“Much Heat, Little Light”

Machado de Assis, Trans. by Margaret Jull Costa and Robin Patterson

June 12, 2018 
The following is from The Collected Stories of Machado de Assis. Bringing together his seven previous collections—including a dozen stories not previously translated into English—the book contains all 76 of Machado de Assis's stories. In his lifetime, Machado was praised as one of Brazil's greatest modern writers. Born in 1839, his stories are set in fin-de-siecle Rio de Janeiro, an era marked by intense transformation as it grew into an imperial metropolis.

At the time, Luís Tinoco was twenty-one. He was of medium height, bright-eyed, tousle-haired, inexhaustibly loquacious, impetuous, and passionate. He held a modest position at the law courts, where he earned a meager crust, and he lived with his godfather, whose sole income was his pension. Tinoco held old Anastácio in the highest esteem, and Anastácio was equally fond of his godson.

Article continues below

Luís Tinoco was convinced he was destined for great things, and, for a long time, this proved to be his biggest obstacle in life. When Dr. Lemos first met Luís, the poetic flame was already beginning to burn in him, although no one knows quite how the fire was lit. Naturally, the thought of other men’s laurels began to keep him awake at night. Then, one morning, Luís Tinoco woke to find himself a fully fledged writer and poet; inspiration, which had been only the tightest of buds the night before, had blossomed into a lush, flamboyant flower. Luís hurled himself upon the blank page with ardor and determination, and between the hours of six and nine, before he was called down for breakfast, he produced a sonnet, whose main defects were that it was only five lines long and didn’t scan. Tinoco took his creation to the Correio Mercantil, which published it in the announcements section.

The night before publication, the little sleep he had was interspersed with dreams from which he kept waking in a panic. Dawn finally came, and Luís Tinoco, not normally an early riser, rose with the sun and went off to read his sonnet in print. No mother ever contemplated her newborn child more lovingly than that young man, who read and reread his poem, which in any case he knew by heart. He imagined that all the other readers of the Correio Mercantil would be doing the same thing, and that every one of them would be admiring this new literary star and asking to whom that hitherto unknown name could possibly belong.

He did not rest on those imaginary laurels. Two days later, he produced another poem, this time a sentimental ode in which he complained to the moon about his scornful mistress, already foreseeing for himself a death as melancholy as that of the poet Nicolas Gilbert. He could not afford the further expense involved in having this new poem printed, but a friend managed to get it into the paper for free, which meant delaying publication for a few days. Luís Tinoco found the waiting hard to bear, and even suspected some envious editors at the Correio Mercantil of dragging their feet.

At last, the poem was published, and the poet was so pleased that he immediately went to reveal all to his godfather.

Article continues below

“Have you read today’s Correio Mercantil?” he asked.

“You know perfectly well that I used to read newspapers when I was working, but I never read them now that I’m retired.”

“Oh, that’s a shame!” said Luís coolly. “I was hoping you would tell me what you thought of a poem they’ve published.”

“A poem! Don’t newspapers write about politics anymore? In my day, they talked of little else.”

“They write about politics and they publish poems, because there’s room enough for both. Would you like to read it?”

Article continues below

“All right, give it here.”

And Luís duly produced a copy of the Correio Mercantil from his pocket, and old Anastácio began to read his godson’s work. With his eyes fixed on his godfather, Luís appeared to be trying to guess the impression made on him by his lofty thoughts, which he had put into verse taking all possible and impossible liberties with rhyme. Anastácio finished reading and pulled a face.

“Dreadful stuff!” he said to his horrified godson. “What the devil has the moon got to do with that young woman’s indifference, and why drag in some poor foreigner’s miserable death?”

Luís Tinoco felt like giving his godfather a good telling-off, but, instead, he merely smoothed back his hair and said with supreme disdain:

“Not everyone can understand poetry, of course, and that ‘dreadful stuff’ is mine.”

Article continues below

“Yours?” asked Anastácio, thunderstruck.


“You mean you write poetry?”

“So they say.”

“But who taught you to write verses?”

Article continues below

“The ability to write poetry isn’t something you learn, it’s something you are born with.”

Anastácio reread the poem, and only then did he notice his godson’s name. There was no doubt about it: the boy had become a poet. To the retired old gentleman this spelled disaster, for the word “poet” was indissolubly linked in his mind with the word “poverty.”

He imagined Camões and Bocage, the only literary names he knew, to have been two street performers, regurgitating sonnets in exchange for a few coins, sleeping in churchyards, and eating in the coach houses of large mansions. When he discovered that his own dear Luís had been infected with this terrible malaise, Anastácio felt very sad, and it was then that he went to see Dr. Lemos to tell him of his godson’s fearful plight.

“I have to tell you that Luís is a poet.”

“Really?” asked Dr. Lemos. “Is he any good?”

“I don’t care if he’s good or bad. All I know is that it’s the worst thing that could possibly have befallen him, because poetry gets you nowhere. I’m afraid he’ll leave his job and end up on street corners babbling about the moon and surrounded by ne’er-do-wells.”

Dr. Lemos reassured him, saying that poets were not the vagabonds he imagined; he told him that poetry was no obstacle to leading an ordinary life, to becoming a deputy, a minister, or a diplomat.

“Nevertheless,” said Dr. Lemos, “I’ll speak to Luís and read what he’s written. I was a bit of versifier myself once and I’ll soon be able to judge if he’s any good or not.”

Luís Tinoco went to see the doctor and took with him the sonnet and the ode as well as other as yet unpublished pieces, which tended to be either odes or sonnets, full of hackneyed images and trite expressions—in short, little inspiration and even less art. And yet, despite this, there was the occasional glimmer indicating that the neophyte might actually have some talent, and could, in time, become an excellent drawing-room troubador.

Luís Tinoco confessed artlessly to the world that he was imbued with a Byronic skepticism, that he had drained the cup of sorrows to its dregs, that, as far as he was concerned, life had written Dante’s famous inscription above his door.”

Dr. Lemos told him frankly that poetry was a very difficult art and required long study, but that, if, despite all, he was determined to cultivate that art, then he should listen to some very necessary advice.

“Of course,” said Luís, “feel free, make any suggestions that might be useful. I wrote these poems so quickly, I had no time to correct them.”

“I really don’t think they’re very good,” said Dr. Lemos. “It would be best simply to tear them up and spend some time studying.”

It would be impossible to describe the proud, disdainful gesture with which Luís Tinoco snatched the poems from the doctor’s hand and said:

“Your advice is about as valuable as my godfather’s. As I told him, the ability to write poetry isn’t something you learn, it’s something you’re born with. I pay no heed to the envious. If the poems really were no good, the Correio Mercantil would never have published them.”

And with that he left.

From then on, there was no stopping him.

Tinoco began to write as furiously as a man who has been told that he has only a short time to live. The newspapers were full of his creations, some sad, some jolly, but the sadness and jollity were not of the sort that come straight from the heart; the sadness made one smile and the jollity made one yawn. Luís Tinoco confessed artlessly to the world that he was imbued with a Byronic skepticism, that he had drained the cup of sorrows to its dregs, that, as far as he was concerned, life had written Dante’s famous inscription above his door. And he quoted the words exactly, even though he had never read Dante. He bespattered his borrowed ideas with a selection of allusions and literary names, which was the full extent of his erudition, and felt no need, for example, to have read Shakespeare in order to quote “to be or not to be,” or mention Juliet’s balcony or Othello’s torment. He also had some very unusual ideas about the biographies of the famous. Once, while inveighing against his beloved—who still did not exist—it occurred to him to say that the climate in Rio was responsible for producing such monsters, much as the Italian sun had gilded the hair of the young Aspasia. When he chanced upon the psalms of Father Caldas, he found them soporific, although he spoke more kindly of The Death of Lindóia, the title he mistakenly gave to Basílio da Gama’s famous epic poem O Uraguai, of which he had read about four lines.

After five months, Luís Tinoco had produced a reasonable number of poems, enough for a volume of a hundred and eighty pages, allowing for a lot of blanks. He liked the idea of publishing a book, and soon one could rarely enter a shop without seeing on the counter a prospectus advertising:

Dr. Lemos occasionally saw him in the street. Luís Tinoco wore the inspired look of all novice poets who imagine themselves to be apostles and martyrs. Head held high, a dreamy look in his eyes, hair long and lush, he would sometimes button up his overcoat and stand with one hand thrust inside, Napoleon-style; at others, he would walk along with his hands behind his back.

Dr. Lemos spoke to him on the third such encounter, because on the first two occasions the young man had studiously avoided him. When the doctor praised some of his work, Luís Tinoco’s face lit up:

“Thank you,” he said, “such praise is the best possible reward for my labors. Ordinary people know nothing of poetry, only intelligent people like you, Doctor, can judge where praise is due. Did you read my Pale Flower’?”

“The one that appeared on Sunday?”


“I did. Charming.”

“And full of feeling too. I wrote that poem in half an hour and didn’t change a word. That often happens. What did you think of the somewhat eccentric scansion?”

“It was certainly eccentric.”

“Yes, I thought so too. I’m on my way to the newspaper now to offer them a poem I wrote yesterday. It’s entitled ‘Beside a Tomb.’ ”

“I see.”

“Have you already subscribed to my book?”

“No, not yet.”

“Well, don’t. I’d like to give you a copy. It will be coming out soon. I’m collecting subscriptions. Do you like the title?”

“Oh, yes, magnificent.”

“It came to me suddenly. I thought of others, but they were too run-of-the-mill. Gillyflowers and Camellias is so much more distinctive and original. It’s as if one were saying: sadnesses and joys.”


While they talked, the poet kept rummaging around in his pocket and pulling out a seemingly endless stream of papers. He was looking for the poem he had mentioned. Dr. Lemos wanted to get away, but Tinoco would not let him, even grabbing his arm to keep him there. When Luís Tinoco threatened to read the poem out loud in the street, the doctor invited him, instead, to come and dine with him.

They went to a nearby hotel.

“Ah, my friend,” Luís Tinoco said on the way there, “you cannot imagine how many envious people are trying to blacken my name. My talent has been the target of all kinds of attacks, but I was prepared for that. It doesn’t frighten me. Camões’s sad death upon a wretched truckle bed is both an example and a consolation. Prometheus chained to the Caucasus is the very symbol of genius. Posterity is the revenge of those who are scorned in their own lifetime.”

At the hotel, Dr. Lemos looked for a table away from the other diners, so as not to attract too much attention.

“Here it is,” said Luís Tinoco, having finally managed to wrest the promised poem from the bundle of papers.

“Wouldn’t it be better to read that after we’ve eaten?” said the doctor.

“As you wish,” Luís Tinoco answered. “Yes, you’re quite right. I am actually rather hungry.”

Luís Tinoco was pure prose at the dining table, and ate like a man unbound.

“Don’t be alarmed,” he said now and then, “this is the beast being fed. The soul is not to blame.”

Over dessert—by which time there were only about five other customers left in the room—Luís Tinoco unfolded the dreaded sheet of paper and read the promised verses in a ridiculously affected, singsong voice. The poem spoke of everything, death and life, flowers and worms, love and hate; there were more than eight “cypresses,” nearly twenty “tears” and more “tombs” than a cemetery.

The remaining five diners turned to look when Luís Tinoco began to recite, then began to smile and murmur inaudible comments. When the poet finished, one of their neighbors—a rather crude fellow—let out a loud guffaw. Luís Tinoco spun around, furious, but Dr. Lemos restrained him, saying:

“He wasn’t laughing at us.”

“Yes, he was, my friend,” Luís said resignedly, “but what can we do? Not everyone understands poetry enough to respect it as they should.”

“Let us leave,” said Dr. Lemos. “They clearly cannot grasp what it means to be a poet.”

“Yes, let’s go!”

Dr. Lemos paid the bill, and Luís Tinoco followed him out, glaring defiantly at the man who had laughed.

Luís walked with him back to his house. On the way, he recited some verses he knew by heart. When he surrendered himself to the sound of his own poetry—not someone else’s, about which he cared very little—it was as if everything else were erased from his memory; self-contemplation sufficed. Dr. Lemos listened in the resigned silence of one who has to put up with the rain, which he can do nothing to stop.

Shortly afterward, Gillyflowers and Camellias saw the light of day, and all the newspapers promised to review it at length.

In his introduction, the poet acknowledged that it was very bold of him “to come and sit at the communion table of poetry, but that anyone who felt stirring within him the j’ai quelque chose of André Chénier should give to his country what nature had given to him.” He then went on to apologize for his extreme youth and assured readers that he had not been born with a silver spoon in his mouth. He concluded by giving his blessing to the book and calling attention to the list of subscribers at the back.

This monumental work was greeted with general indifference. Only one minor critic of the day devoted a few lines to it, lines that made everyone laugh; everyone, that is, except the author, who even went to thank the man in person.

To what extent did this love actually exist, and how far was his love reciprocated by her? History provides little information in this regard.”

After that, Dr. Lemos lost sight of his poet for some time, or, rather, he lost sight of the man but not his work, because Luís Tinoco’s poems would sporadically appear in some literary journal or other, which Dr. Lemos would inevitably read only to be astonished by Luís Tinoco’s sterile, dogged persistence. There was no occasion, no funeral, no solemn event, that escaped the inspiration of that fecund writer. Since his ideas were very few in number, it could be said that he had only ever written a eulogy, an elegy, an ode, and an encomium. The various examples of each type were merely the same thing said in a slightly different way. In that different way, however, lay the poet’s originality, an originality he did not possess to begin with, but which developed greatly over time.

Unfortunately, in throwing himself ardently into these literary labors, he forgot all about his legal labors, which provided him with his daily bread. One day, Anastácio spoke of this misfortune to Dr. Lemos, in a letter that concluded thus: “My friend, I really do not know where the boy will end up. I can see only two possibilities: the insane asylum or prison.”

Dr. Lemos summoned the poet. In order to predispose him to hear what he was about to say, he initially praised his work. The young man opened his heart to him.

“It’s just as well that I do hear the occasional encouraging word,” he said. “You cannot imagine the envy that surrounds me. But what does that matter? I trust in the future, and posterity will be my revenge.”

“You’re right, posterity will always have its revenge on contemporary malice.”

“A few days ago, some rag somewhere described me as a stringer-together of mere bagatelles. I saw what lay behind this, though. They were accusing me of not embarking on a longer, more ambitious work. I’m going to prove that scribbler wrong, and I’m now writing an epic poem!”

“Oh, no!” thought Dr. Lemos, sensing that he was about to have a poem forced upon him.

“I could show you a fragment,” Luís Tinoco went on, “but I would prefer you to read the poem when it’s at a more advanced stage.”

“An excellent idea.”

“There are ten cantos and about ten thousand lines, but shall I tell you my problem?”

“What’s that?”

“I’m in love.”

“Well, that’s certainly unfortunate for a man in your position.”

“What has my position got to do with it?”

“I understand that things at work are not going well. It’s said that you’ve been somewhat neglecting your duties at the courts and that they’re about to dismiss you.”

“I was dismissed yesterday.”


“Yes, it’s true. And you should have heard the speech I addressed to the notary, in front of the whole department too! Oh, yes, I had my revenge, all right!”

“But what will you live on now? I doubt very much that your godfather can support you.”

“God will help me. After all, do I not have a pen in my hand? Did I not receive at birth a certain talent that has already reaped reward? Up until now, I haven’t attempted to earn anything from my work, but then I was a mere amateur. From now on, things will be different. If I need to earn a living, then I will.”

The conviction with which Luís Tinoco said these words saddened Dr. Lemos. For a few seconds—perhaps with just a touch of envy—he contemplated this incorrigible dreamer, so detached from the realities of life, convinced not only that a great future awaited him, but also that he really could use his pen as a hoe.

“Don’t worry,” said Luís Tinoco. “I’m going to prove to you and my godfather that I’m not as useless as I seem. I don’t lack for courage, Doctor, and if I ever do, there’s a certain star . . .”

Luís Tinoco paused, twiddled his mustache, and gazed up at the sky in a melancholy fashion. Dr. Lemos looked, too, but without a hint of melancholy, indeed he laughed and asked:

“A star at midday? That would be unusual . . .”

“Oh, I’m not talking about those stars,” broke in Luís Tinoco, “but that is where she should be, up there in blue space among her older and less beautiful sisters . . .”

“Ah, a young woman!”

“Say, rather, the loveliest creature upon whom the sun ever shone, a sylph, my Beatrice, my Juliet, my Laura . . .”

“She must be very beautiful to have captured the heart of a poet.”

“You are a good man, my friend. Laura is an angel, and I adore her . . .”

“And what about her?”

“She may not even know that I am consumed with love for her.”

“That’s not good!”

“What do you expect?” said Luís Tinoco, wiping away an imaginary tear with his handkerchief. “It is the fate of all poets to burn and yearn for things they cannot have. That is the substance of a poem I wrote a week ago. I published it in The Literary Arbor.”

“What the devil is that?”

“It’s my personal magazine, which I myself have printed every two weeks. I thought you said you read my work!”

“I do, but I can’t always remember the titles. But let’s get down to what really matters. No one denies you have talent and a fertile imagination, but you’re deluding yourself if you think you can live off poetry and literary articles. You’ve already discovered that your poetry and your articles are far above the understanding of ordinary people, which is why they find so few readers . . .”

These discouraging words delivered along with that large bouquet of roses had a salutary effect on Luís Tinoco, who could not suppress a smile of smug satisfaction. Dr. Lemos concluded his speech by offering to find him a position as a clerk in a lawyer’s office. Luís Tinoco looked at him for a while without saying a word. Then, in the most melancholy, resigned tone imaginable, he said:

“You mean go back to the courts and once more besmirch my inspiration with bills of indictment and shyster lawyers talking all kinds of legal mumbo-jumbo! In exchange for what? A few mil-réis, which I don’t have and which I need in order to live. Is that what society is, Doctor?”

“Yes, I suppose it is,” said Dr. Lemos gently, “but, while it may not be the best of societies, we have no other, and unless you’re prepared to change it, you have no alternative but to put up with it and live.”

The poet walked back and forth in the room for a couple of minutes, then he held out his hand to his friend.

“Thank you,” he said. “I accept. I see that you have my interests at heart, even though you know that what you’re offering me is exile.”

“Exile and a wage,” retorted Dr. Lemos.

A few days later, the poet was copying out notices of embargos and appeals, complaining and cursing his fate, unaware that from that job would spring a radical change in his aspirations. Dr. Lemos did not speak to him again for five months. One day, though, he met him in the street and asked about the epic poem.

“It’s rather come to a standstill,” replied Luís Tinoco.

“Are you abandoning it, then?”

“No, I’ll finish it when I have time.”

“And your magazine?”

“Oh, I stopped producing that ages ago. I’m surprised you didn’t notice, since I haven’t sent you a copy for a long time now.”

“That’s true, but I thought perhaps you had simply forgotten. That is big news, though! So no more of The Literary Arbor.

“I let it die when it was at its height, with eighty paying subscribers . . .”

“You’re abandoning literature entirely, then?”

“No, but . . . look, I must go. Goodbye.”


This all seemed simple enough, but, having won that first battle by finding him a job, Dr. Lemos left it to the poet himself to explain the cause of his literary slumbers. Could it be because he was in love with Laura?

I should point out that Laura was not Laura, but Inocência; the poet called her Laura in his poems because the name seemed more mellifluous, which it was. To what extent did this love actually exist, and how far was his love reciprocated by her? History provides little information in this regard. What we do know is that, one day, a rival appeared on the horizon, and he was about as much of a poet as Luís Tinoco’s godfather, and, therefore, far better marriage material than the editor of The Literary Arbor; with one blow, he destroyed all the poet’s hopes.

I need hardly tell you that this event enriched literature with a long and tearful elegy, in which Luís Tinoco set down in verse all the possible complaints that any spurned lover can make about a woman. This work took as its epigraph Dante’s words: Nessun maggior dolore. When it was finished and corrected, he read it out loud to himself, pacing up and down in his bedroom, putting a final touch to one or two lines, admiring the harmony of many others, and wholeheartedly confessing to himself that it was his best work yet. The Literary Arbor still existed then, and Luís Tinoco rushed his poem to the press, having first shared it with his collaborators, who were all of the same opinion as him. Despite what must have been his all-consuming grief, the poet read the proofs carefully and scrupulously, was present when the first copies were printed, and, for many days afterward, he read and reread those lines, barely giving a thought to the betrayal that had inspired them.

Luís Tinoco piously believed that he was part of Providence’s plan, and this sustained and satisfied him.”

This, however, was not the reason for Luís Tinoco’s literary slumbers. That was purely political. The lawyer for whom he worked had been a deputy and contributed to a political gazette. His office was a meeting place for a lot of men in public life, who met there for long conversations about political parties and the government. At first Luís Tinoco listened to these conversations with the indifference of a god wrapped in the cloak of his immortality. Gradually, though, he began to acquire a taste for what he heard. He started reading parliamentary speeches and opinion pieces. This initial interest quickly became enthusiasm, because in Luís Tinoco everything was extreme—be it enthusiasm or indifference. One day, he woke with the conviction that he was destined to be a politician.

“My literary career is over,” he told Dr. Lemos when they spoke about it. “Now a different world is calling to me.”

“Politics? So you think that is where your vocation lies?”

“Yes, I think I might be able to make a contribution.”

“You’re very modest, I see, and I’m sure that some inner voice is urging you to burn your poet’s wings. Take care, though! You have doubtless read Macbeth. Well, beware the voices of the witches, my friend. You are a man of great feeling, great sensibility, and I don’t think that—”

“I am ready to answer the call of destiny,” Luís Tinoco said impetuously, interrupting him. “Politics is calling me, and I cannot, must not, and do not wish to close my ears to that call. No, the oppressive forces of power, the bayonets of corrupt, immoral governments, cannot divert a great belief from its chosen path. I feel I am being called by the voice of truth, and who can deny that voice? Only cowards and incompetents, and I am neither.”

This was the oratorical debut with which he regaled Dr. Lemos on a thankfully empty street corner.

“I ask only one thing,” said the ex-poet.

“What’s that?”

“Speak to the lawyer about me. Tell him I want to work with him, to be his protégé. That is my wish.”

Dr. Lemos granted Luís Tinoco’s wish. He went to see the lawyer and recommended the clerk to him, with little zeal, it’s true, but not coldly, either. Fortunately, the lawyer was a kind of Saint Francis Xavier of the party, eager to increase his army; he happily accepted the recommendation, and, the following day, addressed a few kind words to the clerk, who listened, tremulous with emotion.

“Write something,” said the lawyer, “and bring it to me, so that we can see if you have the necessary talent.”

Luís Tinoco did not need to be asked twice. Two days later, he brought his boss a long, rambling article, which was, nonetheless, full of verve and commitment. The lawyer thought it not without its defects, and pointed out certain excesses and imprecisions, the weakness of certain arguments, more ornament than substance, but promised to publish it anyway. Whether it was because he made these remarks tactfully and gently, or because Luís Tinoco had lost some of his former prickliness, or because the promise of having the article published sweetened the bitter taste of criticism, or for all those reasons put together, the fact is that he listened to his protector’s words with exemplary modesty and joy.

The lawyer showed the article to his friends, saying: “He’ll improve with time.”

The article was published, and Luís Tinoco received a few congratulatory handshakes. He again experienced the sweet, ineffable joy he had felt when his first poems were published in the Correio Mercantil, but it was a more complex joy, tempered by a virtuous decision: from that day forth, Luís Tinoco genuinely believed he had a mission, that nature and destiny had sent him into the world to right political wrongs.

Few people will have forgotten the final passage from the political debut of that former editor of The Literary Arbor. It read thus:

Hypocritical, vengeful power notwithstanding, I declare most humbly that I fear neither scorn nor martyrdom. Moses led the Hebrews into the Promised Land, but was not fortunate enough to enter it himself: that is the symbol of the writer who carries men toward moral and political regeneration, without actually passing through the golden gates himself. What is there to fear? Prometheus chained to the Caucasus, Socrates drinking hemlock, Christ dying on the cross, Savonarola on the rack, John Brown hanging from the scaffold, they are all the great apostles of light, an example and comfort to those who love the truth and work to gain the penitence of tyrants and the thunderous overthrow of despotism.

Luís Tinoco did not stop after that first success. The same fecundity that had marked his literary phase was repeated in this his political phase; his protector, meanwhile, told him that he should write less, and less flamboyantly too. The ex-poet accepted this criticism and even learned from it, producing a few articles rather less unkempt in style and content. Since Luís Tinoco knew nothing about politics, his protector lent a few books to a grateful Luís. However, readers of this story will have gathered by now that the author of Gillyflowers and Camellias was not a man to ponder long and hard over a page of writing; he was drawn to high-flown phrases—especially high-sounding ones—and would linger over them, repeat and consider them with genuine delight. He found reflection, observation, and analysis arid, and often avoided them entirely.

Some time later, a primary election was called. Luís Tinoco felt that he had it in him to be a candidate, and said as much to the lawyer in no uncertain terms. His wish was received quite positively, and things were so arranged that he enjoyed the pleasure of seeing his name on an electoral slate and the surprise of being beaten. The government might beat him, but not defeat him. The ex-poet, still hot from battle, translated into long, flowery sentences the scorn he felt for his adversaries’ victory. Friends of the government responded with another article, which ended thus: “What does ex-deputy Z.’s little squirt of an assistant hope to achieve with such immoderate language?”

Luís Tinoco almost died of pleasure to be the butt of that ministerial charge. The opposition press had not, until then, treated him with the consideration he wanted. They had, once or twice, discussed arguments he had put forward, but what was lacking was a personal attack, which seemed to him a necessary baptism of fire in that kind of campaign. When the lawyer read this attack, he told the ex-poet that his position was identical to that of William Pitt the Elder, when, in the House of Commons, the minister Robert Walpole had referred to Pitt as a mere boy, and he urged him to respond to that ministerial insult in the same tone. At the time, Luís Tinoco had no idea who Pitt and Walpole were, and yet, intrigued by the comparison, he cleverly and cautiously asked the lawyer if he could lend him the British orator’s speech so that he could “refresh his memory.” The lawyer did not have a copy to hand, but he summarized it thoroughly enough for Luís Tinoco to write a long article describing precisely what a little squirt was and was not.

Meanwhile, the electoral fight had revealed to him a new talent. Since it was sometimes necessary to speechify, the little squirt did so with great personal pleasure and to general applause. Luís Tinoco asked himself if he should aspire to becoming an orator and answered in the affirmative. This new ambition was more difficult to achieve, as the ex-poet recognized, and so, arming himself with patience, he waited.

There is here a lacuna in Luís Tinoco’s life. For reasons history does not record, two years after these electoral events our young man was dispatched to the native province of his friend and protector. Let us waste no time in speculating on the reasons for this journey, nor on the reasons that kept him there for longer than he wanted. Let us, instead, go and find him there a few months later, collaborating on a newspaper with the same youthful ardor he had shown while in Rio. With letters of recommendation from the lawyer to political friends and relatives, he soon built up a social circle, and settled into the idea that he would stay there for a while. His godfather had died, and Luís Tinoco was left with no family at all.

His oratorical ambitions were not assuaged by the pleasures of being a writer; on the contrary, one encouraged the other. The idea of having two weapons and of brandishing them at the same time, and using both to threaten and defeat his adversaries, became a persistent, ever-present, inextinguishable idea. This was not vanity, that is, not childish vanity. Luís Tinoco piously believed that he was part of Providence’s plan, and this sustained and satisfied him. He had lacked all sincerity when he set down his misfortunes in verses to be read out to his friends, but he acquired real sincerity as he became more and more engrossed in politics. If someone doubted his political qualifications, this would wound him just as deeply as it had when people questioned his literary talent, but it did not wound his pride alone, but, more importantly, his deep and unbending belief that his talent was a necessary part of the universal harmony.

Dr. Lemos was still living in Rio, and Luís Tinoco sent him all his provincial writings, and naïvely told him of his new hopes. One day, he informed him that his election to the provincial assembly was currently under negotiation and that those negotiations looked hopeful. The next letter brought the news that his candidature had become a fact.

The election took place, and, after much effort and hard work, our candidate had the honor of being included on the list of winners. When he was told that victory was his, his soul sang a solemn, heartfelt Te Deum Laudamos.” A sigh, the most deeply felt and deep-seated sigh ever uttered by man, consoled his heart for all the doubts and uncertainties of several long, cruel weeks. He had at last been elected! He was about to take his first step to glory.

Finally, work began. Luís Tinoco was so anxious to speak at the very first session that he gave a two-hour speech about a plan to install a fountain and proved categorically that water was necessary to mankind.”

He slept badly that night, as he had on the eve of the publication of his first sonnet, and, again, his sleep was interspersed with dreams appropriate to the new situation. Luís Tinoco could already imagine himself thundering out a speech at the provincial assembly amid applause from some and curses from others and the envy of nearly everyone, and afterward reading in the local press warm praise for his fresh and utterly original eloquence. He drafted twenty different introductions to his maiden speech, whose subject would, of course, be worthy of grand flourishes and exalted passages. He was already mentally rehearsing gestures and poses and generally considering the figure he would cut in the provincial Chamber of Deputies.

Many big names in politics had begun in the provincial parliament. If he was to fulfill Fate’s urgent mandate, then it was likely, even necessary, that he should leave there as soon as possible in order to pass through the wider door of national politics. In his mind, he was already occupying one of the seats in the congress building, and he immersed himself in thoughts of his own person and the brilliant role he would play. He could already see before him the opposition or the minister standing stunned by the five or six verbal blows Luís Tinoco believed he could deliver better than anyone; he could hear the newspapers talking and people asking about him, and his name reverberating throughout the Empire, and could see the ministerial portfolio landing in his lap, along with the post of minister itself.

The new deputy imagined all this and much more as he lay in bed, his head on the pillow, with his mind setting off about the world, which is the worst thing that can happen to a body as tormented as was his at the time.

Luís Tinoco immediately wrote to Dr. Lemos to tell him of his hopes and plans, now that Fortune was opening up before him the broad path of public life. The letter lingered on the probable effect of his first speech, and ended thus:

Whatever position I may rise to, even the highest position in the land, immediately below that of Emperor (and I genuinely think I will go that far), I will never forget the debt I owe to you, sir, for your encouragement and your support. I believe that, up until now, I have not betrayed the confidence of my friends, and I hope I continue to deserve it.

Finally, work began. Luís Tinoco was so anxious to speak at the very first session that he gave a two-hour speech about a plan to install a fountain and proved categorically that water was necessary to mankind. His first great battle took place in the debate about the provincial budget. Luís Tinoco gave a long speech in which he took on the governor-general, the president, his opponents, the police, and despotism. The gestures he made had never been seen in the entire history of parliamentary gesticulations; no one, at least no one in the province, had ever had the pleasure of seeing the way he had of shaking his head, bending his arm, pointing, raising, and bringing down his right hand.

His style was unusual too. Never had anyone spoken of revenues and expenditures using such lush imagery and figures of speech. He compared revenues to the dew that collects on the flowers at night, and expenditures to the morning breeze that shakes the flowers and upsets a little of that revivifying moisture. A good government, he said, is that gentle breeze, while the current prime minister was declared to be nothing but hot air. The majority protested gravely at such an insulting description, however poetic. One of the ministers admitted that he had never known a chillier wind to blow in from Rio de Janeiro.

Unfortunately, his opponents did not rest either. As soon as Luís Tinoco had finished his speech amid scattered applause from his friends, one of his adversaries took the floor and for a long time stood with eyes fixed on the novice speaker. Then, taking from his pocket a bundle of newspapers and a magazine, he cleared his throat and said:

“Rio de Janeiro sent us the honorable deputy who has just spoken. We were told he was a glittering star destined to impress and surpass our provincial talents. I immediately set about obtaining some of the honorable deputy’s earlier works.

“And here I have a journal entitled The Literary Arbor, a journal edited by my honorable friend, and a volume entitled Gillyflowers and Camellias. I have more such works at home. Let us look at Gillyflowers and Camellias.”

Senhor Luís Tinoco: “My honorable friend is out of order.” (Cries of support.)

His adversary: “I will go on, Mr. Speaker. Here we have Gillyflowers and Camellias. Let us look at one of those gillyflowers.


Who are you, O my dear tormentor,
As you torture me with the sweetest of smiles?
Who are you, as you point me to
The gates of paradise?

Are you the very image of heaven itself? T
he daughter of goddesses?
Or have you come to bind up my freedom
With your golden tresses?

“As you see, Mr. Speaker, our honorable friend was, at the time, an enemy of all oppressive laws. You have only to see how he treats the laws of metrics.”

And so on and so on. A minority of deputies protested, Luís Tinoco turned white, then red, then white again, and the session ended in raucous laughter. The following day, the newspapers that supported Luís Tinoco thanked his adversary for the triumph he had handed to him by showing the province “an earlier, brilliant aspect of the illustrious deputy’s talent.” Those who had so indecorously laughed at the poem were condemned thus: “A few days ago, a deputy on the government’s side described his party as a caravan of good, honest men. He was right about the caravan; yesterday, we saw the camels.”

Not even this could console Luís Tinoco. His letters to Dr. Lemos grew less frequent, and finally stopped altogether. Three years slipped silently by, at the end of which Dr. Lemos was nominated for some post or other in that same province. As soon as he had settled into his new post, he set about looking for the ex-poet, which took him no time at all, for he immediately received an invitation from Luís Tinoco to visit the country retreat where he was now living.

“You’ll call me an ungrateful wretch, I’m sure,” said Luís Tinoco, as soon as Dr. Lemos arrived. “But I am not; I was hoping to see you in a year or so, and the reason I didn’t write was . . . But, Doctor, what’s wrong? You look shocked.”

Dr. Lemos was indeed taken aback to see this new Luís Tinoco. Was this the author of Gillyflowers and Camellias, the eloquent deputy, the fiery orator? What he saw before him was an ordinary, honest laborer, with simple, rustic manners, and not a trace of the poet’s melancholy poses or the orator’s dramatic gestures—he had been completely transformed into a very different and far better creature.

They both laughed, the doctor at the great change that had taken place, the ex-poet at the doctor’s amazement, and Dr. Lemos asked if Luís Tinoco really had abandoned politics or if he was merely taking a refreshing break from that world.

“I’ll explain everything, Doctor, but only once you’ve seen my house and my land, and met my wife and my children—”

“You’re married?”

“Yes, for over a year and a half now.”

“And you never told me!”

“I was planning to come to Rio this year and was hoping to surprise you. My little ones are so delightful, as lovely as two angels. They take after their mother, who is the rose of the province. I just hope they take after her housewifely ways too; she’s always so busy and so careful with money!”

Once the introductions had been made, once the children had been duly kissed, and house and land inspected, Luís Tinoco told Dr. Lemos that he had, indeed, definitively abandoned politics.



“But why? Some upset, I suppose.”

“No, I realized that I simply wasn’t destined for great things. One day, someone read out a poem of mine in the Chamber. I saw how crude it was, and, later on, I came to view my political work with equal shame and regret, and so I cast off my career and left public life. It was a very easy decision to make, the work of a single night.”

“You wanted something else?”

“I did, my friend, I wanted to tread on solid ground rather than skating over the surface of those youthful illusions. I was a ridiculous poet and possibly an even more ridiculous orator. This is my vocation. In a few years’ time, I’ll be a wealthy man. Now let’s go and drink our coffee and keep our mouths firmly shut, for, as we know, a closed mouth catches no flies.”


From The Collected Stories of Machado de Assis. Used with permission of Liveright. Copyright © 2018 by Margaret Jull Costa and Robin Patterson.

More Story
Lit Hub Daily: June 11, 2018 Everybody loves a bad guy: 40 of our favorite literary villains. | Lit Hub How too much research can ruin your...

Become a Lit Hub Supporting Member: Because Books Matter

For the past decade, Literary Hub has brought you the best of the book world for free—no paywall. But our future relies on you. In return for a donation, you’ll get an ad-free reading experience, exclusive editors’ picks, book giveaways, and our coveted Joan Didion Lit Hub tote bag. Most importantly, you’ll keep independent book coverage alive and thriving on the internet.