Machado the Miraculous

Machado is a miracle. And miracles, as Don Quijote tells Sancho, are things that occur only rarely. Nevertheless, when a miracle does occur, not even God will take it away. But if a miracle is something that occurs only rarely, isn't it something that occurs rarely by comparison with what happens always or commonly?

There were few literary miracles in 19th century Spanish America except in poetry, the faithful companion--sometimes the shadow and others the sun--of the literature written in Spanish in the Americas. But if poetry is our most constant and ancient companion, a rival appears beginning in the 18th century to dispute its place of pride among our loves. That late-arriving usurper is identity.

In Spanish America, the 19th is the century of great historians. It's a century of educators and interpreters of the national soul like the Venezuelan Andres Bello, the Puerto Rican Eugenio Maria de Hostos, the Ecuadoran Juan de Montalvo and the Argentine Domingo Faustino Sarmiento.

I bring all this up in order to recall that the Spanish American 19th century was fecund, or perhaps I should say Facundo, because it is the Argentine author and statesman Domingo Faustino Sarmiento in the book of that name who elevates the conjunction of identity and history to a superior form of prose that is simultaneously analytic, descriptive and novelistic. "Facundo" can be read in all those ways; it's our great potential novel of the 19th century: a photograph of the land, an analysis of society, a portrait of the warlord and an example of the power of our language. The Spanish American novel of the 19th century, on the other hand, never dares to abandon the obligation that treacherously presents itself as a sign of modernity: first, Romanticism, then Realism, and finally Naturalism. Romanticism, Machado de Assis writes, is a horseman who rides his noble charger to death and abandons him in a ditch where the Realists find him turned into carrion. Out of pure pity, adds the author of "The Posthumous Memoirs of Bras Cubas," the Realists dragged that romantic carrion into their novels.

The mediocrity of the 19th century Spanish American novel is not unrelated to the absence of a Spanish novel after Cervantes and before Leopoldo Alas or Benito Perez Galdos. To explain this absence would require several nights: I merely want to register how shocked I am at the fact that in the language of the modern novel founded in La Mancha by Miguel de Cervantes there was, after "Don Quijote," nothing. Leopoldo Alas' "La Regenta" (1884-5) and Perez Galdos' "Fortunata y Jacinta" (1886-7) restore the vitality of the Spanish novel in Spain, but Spanish America would have to wait until Jorge Luis Borges, Miguel Angel Asturias, Alejo Carpentier and Juan Carlos Onetti.

But Brazil--and this is the miracle--gives its nationality, its imagination and its language to the greatest (not to say the only) Ibero-American novelist of the last century: Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis.

What did Machado know that the novelists of Spanish America didn't know? What is the reason for the miracle of Machado? The miracle derives from a paradox: Machado absorbs the lesson of Cervantes, the tradition of La Mancha, forgotten, despite countless civic and scholarly homages made to the "Quijote" by Spanish American novelists from Mexico to Argentina.

But Machado had no great novelistic tradition behind him, neither in Brazil nor in Portugal. What he did have was the tradition he shared with us, the Spanish speakers of the continent: He had the tradition of La Mancha. Machado recovered it: We forgot it. But didn't post-Napoleonic Europe forget it as well, the Europe of the great novel of Realism, psychology, the study of customs, of naturalism, from Balzac to Zola, from Stendhal to Tolstoy? Our modernizing pretensions--in all of Ibero-America: Weren't they a reflection of the realist tendency that in my personal shorthand I call the Waterloo tradition in opposition to the tradition of La Mancha?

La Mancha and Waterloo.

What do I understand from these two traditions?

Historically speaking, it is Cervantes who inaugurates the tradition of La Mancha, as if in counterpoint to the triumphant modernity of his day, an eccentric novel in Counter-Reformation Spain, a nation obliged to found another reality through imagination, language, mockery and a mixture of genres. Laurence Sterne continues it in "Tristram Shandy" by accentuating temporal play and the poetics of digression, as does Diderot in "Jacques the Fatalist."

The tradition of La Mancha is interrupted by the tradition of Waterloo, that is, by the realist response to the saga of the French Revolution and Bonaparte's empire. Stendhal is inspired by social movements and individuals who assert themselves. His Julien Sorel reads Napoleon's biography in secret. What moves Stendhal also moves Balzac, whose Rastignac is a Bonaparte of Parisian salons and Dostoevsky, whose Raskolnikov has a portrait of Napoleon as the only decoration in his St. Petersburg garret. Novels that criticize the very thing that inspires them: Begun with Sorel's crime, these rising careers in post-Bonarparte society culminate in the false glory of the arriviste Rastignac and end in Raskolnikov's crime and misery.

Between both traditions, Machado (1839-1908) revalidates the interrupted tradition of La Mancha and allows us to compare it in very general terms with the triumphant tradition of Waterloo.

The Waterloo tradition asserts that it is a reality. The La Mancha tradition knows itself to be fiction and moreover celebrates itself as fiction. Waterloo offers slices of life. La Mancha has no other life than that of its text, creating itself as it is written and read. Waterloo arises from the social context. La Mancha is the product of other books. Waterloo reads the world. La Mancha is read by the world. Waterloo is serious. La Mancha is ridiculous. Waterloo is based on experience: It tells us what we know. La Mancha is based on inexperience: It tells us what we don't know. The actors in Waterloo are real characters. Those in La Mancha are ideal readers. And if the history of Waterloo is active, La Mancha's is reflexive.

These theoretical divisions may ultimately be too rigid because the works themselves are much more fluid. For example, one of the most notable characteristics of the Cervantine tradition, the madness of reading--the source of the action in "Don Quijote"--transcends the realistic level in a novel like "Northanger Abbey," part of the English social comedy in Jane Austen, whose protagonist, Catherine Moorland, loses her mind reading gothic novels; and above all in one of the masterpieces of psychological realism, "Madame Bovary," in which Flaubert's heroine loses the balance between her social reality and her psychological reality because she reads too many Romantic novels. And both Sorel and Raskolnikov, as I said, are who they are because they've consumed too many pages of the Napoleonic epic.

A more specifically Manchegan concept is the idea that a novel know itself to be a fiction, that it be conscious of its fictive nature. "Don Quijote," "Tristram Shandy," "Jacques the Fatalist" and "Bras Cubas," aside from knowing themselves as fiction, celebrate their fictive genesis.

"Don Quijote" springs from a place in La Mancha whose name the narrator doesn't want to recall, but also from a printing house in Barcelona where Cervantes' character visits the very place where his life turns into a book. Don Quijote is the first character in the modern novel who knows he is written, printed and read, just as Tristram Shandy knows he is written by himself, and Bras Cubas knows that he too is being written by himself. Not just by any Bras Cubas, but by a dead Bras Cubas who writes down his reminiscences from the grave.

Bras Cubas, in order to inscribe himself in a tradition, declares that he is a reader of "Tristram Shandy," while Tristram Shandy in turn declares himself part of the tradition of "Don Quijote." From the grave, Bras says, "I have adopted the free form of a Sterne." And in "Tristram Shandy," Sterne says he's taken his form from "the peerless knight of La Mancha, whom, by the bye, with all his follies, I love more, and would actually have gone further to have paid a visit to, than the greatest hero of antiquity."

The real visitor in the book, of course, is the reader, a major character in the "Quijote" from the moment Cervantes, in the prologue, opens the novel by addressing the "idle reader." But in the "Quijote," the relationship between book and reader is a discreet but anguished device to call attention to the other partner in the reading process, the author. The uncertain author of the uncertain novel that begins in an uncertain place in La Mancha where lives an uncertain knight of an uncertain name who leaves his uncertain village for a geography, a very certain geography, populated by very concrete goatherds, justices of the peace, innkeepers, scullery maids, priests, puppetmasters and aristocrats, all of whom Don Quijote makes uncertain because he subjects them to the laws of prior reading: The mills are giants, the inns are palaces, the flocks are armies, the puppets are ferocious Moors and Aldonza is Dulcinea.

By erasing the border between reality and fiction, Cervantes does more than celebrate the genesis of fiction as such. The uncertainties of place, name and action also have a political function: It forces us to doubt all dogma, whether it emanates from the Council of Trent, the laws of purity of blood or the Holy Inquisition. But there is more: Cervantes' enterprise criticizes the world only because it criticizes itself and extends to the author the same critical uncertainty expressed in the novel. Who is this author who addresses the "idle reader?" Is it Cervantes, is it Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, is it Cide Hamete, is it Sancho wearing a mask, is it the author of the apocryphal "Quijote," Avellaneda? Or are they the authors of the La Mancha tradition: Cervantes' descendants, Sterne, Diderot, Machado and, finally, Pierre Menard, the author of the "Quijote" in Jorge Luis Borges' story?

Fiction, celebration of fiction and criticism of fiction. Cervantes accentuates the criticism of authorship, a consequence of the criticism of reading, which drove the hidalgo insane, and Sterne accentuates the criticism of the reader, transforming him into a co-author, first, of a narrative time, that of the reading, that may or may not coincide with narrative duration itself.

Sterne constantly addresses the reader: "I see clearly, reader, by your face," says the invisible author to the invisible reader, flirting, asking him: And now what should I do?, placing the very fate of the novel in the hands of the reader. Shakespeare's "to be or not to be" in Sterne's book becomes "to narrate or not to narrate." The voices of the readers irrupt into the novel to cheer or discourage the narrator. One reader urges him to press on fearlessly while another tells him he'd be a fool to go forward.

Diderot, in turn, grants the reader the freedom to choose among numerous narrative alternatives, directed toward the future (Jacques separates from his master at a crossroads, and the narrator doesn't know which to follow), but also to the past: Where did master and servant spend the previous night? Diderot offers the reader seven alternatives.

This is the ludic tradition whose abandonment Milan Kundera, in his "Art of the Novel," laments but which Machado unexpectedly recovers. "The Posthumous Memoirs of Bras Cubas," published in 1881, are written from the grave by an author whose "authority" is as certain as death itself, except that Bras Cubas transforms death itself into an uncertainty. That is, ab initio, the Cervantine theme of fiction conscious of being fiction: "I am not exactly a writer who is dead but a dead man who is a writer." This writer, for whom "the grave was a second cradle," is the posthumous narrator Bras Cubas, who, to renovate the tradition of Cervantes and, above all, of Sterne addressing the reader, does it knowing that, this time, the reader is dealing less with an uncertain author, as he does in the "Quijote," or with an author anxious to write the totality of his life before dying--"Tristram Shandy"--than with a dead author who writes from the grave, who dedicates his book to "the first worm who gnawed the cold flesh of my corpse" and who confesses the fatality of his situation: "We all have to die. That's the price for being alive."

In this way, Bras Cubas passes his own living past and his own present death on to the reader, with a good deal of the humor of Cervantes, Sterne and Diderot, but with an acidity, sometimes a rage, that is shocking in a character and an author as sweet as Bras Cubas and Machado. Rather, we would be shocked if we weren't informed, from the first page, that these "Posthumous Memoirs" are written "with a playful pen and melancholy ink." This seems to me the essential phrase of the Manchegan novel written by our carioca novelist: to write with a playful pen and melancholy ink.

First the playfulness. Tristram Shandy's admiration for "Don Quijote" is based on humor, and Tristram actually says that the felicity of Cervantes' humor derives from the simple fact that he describes small and silly events with the same circumstantial pomp generally reserved for great events. Sterne inverts that kind of humor by describing pompous events with the humor of small events. In "Tristram Shandy," Uncle Toby, removed from combat by a thigh wound, reproduces the War of the Spanish Succession--the inheritance of Spain's Charles II (Charles the Bewitched) that bloodied the fields of Flanders once again--on the strip of grass between two rows of cauliflower he once used as a bowling green. There, Uncle Toby can reenact Marlborough's campaigns without spilling a drop of blood.

Machado's humor goes beyond that of Cervantes or Sterne: The Brazilian narrates small matters in brief chapters with the mixture of playfulness and melancholy that resolves itself in more than one case in irony. A North American critic has called Machado's book epicurean. A book reviewer in New York says it's frightening because its denunciation of the pretension and hypocrisy hidden in ordinary people is implacable. Susan Sontag corrects that idea, saying that this is only a book of radical skepticism that takes over the reader with the force of a personal discovery.

It's true: The carnivalesque elements, the jocular laughter Bakhtin attributes to the great comic prose of Rabelais, Cervantes and Sterne are present in Machado. All we have to do is recall Bras' picaresque encounters with the philosopher and con man Quincas Borba, the vaudeville of his meetings with his secret lover Virgilia and the description of how Virgilia uses religion: "Her religion was a kind of flannel undergarment, hidden and cozy." All we have to do is evoke Bras' satiric portraits of Rio society and the Brazilian bureaucracy presented in a splendid comic passage that reduces politics to the problem of how to become the secretary of a governor in order to accompany his lover, the governor's wife, to the interior: This is the administrative method for resolving the problem of adultery.

To a great extent, Machado's humor determines the rhythm of his prose: not only the brevity of his chapters but the speed of the language. This rapidity as the sister of comedy, obvious in the speeded-up images of Chaplin or Buster Keaton in the movies, has its musical antecedent in Rossini's "Barber of Seville" and its poetic antecedent in Pushkin's "Eugene Onegin," and its novelistic antecedent in Diderot's "Jacques the Fatalist," from which I extract the following example. The author meets "a woman as beautiful as an angel. . . . I want to sleep with her. I do so. We have four children."

In "Bras Cubas," the author characterizes himself thus: "Why deny it? I had a passion for ballyhoo, the limelight, fireworks." And Virgilia, Bras' lover, is revealed and described in a few accurate strokes: "She was pretty, fresh, she came from the hands of nature full of that sorcery, uncertain and eternal, that an individual passes to another individual for the secret ends of creation." Nevertheless, the Rabelaisian laugh quickly freezes on the lips of Machado's melancholy.

As I said earlier, in "Tristram Shandy," the battles of the War of the Spanish Succession take place in Uncle Toby's vegetable garden and with no loss of blood. Machado, in a similar way, stresses the fact that the clash of laughter and melancholy in "Bras Cubas" will not end in violence. An illustrative paragraph reveals this: Faced with the possibility of a violent encounter, the author promises that the expected violence will not take place, that blood will not stain the page.

The Spanish American reader may find in that passage a historical subtext that deals with Brazil as the Latin American nation that has managed to negotiate historical processes without the violence characteristic of the other nations on the continent. Perhaps exceptions confirm the rule. In any case, in Machado's novel the noise of carnival in Rio stays far off and outside, while the ink of melancholy progressively usurps the space belonging to the playful pen.

Which is why I say that the most significant sentence in Machado's book is the one that follows. After all, what is "Bras Cubas" but the melancholy story of an old bachelor who must first navigate the reefs and shoals of adultery and later on those of a solitary and ridiculous old age? "The death of an old bachelor at the age of 64 does not achieve the level of high tragedy," the narrator warns us at the end of a journey in which he discovers a unity forgotten by Aristotle: the unity of human misery.

But only a critical reading of this great novel can lead us to the literary question, the question of the tradition Machado revives and prolongs, the tradition of La Mancha, also answered, in its own way, by another great Latin American novel written from death, Juan Rulfo's "Pedro Paramo." This question is: "Does being dead mean being universal?" or, put another way, "In order to be universal, do we Latin Americans have to be dead?"

Susan Sontag answers by affirming Machado's modernity but warning us that our modernity is only a system of flattering allusions that allows us to selectively colonize the past. We Latin Americans know we've suffered from an exclusionary modernity, an orphan modernidad--no mother, no dad--and that we are determined to conquer an inclusive modernity, one that does have both Mama and Papa, a modernity that will embrace all we've been--children of La Mancha, part of the mestizo impurity that today is extending around the world to create a polynarrative that manifests itself as true Weltliteratur in the India of Salman Rushdie, the Nigeria of Wole Soyinka, the Germany of Gunter Grass, the South Africa of Nadine Gordimer, the Spain of Juan Goytisolo, or the Colombia of Gabriel Garcia Marquez. The world of La Mancha: the world of mestizo literature.

Machado makes no claim on that world for reasons of race, history or politics but for reasons related to imagination and language, reasons that embrace race, history and politics.

How universal, but how Latin American, are sentences like these by Machado:

"Only God knows the power of an adjective, especially in new, tropical nations."

Or this one:

"I have complete faith in dark eyes and written constitutions."

Faith in written constitutions returns Machado to the playful pen, but this time within an astounding constellation of references and premonitions that lead us, again by the comic path, to the writer we Spanish Americans never had in the 19th century--Machado--to the writer we did have in the 20th: Borges.

Our Latin American hunger, the desire to take in everything, to appropriate all traditions, all cultures, even all the aberrations, the utopian desire to create a new heaven in which all spaces and times are simultaneous, appears brilliantly in "The Posthumous Memoirs of Bras Cubas" like a surprising vision of the first Aleph, prior to Borges' famous version, of which Borges says, "As incredible as it may seem, I think there is or was another Aleph." There was. It belonged to Machado.

"Imagine, reader," Machado says, "imagine a procession of all the ages, of all the races of man, all their passions, the tumult of empires, the war of appetite against appetite, and hatred against hatred." That was "the monstrous spectacle" Bras Cubas sees from the top of a mountain, like Walter Benjamin's angel of the future contemplating the ruins of history, "the living condensation of history," says the authorial cadaver of Bras Cubas, whose mind is "a stage-set . . . a tumultuous confusion of things and people in which everything can be seen clearly, from the rose of Smyrna to the plant growing in the backyard to the magnificent bed of Cleopatra to the corner on the beach where the beggar trembles as he sleeps." There (in the first Aleph, the Brazilian Aleph of Machado) "could be found," the author continues, "the atmosphere of the eagle and the hummingbird, but also that of the frog and the snail."

The vision of Machado's Aleph, his universal hunger, gives color to his literary passion, to his way of addressing the reader, "ignorant reader," reader who is "the defect of the book," because he wants to live rapidly and as quickly as possible get to the end of a work that is slow "like a pair of drunks stumbling in the night." It is to this in no way amiable reader that Machado addresses his games and warnings, more serious perhaps than those of Sterne or Diderot, no matter how much they resemble one another formally:

Reader, skip this chapter; go back and read this other one; be satisfied with knowing that these are merely notes for a vulgar and sad chapter I will not write; get mad at the fact that I'm making you read an invisible dialogue between lovers that your gossipy curiosity would like to hear; and if this chapter seems offensive to you, remember that these are my memoirs not yours and that from the outset I warned you: This book is sufficient unto itself. If you like it, excellent reader, I'll feel rewarded for my efforts; but if it displeases you, I'll reward you with a snap of my fingers and feel well rid of you.

The rather rude treatment Machado reserves for the reader is not, I think, alien to a necessity comparable to that of the bells tolling at midnight that Falstaff heard: It's a way of waking up the readers, arousing them from their romantic and tropical siesta, of pushing them toward more difficult tasks, and aiming them for an inclusive, impassioned and hungry modernity.

Claudio Magris says something about our literature I think applicable to Machado: Latin America, writes the author of "Danube," has widened the space of imagination. Magris could be describing, despite the beautiful, total lightness of his writing, Machado's books. But Machado, when he writes the first "Aleph," is also demanding that Latin Americans be audacious, that they imagine everything.

Machado, too, locates himself in the force of a fiction that includes everything, just as the Latin American imagination would like to include everything and the limits imposed by history. "Long live history, old and voluble history, which serves every purpose," exclaims Bras Cubas from the grave, only to tell us that this totalizing ability is only that of error, that man is not, as Pascal said, a thinking reed, but an erring reed: "Each period of life--says Cubas--is a new edition that corrects the preceding edition and which in turn will be corrected by that which follows until the definitive edition is published, the one the publisher turns over to the worms."

The playful pen and the ink of melancholy combine again and again, find the very origin of their tradition: the praise of folly, the Erasmian root of our Renaissance culture, the wise dose of irony that keeps reason or faith from imposing themselves as dogma.

Machado, Machado of La Mancha, the miraculous Machado, is in the vanguard of the world of imagination and irony, of mestizaje and the contamination of a world threatened more and more every day by the butchers of racism, xenophobia, religious fundamentalism and that other implacable fundamentalism, the market.

With Machado and his Manchegan, Erasmian lineage, with Machado and his descendants--Macedonio Fernandez, Borges, Cortazar, Nelida Pin~on, Juan Goytisolo and Julian Rios, we shall go on, we writers of Iberia and America, dedicated to the task of inventing what the great Cuban writer Jose Lezama Lima called "imaginary eras," because if a culture does not manage to create an imagination, it will become historically indecipherable.

Machado, the miraculous Brazilian, continues to decipher us because he continues to imagine, and the true Ibero-American identity is only that of our literary, political, social and artistic, and collective imagination.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
66°