Scheherazade_290

19th-century portrait of Scheherazade by Sophie Gengembre Anderson. Wikimedia Commons

Perhaps the haughty young woman who hastily climbed aboard the rented carriage parked at Rocio Grande was named Berenice. She had just watched the first stage adaptation of The Thousand and One Nights and was coming out of the theatre with her husband, a military engineer overseeing the work on the Aqueduct.

This information would be of no further interest were it not the starting point of the incident that took place an hour or two later, when they, Berenice and the engineer, were ambushed by a band of thugs, not far from the gates to their home.

Berenice (it’s important to know the details) had hurried out of the theatre, barely bidding people farewell and brusquely taking her leave. She was highly agitated, and this behaviour contrasted with her frivolous personality, which was well known in the strait-laced society of 1829 Rio de Janeiro.

Berenice liked to be openly wooed in front of her husband, during the card games the engineer hosted. Even more than that: surrounded by men, she willingly listened to their indecent remarks, and didn’t always shy away from a ‘casual’ caress. Yet no one could boast of having had her: it was all a game, with tacit rules and strict limits.

That night, she was particularly annoyed with a certain shyster – a distant cousin of her husband who had come to live with the couple shortly after their wedding. This man, a repulsive and depraved sort, had been carrying a book around for days and anticipating the immoralities to be exhibited on stage. And it seems to have been some obscene comment he made about the plot that spoiled Berenice’s mood.

The engineer – who was discussing the performance with friends (among them a scandalised Frenchman who had rented him the coach) – hadn’t noticed his wife’s resolute stride and thus took a bit longer to reach the carriage. Before he stepped onto the footboard, however, a messenger boy intercepted him:

“Sir, the police inspector sent this.”

The brief note mentioned an urgent problem and gave a strange address on Rua do Piolho. Berenice bristled with indignation because the inspector had left just before the show was over and if the engineer hadn’t dawdled chit-chatting, they would already be arriving home. The driver – obviously – headed for the address on Rua do Piolho rather than to the couple’s estate on the Gloria hillside.

It didn’t appear to be a trap: the tenants – who had already turned in for the night – said they didn’t know the inspector nor did they know what the matter was about.

Furious, Berenice tore up the message delivered to the engineer and ordered her husband to head home without allowing him to make further inquiries.

Rio de Janeiro, in 1829, was an ill-defined city, with dark roads, poorly paved alleyways, and much swampland amid hills and forest. The thugs emerged from all these shadows.”

The driver, for no apparent reason – perhaps because the couple was bickering – decided to go by the beach, passing the Church of Santa Luzia and taking the narrow path along the shoreline, rather than returning on Rua do Piolho toward Rocio.

Along the way, he showed further ineptitude by getting one of the carriage wheels mired near Lapa. His vest covered in mud, he nearly broke the axle. It was therefore quite late when they arrived in Gloria.

Rio de Janeiro, in 1829, was an ill-defined city, with dark roads, poorly paved alleyways, and much swampland amid hills and forest.

The thugs emerged from all these shadows. Berenice sensed the attack beforehand. The engineer didn’t even try to react. And the whole thing happened in the street. While two or three men emptied her husband’s pockets (which, along with loose change, held an English pistol), Berenice was propped against a tree and had her skirts hoisted up by the presumed head of the foursome.

Not much needs to be said. The rapist took his time. Berenice didn’t put up a fight. The engineer was held with his back to the tree, a gag between his teeth, and prevented from turning his head. One detail should not be left out, however: the Gloria hillside, at that height, had a single oil street lamp, which illuminated the tree from the side.

Thus, despite having his back to her, the engineer was able to see the undulating of Berenice’s almost still body by way of a projection on a whitewashed brick wall. And it was against this surface that he saw, or thought he saw, a certain motion by his wife. Sneaking a look over his shoulder, the engineer confirmed his suspicion: with the heel of her left foot, Berenice was gently pressing against her violator’s calf.

This gave the engineer a new impression of Berenice’s low moans – different from those of a true rape victim. But he didn’t have much time to think because the drama ended soon afterward, with the attackers scattering.

The driver – important detail – disappeared with them. And a feeling of shame obviously kept Berenice and her husband from chasing after the men. The two fled – that’s the word – for home immediately, because there also seemed to be three figures lurking, strategically placed to keep an eye on them, at three vantage points along the hillside.

The rented carriage, with the horses harnessed, was recovered the next morning. And no complaint relating to the incident – such as a stolen carriage or runaway slaves – was filed with the police department. Even odder, however, is the fate of the characters of this seemingly trite story.

The engineer didn’t change his ways much: he attended the theatre as always, and was always brought home by carriage. And he continued to host card games. Someone who knew the couple might have noticed, on those occasions, that he was more attentive toward his wife – warding off blatant insinuations – and appeared openly hostile to the shyster’s usual petty obscenities.

Berenice, for her part, had a stormy reaction. The night of the attack, she’d roused the servants, demanding a hot bath. And she’d climbed into the tub with her top on, asking afterward that compresses be applied to the supposed wounds down her back. She got on well with her husband at first, even showing a certain lust, a certain insatiability; but she gradually withdrew. Moreover, she stopped taking care of herself. She had the servants draw her fewer baths and no longer prided herself on dressing like a lady. She took up drinking and smoking – and would slap her thighs when she laughed.

The engineer decided to forbid her from leaving their estate. Berenice would sneak down near the carriage house to chew tobacco with the slaves, until one day she left this simple note on her husband’s desk:

I can’t stand this life any more. Goodbye.

The next day, newspapers announced a reward of fifty mil-réis for the capture of a runaway slave, property of a certain shyster. The engineer never learned his wife’s whereabouts.

Soltaniyeh_290

16th-century map of Soltaniyeh, Zanjan, Iran. Wikimedia Commons

The investigation

Berenice’s story, its lines as vague as those defining the city, presents all the elements of the classic whodunit, even though it doesn’t involve theft or murder. There’s a crime of a sexual nature (apparently, at least), followed by the protagonist’s disappearance.

The first point the investigator must consider, in a process of essentially logical deduction, is whether the attack on the carriage was premeditated or not. If we take the negative stance, some inconsistencies arise.

The most important is the driver’s disappearance. Assuming there was no premeditation, we end up with the following possibilities:

(a)   The driver was a slave (common in the carriage-rental business), and took advantage of the occasion to escape.

(b)  The driver was a slave and was kidnapped by the assailants.

(c)   The driver was not a slave and was kidnapped by the assailants.

In scenarios (a) and (b), we would expect word of the flight or disappearance of the captive to come out in the newspapers. The same reasoning applies to the carriage, if it was stolen.

Kidnapping strikes me as unthinkable; it’s absurd, particularly if one takes into account that the primary victims were set free.

Following this line of reasoning, we must conclude that the driver was not a slave nor was there a kidnapping. Or that he was a slave and acted under someone’s orders.

Now, such assertions, combined with the route (chosen by the driver and inappropriate for that hour of the night) and the incident in Lapa (when he showed an improbable inability to get the carriage out of the mud), point to a carefully crafted plan – intended to delay the couple’s return and thereby steer clear of eventual witnesses.

So, under the convincing theory of premeditation, what remains is to identify the author, or authors, of the plot.

Let’s start with the driver. Imagining that this was all his doing with the bandits makes no sense. If they were after money, they would have attacked the house, not the carriage. It’s also unlikely they dared travel in a stolen carriage, which had been parked at Rocio Grande in front of several witnesses while the police inspector himself was at the theatre. And, mainly, since Berenice was the target of the foursome, there was no reason for her to have been enjoyed by just one.

If we dismiss the theory that the bandits acted on their own, a story of perversion vaguely begins to take shape. And the first suspect is the shyster. A shameless and immoral sort, he must have been trying to seduce Berenice from the time when he moved in with the couple. But since the young woman remained faithful, despite all the licenses she took, the scoundrel must have felt a strong sense of rejection. This might have stirred his instinct for revenge.

Prudent people may think such vengeance improbable, for its excessive cruelty, and add in his defence that he didn’t have the money to orchestrate a scheme of this scale. I accept the financial argument. But I disagree as to the extremes of revenge – and call attention to the following: the flight of the shyster’s slave, the same day Berenice departed, can only be explained if we accept that he – this slave – was the hillside rapist. This ties the shyster to the crime scene, albeit indirectly.

There’s also a strong psychological argument: the Frenchman might have been pretending to be scandalised by the representation of The Thousand and One Nights. Being French, he must have been used to such pornography.”

Using this criterion – a link to the crime scene – we have two more important suspects: the engineer’s friend the Frenchman, well established in Rio with a carriage-rental business; and the police inspector, also a friend of the engineer, connected to him professionally*, and the likely author of the strange note containing a fake message.

In the Frenchman’s case, having gone to the theatre, having been seen there by the inspector, and not having lodged a complaint of a stolen carriage are evidence against him. Even if he was unaware of the fact (if, for instance, the theft had just taken place), it would be reasonable for him to recognise a vehicle he owned (as he was accompanying the engineer, while they were commenting on the play) and be surprised that the driver was not his slave or someone employed by him.

There’s also a strong psychological argument: the Frenchman might have been pretending to be scandalised by the representation of The Thousand and One Nights. Being French, he must have been used to such pornography since the only Western translation of the book as well as the works of the Marquis de Sade were French. He might therefore have had as perverted a mind as the shyster.

We may suppose that the attackers, too, were slaves of the business, who would thus have fled with the driver. The only difficulty with this argument, which weighs in its favour, would have been enlisting the shyster’s slave and the inspector’s messenger boy – without their absence being noted at home that night.

It’s the messenger boy himself who places the police inspector under suspicion. It’s inconceivable that the engineer would have gone to Rua do Piolho if he hadn’t recognised the signature on the note. The plan is well laid out if we recall that the inspector left the theatre earlier. Rounding up criminals wouldn’t have been difficult for him either.

Those who refute me allege that the inspector wouldn’t have produced evidence against himself, signing a message with falsified instructions. I again disagree: the thugs turned the engineer’s pockets (where there were only coins and an English pistol) inside out undoubtedly to recover the incriminating note, unable to infer that Berenice herself happened to destroy it in a hysterical outburst.

The real problem with these latter hypotheses has to do with motive: neither the Frenchman nor the inspector would have been interested in gratuitously inflicting harm on the young woman. What’s left to surmise is a fetish: knowing she was raped might have added another element of excitement to the conversations on card night.

Nevertheless, as far as motive is concerned, no one is more suspect than the engineer himself: his tolerance for the improprieties uttered in front of his wife reveal depravity on his part, perhaps the desire to see her with other men.

He had his own coach but rented a carriage. He was armed but didn’t react. He had sufficient funds to set up the scheme. And the superb conception of the crime – the fake note (which must have been destroyed the minute his pockets were overturned), the seemingly accidental delays, the precise positioning by the bandits (allowing the correct projection of the scene onto the whitewashed wall), the moral impossibility of making an accusation – truly leads one to believe that this was a feat of engineering.

If the engineer later had a change of heart, becoming more concerned about keeping his wife from her hungry admirers, it was as a result of a recurring memory: the unexpected, I would even say unimaginable, furtive motion of Berenice’s heel against the rapist’s leg.

At this point, incidentally, it’s impossible not to mention a terrible possibility: that this might all have been the design of the young woman perhaps named Berenice.

There are objective facts: Berenice was unusually flustered for someone accustomed to the shyster’s lewdness and that of other men; she tore up the inspector’s note, making it impossible to verify the authenticity of the signature afterward; she also prevented her husband from going to find him, demanding they return home immediately; and she pretended to have suffered wounds on her back from having been thrust against the tree

Some will find this theory outrageous. They would be right, considering the limited freedom of a married woman in 1829 Rio de Janeiro and the difficulties of executing a plan that involved so many people (such as the messenger boy and the shyster’s slave). Another problem would be the falsification of the note – since it’s unlikely she would have known how to forge the inspector’s signature.

I ask only that you remember her heel.

The old church of San Sebastian in Rio by Franz Jozef Frühbeck (1795–1830). Wikimedia Commons

The truth

There are, as you see, many theories. Analysed on their own, they all present problems of probability and internal consistency. And it’s curious that, almost always, the objections to one of them form the decisive argument for proposing another.

For example, the shyster is implicated as the owner of the rapist slave. This same fact creates obstacles to formulating a theory against the Frenchman, who would have had a hard time counting on someone else’s slave at night. At the same time, the shyster’s financial inability makes it impossible for him to have contracted bandits to hold up the carriage – the very carriage that incriminates the Frenchman.

To discover the truth, an investigator must choose the version that makes all the facts connected to the crime acceptable, according to a strictly logical criterion. The clue is in the answer to a single question: what play was performed the night of the incident?

We know it was the first stage adaptation of The Thousand and One Nights. Since it was the first staging, it must have reenacted the story that opens the book and explains why the sultan Shahryar decides to kill his wives immediately after their wedding night. In this particular story, there’s a passage in which Shahryar goes down to one of the city’s secluded areas and surprises his wife fornicating with Massud, one of the black slaves from the palace.

Now, we know that the shyster was looking forward to the obscenities to be exhibited on stage, going around with a book in hand. That book could only have been the French translation of The Thousand and One Nights. It’s possible that he was going about commenting on that very scene; it’s possible that, during card night, he made indecorous allusions to his own slave (whom he would regard as comparable to Massud’s character); it’s possible that such references fed the libertine fantasies of the Frenchman, the inspector, the engineer, and Berenice, as well as his own – since they were all involved in that erotic game; it’s possible that they all suddenly conceived of the same plot; and it’s possible that they covertly went to find the shyster’s slave, proposing that he play the role of Massud.

The slave had the intelligence to obtain the elements required to execute the plan from each of the proponents – without a single one suspecting the others. Thus the Frenchman handed over the carriage, the inspector sent the message, the shyster lined up the criminals, the engineer paid for and plotted the action – although the young woman perhaps named Berenice gave herself away with her heel.

It seems preposterous that a true theory is the sum total of false theories. I know it’s not a probable hypothesis. Patience. In a strictly logical world, only improbable things are possible.

If beauty and elegance are still criteria of truth, as Plato held, I indeed prefer logical universes. Besides – I ask – what other explanation could there be for those three figures looking out from three different points of the Gloria hillside?

* By legislation of the time, public works were also under the police inspector’s jurisdiction.

Translated from the Portuguese by Kim M. Hastings.

Read Kim’s interview with Alberto Mussa.

 

Alberto Mussa was born in Rio de Janeiro in 1961 and studied mathematics and linguistics, focusing on African and Amerindian languages. He is the author of five acclaimed novels and a short-story collection. He has also translated the al-muallaqat (suspended odes) from classical Arabic and re-created the mythology of the Tupinambá Indians. His work has appeared in seven languages and been published internationally. He has received awards from the Casa de Las Americas, the Brazilian National Library, and the Brazilian Academy of Letters.

Kim M. Hastings studied Brazilian language and literature at Brown University and has a PhD in Spanish and Portuguese from Yale. She has translated fiction by Lúcia Bettencourt, Rubem Fonseca, Rachel Jardim, Marcelo Moutinho and Edgard Telles Ribeiro. Her translation of Ribeiro’s O punho e a renda is published (as His Own Man) by Scribe, and forthcoming from Faber & Faber and Other Press.

 

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