January 20, 2012 Leave a comment
By Rob Packer
While reading Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas (Memórias Póstumas de Brás Cubas) by Machado de Assis (1839-1908), I constantly had to remind myself that it was written in 1881. The book—also Epitaph of a Small Winner in English—feels far more modern, and modernist, than its age would suggest. Even the basics suggest this: the narrator, Brás Cubas (a writing dead man rather than a dead writer), is telling his life story from his coffin and the novel is dedicated to “the first worm to gnaw the cold flesh of my corpse”.
But the story isn’t morbid; the narrative is playful in a style of ironic distance, and in parts feels very much surrealist. Within the first ten pages, Brás Cubas introduces us to his former mistress, who only has a few grey hairs because “she’s one of those stubborn types”. And while he’s lying on his deathbed speaking to her, a talking hippopotamus bursts into the room and takes him through a snow-covered landscape to the “origin of the centuries” to meet Pandora and have his life (and the whole of human history) flash before his eyes. It is touches like these that help the book feel so modern and make it an exhilarating read.
Towards the end of the book after a number of unsuccessful careers, Brás Cubas falls under the spell of Quincas Borba, a beggar become cod philosopher. Borba has created a woolly philosophical concept called Humanitas, a parody of the philosophical ideas of the day. Magpie-like, it “excluded nothing” and its key formula is the (frankly nonsensical) “Humanitas wants to replace Humanitas for the sake of Humanitas”.
Machado de Assis is, without a doubt, the most influential writer in Brazilian literature and his figure of the ironic narrator still lives on today—Moacyr Scliar is a great writer and an obvious example. But I feel he should also be thought of as much as a great writer of world literature: Brás Cubas feels mould breaking both linguistically and thematically, while it is also grounded in the 19th-century realist movement and the Western literary tradition as a whole and jumps effortlessly between references to Laurence Sterne, Molière, Voltaire and Dante. Doing all this is some feat and, quite simply, Machado de Assis deserves to be read.