The edge of 70 – Humberto Werneck  


 The edge of 70′

Humberto Werneck 

At the age of 70, the short stories writer Murilo Rubião overcomes a cancer, sees a book of his reach to 100,000 copies and attacks new projects. 

In the mid-1970s, the fate of the writer from Minas Gerais Murilo Rubião seemed decided. Reaching the age of 60, everything led to believe that he would be one of those authors that critics put in heights but that, for the common reader, simply do not exist. Celebrated by high-level experts such as Álvaro Lins and Antonio Candido, two of the country’s greatest critics, he had published so far only three books – all in almost confidential editions, so small and poorly distributed. For the general public, Murilo Rubião really didn’t exist – and not even the fantasy that drowns his stories let imagine that he would arrive as a bestseller at the age of 70, completed last June. It’s a reality. O Convidado, one of the three compilations of stories currently available, has already sold 10,000 copies. A Casa do Girassol Vermelho reached 12,000; and last week Editora Ática, from São Paulo, began distributing the 11th edition of O Pirotécnico Zacarias, which now totals the nothing despicable mark of 100,000 copies. 

Late but gratifying, recognition popped also abroad, as Rubião is already translated into twelve languages, from English to Slovak, from Italian to Japanese. In the United States, The Ex-Magician and Other Stories sold so well that the initial edition, bound, has already multiplied in a fat and democratic pocket print run – deed that few Brazilian writers, besides Jorge Amado, can be proud of. That’s not all. One of his most celebrated texts, “Zacarias, the Pyrotechnist”, inspired a short film of the filmmaker from Minas Gerais Paulo Laborne, who is already preparing the filming of another, “Three Names for Godofredo”. A third, “The Trap”, was adapted by TV Cultura, from São Paulo. 

These are unexpected benefits that Rubião is reaping in Belo Horizonte, where he savors the spare time of a retirement as a state public servant. His large and well-decorated bachelor apartment in the city center suffers the permanent harassment of the most varied types of readers – from teenagers fascinated by the magic of his stories to scholars determined to scoop them out with university scalpels. There is a brutal contrast in the writer’s lean production – 32 short stories distributed through 6 books – and in the stacks that occupy it. In Brazil and France, nine master’s and doctoral theses have so far been dedicated to the task of scooping Murilo Rubião’s literature. 

The artist’s revelation to the general public is due to Antonio Candido. He was one of the friends to whom Rubião sent his first book, O Ex-Mágico, published in 1947. At the time, he wasn’t impressed. “I felt sorry for not having given Murilo, from the first moment, the attention he deserved”, the critic says today. “I found it interesting, but just interesting. I discovered him almost twenty years later, in 1965, when he released Os Dragões, which contained several of O Ex-Mágico’s stories.” From this reading, Antonio Candido wrote to the stories writer: “… I only now see how you have been for many years, and without me properly realizing it, fully installed at the heart of the best experiences of contemporary fiction.” 

Disseminated by Antonio Candido, his name came to the ears of a young professor of literature, Jorge Schwartz, who in 1971 sought a theme for his thesis in literary theory at the University of São Paulo (USP). He also reached the editor Jiro Takahashi, who was looking for a good fictionist to inaugurate the collection Nosso Tempo, from Ática. Jiro went to Belo Horizonte and proposed to Rubião to launch O Pirotécnico Zacarias with 30,000 copies. The writer, who in 1953 had to pay for the 116 copies of A Estrela 

Vermelha, reacted with disbelief. “This fellow is crazy,” he thought. The first 30,375 copies came out in October 1974 and, less than a year later, a second edition was taken, with 10,132. 

Suddenly, Murilo Rubião leaped from almost total obscurity to the literary spotlight. “I got a little scared,” he admits. It seems absurd today that his work has remained in the shade for so many years. Populated with magicians and dragons, with fantastic elements treated as if they were banal ingredients of the day-to-day, it was, in fact, something extremely lonely in the landscape of Brazilian literature at that time. Mário de Andrade himself, always attentive to the manifestations of the new, confessed to Murilo, in a letter, not understanding his fiction. “He didn’t understand the genre, but he did everything he could to like the author”, Rubião apologizes. The stories writer himself, at first, had wavered. Around 1940, when he wrote his first text in the line of the fantastic, “Eunice e As Flores Amarelas”, hesitated to show it to Fernando Sabino, six years younger, with whom he used to exchange literary trading cards. “I was afraid he’d think I was crazy,” he recalls, “and that’s why I told him the story like it was a dream.” Sabino advised him to forget the dream and write the story. “Then the fantastic started for me”, Rubião said. He never lacked self-confidence again. “I knew I was walking a path that was mine and absolutely new in Brazil,” he recalls. 

A quarter of a century before Julio Cortázar and Gabriel García Márquez made magical realism popular, it was fatal that there were strange reactions. At the time, the stories writer had created a character, the Grão Mogol, an old man who owned a fortune on diamonds and who was not sure if he was 90 years old and had 40 women or if he was 40 years and had 90 women. He published his adventures in the newspaper where he worked, Folha de Minas. One day, he came across a closing that was not his, added by the editor of the literary page: “At that moment, I would wake up.” Justification of the author of the amendment: “Do you think anyone would believe this?” It was through the chronicles in Folha de Minas that Murilo exercised his writing. O Ex-Mágico was ready in 1945, but until he could publish it, he collected refusals from six publishers. He financed 500 of the 2,000 copies of the edition and bought another 1,000 to distribute. He keeps a very vivid memory of his debut: he went out looking for his friends, to autograph the book, and slept with O Ex-Mágico under his pillow. “I was never so moved by a publication,” he would say years later. “What thrills me today is the making of a short story.” 

This is, for Rubião, a long and tortured process. Slow, he probably made a record by taking 26 years to write a story. “O Convidado”. The poet and chronicler Paulo Mendes Campos watched the beginning of this story in 1945, when both of them shared a hotel room in São Paulo. According to Paulo, the friend consumed one night and a whole block of paper without being able to overcome the header: “O Convidado – Story by Murilo Rubião”. Without reaching this extreme, almost all of the writer’s other texts required years before going, definitively, through one of the three Olympia machines he uses. 

It is not appropriate, however, to use the definitiveword, because for Rubião a text is never ready. “I’ve never done a re-reading of my book that didn’t move,” he confesses, eternally struggling for clarity, for the exact term. This obsession could be properly evaluated by Professor Jorge Schwartz: his pioneering thesis on Rubião’s work, from 1976, has an annex with more than 200 pages, typed in single spacing, with the variants he mined in 23 short stories. “Murilo rewrote more than he wrote,” Schwartz notes. “It’s a kind of Gustave Flaubert from Brazil.” 

Literary rumination is a habit he never abandons – not even in the long seasons in which he does not produce new stories. This was the case in the years when he worked as head of staff of the then governor of Minas Gerais, Juscelino Kubitschek, in the early 

1950s, or later, from 1956 to 1960, when he lived in Madrid as head of the Brazilian Commercial Office and attaché to the Brazilian embassy. In Spain, Rubião wrote only one short story – “Teleco, the Rabbit”, one of his best-known texts; but they were not years lost to literature: he read as never before – and, for the first time, immersed himself in the work of Franz Kafka, who, according to some critics, would have had a powerful influence on his fiction. He remembers, however, that he penetrated the fantastic long before he knew of the existence of the Czech author. The influences he recognizes are the German Adelbert von Chamisso (1781-1833), Edgar Allan Poe, Hoffmann, Don Quixote, Greek mythology, Germanic folklore – and, above all, Machado de Assis. “At the age of 21 I had read The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas twenty times,” he says. 

Greater influence than that of Machado and his skepticism, he reveals, only that of the Bible, especially the Ecclesiastes. He has read the Old Testament since he was 12 years old and will pinch epigraphs for his short stories – all without exception. Which may seem strange in a totally agnostic writer. “But in Murilo these biblical epigraphs have no religious connotation,” explains Jorge Schwartz, who has worked with them in his thesis. “He uses the Bible as a kind of great inspiring book.” The writer confirms, “All human experience is in the Bible.” Educated in the Catholic religion, he abandoned it in a “lacerating” way at the age of 16 and assures that he never relapsed. 

“A ‘stupendous proof’ of this,” he says, “was the strenuous period when I struggled with laryngeal cancer since 1984. I didn’t have the slightest fear”, he says without bragging. “I wouldn’t even have the fright to die and find eternal life.” It was a year and eight months of battle – first, in radiotherapy, then in a surgery that cost him the ablation of the epiglottis (he got the voice slightly modified) and painful months of recovery. He says he almost died from the kidnappings of this brutal operation, unnecessary in his point of view. “I was 73 kilos when I had surgery, and I got to 46,” he recalls. He also remembers the eve of the surgery, when, during a dinner in his honor, he had the surprise of seeing dear friends who live in Rio – Otto Lara Resende, Paulo Mendes Campos and Hélio Pellegrino, among others. “I realized it was a farewell,” he recalls. 

It wasn’t, fortunately. Murilo Rubião is recovered, and the most obvious sign of this is the willingness with which he returned to work on his literary projects. It’s ending a big story, almost a novel, “A Ilha”, for a collection of nine stories, A Diáspora, which he plans to deliver to the editor at the end of next year. “It will be my last book of short stories,” he warns. Then he will attack two novels: O Sr. Urber e o Cavalo Verde, for which he has been filling a drawer of notes since 1965, and O Navio, whose initial idea has been sailing for more than 30 years. “I hope I have time to finish both”, Murilo says. No one doubts he’s going to make it.


1 WERNECK, Humberto. No vigor dos 70. Isto É, São Paulo, pp. 56-60, 26 Nov., 1986.