Heloneida Studart: Selo das despedidas (later: Sem dizer adeus) [Seal of Farewell]
I must admit that I am not happy with my literal translation of the Portuguese title. Studart (or her publisher) later changed the title to Without Saying Goodbye which is somewhat better. The Italian sticks to the original Portuguese while the French goes for The Eight Notebooks which is not terribly impressive, either. I could write pages on titles and their translations…
The one who did not say goodbye, who wrote the eight notebooks and, sort of, left a seal of farewell is Maria das Graças Nogueira de Alencar who, at the beginning of the book kills herself and leaves her eight notebooks to her niece, Mariana.
The Nogueira de Alencar family is a well-to-do family but had been much better off some sixty years ago when grandfather Isais had been ruined because of a bit of trickery by the Bank of Brazil. The family sued the Bank of Brazil and in Jarndyce and Jarndyce-like fashion, the case has been going on for sixty years and shows no sign of ending any time soon. It is known in the family as The Cause.
The family had one tradition. One of the girls was designated as the one who would look after her mother in old age and would essentially become an old maid. Unlike her sister(s) she would not go to parties, not have friends, not wear feminine clothing or jewels and so on. Both Maria das Graças and Mariana were the ones selected but both rebelled.
Maria das Graças has two sisters, Mimi and Melba. Mimi is still very much alive and is the difficult mother of Mariana and her younger sister, Leonor. Melba was sent off to a convent when she committed a sin of the flesh (details are not given till Mariana reads her aunt’s notebooks later in the book) and stayed there till she died of tuberculosis at a very young age. Melba and Mimi were the ones destined for marriage while Maria das Graças was kept at home. Maria das Graças did not look after her mother, spending her time reading books and, indeed, writing the eight notebooks. Writing was one of the major crimes in the family, as her great aunt, the very real Francisca Clotilde (link in Portuguese)had been the first woman to publish a novel in the state of Ceara and had been admonished by the priest for doing so and had lost her teaching job and, as we later learn, lost a lot more. As a result, Maria das Graças has done this privately and kept the eight notebooks well hidden, till they are left to Mariana in her will. She has also written about her ancestor, the also very real Bárbara de Alencar (link in Portuguese).
Mariana was also the designated carer but she, too, rebelled. She became a lawyer and married Bento, head of a major shipping company, so she is quite wealthy. They had a son but he died when he was one year old. Leonor was the designated wife and she married Alfredo, not a great choice as it turns out. They are not well-off. They have no children, despite trying. At the beginning, Leonor is seriously considering divorcing him, as he wants to fire her maid, Laurinha, who has just become pregnant, with no father in sight. (We later learn that he is married and has gone back to his wife.)
The book follows the three remaining women, Mimi, Mariana and Leonor, and those close to them, as well as giving us extracts from Maria das Graças’ notebooks.
The main theme of the book, both as regards women from the past – Francisca Clotilde and Maria das Graças – and women from the present is how badly these women are treated. Studart gives us lots of examples of this. Pre-marital sex is a major crime. At least two of the characters, who are alleged to have had premarital sex, are forcibly examined by a doctor and, when they are found to be no longer virgins, suffer the consequences, which involves being sent to a convent for the rest of their life or being thrown out in the street and being completely abandoned by their family, their friends and, of course, the father of the child.
Women generally are closely constrained in what they do and it is they inevitably who suffer the consequences for any wayward behaviour with the opposite sex. The man is never blamed. It is considered normal for a man to misbehave, and all part of growing up.
We see this further with working class women. One of the few men to come out of this book without being totally condemned is Miltão, a police officer. He seems to be one of the few honest police officers, refusing free gifts, even a cup of coffee, and, unlike most of his colleagues, is not associated with corruption and bribery. He is investigating the brutal rape and murder of a young woman in the favelas (slums) but gets little help. When Laurinha leaves, after being fired by Alfredo, a valuable emerald necklace belonging to Leonor goes missing. Miltão’s boss immediately tells him to drop the rape and murder case and investigate the case of the missing necklace.
The middle/upper class women, however, also suffer in their marriages, Mimi, mother of Mariana and Leonor, had reached the ripe old age of twenty-five without being married. She is “persuaded” by her parents to marry Argemiro, a magistrate, a friend of her father and, like her father, a strong supporter of Hitler (this takes place in the late 1930s/early l940s) and very anti the US, not least because of the many US soldiers stationed in Brazil. Moreover he looks like Peter Lorre. She has no choice but to accept. The marriage is not happy but he does die aged forty. Leonor never knew him.
Leonor’s marriage to Alfredo is nominally for love but that, too, is not a happy marriage. Sex is very much under the bedclothes. One night, when she gets out of bed, naked, to close the curtains, Alfredo is horrified and says that seeing her naked broke the enchantment of marriage and she was like a whore. Their marriage gets worse and worse and Leonor finds comfort in a platonic friendship with an older man called Beto, who adores both Leonor and his late mother and who admits that his only skill is being a son, a role he can no longer fulfil.
Things change when Alfredo falls ill. The doctor, a family friend and (not very) secretly in love with Mariana, cannot find any obvious explanation for his illness. He does not react to antibiotics or other forms of treatment. However, both the doctor and Alfredo himself have some idea of what might be the cause.
We follow the stories of Leonor, Mariana (whose own marriage is far from happy) and Mimi, the ever-complaining mother, despised by her daughters, while, at the same time, Mariana eagerly reads the notebooks of her aunt. In particular, we learn of Maria das Graças’ own failed love affair,the full story of Melba and Mimi’s transgressions, which her daughter, Mariana, is surprised to learn about.
This is a very grim book. No-one, male or female, is even vaguely happy, except perhaps for Miltão, when he finally retires, tired of the corruption and is able to find a girlfriend. For the women in particular, it is unmitigated misery. Maria das Graças comments It is 1944 but it is as though we were still in the middle ages. The family imprisons, judges, condemns. Leonor says of her marriage He had all the power. It was he who decided when we had sex, when we ate, when we each washed, while Mariana comments to the doctor I know that you are not married doctor, but there is no hate that can compare to that between a husband and his wife. Mariana’s marriage is boring though she is not controlled but She did not know who the stranger was whose name she bore and wondered if this atmosphere of indifference and resentment was common to most marriages. Why hasn’t she become the friend of this man?
Clearly, women’s lot in Brazil of that era (middle of the last century) was very miserable. Many women elsewhere would point out that this situation is far from unique to Brazil and, indeed, undoubtedly still happens in some parts of the world. Studart herself was married, had six sons and an adopted daughter and a highly successful political career which her husband accepted if not supported, though, in later life, they lived in separate houses, though remaining married. It would be interesting to know how he reacted to this book.
First published in 2000 by Bluhm
No English translation
First published in French as Les huit cahiers in 2005 by Les Allusifs, Montreal
Translated by Paula Salnot et Inô Riou
First published in Italian as Francobollo d’addio : il sigillo degli addii in 2009 by Marcos y Marcos
Translated by Amina Di Munno
Also translated into Polish