Monday, July 9, 2007

Books: Dom Casmurro and Quincas Borba (Philosopher or Dog), by Machado de Assis

Whatever wayward review pointed me to Machado heralded his work as proto-postmodern, ironic, and witty, which perhaps stacked my expectations against him unfairly. Machado is perhaps the most esteemed of Brazilian authors, certainly of 19th Century Brazilian authors, and these two of his big three (the third being Memórias Póstumas de Brás Cubas (Epitaph of a Small Winner in English translation), for which Quincas Borba is actually the sequel) show him to be a competent, if sometimes tedious, storyteller who, while hardly a postmodernist, directly addresses his reader often enough, referring to his book qua book.

Dom Casmurro clocks in around 200 pages, and the first 150 are told through the somewhat affected lens of breathless youth; the narrator tells us about the endangered love affair between his teenaged self and girl-neighbor when his mother insisted on sending him to the seminary and priesthood. The last 50 or so pages fast-forward to their marriage, which ought to have been happy except for the narrator's (perhaps true, perhaps faulty) realization that his wife has carried on an affair with his closest friend, and that his son is actually his best friend's son. In the anodyne way of the 19th Century, though, while the narrator indulges dramatic fantasies about killing both wife and son, they instead die in Switzerland after a legal separation, leaving the narrator to age alone and tell this story to his readers.

Quincas Borba is better, though still a far cry from Pynchon. A not unassuming schoolteacher who had, all his life, lived hand-to-mouth (Rubião), develops a friendship with a suddenly wealthy philosopher by the name of Quincas Borba, who has, conveniently, gone insane and died, leaving his complete fortune and his dog (also Quincas Borba) in custody of this not unassuming schoolteacher, who maintained his friendship with the madman specifically for the purpose of collecting some monetary prize at his death. Suddenly wealthy, he meets a couple on a train ride to the city and tells them of his good fortune. The man becomes his closest friend and business partner; the woman the object of his (never realized) affections. We are introduced to this scenario over the first 50 pages, and Rubião's passion for his friend's wife develops over the next 200, as steadily as his wealth declines due to imprudent investments, parasitic friendships, and general profligacy. In the last 50 pages, Rubião loses his mind in the mold of his benefactor, thinking himself Napoleon and oft shouting, as Quincas Borba once had, "To the victors go the potatoes!" Machado's portrait of Rubião evokes veritable pathos when our mad but madcap protagonist prematurely breaks out of his asylum and wanders rain-filled streets penniless, attended only by the confused but dedicated dog, while his palatial home, having suffered the ruins of deferred maintenance, is ransacked by old friends, who help themselves to handfuls of cigars from his private library's reserve. For all of his faults, Rubião was not unlikeable, and the rubble of his life is sad and pretty.

Ultimately? Dom Casmurro is not a fascinating book; it's nothing so very special. Quincas Borba is worth the read, and would make an excellent film, though I would still hesitate to attribute greatness to its author. Perhaps the keystone lies in Memórias Póstumas de Brás Cubas, the story of the first man who uttered the connection between victors and potatoes.

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