jueves, 12 de marzo de 2009

The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas

Memórias póstumas de Brás Cubas (Oxford University Press hardcover, 1997)
by Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis (translated from the Portuguese by Gregory Rabassa)
Brazil, 1881

"For some time I debated over whether I should start these memoirs at the beginning or at the end, that is, whether I should put my birth or my death in first place. Since common usage would call for beginning with birth, two considerations led me to adopt a different method: the first is that I am not exactly a writer who is dead but a dead man who is a writer, for whom the grave was a second cradle; the second is that the writing would be more distinctive and novel in that way. Moses, who also wrote about his death, didn't place it at the opening but at the close: a radical difference between this book and the Pentateuch." --The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas, p. 7

Like Machado de Assis' equally entertaining Dom Casmurro, The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas is a fake autobiography--written with "a playful pen and melancholy ink" (5)--concerned with events that take place in the late 19th century Brazil of its one-time upper crust protagonist. It's also a tragicomic send-up of the man of letters revealing the mysteries of life through literature, the twist here being that its voluble narrator, dead of pneumonia at the age of 64, inexplicably chose to launch his writing career from the other side of eternity. Chapter 1, "The Author's Demise," covers many of the essential autobiographical details, but elsewhere in his book of life Brás Cubas recounts his ill-starred love affairs and failed political ambitions with great panache, an unbridled wit, and a generous dollop of pessimism. He has a poetic way with words ("I was holding the binoculars of the imagination," he quips in a typical moment [100]), but he also knows when to take a breather when necessary (chapter 139, "How I Didn't Get to Be Minister of States," has no words at all, only telling ellipses). In short, he's almost everything you could want in a narrator except that he knows things about the modern reader that you might not want to hear. A great jab in the eye of conventional fiction/memoir writing marred only by some of the worst proofreading (typos every few pages) I've ever seen in a university press book. (http://www.oup.com/)

"I'm beginning to regret this book. Not that it bores me, I have nothing to do and, really, putting together a few meager chapters for that other world is always a task that distracts me from eternity a little. But the book is tedious, it has the smell of the grave about it; it has a certain cadaveric contraction about it, a serious fault, insignificant to boot because the main defect of this book is you, reader. You're in a hurry to grow old and the book moves slowly. You love direct and continuous narration, a regular and fluid style, and this book and my style are like drunkards, they stagger left and right, they walk and stop, mumble, yell, cackle, shake their fists at the sky, stumble and fall...

And they do fall! Miserable leaves of my cypress of death, you shall fall like any others, beautiful and brilliant as you are. And, if I had eyes, I would shed a nostalgic tear for you. This is the great advantage of death, which if it leaves no mouth with which to laugh, neither does it leave eyes with which to weep... You shall fall." --The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas, p. 111

Machado de Assis: For more on "Brazil's most important novelist," a grandson of freed slaves, see Marc Bain's "Speak, Memory" in Newsweek here.

Next port of call on the Orbis Terrarum Challenge 2009: Canada (Margaret Atwood, The Blind Assassin), Cuba (José Lezama Lima, Paradiso), or ??? (???).

11 comentarios:

  1. I don't remember if we read parts of this at college, but Machado de Asisis looks soooo familiar!

    If you keep going at this rate you will be done by the end of the month :) I know, you will probably read way more international books than you need to just because you love them, that is why I started this whole thing in the first place...international fiction is what floats my boat. I have been taking a little break from it kindof though, it got a little too gloomy for me. I think it is time to dive in again soon.

    Thanks for your amazing and well thought out reviews!!

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  2. Thank you, Richard. I read about Machado de Assis some time ago, probably that Newsweek article, and promptly forgot to add him to my TBR list. It is done.

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  3. "chapter 139, 'How I Didn't Get to Be Minister of States,' has no words at all, only telling ellipses"

    OK, I'm going to have to check this one out! Thanks for the review!

    /Eva - fellow OT-er

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  4. This sounds wonderful and though I haven't heard of it, I think I'm going to love it. I'm also like Bethany, international fiction is what floats my boat.. :D

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  5. I'm not saying anything until you do:-)

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  6. *Bethany: Thanks for such kind words about the reviews! I enjoy writing them usually, but sometimes I question whether they're worth the "effort" given how few regular readers I seem to have. I'll probably be spacing out my Orbis Terrarum books to one a month, though--don't want to eat all that book-chocolate in one sitting!

    *Eva: Thanks for the comment! Machado can be a bit of a downer in regards to his themes, but he's quite the practical joker and virtuoso showman at one and the same time. Expect a good time if you read him!

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  7. *Claire: It's a fun read for sure, and I'm with you and Bethany about the international fiction thing. Thanks for the visit!

    *Merike: ???. I'm on vacation right now, so I'm sorry if I don't quite understand your cryptic comment! Cheers!

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  8. I don't remember myself, have a great vacation!

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  9. *Gavin: Sorry for the delay in publishing (and responding to) your comment, but it got stuck in comment moderation purgatory somewhere and I didn't notice until today. Glad the review helped refresh your memory about Machado--I've loved the two books I've read by him so far. Happy reading!

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  10. Thanks for the quotes - I don't know that I would have been attracted to this book based on the description, but the quotes hooked me. Now I'm going to have to find it.

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  11. Elizabeth, glad you liked those quotes! I hand-picked them to complement the review I wanted to write, but Machado gave me a lot to work with because he's a virtual quote machine. Hope you enjoy the novel once you find it!

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