Paulo Emilio Salles Gomes
Pathologies of Everyday Life
Latin American literature might be better known for its willingness to suspend reality and allow sensual fantasy to occupy a fundamental role, as in Garcia Marquez, Amado and Allende, but there is also a speculatively rationalist tradition evident in the work of Machado de Assis, Ernesto Sabato and Paulo Emilio Salles Gomes. What we have in Machado de Assis, Sabato and Salles Gomes are often stuffily rational central characters or narrators who find the more they rationalise and try and make sense of the world around them, the crazier they become or the crazier they make others. Yet their irrationality isn't of the sensual sort that at its best in Magic Realism asks us to feel the pleasure of our bodies and suspend the expectations of our faculties: so evident when Garcia Marquez describes in one long sentence a ship longer than the village in 'The Last Voyage of the Ghost Ship' or when Amado has his philandering central character' in 'The Miracle of the Birds' gets lifted into the sky by thrushes, pigeons and other feathery species. In Salles Gomes and others, it is the madness of a rationality pursued to the point of principle - an arguable empiricism. In Macahdo de Assis's 'A Chapter of Hats', for example, the husband explains to his wife that a hat isn't just a hat: "it is governed by a metaphysical principle. Don't imagine that a person buying a hat is committing a free, voluntary act; the truth is he is obeying an obscure determinism...the metaphysical principle is the following - the hat completes the man, it is a complement decreed ab eterno; no one can change it without self-mutilation." In Sabato's The Tunnel, the narrator says, "I have strayed from my subject. That is the result of this damned compulsion to justify everything I do." Such characters, like the central figure running through the three stories in P's Three Women are rabid self-justifiers, determined to give reason to purpose and theorems to experience. In The Tunnel, the central character's obsession with a particular woman has almost nothing to do with Maria herself but with the narrator's endless suppositions concerning her character, with the events that take place leading him to "a terrible and irrefutable syllogism: Maria and the prostitute had the same expression; the prostitute was feigning pleasure; Maria, then was also feigning pleasure: Maria was a prostitute." Rigid reasoning meets fallacious perception and madness and paranoia become inevitable.
In the stories in P's Three Women, P has the advantage of a modest intelligence that isn't always up to the task of thinking too hard, but like some of Machado de Assis's central characters, like Sabato's narrator in The Tunnel, P can't avoid projecting onto the information he comes across with the force of reason: he can't always resist "the scientific siren song." The words come just after P, in 'Ermengarda with an H.' manages to disentangle himself from speculating on the evidence in front of him and demanding outside information to bolster it. The evidence is from a blue notebook his late wife would write diary entries in, an apparent rough draft for the slightly more polished purple notebook, but he cannot quite work out what certain abbreviations stand for and thus also wishes to rely on information from elsewhere. As the blue notebook tells him that his now-late partner invented the information in an attempt to wrong-foot him in the purple notebook, so he calls into question not the intention but the invention. He thinks that the events she described as fictional are factual: "my academic side sensed in this tale truth that could not have been improvised. Also something caught my attention in the long biography of the new procurator of the Republic published in the papers. In it I thought I recognised the onetime law student, the courteous young man who had received Hermengarda at the PAFA office." He thinks of finding out more by going over to the place Campinas where events took place many years before; consulting newspapers of the period and gathering data. This is where the siren call of science is resisted as it looks like he will return to sanity and ignore an impossible epistemological voyage. But no, instead he will allow another form of insanity to take hold: "the truth...could only come from within me. It would be an all-encompassing that would leave nothing unanswered." In this tale that initially focuses on a man who can't stand his wife, who then reads her purple notebook and finds how much love he has for her only to discover her dead body not long afterwards from suicide, the story may never end. After her death he comes across the blue notebook which indicates that most of the things in the purple notebook were made up under the assumption that P would discover the purple one and find in it a loving wife while all the while she was a wanton adulteress, sleeping with anyone who would wish to put her hand on her.
The story amusingly explores the virtual life of a central character who sees existence rather like Sabato's hero in The Tunnel: someone for whom life is a constant riddle, a combination of the empirical and the analytic, the world of evidence and the world of logic. When P proposes that he needs to leave behind the evidence and find the truth in his own mind, we sense once again a man who will catch himself in "a terrible and irrefutable syllogism." This doesn't mean that P doesn't have a case that his late wife it would seem has been cheating on him but that he seems to have spent much of his time while she was alive pushing her into adulterous affairs that she appeared to resist much to his chagrin. Dead, he can't possibly handle the jealousy and the uncertainty but when she was alive he was never one to notice the reality in front of his eyes according to Hermengarda, writing in the blue notebook that P "ambles by, absorbed in his thoughts and sees nothing." So determined to help Hermengarda find a lover he fails to see that she has had several and that he has for a long time been, in Hermengarda's barely literate words, "a cook old."
What Salles offers us is a figure desperately trying to get rid of his partner who, once she's gone, can't get over the jealous feelings discovering that it seems she was constantly cheating on him; and yet when she was, he wasn't jealous. The cheating is in the past tense; the jealousy in the present but instead of P relieved that he needn't feel great guilt towards his late ex, he instead conjures her up much more vividly in her absence than he ever managed to see her in her presence. By allowing so much of his feelings to be closely linked to his thoughts, by failing to see the reality around him as it happens, but conjuring alternative universes in his mind subsequently, P is a man whose faculties are seen to be out of joint. Now when someone offers the commonplace that people should live in the present this doesn't mean there isn't a useful claim within it. It means that we have five senses and the more usefully associated they are with the experiences we are having the more reality we can absorb. As philosophers like John Locke have proposed, our senses can sometimes deceive us so we must be wary of what we see with our own eyes. A stick in water looks bent; when we take it out it is straight again. However, what we do in such an instance isn't disbelief what we see and thus call into question empiricism but utilise our full senses to see that the stick is straight: we take it out of the water and recognise that our senses were only deceiving us due to the effect of the water on the stick. It is the same when we close one eye and then close the other one. The objects in front of us look as if they have moved but we don't wonder which eye is correct, or no longer trust what we see; we leave both of them open. We correct our perception rather than get rid of empiricism. The more we can use our reasoning to make sense of our perceptions the better our capacity to keep our minds and bodies in a state of health. When Michel Serres says "those who have no talent for life do philosophy (The Five Senses) he could have been talking of P, who doesn't have much talent for philosophy either but knows how to abstract from the concrete. When we propose that the person who sees the stick needs only to see it is squint because of the water, a more philosophically adamant mind might insist that the fact that the stick is squint in the water and straight when removed suggests we should never trust what we see and create a theory that indicates why we must distrust out faculties in the process. At one stage P is trying to find who Paf happens to be in the Blue Notebook. Since Hermengarda was given to using lots of acronyms and diminutives, Paf could be Padre Antonio Maria but could also be Pafuncio the cat. There he is searching through the notebook wondering if Paf meowed or prayed but no such sign revealed Paf's identity. There are many examples like this and the exhausted P ends up saying "the frustration created fo me by science, however, had the advantage of spurring me on to pure interior reflection, which I consider the ultimate method of knowledge. Unable to see what was happening in front him when Hermengarda was alive, he retreats into the nominal sanity of trying to decipher a text, before even this is too much empirical experience for him. Salles Gomes takes further and pushes into the comedic Proust's exploration in La Captive, the importance of a woman not on his senses but on the specifics of his sensibility: the workings of P's mind is far more signifcant than the interactive relationship he has with the world and with his senses. When the narrator in La Captive says "I felt my life with Albertine was on the one hand when I was not jealous, nothing but boredom, and on the other hand, when I was jealous, nothing but pain" P extends this into H's death. Bored when she was alive, fascinated when she is dead, P lives in a perpetually bemused relationship with his senses that can never coincide with the moment.
Though all three stories focus on the character of P, and though in her introduction translator Margaret E. Neves indicates that P's 3 Woman is a novel that can be read consecutively as a single story, the central character in the first story seems quite distinct from the one in the second, and distinct again in the third. There are a few continuities (the arthritis P. suffers from in the first and the third) but the problematic each one explores indicates a slightly different P as a consequence. In the first story, 'Twice with Helena', the most dramatic, coherent and narratively developed, P is a young man who was the student of a brilliant professor, "the first genius I had ever met. The first and only I can say today as I enter old age and expect from those who are intelligent more than just multiplicity of talents." Set initially at the end of the thirties, P returns from two years away in Europe and meets up again with the professor who has no interest in P's fascination for Hitler and Mussolini but as a liberal is still willing to tolerate those with whom he vehemently disagrees. The professor who P always saw as a confirmed bachelor is now married, and after a few weeks back in Brazil, P goes to visit him in the countryside and it is his young and beautiful wife who opens the door and entertains him for the evening in Albert's absence. Intimacy takes place and after it all Helena insists that they must never see each other again, and nor will P see the professor. Helena will explain that P made a pass that she rejected and that will be the end of his friendship with the older man.
For years P feels guilty about what had happened, distraught that he can no longer see the professor, and dismayed at what Alberto must think of him, only for them to meet again many years later and P realising that, rather than P having been the irresistible young man Helena ended up sleeping with, Helena and the professor had engineered an encounter they hoped would produce a child since Alberto was sterile. As in 'Ermengarda with an H', reality wasn't quite what the central character thought it was, but while in 'Ermengarda with an H' the story becomes an absurdly solipsistic account of a man out of touch with his senses, 'Twice with Helena' suggests P was very much in touch with them as the story explores in detail the dinner that Helena serves and the blissfulness of the sexual encounter that followed the meal. However, he finds even the pleasure of the food was part of a ruse. As Helena says, while "the duck and the wines were a direct appeal to your appetite and good taste, and effectively laid the groundwork for the maternal comforts of a homey pudding served in a wide dish...the function of the dessert was largely psychological.' The choice of caramel pudding was chosen since the professor recalled that before P went to Europe a young woman P was seeing always ordered it as a pudding when they were in a restaurant. And so out of this encounter that appealed to P's senses in various manifestations, a child was produced out of P's loins (a young man who died at 25 in prison, at a time when numerous young people were arrested and many of them died in the cells charged with 'political' offences). If P should have feelings of guilt at all perhaps they ought not to rest not on an apparently clear but subsequently erroneous belief that he'd slept with his mentor's wife against the mentor's wishes, but that his far-right political beliefs would have been responsible for the dictatorial situation in Brazil during the mid-sixties. There is nothing to suggest his views have changed since his youth, and at the time the son died it would have been around 64-65, just after the military dictatorship came to power. The Generals were determined to rid Brazil of what they saw as a "communist infiltration", where "thousand were arrested, and hundreds of persons including union and government officials... were deprived of political rights." (Encyclopedia Brittanica) These would be the sort of people that earlier in the story P had been dismissive over and, as the story is narrated in the past tense, there is little to indicate he has changed his mind. "One day I caught him showing tolerance for the extremists, as we called subversives in those days" he says speaking of the professor. So there he is in the present innocent of taking advantage of Helena in the past (Helena had taken advantage of him) but partly responsible for the death of the son that came out of the union.
However, Gomes Salles also suggests a madness in the professor that indicates a mental ill-health to match the societal chaos evident in Brazil. Helena explains to P that Alberto thought in many ways his sacrifice was much greater than P's: by ending the friendship over P's pass at Helena, Alberto would be losing a great deal. "You would be merely inconvenienced by a broken friendship, whereas he would be making a true sacrifice in terms of metaphysics that denied the scientific naturalism he had always embraced: he was one of those men destined to have little in any area of life." Helena adds, "a mysterious law denied such individuals as himself the right to accumulation or variety: these could only be achieved by substitution." Helena explains the figure two was his quota of love so that initially that had been fulfilled in his friendship with P, but when he met Helena he couldn't have both people in his life and a child as well. Indeed he even suggested in a temper that "if he had gotten me pregnant, he would have found it harmonious for me to die in childbirth and the quota to be filled by you and the child." As the story goes on, the numerological becomes more present than the psychological with Helena explaining that in numerology the combination of two and five can be fatal. "...When Alberto remembered that you turned twenty-five on the exact day you made me pregnant, he never again stopped his research and calculations in the hope of seeing the invariably ill-fated omens annulled by one error. The birth of their son was a numerological crime that was met by the punishment of the boy's death at twenty-five as the story spirals off into a permeating madness that includes P by the end of it. "...I decided to prolong my part, since I could not commit the memory of my son to the custody of three insane people: one locked up in Switzerland [the son's girlfriend who went crazy after the boy's death], the other two calmly completing the cycle of their madness here in Sao Paolo." He decides to see Alberto and Helena again, hoping to regain some equilibrium but surely inclined to fall into a greater madness of his own. He explains that he will go and see them the very morning he is narrating the story to us, which is the twenty-fifth day of the month, commemorating both the date of his son's birth and also of his death. P is himself turning fifty, two times twenty-five, and he reckons to get to his destination in precisely twenty-five minutes.
In both stories, the search for a rationale contains within them the irrational. The insanity of the characters isn't one of incoherence but of a false coherence, a need to sew con-fusions in the sense Milan Kundera addresses it when speaking of a character in Hermann Broch's The Sleepwalkers, where someone keeps reading in events signs that justify his thinking. Kundera sees what he calls irrational logic. "Irrational logic based on the mechanism of con-fusion: Pasenow [and others] has a poor sense of reality; the causes of events...characters are not capable of facing reality as a concrete thing. Before their eyes everything turns into a symbol...and it is to symbols they are reacting when they believe they are acting upon reality." (The Art of the Novel) In Nabokov's 'Signs and Symbols', we witness the further reaches of such thinking. "Clouds in the staring sky transmit to one another, by means of low signs, incredibly detailed information regarding him. His inmost thoughts are discussed at nightfall, in manual alphabet, by darkly gesticulating trees. Pebbles or stains or sun flecks form patterns representing in some awful way messages which he must intercept. Everything is a cipher and of everything he is a theme." In such instances, logic doesn't break down it becomes closed in, a product of rational narcissism, a need to see the world through one's own eyes rather than as a complicated process of interactions involving numerous subjectivities.
There is in both 'Twice with Helena' and 'Ermengarda with an H' an aspect of denial, as though we have characters who, unable to face the reality of their lives and the lives of others, find a numerological and algebraic way of living it. The political isn't at all a central idea in 'Twice with Helena' but while we don't want to be overly ingenious it represents it seems an absent presence. It is important to the events but hardly imposes itself on the story. Salles Gomes was hardly ignorant or indifferent to the political realities in Brazil. Best known as a film critic and central to the development of the cinema novo during the sixties, Salles Gomes, Neves informs us, "created the first Brazilian course in filmmaking at the University of Brasilia. This activity, viewed as potentially subversive by the government then holding power, was unfortunately terminated." Originally a Communist whose views became less radical without ever falling into anti-communism, Salles Gomes suggests what happens to characters like P who cannot confront political reality: that they can't face reality at all. They accumulate wealth but fail to accumulate wisdom. As Neves says, "Sao Paolo in the early 1970s was expanding its already notable economic and political importance, and well-connected families like P's were growing ever wealthier. Respectively, tradition and right-wing power were defining qualities for people of P's sort, along with a heavy dose of corruption."
We don't want to push too strenuously upon the three stories a political agenda but instead suggest that the absence of the political allows Gomes to propose a denial that would be vital to someone who cannot face politics because it wouldn't be in his interest to do so. There is a Freudian side to the denial, a threat of words themselves containing a wound or complex that ought not to be faced, well illustrated in a story Freud relates in Psychopathology of Everyday Life. Here he talks about a patient discussing with him a summer resort they both knew where there were two familiar inns and while the patient insisted there was a third inn Freud disputed its existence since Freud had spent seven summers in the vicinity. Eventually, Freud has to admit that indeed there was a third inn called The Horchwartner. Freud wonders why he had forgotten its name and concludes: "I believe that the name sounded very much like that of a Vienna colleague who practised the same speciality as my own. It touched in me 'the professional complex.'" When in the third story, 'Her Times Two', about a much older man's marriage to a young woman, the central character fears to hear even, or especially, his own name. "the fact of people calling me simply doctor solved a delicate problem: my surname doesn't combine well with that form of address and my first name, even worse when isolated. A horrible name I've been trying to keep hidden ever since the first humiliations in the kindergarten of the Escola Caetano de Campos; a name I try to forget." Here was a name that so traumatised him that "I even avoided words that had a similar sound, like polyglot or polyester; I would actually grow apprehensive when I heard records of the old brand Polydor." We can add that P, an unavoidable Paulistano (someone from Sao Paulo), is nevertheless keen to avoid the political, whether for linguistically sonorous reasons or broader socio-economic ones. At one moment we're told "I already had to bribe a functionary of the Public Health Service who wanted to start a children's clinic right her in Alto dos Pinheiros..." and we might note that his young wife was before marriage P's humble secretary: a clear power imbalance exists between the two, one she rebalances elsewhere and behind his back. As in the other stories, we have a tale that reverses itself. The doctor who she visits in the first half of the book, Dr Bulhoes, turns out, in the second half, to have been her lover, someone who preferred the name Culhoes to Bulhoes, as if having his own nominal fetish. It was an affair that preceded the marriage and P wasn't first choice: "he [Dr Culhoes) failed to marry me only because his wife's weak lungs were aided by the discoveries of medicine. When she finally died, I had already gotten tired of waiting and married you she ends up telling the central character. Far from the virgin he assumed she was on his wedding night, "a woman of such quality and truth", it turns out she has long been having an affair with the doctor who through various narrative intricacies and surgical procedures removes and returns her to virginity. Once again P has to acknowledge that events have got the better of him, that he has failed to see the reality of the world, as though his initial denial over his name expands into every area of his life. In her introduction, Neves says "as a narrator, P is highly unreliable" but this also because "in spite of being sly, I wasn't intelligent; on the contrary I demonstrated a surpassing foolishness." What he lacks he admits, is curiosity, and never understands the poor background Her comes from, and so it would be unlikely that he would comprehend how he has been stitched up so to speak by Cuelho and Her when she herself is stitched up to hide her premarital experiences.
Yet isn't P part of a more general stitch-up at the expense of others? He is part of a Brazilian elite, someone who has a fortune in Petrobras shares, as well as wealth elsewhere. In a country where "the social gap between its small privileged upper class and the masses at the bottom of the earnings scale is vast", "food prices and wages do not rise synchronously and the buying power of one-half of the minimum salary may mean as little as the equivalent of one loaf of bread and one quart of milk a day" (Encyclopedia Britannica) P is part of an entrenched class that keeps others poor. Neves says Gomes "is parodying the Paulistano elite of his generation who made no effort to shake off the old-boy paralysis of their society and indeed contributed to its oppressiveness and stratification, through self-deception and by default." As P is preoccupied with his absurd formulations, wage earners in the middle and working classes were badly affected by mounting unemployment and the high cost of living. Strikes and demonstrations proliferated in the major cities. (The Penguin History of Latin America) P may deny the reality of the material circumstances around him without much loss, but when faced with the removal of his dignity, as in other ways so many had theirs denied, he becomes no less aggressive than the revolutionaries he despises. "You can go straight to hell with your good manners!" Her says, "shove 'em up your ass, Dr Polydoro." He responds by hitting her hard in the face. Some might read in such a gesture a symbol of the hard-hitting and oppressive measures Brazilian governments have often adopted during the 20th century when it looks like social circumstances might change and benefit the poorer off, but let us say no more than that Salles Gomes captures very well a man for whom denial is a given condition, and how could the political find a way into the mind of someone who doesn't even have the curiosity through the three stories to understand the immediate evidence in his own life?
© Tony McKibbin