João Paulo Cuenca – The Tattooist

From: Roberta S.
To: Cuenca /
Date: 20/10/2004 04.05 PM
Subject: An admirer

It’s just after midday. I sit on the train watching people come and go, their sullen faces, absent expressions. I see them carrying packages, handbags, holdalls. They unfold newspapers, read books, open magazines, or sit with their arms spread wide, taking up their own space as well as that of another.

[private]We reach the next stop, three stations before I get off. It doesn’t matter where I’m going or where I’ve come from. All that matters is what happens at the end of the journey, as I’ll come to explain. People jostle and try to rush faster than the train itself, as if the world might end without them. I amuse myself watching them from behind my shades, my smiling eyes hidden. And then I see him coming.

His hands are empty but for his rings, and the fact that he’s not carrying anything fits my image of him. He stumbles clumsily. He has the look of a child and he’s thinner than the last time I saw him, when he was giving a talk. He stands by the door, languidly watching people looking out for their Albertos and Carmens. I smile inside when he looks at me, but I don’t flinch, remaining impassive. I cross my legs, open my handbag, find my notebook.

I jot down a description of his trainers, wine-coloured with a white puma on each side. Olive green trousers, a sleeveless black shirt. We reach the next station and he moves into the corner. His movement is light, his bulk minimal. We’re on the move again. At the next stop some seats become free but he doesn’t sit down. He watches. I look at his face, his mouth, his small eyes. And I play a game of pretend and mentally undress him. The noise of the train, its violent shaking, hides voices, sweat, images.

We get off. I change paths and follow him, hidden in amongst the crowd. For a few yards the two of us walk together, until we reach the escalator. He’s standing in front of me and I can smell him from the step behind, breathe him in. My writer, completely naked, ambles off the escalator and I imagine touching his bum, as if by accident. I can’t help but let out a giggle, weirdo. Once outside he blends in with the crowd and is devoured by a Copacabana ready to tell him its stories.


In the months following the book’s launch I got all kinds of correspondence. Dozens of explanations for the meaning of the novel were created – readers wanted to explain to the author what it was he had written, stealing the meaning of the words and turning their creator into a puppet. The messages were all very different but they had one thing in common: they were all from women. Long letters came to my inbox from girls I didn’t know and, despite several invitations, didn’t want to know. Countless fawning messages went unanswered.

It wasn’t that the letters made me feel particularly good or bad. I puffed with vanity for about five minutes, before disappearing back into a pit of despair. It felt somehow immoral to be admired like this. They must be mistaken. Reading opinions I considered idiotic made me less fond of what I had written. I got used to it eventually, as we get used to so many things in the course of our lives.

Basically, it was more important for me to please myself than it was to please the writers of these letters, the newspaper critics, churchgoers, the editor, my new contemporaries. And I was no longer pleased. Nevertheless, I sought out my editor and told him I had an idea for a second novel. A lie, naturally. I needed the money. Contract signed, I was given some pocket change as an advance. Much less than was deserved. I spent the whole lot in a matter of months, leaving me penniless and bookless. Time wasn’t the problem: I had plenty of days and nights to spend as I pleased.

The press had already started to talk about the book – ‘among the most anticipated of the year.’ They put my bearded face on an advert and announced the launch date. People started to say, “and how’s the book going?” The book with no first line or chapter. The book that didn’t even exist in the author’s head. No hay libro – no hay banda.

Four months before my deadline, I received another letter, this time by post – registered. The sender, a certain Senhor Fernando Machado. I tore the envelope open. The guy had taken the trouble to print off what he’d written and send it by post. At the end, beneath a ‘yours sincerely,’ was his signature, an illegible scrawl that took up half the page. I thought I’d finally found an adversary as vain as myself.

I gathered the sheets of paper together, poured myself a cup of coffee and sat down to read the letter, with all the ceremony that a letter deserves.

Fernando Machado made a desperate defence of my book, in an apoplectic tone, as if I were somehow attacking it. This annoyed me and put me ill at ease, in that order. Maybe it was because Fernando described, in rich detail, how the book had influenced his way of thinking, the spiritual and physical reflexes it had provoked in him. According to Fernando, reading the book was as powerful as a ‘mystical experience’ – it had opened his eyes to a range of dormant feelings. As far as he was concerned, I was a writer unaware of my powers. So he treated me with a certain condescension, as if there were two of me: one who wrote the book and one who acted as agent to this superior authority – and, it naturally followed, was ignorant and weak. He said I should take care of myself, ignore the critics and shun literary influences, because I seemed not to have any and was operating at a different level – something he called a ‘vibration,’ a term he would go on to use hundreds of times.

In the final paragraph of his bizarre letter, he said he would soon be making me an irresistible offer. Honest and virtuous work. And that he had left a token of his goodwill inside the smaller envelope. I recovered the scrunched up envelope from the bin and found that, sure enough, there was another envelope inside it, stuck on with glue. He must have wanted me to find out about the money only after I’d read the letter. It was a cheque, a travellers cheque, for five thousand dollars.

I cashed the cheque at a bureau de change that very day and stuffed the real live money into my pockets. When I started to walk out, the teller became incredulous and tried to call me a taxi. I crossed the road and headed for the metro. If I were robbed, justice would be done. I didn’t feel the money was mine.

It was hot and so I stopped off at the Colombo for a cold drink. I ordered a beer and something to go with it, then stared at my face, reproduced hundreds of times in the mirrors on the walls. There I was, alongside the waiters and tables, an interruption in the never-ending game of reflections. Then I went to a second-hand bookshop in the arcade and bought all the books and records they had by writers and artists beginning with the letter ‘J’. I did it to liven up the afternoon and to see the shop assistants’ reaction. But they didn’t say anything, not until I was on my way out and one of them helped me with my bags and tried to strike up a conversation. Too late. I put everything in a taxi, gave the driver my address and told him to leave it all outside my front door. I was hoping he’d at least steal the books.


Everyone has his price and Senhor Fernando Machado obviously had his reasons for believing five thousand dollars was mine. I imagined he’d want to contract my services to write a book, which he would then pass off as his own. Lots of people are desperate to see their name on a book cover, and he was certainly the type. Or maybe he’d want me to teach him how to write, give him classes on literature, the creative process, literary projects and the like. I’d waste my time in such a way if he paid me.

Two weeks later I got a package in the post, with some money and another envelope inside. Inside that envelope was a simple and explicit text. I was to sign a contract of confidentiality and return to sender, thus confirming my interest. I would be paid each month, a sum double the amount of the advance. For the next six months my task would simply be to study the files he sent me and write reports on them. At a later date I would receive more detailed instructions, all of it by post.

The contract he’d enclosed was straightforward and I signed it right away. I posted it to the return address – a PO Box – and got a package a few days later. It contained the agreed monthly sum, a short note and a file. The file consisted of several photos of a child, drawings, homework, children’s essays and other remnants of school life; letters he’d received; passages from a diary: fragments of Fernando Machado’s life. I was sent such a file every month, along with my cheque, all of it equally tedious in terms of content.

The guy was born in 1968. A Zona Sul family, military grandfather, apartment on Rainha Elizabeth. He went to Santo Inácio high school, studied engineering at a private college, did a post-grad in the US and a masters in France. He returned to the country to join the management of a multinational. He’d written a diary since the age of 25, continuing up to the present, age 37. The sad story of an immature man who’d married too young and fathered two kids on autopilot.

He’d drifted along, impervious to his own feelings. He never stopped to think about why he’d got married, had kids, acquired money, a car, an apartment. He’d been out with a few girls from the office and shagged a few whores, but was never particularly into that kind of thing. He spent his weekends playing tennis with colleagues from the corporation. He was programmed for success and the easy life, to sit smiling on sofas in houses he owned, like in the brochures delivered by girls in shorts in Ipanema.

By the time I was due to receive the final file, I had enough notes and material to write a 500-page biography. At first there had been something repugnant about knowing all the details of somebody else’s life, but with time I came to pity the protagonist. I ended up knowing beforehand how he would react to things and was able to anticipate the course his life took. This little game enabled me to carry on reading.

When I wasn’t reading about him I was busy spending his money in stupid fashion. I bought expensive meals for people I barely knew. I contracted home carers from the newspaper, poured beer over their heads as I asked them questions about philosophy and the life and death of the cosmos. I bought old photographic cameras that no longer worked. I stayed in hotels and pretended to be German; though I couldn’t speak a word, nobody ever doubted me. No one in Rio de Janeiro has ever been able to speak German.

I stopped answering the phone.

I went to Cinelândia almost every day. I liked arriving halfway through a film. I would watch until the end, wait for them to clean out the auditorium, for couples to unstick themselves, the hordes of single women to leave and the place to become empty. Then they’d all come back, to the sound of popcorn and bullets, trailers, adverts and the start of the film. I liked watching the start having already seen the end. It was like being able to go back in time, to get divorced and then kiss your ex-wife again for the first time. Already knowing the outcome, knowing you’d end up hating the woman, that she’d make you want to kill yourself. But so what? As long as the film was good.

I completely abandoned the book idea I’d sold to my editor six months previously, and felt very little remorse. I lied openly to anyone who asked me about it, dutiful journalists and flatterers. The Fernando Machado project took up all my ‘constructive’ time, if you could call it that. And I’d already begun to outline the book of his life – in a short space of time I’d come to know him better than I knew myself.

When the final package arrived, it contained not a file of papers but a letter, handwritten by Fernando Machado himself.

Rio, March 10, 2005.
Dear Cuenca,

By this stage in proceedings you should be fully informed. About me, my family, my job and the film of mould growing over my life.

I’d like to recall an episode for you. Once upon a time a tutor of mine at school sent my mother a letter because I had painted a wound on my foot and asked to be excused from class. The letter was included in the second file I sent you. I learned to fashion these wounds from a book called ‘The Spy’s Handbook’, which I referenced in the files.

It was my favourite book and I took it with me everywhere I went. I learned from it to look in car windows and shop fronts to tell whether I was being followed. I learned to create secret identities and to write in code. And I learned to make my first wounds. I used Nescau chocolate powder and blackcurrant syrup to simulate the blood, plus nail polish straight on the skin for extra emphasis. I outlined the scab in black felt-tip and used red and purple to finish it off. It looked so realistic that my mother, friends and teachers always fell for it.

As I got older, I continued to make these wounds, but in other forms. I fell in love with a girl, we were together for a few years, as you know. Then two or three others until I married Carol. The most beautiful wound to date. They leave us, dear Cuenca, but the wounds remain. With time I learned that they cause pain, even though they’re not real. I invent scars and see them stuck all over my body, until I am nothing but a collection of sores. Just as seconds destroy hours and days, I accumulate more wounds than ever I lacked, until I become a big empty hole, covered in gaps from my neck down. I am now more what I’ve lost than I am what I have. You know this better than anyone.

Maybe I sent you all this to dispel the idea that there wasn’t enough time. I feel blocked, but there’s nothing for me to move out of the way. I wake up every day and feel sick. Perhaps I’m not making myself clear. Let me explain.

A few months ago I decided to end it all. I encouraged a friend, via rather subtle means, if such a thing is possible, to insinuate himself into Carol’s affections, no matter how much she resisted. It was easy to persuade him. From the photos you’ll have seen how beautiful she is, and from the videos what a good screw. I know that the two of them meet, but that she hasn’t yet dared give in. This friend is a great guy and he’ll be a good provider for her and my children. Matters at the firm are likewise taken care of. And I, myself, am quite calm. I’d planned it that my life would end in a clean and quick fashion. I arranged it all with a lad from the favela near home. He was to shoot me in my car and take my money. Thus I would be the victim of an assault and not a suicide, which would shame the children.

I read your book recently, and I promise not to talk about it any more. But it gave me an idea which made me renounce my plan. I didn’t send you all this stuff about my life in order for you to write my biography, as you must have thought. My life, as you know better than anyone, doesn’t even merit a short film.

The main thing is that I’ve renounced the suicide plan. Kind of. Tomorrow I’m leaving everything and moving to an apartment on Rua Santa Clara in Copacabana. It’s completely empty. I’ll arrive with no more than the clothes on my back.

Cuenca, I’ve informed you so thoroughly about myself in preparation for a new job. It’s not literature. It’s not cinema. It’s not theatre.

Every day you’ll have two meetings with me: one at ten in the morning and one at ten at night. Each will last half an hour. You will work through the night and provide me with instructions in the morning on how to spend my day. At night, I’ll tell you what happened, giving you the material to prepare the next day. I will follow your instructions blindly, no matter what they are.

As you can see, it’s quite simple: from now on, I’ll pay you to write what I do with my life. I want you to craft your literature on me, as a tattooist paints his designs on a person’s skin.

And I know you’ll accept the job.[/private]

Written by João Paulo Cuenca and translated by Jethro Soutar.
João Paulo Cuenca was born in Rio. His novels include Corpo Presente, O dia Mastroianni and O único final feliz para uma história de amor é um acidente. In 2007 the Hay Festival and Bogotá World Book Capital included him among the “Bogotá 39″—one of the 39 most exciting young authors in Latin America. His novels have been published in Portugal, Spain, Italy and Germany.
A former São Paulo resident, Jethro Soutar is a London-based writer and translator of Portuguese and Spanish.

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