By Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis
Translated from the Portuguese
by Gregory Rabassa
Oxford. 219 pp. $25

By Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis
Translated from the Portuguese by John Gledson
Oxford. 258 pp. $25

Go to Chapter One

Othello in the New World

By Michael Dirda
Sunday, November 23, 1997; Page X08
The Washington Post

Machado de Assis (1839-1908) is Brazil's greatest novelist, and ranks high among the most appealing writers in the world. Machado started out with every disadvantage: He was epileptic, severely myopic, born to the most complete poverty; his father was a mulatto in a Brazil that still held slaves, his mother died young, and he had almost no formal education. Yet this short, unattractive boy taught himself to write while working at a typesetter's and rose to become the president of the Brazilian Academy of Letters. At his death he was given an official state funeral.

Though he lived mainly in the 19th century, Machado possesses an almost postmodern sensibility -- playful, ironic and tricky. He writes in one- or two-page chapters, loves digressions, and frequently addresses the reader, making him a part of the novel's action. That action often begins with a satirical portrayal of upper-class society but usually ends with some sort of disillusionment -- the taste of ashes. One of the Brazilian's first English translators, William L. Grossman, called Machado "the most disenchanted writer in occidental literature."

Yet like Samuel Beckett or Thomas Bernhard, Machado covers his pessimism with a cloak of high spirits -- the kind touched with gallows humor and an Olympian resignation before the sheer foolishness of mankind. In one of his best short stories, "The Psychiatrist," a doctor in a small provincial town gradually commits most of its population to his new insane asylum. However, the zealous medical man eventually frees all the inmates when he realizes that a person needs to be insane to survive in a crazy world. On the other hand, if this is true . . . In due course, the doctor recognizes that he himself possesses "wisdom, patience, tolerance, truthfulness, loyalty, and moral fortitude -- all the qualities that go to make an utter madman." With perfect logic, he ends his life as the only patient in his own mental hospital.

In The Posthumous Memoirs of Bras Cubas (1881) Machado opens with the death of the main character. At 64 Bras Cubas imagines "a sublime remedy, an antihypochondriacal poultice, destined to alleviate our melancholy humanity." Unfortunately, while researching this elixir he neglects his health, so much so that he falls mortally ill. On his deathbed, Bras finds himself plagued by the well-meaning, including "a fellow who would visit me every day and talk about exchange rates, colonization, and the need for developing railroads, nothing of greater interest to a dying man." Alas, our hero soon succumbs, and the real story begins, for after his "transition" Bras decides to relate the highlights of his exceptionally ordinary life: first love with a clever gold-digger, university days in Portugal, years of idleness, a long-term affair with the woman who spurned him to marry an ambitious politico, and ultimately his own election to the Brazilian parliament. There, in his single address to that august body, Bras passionately urges the government to reduce the size of the hats called shakos worn by the National Guard:

"The impressions made by the speech were varied. As regards the form, the quick eloquence, the literary and philosophical part, the opinion was unanimous. Everyone told me it was perfect and that no one had ever been able to extract so many ideas from a shako. But the political part was considered deplorable by many . . . I added that the need to reduce the size of the shako was not so great that it couldn't wait a few years and, in any case, I was ready to compromise in the extent of the cut, being content with three quarters of an inch or less."

The Posthumous Memoirs of Bras Cubas is a book that alternately recalls Sterne and Voltaire; in fact, its most appealing character is the philosopher Quincas Borba (who also appears in the novel translated as Philosopher or Dog?). Borbas ardently espouses Humanitism, which reverses many of the traditional vices and virtues; he dies insisting pain is an illusion and that "Pangloss, the calumnied Pangloss was not as dotty as Voltaire supposed." In another chapter, Bras actually complains in Shandean fashion: "I'm beginning to regret this book. Not that it bores me. I have nothing to do and, really, putting together a few meager chapters for that other world is always a task that distracts me from eternity a little. But the book is tedious . . . because the main defect of the book is you, reader. You're in a hurry to grow old and the book moves slowly. You love direct and continuous narration, a regular and fluid style, and this book and my style are like drunkards, they stagger left and right, they walk and stop, mumble, yell, cackle, shake their fists at the sky, stumble, and fall . . . "

While Bras Cubas remains a highly original, bittersweet comic novel, Dom Casmurro (1900) is a heartbreaking masterpiece. Indeed, Helen Caldwell, a leading translator and critic of Machado, calls it "perhaps the finest of all American novels of either continent." Exaggeration? Yes, I suppose, but not by much. In Dom Casmurro young Bento Santiago falls for the vivacious, irresistible Capitu, but his mother has promised God that he will become a priest. After much effort and contrivance, not to mention the help of his good friend Escobar, Bento eventually frees himself from this vow and marries his beloved. Following a long wait, a son is born. From here on life becomes a torture for Bento because he convinces himself that the child looks precisely like Escobar.

Dom Casmurro inexorably moves from the light of first love to the darkening penumbra of jealousy and obsession. It abounds with echoes of "Othello." Yet the story is far more subtle than it may seem at first. For generations Brazilian critics assumed that Capitu was guilty of adultery -- but is she? Caldwell and some other modern interpreters see the narrator's jealousy as entirely delusional. The soul of the affectionate Bento ("blessed") is gradually usurped by the bitter Hyde-like Casmurro ("a moody, wrong-headed man"). Which interpretation is correct? But need one, or even can one, decide? After all, ambiguity and uncertainty lie at the cankered heart of all jealousy. As Proust shows in "Swann in Love," no proofs of fidelity are ever enough. One can never really know.

In another of his nine novels, Esau and Jacob, Machado explains how he should be read: "The attentive, truly ruminative reader has four stomachs in his brain, and through these he passes and repasses the actions and events, until he deduces the truth, which was, or seemed to be, hidden." Certainly Dom Casmurro is one of those books that deepen the second time through. When does Bento's corruption -- or Capitu's -- start? Very early in their love the narrator observes, "As you see, Capitu, at the age of 14, already had some daring ideas, though much less daring than others she had later." On a first reading one may slide right past this remark; upon reflection it foretells the whole novel. In a sense Dom Casmurro, like Bras Cubas, may be considered a posthumous memoir, in this case by one of the living dead, a mere husk. The boy who once called Capitu his "vocation" has become a warped and embittered man, his pitiful existence devoted to casual affairs and a proposed history of the suburbs of Rio de Janeiro.

These two novels, newly translated, inaugurate Oxford's Library of Latin America. I had hoped to welcome the series unreservedly but can't. John Gledson's Dom Casmurro seems excellent, as good as Helen Caldwell's classic 1953 version. But the Bras Cubas is a disgrace. Never have I seen more typographical errors in one short book: Letters are transposed ("htis"), left out ("short skits" becomes "short skis"), added (carved figures resemble "statutes"); words are broken up ("in vented") and syntax scrambled, "Put that in name small caps, OBLIVION"; the possessive s is regularly dropped from words and inadvertent coinages proliferate, among them Erasmus's "The Praise of Polly." That last is nearly as funny as "two souls the post encountered in Purgatory" and ideas "fluttering in my bran," not to mention the "single qua non" instead of sine qua non. I suppose many of these mistakes result from over-reliance on computers, but Oxford really shouldn't boast about the novel being "superbly edited." Rabassa's actual translation strikes me as slightly more precise but also more stilted than William Grossman's 1952 version (known as Epitaph of a Small Winner).

One hopes that Oxford will correct these errors in future printings. But will the publisher commission new afterwords as well? Those to both these wonderful novels are pretentious examples of almost unreadable academese. They represent just the sort of fustian, overblown rhetoric that Machado de Assis always loathed. Best to ignore them entirely and stick with the quicksilver prose of Bras Cubas and Dom Casmurro.

Michael Dirda is a writer and editor for Book World.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

Back to the top
Navigation image map
Home page Site Index Search Help! Home page Site Index Search Help!