Winning the Game and Other Stories

BOOK: Winning the Game and Other Stories
winning the game


rubem fonseca


Brazilian Literature in Translation, 1

Tagus Press at UMass Dartmouth

© 2013 Rubem Fonseca

Translation © 2013 Clifford E. Landers

All rights reserved

Manufactured in the United States of America

Managing Editor: Mario Pereira

Copyedited by Deborah Heimann

Designed by Mindy Basinger Hill

Typeset in Arnhem Blond

Tagus Press books are produced and distributed for Tagus Press by University Press of New England, which is a member of the Green Press Initiative. The paper used in this book meets their minimum requirement for recycled paper.

For all inquiries, please contact:

Tagus Press at UMass Dartmouth

Center for Portuguese Studies and Culture

285 Old Westport Road

North Dartmouth MA 02747-2300

Tel. 508-999-8255

Fax 508-999-9272


This work was published with the support of the Brazilian Ministry of Culture/National Library Foundation.

Obra publicada com o apoio do Ministério da Cultura do Brasil / Fundação Biblioteca Nacional.

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Fonseca, Rubem.

[Short stories. Selections. English]

Winning the game and other stories / Rubem Fonseca; translated from the Portuguese by Clifford E. Landers.

pages      cm. — (Brazilian literature in translation; 1)

978-1-933227-46-7 (pbk. : alk. paper) —
978-1-933227-47-4 (ebook)

1. Fonseca, Rubem—Translations into English. I. Landers, Clifford E., translator.

II. Title.

2 2013

869.3'42—dc23               2012042122

arts and trades

but later after you make a lot of money you find a dentist who fixes your mouth. That's what happened with me; I implanted every tooth in my mouth, a marvel of odontological engineering. I'm full of teeth that don't fall out or decay, but when I laugh in front of a mirror I miss my old mouth; my lips open now in a way I don't like. In any case, I don't lack for teeth and I can champ down on women and steaks. I used to live in a lousy housing project and catch the train, squeezed in like sardines in a can. Today I live in a beautiful mansion in a gated community in the Barra, I have two cars and two drivers. I used to have one leg shorter than the other and didn't even know it. I would go out with waitresses in luncheonettes, maids, factory workers, some of them illiterate. Money got me legs of the same length, gave me a wife from a good family, ruined but with all sorts of diplomas, gave me a mistress, without a diploma but who knows how to wear elegant clothes and put on a show when she crosses a ballroom. Money, that's something I understand.

I didn't go to college either. I don't even have high school. Or elementary school, to tell the truth. That's been a concern of mine, the only thing money hasn't solved. If you're rich and don't have a diploma, people think you're stupid. If you're poor and don't have a diploma, people say you didn't go to school, don't have even a primary education, but you learned to read the best authors on your own, and you're a very smart guy. That's what they said about me when I was poor. When I became rich they began spreading it around that I was a dummy who bought books by the yard, a complete lie. I should have bought a degree as an economist as soon as I started making money. Now I can't do that anymore, people would know, the rich are always in the spotlight. Opportunity, that's something I understand.

Then I read in the newspaper:

Become a respected writer admired by your friends and neighbors, your family, your girlfriend. I will write for you the book you choose. Poetry, novels, short stories, essays, biographies. Absolute confidentiality. Send reply to Ghostwriter, Box 333 507.

Rio de Janeiro.

I had already seen a similar ad, by a guy offering to write masters' and doctoral theses for goof-off unscrupulous students. That day I told my wife, “I feel like writing a book, a novel. After all, if I learned how to read on my own, I can learn how to write on my own.”

“You know what you want,” she replied.

The next day I said the same thing to my mistress. “I think it's a good idea,” she answered, “being a writer is so chic.”

I went to the post office and rented a box. I didn't want to have any contact with Ghostwriter. If the book he wrote for me was good, I'd publish it and Ghostwriter would end up finding out who I was. But if it was bad, I'd toss it in the trash and the writer I was renting wouldn't need to know my identity.

Ghostwriter: I read your ad. I'm interested. I want a novel of at least two hundred pages, in the style of Machado de Assis. I'll pay whatever's necessary. Give me the name of your bank and your account number so I can deposit the first installment, ten percent of the total amount. I'll pay the rest in installments of thirty percent after delivery of seventy or more pages at a time.

Reply to Tomás Antônio, Box 432 521.

I made money in business by buying and selling things. That's the way to get rich. Buying and selling. Making money, that's something I understand. My driver is named Gaspar; my wife's is named Evanildo. My cook can make any dish, however sophisticated. By paying three times as much I was able to lure her away from one of those society types who are still brave enough to host dinners to make the social columns. When I give a dinner I also put it in the social column. I've been told that's not done anymore, that the trick is to keep a low profile here and enjoy the money abroad, away from the eyes of the envious. But then what good does it do to have the best mansion and the best cook, and the best teeth and the best clothes, and the best paintings on the wall if not to show to others? Let the envious turn green with displeasure and stew in their woe. At a dinner I gave at my house I heard a guy who was there for show whisper to the woman beside him at the table, who had also been invited just to be seen, “The money is changing hands.” That's what he said: the money is changing hands. He, the old rich, was referring to me, the new rich. The old rich don't want money to change hands, but how can money not change hands if those parasites don't work? The difference between the old rich and the new rich is that the old rich, those who haven't been ruined by their hedonistic idleness, have had money longer and are misers. But it's true that both the old and the new stuff their bellies with free caviar in other people's homes. Anything that's expensive is always good, even when it's bad, that's the golden rule of consumptiveness. Ostentation, that's something I understand.

Tomás Antônio: The bank is Bradesco, agency 163, account number 11 429 654-9. Name: M.J. Ramos. My fee for the book, ten thousand reais. Ghostwriter.

Ten thousand, the price of a run-of-the-mill Volkswagen. My book was going to be a piece of shit. But I deposited the ten percent in Ghostwriter's account.

“Are you going to write your book on a computer?” Gisela asked. I haven't spoken of Gisela, my mistress. A rich guy has to have a mistress, for relief from bourgeois routine. A poor guy should also have a mistress, obviously, if he can; it's good for the health and makes poverty more pleasant. Wives are always a drag, both in books and real life, and a mistress makes you be more patient with her, the wife. Marriage is boring. A person's house can be something insipid, most people's houses are insipid, but they always want to transform them into showcases. People stick themselves inside the showcase, along with their knickknacks. Part of the showcase is nice teeth, good clothes and good shoes, manicured nails, a slim silhouette, domestic appliances, wedding rings, perfume, voice modulation and an imposing vocabulary, a face free of warts (did I mention I had a wart removed from my face?), and the more ornate the showcase, the greater our happiness. Exhibitionism, that's something I understand.

But I was speaking of my mistress, Gisela. First, some advice for young adventuresses: if you want to find a lover, choose a man who's new rich. They're much more generous. Don't think I suffer retrospective envy from having been poor when I was young. Nothing like it. It's because the old rich don't like money to change hands. I mean, it can change hands but only between their old-rich hands. But let's get back to Gisela.

“Yes,” I answered, “I'm writing it on a computer. Isn't that what all the idiots who follow fads are doing?” Actually, just to show off, I had bought the best computer on the market, with all the peripherals, multifunctions, nets, shifts, alts,
the works. I had another one, state of the art, but it was my secretary who used it. But let's get back to Gisela. A good mistress, like my Gisela, has to be pretty; has to have all her teeth; has to weigh twenty pounds less than her height in centimeters (as long as she's not a dwarf, of course); has to speak English and French; has to like cinema; has to have small feet; has to have small breasts (but her breasts, when bare under her silk blouse, must move erect when she walks without swinging, because an elegant woman doesn't swing her hips when she moves her legs); has to have large, firm thighs; has to have a small, tight ass; has to have a lot of hair on her head; has to eat with her mouth closed; has to have long fingers; has to have large eyes; and has to like you. And all she has to give you is love. And all you have to give her is love and money. The more of both, the better. Everyone likes to receive presents, even the voodoo worshippers know that and lavish their priest with rum and flour. But don't give your mistress cheap presents. If she says she prefers a rose to a jewel, she's an impostor; women like powerful men. Money being spent profligately on a woman is the most impressive exhibition of power that a man can do for her. The prodigal male expresses for the woman benefitting from his lavishness the same venerable power that the kidnapper, the torturer, and the executioner represent to their victims. But there are cases where the guy, without being filthy rich or having life-and-death power, can exercise a certain control, insignificant to be sure, over women: they're the guys who possess a lot of charm, a lot of talent, or a lot of fame. But between a sensitive poet and a pompous landlord, women always choose the latter.

Besides a dummy, they say I'm a cynic, a misogynist, a hedonist, and a materialist. Misogynist? I don't disdain women, and I have no aversion to them. Misogynist and dummy is too much.

I received the first thirty pages from Ghostwriter.

The title of the novel was
The Forger.
Forger? What an unfortunate title. Was Ghostwriter putting me on? I took the pages Ghostwriter sent me and typed them into the computer. My character, the counterfeiter, is forging a book of memoirs, an autobiography. He's a meticulous specialist, striving for months to imitate the handwriting of the guy to whom he'll attribute authorship of the document he's forging, the capital
that looks like an
the capital
similar to an
, etc., etc. The sheets of paper he plans to use in his scheme are already old, but he discovers a complicated process to age them even further, artificially. Here's a small excerpt:
Certain that he had succeeded in reproducing the handwriting perfectly, he sat down to begin the work. “I was born and raised in the Livramento favela, in Rio de Janeiro. My mother died when I was a child. My father remarried but died two years later. I was raised by my stepmother, a washerwoman.”

Raised by his washerwoman stepmother? Reading the first few pages wasn't enough to tell much. The story was nothing new, I think I'd already read something similar. But we readers know that a bad story well written can mean a good book, just like a good story poorly written means a bad book. The story was a bit confusing, but it wasn't badly written.

Ghostwriter: I received the first pages of the novel. You must remember that I asked for a novel in the style of Machado de Assis, and what you sent me has nothing of Machado de Assis. Can you change it? Tomás Antônio.

“Are you worried about something?” Gisela asked.

“I'm not happy with the story I'm writing.”

“Why don't you write about my life? Want me to tell you about my life?”

“The less we know about each other's lives, the better,” I answered.

“You weren't the first, you know.”

“Yes, I know, I wasn't the first.”

“Or the second.”

“Yeah, yeah, or the second.”

“You want to know your number?”

“Yeah, yeah, I want to know my number.”

“Eight, you're number eight.”

“Yeah, yeah, I'm number eight.”

“Stop saying yeah, yeah.”

I forgot to say that mistresses are for seeing now and then. Otherwise they become as boring as wives. That was the second day in a row I'd seen Gisela. Two days in a row is too much. At most, mistresses should be seen every other day.

“My mother died when I was a child. My father remarried but died soon afterwards. I was raised by my stepmother,” Gisela said.

“Incredible,” I said. “In my novel the character's mother also died when he was young and the father married again and he was raised by his stepmother. Was your mother a washerwoman?”

“Are you crazy? Imagine, my stepmother a washerwoman! She came from a very good family, I'm from a very good family, my grandfather was the Baron of Laranjeiras.”

“I've heard of the baron of Limeira …”

Gisela sulked. She removed my face from her leg, saying, “I don't like for you to bite me.” But no pout can resist a jewel. I always keep a jewel in reserve for such occasions, a pair of earrings, a ring, a bracelet. I gave her a diamond ring. Actually, Gisela likes for me to bite her leg.

Tomás Antônio: The forger is forging an autobiography of Machado de Assis. Just as you didn't notice, the reader won't perceive it until well into the novel. The text is a lot of work. I had to research the technical processes for aging paper and am having to read all the biographies of Machado de Assis. The story of the forgery and the autobiography, apocryphal but highly accurate in its references to Machado's life, serve as a framework for each other. A framing device, understand? I'm going to have more work than I thought. Could we increase my fee to twenty thousand? Ghostwriter.

A framing device? Was the guy trying to impress me with that theoretical claptrap? He must be a literature major. I agreed to the increase he was asking for. Intuition, that's something I understand.

Have I already spoken of my secretary? A good secretary has to have the qualities of a good dog: loyalty and gratitude. God in heaven and you on earth. The secretary can't see you naked, can't see you frightened, can't see you pick your teeth. And periodically you have to pat her on the back, the way they do with seals. No reprimands, just incentives. Some idiot told me one day that if you have the right machines you don't need a secretary. One more American stupidity. Nothing can take the place of a good secretary, nothing is better than a good secretary, not even a person's mother. Her name was Esmeralda. Nothing could be done about that. Dadá, Esmer, Meralda were all worse. I suggested, Adlaremse, a tongue twister but refined. Esmeralda didn't like it. If she doesn't like it, I don't like it either. Esmeralda is a wonder, she looks over contracts with the lawyers, I never know when she's got her period, she's never had a toothache, she takes care of my banking transactions, I only have to tell her buy, sell.

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