"Be aware that frankness is the prime virtue of a dead man," writes the narrator of The Posthumous Memoirs of Br�s Cubas. But while he may be dead, he is surely one of the liveliest characters in fiction, a product of one of the most remarkable imaginations in all of literature, Brazil's greatest novelist of the nineteenth century, Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis. By turns flippant and profound, The Posthumous Memoirs of Br�s Cubas is the story of an unheroic man with half-hearted political ambitions, a harebrained idea for curing the world of melancholy, and a thousand quixotic theories unleashed from beyond the grave. It is a novel that has influenced generations of Latin American writers but remains refreshingly and unforgettably unlike anything written before or after it. Newly translated by Gregory Rabassa and superbly edited by Enylton de S� Rego and Gilberto Pinheiro Passos, this Library of Latin America edition brings to English-speaking readers a literary delight of the highest order.
I was less impressed with the stylistic trickery (and enough has been said about that, just read the other Goodreads reviews) than with the voice: often boastful, he still allows you to see all his faults and weaknesses. And though you see all his faults and weaknesses, he still comes across as extremely likeable. Though he slyly mocks himself and those around him, he never comes across as having any kind of social or political agenda. The voice is believable despite being a multitude of things: delusional, prideful, petty, insightful, pitiful, philosophical, mocking, cynical, naive, weary, serious etc.
The story is basically one of impotence and mediocrity. Bras Cubas makes headway halfheartedly in all arenas of life, never fully achieving anything in the conventional sense that society deems as such. Though he was always at the brink of each of these accomplishments, he never acheives them: marriage, children, illustrious career. And we're better off for it, as readers, because we see that Bras Cubas really doesn't care for these societal expectations, much like this book doesn't care for fulfilling the narrative expectations of its readers.
The book mirrors this mindframe: it goes in a million different directions, imparting various observations along the way without any kind of central thrust. I don't mean this in a bad way; in fact, its aimlessness is one of the things I liked most about it. There's an openness to it where it doesn't feel too controlled, too one-minded, and this is refreshing.
On the negative side, it never feels completely satisfying either. There are moments of deep insight, and moments of humor, but a kind of constant withdrawal where it never reaches the heights of either. The wording was sometimes clunky too, but this could have been due to the translation. Also, the narrative devices he employs should be nothing new or shocking to a reader in the year 2011, though at the time I can see how it was. But since I'm reading it now and not in 1880, I felt a little annoyed that I was constantly expected to react to certain sections as if I were a maiden aunt (to borrow a phrasing from Manny) scandalized by its unconventional sexy form. To its credit, the cleverness is totally in line with the character's voice, so it didn't feel tacked-on, just slightly tacky in this day and age.
PS - the preface by Enylton de Sa Rego is complete rubbish. Skip it. I haven't finished reading the Afterword by Gilberto Pinheiro Passos, but so far it's kinda rubbish too.
The narrator is a self-declared failure whose fiancée drops him for a more successful politician (Lobo Neves, who refuses a governorship because the grant was written on a date he considers unlucky), who never achieves his ambition of becoming a minister of state, who dies a bachelor after a series of humiliating or otherwise disastrous love affairs, and who shows himself incapable of getting beyond his selfishness at every point. His defense is a blanket condemnation of the world he milked for every pleasure it offered, as he congratulates himself for having no progeny to leave “the legacy of our misery.”
Machado lacks the playfulness of Sterne or de Maistre. He does do a job on the expectations of both romantic and realistic fiction, but perhaps only within a regional theatre. He can also claim to have a head start on magical realism. But his character’s autobiography is largely dreary.