Sixteen: Benito

Conspicuous, drunk, leaning on the counter of the Bacurau Bar at the beginning of João Coelho Street, master Benito Botelho, discoursing, supercilious, resembling most that representative of Brazilian modernism Mario de Andrade, was at the head of an animated conversation about one of the subjects of his main preoccupation: the disappearance of the son of Pierre Bataillon in the depths of the Amazon forest. Benito had speculated and investigated and on that very day published an article concerning it. He was 37 years old at the time. Thin, pale, poorly dressed, drinking and smoking to excess, he had rotten teeth, a large and yellow head, mostly bald with already graying, curly hair. Big, lively, shining, mordant eyes were the only trace of his once handsomeness. Being a man of irony, bringing venomous insinuation and certainty against the powers that be and the mean, conservative milieu in which he lived, had made him no more than the lowliest proofreader of the Amazonas Comercial. But poet and polyglot, he read and spoke French, English, German and Italian, besides having a solid knowledge of Greek and Latin. Self-taught. Library employee Dona Estella Souza said that he had now read everything in the Amazon State Public Library. Conversant with the two worlds, his mastery went from philosophy to literature, from history to philology. He could recite almost the whole of the Divine Comedy and the ocean of his photographic memory enabled him to cite, in various languages, his favorite authors, some with full references – page, publisher, city and date. That had never been seen before.

The scum of Manaus society came together at the Bacurau. There were fishermen, police, queers, poets, prostitutes, communists, fishmongers, musicians and the group from the Gregório de Matos Satire Club who made life hell for the Madrugada Club. Mirandinha always appeared at dawn to conduct Leonildo Calaça, a big, mature caboclo with a voice of renown. Calixto Dinis, an uncouth and introverted little poet appeared. Old women came by looking for companionship, food and cachaça. The great poet Lopes left early. But the whole ambience smelled of fish, obscenity and murupi pepper.

Benito questioned, argued and described the whereabouts of Zequinha Bataillon. The boy had been his childhood companion; Benito grew up at Manixi, he had seen the Caxinauá, Maria, the Mule, the Myth. Oh, Benito! A sage and scholar! Unfortunately he scorned and was scorned by all. He was despised! Irreverent, loose tongued, ironic, savage, irritating. A perpetual drunk, every night, as always. Expelled from the State College. He was unrecognized. In the city the belletrists, the Academy barons, men of letters, jurists with glasses on their noses and impeccable overcoats, doctors, counsellors, magistrates and judges pontificated. Benito was not taken seriously with his penchant for vulgarity. But he was talked about in academic circles. Retalitorily.

At first Benito lived with Frei Lothar who taught him German. Then, at the orphanage of Padre Pereira who wanted him to become a priest. He was expelled from there at age 17. Then, he lived with aunt Eudócia who sold flowers and coconut candy on the Remédios Beach, artificial flowers which she learned to make as a girl in the house of her ex-mistress. Benito joined the Communist Party. He did everything at Amazonas Comercial: he was typographer, proofreader and reporter. He wrote articles that were very advanced for his time; they came out when the newspaper did not have any material to fill in empty spaces. Benito wrote them very quickly, sometimes even at the linotype machine from which the text emerged almost without errors. He had the article in his head and knew his references by heart.

Eudócia's house was a straw shack on the edge of the Sete Cacimbas Bayou. When the river rose, water splashed on the door sill. Two rooms without lighting, no running water, the bathroom a ditch. The main room - as it was called - was office, library, alcove and kitchen all in one. Aunt Eudócia slept in the bedroom. Dirt floor, hardened clay. A type of general use table where they ate between piles of books. An enormous armoire without doors transformed into a bookshelf, books heaped up and lying on their sides. This piece of furniture, a legacy of Eudócia's ex-mistress, was about 2 meters square and contained about two thousand books in several languages. His whole life, miserably there. At five in the morning Eudócia left in the direction of the Stairway Market of Remédios Beach. Benito spent his mornings in bed, afternoons at the Municipal Library, where he was often the only patron. In the evening he worked at the newspaper, the brothels and sordid bars. The Municipal Library had a valuable collection. The two thousand books in Benito's wardrobe were considered by his students (as I was one) to be the most important in the history of human culture: from Homer to Machado, from Parmenides to Marx. Benito only read serious literature, ancient and modern. People could not understand how he remained lucid, drunk that he was. A photographic memory and instantaneous intelligence.

In the Typographical, Historical, Descriptive Dictionary of the District of the Upper Amazon, authored by Navy Lieutenant Lourenço Amazonas, published in Recife in 1852, Manaus was a city “on a gentle and pleasant hill” that consisted of a public square and 16 streets “yet to be paved and illuminated”, houses covered in tiles with “900 whites, 2,500 half-breed Indians, 4,070 natives, 640 mestizos and 380 slaves”, a population “which spends part of the day in baths provided by the lakes and beaches”. When the rubber merchant Manuel dos Santos Braga arrived from Portugal in 1877, however, Manaus was already modern, just 20 years later.

Dona Maria José was already up in years when she hired Eudócia to help in the kitchen. Aunt Eudócia did not like Benito, who was a moral obligation for her, a duty at the end of her life. Eudócia was unmarried as were all servants at that time, and very tiny, visibly thin, cheery. She smiled with an expression of thousands of wrinkles of her face - her big eyes, a suffering, wide forehead. She worked until quite late. Dona Maria José liked her service, her cleanliness, honesty, silence, respect; she worked as if it were a religious rite, perfect and anonymous. The mistress wanted to take her to Portugal when she left, but Eudócia did not want to go and she went on to live off of coconut candy and paper flowers that she sold at the edge of the tapioca porridge table of Godmother Lula. No. Eudócia really did not hate Benito, but could not love him nor be happy to see him; but tired and old as she was, she had to support him from then on - the boy never earned any money to help the household, though she felt pride having him and knew that he loved her in his own way.

Benito used up the little money he earned at the Amazonas Comercial buying books and booze. He even had to ask Eudócia to lend him money for the “Flores” streetcar. Long spells unemployed, reading and writing without leaving the house. Would she be better without him? Before him, she had managed to save some money that he gradually spent by simply existing. She increased her workload. Benito was a researcher, a thinker and knew nothing more. Submerged in his internal world from which he only emerged drunk (and he had to drink to endure Manaus and other people) he would not have survived without her. A born contrarian, hated by the powers that be, Benito, personally unbearable, did not forgive anyone's mediocrity; he had not managed to get the job at the Municipal Library that he set his heart on. His was the only voice of opposition in that flattering, self-congratulatory, servile, laughable and patriarchal society. And he never loved anyone, nor knew any woman other than the prostitutes of Frei José dos Inocentes Street to whom he went when he was already quite drunk. Benito was the enemy of the elite to whom Eudócia was ally and slave – because of that, however, and being grateful toward her patroness whom she considered a saint, she did not understand her nephew's hatred, a hatred