Manual of Painting and Calligraphy, page 18
And so I take my leave of the dead. This is a nice way of turning back to the living. Take a look at my closest friends: Carmo, Sandra, Ricardo and Concha, Ana and Francisco, Chico, Antonio (I wonder where he is?), Adelina (farewell). These are my friends. I know they are out there struggling, in and out of each other’s company, or in mine, with no good reason for remaining friends, with no good reason for ceasing to be friends. Alive, each with his or her own life, and on reflection, it is quite obvious why we know so little about each other, partly because they remain withdrawn, partly because I do the same, partly out of fear, partly out of pride. There is also a curious parasitism here. Within society we rotate like tiny globes with an invisible but almost insurmountable surface, or if not insurmountable, resistant, wherein we mutually trace complicated orbits, I and these living creatures, these living creatures and I, and all the others with each other. But there is a life common to all, that which embraces, as it were, all the globes. It is this life which is forever receiving the uninterrupted inheritance of corpses, while constantly launching new living beings into the world, all of them transforming and transformed, the agents of the minute changes to which they are subjected.
This explains why my conversation with Melina Mercouri in Positano, although only imagined, was quite feasible, and I was able to ask her how things were going in her country under fascism and for her to ask me how things were going in my country under a similar regime. We both refrained from making any reply. (I have no fascist friends, unless someone is deceiving me. All of us, with all our faults and virtues, are antifascist. Insofar as we have solemnly put our signatures to paper as if expecting this to bring a greater good to the world and to Portugal. All of us have contributed money at some time or other to worthy causes and through mysterious channels, without really knowing which of us delivered the message, or preferring not to notice. We already exchanged books and reading matter, opinions and prophesies. We longed for the death of Salazar. We now deplore the existence of this Américo Tomás and Marcelo Caetano. We dream of their disappearance without knowing or asking ourselves what will happen after they have gone or who will replace them. But nearly all of us become remarkably imaginative when the conversation turns to politics. For years now Ricardo, who is a doctor and seriously influenced by the methods and efficiency of commando operations, has been swearing that half a dozen well-trained men, ten at most, could attack São Bento there, a volley of gunfire here, a bomb over there, a stabbing yonder, and in no time at all capture Salazar [who was still in power then], stamp out fascism, in short, save the nation. Smiling sarcastically, Antonio replied there was no need for so many men, two would be enough. Ricardo, solemn as ever, entered into the game and defended his theory: no, two would be madness, ten, yes, or six as a last resort. Antonio insisted two men were enough. He could even name the two saviors he had in mind. Himself and Ricardo. Whereupon he asked provocatively, “Will you join us? This is really what it boils down to. You’ll see, the minute we decide to go all this will end, it won’t last, it will go out like a flame. But we have to go, we can’t stay here in comfort and safety, trying to tell ourselves it would take six or ten men to pull it off.” Ricardo could not control his temper. And Concha played the supportive little wife and agreed with him, to Antonio’s annoyance. Antonio fell silent and refused to argue any further. Salazar continued to govern, then fell from his throne, rotted and died. And now we are stuck with Marcello with two els, just as Tomás signs his name Thomaz, the people are referred to as the congregation, the fatherland called holy. Everything has changed for the better but only on the surface. That’s how things stand here, Melina. And I presume they’re not much different over there.)
IT CAME AS no surprise. Some days ago (I am referring, by the way, to an interruption of several weeks, from the moment the picture began to take on meaning and form), I began to feel that my clients from Lapa were becoming restless. I had dispensed with the wife’s presence and had been working on the husband’s portrait, but asked both of them to be present for the final stages of the portrait. That was yesterday. I arrived punctually, more of an obsession than a habit in my case, and was shown in by the maid (a withered old hag), who left me in a room which looked onto the garden and where, presumably because of the better light, my easel had been installed. There I found another maid waiting (this seemed to be the routine), who went immediately to summon the master and mistress. From the behavior of the two maids (especially that of the old hag) I sensed there was something amiss. I went up to the easel, uncovered the canvas and examined my work. I felt pleased with the result. I had the feeling the tension in the air had something to do with the portrait. The background was white, not exactly white, light in color, but worked in with that mixture of tints which evokes an unmistakable whiteness or the effect white has on the retina, which we are constantly having to adapt (perhaps not the retina, yet it could be the retina after all) to our idea of white. The likeness to the models was undeniable, but frankly, this portrait was not a worthy successor to those blotched and lifeless paintings I depended on for a living. Both the man and the woman had been painted (how can I put it?) in duplicate, that is to say, with those first essential touches to give the outline and shape of the face, the head, the neck, and then, over all of this, but in such a way that any excess is concealed, a second layer of paint was applied which did nothing other than accentuate what was already there. In the case of the wife, the effect was more obvious, because there I had to introduce an intermediate layer of paint to cope with her makeup. The picture produced a sense of disquiet, like sudden laughter in an empty house.
As I was preparing my brushes the door opened. The master of the household arrived on his own, looking extremely nervous. He bade me good afternoon, biting on the words so as to remove any hint of warmth or intimacy, which could only make things more difficult. I replied politely and gave him a questioning look which he was free to interpret in various ways: “What’s the matter?” “Isn’t your wife coming?” “Have your shares gone down?” Gesturing with my hand, I pointed to the chair, but he shook his head with a violence which seemed inappropriate under the circumstances, then went on the offensive. At least he tried: “I’ve come to tell you. Forgive me, but I’ve only come to tell you that . . .” He broke off, cleared his throat twice. “You can’t sit for me today?” I asked him, trying to be helpful. “No, it isn’t that. I’ve come to tell you that we’ve decided not to go through with the portrait.” “Not to go ahead with the portrait? I don’t understand. Why this sudden decision when it’s almost finished?” “That can’t be helped. We’ve decided we don’t want it. If you can tell me how much I owe you, I’ll settle your fee right away.” “You know my fee. You’ve known since the moment you commissioned the painting.” “Yes, I know, but the portrait isn’t finished and I thought . . .” “Then you thought wrongly. Do you think a hundred brushstrokes are worth more than thirty? That a painting is like a carpet, so much per meter, in other words, so much per brushstroke?” “I don’t want any arguments. If that’s your attitude, then here’s your check.” He took out his checkbook and pen and scribbled rapidly, taking his time, however, over the flourishes of his signature before handing over the check. I remained quite still. “Have you made this decision because you don’t like the portrait?” “Not exactly. My wife and daughter think . . . Well, the portrait scarcely shows any likeness. Several friends of ours have commissioned portraits recently and they didn’t turn out like this. Please take your check.” “My dear fellow, let’s see if we can get this straight. You’re telling me you don’t want the painting because you don’t like it, or because your wife and daughter don’t like it, and so you’d rather pay me off?” “I’m in the habit of paying for anything I order, whether it’s a painting or whatever.” “That’s fortunate for those you deal with. There’s nothing like having a clear conscience.” He gave his jacket a sharp tug and looked at me, trying to decide whether I was being ironic. Putting on a solemn face, I trie
I adopted a conciliatory note. “You don’t like the portrait, therefore you don’t want it. Very well. You can keep your check and I’ll keep the painting.” The two men advanced on me: “Oh no, you don’t. The picture belongs to me and my fiancée, my father-in-law commissioned the portrait and here it remains.” “I don’t understand. Unless you pay for the picture, how can you expect to keep it?” “But we’re prepared to pay for it, I’ve already offered to pay you.” “So you did. But I also made it clear that I refuse to accept payment for a picture I’ve not yet finished.” “But this is our portrait,” the father said in despair. “True, but it belongs to me.” Whereupon the future son-in-law advanced several paces while the girl looked on in satisfaction. He stuck his hands in his trouser pockets as if he were not from Lapa or about to be married in Lapa. “Look here, are you trying to make a fool of me? Let’s settle this matter once and for all before I lose my temper.” I glanced at the girl. “Do you mean to say you’re threatening me here in your own house?” The father intervened: “No one is threatening you, but can’t you see you’re being unreasonable?” “I’m not being unreasonable. I’m simply being logical. Either I finish the portrait and receive my fee or I leave the portrait unfinished and take it away with me as unsold. Nothing could be simpler.” A deathly silence filled the room. The father nervously fingered the check. The son-in-law backed away and was looking at the girl as if pleading for help. And the girl was still smiling. I lifted the portrait carefully to avoid scraping the paint, wished them good afternoon, informed them I would send someone to collect the easel later and left. The two men came after me. “You can’t do this.” “Oh yes, I can, I most certainly can. And now if you’ll be so kind as to allow me to pass.” From the room looking onto the garden came a burst of laughter. The entire episode, in fact, had been ridiculous. And the farce continued, there at the top of the carpeted stairway where various things were happening at the same time: the son-in-law trying to grab me by the arm but unsure of succeeding, the father-in-law pointing his finger in silent fury at a maid who had been spying but was now scurrying away, while the mistress of the household finally made her appearance in the wide doorway with an expression of wounded pride. “We ought to call the police,” suggested the son-in-law. But his father-in-law resisted the idea. There was little point in adding scandal to their humiliation. He shouted after me threateningly, “I shall be consulting my lawyer. Get out of here.” I was free at last under the specter of justice.
I slowly made my way downstairs, and on reaching the bottom step, I looked back. Like generals on parade, the two men were glaring down at me with hatred in their eyes. I left quietly, taking care not to damage the canvas and, cautiously opening the trunk of the car, gently eased the picture inside as if I were lowering a sleeping child into its cot. Before closing the trunk, I momentarily glanced at the portrait. Two masked faces were staring up at me and I watched them there at my mercy, laid out flat and looking quite subdued. I slammed down the lid of the trunk. As I got into the car, I caught a glimpse in the side mirror of a curtain being drawn back. Who could it be? Those insolent, prying maids? The outraged males in that household? Their indignant women, or rather one of them, the other perhaps still amused? I felt sorry for the girl. She might be the same as the others, or end up being the same, but there was something different about her sameness, a crack in the porcelain, imperceptible to the naked eye but already sounding hollow. One finds this in certain wealthy families: things which can drive people to suicide. There was every reason to believe that history would repeat itself.
As for me, I knew perfectly well what had happened. In the trunk I was carrying a bomb with a delayed fuse but nonetheless deadly. The mechanism already working. Whatever I might do, I was finished as a portrait painter hired by people who could afford to pay. Even if I were to turn back, to destroy the portrait in the presence of my victims and paint another according to their wishes and traditional criteria, my career was finished. Even if I were to apologize and take back everything I had said. The basket weaver who makes one basket can just as easily make a hundred; let no man say from this water I shall not drink; the jug is carried to the well until the handle finally breaks. I had made one basket and could just as easily make a hundred, I had drunk from that water and upset my clients by leaving them with the handle of the jug in their hands. Within twenty-four hours (or forty-eight, or fifteen days, not to exaggerate my importance) the Lisbon which exploited my talents will know not to use me again. It was a question of honor: a telephone call, a chance encounter during a game of golf or bridge, or during a pause at a board meeting, and with a few cautious words which scarcely gave a true account of what really happened, the matter would be settled. I have written this in the subjunctive, but it ought to be in the future tense, now that I find myself at home engaged in the inevitable task of writing these papers. In the future and present tense as well. I am finished as the painter of these shits I have been painting and who have provided me with a living. Within days my reputation as a painter will have been completely destroyed. What are those who own my paintings likely to do? Keep them because they like them, or out of stubbornness because they cost good money? Will my pictures be hidden in attics, be slashed down the middle with a knife, be banished to some country house, removed from frames worth keeping and the canvases destroyed? Any of these things might happen. Esprit de corps will demand this final act of my liquidation. No one will have the courage to oppose the general consensus. Some will perversely resist the idea, having grown accustomed to seeing the picture hanging in the boardroom, office or council chamber (what will the SPQR do? and what will S. do?), but my only real hope of survival will depend on how much love the living continue to show for the dead commemorated in these portraits. If the dead man was esteemed, out of affection, or for less sentimental reasons, then perhaps his portrait will escape this act of faith (or auto-da-fé); if he was not esteemed, the opportunity everyone longed for has come at last, and without further ado the owners of the firm will be rid of that hideous portrait and the unpleasant memories it evokes. There are always ways and means of achieving our secret ambitions: all we need is to find some pretext.
With the picture in the car trunk, I drove aimlessly around the city thinking about some of the things I would come to write later, allowing other things to escape which were probably just as important (as unimportant or even more important). A justifiable note on the part of someone wh
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