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Dead Man Talking

THE POSTHUMOUS MEMOIRS OF BRAS CUBAS.\o7 By Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis\f7 .\o7 Translated from the Portugese by Gregory Rabassa (Oxford University Press: 220 pp., $25);\f7 DOM CASMURRO.\o7 By Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis\f7 .\o7 Translated from the Portugese by John Gledson (Oxford University Press: 230 pp., $25)\f7

June 07, 1998|ALFRED MAC ADAM | 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

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."

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