Dead Man Talking

<i> Alfred Mac Adam is the author of "Textual Confrontations: Comparative Readings in Latin American Literature." A professor of Latin American Literature at Barnard College-Columbia University, he has translated many writers, including Carlos Fuentes and Alejo Carpentier</i>

To say that Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis was the greatest 19th century Latin American novelist is to invite fair, if impertinent, questions: What was the competition? Who cares? We can only see his greatness from the perspective of the 1960s, when Jorge Luis Borges along with Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Carlos Fuentes, Manuel Puig and the other writers of the Boom put Latin America on the cultural map.

But Brazilian literature is still ignored in Spanish America, and Machado (as he is called by Brazilians) was not translated into Spanish until the ‘50s, the same time he was translated into English in the United States. If we read him after experiencing Boom writers, we logically transform him into their precursor because he too uses fantasy and parody to reshape a literary tradition. But he does these things in a purely Brazilian context 80 years before the Boom takes place.

We see his genius in the two works under review here, fresh translations of “The Posthumous Memoirs of Bras Cubas” and “Dom Casmurro.” These satiric novels stand like beacons in the literary landscape of 19th-century Latin America, a landscape inhabited by derivative novelists and great poets like the Nicaraguan Ruben Dario or the Cuban Jose Marti.


Machado’s writing hasn’t aged, and today’s readers will find his voice both familiar and strangely new even if he speaks from a historical framework (he was born in 1839 and died in 1908) that includes Henry James (1843-1916), Emile Zola (1840-1902) and Teddy Roosevelt (1858-1919), who actually saw more of Brazil than Machado, a man who never traveled more than 100 miles from Rio.

In politics as in literature, Machado was an anomaly. Poor, epileptic, mulatto in a caste-ridden society where slavery wasn’t abolished until 1888, largely self-educated, he was, nevertheless, no radical. By our standards, he was a liberal, who strongly criticized Napoleon III’s invasion of Mexico in 1861, as well as the Russian attack on Poland in 1866.

The flourishing of newspapers and magazines in 19th century Brazil enabled Machado to earn a living as a journalist, and he published often humorous articles on Brazilian life and politics. He even reported the assassination of Abraham Lincoln in 1865, managing to get the facts wrong and stating that Lincoln had been stabbed.

In 1869, Machado married the Portuguese Carolina Xavier de Novais despite her family’s reservations about his race and precarious finances. They met in 1868, when she was 33 and Machado 29. It was love at first sight, and they lived happily together until her death in 1903. She was well-educated and guided Machado’s readings of Portuguese literature. She was also his editor, since he made grammatical mistakes until well into his career. Most important, she helped him perfect his English (healready knew French and translated plays), which changed his career as a writer because it revealed to him the satiric literature of 18th century England (Jonathan Swift, Laurence Sterne, Henry Fielding) and provided an alternative to the French psychological novel of Stendhal or Gustave Flaubert. In 1873, Machado was granted a sinecure in the Ministry of Agriculture enabling him to dedicate more time to writing.

Alternating between bureaucracy and literature, Machado entered his greatest period in 1881, when he was 42 and wrote “The Posthumous Memoirs of Bras Cubas.” He followed this masterpiece with a series of shorter works that includes “The Alienist,” a hilarious indictment of 19th century science. In 1899, he published “Dom Casmurro”: for many his other great novel. Two late texts are also noteworthy: “Esau and Jacob” (1904) and “Counsellor Aires’ Memoir” (1908): The first is a sad political meditation on the fate of Brazil; the second a nostalgic, sentimental meditation on the idea of love. President of the Brazilian Academy of Letters in 1897, Machado was buried with full honors in 1908.

“Bras Cubas” opens with a gruesome dedication: “To the worm who first gnawed the cold flesh of my corpse I dedicate these posthumous memoirs as a nostalgic remembrance.” We begin to suspect that Machado’s title is misleading, that it does not allude, as we may at first have thought, to the “Memoirs from Beyond the Grave” by Francois Rene de Chateaubriand, memoirs meant to be read after the author’s death. In the first chapter, following a brief address to the reader, Bras informs us: “I am not exactly a writer who is dead but a dead man who is a writer, for whom the grave was a second cradle.”


This fantastic point of departure opens a door for Latin American literature and marks Machado’s break with 19th century literary realism, especially that of the French novels he unsuccessfully tried to emulate until he wrote “Bras Cubas.” Here Machado takes a metaphor literally: to write, an author must withdraw from life, that is to die figuratively. The irony is that the published book, a dead object, becomes immortal, unlike its author. So Bras achieves immortality--he is his text--after death.

What sort of a book does a dead man write? An autobiography, but unlike other authors, Bras begins with his death, because, as he says, “Moses, who also wrote about his death, didn’t place it at the beginning but at the close: a radical difference between this book and the Pentateuch.” Moses is a prophet and a leader; Bras is merely a 64-year-old wealthy bachelor who dies of pneumonia. No tragedy, no melodrama: “I set out for Hamlet’s undiscovered country without the anxieties or doubts of the young prince. . . .”

Bras starts with the end, explains that he died because of an obsession: the creation and marketing of “an anti-hypochondriacal poultice,” a kind of precursor to Prozac, and then he describes, mixing humor and irony, the circumstances of his demise. The death chapters include one tour de force, Chapter VII, “Delirium.” A hallucinating Bras imagines he rides a hippopotamus back to the origins of time where a female giant, Nature or Pandora, grants him a vision of human history. Bras sees the mad pursuit of happiness, a chimera that always dances out of humanity’s grasp. Chastened by this reduction of human aspirations to absurdity, Bras recovers his sanity just in time to die.

Now his narrative jumps back to his birth to begin the process that will trace a huge circle from death to birth and back again: a circle or a zero, the sum total of Bras’s accomplishments. Freed by wealth from the struggle for life, Bras (his name may allude to Brazil, but the fact that years before Machado had himself signed a magazine article “Bras de Cubas” may simply mean he was fond of the name) can do or be anything, but something thwarts his ambition: the idea that death renders life valueless. Bras is a skeptic and a nihilist, whose existence is only justified by creating a work of art: an autobiography that demonstrates the meaninglessness of life. Borgesean? Yes, except Machado comes first.

Where “Bras Cubas” consciously uses the humor, brief chapters and typographical hijinks that Machado found in Sterne’s “Tristram Shandy,” effects which totally disrupt the decorum of the novel as his readers had come to understand the genre, “Dom Casmurro” appears more normal. But appearances are deceiving. Bento Santiago, the Dom Casmurro or “Mr. Reticent” of the title, tells us the story of his life. Actually, he is a lawyer presenting us with a brief that seeks to prove, first, that his wife Capitu had been unfaithful to him with his best friend Escobar, and that, second, their son Ezequiel was actually Escobar’s child. He only succeeds in demonstrating his own insanity, that he has murdered his family.

Proving that psychology existed before Freud, Bento first tries to recover his past by literally reconstructing his childhood home. It doesn’t work, but the decorative portraits in the living room (which include figures from antiquity who committed incest or parricide) tell him to write an autobiography. He does and inflicts on us a spectacular skein of lies, which transform him into literature’s most unreliable narrator. Where “Bras Cubas” is funny and horrifying, “Dom Casmurro” is ironic and heartbreaking. Great by any standard, these books guarantee Machado a place in the universal canon.


As for the translations, Gregory Rabassa is the godfather of the Boom in the United States, and if he had only translated Garcia Marquez’s “One Hundred Years of Solitude” and Julio Cortazar’s “Hopscotch,” he would have done more than enough. Those translations have utterly changed our understanding of what a translator’s obligations are in the recreation of a text from another language. His “Bras Cubas” should see us through the next century.

The translation of “Dom Casmurro” by John Gledson (a distinguished Machado scholar) is well-timed. The old American translation is only sporadically available and the British version perpetrated by R.L. Scott-Buccleuch is an abomination that actually deletes chapters. Oxford University Press is to be congratulated for sponsoring translations worthy of the original.