Acordou de um sono difícil: sobre algo que parecia um leito, estava abraçado ao inimigo, que tentava aproximar os lábios dos seus. Não quis ser ríspido, entretanto, empurrá-lo para longe, como seria o óbvio, talvez agredi-lo com um soco; apenas desviou o rosto, dizendo algo que agora não conseguia mais ouvir, na claridade da manhã. Mas eram movimentos gentis, ele percebeu; tentava afastar-se dele com delicadeza, como quem desembarca de uma cama em que a mulher dorme e não deve ser acordada. O inimigo: sim, ele imagina que teve um, durante a vida inteira, e agora ele vinha assombrar até seus sonhos, com a sua proximidade pegajosa. Ficou intrigado, no gelo de quem acorda, com o fato de não se perturbar com a evidente sugestão sexual, aqueles lábios envelhecidos quase tocando os seus, uma imagem tão forte que não conseguiria mais esquecê-la, não esqueceria jamais, ele se assombrou, como se tivesse um interminável futuro pela frente, relembrando o sonho que viveu em 1952, criança, caindo de um desfiladeiro e salvand-se com a força de um grito – a mãe veio velà-lo, e lembra-se nitidamente daquela mão protetora nos cabelos, mais de 60 anos atrás. Jamais passou a mão nos cabelos de seu filho, mas os tempos eram outros, mais duros – ou apenas ele é que sempre se imaginou uma pessoa dura. Ora – e ele sacudiu a cabeça, voltando ao início. Quanto tempo? Setenta – e olhou os dedos, movendo-os lentamente, sentindo a breve dor que acompanhava os gestos ao amanhecer. Não importa. Chegando aos 71, ele corrigiu a si mesmo. A imagem da queda permaneceu, e era como se novamente caísse, o vazio no peito, a sombra do pânico, a montanha-russa na alma. Tudo é química, disse em voz alta em defesa, tudo é química, esses comprimidos, ele acrescentou, a voz baixinha agora, que ninguém ouvisse, tudo é química, eu sou vítima desses experimentos em pó em forma de comprimidos – e enfim sorriu, como se a simples explicação suprimisse toda a cadeia de desconcertos do amanhecer. (pp. 6-7 iPad iBooks e-edition)
Woke up from a difficult dream: over something that looked like a bed, he was hugging the enemy, who tried to bring their lips to his. Did not mean to be harsh, however, push him away, as would be obvious, maybe hit him with a punch; he just looked away, saying something now that could not be heard, in the morning light. But they were gentle movements, he realized; trying to get away from him with delicacy, as if disembarking from a bed in which a woman sleeps and should not be awakened. The enemy: yes, he imagines that had one, for a lifetime, and now he was coming to haunt his dreams, with its sticky proximity. He was intrigued, in the ice which wakes him, with the fact unperturbed with the obvious sexual innuendo, those aged lips almost touching his, such a strong image that he could no longer forget it, would not ever forget it, he marveled, like he had a long future ahead, remembering the dream that he lived in 1952, growing up, falling from a cliff and saving himself with the force of a shout - the mother came sailing in, and remember that sharply protective hand in hair over 60 years ago. She never ran a hand through her son's hair, but times were different, harder - or just that he's always thought hard. Now - and he shook his head, returning to the beginning. How long? Seventy - and he looked at his fingers, moving them slowly, feeling the brief pain which accompanied his movements at dawn. It does not matter. Reaching 71, he corrected himself. This fall remained, and it was like falling again, an empty chest, shadow panic, a roller coaster of the soul. Everything is chemical, he said aloud in defense, everything is chemical, these pills, he added, a tiny voice now, that no one would hear, everything is chemical, I'm a victim of these powder experiments in pill form - and he finally smiled, as the simple explanation abolish the entire chain of the disconcerting dawn. (my rough translation)
What memories do the near-elderly have of their lives. Looking back, do they confound desire with memory, memory with fact? Should we, at any age, trust ourselves to recall "how it truly was," as Leopold von Ranke was fond of saying? Brazilian writer Cristavão Tezza's latest novel, O Professor (The Professor), explores these questions in an engaging fashion. His protagonist, the newly-retired history professor Heliseu, is about to be honored with an award commemorating his decades of service to his university. It is a prospect that frightens him, being so used to observing history and not taking on the role of being a living relic of a passing Brazil. Over a period of hours leading up to the actual award presentation, he reflects back on his life, touching upon cultural events that still influence Brazilian society today.
The opening paragraph, translated quickly and perhaps not as elegantly as it could be after a few drafts, signals to the reader just how nuanced and evocative Heliseu's thoughts are going to be. In reading it, I could not help but notice some structural similarities to some of William Faulkner's writing, not surprising consider Tezza has written at length on Faulkner in the past. In particular, it is the continuing problems of time and memory and how Tezza incorporates them into this free-flowing, almost stream-of-consciousness writing, that reminds me at times of Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom!. Yet while elements of O Professor may resemble Faulkner's approach toward untangling that Southern historical-cultural version of the Gordian Knot, it is very much its own creature, exploring a society that is not only dealing with the aftermath of the mid-20th century dictatorship, but also with a rapidly-changing 21st century culture that is becoming more "global" and perhaps less rooted in Brazilian history.
Heliseu's thoughts are a mixture of regrets, stalled hopes, and flashes of hope. As he recalls his years of teaching history, especially that of the archaic Portuguese language of the 10th and 11th centuries, curious, almost dream-like elements appear. He especially has difficulties coming to terms with his son's homosexuality and how the stigma of previous decades has largely faded, changing into something else that he doesn't quite grasp. It is an exquisite portrait of an old man feeling lost in the present, yet with a past that he himself distorts into something that it quite wasn't.
With these shifts in topic and perspective, it can be difficult at times for the reader to keep track of what all Tezza is narrating through this professor's reminiscences. Yet perhaps that is precisely the point, that in having a meandering narrator slowly unpack his recollections for display, more pointed social commentaries can be embedded in a deeply personal narrative. Certainly by novel's end, when he holds the commemorative paper in his hand, Heliseu's story feels complete, yet with that sense that there has been more told than what the narrator himself has realized. O Professor was a challenging read for me in my third or fourth language and doubtless there were elements that I missed due to the fact that I'm not a Brazilian native, but from what I glimpsed, this was a very well-constructed and written tale that perhaps serves as a metaphor for how we all may feel when we sense age, and history with it, overtaking us, consigning us to its dustbins.