Wry Modernist of Brazil's Past: Often Considered the Father of His Country's Literature, Machado De Assis Created Humorous and Dark Works of Implicit Social Criticism, Free of the Conventions of His Nineteenth-Century Rio

Article excerpt

Last year the Brazilian film Memorias Postumas, directed by Andre Klotzel, collected honors at film festivals everywhere from Berlin to Kerala, in southwestern India. This faithful incarnation of the 1881 novel by Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis showed how lively his work remains nearly a century after his death. His writing lays bare human venality with dark humor and a hint of compassion.

"I am a deceased writer not in the sense of one who has written and is now deceased, but in the sense of one who has died and is now writing," says the narrator, Bras Cubas, adding that for him, "the grave was really a new cradle." With this opening, he sweeps aside most story conventions and any air of supernatural authority; saying he simply hopes that his unusual method might add to his tale's entertainment value.

In a sustained burst of short chapters, Memorias postumas de Bras Cubas [The Posthumous Memoirs of Bras Cubas] tells the story of the narrator's life as a devilish, wealthy bachelor and his affairs. In the casual conversation of a dead man, the tale does become surprisingly amusing. Cubas dedicates a short chapter as a paean to iris own legs. It waxes Shakespearean, with a wry twist:

"Blessed legs! And yet some people treat you with indifference. Yes, loyal legs, you left to my head the task of thinking about Virgilia, and you said to one another, `He has a problem on his mind, it's dinner time, so let's take him to the Pharoux. Let's split his consciousness; we'll let the lady take one part of it, but we'll take the other, so that he will go straight there, will not bump into pedestrians and carts, will tip his hat to acquaintances, and will finally arrive safe and sound at the hotel.' And you carried out your project to the letter, beloved legs; in appreciation of which kindness I have now immortalized you."

Machado's sensibility still walks abroad in the world today. Susan Sontag pronounced herself retroactively influenced by Machado after her editor lent her a copy of Posthumous Memoirs (in a translation entitled Epitaph for a Small Winner). Kevin Spacey's opening voice-over in the Oscar-winning film American Beauty sounds suspiciously Machadian. And Woody Allen has called Machado "a brilliant and modern writer whose books could have been written this year."

Machado de Assis was born in June 1839 to a father who was a mulatto house painter and a mother variously described as Spanish, Portuguese, and mixed race. Machado's grandparents were freed slaves. If Machado were describing his life as one of his characters, he might sum it up by saying he was plagued by poor health and a stutter from his youth, his parents died while he was still young, and as an adult he contracted epilepsy. But that would not be a full picture. Indeed, Machado has frustrated biographers who tried to fill in the blanks from his unpromising start to his later life as father of Brazilian literature.

Rio de Janeiro would be Machado's world all his life. After his parents died, the boy had the good fortune to be raised by a godmother who was both wealthy and educated. He grew up on the city's outskirts and attended public school, but probably didn't finish eighth grade. By age sixteen he was writing poems for publication, and a year later he took a job as a printer's apprentice. By eighteen he had written an opera libretto.

Very quickly he began writing stories, articles, and plays, and in 1872 he published his first novel, Ressurreicao [Resurrection], in the romantic style then popular.

Although sickly, he had infectious energy. His biographer Helen Caldwell writes that in his first fifteen years as a writer, Machado penned about six thousand lines of poetry, nineteen plays and opera libretti, twenty-four short stories, 182 articles, and seventeen translations. He met with other writers in literary salons and collaborated with poets and musicians on musical extravaganzas. …

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