Nine:  Frei Lothar

Translation by Christopher Schindler

     The seated figure, waiting for a tambaqui fish to be baked and served on a banana leaf, which would be reinforcement to his heart and stomach, was rendered sadder by the shade of the kapok tree.  It was the first substantial meal he would be eating for the two days in which he had been traveling.  Frei Lothar felt tired and reflected on his life and misfortunes like the one he had just endured.  He was still gasping, upset by the calamity.  He felt a certain obscure fragility, old age at the least, and so he knew that the appointment of his days in Amazonia was coming to the end and that now he would have to abandon everything, retire and die.  Coming by canoe through a channel of the Numa Slough, he was passing over a floating island of tea wort when the canoe tore into a kind of moving fabric, a horrible carpet in the shape of a map of Brazil formed by crackling and armed yellow scorpions, in an area of several square yards; they were advancing, one on top of the other, crossing the river in migration.  A caboclo started to shout and the canoe almost overturned.

     “Quick!”, the padre commanded.

     But already the scorpions threatened to climb on board and Frei Lothar, lighting a fire with the newspapers he was bringing to the judge in Calama, filling the barque with flames and getting burnt all over, exclaimed, “Oh, my Amazon!, God is great but the forest is greater and I am not the same.”

     Beginning to recover strength, he was waiting to depart after lunch on the Barão do Juruá, now owned by Antonio Ferreira, as was everything else there.  But Ferreira had gotten a bad deal; the price of rubber was declining more and more from what it had been a hundred years before, as the Brother had seen on the trip he made this month to the Rio Machado – rubber tappers decimated by fever, ruined by the crash, unemployed since rubber from Ceylon, without microcyclus, supplanted production in the Amazon; thousands of tappers witnessed the permanent end of the gigantic empire, in which vast fortunes made overnight disappeared and the Amazon returned to what it had been before 1850: hell entrenched in an economic crisis that lasted a half century and killed thousands.

     There were still a few places where Frei Lothar could stand to go and Manixi was one of these.  The brother had lost his faith, spoke coarsely, spit on the ground, went around armed, was cross and smelled bad.  The Rio Machado dazzled him, seduced him, its green water running over emeralds, strange country of a strange world where one only met with adventurers and Indians: the sparrow-hawks, the macaws, the bobtails, the shelf fungi, wild, savage, indomitable, hidden in the high and shady forest.  It was paradise, it was hell, and Frei Lothar loved it; he could not live without those trips, adventures in search of the unknown.  But the worst trip he made was in 1908, when Frei Lothar, in a caravan carrying rubber latex from Cruzeiro do Sul to the Cocame plantation, from the Rio Juruá to the Rio Tarauacá, crossed the Manixi plantation, crossing the Rio Gregório, the Acurauá, proceeding on a rough trail over a distance of two hundred miles.  At that time, however, Frei Lothar was young and at his hardiest.

     Not much time had passed when, with sandals sinking in the muddy clay, he was watching the loading of the barge that the Barão do Juruá would be pulling to Manaus from the Rio Jordão.  His old cassock stank, as it was soaked with sweat.  Sweat dripped upon much older sweat drenching the patches.  Under a big, old and ill-fated black umbrella, the friar looked ridiculous on the steep river bank, a strange type, exotic, on the edge, in the greatest difficulty.  The Barão do Juruá was being loaded and the friar debarked for lunch, unsteady, in need of terra firma and an escape from the heat, his feet sank in the soft mud.  He was clambering up the slippery ladder of the bank with difficulty when the first dogs appeared.  At first, there were two that came down the ladder in a fury.  Then others came and Frei Lothar eventually found himself surrounded by dogs and was using the cross of his rosary to defend himself.  The children and men were laughing – the old good-for-nothing.  Some of them owed their life to him.  But Fernando Fialho, the harbormaster, showed up suddenly and rescued him.  Fialho was busy loading jute, the new commodity of the region, on its way to Manaus.  It seemed that Frei Lothar could not board because the stevedores had taken the gangplank away and, strong and squat, they were going back and forth on it weighed down by their loads so that they were sinking into the bank.  Frei Lothar looked at the muddy water that dirtied his sandals.  Boys had gone down the ladder.  They had not even asked for his benediction.  It was said that he liked little boys, which was a lie.  The boys jumped into the turbid water near him.  Water sprayed, sparkling.  They were near to giving the missionary a bath.  Frei Lothar did not protest because he was ill, with the illness of old age, without strength, without courage, without nerves, without vitality, without spirit, without faith.  He looked upon all this with compassion, sweat and impatience.  It was truly satisfying – that splashing which refreshed him.  If he could he would have taken off his smelly cassock and happily submerge himself in the water.  All these events blended together for Frei Lothar: the scorpions, the dogs, the dousing, illness, old age, calumny.  The end.  Annihilation.  Death.  His legs trembling, Frei Lothar was on the point of fainting in the heat.  Miserable dogs!  Miserable urchins!  Miserable life!  Evening began to fall and night was approaching.  The  Barão do Juruá was going to sail, finally, empty – a blessing that Antonio Ferreira forbade it to carry passengers.   No, it was not true that the world was against him.  Just the day before he had been treated well.  Ferriera tolerated the old padre who administered medicine to people on the plantations.  The  Barão do Juruá  and everything that belonged to the Bataillon empire was the property of Antonio Ferriera.  The  Barão was going empty, the friar would travel in peace, in comfort.  He had known trips in vessels full of pigs and hammocks, stinking of excrement and putrid fish.  The padre's neck was burning with the heat, sweat was pouring and was rushing into his chest.  How easily those men lifted and loaded the heavy bales!  Oh, youth, youth!  Ah, the strength of their arms!  Frei Lothar had come from Tarauacá, which he still called Villa Seabra, had crossed on foot the arduous São Luis slough and the São Joaquim, by way of Universo, Santa Luzia, Pacujá, he came by canoe by that hidden channel.  Now, no...  He was no longer up to it.  Let him prepare to die.  But Frei Lothar did not want to die, he had spent his life fighting death.  He would end up sunk in a hammock in Manaus in the parish of Aparecida in the midst of wretched charity.  Well no, that was not certain.  He would like to die in peace or return to Europe, a dream that dissipated, as he was poor.  Forty years in the depths of this hell, forgotten, diminished, lost in the jungle.  Would he know how to live far away from this savage world?  How would he be able to get to Europe, to Strasbourg, his native city?  He had done everything that had to be done, fought off wild animals and fevers, said masses among the Indians, baptized illegitimate urchins on river banks.  What more?  Would they still want him?  As he could no longer ride horseback due to sciatica, he had to live on foot, bent over by the weight of years and arthritis – my God! - his entire life most sad, wasted, among serpents, vilified, chased by dogs … a difficult world!  And within the Church, Frei Lothar only saw the struggle for power!  He had saved the lives of thousands of men and was accused of illegitimately practicing medicine!  The families of Manaus had nothing to do with him as he had a bad reputation and bad character.  He spit on the ground and used vulgar language.  No, he received nothing in exchange, he never had money, never had a place to live, never flattered the powerful, never tolerated them, always irritated them.  After working forty years he only reaped enemies.  And the heat and mosquitos, the suffocating nights.  He had forged his way into impenetrable forests full of snakes, spiders and scorpions.  And how did they acknowledge him?  With malicious gossip, with dragging his name through the mud.  Those scoundrels could not understand his life among the Indians as other than for some sordid motive born from their sick imaginations.  No one believed that he had labored in that hell for forty years in exchange for nothing.  This ate at his soul.  There were letters from superiors with accusations, the Provincial came with rumors … Ah, let them take him from there so he would be gone forever – if they killed him they would be doing him a big favor! … He was superfluous in that world; he would certainly like to die to oblige the parish priest who detested him.  No one liked that ugly man who only wore the habit of a padre.  His rough and weary voice, his crude and strong hands, his fierce expression.  Frei Lothar hated the ruling class, hated religion and the faith; rather for him it was medicine and practice.  He did not talk of pious matters, scratched his balls, prayed unwillingly, was irreverent, laconic, frank, aggressive, gruff with the authorities, primitive and rude.  Frei Lothar was an irritated soldier in Amazonia, God's officer, armed.

     The night was quite dark when the barge was fully loaded.

     The plank was transferred to the  Barão which was already stirring and near departure.  Frei Lothar carefully climbed on board and went to his cabin where he took a bath before dinner.


     Then, clean and sated after his dinner, he was in a better mood.  The  Barão continued its journey in the middle of the night – risky, but as could be expected Ferreira wanted the boat in Manaus right away.  The sound of the engines did not bother him, he was resigned to it.  Frei Lothar went up towards the stern in the dark to a sort of terrace.  He was alone.  The wind began to feel good to him, that wind had a delicate scent, an atmosphere; he remained looking out at the dark night while sailing downstream between the forms of shadows.  It was as he always felt – a passenger in the world.  He never stopped, here today, gone tomorrow... He thought of the man he had been tending in Villa Seabra.  That man was about to die … What is death?  What is faith?  Many men had died in his arms and he could do nothing.  What was death?  His faith lost long ago.  Let the Provincial get angry!  What Frei Lothar saw and observed his whole life – it was not God: it was suffering, pain and death, misery and desolation.  Frei Lothar got up with effort and left to go to his cabin from which he emerged with his violin.  He sat down.  He would practice until sleep came.  It was Bach's Second Partita that he knew by heart but he never succeeded in overcoming certain difficulties.  He played without the score.  He practiced without a score, in the dark, in the fleeting wind.  Alone.  Without a score and without light, without anyone.  Oh!  It was thus in the Amazon.  The Amazon did not have a score, light or anyone.  The Amazon was an immense plain of misery.  The economic depression hovered in its monstrous silence.  The Partita came out rather well from his old, arthritic fingers.  He never had time to practice, never had the conditions, the leisure.  He traveled with his violin in ships and canoes, in channels and pools, and almost lost the violin with the scorpions: it was a valuable violin and symbolized what he had never been.  A bad padre, a bad doctor, a bad violinist.  He had never done anything well.  Nothing complete.  Now he was old, weak, having little faith, little knowledge, little technique.  “Oh, worse than death is mediocrity!”,  thought Frei Lothar; the violin moaned, litanies, recitations, reflections.  He attended the sick without resources; said masses without passion; and now played the Partitia badly.  Without remedies, without scores, without know-how.  Frei Lothar played with imagination.  The violin was a Guarnerius.  It was a present from Juca de Neves, one of the few men with whom Frei Lothar was on terms of friendship.  Actually, a Guarnerius is not an imitation.  It is a refinement of a Stradavarius and much more resonant, appropriate for concert halls and with large orchestras, whereas Strads were for suited for chamber music.  Aided by inspiration the Partita came out quite well.  The  Barão continued on in the middle of the night.  Suddenly, the friar recalled the Brahms Double Concerto – what beauty! - and he modified one of the sections of the Partita with the violin part from that other work.  All was unease and sublimity in the Double Concerto.  He imagined himself surrounded by the orchestra, remembered his dreams of becoming a musician, and not a priest; he immersed himself in the concerto, hearing the cello and the entire big orchestra.  He saw full galleries from which triumph burst forth, the applause, all that far away from the Amazon, far away from death.  He was elevated by his daydream.  Why?  Nothing was left of the old mysticism.  Why?  He played Brahms plying his way through the Amazon forest.  Night was at its height and the Amazon sky suddenly became transparent and clear, covered with stars that sparkled, and everything appeared to him as of one nature, in a whole in which he did not exist but was integrated in a totality – and Frei Lothar stopped playing, ran to the ship's rail with tears in his eyes and suddenly saw, ecstatic, immensity and eternity appearing suddenly there before him, approaching and arriving to him, wide, entering through his eyes, his ears, and everything was one Immeasurable... - and he, one with it, eternal, gave a shout and felt incomprehensibly happy.