ISSN 2359-4101

Brazilian Literature in Translation / Literatura Brasileña en Traducción

Issue / Numero

year/año: 2012
issue/numero: # 01

Translating Hannah

Author | Autor: Ronaldo Wrobel

Translated by Nelson H. Vieira

Rio was a minefield. Fanatical troops gravitated to the streets, not always understanding what they were preaching even though they hated the exhortations of their rivals. A riot broke out on Catete Street, factions acted as if war was about to break out, the fascistic Integralists wore green uniforms and shouted angrily at the Jews "Heil, brothers." Some disappeared in the dead of night, others in full daylight. It was not uncommon to see hand-cuffed people being shoved into police wagons pulling away furiously, their sirens screeching. Who, what, when, how?, speculated the babblers. Only the fearless also asked questions.
  Curiously, the city was seething with theaters, cafés, casinos, locales knowingly infiltrated by spies and hidden interests. In the embassies, crystal glasses clinked at cocktail parties whose guests trafficked secrets. The German diplomatic corps was conducting a vigorous campaign to win over Brazil by defining Herr Hitler as the only leader capable of deterring the Communist push.
  But what did the shoemaker have to do with that? Nothing, absolutely nothing. Hitler, Stalin, Roosevelt? Max shrugged his shoulders: he despised the planet’s political directions. He only wanted to know about Hannah, where to find her, how to recognize her? If by chance she wrote about green vegetables, there he would go ransacking the open-air markets; if she mentioned the beach, he would plow through the sands of the city’s southern beaches. He would read and reread the letters trying to visualize her, to feel her, to kiss her. He had even sniffed the diaphanous and perfumed sheets of paper, beautifully scrolled in India ink.
   One day he asked Onofre to show him the envelopes, in vain: the soldier had already received the letters opened and unfolded.
  In his shoe shop, the work had finally gone downhill: Max kept missing deadlines, confusing things and even stupidly hurting himself. On Sundays he looked like a "mishuginah," all alone gesticulating on street corners, absorbed in distressing suppositions.
  One day, Hannah left a precious clue. She told her sister that, even though José had "problems" and used crutches, the two of them regularly frequented "Jewish circles." Max reached three conclusions. The first, that José was Jewish; the second, that to find them was just a question of time, the third and the most thrilling, that Hannah could have married out of pity, not for love.
  Max became a frequenter of community talks and plays. He visited clubs, schools, read the newspapers letter by letter. From funeral wakes, he would move on to dances, from corner bars to the synagogues. During the services of Kabalat Shabat at Temple Beth Israel he recited the prayers with feigned devotion, taking the opportunity to spy the surroundings and, who knows, catch a glimpse of her. Searching for Hannah was not only a reason for living, but a willingness to be what he had never been: happy.
  Guita became furious over the news about her brother-in-law and smeared the letter with scrawls in which she asked if José was "viril." "Explain your husband’s problems!" Max quivered upon imagining his muse sowing goodness without she herself being sowed in any way. Guita advised Hannah to speak with a rabbi, to which her sister answered that no rabbi could ever help her because she was an "aguná." Max trembled: "aguná"? What’s that?
  "Aguná," "aguná?", he ruminated on his way home. He had never heard of that. An illness, a stigma, a sin? The sound of the word hurt his ears, it couldn’t be a good thing. What misfortune could have turned Hannah into an "aguná?" Had she always been or had she become one? When? Why? Damn labels! We are merely words, not people. Even God has his own categories! Whatever it was, Max would not stop loving her. Let the young satiate themselves with perfection, while/because the mature preferred acquiescence. To tell the truth, Max had neither the age nor the reputation to censure her.
  Six-thirty in the evening, a team of kids was selling the evening newspapers at trolley stops and blowhards made their daily debut at the corner bars. Mysteries of the day were followed by those of the night. Rio changed its plumage and the Israeli Library was already closed. Whom to ask what in the devil was an "aguná?" 
   In the shoe shop there was plenty of work to do. His assistant swept the floor after organizing the shoes dropped off that afternoon. Max looked through the note pad with the clients’ names, the due/ready date and the price charged by his assistant. There were two pocketbooks, a belt and nothing less than twelve pairs of shoes, some worthless, others almost so. If that weren’t enough, a lady requested "extremely urgent."
"Come back tomorrow after lunch," said the assistant.
  A pair with broken heels—as a matter-of-fact, totally worn. Impossible to repair them in such a short time. May the client forgive him: haste makes waste. By the way, Max already had his fill of hysterical women with their fake urgencies On the eve of a wedding, his counter became a civil war. Brown shoes were polished black, old ladies wanted to recap relics, the first-born inherited what their brothers and sisters had inherited from their parents. So much yelling over chipped buckles or scratched leather! Sometimes, Max compared himself to the frivolous stylists of Ouvidor Street, who smooth-talked rich ladies and listened to their trivial intrigues. At these moments he recalled old Poland, where shoes were for covering one’s feet and not for decorating them.
  Max checked the note pad of orders, page by page. Almost always the same clients with their manias. Hadn’t he already told Dona Sara to buy another pocketbook? And Jonas K., who requested one more hole in his belt, was he still getting fatter? A good insane asylum would straighten them out! He spied the pad’s last page when he felt the sharp twinge.
  "Oi, mein Got!"
  He stopped, closed his eyes.
  "Oi, Oi!" His breath stopped: it couldn’t be! He must have been delirious, obviously. His assistant grabbed his shoulder: 
  "Are you okay?"
  "Oi, oi!"
  Max sprawled into a chair and asked for water, his blood rushing through his arteries. He took a gulp and drooled on his shirt, to his assistant’s horror."
  "I’m going to call an ambulance!"
  Max invoked God, he invoked his grandfather Shlomo. He wasn’t hallucinating, he knew that label. Of course he knew it, impossible to confuse it with something else. How many times had she finished off her letters, so sensitively? A brush stroke of ink, it was a clef, an inebriated flower. Of course he knew that label.

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