The following is an excerpt from the opening letter in the novel Blue Flowers by Carola Saavedra, translated from the Brazilian Portuguese by Daniel Hahn. Carola Saavedra is the author of several novels in Brazilian Portuguese, including the award-winning Blue Flowers. She lives in Rio de Janeiro.
Daniel Hahn is an award-winning writer, editor, and translator with more than 60 books to his name. His translations (from Portuguese, Spanish, and French) have won him the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize among others.
They say separation is never one single moment; it’s never abrupt. They say a separation starts inside out. It’s precisely at the moment of greatest sweetness—at that first meeting, at that first look—that a separation begins to exist. I prefer to believe a separation never ends, and that the last day, the last night, is a moment that is repeated again and again with every return, every time I feel your absence, every time I speak your name. I believe that when I call out to you, I should be able to make you turn and look, and without realizing it, create a bridge between us.
But how do I call out to someone who has gone? Someone who is far away, who is not here? Distance should immediately impose a more solemn tone, or a less intimate one; there’s a distance there, after all. But how should I behave distantly toward someone who just a moment ago was so close beside me, so recently lying beside me in my bed? Every day, every night, we had something as intimate as sharing a bed. When the day breaks, the sheets are thrown open, all crumpled up, stained and infused with the shared night. How does a person move out of our bed and into a kind of stiff formality?
I imagine at this moment you’re there in your apartment, on your sofa, in your favorite armchair or the regular chair left carelessly by the kitchen table. You’re just sitting there with a glass of water, a cup of coffee. This letter is in your hands and you ask yourself, perhaps with a bit of irritation, why this isn’t over after all. Why didn’t you leave, why go on like this, why go on with the leaving, indefinitely, you could be asking yourself. My answer to you is that I don’t know, unless maybe there’s some need to recover something unrecoverable; what other reason could there be? This is my attempt at preventing you from getting up, going over to shut the window or even answering the phone. The phone might ring, someone might wave from the balcony opposite, the insistent noise of the telephone, but still you sit there, apart, silent, this letter in your hands—your hands that I fear and also love, and that I wish were now gentle—feeling the smoothness or the roughness of these pages and the ripple of the imperceptible fibers being born and being undone again, in constant motion. But perhaps some things really are unrecoverable.
There was something left half‑finished. Something that will come later. Because there are things that take their time to start existing.
Perhaps everything is unrecoverable, everything, not only the past, which is lost to memory, but the present, the now which seems so alive, so precise. And—even if I should want it, even if I really try—perhaps even me, even you. Sad, isn’t it? I try to imagine the expression on your face, your face, your mouth, your gaze at this moment, now, now, this moment that is no more than a space, an intense emptiness separating us, the distance between my hands and yours, between my fingers wandering over this keyboard, and yours caressing the texture of the paper. You, sitting in an armchair or on a chair or on the sofa, in the apartment I know so well, holding the words I choose, the individual letters, the linked phrases trampled down by time, by this constant aging. How to traverse this distance that separates us? This interval between what I say and what you read, this moment that never arrives, that never is?
I think about your face when I used to ask you a question, any old bit of nonsense. Your face would be tense, apprehensive, at the pointlessness of my questions. You never realized that I was asking without expecting any answer, just out of a simple need to confirm that you were there with me, my hand seeking yours, seeking any affection, any tenderness for me on your part. Like those children who run through the house looking for their mother who’s disappeared with no warning, their mother who’s gone to the kitchen, to the bedroom or out onto the porch to see what the weather’s like or to wave to someone, their mother who, all of a sudden, never suspecting, transforms into someone not there, someone who’s disappeared. All that remains is the child’s world and the mother’s absence. And somebody searching in the dark for any sign of tenderness, trying constantly to ascertain something, like the child who knows nothing more than what they are able to perceive. That’s it, that’s what I’m like now, nothing exists except what I am able to perceive. And even if you concealed your absence, even if you tried to disguise it, it was as if you weren’t there, as if you were always in another room, in the kitchen, on the porch, waving to someone who’s walking past and I have no idea who they are.
So, my insistence, and this letter. And you, even if only for a few moments, even if only a shadow, a mere movement. I turn in alarm, looking around me, imagining your presence here, unexpected, inexplicable. Because there is something I want to tell you, something that was abandoned half‑finished, a house left empty or an incomplete phrase or some kind of loaded silence, as if silences could mean something, or perhaps because silences mean whatever we want them to. Because there was something left half‑finished. Something that will come later. Because there are things that take their time to start existing. And that need repeating, again and again. Separation.
I haven’t left the house for days. I’ve told you that already, I have, haven’t I? If I were that sort of woman, I could even be dramatic, tell you I haven’t left the house for days, haven’t eaten for days, haven’t washed, haven’t combed my hair, you remember that, my hair, which you used to like me to wear loose, remember? Which you used to praise, you used to say it looked like a dark curtain, dark as a bird, dark as the night; did you ever say such a thing, I wonder? No, you never would have said anything like that. But no, I’m not going to tell you I’m suffering, what would be the point? Better to tell you about other things. I haven’t left the house for days, haven’t washed, haven’t combed my hair. Days. I wonder if I’m forgetting something important?
I’ve always suspected that we tend to forget the most important moment, perhaps because it’s a target in a constant state of transformation; the most important moment is always something else, something that eludes us. Like that space I was telling you about, between what I write and what you read. Something that creates a disturbance, without ever taking shape. What great dangers this can bring, as the transformation into words takes shape into a kind of witness, or a sign. And if there is no danger, I could very easily tell you about yesterday, or perhaps tell you a secret, or a very intimate desire, or something that might reveal me. I could tell you, for example, about yesterday.
Now that I think about it, ever since the beginning of us, our beginning, you had that hatred, that rage, but why?
Yesterday I thought of you: my mouth on your mouth and your hands in my hair and your body next to mine. Remember? Your body next to mine and all the things that could do to me. The constant falling. The brushing against your skin, the smoothnesses and roughnesses of your skin. My nervous breathing, just like now, at this moment when I write to you and remember—remember? Our imaginary geography: your body next to mine. The strength of your demanding voice, your voice a caress, next to me, in my ear, your voice, remember? Your name in the farthest corners, in the subtlest areas of my body, remember? My body falling, like now, because it was yours, your hand that ran over me, your fingers startling me, running over the skin inside my thighs and wrapping around my belly and my waist, and your voice kissing the back of my neck, and your voice behind me, and me losing myself and finding myself again, in you, like now, as if everything about me were water. Your name next to mine, my name, your wanting. I dissolve away and say yes, that I am yours, your woman, your whatever you want.
But maybe you don’t remember, and all that’s left is an imperfect gesture, a doubt. Perhaps you don’t want all this revelation, all this intimacy. This excess of words. Perhaps. So I will move away and start again: yesterday. Yesterday I went to the DVD rental place on the corner near home. And finally, as it takes shape, do you remember that last day? First thing in the morning, when we went to that rental place together, your hand refused mine. Remember what you said to me as we went in? Perhaps you don’t remember, you there, on the other side of the story now, in your armchair with your cup of coffee, perhaps you don’t remember, but no matter.
And since I’m the one writing, I am the one who gets to choose and tell you how it was, and this is how it was: It was summer, it was a hot day, we were walking side by side, we were talking about the previous night’s dinner, something had happened and it was bothering you, wasn’t it? Our voices were muffled by the noise of the cars, the people with their newspapers and bread and milk they’d just bought. Something was bothering you. It was Saturday, and we went into the rental place; the attendant behind the counter barely noticed our arrival. As we came in, we were relieved at the sudden silence and the coolness of the air‑conditioning. You moved away and I stayed where I was, running my eyes over the shelves, looking for a movie I’d been wanting to show you for a while, a very special movie, I mentioned mysteriously, though you were barely paying attention. You kept walking, saying something about the night before, about the dinner, something that was bothering you. I’d like you to see this movie, I said again, I held the case out to you, commenting, without thinking too much of it, that the main character was a lot like you: Even the actor looks like you, don’t you think? You stopped for a moment, serious all of a sudden, said nothing, the movie case in your hands. You were silent. Then you asked, Like me in what way? I didn’t think too much of it, my eyes still on the shelves, but you had a troubled expression, something I didn’t understand. Like me in what way?
The movie was in your hands. The look on your face was not merely distant, but a look that closed and enclosed within it a flash of light, the discovery of a secret. I don’t know, I replied, and I remember you were still trying to contain that rage, that aggression—where could it have come from? Like me in what way? you insisted. And I barely thought of it but just in order to say something, I said, The way people sometimes look like someone you saw once, someplace, and you keep thinking yes, I know them from somewhere, without ever finding out from where. A déjà vu, I concluded. You looked closely at the cover of the movie, the photo of the actor, a dark man with a handsome though coarse‑looking face, in sharp contrast with a blond woman in the image, very fragile, lying on a bed. You insisted, What are you implying? your tone aggressive. And I hadn’t meant to imply anything, because it didn’t mean anything, I had just said it in order to say something, so I asked, Why does everything have to mean something? You said you knew the movie very well, and no, you were nothing alike, you and the character, still less the actor, his face handsome though coarse. I smiled, though not amused, and began to turn my face away, an imperceptible flight. Like so many other times, now that I think about it, ever since the beginning of us, our beginning, you had that hatred, that rage, but why?
You were pissed off, hostile, and dragged me by the arm out of the rental place. I could feel my breathing unsettled, wild. You dragged me outside. I wanted to insist on going back, to say it didn’t mean anything, that I’d said it just to say something. And that I was also angry, that I could do whatever I saw fit, watch any movie I wanted to, you hear me? But you squeezed my arm unexpectedly hard, and I felt that my arm was just an extension, an appendix. It felt as though you hated me, as though suddenly you hated me and wanted to hurt me. Yes, that’s what I think, as though you wanted to hurt me very much, very deeply. And like that, your fingers buried in my arm, you said something I didn’t understand, you spoke looking off toward nothingness, and all I remember was the end of the phrase: Not now, you hear me? You hear me? I felt my body surrender and shake all over, submissive, delicate, bending under the weight of your hand, my whole body, the pressure of your fingers, and you said again, your lips almost shut: Not now, you hear me?
Later, on the street, the two of us walked quickly, you were dragging me as though you wanted to pull me over.
I went with you, carried by an incomprehensible force, this incomprehensible force that was your will, that was you. I was feeling as though at any moment I might give up and start screaming, right there in the middle of the street, start crying inconsolably for what, I didn’t quite know, but from which, I knew, there was no way to recover.
But no, that’s not what happened in the end; it’s funny, it never is. I didn’t cry, and I didn’t scream, and I didn’t say anything. You went on, your fingers digging into my arm, with quick and determined steps, and I went on, more and more submissive beside you, with quick and determined steps. That was our last day. Remember?
I remember, and I’m remembering again now. In spite of the waiting, in spite of time, in spite of the gap separating us. There is always a word uniting us. Now, my fingers on the keys. Now, you reading this on the sofa, in the armchair. These words uniting us.
From Blue Flowers: A Novel by Carola Saavedra, published by Riverhead, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2008 by Carola Saavedra. Translation copyright © 2020 Daniel Hahn.