Translated from the Portuguese by Julia Powers
Dementia caniculae, or heat madness, as I have come to
diagnose it, is a mild, almost imperceptible condition, although
progressive, which is disseminated among humans insidiously
and without mercy until reaching a point of no return.
Dr. Horatio Lummings
The Masochist (102°)
“They were love messages, obviously. She was talking to me when she said, ‘The heat wave approaching the interior of the state should reach the city this afternoon with highs of up to 102 degrees,’ or, ‘For today, a low of 87 and a high of 100.’ They were signals, often indirect ones; she meant something else, something, and I could feel that she was delirious with love at times, an encoded language between the two of us, meant for me alone to decipher, things she couldn’t say in front of the television viewers or radio listeners, and if she didn’t show up later like she’d said she would, always in code, of course, during the TV weather forecast on or on the radio, it was just because she’d been thwarted somehow, and someone, someone other than me, had decoded the messages and prevented her from showing up to meet me that afternoon. They were love messages devised especially for my sake, because she wasn’t stupid, not in the least, and she loved me so much, in her encoded way, of course, so much so that it was doubtful anyone else could understand or even conceive of what she truly meant by ‘104 in the shade’—only I could know. When people would come up to me saying, ‘Have you heard? It’s going to be a 102 this afternoon,’ I could hardly keep from laughing in their faces. It was frightening to think they were that stupid, but all the better, that they didn’t understand that she was, deep down, talking to me and no one else. And while the others were dying of heat in the streets, capable of murder even, going mad with the heat in traffic jams, sweating buckets, and running in desperation for the air-conditioning, it was enough for me to simply turn on the radio and listen. On TV they were insisting on the drastic nature of the situation, saying the city had never experienced such a heat wave, and I just laughed to myself thinking of her powers of persuasion, how they fell for it so easily, how they believed and lived, by autosuggestion, what she told them live, and they suffered what she told them to suffer, in a world that didn’t exist, when really it was nothing more than a code, between the two of us, just for me. What a remarkable woman.”
The Botanist (113°)
As the journalists traveled away from the city, the vegetation thinned out, forest giving way to scrubland, and scrubland to nothing at all, and that was where the botanist lived. He had summoned the press himself, though he tolerated their questions with difficulty. He claimed to have something to say at long last, after years without giving even a sign of life, discredited, as the rumors spread that he no longer dominated his faculties. “For years I have been studying the attraction of certain plants to the heat and I have arrived at a startling conclusion,” said the botanist. “Which is what?” asked an impatient journalist. “That above 113 degrees plants emit strange signals, at an amazing frequency. The plants speak more and more with the increase in temperature,” replied the botanist. “And if they seek out heat, it is because that is what allows them to speak, and because they have the need to speak, you understand what I’m saying? They too want to say something, just like you and I. The heat arouses their desire to say something,” he said. “And what are the consequences of this discovery?” another wanted to know, seeing in it neither reason nor sense. To which the botanist, already losing his grip on himself, in part because of the heat, answered, “Well, how should I know, since, just as in my own case, I don’t have the least idea what they’re trying to say?”
The Laplandish Student (122°)
With the seasonal shortage of news, the newspaper assigned the columnist to write a weekly summer column narrating his wanderings through the world in search of unknown people, whose names, by some chance, passed through his hands. What he narrated in the first column, and which is here recapitulated, was his trip to Lapland, in search of D.M., a woman who, in 1957, as a prize for placing fourth in the complementary course at the high school for girls in Sodankylä, had received a book of photographs about deserts. The book piqued the columnist’s interest (how had it ended up there?) as he rummaged through the secondhand bookshops along the Seine during his vacation. There was a photo of the Sahara printed on the cover and on the title page a stamp in Finnish: “Distribution of Prizes, Complementary Course, Fourth Prize in the Sodankylä High School for Girls, Awarded to D.M., June 2, 1957.” In his column, the columnist narrated his adventures through the snow and ice to reach Sodankylä and how, with the help of her surname, he managed to find the house of D.M.’s older sister. Upon opening the door, the woman, rosy and very fat, a bear in her skin coat, informed him that her sister had disappeared years ago, roaming through the desert, and that, after weeks of senseless searches, all they managed to recover was her “sun-tanned skeleton.” The columnist asked what D.M. had been doing in the desert, a sort of suicide, after all, and the sister replied that ever since D.M. was a girl, in her high school complementary course, the desert had been an obsession of hers, that D. had tried in vain to quench by it flipping through the pages of a book. “She went to the desert to find what she couldn’t see in the photographs.” As he stood there shivering and uncomprehending, she had no recourse but to conclude with the obvious: “The heat. She was convinced. She thought she would be able to see it.”
The Firefighter (195°)
The moment he enters, he shouts and hears a voice. He needs to know if anyone’s still trapped in the debris in the middle of the fire, someone he can still save from the flames. And as he advances into the blaze, on his descent into hell, and the heat mounts to the humanly intolerable, he shouts and hears a voice, and it gets closer and clearer each time. He believes that the voice hears him, too, and calls out to him. To keep it calm in the meantime, he decides to tell it a story, the only one he knows, that of his own life, and it advances in time as he advances through the columns of fire and the smoke that intoxicates, getting closer to the voice, and deeper and deeper into the heat. And as he tells his story, he hears the voice. But then all at once he realizes that, in fact, it’s the voice that’s telling him the story, that the voice is his, and so the story ends there.
I forgot Arabic and French soon after I left Algiers. You could say that I forgot Algiers after I left Algiers. In the past few years, I’ve started forgetting other things: names, faces, birthdays, anniversaries, appointments, events, words.
Being who I was, a young novelist with the most conventional of middle-class lives, I fell in love completely with the reckless maestro whose sword was engraved with the words nec spe on one side and nec metuon the other: “Without hope, without fear.”