The world rediscovers Brazil’s most incredible writer

The world rediscovers Brazil's most incredible writer machado de assis Photo: WikiCommons

When the late Susannah Hunnewell, publisher of The Paris Review, asked French author Michel Houellebecq how he has the nerve to write some of the things he writes, he replied: “Oh, it’s easy. I just pretend that I’m already dead.” That is the best starting point to discuss one of the most avant-garde books of all time, “The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas,” the 1881 masterpiece published by Brazilian novelist Machado de Assis. In short, it is the autobiography of a dead man. Not an author who wrote before his death. Rather, he died … and then wrote his story.

If you think about it, great literature has always managed to combine escapism while messing with sleeping dogs. Which is why it is good news that, in the middle — or beginning, or end, who knows? — of the coronavirus crisis, English speakers will have a new chance to discover a work that challenges programs, beliefs, illusions, and preconceptions that dictated cultural production not only in Brazil, but around the world, way before postmodernist literature existed. This month, two translations of this masterpiece were released, by Penguin Classics and Liveright.

</p> <p>The brochure edition put out by Penguin sold out instantly and, in the U.S., put Machado de Assis atop the &#8220;Caribbean and Latin American Literature&#8221; category on Amazon. “Not in my most feverish of fever dreams did I imagine this kind of enthusiasm. (Nor did Brás, since he estimates his readership at 5 people, max!),” <a href="">wrote</a> Flora Thomson-DeVeaux, who translated the book, on Twitter.</p> <p>Posthumous Memoirs — as Brazilians usually shorten the title — is the no-holds-barred story of a life told from the point of view of a narrator who led an unexceptional life and represented the ordinary petit bourgeois in Rio de Janeiro&#8217;s late 19th century. On this note, an earlier edition of the book in English was titled &#8220;Epitaph of a Small Winner.&#8221; At various points, Brás Cubas breaks the fourth wall by talking directly to the reader about what he, the narrator, sees as flaws in his book, but ultimately decides to keep.&nbsp;</p> <p>Living narrators couldn’t come close to this level of self-awareness.</p> <p>Through his narrator’s eye for detail, Posthumous Memoirs is a thorough and dead-on assessment of a racist, decadent society — and Machado leaves no convention untouched. In one particular chapter, the narrator witnesses a freed slave who once belonged to him whipping his own slave. Cubas at first finds it bothersome, but eventually cracks a laugh. This passage has a subtle jab at elites of the time&nbsp;—&nbsp;<a href="">slavery would only be abolished years later</a>, in 1888.</p> <p>And the book is filled with these little details.</p> <p>As Dave Eggers&#8217; introduction to the Penguin edition claims, Machado was a master of deciphering the jokes of life — or maybe that one big joke called life. This is a book dedicated to &#8220;the worm who gnawed on the cold flesh of [Cubas’] corpse.&#8221;&nbsp;</p> <p>“[It] wouldn’t hurt,&#8221; Mr. Eggers writes, &#8220;to have a few more [novels] that allow humans — characters, readers, authors even — to laugh. Denying the jokes in life, and the joke of life itself, is too sad.&#8221;</p> <h2>Who was Machado de Assis — and why he was so important</h2> <p>Machado de Assis (1839-1908) was no joke at all. A mixed-race man from a poor Rio de Janeiro family, he barely attended public school and it’s unlikely that he ever made it to university. His father was a house painter, the son of freed slaves, and his mother, an Azorean servant of a wealthy household, died when Machado was just nine years old. The father remarried to a poor black woman and died a few years later, meaning Machado grew up orphaned, the grandson of slaves —&nbsp;in a country where the slave trade would be at the center of the economy until he was 50 years old.</p> <p>It gets worse: Machado was terribly myopic, almost going blind at 40, and he suffered from epilepsy and a stutter. The death of his wife Carolina Novais, in 1904, was the ultimate hardship: depression took hold of Machado, who died four years later.</p> <p>Despite all the turbulence, Machado somehow managed to learn French, English, German, and Greek. Early in his youth, Machado would display his aptitude for letters by translating Victor Hugo’s <em>&#8220;Les travailleurs de la mer&#8221;</em> (The Toilers of the Sea) from its original French.&nbsp;</p> <p>A voracious reader, he worked in various public departments, and also as a typesetter and journalist from youth onwards, until <a href="">literature</a> made its call. In 1897, already well known for his newspaper chronicles — he wrote roughly 600 of them and helped popularize the genre in Brazil, still seen today in major newspapers — Machado founded the Brazilian Academy of Letters and became its first chairman.&nbsp;</p> <p>His legacy is remarkable in itself, but gains a whole new meaning when you realize that Machado was born just 31 years after the first book was printed in Rio. Between 1500, when the Portuguese first began Brazil&#8217;s colonization, to 1808,&nbsp;when the Portuguese Crown fled Napoleon and settled in Rio,&nbsp;printing was illegal in the colony — meaning that the country was unable to develop knowledge for itself for over 300 years.</p> <p>To date, Machado’s work has been translated into Arabic, Danish, Dutch, and German, among other languages. Renowned critic Harold Bloom called him “a miracle”, and Brazilian poet Carlos Drummond de Andrade nicknamed him “The Wizard from Cosme Velho,&#8221; a reference to Machado’s uncanny literary skills.</p> <p>Machado de Assis also stood at a delicate ethnic crossroads in Brazil. Completing his life&#8217;s work at a time when non-white Brazilians were overtly treated as second-class citizens, a critic once referred to him as a &#8220;genuine representative of the mixed Brazilian sub-race.&#8221; At the end of his life and in death, however, Machado de Assis&#8217; image underwent a process of whitewashing — sometimes literally.&nbsp;</p> <p>Despite photographs and anecdotal evidence proving that the novelist was dark-skinned, he was classified as &#8220;white&#8221; on his death certificate in 1908. This impression lasted throughout the 20th century — in a 2011 television commercial for public bank Caixa, Machado de Assis was played by a white actor, which was met with ire from black rights groups.</p> <p>In times such as these, in which racism is still a hot topic, the world needs to read this book more than ever. Not only because it’s wise to listen to the wisdom of our dead, but also because it’s <a href="">great literature</a> that provides a terrible opportunity for escapism — or does it?

Fabrício Calado Moreira

Fabrício Calado Moreira is a Brazilian translator, journalist, and literature aficionado. He is currently studying how to write essays about novels and short stories. He currently lives in Vancouver.

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