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Love and Loss in South America

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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!

dom casmurro

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.

Machado de Assis

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)

Who was mad and who was sane

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The Alienist by Machado de Assis

Another of my favourite authorial discoveries last year was Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis, usually just known by his surnames. I stumbled across his short story collection, “A Chapter of Hats”, in the local Oxfam and loved his writing style and his vivid imagination. So when I was in London at the end of the year, I quickly picked up a copy of his novella “The Alienist” from the lovely Foyles. Published by Melville House Press as part of their ‘Art of the Novella’ series, it sounded really intriguing.

alienist

“The Alienist” of the title is one Simão Bacamarte, a physician who sacrifices a burgeoning career to return to his home town and dedicate himself to the new science of psychology. The town welcomes him with open arms, and it’s not long before he’s opened its first asylum and is merrily committing citizens to it, ready to investigate what’s causing their insanity. However, the number of people interred increases; Simão’s wife becomes discontented; the townsfolk start to rebel when obviously harmless and sane people are locked away; and it becomes harder and harder to discern who is mad and who is sane.

The plot of this short book twists and turns marvellously, as the poor confused people of Itaguai try to come to terms with having such a prodigal son of a scientist in their midst. The definitions of sanity are increasingly tenuous and fragile until it almost seems as if the whole town is mad. The army doesn’t help the matter and I started to wonder how Machado de Assis could possibly resolve the story!

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But he did – and brilliantly! This is of course a very clever satire on the human condition, and a wonderful commentary on how varied we mortals are. Sanity is often something of a sliding scale, depending on the mores of the society we live in, and fortunately nowadays we’ve learned to be less judgemental. Some of the reasons given for committing people are laughable and I do hope it wasn’t really like that in the author’s time!

Machado de Assis’ style is wonderfully dry and witty, and this was definitely one of the best of his that I’ve read. Luckily, Daunt Books have very kindly sent me a copy of his “Dom Casmurro” which I’m very much looking forward to reading. If you haven’t read this wonderful author before, “The Alienist” would be a very good place to start!

People are the same the world over…

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A Chapter Of Hats And Other Stories – Machado de Assis

Translated by John Gledson

For a person who loves to read translated literature, I actually have several blank areas in my reading, one of which is South American writing. I dipped a toe in last year with “Where There’s Love, There’s Hate”, and of course I’ve read quite a bit of Borges in the past (and I have his complete works on my shelves). But Machado de Assis is a new name to me, and the title and blurb on this one hooked me in the Oxfam, which is why I found myself in 19th century Brazil before Christmas!

chapter

The author sounds an intriguing character; as Wikipedia says, “Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis, often known by his surnames as Machado de Assis, Machado, or Bruxo do Cosme Velho (June 21, 1839 – September 29, 1908), was a Brazilian novelist, poet, playwright, short story writer, and advocate of monarchism. Widely regarded as the greatest writer of Brazilian literature, nevertheless he did not gain widespread popularity outside Brazil in his own lifetime. He was multilingual, having taught himself French, English, German and Greek in later life.”

Machado de Assis was born of a mulatto father and an Azorean Portuguese mother, and growing up in the last country to abolish slavery (1888!) can’t have been easy. The theme of dominance of one people over another comes up again and again in his works, particularly the later stories in this collection, although he is never overt in his criticisms, and apparently didn’t speak out against slavery during his lifetime; which is understandable, given his complex heritage.

“A Chapter of Hats” contains 20 short stories, written between 1978 and 1906, so covering a good span of the author’s working life. And an entertaining bunch they are! There are tales of troubled marriages, people losing their identity while living in solitude, discussions of whether the hat maketh the man, youthful obsessions with older women and the fidelity (or infidelity) of lovers!

… Camilo was an innocent in the moral and practical sides of life. Time had taught him nothing, and he was not provided with the crystal spectacles nature puts into some people’s cradles to foresee the effects of time. He possessed neither experience nor intuition.

Some of the stories are lighter and more entertaining fables, but some (mainly the later ones) are dark indeed. For example, in “Father against Mother” an impoverished man gains the money he needs for his family to survive by brutality towards someone in a lesser position with tragic consequences, proving that it depends upon what point on the social scale you are as to whether your behaviour is acceptable. In fact, as the stories go along, you can almost see Machado de Assis’ attitude towards humanity hardening; in the early tales he’s content to point out foibles and portray social comedy, but near the end of his life he was making strong statements about human nature and the wickedness therein.

chapter

Machado de Assis has a wonderfully individual style, and it’s a hard one to pin down in words. His narrator seems to discuss the characters with the reader; his imagery is unusual and particularly striking:

Then he made an incredulous gesture: it was the idea of hearing what the fortune-teller had to say, passing by in the distance, far away, with huge grey wings; the idea disappeared, came back again, and once more faded out of his mind; but a little later it flapped its wings again, closer now, sweeping round in concentric circles.

One of the most memorable stories here is “A Famous Man”, the tale of a composer of popular polkas who yearns to compose what he regards of great musical works like Beethoven and Mozart; he is unable to accept the gift of music he has, instead wishing for something else. Whether or not this is a self-portrait of the artist himself, and he wished to produce epic works, doesn’t really matter in the end; because Machado de Assis produced some gems of stories. They’re touching, thought-provoking and enjoyable and his characters are instantly recognisable as people we might meet anywhere. Yes. human beings really are the same all over the world, with the same traits and foibles and loves and hates; and Machado de Assis brings them to life brilliantly in the Brazilian landscape. This was a lovely collection of stories and I’m sure I’ll be encountering the author again! 🙂

 

…and I was doing so well!

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I certainly was! I have been trying (and succeeding) not to buy any books lately. Not only is the festive season (and my birthday!) approaching, a time when I’m very likely to receive books, but also the shelves are still bulging despite my clearing out earlier in the year. So apart from sending off for the final book I need to complete my set of C.P. Snow’s “Strangers and Brothers” series, I had been very good up until the weekend…

Unfortunately the Oxfam Shop was the instrument of my downfall. They’ve revamped the shelves I like, which were Modern Classics and Classics, into just one section and added some new titles. So I ended up coming home on Saturday with these:

chapter journey

… for which there really is no excuse, particularly as I already have a perfectly acceptable copy of “English Journey”. HOWEVER – this is a lovely 50th anniversary (book club) edition with lots of period illustrations and it was only £2.99.

journey illus

I mean, it *is* lovely, isn’t it? And here is Priestley on the back cover:

journey back

The other book was a whim, nothing else:

chapter hats

I know not a thing about it, but was intrigued enough to risk £1.99. And if anyone has any thoughts on the book, I’d be interested to hear them, because I’ve never heard of Machado de Assis!

Incidentally, I was surprised at the prices of both these books, as the Oxfams often charge more than the other charity shops, but both of these were very reasonable. There is a new guy behind the counter so maybe he’s decided lower prices will stimulate sales – which could be a very dangerous trend…. 🙂

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