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Machado the Miraculous

Writing with a Playful Pen and Melancholy Ink

June 07, 1998|CARLOS FUENTES | Carlos Fuentes is the author of numerous books, including "The Crystal Frontier: A Novel in Nine Stories," "A New Time for Mexico" and "The Old Gringo."His essay is adapted from a lecture delivered last year to the Brazilian Academy of Letters in Rio de Janeiro and is translated from the Spanish by Alfred Mac Adam

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."

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