Civic drama between coffee and biscuits
The twin brothers Pedro and Paulo were symmetrically opposite and even fought with each other while still in their mother’s womb. Born on April 7, 1831: the day when Pedro I fell off the throne, Paulo would say; the day when His Majesty ascended the throne, commented Pedro, referring to the rising of Pedro II. To Pedro, the abolition in 1888 was an act of justice, and to Paulo, it was a sign of the beginning of the revolution. Pedro and Paulo were actually born in 1904, the same year when the book Esau and Jacob was released, a novel about the so-called realistic phase written by Machado de Assis. In his book, the author, as usual, blends public and private spheres while tracing the psychology of his characters amid the political events of his time, challenging the political comedy of the period.
Machado prepares an allegory of the Brazilian political disputes of his time through the story of these two brothers: Pedro was cautious and secretive while Paulo was brash and aggressive; Pedro was a monarchist and Paulo a republican; and finally, Pedro wanted to study medicine and Paulo, law.
Thus, the work brings a historical background and exudes a certain discomfort regarding the attitude of the population which always seems to be jettisoned from the political process. In chapter "Manhã de 15" (Morning of 15) (referring to the proclamation of the Republic on November 15, 1989) for example, Aires, the wise adviser - a character who has dubious opinions and is always willing to harmonize (a "sincere person” in his own way ") - leaves home to find a convulsed city and with disparate ideas. And that is when Machado introduces an episode that, without being crucial to the narrative, was added to the work: Custódio had barely finished ordering a new signboard for his traditional “Empire’s Patisserie" when he learned that a revolution had broken out and "vaguely a Republic." He then sent a note asking the painter to interrupt the work on the letter d. However, and to his amazement, he soon learned that the work had already been completed.
Faced with the need of a new signboard, Custódio, who was constantly cussing out the revolution ("To hell with the Revolution"), remembered his neighbor: The adviser Aires. A revealing debate concerning the name of the establishment was initiated, although both of them agreed that "It had nothing to do with politics." Aires made his first suggestion: To change the title to "The Republic’s Confectionery." However, they feared that in a few months there could be a new upheaval which could result in more monetary losses. The adviser suggested a compromise: the name "Government's Confectionery," which would fit in any regime. But they later concluded that all governments have opposition and that the same might very well break the new signboard. Aires also advised Custódio to leave the original title - " Empire’s Confectionery " - and just add "founded in 1860." But the owner thought the tone could be seditious in these nervous times. They tried something else: leave the word empire adding the following to the bottom and center with smaller letters: of the laws. Custódio thought it was a useful idea but was afraid that passers-by would only notice the large letters and would not pay attention to the smaller ones. The adviser thought of a new strategy: "Catete’s Confectionery”.
But Custódio, having "delicate feelings", felt that his shop was not the only one in the neighborhood. They finally decided to use the owner’s name: "Custódio’s Confectionery," which had no political meaning or historical figuration: no hate, no love. "Nothing that could call the attention of the two regimes." And so the complex conversation ended: "They spent something for exchanging one word for another, Custódio instead of Empire, but revolutions always bring expenses". Incidentally, this is the end of the episode, but not “of the fashion trends" which, according to Machado, "are ever-changing”.
This is not about reducing the analysis of this work to its dialogue with the political context. In this case, however, there is no denying the ironic parallel between the change of governments and the change of the signboards. The subject matter is not only the contingent nature of the new political situation, such as the importance of "names" and their impact on reality. More than that, the writer always discusses the theme starting at private relations. It is Custódio’s despair that brightens the impasses of that moment marked by uncertainty, as well as Aires’s diplomatic outputs that many times show how political exchanges can also go through changes in appointment practices. After all, much of the first Republic acts focused on the frequent change of the names of streets, squares, schools and institutions. Not to mention the rushed competition for the creation of a new anthem, or the re-reading of our flag’s colors which instead of representing the imperial houses, began to refer to the green of our forests and the blue of our skies.
But in the book Esau and Jacob, all the drama is lived in the key of personhood. Pedro, Paulo, Custódio and Aires play the part of our always watchful politicians. Not by coincidence that, in memory of Aires, Machado de Assis would assert that “there's no public celebration that doesn't deserve a good private one”.
Lilia Moritz Schwarcz is a professor in the department of anthropology at the University of São Paulo (USP) and author, among other books, of “A longa viagem da biblioteca dos reis” (The Long Journey of the Kings’ Library) (Companhia das Letras, 2002), and “As barbas do imperador -d. Pedro II, um monarca dos trópicos” (Companhia das Letras, 1999) (The Emperor's Beard – D. Pedro II and His Tropical Monarchy).
(RHBN. Nº 5. November 2005. PP.18-19)