nicolau, but almost forty years had gone by and he was no longer sure of the truth of what he said, if everything he remembered had really existed, but he did remember and recounted an event that he said he’d witnessed (without knowing for sure if he’d really witnessed it or simply heard tell of it), but he said that when he was still a little boy a neighbor had given birth to a child with a caul, Adélia didn’t know what a child with a caul was and he explained that a child with a caul is the kind who is born in a sack and everyone knows that witches prefer to eat children in sacks because they have softer and tastier flesh, and it so happened that nearby lived a woman from Praia Branca who had the reputation of being a witch and when they saw that child so white and fat, who smiled when he was removed from the sack and was born with his eyes open, all the friends and neighbors immediately began to exorcise him, to curse the evil eye, to throw salt over their shoulders, all with the intent of protecting the child who looked like an angel fallen from heaven, but nonetheless, a few days later he began to waste away, to refuse his mother’s milk, and so the midwife ordered that he be given tea of lizard’s tail which was an effective antidote to spells and they put little branches of sweet marjoram under his pillow, and anointed him with goat fat, but on the seventh day he died anyway, and when they were dressing him for burial they found that he had a line that went from one ear to the other on his little head, and that that line was a sure sign that the little boy had had a hex put on him and had been eaten by a witch, so the people were roused and ran to the house of the woman in Praia Branca and began an exorcism, saying that she had eaten a person’s child, they shouted at her to come outside, So that we can cut off your tail, you damned witch, but she didn’t respond, she kept her door closed, then someone had the idea of throwing a stone at the door and so everyone else started throwing stones at the door and the windows and shouting, You shameless witch, so the woman appeared at the door, and he still remembered her horrified expression, staring wide-eyed as if her eyes would jump out of her head which was wrapped in a kerchief, a black shawl sliding off her shoulders, and she remained standing at the door unable to say a word, just trembling like green cane.