If you want to read a classic of Brazilian literature, then it has to be Dom Casmurro by Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis. Never heard of him? Not surprising — on the rare occasions when you come across anything about literature from South America, it will typically reference the big names like Colombia’s Gabriel García Márquez or Isabel Allende from Chile. As for Brazilian writers, about the only one to get much world wide attention is Paulo Coelho.
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.