THE GENTLENESS OF THE
(Excerpt translated by Alan Clarke)
I park my bus on the shoulder of the highway. The deserted locale
looks good to me. I grapple with the bar that opens the door,
which doesn't work well, and allow the incomplete figures to escape:
a mob that trembles in the wind.
I get out too, feeling the chill of the morning. A disturbing
voice asks me, "Is this the place?"
I nod. A thin figure asks me for a cigarette and a light. We both
shield the flame from the wind, and now I can see that he has
a face. He drags slowly on the cigarette, inventing a pocket where
he hides his left hand. I sense that he's irritated.
Without looking at me: "What year is this?"
I think about it - and decide: "Nineteen seventy-one."
Two or three figures are already disappearing in the distance.
An arm waves to me. In small groups, the entire band recedes into
the empty, reddish plain. The further they go, the clearer they
This is going to take a while, I imagine. But, even so, I leave
the motor running - and I lie down on the bare ground, waiting.
My character - or my friend, who at the moment is all I have,
along with you there with your critical eye - my friend is finishing
up the class. He reviews, repeats, insists, points to each of
the topics listed on the blackboard, numbered from one to eight,
four on the left, four on the right, and a mild affliction shows
itself in his facial expression. He wants to leave no doubt there,
and every nerve in his body shows it, his entire soul fastened
upon his own words.
But look closely: there's a moat behind him - and on the other
side of the moat are his forty students, dressed in blue, each
of them quite probably thinking of other things, things not written
on the board nor related to what they are hearing. The room is
silent. The lesson is very close to ending, and it seems they
are holding their breath in the agony of awaiting the bell: at
some other place in the building (better: in the universe), there's
an official moving at this exact moment to the button for the
bell that will decree the end of a cycle of voice and chalk in
every room. But don't be unfair: that's not why the girls are
so quiet. They're silent because the teacher deserves it. Not
so extraordinary, I know. He's a monotonous teacher who instructs
them in boring things, wheeling about his desk like an ant attempting
to escape from a drinking glass. But there is clearly affection
in his gestures; it's possible (even probable) that he is aware
that the time he expends there in that space accomplishes nothing,
it's probable that he knows - of course he knows! that his words
have minimal importance. Meanwhile, though, he moves, he speaks,
he repeats, he writes on the board, and the zig-zag of his concentrated
gestures concentrates the gaze of the forty students, as if they
were admiring the work of an artisan - a watchmaker, a shoemaker,
a radio or TV repair man - even though they don't understand anything
of what they are seeing. In sum: he does what he does very well,
and this always creates admiration. But there's another secret,
perhaps the main reason for the respect he is paid, even though
he's a man so... lacking in spark, let's say: it's that we sense
that he is greatly superior to what he appears to be. At times,
we are almost able to perceive a quite discreet smile underlying
that mechanized ritual of the lesson, a grin that, an any moment,
might let loose a guffaw of freedom - at which point we would
be in the presence of the True Teacher, just as we thought!
Well, we don't see the grin; we just know about it. And there's
another detail to bear in mind: the teacher is a slipshod fellow.
Worse: he thinks of himself as ugly, and, as a defense, is wooden
in his manner. Hence the moat: if he were to take one step in
the direction of his rosy, attentive students, he would certainly
plunge over the precipice. If, in a moment of distraction, he
approaches too closely, his hand immediately moves in the opposite
direction, blindly, tapping on the desk top, drawing himself back
to the board. Well, the students also find the teacher unattractive
- but in a constructive fashion they imagine alternatives and
make secret plans for his improvement: perhaps the color of his
shirts, maybe the style of his shoes, or how about a different
kind of haircut... so many things could be done! They even discuss
the color of his socks! It's a disinterested affection, perhaps
even precociously maternal. There are those, of course - there
always are such people - who cruelly mock the teacher. And there
are those who love him, the platonic types who sit in the front
row and never know the answers to his questions.
Well, the bell has sounded. There's no wild exodus: only a growing
succession of tiny noises, letting him know that they've had enough
for today: he understands, and says:
Then the rush. Without looking at anyone, the teacher gathers
his papers and tablets and books, methodically erases the blackboard,
walks down the hall, carefully avoiding the possibility of brushing
against anyone, and enters the teacher's room for the coffee ritual.
Watch: he goes directly to the thermos bottle. He has taught at
this school for eight years, but we have the feeling, observing
him, that he arrived yesterday. You can see it: he doesn't feel
at home: he doesn't speak; he attempts to go unnoticed, but he
stammers; he's a weird man. I'm not going to speak of the other
teachers, because there's a great temptation to caricature them
in haste. You already know them: the pudgy, good-natured one who
reads the sport pages, the blond who's a special teacher, the
time-server who's been there for years, the recently-graduated
Japanese architecture instructor, the director who organized the
coffee and crackers for the lunch hour, and so on. The fact is
that, whether they're friends or enemies, they all speak more
or less the same language, and show up at the same parties. The
only outsider, the only strange one there is my friend. Look:
after all these years, he still shakes when he drinks his coffee,
he still seeks the shadows, the corner, the rear, as he awaits
the next bell. What do they say behind his back? He's apparently
not even interested in knowing, as he looks at the wall, cup in
hand, perhaps reliving his panic that someone might speak to him.
The morning's lessons ended, the teacher gets his things together
and quickly descends the stairs, avoiding bodily contact, and,
with a slight sense of relief, emerges into the sun and the brutal
heat of March, actually more a steam that rises from the ground:
it rained all last night, and the city is a sea of clay, red clay,
invincible. Notice: the redness of the clay takes over all of
the other colors of the city. In front of each house, we see boot
scrapers that remind us of the streets of the Old West, with their
hitching rail. It used to be worse: but, thanks to a campaign
waged by the Lions and the Rotary, united for the first time,
the main avenue was paved in asphalt, the only street in town.
But the teacher is still two blocks away from that avenue, walking
along the street's more difficult side, where there are not even
any tiled walks. The good side of the street, as always, is used
by the students, and he would not feel right in joining them,
in being in the midst of the idiotic screaming of people in groups.
With each step the teacher takes, more clay becomes glued to the
soles of his shoes, and his balance is uncertain, as if he were
walking on tiny wooden legs. And there's a general lack of stones.
The very rich have bought truckloads of stone for the facades
of their homes, but even these have become discolored by the clay.
He finally reaches the avenue, wiping his feet on the asphalt,
leaving lumps of clay there, and walks quickly to the newsstand,
which this time hasn't closed for lunch. It's not exactly a newsstand,
but rather an embarrassed little furniture shop that by chance
also sells outdated newspapers and magazines - and there, as always,
at the tiny counter was Crazy Mary, deformed and stuttering, smiling
and stupid, waving at him, happy to see her friendly customer
and to give him the São Paulo newspaper, reasonably current.
She laughed, he paid, she went dizzily to the counter, took the
change from her father, gave it to the teacher, accepted his affectionate
mussing of her hair and returned to the counter to fall once again
into her deep silence.
At this point, my friend will be hungry. He walks down the avenue,
nodding to others here and there, and comes to the Snooker Bar,
with its enormous television mounted on the wall, phantasmagorical
images, always turned up well beyond normal, along with the noise
of the pool balls and the respective exclamations, and, on the
other side, the small Formica tables. He walks to the rear, to
the last table, and sits with his back to the wall and his eyes
in the newspaper, devouring pieces of old news, until the owner
of the bar brings him the same meal as always: a steak, fried
egg, rice, beans, French fries, two leaves of lettuce and three
slices of tomato. The teacher is a thin man - in fact, dry, with
a kind of stretched dryness, if you know what I mean - but he
eats well. Well and quickly: he reads his paper as he eats, like
someone who considers the act of eating to be a waste of valuable
time. There are people like that. That's why he likes the Snooker
Bar: the service is good (even though the steak is sometimes served
cold), the place is familiar (the owner knows him; there's no
prying, no tactical distrust, no ill will nor excessive good will;
mainly, there are no questions), and it's practical (there's the
owner at the register, recording another lunch, to be paid for
at the end of the month). It would take the teacher a long time
to develop that kind of ideal intimacy at some other restaurant:
so he stayed with this one, which, in fact, was his only social
space, in so many words.
His meal eaten, my friend will smoke his first cigarette of the
day. He never would smoke in the classroom (perhaps because he
would be worried that, sure enough, he would mistake his cigarette
for the chalk), and although he might dare to smoke in the teacher's
room (he had already done so, three times, with disastrous results),
he usually felt indisposed in the morning. Better: profoundly
indisposed, and a drag on a cigarette would be awful. But right
after lunch was always a good time. Watch: very few people are
able to inhale cigarette smoke with such pleasure. There's even
a touch of fury in that intake that wants to finish the cigarette
in one drag; but the exhaling of the smoke - what a relief! How
delicious! Look how he settles back, how he closes his eyes, how
he dreams! When you smoke that way, it's not even a vice!
Briefly dizzy, he goes out into the street after a discreet wave
to the owner (whose name over the years he has not yet gotten
right, it's something like Durval or Nerval), feels the strength
of the sun, practically seeing the steam rise from the clay, lowers
his head and moves forward that way, quickly, obtusely, following
straight lines, blindly, heading for home.
CRISTOVÃO TEZZA was born in 1952, in southern Brazil.
Following a formative experience in the theater, as part of a
community project in popular art, between 1968 and 1974, during
which he functioned as both playwright and actor, he realized
that literature was his metier. Besides The Gentleness of the
Wind (1991), he has published four other novels: Trapo (1988),
Juliano Pavollini (1990), The Ghost from Childhood (1994) and
A Night in Curitiba (1995). Tezza is presently a professor in
the Portuguese Language, Department of Linguistics, at the Federal
University of Paraná.