Machado de Assis: How Objective Can Reality Be?
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One of the great dilemmas in Brazilian literature is whether Capitu, a character in Machado de Assis’ brilliant novel Dom Casmurro (1899), has committed adultery. Who’s the father of her son? Bentinho, her husband and narrator of the story? Or Escobar, Bentinho’s lifelong best friend? Since the story is told subjectively from the point of view of the bitter and reclusive Bentinho, now separated from his wife and estranged from his son, the reader cannot be sure.
We return repeatedly to the young Capitu of the first chapters of the book, whom Bentinho has known since they were both children and neighbors, and try to identify any behavior or personality trait that might give us a clue as to whether she would be capable of such infidelity in later life. In his narrative, Bentinho assures us the older Capitu had always been present in the teenager. The young and older personalities could be compared to a set of Russian dolls, one fitting inside the other. However, we can never be sure. She was cunning and smart from the very beginning, we know that. She was also very resourceful, able to come up with a lie or an excuse quickly and easily, such as when she and Bentinho were surprised by adults right after their first kiss. She immediately gave a reasonable explanation of what they were doing alone and unsupervised in one of his house's rooms. On the other hand, we never doubt their love was mutual and powerful. Or was it?
The moment Bentinho first suspects that Escobar and Capitu had an affair is a strange one: Escobar is lying in his coffin, mourned by family and friends, after drowning in the rough sea waters off Gloria beach, in Rio de Janeiro. Capitu, like many others, is crying for their lost friend. However, in Bentinho’s eyes, they don’t look like the tears of a friend, but rather those of a widow.
Brazilian writer Machado de Assis was born in Rio de Janeiro, the capital of the Empire, on June 21, 1839. His father was a mixed-race wall painter, the son of freed slaves, and his mother, an Azorean Portuguese washerwoman. By North American standards, Machado would have undoubtedly been considered black. However, racial distinctions are a lot less clear-cut in Brazil, so his race would have been uncertain and not very important in his home country.
Machado wrote plays, poetry and short stories, but his strongest works are the realistic novels he produced at the turn of the century, especially The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas (Memórias Póstumas de Brás Cubas, 1881), Philosopher or Dog? (Quincas Borba, 1891), Dom Casmurro (1899), Esau and Jacob (Esaú e Jacó, a novel, 1904) and Counselor Ayres’ Memorial (Memorial de Aires, a novel, 1908).
Although most critics would consider the mature phase of Machado’s writings realistic, the novels are difficult to classify. For example, The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas, considered by many Machado’s masterpiece, is the autobiography of the title character, told from the afterlife. How realistic can that be? However, the comments, observations, criticism, witticisms, irony and pessimism of the novel are all directed at the very real behavior and customs of Rio de Janeiro society at the time. In the best of Machado’s novels, realism is, therefore, a partial perspective on Brazilians and their country, making his the stories full of interesting ambiguities, yet universally relevant.
Considered the best Brazilian novelist of all time, admired by the likes of Philip Roth, Susan Sontag, Salman Rushdie and Woody Allen, listed by American critic Harold Bloom among the 100 greatest literary geniuses, Machado de Assis is strangely not very well known outside Brazil. Maybe we need to write more articles like this and develop an effective marketing campaign to make the world more aware of this wonderful writer’s work.