Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas by Machado de Assis

By Rob Packer

"Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas" by Machado de Assis

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.

The African by J.M.G. Le Clézio

By Rob Packer

<i>L'africain</i> by Le Clézio

As a child, I sometimes wondered what my life would have been, if I had been born in another country or to different parents: who would my friends be, what language I would speak, would this hypothetical me imagine himself born to English parents in suburban London?

J.M.G. Le Clézio (1940-) uses a similar hypothesis to start his autobiographical essay, The African (or L’Africain, 2004), which explores his father’s decades of service as a doctor in Guyana, Cameroon and Nigeria, as well as the author’s own relationship with him:

“For a long time I dreamt that my mother was black. I had invented a history, a past for me to flee reality on my return from Africa, in that country, in that city where I knew no one, where I had become a stranger. Then I discovered, after my father retired and returned to live with us in France, that it was he who was the African”.

Brought up in Mauritius, educated in London, his father finds “a pretext to break with European society” and becomes a field doctor in remote areas of British colonies. Having escaped Europe, he finally finds a “taste of freedom” in the highlands of Cameroon with his new wife. For a man who seems to be trying to escape Europe, it can’t be a coincidence that he is happiest in a place only marked with a question mark on a German map from 1913.

This idyll comes to an end when Le Clézio’s father and mother are separated by the Second World War: the author grows up in Nice with his mother and grandparents, while his father is in a remote village in southeastern Nigeria, cut off from the world, without news from his family”. And Nigeria is a different Africa where life is different: the illnesses are more severe and European doctors are seen as amputators and executioners. The paradox of his break with Europe is that when he wants to leave Africa, he finds himself trapped.

The effects were severe: the “interminable silence” had made his father dour, taciturn, a stranger—this word echoes through the book. When the family move to Nigeria and Le Clézio finally meets him at the age of 8, he finds him “pessimistic and authoritarian”, and so different from all the other adults he had previously met to be barely comprehensible. This lack of understanding seems to continue throughout life and it is telling that Le Clézio overwhelmingly describes his father’s habits, as if still trying to fathom him: in contrast, there is no (or very little) conversation between father and son.

But for a man so quiet and alienated from almost everything, actions sometimes explain in a way that words can’t, and the book’s most haunting image is that of the father, now retired in France, eating chicken with a scalpel and forceps. Ultimately, the routine he built up over years of solitude has become so deeply rooted that it’s “as if he never left Africa”. For me, nothing describes this alienation more clearly, or more touchingly.

The African (unfortunately, only available in French) is a beautifully written account of Le Clézio’s attempts to understand his father better, but it also questions the traditional relationship between identity and place: are we “from” the place we were born and grew up in, or are we “from” the place that had the biggest influence on our character and habits? The book makes a convincing case for the latter.

Bernardo Carvalho’s Nine Nights

By Rob Packer

"Nine Nights" by Bernardo Carvalho

Buell Quain was a young American anthropologist who committed suicide in 1939 while journeying from a Krahô indigenous village to Carolina, a remote Brazilian town on the edge of the rainforest. This historical mystery becomes the focus of Nine Nights (2002) by Bernardo Carvalho (1960-), in which two unnamed narrators recount their stories of the anthropologist’s death: one obsessively investigating the details and motives in the present after coming across Quain’s name in a lone sentence in scientific periodical; the other giving an enigmatic and rambling account of his friendship with Quain in Carolina.

At its best, the novel chronicles the enormous changes in Brazil’s interior and the indignities suffered by its natives over the book’s 60 or so years, as the modern-day narrator remembers his 1960’s childhood in what he calls “hell”: his father’s properties in the cerrado, where the forest was cut down and burnt and the mud “road” undulated across country ending in a wall of virgin forest. As sad is the story of a once proud warrior tribe reduced to 50 people, living in constant fear of being attacked by their indigenous neighbours and unconsciously committing collective suicide. This is be echoed the year after Quain’s death, when the tribe he studied would be massacred by cattle ranchers to “teach them a lesson”, or when they are poisoned by untreated waste from a hospital upstream.

At these points (almost entirely in its middle third) this is both gripping and affecting, but as a whole the novel is strangely uneven. The narrator describes his obsessive research into Quain’s death with meticulous detail and ponderous supposition: the ultimate impression was that these parts were like excerpts from a stream of consciousness novel on someone writing a university dissertation in history. Equally incongruous was the melodramatic description of the narrator and his sister trying to rescue their seriously ill father from the machinations of his mistress—yes, just like in a telenovela.

Ultimately, this all came across as a mishmash of narrators and tone, rather than successful fusion. And I think this is because the central premise of the narrator, whose obsessive research is all we really know of him, failed to be believable and felt both tiresome and, once the truth is revealed, disingenuous.

Even worse is that this mixture of fiction, history and memory, with its narrow point of departure and the three black-and-white photos, is reminiscent of W. G. Sebald. This is an unfortunate comparison: Sebald’s books are unparalleled masterpieces of narrative and Nine Nights doesn’t come close.

Mia Couto’s Sleepwalking Land

By Rob Packer

In that place, the war had killed the road. Only hyenas hauled themselves along the trails, snouting among ashes and dust. The landscape was mixed with never seen sorrows, in colours that stuck to the mouth. These were dirty colours, so dirty that they had lost all delicacy, their daring to raise their wings into the blue forgotten. Here, the sky had become impossible. And the living had grown used to the ground, resigned to the apprenticeship of death.

"Sleepwalking Land" by Mia Couto

This sparse and evocative paragraph (my translation) is the start of Terra sonâmbula (Sleepwalking Land) by Mia Couto (1955-), drawing you into this fascinating novel, set during Mozambique’s long civil war (1975-1992). The book tells two stories: that of two refugees, Muidinga the child and Tuahir the old man; and that of Kindzu, another boy caught in the war, whose magical story written in notebooks Muidinga finds in a suitcase on a roadside close to the burnt-out bus that becomes the pair’s shelter: “if it’s already burnt, it won’t catch fire again”.

The breakdown of society suffuses the book over the long course of a war that has left everyone “alone and dead and alive”, where children become adults before their time and mothers stealing blankets from their babies to teach them how to survive. Meanwhile, the characters sleepwalk through the country, visitors who used to have good intentions now “bring death of the tips of their fingers”, and even the cows are desperate to become herons and fly away.

Hemingway-like, this breakdown also creeps into the language in its sparseness, especially early on in Muidinga and Tuahir’s story, where not even the narrator uses conjunctions: life seems too senseless to say and. It is Kindzu’s quest-like, more fluid story that brings the two to life and Muidinga, whose memory has been wiped by a witch doctor, reads Kindzu’s story as a bedtime story to the old man in a reversal age roles. At the same time, the road begins to move transporting Muidinga and Tuahir across the country, through a ruined landscape where it’s never clear if the people they meet are actually people or spirits.

The Portuguese of the book feels hugely innovative, at times comically, with strange mixtures, like “blood filled our fears”, and invented portmanteau words, like brincriação (playcreation), sonhambulante (dreamwalking) or administraidor (administraitor). Some of the book’s highlights are its funny but depressing aphorisms, like “You can’t have a clean war at the bottom of the latrine” or “In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man ends up without it”.

Sleepwalking Land paints a depressing picture of a war that has gone on so long that even the people’s dreams have been stolen and the only options are “to leave or go mad”. There are plenty of mad people in the book, but none manage to escape however hard they try. But at its heart, there is an incredible linguistic inventiveness that drives narrative in the midst of desolation. It is narrative that has the power to create bonds between people and it is touching to see this in the way that Tuahir and Muidinga to look forward to their ‘bedtime story’ or Kindzu dedicates himself to a woman trapped on a ship after hearing her life story.

Orhan Pamuk’s The Museum of Innocence

By Rob Packer

The Museum of Innocence by Orhan Pamuk

Orhan Pamuk’s The Museum of Innocence is his first novel after winning the Nobel Prize in Literature—a clearly political, probably premature, and ultimately deserved honour. Ostensibly a love-story set in the 70’s and 80’s in Istanbul, the book tells the story of Kemal, a wealthy socialite, whose perfect society engagement to Sibel breaks down as he becomes increasingly infatuated with Füsun, a humble distant relative. It is also a return to Pamuk’s previous autobiographical work, Istanbul: Memories and the City and explores similar themes, such as memory and, above all, hüzün, a melancholy peculiar to the city that stems as much from its reputation as an East-West crossroads as the city’s own internalization of that dialectic (director Hüseyin Karabey explains it in this travel video from The Guardian).

For Pamuk (1952-), hüzün is collective and comes from the city’s long decline in post-Ottoman Republican Turkey. Visions of an inaccessible happier past are ever-present in the book, whether in the image of a yalı (a Bosphorus summerhouse) going up in flames after its patrician owners rented it out to a Turkish film company, summer outdoor cinemas in courtyards since replaced by apartment blocks and car parks, the almost apocalyptic vision of Istanbulites congregating in a park night after night to watch a fire after two boats collide in the Bosphorus, or the constant presence of Soviet military vessels passing through the heart of the city.

The city’s chattering classes seem preoccupied with embracing “modern” European ideas while disdaining religious Anatolian nouveaux riches arriving in the city. Kemal, in particular, is particularly dismissive of the simplistic plots of Turkish films, but as he immerses himself in the Istanbul film world to stay close to Füsun, he never notices the irony that the on-screen melodramas are almost identical to his own story.

For Kemal, the effects of hüzün are profound and are similar to Avicenna’s diagnosis of ḥuzn “in a lovesick man if his pulse increased dramatically when the name of the girl he loved was spoken” (from Wikipedia). Kemal obsesses over Füsun, preserving his memory of her by stealing the bottle caps, cigarette butts, saltshakers and earrings that will eventually make up the Museum of Innocence of the title (and soon to be real-life): every now and again, the museum curator steps to draw our attention to a particular photo or display that evokes a particular moment.

It’s objectification in its most literal sense and Kemal says, “it cheered me to have broken off a piece of her, however small”. But this type of fetish—in all senses of the word—is no way to preserve or deal with the present: as Kemal tries jealously to preserve every moment through detailed mental notes, he loses touch with what Füsun actually wants and who she really is.

Unlike the book’s men, its women are mostly sensible and Füsun says that “there’s no such thing as love” in Turkish society. For Kemal, though, egocentrism is at the heart of his infatuation and he often comes across as a spoilt brat, at one point expressing the realization “that for most people life was not a joy to be embraced with a full heart but a miserable charade to be endured with a false smile, a narrow path of lies, punishment, and repression”. As his successful life breaks down and he retreats into his obsession, the narrative becomes increasingly claustrophobic leaving well-to-do Nişantaşı neighbourhood and palaces on the Bosphorus and re-centring itself in flood-prone Çukurcama.

As in all of Pamuk’s books, there is a locally rooted melancholy at the heart of The Museum of Innocence and the translator, Maureen Freely, does a fantastic job at tweaking the narrative to explain euphemisms, “internationalizing” the text while preserving its localness. But rather than seeing the book just as a reflection on the clichéd East-West divide at the centre of Istanbul, I think the book says something just as important about humanity’s desire to preserve the past.

And this is just as important in today’s internet age: we are probably all guilty of trying to preserve the fleeting moment through a camera lens. For instance, how many people did you see immediately uploading photos to Facebook at yesterday’s party, fireworks display or concert? Is this participation or self-isolation?

Orhan Pamuk, The Museum of Innocence (Masumiyet Müzesi), Faber & Faber 2009

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