THE PRODIGIOUS SHOEMAKER BY JOSE SARAMAGO

His name was Francisco Carreira and he was a shoemaker. His shop was a small, dark, windowless room, with a low door through which only children could enter without bending down, because it must have been, at most, about three or four feet high. He was always there, sitting on a stool behind a bench on which were laid out all the tools of his trade and which was covered with an ancient layer of dust and detritus: bent nails, shavings from soles, a blunt needle, a pair of broken pliers.

Tools Of The Trade
Photograph: DeBevoise, C. Manley
Source: NYPL Digital Gallery

He was a sick man, old before his time, with a deformed spine. All his strength was concentrated in his arms and shoulders, as strong as levers, and with them he could hammer on the sole of a shoe, wax the thread, pull the stitches tight and drive the tacks home with two short unerring blows.


1945 | Jacob Lawrence
The Shoemaker (Watercolor and gouache on paper)
Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art

While I amused myself making holes in a piece of shoe leather with a punch or played with the water to which the soles of shoes, left to soak, lent an astringent touch of tannin, he would tell me tales of his youth: vague political plots, a pistol that had been shown to him as a somber warning of what, word of honor, would happen to any traitor of the cause.

Then he would ask me how school was going, what news I had of events in Lisbon, and I would waffle on as best I could to satisfy his curiosity. One day, he seemed preoccupied. He smoothed his thin hair with his bradawl and paused in his sewing, both of which were familiar signs, heralding a particularly important question.


1897 | Théophile-Alexandre Steinlen
On The Subject Of Boots
Source: Art Institute of Chicago

Shortly afterward, Francisco Carreira leaned back his twisted body, pushed his glasses up onto his forehead and fired at point-blank range: "Do you believe in the plurality of worlds?" He had read Fontenelle, and I had not, anything I did know having been gleaned from overhearing someone else discussing his work. I muttered something about the movement of the stars, mentioned Copernicus just in case, and that was that. But basically, yes, I did believe in the plurality of worlds, the main question being: was there anyone out there? He seemed pleased, or so it seemed to me, and I breathed a sigh of relief.

Many years later, I wrote an article about him to which I gave the Lorca-inspired title, "The Prodigious Shoemaker." What other adjective could I have used? A shoemaker in my village, in the 1930s, talking about Fontenelle.
José Saramago
From: Small Memories (houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011)


CA.1830s | Leonie Lacoste Chollet
Portrait of Bernard Le Bovier de Fontenelle (1657-1757)
Source: The Royal Society


 

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