"At last, a new translation of Machado's masterpiece that is complete (unlike Scott-Buccleuch's 1992 version - see HLAS 54:5078 - which omitted key chapters) and highly readable. Gledson produces a much-needed, graceful and accurate translation, attentive to Machado's tone and rhythms. Hansen's Afterword is excellent"--Handbook of Latin American Studies, v. 58.
Machado de Assis isn't as well-known outside his home country but within Brazil it's a completely different story. Dom Casmurro, the book considered his finest novel, is required reading for every child in the country. It's on the school syllabus in much the same way that Bronte, Dickens and Austen were in the UK (until the government started messing around with eduction and children were no longer have to read whole books)
This is a novel in the realist mode that ranks alongside many other great nineteenth century novels like Madame Bovary or Anna Karenina which similarly focus on love, marriage and adultery. But the similarity only extends to the theme and not to the way de Assis handles his subject.
The novel purportes to be an autobiography written by Bento Santiago, a lawyer from Rio de Janeiro. We meet him as a semi reclusive man in the maturity of his life, the occupant of a substantial house built as a replica of his childhood home. He is alone, with few friends still alive.
After years of wedded bliss to a childhood sweetheart, he suspects that he has been cuckolded; that his wife Capitú, has cheated on him with his best friend and that her child is not his.
Writing, he decides, will relieve the monotony of his life. Ideally he wants to write something about jurisprudence or politics but that will require more energy than he has available right now; so instead he opts for the easier path of recording reminiscences from his past.
Through the narration that ensues, we follow him from his early adoration of Capitú, the girl next door who he believes similarly adores him. They cannot declare their love publicly however — his mother has him marked down for a glittering career in the church and would not welcome any disruption to those plans. So off he goes to the seminary, the first stage of the journey towards accomplishing the vocation his mother is sure is his destiny. Bento of course has other plans and the rest of the story traces his desperate efforts to keep Capitú's affection, win over his mother to his plans, and marry the girl of his dreams.
Described in such terms would suggest Dom Casmurro is a straight forward linear narrative. Far from it. The chapters are very short (some in fact just one paragraph long) and not necessarily connected to each other by the order of the events they supposedly relate so undermining the usual 'beginning, middle and end' way of narrating.
Machado also plays with his reader's expectations about the traditions of a love story, confounding those expectations by making Bento so completely unreliable as a narrator that we question whether there really was any grande passion with Capitú. Bento says his version of events is 'the unvarnished truth' and yet he admits that he has a poor memory, unable to remember even the colour of the trousers he wore yesterday let alone the colour of his first pair. Once we begin to doubt his veracity on the nature of his early relationship with Capitú, then the field is wide open to question whether she really is an adulteress. Is this a figment of Bento's over active imagination?
Inventive he certainly is. He frequently digresses from the story of his love and his life to pontificate on Brazilian life and society or about ministerial reshuffles, slavery, the need to re-write Othello and train travel. Beneto is someone inclined to chatter about anything that just pops into his head, regardless of whether it has anything to do with his story.
Reading this novel I gained the distinct impression that Bento - and Machado - were inviting the reader to understand that their story was a complex series of illusions, that nothing is really what it seems.
"Shake your head reader; make all the incredulous gestures you like. throw the book out even, if boredom hasn't made you do it already; anything is possible. But if you haven't done so and only now do you feel like it, I trust that you will pick the book up again and open it at the same page without believing that the author is telling the truth."
In questioning the narrator's ability to accurately render the very events they are meant to be presenting, Machado also draws attention to the way in which the whole process of writing is an artifice.
Mischevious. Quirky. Puzzling. By the end of Dom Casmurro I wasn't absolutely sure what kind of book I had just read or what was true and what was fabricated. But I did know I had enjoyed being led down many garden paths.
Bentinho Santiago comes from a good family but is dangerously “getting into corners” with the neighbor girl, Capitu. The trusted family servant Jose Dias pushes Bentinho’s mother to send him to the seminary as part of a promise she made when he was born. A good chunk of the novel is taken up by Bentinho’s attempts to get out of going to the seminary and solidify his relationship with Capitu, who does most of the planning. Along the way, he muses on everybody and everything, giving backstories, thoughts on random things he happens to come across and side relationships that don’t affect the plot but are interesting all the same. The structure of the book is very metafictional, with many short chapters, some of which speculate on things to come or comment on the writing of the book or reassure the reader that this boring part is past or more excitement is to come. Bentinho is finally sent to the seminary and Capitu makes him promise not to take orders. School is boring though he does meet someone important - his best friend, Escobar. Things turn out well for Bentinho and Capitu but the last section hurtles through his growing jealousy and conviction that Capitu has been unfaithful.
Bentinho is more of a passive character than his wife – an observer and somewhat wishy-washy. He does seem prone to wallowing in his misery. He describes writing the book in a house that he has built as an exact replica of his childhood home as if trying to recapture the good days that he himself destroyed. Capitu is the one who figures out the plans to convince Jose Dias and Bentinho’s mother to let him leave the seminary and she modestly makes herself indispensable to the household in his absence. She’s active, intelligent, self-possessed and loving (much better at maintaining her calm when they get caught in corners). I never quite believed that the evidence against her was that solid – a lot of it is in Bentinho’s head and he seems the melancholy, suspicious type. Many of her reactions could be explained by everyday emotions or her anger at being accused. I thought that perhaps the author had gone for some ambiguity there but it didn’t mention that in the introduction. This book doesn’t measure up to Epitaph and is a bit random but is well worth reading.
Machado’s is a timeless theme, yet the elegance with which he develops his characters is unique. There is, Jose Dias with his beloved superlatives and his tendency to walk with, “a casual slow step; not the lethargic gate of a lazy man, but a logical calculated slowness, a complete syllogism, the premise before the consequence, the consequence before the conclusion”. Exquisite! There is Benito, the protagonist, narrator and beloved of Capitu. The man who feels, “Daydreams are like other dreams; they are woven according to the patterns of our wishes and memories.” Yet, he forgets to bear this in mind when sharing his story. Thus, the reader is left to question the accuracy of Benito’s narrative. Machado plays with the reader through Benito’s voice so we are left to wonder, what is real and what was only real in the eyes of Benito. Finite conclusions cannot be drawn. Such is the mystery and genius of Machado’s writing. His is a story that continues to play in the readers psyche, long after its reading.
Dom Casmurro is a weird and wonderful book. It's about a lifelong love affair in which one person betrays the other; the mystery is who has done the betraying. The narrator doubles back on himself, loses track of his thoughts, lies both to us and to himself, and generally mucks everything up in a series of short,sharp chapters with titles like "Let us proceed to the chapter" and "Let us enter the chapter."
Early on, a minor character explains that life is an opera. Not metaphorically. Satan, "a young maestro with a great future," is cast out of the conservatory of heaven after rebelling, but not before stealing a cast-off libretto of God's. He turns it into a full opera and begs God to hear it. At last God relents, but refuses to have it played in heaven; instead, he creates this world as a special stage to hear Satan's composition - which, in the lonely fleshing out, has accidentally lost or distorted some of God's themes. "Indeed in some places the words go to the right and the music to the left...Certain motifs grow wearisome from repetition. There are obscure passages...and there are some who say that this is the beauty of the composition and keeps it from being monotonous." I can't do it justice; you'll have to read it for yourself. It's beautiful.
If your version comes with a foreward by Elizabeth Hardwick, do not read it. It spoils everything. Luckily, I've quit reading forewards beforehand for exactly this reason.
Heather suggested that Tolstoy's novella The Kreutzer Sonata would make a good companion read, so I obediently read that next; she was totally right. They go together perfectly.
On the surface, it’s a simple enough love story between Bento, a young boy whose mother has ambitions of him becoming a seminarian and his beloved Capitu. Bento actually goes to the seminary for a short time and meets and befriends a fellow seminarian named Escobar. There is a possibility that Escobar also loves Capitu, but de Assis leaves this wonderfully ambiguous. Flaubert, however, never played with the unreliable narrator to the extent that de Assis does in this novel. Because of the open ambiguity of Escobar’s feelings, Bento and his ravenous jealousy are left to narrate the novel as they will – and it does seem that his jealousy becomes a character all its own. It shapes the entire world of Escobar’s intentions, all the while never leaving Capitu the time to shape her own or explain her actions. Does Bento have reason to feel this jealousy, or is it all just a figment of his own imagination?
These questions, which would otherwise form a good denouement for the action, are never resolved. You’re left in the position that Bento is, examining the minute details of his relationship for signs of Capitu’s infidelity. It’s difficult to tell whether someone like Ford Madox Ford knew of de Assis’ work , but if he did I wouldn’t be the least surprised. The similarities with “The Good Soldier” (which postdates this novel by fifteen years) are uncanny: the use of the unreliable narrator in the examination of a love triangle (or is it even a triangle at all?) is extraordinarily riveting and effective. For those weaned on the European canon and interested in branching out and finding new writers whose names might not be as well-recognized in the English-speaking world, you could do a lot worse than Machado de Assis.
As to the characters he includes in his story, they are all in the shade of the love of Bento's life, Capitu. She is many things and different characters in the story react to her differently. She is, regardless of the actual facts, a great leading lady.
Although written at the turn of the 20th century in Brazil, this does not necessarily evoke a particular time and place. What feels very contemporary is the way the story centers entirely on Bento's emotional response to the world around him. He is also breaking the forth wall by talking directly to the reader in a way that feels far more modern a device.
Bento recalls his youth and adulthood, and tells about his friendships, education, romantic life, and family relationships.
Machado de Assis tells a story about a man consumed by his own jealousy. This book contains one of the most intriguing dillemas of brazilian literature:
Did Capitu cheat on Bento or not? Machado de Assis doesn't reveal it.
Each reader makes his own mind.