The Chronicle of the Murdered House


By Jeff Bursey


In his introduction to Chronicle of the Murdered House (winner of the 2017 Best Translated Book Award in Fiction), Benjamin Moser briefly presents the life and art of Lúcio Cardoso (1912–1968) for an English-speaking audience who would be largely unfamiliar with his work or place in Brazilian literature. Indeed, Moser says his subject “is primarily remembered for two things: being gay, and being loved by Clarice Lispector.” Summarizing the response to The Light in the Basement, an earlier Cardoso novel, by fiction writer and critic Mário de Andrade (1893–1945), Moser states that one of aspects that appealed to “Brazil’s ultimate cultural arbiter” was the “‘spiritual dimension’” of the work that ran counter to the prevailing “materialistic” trend in their country’s literature. “In that time and place,” Moser informs us, “the alliance with religion made more sense than it would later seem. The Church was a logical home, and not only because it had always been full of gay men, offering redemption to those weighed down by the awareness of sin…. [Some people] sought to be saved through art. Writing was for them a spiritual exercise, not an intellectual one.” Along with his Catholicism and homosexuality, from early on Cardoso demonstrated an obsession “with movie stars…” The title of the introduction is succinct: “Bette Davis in Yoknapatawpha.”

Gay life hadn’t featured often in Brazilian literature, and when Chronicle of the Murdered House appeared in 1959 the figure of the cross-dresser Timóteo Meneses had “no precedents.” However, the gay brother of Valdo and their eldest brother Demétrio, and brother-in-law of Ana (wife of Demétrio), is not the cause of the inevitable downfall of this prideful family (and his presence is rare, making homosexuality a more sequestered topic in this novel than Moser’s introduction seems to indicate). That task is assigned to Nina, Valdo’s wife, and the mother of André. Her presence and absence are felt over the course of roughly seventeen years, and determine the fate of the Meneses’ home—called the Chácara, located in a community called Vila Velha—and its inhabitants. In leisurely fashion, Cardoso shows the effect she has on her husband and in-laws and on certain individuals who live in the orbit of the Meneses. My concern in this review is to discuss features of Chronicle of the Murdered House that stand out the most to me.



Leaving aside plot spoilers, Cardoso’s novel is straightforward: Valdo Meneses marries Nina, who he met in Rio, and brings her back to the Chácara to live with the rest of his family. She engages in a sexual relationship with the gardener that escapes her husband’s notice. Her pregnancy provokes a family discussion about where the birth should occur. While Valdo maintains the medical facilities in the village are adequate, Demétrio, whose inheritance of the estate is threatened by the imminent existence of the child, and who has created “fantastical stories” (76) that speak darkly about Nina, argues that she would be better off utilizing Rio de Janeiro’s health care, a position which Nina eventually adopts.

When he saw her mind was made up, Valdo had turned very pale: “Is there no other way, Nina? Are you really leaving?” No, there was no other way; she was leaving. Then he had compounded his brother’s insults with one great, definitive insult of his own: “I don’t know why God punished me by making me fall in love with and choose a prostitute to be the mother of my son. Because that’s what you are, Nina. It’s written all over your face, branded on your forehead: you’re one of those sluts who follow men in the streets . . .” She had sprung angrily to her feet, and it was there and then that she had decided to pack her bags and leave the Pavilion [another building on the estate] where she had, albeit briefly, been so happy. Now she was determined to put an end to this charade, once and for all. There was no love between them; there was nothing at all. He had met her at a time of great difficulty for her, when her father was ill, and as soon as her father had died, Valdo had showered her with love and attention and convinced her she should accompany him to the Chácara. That was all. Since she’d arrived, however, she had realized that she would not be able to live there for very long. She was from Rio and used to life in a big city.

Her departure fits into Demétrio’s plan to estrange husband and wife and thereby diminish Nina’s hold on Valdo. Shortly after André is born Ana visits Rio to claim the child for the Meneses family. He is given over, and Nina remains in the city, consoled and assisted by her old friend the Colonel, who knew her dead father well. When the boy is sixteen Nina, reduced to writing begging letters to Valdo, defiantly returns to the Chácara. Not long after her arrival she and André begin an affair. There are family confrontations. At some point it’s noticed that Nina is physically ill. She dies fairly quickly, after which the family collapses.

The telling of the story is more compelling than the story itself, although attention flags when the prose and ideas become repetitive, and when events move forward too incrementally. It may be precisely those features that make the reading experience of Chronicle of the Murdered House isolating—is there no world outside the slights, the lies, and the hormonal passion?—and claustrophobic, since almost everything takes place at the Chácara. Everything that’s said or reported provokes ruminations on the abundant mean-mindedness and misogyny, on the ever-dwindling affluence of the Meneses, and on the spiritual aspect. Several times when in the mind of this or that deluded or mistaken or conniving character I recalled a performance of Federico García Lorca’s The House of Bernarda Alba in London thirty years ago, where several women stewed under intense stage lighting in a tense household in Spain. If memory is any guide (and memory is a prominent exculpatory and damning device in Cardoso’s novel, for many of the characters are relating their versions of events years later), as the audience we were there with them from curtain to curtain, such was the appalling strength of the play and the fine performances of the actors. By the end my two companions and I were drained and eager to escape the theatre, for we had shared some of the slow torture the oppressed and restricted characters endured. With Chronicle of the Murdered House one can take a break by setting down the book, but the self-conceit of the Meneses, and puzzling out what the in-laws are really doing under cover of surface actions and utterances, only reduces the buzzing in one’s head, not stops it entirely.



In any work that offers multiple accounts, truth will be obscured. Cardoso’s narrative is sliced several ways: diary entries from André, and from a servant named Betty; confessions from Ana to Father Justino; Father Justino’s accounts; reports by a pharmacist, and a doctor; letters from Nina to Valdo, and to the Colonel; statements from the Colonel, and Valdo; and memoirs of Timóteo. None aims to give a full picture, and much is left to conjecture. A small set of incidents is frequently returned to, and each person’s opinion on them overlays and complicates what occurred. Many involve the teenage gardener, Alberto, who becomes the sexual interest of Nina and the obsession of Ana. (He also attracts Timóteo, banished to his room and watching life through a window.) He maintains order in the luxurious garden of the Chácara, and when he goes there is nothing to check the natural world from overrunning the grounds and, in time, the physical structures. His departure is due to immaturity, ardency for Nina’s beauty, and her abandonment of the Chácara soon after she becomes pregnant with André.

With that ill-starred love affair Cardoso introduces a well-worn device. Alberto is a stock figure, the innocent among the wicked, despite the fact that from him, in significant ways, springs much of the tension and subterfuge that drive this 600-page work. For many Catholic writers, a garden is symbolic of Eden. Alberto is Adam; there are many reprehensible characters—Demétrio, as an example, is disliked or detested by everyone—but Nina embodies both Eve and the tempting serpent. She is regarded as an evil force, and repeatedly described as beautiful in such a way that her body and her allure are sin incarnated.

In one of Ana’s confessions to Father Justino, she says: “Father, I believe I have seen the tangible presence of the devil, more than that, I have, with my own silence and, therefore, my acquiescence, contributed to the silent destruction of the house and family which have, for many years, been mine.” She continues:

One day, though, when the sun seemed even hotter than usual and the poppies were wilting in the heat, I suddenly saw [Nina] coming down the Pavilion steps at a speed which, at first, I thought languid and, later, judged to be cautious. She was wearing a flimsy pink negligée tied at the waist with a velvet ribbon. I give these details so that you can picture the woman and understand what a very disruptive presence she was. For a moment, dazzled by the sun, I saw her whirling around among the flowers, her clothes fluttering about her. She seemed entirely untroubled by the brilliant light and set off purposefully. I don’t know what dark force impelled me to follow her.

The contrast of light and dark, of gaiety and gloom, is not commented on, but the “dark force” is a compound of envy, wrath, and frustration. It is Nina’s unforgiveable fault to be in high spirits and to dress in a way that is considered immodest, a contrast with the “usual drab clothes,” in André’s description, that his aunt wears. Ana would like to distance herself from inquiring about that “dark force,” and this type of evasion is common among the family. Valdo, though he denies the existence of God, believes, like Ana, in the devil. This goes along with thoughts he assumes Demétrio has:

Slowly, he began to see Nina as a threat to his peace of mind, his well-being and even his integrity, and he ended up deciding that she was a danger to everyone—an evil that, for everyone’s sake, must be rooted out. It’s true that he never actually confronted the matter head-on (or so at least Ana assumed), and he never managed to come to terms with something that he saw as the result not of his own weakness, but of the diabolical actions of that woman. He both loved and hated her— that was his dilemma.

Nina’s deeds and words indicate she is not a paragon of virtue; for Valdo, she becomes a slut and prostitute. A reader will judge her for hurting or confounding her new family, and the Colonel as well (though no one in this book is blameless). The words evil and diabolical recur to describe her and her influence, giving the impression that the men and women she meets are helpless to defend themselves. Valdo regards hell as “this house, this verandah, this homogenizing sun”; Ana confronts Father Justino and, in a wonderfully mad and blasphemous scene, demands that he perform a miracle; and at Nina’s wake André emphatically tells his father “…Christ is nothing but a lie.” (573). There is no possibility of salvation, so various narrators testify, because the world is Godless and evil is rampant.

Questions about faith bring out the family’s worst side. Each member expects life to work out according to a dim and fearful conception of God’s will. Consequently, when confronted by a disruptive force Cardoso shows that it’s not surprising that their worst and most superstitious fears arise. That force—Ana’s word comes to mind—is Nina, who stands in for the corrupt influence of the world that is less and less held at bay. Amongst the family there is never any talk of national or international affairs, and no voice from outside disturbs their mental stagnation, except for what Nina describes in letters from Rio—a scandalous existence when her husband and son live so far away—or through her expensive dresses that make the journey from fancy city shops to the cordoned-off Chácara. (In a telling gesture Demétrio has them burned for fear of contagion. Even unexpected visits by neighbours are unwanted.) Against this cosmopolitan influence, the Meneses’ weak and ill-supported faith crumbles. Since none of the family work they accumulate larger and larger bills, staving off total collapse through the sale of parcels of land now and then. Their future is never truly faced, not even by Demétrio who knows the ledgers best; he warns others not to spend, but is bankrupt of ideas when it comes to ensuring their prosperity. We know from early on that the slow decay of the family name and fortune had started well before Nina appeared, and her influence, if it speeds things up, does not alter the course. What Cardoso has written is a deterministic novel charting the decline of a once-respected family that raises, on the religious level, the thorny topic of predestination. Free will is missing in the consciousness of the narrators despite the occasions when they admit to an error or take what seems to be decisive action, and they regularly reveal impotence in the face of Nina—or the images of her each has in mind—and the replacement of firm faith with shallow superstitions.

That absence of agency merges with an essential belief of conservative Catholicism: misogyny. Ana has been raised from a young girl to be the perfect wife for Demétrio, but she has never been loved by him nor loved him in return, and she is barely regarded by her nephew. Present or absent, Nina is eternally guilty of sinfulness. You might as well say her name is Legion, for as Eve she represents every woman. (Though duplicitous in her own way, Ana is not as sexually alive as Nina.) We return to Cardoso’s love of “movie stars, and [that he] played with dolls.” Is Nina both? Are those the only roles a woman in his time would have been able to fulfill in Brazilian society? Despite (or because of) his reverence for actresses and the context he comes out of, mingled with Brazilian mores of the time, in this novel Cardoso relies on, if not consciously then unconsciously, the more severe teachings of the Church Fathers who debased and criticized women no matter what they did. From Tertullian: “Woman, you are the gate to hell.” Albertus Magnus concluded: “And so, to put it briefly, one must be on one’s guard with every woman, as if she were a poisonous snake and the horned devil.” Without God’s aid or grace, and craving women to love and be loved, therefore proving himself weak in the flesh, how can Valdo overcome her? Would Alberto ever be able to resist the devilish seductress? What could protect André from the enticing woman from Rio? “Yes, Father Justino,” writes Valdo, “once again there is a storm brewing over the Chácara, and it is an agglomeration of all those wicked, aimless feelings that I see once again building up over the heads of innocent people.” The men, and Ana, are as overrun as the Chácara garden will be, and are at the mercy of a demon woman who will leave nothing behind but scorched earth.

Conflict resides among the characters, as shown, and also within its motivation and structure, found in the aesthetic aim of Cardoso, as he tries to mesh determinism and a quasi-Modernist urge: the desire to treat a familiar story—the collapse of one family that illustrates the disadvantages of a closed-off and ignorant society—through new (to Brazil) content (explicit incest, homosexuality) and methods of presentation (the achronological scattering of a mixture of epistles, jeremiads, confessions, and letters redolent of the format of the Bible). A third is the spiritual crisis Cardoso sees in the world he inhabits, what Moser calls “a meditation on good and evil and God.” Misogyny, Modernism and mediation do not always fit well together, and in Chronicle of the Murdered House the earnest struggle for wholeness is evident on the page. To examine this a little further, I’ll choose the figure of Father Justino as a figure whose presence (this is not the only possible route, by any means) connects religion with the lust and misery of Ana, the lust and lost nature of Nina, and the confused ponderings of the devil-haunted Valdo.



At one point in the novel Father Justino says: “Yes, I have decided to respond to that man’s request. I don’t know him and I can’t think why he’s collecting such information, but he seems to have an urgent interest in the matter.” (The matter is the history of the Meneses. The mysterious inquisitor is referred to a few times, and this is a reason why people are recalling old tales.) “Moreover,” Father Justino continues, “I believe that whatever the reason for his urgency, it must have God’s blessing, for the last thing the Almighty would deny his consent to is the revelation of the truth.” By the time this is said readers know that “the truth” is shrouded or never addressed. Why does Nina marry Valdo, why does she stay away for sixteen years, and why does Demétrio treat Ana so poorly? We have been told that, on a personal level, the priest used to get along very well with Dona Malvina, the long-dead mother of the three sons. When we see him interacting with Valdo, Nina, and most often with Ana he never manages to comfort them:

Of all people, why come to me? Me, a sick old man, an uneducated, rather unintelligent priest whose one goal in life has been to serve and fear God, not to disentangle these intricate human problems? We country priests are nothing but doleful beasts of burden, plodding horses of only moderate utility, as blind and confused as any other men and distinguished only by our constant, anxious desire never to stray from the paths of righteousness. But how do we discern the paths of righteousness among so many others? How do we render justice and dictate God’s will? (590)

How can this uneducated priest working from a base comprising service and fear understand what God wants? In large part, he goes by instinct. It is clever and mischievous of Cardoso to seemingly allow this character to get close to capturing the chameleon-like characters, Ana especially, not under the guise of being ill-educated while secretly smart, but as if by talking enough he will utter something useful that will provoke a telling response. Or, viewed another way, that he will blindly and unexpectedly express an insight that has its source somewhere beyond his own powers. Separated by many years Father Justino offers these thoughts:

(That’s when I truly discovered that human beings change, that we are not fixed structures but moving forces, always advancing toward our definitive form.)

But, alas for us, God often takes on the appearance of evil. God is almost always everything that shatters the hard, tangible surface of our everyday existence—for He is not sin, but Grace. Even more than this, God is action and revelation. How can we think of Him as something static, a thing of inertia and stillness? His law is the law of the storm, not the calm. (592)

These two passages show how the priest regards the dynamism and flow of humans and God as parallel. More important for the novel is the idea that God “takes on the appearance of evil,” which has a near expression in 1 Thessalonians, a letter written by Paul to new Christians urging them, in the original King James version, to “abstain from all appearance of evil” (5:22), while many other English versions read, with small variations, abstain from every form of evil. (Note the word difference, which may be due to the translation of the Bible Cardoso and/or the translators used. Anyone can loosely ‘define’ appearance.) Father Justino’s main point is that we can mistake God’s intervention as an evil act. Extending that, he may be opening the door for his audience—Ana, who he’s been listening to in this section of the novel, and perhaps “that man” who’ll be arriving with questions—to interpret Nina’s station in life in a way that goes against the thought of the majority. This would be consistent with the statements that people and God are not constant in their behaviour. It may be that Nina—and we come round again to predestination and determinism—is meant to deliver a blow to the “hard, tangible surface” of the life led by the Meneses family.

This interpretation is supported by an account Father Justino gives of two conversations, first with Valdo and, in the passage below, with Ana, where, after an internal searching, he finds an answer to their belief in hell and devils while also addressing their faltering fortunes:

What I had concealed from Senhor Valdo, or, rather, what I had not dared to tell him, now came rushing to my lips:

“What do you think a house ruled by the power of evil is like?” (I skated clumsily over those words—the power of evil—ignoring their poverty and vulgarity.) “It is constructed very much like this one, firm in its foundations, secure in its traditions, conscious of the heavy responsibility of its name. It isn’t tradition that takes root in it, it is tradition as the sole defense of truth.”

I paused—just for a moment—while a lingering ray of sun once again dazzled my eyes.

“It is what we could call a solidly built home.” (I could not help noticing that my voice had become singularly calm.) “There is not a single crack through which heaven can enter.”

She had slowly turned toward me, and I saw that the look of revulsion had vanished from her face, like an unravelling cloud. She was breathing faster, but this revealed both her excitement and her total surrender to the words I was saying.

“Often, in times gone by,”—it was my turn now to confess—“I wondered what made this house so cold, so soulless. And it was then that I discovered the formidable immutability of its walls, the frozen tranquility of its inhabitants. Ah, my friend, trust me when I tell you that there is nothing more diabolical than certainty. In certainty there is no place for love. Everything that is solid and firm is a denial of love.” (334)

Frozen tranquility, smugness and conceit, amount to pride, and pride does not permit humility or encourage a ceaseless quest for betterment and deeper spiritual understanding. All is not answered, though. What is “the revelation of the truth” Father Justino espouses as God’s desire but a revelation of a concrete and immutable thing, not a truth, but the one Truth? That, too, is certainty. We must read him as a character that is as equally flawed as every other, and, as with them, examine closely his thoughts and motivations. What is solid for him may be insubstantial for others, but through his perspective (and to repeat, any other character can be used with the same intent) we may find a light that illuminates some details, while aware that the full picture will never come into the light.



Wrestling with several themes required Lúcio Cardoso to write at length about a family that has little to commend it. It is possible some readers of Chronicle of the Murdered House will view its form as insufficiently contemporary and its main topic—faith and/or religious belief—as quaint, and then bestow on this novel the often fatal designation period piece or term it historically important in the growth of Brazilian literature, thereby consigning it to a dusty future. Perhaps others would regard it as misogynistic, still others too talky and unexciting. There are arguments that can be made on those fronts. To my mind, Ben Moser’s assertion that the book is a “masterpiece” requires more evidence. Yet the very act of our wrestling with what might be thought of as outmoded or unstylish concerns and content can yield surprising results. For that opportunity alone, Open Letter is to be commended.

Chronicle of the Murdered House by Lúcio Cardoso, Trans. Margaret Jull Costa and Robin Patterson | Open Letter | 612 pages | $17.95 | paper | ISBN 9781940953502



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Offshore Drilling: Reviews In Translation

Jeff Bursey

Jeff Bursey is the author of the picaresque novel Mirrors on which dust has fallen (Verbivoracious Press, 2015) and the political satire Verbatim: A Novel (Enfield & Wizenty, 2010), both of which take place in the same fictional Canadian province. His latest book, Centring the Margins: Essays and Reviews (Zero Books, 2016), is a collection of literary criticism that has appeared in various publications.