Find out what is the best-paid line of work. Do a cram course. Sit the university entrance exam in that field. Be top of the class. Get a job. Plug away, single-mindedly, until I have amassed twenty million dollars. Quit.
Buy a plot of land in Araraquara. Build an underground hangar. Acquire the most modern industrial printing presses. Hire excellent artists and graphic designers. Set them up in the bunker.
Find out which are the ten countries where Shakespeare’s plays are most studied and performed. Hire gangs of professional thieves in these ten countries. Purloin from public and private libraries, slowly and discreetly, as many editions of Hamlet as possible. Send them to Araraquara. Produce facsimile versions of these books, identical in all respects to the originals, from the leather binding to the yellowed pages, but for one detail: the insertion of a line into the end of the second act, a threat by the Prince of Denmark to Claudius, his father’s murderer: “Oh, if I catch you—if I catch you, oh!” Return the adulterated copies to the libraries. Burn the originals.
Order, anonymously and gradually, from the secondhand bookshops in these same countries, as many editions of Hamlet as I can find. Send them to Araraquara. Produce facsimile versions of these books, identical in all respects to the originals, from the wormholes to the coffee-stains, but for one detail: the insertion of a line into the end of the second act, a threat by the Prince of Denmark to Claudius, his father’s murderer: “Oh, if I catch you—if I catch you, oh!” Donate the adulterated works to the same secondhand bookshops from which they were ordered. Burn the original editions.
Pay for the silence of the gangs and the graphic designers. If necessary, kill the graphic designers, and then exterminate the gangs.
Employ hackers to adulterate the online versions of Hamlet to include the line “Oh, if I catch you—if I catch you, oh!” at the end of the second act. Pay for the hackers’ silence. If necessary, kill the hackers.
Kidnap the literary critic Harold Bloom. Send him to Araraquara. Force him to invent some explanation or other for the omission of the passage “Oh, if I catch you—if I catch you, oh!” in most editions of the play. A mistake by a London typesetter, in 1756? The heavy hand of a Marseille editor, in 1809? Force him to write an essay on Hamlet, referring, in a footnote, to the omission of the passage. Send the essay to the Oxford Literary Review. Dynamite the bunker—with Harold Bloom inside.
Wait two decades.
Order a made-to-measure tuxedo. Travel to England. Hire a Slavic companion, blonde, blue-eyed, six feet tall. Book a box to see Hamlet at the Royal Shakespeare Company, in Stratford upon Avon. Go to the theater with Nadia or Mika or Zora. Order a bottle of Cristal champagne. Drink the final drop three seconds before the end of the second act and hear the finest actor of the Royal Shakespeare Company speak the line, to 1,500 men in jackets and women dripping in diamonds: “Oh, if I catch you—if I catch you, oh!”
Return to Araraquara and spend the rest of my days breeding finches.
Thirty-three. Who’d have thought. Adolescence was only last Thursday, there are still traces of it on the CD rack, in your vocabulary, in a corner of the wardrobe—a checked shirt that hasn’t seen the light of day since the Faith No More gig in 1997—but they are still traces. From time to time you’re in the supermarket, buying toothpaste, or low-fat white cheese or fabric conditioner, and you see a gang of guys and girls carrying bottles of Smirnoff Ice and bags of Doritos. You look at the boys’ low bangs, at the girls’ piercings, and you realize, with something of a shock, that they’re in a world that’s far away. You feel a little ashamed of your shopping cart.
Say it: thirty-three. Say, what have you done? At this point in the road, a stop is inevitable. You get out of the car, look at the view from the belvedere. It isn’t a look back, like old people must do, at the end of their lives—or must avoid doing, that depends—but a look around you: this, here, this is me. From here on in, not a lot is going to change, is it? You’ve already had the time to realize that you aren’t a math genius, or a wonder of Olympic gymnastics.
Thirty-three years old. Jesus’s age, that’s what some people say, and straightaway you think, repeating one of the tics of your age group: what had he already achieved, at my age? Well, he had transformed water into wine, multiplied loaves and fishes, walked on water, raised the dead and won crowds of devoted followers in Judea, Galilee, Samaria, Ephraim, and the surrounding areas. And what about you, who haven’t even got your own house yet? Well, it was easier in those days, too—you try to console yourself—there wasn’t so much competition and, hell, the guy was the son of God, which doesn’t just open doors, it can part the Red Sea itself! But you compare yourself, just the same: Jesus must have walked on water at—what? Seventeen? Orson Welles made Citizen Kane at twenty-five. Rimbaud had written all his work by nineteen! And you are so pleased with yourself for having managed to get another fifteen followers on Twitter.
(That incident with the Red Sea . . . Was that Jesus or Moses? For God’s sake, thirty-three years old and you don’t know a thing like that? Do you reckon you will know, one day? When you’re thirteen, or twenty-three, you think that one day you’re going to learn all the things you don’t know, you just have to stand there and things will come naturally and climb into your head. Now you realize you might spend your whole life not knowing about certain matters. The Red Sea. The rules of backgammon. French.)
Think: a man. Think: a woman. Adults, in the most abstract sense, like a couple in a textbook for learning English or a video about safety procedures on the public transportation system. Mature specimens of homo sapiens sapiens: they must be your age. Perhaps they have kids. Do you have kids, or not yet? Note that “not yet,” because of all the things that you haven’t conquered up till now, you need to know how to distinguish between the ones that might come with a “not yet” and the ones it’s best just to give up on. Walking on water, a math genius, a wonder of Olympic gymnastics: they are not for everyone. At thirty-three years old, pal, it’s time for you to admit it: you are everyone. I know it’s difficult. You’ve seen too many matinee movies, too many Nike commercials, you’ve been too spoiled to recognize that God didn’t spend any longer shaping you than he did your neighbour at number 71. It’s the failure to understand this banal misfortune that gives so many faces of your age a dark glow, a fungus that pops up where there isn’t enough direct sunlight: resentment.
Believe me: at thirty-three, from Jesus on down, everyone feels resentful. It isn’t that people have bad lives, it’s that their aspirations are too high. The matinees, the Nike commercials . . . Your job is a good one, but the wage is bad. It’s a good wage, but you have an awful boss. You’re the boss, but you get no let-up at all from those deadlines. You’ve always got a brother-in-law who earns more, a neighbor whose grass is greener, a neighbour whose wife is better endowed; Jesus at thirty-three, Orson Welles at twenty-five—and as for Rimbaud’s bad example, I make no comment.
Thirty-three years old. You stop. Get out of the car. Look around you. Are you what you wanted to be when you grew up? Not exactly? Why not? Any chance of changing, do you reckon? How much?
You’ve got to find room in your chest for frustrations. You’ve got to deal with the resentment and not under any circumstances allow it to be transformed into cynicism—if resentment is a fungus, cynicism is rust. Now get back to your car, and on you go. If it all works out, you aren’t even halfway there yet.
Say it: thirty-three. Who’d have thought.
And so God, weary of my sins, decided to punish me: he sent workmen into the upstairs apartment. The last few days I’ve leaped out of bed, in a panic, under an orchestra of hammerings, thinking it’s the São Paulo cell of Al Qaeda who have just started up. God, it would appear, told them to replace the flooring. All of it.
The hammerers of the Lord weren’t kidding around, they were trained in the cellars (or attics) of the dictatorship—of every dictatorship. They’d knocked down walls in Sodom and Gomorrah, they had offered their services to Torquemada, they were double agents for the CIA and the KGB. They are skilled in doing their demolishing in the worst possible way: with no rhythm. Dum, dum, dum—they bang; and you expect the next note to be a dum but instead there’s a pause and then . . . de-dum. Dum-dum, dum-dum—you start getting used to it and . . . Dum-da-dum!
A human being can bear anything, so long as it makes sense, and there is no more ancient kind of sense, printed in the first pages of the book of our memory, than rhythm. The rhythm of our mothers’ hearts, when we were still floating in amniotic fluid; the rhythm that reappears in lullabies, soon afterward, hinting that everything is not lost; the rhythm we seek out in the rhymes and meters of poetry; the rhythm that we add to the same granola every morning; the rhythm that we hear behind the news anchor’s goodnight; the rhythm that makes us happy just because it has appeared seven times in the same sentence, because if everything repeats itself, why shouldn’t life, too?
Where there is sense, there is salvation. But with the hammerers of Yahweh there is none. There is no pattern. It’s the Devil’s Morse Code, it’s chaos, for if rhythm tells us that there is some sense to life and repetition functions as a metonym for resurrection, then the lack of rhythm sows despair, madness, and death.
I work into the small hours, just because of the silence. At three in the morning, no phone company calls to offer me subscription plans, Mastercard doesn’t alert me that my bill “has been pending, Sir, for twenty-six days.” The salesmen’s vans with their loudspeakers sleep peacefully in some garage in town, and I can grab hold of words by the hands or by the hair, as required, to group them together in different little boxes on my desk. So it was until last week, because now the hammer-blows echo inside and outside of my head, I’m a zombie and the words are scattered all across the world.
It’s an unfair world. You aren’t allowed to listen to the Ride of the Valkyries or “Sheena is a Punk Rocker” after ten at night, but there’s nothing to stop your upstairs neighbour from destroying his apartment with hammerings that start at eight in the morning. There’s nothing to be done. All that’s left for me is to suffer in this vale of tears, while the croaking of the frog-hammers punishes me for the thirty-one years I have lived a sinner. Forgive me, Lord!
When I go into any public place—whether it’s a bakery, a drug store, a butcher’s shop or a wake—I look around, trying to spot the babe. I’m not looking for her out of desire, need, narcissism or any other simple reflex of my banal condition of masculinity: babes are a literary event.
She might be blonde or brunette, tall or short, black, white, Japanese or Bulgarian, it doesn’t make any difference: the babe is a state of mind. Or, if you prefer a different choice of word, one that’s been so degraded by sports programs on TV, teen magazines, and commercials for drinking chocolate: a lifestyle.
Today I went to the registry office. There, sitting among the motorcycle couriers and the retirees, waiting for her number to appear on the display, was a woman who looked like Claudia Cardinale out of Once upon a Time in the West. She was modestly dressed, her hair tied back, a shawl over her shoulders. She wasn’t the babe. There’s never any doubt about the babe: she arrived five minutes later, in faded jeans that clung to her ass, along with a tight top that squeezed her breasts and allowed us a glimpse of a black bra. The moment she comes in, with that sway of her hips, that scent of perfume and the movement of her hair, she conveys to us all—as though by telepathy—the unavoidable announcement: pay attention, has arrived.
Everything changes. Each person knows precisely what his or her social role is with respect to the babe. The retired man in the beige blazer watches her out of the corner of his eye and, almost sadly, sighs. The registry office girls frown, rejoicing in their virtues, which consist of badges, coffees and little black outfits. A young guy in glasses, a bit nerdy, looks up at the roof, down at the floor, he doesn’t know where to put his hands. Everyone risks a glance at the babe, but she just scans across the panorama, chewing her gum—carelessly, as though chewing up somebody’s heart—and takes her ticket.
Then, out of the disjointed group of men, from amidst the retirees and the short-sighted, the pot-bellied and the lame, the flat and the sharp, appears The Babe’s Guy. He could be a well-groomed motorcycle courier, a playboy, a nouveau riche small businessman in a fine gold chain. Nothing happens. They just exchange a look, and, tacitly, everyone knows: the babe is his. Sadness for some people, relief for others. Then the babe goes off in one direction, he goes off in another, bit by bit the protagonists in these well-rehearsed scenes withdraw, all that’s left is a sickly-sweet perfume in the air and the voice of the virtuous girl calling the next customer: fifty-four, five four!
© Antonio Prata. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2013 by Daniel Hahn. All rights reserved.
 The refrain from the song “Ai, se eu te pego” (Oh, if I catch you); released in 2011 by the then unknown Brazilian singer Michel Teló, it became a global sensation, with more than 300 million views on YouTube.