I believe that lying is one of the noblest of human endeavours. I won’t justify this position (at least not here) but will state that Family Heirlooms, a 1990 novella by Brazilian author Zulmira Ribeiro Tavares, translated last year by Daniel Hahn and published by Frisch & Co, is a magnificent accretion of lies.
Family Heirlooms reads like the first part of a 1000-page novel about dynasty and family—perhaps like a more Brazilian, more sly, less tragic Anna Karenina, or a less patriarchal The Leopard, or a less awful The Corrections. We are promised family heirlooms, plural, and instead we only get one: a single pigeon’s-blood ruby. Where are the others? Where are the other 900 pages, each crammed with jewels and children and deathbed weeping? Where are the long asides on inheritance law and farming and competing theories of estate management?
Instead, Tavares spends the novella squinting down a jeweler’s loupe at the pigeon’s-blood ruby that comprises our sole, disappointing inheritance. As with all gems in novels, this one has a complicated history. It is the centre of the first scene: an elderly woman, Maria Bráulia, has been convinced by her nephew-secretary, Julião Munhoz, to have her jewels valued. The pigeon’s-blood ruby is her most esteemed asset, and she has promised it to Julião. He informs her that the ruby is in fact a fake; Maria Bráulia refuses to believe him. Eventually, Maria recalls the ruby’s history. When Judge Munhoz—who had an affair with his own physiotherapist-secretary, a young man—bought it for her as a love-token during their courtship, it was real and valuable. It was so valuable that they had had a near-perfect replica made, which Maria Bráulia would wear. The fake was somehow more impressive; her parents “came to look upon the imitation with even greater respect than they had shown the original the night before […] in this instance the work of man and the work of God were equal in beauty.” She wore it on her honeymoon with the judge, and lost it in Switzerland. When she returned home, she realised that the fake had actually been locked away in São Paulo for safekeeping. Maria Bráulia goes about pretending that she had never had a fake made in the first place: “Did they think she was the kind of woman to walk around with a bit of coloured glass on her finger? They had to be joking!” Our ruby then, has a complex relationship with the truth. It is not a lie, but it is not authentic either; it is believable only on the surface.
But wait! I have been lying to you. Sorry. There is a third ruby, although this one will not be inherited, is not pigeon’s-blood, and is not, as far as we know, fake. It was a gift from a jeweler, Marcel de Souza Armand, to whom Maria Bráulia was introduced in the wake of the loss of the pigeon’s-blood ruby. They have an intimate relationship conducted largely in Armand’s shop: decorously in the display room and more secretively in a private room Armand reserves for privileged clients. “As they both approached old age, the faithful friendship between Marcel de Souza Armand (a committed visitor to the Munhoz family home for so many years) and the Munhoz widow abandoned certain precautions. It was, in short, what it seemed to be (or almost).” This second ruby is a cabochon—it has been smoothed rather than faceted. Maria Bráulia wears it “in secret […] underneath her dress”; she only starts to do so without anxiety after her husband dies.
But things are never quite as they seem. The cabochon has inclusions, which Armand explains are flaws in a gem. He mollifies Maria Bráulia, lest she be upset at the flaws in her love-token cabochon: “in rubies this does not mean any loss in quality; on the contrary, it’s a guarantee, a proof of the gem’s legitimacy”. Tavares is masterful at using parentheses, in this scene in particular: “Now, Braulinha, your marriage is a little like this ruby. You and I both know what it’s like. It contains a little inclusion (The physiotherapist-secretary! Maria Bráulia deduced, ecstatic), you and I both know what that is. (It’s him! it’s him!) So let us then take advantage of the inclusion and use it to produce a lovely star-effect. (Oh God!) I think you understand me, Braulinha. (Oh Christ, Christ.)” The parentheses are themselves wonderful inclusions, little bursts of authenticity beneath the hard shining surface of Tavares’s prose.
These three rubies have to do a lot of work in the novel; it’s lucky that gems are hard and mysterious, because more mundane and domestic heirlooms—teddy bears, diaries, porcelain, beds—might not have survived such robust treatment. The rubies are imagined by various characters as inheritances: future nest eggs, tokens of love, symbols of marital decay and fraud and of all the attitudes and neuroses and history that get passed down through dynasties. They are references to the problem of representation in art, which fraudulently imitates life, sometimes near perfectly, without ever being real.
For Family Heirlooms to encompass all these metaphors fully, it would perhaps need the extra 900 pages. We would need to see Maria Bráulia and Armand in love, in lust, and apart, and we’d need a full history of Judge Munhoz’s career and extra-curricular activities. We’d need to see how Julião reacts to his inheritance, and how Maria Preta, Maria Bráulia’s servant, and Benedita, Maria Preta’s great-niece, survive, how their world is changed by the ruby’s falsity, or how the ruby’s authenticity did not affect them at all. We are denied all this; the plots and characters are simply sparkles on the surface of the novella. Tavares has faceted a wonderful surface for us and not much else. I do not mean this negatively; I am a great admirer of surfaces. I recall a line from Edith Wharton, describing the guests at a Gilded Age country house: “Through this atmosphere of splendour moved wan beings as richly upholstered as the furniture.” I for one find it difficult to be judgmental when faced with such magnificent upholstery.
Perhaps, then, Tavares was right to lie to us. Perhaps the 1000-page novel we deserved isn’t actually what we needed. Tavares offers us a glimpse of a family in this novella, a glimpse and nothing more. Yet what a detailed glimpse! We see the surface and the upholstery, Maria Bráulia’s makeup and the family’s gemstones, and we see too the flaws beneath that surface, the lies and self-deceptions, the bursts of emotion. Think again of Maria Bráulia’s pigeon’s-blood ruby and its copy: one is inauthentic, but it’s impossible to tell which without an expert or without a knowledge of the gem’s history. The novella’s brevity creates the same effect: a longer work might have made the lies too obvious and therefore impossible to tolerate (nothing is less aesthetically pleasing than an unconvincing lie). By limiting us to a glimpse, Tavares limits our ability to gain expertise or knowledge of history, and thus our ability to distinguish the authentic from the fraudulent. The resultant uncertainty can be at times unsettling, but this is perhaps the necessary mood for reading about the glittering falsehoods of family life: credulous enough to be dazzled, cynical enough to not be taken in. Or, to put it another way, there is nothing more natural than to lie about the lies we tell ourselves.
Tim Kennett is a writer who lives in London. Follow him on Twitter here.
The English translation of Family Heirlooms was published in 2014 by Frisch & Co.