Dom Casmurro by Machado de Assis
Sometimes with books there’s a kind of serendipity: you stumble upon something new-to-you and interesting in a charity shop which turns out to be a really great read; you find a little novella in a bookshop by the same author which is excellent; and then a lovely publisher brings out a new edition of the author’s best-known work. That’s what’s happened to me with Machado de Assis, and I can’t help feeling there’s some kind of book fairy at work somewhere!
The book in question is “Dom Casmurro”, widely regarded as Machado de Assis’s masterpiece, and the lovely publisher is Daunt Books, who’ve very kindly supplied me with a review copy. And first off, I have to say this is such a beautifully produced book (as are all the Daunts I own) – lovely embossed cover, French flaps; it’s a joy!
“Dom Casmurro” is the narrator of our story, and his real name is Bento Santiago; however, the nickname comes from his perceived reticence and aristocratic bearing. Bento is looking back on his life in his later years, reflecting on the past and his great love for his neighbour, Capitu.
Bento lives in Rio with his beloved mother, a variety of relatives and the family hanger-on Jose Dias. As both young people are making their way through their teens a revelatory moment betrays to Bento his feelings towards Capitu. A kind of obsessive love takes hold of him, and the rest of his life will be determined by this love.
Capitu is a complex character; portrayed as flirtatious and capricious, Bento is early on tormented by jealousy, convinced she’s going to be swept off her feet by someone else. Things are further complicated by the fact that Bento’s mother has made a promise to God that he’ll become a priest – which is the last thing he wants!
A coconut palm that saw me perturbed and divined the cause murmured from the top of its crown that it was not unseemly for boys of fifteen to get into corners with girls of fourteen; on the contrary, adolescents of that age had no other occupation, nor corners any other use. It was an old coco tree, and for myself, I believed in old coco trees, even more than old books. Birds, butterflies, a grasshopper that was practising his summer music, all the living folk of the air, were of the same opinion.
Bento plots and plans to get out of going to the seminary, helped (and often hindered!) by Jose Dias; he begins his studies but eventually manages to make his escape, becoming a lawyer and marrying his beloved. With a home of his own, and his happily married best friend close by, things should be ideal for Bento. However, jealousy will eat away at any temperament, and Bento’s is not one to be calm. Additionally, there is the problem of a son and heir – Capitu eventually produces one, but all does not seem to be right…
In “Dom Casmurro” Machado de Assis has created a wonderfully unreliable narrator! Bento sees events through a filter of his own sensibility, and all of his emotions are tempered by jealousy and insecurity. He eventually comes to suspect his wife and best friend of the biggest betrayal you could imagine, though the reader is never sure if this is the case or if it’s just a figment of Bento’s fervid imagination.
Machado de Assis’ writing here is quite wonderful; his captivating flights of fancy are just lovely, and the narrative proceeds at what is quite a leisurely pace, allowing us to live alongside Bento, almost inside his mind and seeing things from his point of view. All of the characters are vibrant and alive; I was particularly fond of the self-serving Jose Dias, with his opinions shifting like a leaf in the wind! And there are wonderful examples of the absurd, with the narrative going off in unusual directions, which are just a delight.
Let us be happy once and for all, before the reader, half dead with waiting, picks himself up and goes for a walk.
However, the book is also a serious portrait of how jealousy can blight not only the life of the person consumed by it, but also those around them. Bento is marked by his mistrust, but it affects his wife, his friend and his son. Machado de Assis is a clever enough writer never to make it clear whether Capitu really *is* unfaithful, with all the consequences of that purported action also being in doubt. Jealousy is a poisonous emotion and here it certainly poisons all those around it.
I find it hard to actually describe what it is about Machado de Assis’ style that’s so unique, but his work is quite unlike anything else I’ve read. Certainly, there’s an impressionistic quality about the writing, with some lovely imagery and a narrative that really gets us inside the head of Bento. This is the third of the author’s works I’ve read, and with each one I’ve loved his writing more and appreciated his very individual brilliance. I didn’t know quite what I was stumbling on when I discovered “A Chapter of Hats” in the Oxfam all those months ago, but I’m so glad I did because without that, I wouldn’t have read this wonderful work!
(“Dom Casmurro” is published today by Daunt Books; many thanks to them for providing a review copy)