Dom Casmurro Chapter 94


I shall omit the rest, which was quite considerable. His abilities were not limited to praising and thinking; he could also calculate rapidly and accurately. He had an arithmetical head like that of Holmes (2 + 2 = 4). You can’t imagine the ease with which he added or multiplied in his head. Division, which was always a difficult operation for me, held no terrors for him: he would look up, half close his eyes, murmur the numbers, and that was that. He could do it with numbers of seven, thirteen or twenty digits. Such was his aptitude that he grew to love numbers and held the view that figures, being fewer, were of greater importance than the twenty-six letters of the alphabet.

‘There are letters that are useless and letters we can dispense with,’ he used to say. ‘Why distinguish between a d and a t? They have almost the same sound. You can say the same of b and p, of s, c and z, of k and q, etc. They only cause confusion in our spelling. Now when you come to figures. There are no two that perform the same service: 4 is 4, and 7 is 7. And consider the beauty with which a 4 and a 7 combine to form something we express by 11. Now double 11 and you have 22, which multiplied by itself makes 484, and so on. But the greatest perfection is in the use of zero. The value of zero on its own is nothing, but the function of this negative sign is in fact to increase. A 5 on its own is 5, but add to it two zeros and it becomes 500. In this way what has no value in itself adds great value to others, something which does not occur with doubled letters, since I can be a traveller just as well with one l or two.’

Brought up on my parents’ orthography I was shocked by such blasphemy but did not dare argue. However, one day I ventured a few words of defence, to which he replied that this was mere prejudice, adding that arithmetical concepts could be extended to infinity, with the further advantage that they could be the more easily handled. For instance, I would be incapable of instantly solving a problem in philosophy or linguistics, whereas he, in three minutes, could add up any figures I cared to mention.

‘For example … let’s take a specific case – give me a list of numbers that I don’t know and have never seen before … I know, tell me the number of houses your mother owns and the rent she charges for each, and if I don’t tell you the total in two minutes, no, in one minute, you can hang me.’

I accepted the challenge, and the following week I handed him the number of houses and their respective rents written on a piece of paper. Escobar took the paper, ran his eyes over the figures to memorize them, then while I scrutinized my watch he looked up, wrinkled his brow and murmured … Oh, the wind itself is not more rapid. No sooner said than done. In half a minute he shouted, ‘It gives a total of 1,070,000 réis a month.’

I was thunderstruck. You must remember that there were no less than nine houses, and the rents varied from 70,000 réis to 180,000 réis. To do it would have taken me three or four minutes – and it would have had to be on paper – yet Escobar had done it in his head with no trouble. With a triumphant look he asked me whether that wasn’t right. Just to prove it so, I took from my pocket the scrap of paper on which I had written the total and showed it to him. There was no error; it was exactly right: 1,070,000 réis.

‘That proves that arithmetical ideas are the simplest and therefore the most natural. Nature is simple. It is art that is complicated.’

I was so lost in admiration of my friend’s mental ability that I could not help embracing him. We were in the yard; other students noticed our fervour, and a priest who was with them expressed his disapproval.

‘Modesty’, he told us, ‘does not permit such excessive demonstrations of affection. Show your feelings with moderation.’

Escobar commented that the priest and the others spoke out of jealousy and suggested we kept apart. I interrupted him, saying no, if it was jealousy so much the worse for them.

‘We’ll make them eat their words!’

‘But …’

‘We’ll be closer friends than ever before.’

Escobar secretly squeezed my hand and with such force that my fingers still ache. An illusion, no doubt, if not the effect of long hours of uninterrupted writing. I’ll lay down my pen for a few moments …