CHAPTER 1 – Sparks Flying, by Mário de Carvalho

©Nuno Cera, 20032020 /

Translated by Daniel Hahn

Edited by Paul Crick

“There must have been a hundred, a hundred and fifty scientists working in that small space. They had raised the furrowed ground of the cave with wooden struts and constructed a platform on which the offices were built (…)”

“You can call me Ricardo. Or Professor, if you’d rather. Only not Rick – please, anything but that! Give me a break.”

Once he had put the papers on top of the desk, the professor had a good look at Teresa, straight at her for a few moments, in marked contrast with the energetic mob, which had been so speedy and efficient in recent days. The girl babbled a few shy, fleeting apologies. The professor dived back inside and the bustle continued. Teresa was new to the team. She didn’t know that this was a boss you did not kid around with.

There must have been a hundred, a hundred and fifty scientists working in that small space. They had raised the furrowed ground of the cave with wooden struts and constructed a platform on which the offices were built, marked out by glass plates or by the irregular presence of the big machines that insisted on asserting their scale. At the back, in the furthest part of the cave, where it drifted towards other hidden chambers and openings, stood the professor’s office, as compact as all the rest, with its small meeting room beside it, equipped with a long table and a screen.

The whole length of the place buzzed with people in white overalls with papers and tablets in their hands, gliding along the corridors, sitting focused at the countless monitors, handling data quickly and with determination.

Lúcia, tapping on the keyboard, could not resist the urge to make a personal remark.

“Nearly three years together, and this guy – every time he sees me, it’s like we’ve never met!”

Her colleague was up to speed on the story and knew how hurt she was feeling.

“You’ll see. It’s an emergency! Things will be back to normal afterwards …”

Just words for their own sake. Spontaneous solidarity. The truth was, there never would be an opportunity for things to get any deeper.

Young Teresa, down the hallway, was trying to hide her tears. In the office beside the entrance, the people from the younger team did their best to console her:

“That’s just how the professor is. Nothing personal. He’s been even worse since Cacilda left him.”

“What do you mean?”

“A real scene, up at the university, sparks flying… Not a chair left intact. Oh, look, speak of the devil…”

Professor Cacilda was making her way in, slowly coming down the corridor in her silvery riding gear, laden down with motorbike helmet and several bags. Behind her, some poor devil, evidently amazed to find himself here, was with some effort transporting a large box. Cacilda tossed the helmet and a few bags into her office, as she passed, and told the man to keep going, all the way to the end.

“Do you need help with that?” they asked her.

“Thank you,” she replied politely, “we’re all set.”

Everybody was expecting the encounter between Cacilda and Professor Ricardo to turn into a quarrel, with a jolt that would relieve the monotony of their tasks. But no – the professor got to his feet, welcomed her politely, and helped the man to put the parcel down on the table; then he simply said, in a quiet, indifferent voice:

“Thank you, Professor. Please – stay.”

He had soon called all the team leaders into his meeting room.

“So,” he began, pointing at the package on the table, “do you people want to know what this piece of equipment can do?”

Read the original chapter in Portuguese

Mário de Carvalho is a novelist, short story writer, playwright and screenwriter who was born in Lisbon in 1944. During the Portuguese dictatorship, he was arrested by the PIDE, Salazar’s secret police, consequently becoming a staunch opponent of the regime. Having spent fourteen months as a political prisoner, he escaped to Lund, Sweden, where he claimed political asylum shortly before the Carnation Revolution that would bring about Portuguese democracy. His breakthrough as a writer came in 1981 with a collection of short stories entitled Contos da Sétima Esfera. In 1994 he published the novel A God Strolling in the Cool of the Evening, which won various awards and was translated into numerous languages, including into English by Gregory Rabassa, translator of Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. Critics have often commented on the versatility and originality of his writing, and the sense of humour which has remained a constant throughout his experiments with genre.

Daniel Hahn is a writer, editor and translator (from Portuguese, Spanish and French) with sixty-something books to his name. His work has won him the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, the Blue Peter Book Award and the International Dublin Literary Award, and been shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize, among many others.

©John Lawrence

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