Translated from the Portuguese by Eric M. B. Becker
This short story by Ismar Tirelli Neto is the first installment in a monthly series resulting from a partnership between WWB and Brazil’s Revista Pessoa. Each month, WWB will bring readers new work that originally appeared in Pessoa here in English translation, and Pessoa will publish work from WWB's pages in translation into Brazilian Portuguese.
It’s quite true that my old job wasn’t sufficiently challenging.
It’s likewise true that challenges horrify me, and I prefer to spend my days—my days, let’s get that straight—engaged in the hardly distressing contemplation of the objects scattered across my desk.
It’s not that I’m going to do anything with them. Through them. It’s not that I’ve any desire to employ them to some finite end. I merely like to look at them, to take inventory of them in my head, reassure myself that they are, in fact, still there. Above all else, I enjoy harmless occupations. Harmless occupations that, in the context of my old job, were seen by my superiors as simply unacceptable.
At this very moment, I’m taking inventory of a small fortress atop my desk. Notecards. The plastic that was wrapped around them until a short time ago a bit scrunched in one corner, its shape irreversibly lost. A tiny plastic camera (in the jargon of those who understand these things, a point-and-shoot), perilously balanced atop the notecards. The flash that came with the camera, which I avoid looking at for very long because it cost me a good bit of money (when I look at it for too long it seems as though I’m about to buy it all over again). A few rolls of 35mm film, presents from some photographer friends wishing to encourage me in this new chapter, so to speak, of my life. Half a box of bandaids. Half a pack of cigarettes. Bottles full of vitamins, several packages of aspirin and cold medicine, of varied brands and pharmaceutical labs. The x-rays of my hips. Scattered around five identical pens—black ink, felt tips—only two of which function to my satisfaction. A small Port wine glass with a chip in it, where I store the coins my friends bring me from their travels abroad. A few books. A box of matches. An ash tray.
Should I dump it out?
No, these objects don’t bring me any peace.
Nor do they spur warm memories. In fact, the objects best suited to some sentimental contemplation—like the first photos taken with the point-and-shoot now balanced precariously atop the notecards, etc—I was forced to exile to a drawer, because they were a huge distraction from the tasks currently before me.
I didn’t like the objects from my old job because they weren’t mine and because they were already there when I arrived.
And yet, I found myself obliged to use them.
If it weren’t for that, this having to use them, this having to use them all the time in the performance of certain tasks that had absolutely nothing to do with my interests, I’m certain I would have managed, eventually, to face them without any adverse emotions. But the necessity of their use always imposed itself with the force of a natural disaster.
For example, a letter opener. An object made of lightweight, cheap metal whose pointy end I made sure to keep faced toward the wall whenever it was at rest.
With it, I found myself forced to open, each and every morning, a number of envelopes. None of them addressed to me. None of them holding letters that addressed my concerns.
And yet, there appeared to be a strange consensus among everyone working in that division: it was imperative that I open those envelopes, it fell to me to sort the mail before delivering it to the head of the department.
There wasn’t any truth to this—better put, there wasn’t much truth to this. What there was, I’m still trying to tease out. There was me, the white surface of a desk inexplicably referred to as “mine,” the ring-shaped coffee stains, the envelopes, the letter opener.
Notwithstanding the vague nature of my current duties, it would be dishonest on my part to omit the fact that they resemble real work infinitely more than do the tasks I found myself forced to perform at my old job.
With some regularity, I would slip into a sort of fog. Something caused me to completely lose sight of the fact that that was my job.
This is my job, I would tell myself, I’m here to take orders, not to give them.
I sought, then, with great difficulty, to retrace my own steps. After all, how had I got there in the first place? Hadn’t I received an inheritance at some point?
Immediately, this other story began to unfold.
They’d call from my lawyer’s office and deliver me a watershed moment. I asked: “Died?” They responded: “Yes.” I asked: “But are you sure? Absolutely sure?” They responded: “We’re certain. We’re lawyers.”
And life seemed splendid once again, full of possibilities.
But the story would always stop there, for no apparent rhyme or reason.
The story stopped there and I continued on. Continued on trying to piece together a narrative from the circumstances that had required me to accept that post, that post which was so mediocre, so below my true abilities, in that company with such a dubious reputation, so inferior, in terms of performance, to other companies committed to providing similar services.
However, I often had the impression that I would never manage to undertake such a narrative without first grasping the entire history of humanity. I had a vague intuition that my job was not a finished thing; it predated, by a great deal, my job, stretching back perhaps to the very beginning of time. Who knows? It was only a fog, and it extended outward until it covered everything. My job. My job.
The letter opener hung from my right hand. A half-open envelope would slip from the desk and fall onto the floor. I would try to convince myself that something of utmost importance hung in the balance. The future of the company, for example. The future of the company depended on these contracts, I would think to myself, I would force myself to think, I forced myself, pick them up, pick them up from the floor immediately.
Something, someone would sneak up behind my chair with a pair of scissors and cut the wire that connected my headphones to the computer. I would sit there in silence staring at the envelope on the floor. Things couldn’t carry on that way, stagnant.
Things couldn’t carry on that way and neither could I.
Eventually someone changed the batteries of the clock in our tiny cafeteria. This is an event, I thought to myself, I can make sense of this, there’s nothing mysterious here. Nothing very mysterious was allowed to happen at my old job. Even the riddle of the headphones ended up resolved without much fanfare. It was fine as soon as Sílvia found an affordable daycare and stopped bringing her little girl to the office.
(The little girl, quiet as a cat, had to hide beneath the desks or in the supply room whenever the boss showed up.)
That, there, is the general atmosphere at my old job: a sort of ersatz soundness, puzzles solved ahead of time. Puzzles designed by an abstract painter, let’s say. The pieces fit together, all right. But they don’t create a clear image.
Slowly I began to understand that my efforts were futile and that nothing, absolutely nothing critical was in play beyond my own psychological integrity. The more I left things unattended, the more urgent they began to appear, and I spent the entire time at work daydreaming with brown paper envelopes addressed to me in thick letters that resulted in absolute legibility. On each one of them, a message stamped in red. “Urgent.” They piled up on my desk, my actual desk, lay there unattended on my desk.
They rose upward like a tower, a tower crowned by a brown rooftop patio, letter-size, across which a single feeble ray of light crept, a dust-filled indicator of my absences.
On account of insomnia, my hearing had become so sharp that I could hear telephones ringing from departments on the other side of the building.
“For me? For me?”
And then I would console myself in thoughts that no other employee in my department was capable of discerning in that wretched letter opener the heroic feats that I could.
What more can a lowly secretary do than abandon himself to the private comfort of homicidal fantasies?
But, truth be told, I never seriously wished death on anybody. Not on my boss, not on the rest of the company’s employees. I merely wished they had been made of porcelain and shattered on the floor.
Somehow, all the space I’d enjoyed before was reduced to a miniscule room in the Edifício Santa Helena.
Even so, here inside there are things—absurd angles, shifts in light and temperature—that I feel I have no right at all to lay claim to, things that aren’t mine despite the fact they’re here with me the entire time.
It’s likely, then, that my current job can largely be summed up by the following: seek to understand why I don’t feel I have the right to talk about these things; why it seems so difficult to apprehend them and make them, in some way, mine; why, in their total lifelessness, they continue to demand more and more of me.
That’s not to say they’re constantly evading me. They’re not.
They’re more or less as they’ve always been: sitting there, face-up, ready-to-use. At the same time, they impose a silence that borders on the material, that creates another object, an object that totally escapes my comprehension.
It was this I dreamed of the entire time. Absolute legibility.
This and the imposition of the use, the hellish imposition of the use, the use of silence, the force of a natural catastrophe.
Recently, I’ve come to the conclusion that I have nothing to offer humanity beyond my limitless enthusiasm.
“Os meus afazeres” originally appeared in Revista Pessoa. © Ismar Tirelli Neto. By arrangement with the author and Revista Pessoa. Translation © 2016 Eric M. B. Becker.
Eric M. B. Becker is editor of Words without Borders. He is also an award-winning journalist and literary translator. In 2014, he earned a PEN/Heim Translation Fund Grant for his translation of a collection of short stories from the Portuguese by Neustadt Prize for International Literature winner and 2015 Man Booker International Finalist Mia Couto and was resident writer at the Louis Armstrong House. He has translated the work of numerous Brazilian writers, including 2016 Nobel nominee Lygia Fagundes Telles, Carlos Drummond de Andrade, Elvira Vigna, Noemi Jaffe, Alice Sant'anna, and 2015 Jabuti Prize winner Carol Rodrigues. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in The New York Times, World Literature Today, Asymptote, and The Massachusetts Review, among other publications. In 2016, he edited the Glossolalia anthology of Brazilian women writers with Mirna Queiroz, forthcoming from PEN America. He currently lives in Brazil, the recipient of a Fulbright grant to translate the work of Edival Lourenço and Eric Nepomuceno.