Introducing Brazil’s Best Classic Writer You’ve Never Heard Of

Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis's "The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas" is weird, funny, subversive, and undercelebrated in English

This is him! No, just kidding
Electric Lit relies on contributions from our readers to help make literature more exciting, relevant, and inclusive. Please support our work by becoming a member today, or making a one-time donation here.
.

Introduction to The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas by Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis, published by Penguin Books, an imprint of Penguin Random House, LLC. Translation copyright © 2020 by Flora Thomson-DeVeaux.

Fifteen pages into Memórias Póstumas de Brás Cubas, when the narrator, delirious and on the brink of death, is carried off by a gruff, talking hippopotamus, I remember putting the book down and staring out the window for a breath, delighted and taken aback. This was my first encounter with Brás Cubas. It was 2010, I was a sophomore in college with a few semesters of Portuguese under my belt, and this book was not what I had expected.

The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas by Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis

The average non-Brazilian reader might be forgiven for not expecting anything whatsoever. After all, The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas was Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis’s first novel published in English, 70 years after its release and nearly a half century after its author’s death. “The name of Machado de Assis will probably be unknown to nine out of ten people who pick up this book,” hazarded one of the early reviews of William Grossman’s pioneering 1952 translation. One would be hard-pressed to alter that figure today, even after Brás Cubas has won over such illustrious writers as Susan Sontag, Salman Rushdie, John Barth, and Philip Roth.

In 1960, in The Brazilian Othello of Machado de Assis, the critic and translator Helen Caldwell spoke of the author as Brazil’s “Kohinoor,” the diamond plucked from India to adorn Queen Victoria’s crown. Translations, needless to say, do not steal the original; English renditions of Machado de Assis’s works do not deprive Brazilian readers of their jewel. Still, Machado de Assis has yet to find his place in the Anglophone canon. Each generation seems to have its “Machado moment,” glimpsing the diamond of his work anew—a rediscovery by turns intimate, wondering, and “indignant,” as Caldwell put it in The Brazilian Master. Who is this master, and why haven’t we heard of him before?

Who is this master, and why haven’t we heard of him before?

For a beginning student of Brazilian literature, on the other hand, Machado de Assis seemed to be everywhere, as inescapable and imposing as the mountains of Rio de Janeiro. Born in that city in 1839, the mixed-race son of a humble family, the grandson of slaves, Machado—as he is familiarly known in Portuguese—rose from obscurity and relative poverty to be- come a fixture of literary life, and then a cultural patriarch. He wrote profusely, if not furiously: a largely self-educated, voracious reader, he began his career as a typographer’s apprentice, then a copy editor, journalist, theater critic, and censor. He penned hundreds of newspaper columns under various pseudonyms, wrote poetry and plays, made the bookstores of the swank Rua do Ouvidor a perennial haunt, and inserted himself into a number of literary societies before cementing his reputation with a series of novels. He was the founding president of the Brazilian Academy of Letters. At his funeral, in September 1908, he was mourned by statesmen and writers alike. A legend in life, he became a monument in death.

The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas occupies an almost mythical position in Machado’s trajectory. By 1880, Machado had written four well-received novels: Resurrection (1872), The Hand and the Glove (1874), Helena (1876), and Iaiá Garcia (1878), books in which marriage is either the end point or the fulcrum of the plot, and young women struggle in more or less melodramatic and scheming ways to secure their places in society.

And then came Brás Cubas. The novel was a long step outside the bounds of convention: the memoirs of a man, composed from his grave, dedicated to the worms gnawing at his corpse. It is full of disconcerting and playful images, mischievous mental creations brought to life. The narrator sees the idea for a grand invention somersaulting before him on a metaphysical trapeze; his thoughts take wing and nestle up against his lover’s thoughts on a moonlit windowsill; he lectures readers on the importance of cross-eyed fakirs and takes them into the brain of an envious hatmaker.

The novel was a long step outside the bounds of convention: the memoirs of a man, composed from his grave, dedicated to the worms gnawing at his corpse.

For those reading the serialized narrative in the magazine Revista Brazileira, the story stretched from March to December 1880 and would be published in book form the following year. Over the course of a hundred and sixty-odd chapters, the protagonist introduces himself, dies, is born, grows up, fails to make much of anything of himself, and complains with gusto about the task of writing and about the failings of his readers, looking down his nose at them and dismissing them from the heights of his gravebound superiority.

This peculiar work, despite the status it would come to attain, was at first received with no small perplexity. A handful of critics offered mild praise; others weren’t so charitable. The reaction was so icy that Machado’s brother-in-law had to give him a pep talk. “And what of it if the majority of the reading public didn’t understand your latest book? There are books that are for all, and books for a few—your last is of the second sort, and I know that it was quite appreciated by those who did understand it—moreover, as you well know, the best books are not those which are the most in vogue. Do not mind or think of public opinion when you write. Justice will be done, sooner or later, you may be sure.”

Indeed, this strange book would, in retrospect, be cast as the start of a new era for Machado de Assis. As a student of Brazilian literature, I became aware of the unique place it occupied in the mythology of the national canon. From certain angles, it seems that there is a before-and-after Machado de Assis—an author with whom subsequent generations have been forced to reckon—and that within Machado de Assis there is a before-and-after Brás Cubas. While the hard distinction between the first and second phases of his work (Romantic and conformist in the former, formally experimental and unsettling in the latter) has been rethought in recent decades as scholars have traced the roots of Machado’s experimentations back to previous works, something remains of the image of the dead narrator springing full-grown and grinning from the head of his creator, inexplicable and epoch-making.

In 19th-century Brazil, Machado was seen as an 18th-century writer; in 20th-century Brazil, he was seen as a 19th-century writer; and outside Brazil, by the 20th century he was starting to be seen as a 21st-century writer.

What was it that made Brás Cubas so strange? Writing in the 1990s, the Brazilian critic Wilson Martins commented that in 19th-century Brazil, Machado was seen as an 18th-century writer; in 20th-century Brazil, he was seen as a 19th-century writer; and that outside Brazil, by the 20th century he was starting to be seen as a 21st-century writer. The 18th-century tag comes courtesy of the book’s evident debt to Laurence Sterne; the list of striking commonalities between the Posthumous  Memoirs and Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman (1759–1767) includes both works’ digressiveness and formal experimentation. On the first score: in trying to tell the story of his life, Tristram famously gets so distracted that he gets around to narrating his birth in only the third volume; whereas Brás takes only ten chapters to do the same, he is given to wandering down all sorts of tangents and chastising readers when they fail to follow his zigzagging train of thought. On the second score, both books have daringly short chapters, some of which are composed entirely with punctuation, or less still: Tristram decides to cut ten pages from his Life and Opinions, for example, leaving a gap in the numbering, while Brás’s chapter “Of How I Did Not Become a Minister of State” is one long, disappointed ellipsis.

Even for those who had followed Machado’s increasingly whimsical crônicas (newspaper columns in which he, under a variety of pseudonyms, recounted and reflected on current events), it was jarring to find him plunging into the disagreeable head of a ghost with memoiristic ambitions. Perhaps the least unsettling thing in the book is its prose, which is master- fully elegant and largely law-abiding, though it conceals many a pitfall for the translator.

We may get a clearer sense of how odd the book seemed by looking at the company it kept. Machado’s contemporaries and immediate predecessors could mostly be found writing urban society dramas or origin stories that dwelled on the fusion of the nation’s “three races”—the Portuguese, Native peoples, and African slaves. (This was the sort of weighty narrative I think I expected to find when I sat down to read Brazil’s greatest novelist.) Their prose, for the most part, has aged, while Machado’s remains eerily fresh. “Death does not age one,” as Brás reminds us, exasperated, in Chapter CXXXVIII; a skeleton’s smile is eternal, and Machado’s style, while intricate, is anything but overly fleshy. When held against paeans to the lush Atlantic forest and self-sacrificing indigenous heroes, Machado’s novels seemed to many of his contemporaries rather lacking in national spirit, a grave defect for a country still working to define its culture and identity in relation to its former imperial power. As Machado would write in a famous 1873 essay: “One sometimes hears an opinion regarding this topic that I consider erroneous. This is that the only works of true national spirit are those that describe local subjects, a belief that if correct, would greatly limit the resources available to our literature.” If Shakespeare could lift plots from Italy and Spain, why couldn’t Machado dip his pen into a Sternean inkwell?

If Shakespeare could lift plots from Italy and Spain, why couldn’t Machado dip his pen into a Sternean inkwell?

John Gledson, a Machado scholar and translator, wrote that his attempts to read the master had been frustrated until he read a series of analyses by the literary critic Roberto Schwarz that gave him the key to interpret him. Gledson sums up one of the major arguments as follows: the seemingly arbitrary, disconcerting structure of The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas, “narrated by a frivolous, blithely inconsistent member of the ruling class, is itself socially inspired—there could hardly be a tighter connection between form and content.” In other words, Brás is far more than a reheated Tristram Shandy: his disconcerting freedom as a narrator is rooted in his disproportionate perch in a highly arbitrary Brazilian society. Machado’s appropriation of the Sternean form becomes a critique of his country’s relationship to power, albeit one so finely executed and so unwilling to be didactic that it would be perceived as such only belatedly. (In the case of one of his other masterpieces, Dom Casmurro, it took over a half-century for critics to grasp that the central fact of the narrative may be all in the narrator’s imagination. Their eyes were opened by none other than a Machadian translator, Helen Caldwell, who suggested that the protagonist, Bento Santiago, might not be an embittered, betrayed husband, but rather a cruel “Brazilian Othello.”)

Beyond the structural characteristics that refer back to the power dynamics of Brazilian society, the reader looking to appreciate the brilliance of Brás Cubas is faced with more hurdles—namely, issues of historical memory. Slavery haunts the novel in ways that might have been immediately present and uncomfortable for Machado’s contemporaries, but whose subtleties lie in contextual knowledge not readily accessible to modern readers. Brás’s perplexity at the cruelty of the yellow fever epidemic that swept through Rio in 1850, for example, is comprehensible on its face, but it takes on a different light entirely when we read that the plague had a distinctly racial bent. The city’s African population was largely spared, thanks to inherited immunity to the virus that caused the disease, while European immigrants and the white population were hardest hit. The disparity was so stark that some attributed the disease to revenge by Benedict, the black saint, after white churchgoers’ refusal to carry his statue on their shoulders during an 1849 religious procession. When another character fantasizes about mustering a half-dozen good men to throw all the English out of Rio de Janeiro, the sentiment becomes both slightly more understandable and more sinister when we know that the English government was working to strangle the Atlantic slave trade and had recently affirmed its right to stop Brazilian ships and search them for suspect cargo. The novel’s meanings far overspill its historical context, of course, but a fuller understanding of these time-bound elements—remote for Brazilian high school students today and downright otherworldly for the English-speaking reader with little knowledge of Brazil— enriches it immeasurably.

This deadpan treatment of the subject is quite deliberate. One of Machado’s most famous stories, from the post-abolition period, opens this way: “Half a century ago, slaves ran away quite often. There were many of them, and not all of them cared for slavery.”

As a non-white man working within a structure of power, Machado used his perch to defend the freedom that was being begrudgingly conceded.

Not only was Machado the grandson of former slaves, but he also served for decades in the Ministry of Agriculture at a time when Brazil was shamefully inching its way toward abolition. A fascinating study by historian Sidney Chalhoub, Machado de Assis historiador, shows how Machado was directly involved with the enforcement of the “Free Womb Law,” an 1871 measure that decreed that the children of slaves would be born free. As a non-white man working within a structure of power, Machado systematically used his perch to defend the freedom that was being begrudgingly and belatedly conceded. And as a non-white man in an overwhelmingly white literary establishment, he constructed a white narrator who can be casually amused by brutal injustice, holding up a grotesque mirror to a nation where slavery was then still legal. 

Take the opening to Chapter LXVIII. In the first sentence, Brás lets us know that he was strolling through a place called Valongo. What he does not tell us—in part because he doesn’t need to, given the dark familiarity of the name for Rio natives, and in part because he has no inclination to make his reflections on the subject anything but glancing—is that the Valongo was the city’s old slave market. By the time of the scene in the novel, the Americas’ largest slaving port, which alone may have received as many as a million enslaved Africans (nearly triple the total number brought to the United States), had been officially deactivated; but Machado would recall smuggled slaves being sold in broad daylight, years after the ban. Shortly after Brás’s stroll, in 1843, the Valongo wharf was chosen as the site to welcome Emperor Pedro II’s bride and renamed the “Empress’s Landing,” its irregular cobblestones covered over with even flagstones. After the monarchy fell, the area was used as a landfill. Only in the first decades of this century, thanks to the excavations prompted by the World Cup and the Olympics, did parts of the old slave wharf see the light again. Not too far off is the site of the Cemitério dos Pretos Novos, the common grave of tens of thousands of newly arrived Africans who succumbed even before they could be sold.

The sentence reads, Tais eram as reflexões que eu vinha fazendo, por aquele Valongo fora, logo depois de ver e ajustar a casa: “Such were my reflections as I strolled through Valongo, just having visited the house and made the necessary arrangements.” Brás’s reflections are shortly interrupted by the spectacle of a black man, his former slave, brutally whipping his own slave, a sight that he finds first bothersome, then philosophical, then rather funny. This notorious chapter is so short and so dense with meaning that any attempt by a translator to contextualize within the narration itself would bloat the prose and blunt its wickedness. And yet to leave the sentence as such, without any context, would be to impoverish it immeasurably.

The politely bemused initial reaction to this tour de force of a book is partially captured in the prologue to the fourth edition, as reproduced here: in January of 1881, the historian Capistrano de Abreu wrote to Machado, wondering whether Brás Cubas might properly be considered a novel at all. Elsewhere in the letter, he described the reading experience as deliciosa— e triste também, delightful and sad at the same time.

Brás’s bleak disregard for his fellow man in both life and death is as plain on the book’s face as its absurd humor.

My first reading was pure delight: I thrilled at the narrator thumbing his nose at readers and critics alike, leaping around the events of his life, crafting and discarding metaphors in the same breath, existing in blithe contradiction. But as I revisited the book in undergraduate and graduate seminars over the years, the hilarity of that first encounter seemed to fade away. More and more, what I saw was Brás’s bleak disregard for his fellow man in both life and death, which is as plain on the book’s face as its absurd humor. In the end, it was the process of translating the Posthumous Memoirs that unveiled the darkest parts of its history—and also helped me to laugh at its jokes again.

In part, getting to know the book better has been an exercise in dismantling my initial wonderment. By this I don’t mean ruining the book’s bitter fun—far from it. But to regard the novel as wonderfully inexplicable is to accept a blinkered view that cuts out the very real world from which it emerged; that became untenable as the process of parsing the text thrust me ever deeper into its time and place. While almost entirely shorn of jungles and beaches (as one contemporary of Machado’s would complain, “Não há uma árvore!”—there’s not so much as a tree in his urban, people-focused landscapes), the novel bears deep and abiding marks of its Brazilian origin. Many readers—including me—are swept off their feet by Chapter VII, “The Delirium,” in which Brás, hallucinating in his last days, is able to contemplate the frenzied march of hu- manity from his deathbed. The chapter is a remarkable, un- hinged jaunt through time, narrated by a man who, “on the verge of leaving the world, felt a devilish pleasure in jeering at it.” Prepossessing as the scene is, what the translation process and the exercise of historical contextualization reveal is the brilliant, cruel absurdity behind seemingly tamer or more elliptical passages in the novel, such as the chapter silently set in the city’s old slave market.

If Brás Cubas already seems like an anomaly in Portuguese, the strangeness is doubled, or squared, when it is appraised outside the Brazilian context. Looking to insert Machado into their literary constellations, both Carlos Fuentes and Harold Bloom called him a miracle: the heir of Cervantes or Sterne, shooting up unexpectedly from poor tropical soil. And then there’s the nickname that stuck to him, bestowed by the great Brazilian poet Carlos Drummond de Andrade: o Bruxo do Cosme Velho, the Wizard of Cosme Velho, a reference to the Rio neighborhood where he spent most of his adult life.

Not a miracle, not a mage: my Machado de Assis is an illusionist. There’s magic in the final effect, to be sure. But behind it are pure craft and skill, as well as the manipulation of human behavior—misdirection, playing with our assumptions, our vanity, our foolishness. These past few years translating his work have been an apprenticeship, spent staring at a deft-fingered master and doing my best to replicate his tricks for a new audience.

More Like This

The Eternal Return of “The Turn of the Screw”

Why we’ll never stop adapting Henry James’s century-old novella

Apr 9 - Chelsea Davis

The Best Part of “Little Women” Is That It Contains No Bad Men

Alcott gives us a simple and revolutionary utopia: a world in which women aren't threatened or abused

Mar 3 - Rachel Zarrow

What Should Classic Books Smell Like?

An upcoming novel called "Bubblegum" will smell like bubblegum. Is this the start of a fragrant trend?

Jan 24 - McKayla Coyle
Thank You!