A family’s downfall marks a high point in Brazilian literature

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A family’s downfall marks a high point in Brazilian literature

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Photo: Libby McGuire
Photo: Libby McGuire
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Chronicle Of The Murdered House

Author: Lúcio Cardoso
Publisher: Open Letter

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… Once again, there is a storm brewing over the Chácara, and it is an agglomeration of all those wicked, aimless feelings that I see once again building up over the heads of innocent people…

Like its protagonist—or, depending on which account herein you believe, antagonist—Lúcio Cardoso’s Chronicle Of The Murdered House has reemerged from seclusion. First published in 1959, it was a postmodernist work that veered from the nationalist literature that had preceded it. Where his forebears sought to represent their country’s social consciousness, Cardoso narrowed his focus to the moral and financial decline of the fictional Meneses, a once-grand family relegated to the Brazilian countryside.

But his twisted tale, which has been translated into English for the first time by Margaret Jull Costa and Robin Patterson, still fits within the discussion of his contemporaries, delving into gender roles and class structure as it does. The social commentary might have been lost on audiences when it debuted, but not his genre bending. Cardoso’s approach is as expansive as the lands on which his charmless bourgeoisie have lived for generations; he was a voracious reader with a preference for Gothic fiction and Russian lit, and those influences are on full display in Chronicle’s framework and themes. From its mysterious opening—which is actually the end of one character’s story—to the exploration of morality, the novel is a near-total manifestation of his talents.

Those who imagine love from afar, like a fruit they have never tasted, have no idea how delicious suffering can be—simultaneously terrible and sweet—because to love is to suffer.

Few authors, Brazilian or otherwise, could deploy such florid language without weighing down their narrative. And yet Cardoso’s purple prose is consistent throughout Chronicle’s nearly 600 pages, which have wisely been sorted into an epistolary format. He’s crafted letters, confessions, and reports from the Meneses and their acquaintances, including a doctor, a pharmacist, and a priest. These missives and documents all have a sense of urgency, even as the writer-narrator’s reliability is left open to interpretation. Discretion was paramount at the time, so someone was bound to be withholding something.

Incomplete though they may be, these accounts all paint the picture of the Meneses’ ancestral estate with the same brush of decay. At first, there’s no heir to whatever fortune may remain, and there is no love between eldest son Demétrio and his wife Ana, a woman bred for marriage to a gentleman and nothing else. Stagnation hangs in the air, which is why Nina’s arrival, despite being the catalyst for the family’s destruction, is still a welcome breeze. The beautiful outsider disrupts the order within the family she marries into and their rural surroundings. She has no interest in reviving whatever dwindling industry the Meneses might have controlled, though—she’s just as self-serving and useless as everyone else. But her vanity changes the landscape irrevocably, claiming multiple lives in the process.

There’s a sense of dread throughout the story, even when Cardoso shifts focus from the melodrama and intrigue to broader themes like propriety and man’s true nature. Humanity’s true nature is represented alternately by Nina and a wolf and snake that are figments of Demétrio and Ana’s imaginations. And though Nina’s marriage to Valdo is more of a love match, it’s the passionless matrimony of Demétrio and Ana that’s the more apt depiction of the once-ideal high-society marriage. Ana is the passive woman we see in works like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, a Gothic horror novel that touched on Victorian values. But that invention, prevalent though it was in Victorian times, was an abomination. Cardoso hints at as much in one of Ana’s confessions: “I stood there like a pathetic creature abandoned by its creator,” she writes about confronting her husband about their loveless union.

Ana isn’t the only face put on all the resentment and repression seen and felt throughout this Chronicle, though she might be the most bitter. Everyone from the gardener to the third Meneses brother, Timóteo, is hiding something or being hidden away. Cardoso was an openly gay man, and the cross-dressing Timóteo is both his stand-in and the avatar for a social order already past its expiration date in the early 20th century. As the novel makes its way to a conclusion both thundering and mewling, Timóteo retreats once more, symbolizing a discussion shelved by Cardoso’s death in 1968. But the gorgeous, deviant story he was able to tell in Chronicle’s pages became one of the hallmarks of Brazilian literature, prompting this English rendition decades later.


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