Translated from Portuguese by Gregory Rabassa
First published 1880; this translation 1997
This book when it appeared was arguably ahead of its time in terms of its style, form, and content. It is an anomaly in the corpus of nineteenth century literature as it challenges the accepted modes of representation. The memoralist, the narrator, tells his story from the grave: “It is not a story of a writer who is a dead man but a dead man who is a writer.”
Because he is dead and hence free from the responsibilities of the living, he is at liberty to relate the story without compromise, with fedlity to total truth, telling things as they are (or were), because the genie of public opinion cannot affect a dead man; it is for the living to fear what others think of him.
Bras Cubas, the narrator, is a member of the elite class in mid-nineteenth century Brazil when it was still a kingdom and slavery was very much alive. He is expected to follow in the footsteps of others of his class, and to take a government position, of influence and riches which come with it, after he had studied in Portugal. But Bras Cubas is not made for any of this, despite his earnest attempts to gain some of that social position that is required of a person of his inherited social background.
The narration, in telling the story of his failed life, which could very well have been great and successful without much work, takes on the social mores and political habits of members of his class, who are anxious to make a place for themselves in that system. It is through this discourse the writer satirizes the morality of the elite class of mid-nineteenth century Brazil.
The absence of urgency for action and emotion, the supine, idyllic and static life of the elite class, is mirrored through Bras Cubas armchair struggle to gain a post of social standing and through his two love affairs, one of which with a married woman who was initially promised in marriage to him but whose father married her off to a young man of better financial means and brighter career prospects. The affair remains clandestine and intense, but there is no place for tragic in it; when the situation changes they easily part and go their separate paths, making a great show of separation, but both knowing full well that it’s impossible to give oneself fully to feeling.
There is a fascinating episode of a dream the narrator tells of during one of bouts of delirium preceding his death. He is at an icy wasteland overlooking a hill and from that vantage point sees the whole century passing before his eyes. All centuries of the past till the present one pass through his vision in a stunning, electrifying apparition as if lightening, and at the end of this he realises that his century, along with the history of humanity with its ideologies, institutions, and images, is an illusion. “You great lascivious man, the voluptuosity of nothingness awaits you.” There is nothing to take from the past and nothing to pass on to the future.
To see all and everything of human history concentrated at one point is bound to remind the reader of Borges’ Aleph, which is a point containing each and everything that has ever existed and will exist, that the protagonist in the short story sees in his friend’s basement. Could Borges have taken the idea from Machado de Assis? This is very much possible.
All in all, this book should be required reading for any one reading classics of the 19th century.