Saturday, March 28, 2015

Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis, The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas

According to people, Assis is known as Brazil's greatest writer. I don't think I'd ever read a Brazillian writer before, so it made good sense to check him out. When you think about it, you realize that pre-twentieth-century Hispanic writers (does Brazillian count as “Hispanic?” I guess not, but I don't have a good word for “Hispanic, plus Brazil”) are basically unknown in the Anglophone world. Twentieth century, sure, Garcia Marquez, Vargas Llosa, Cortazar, Borges, &c, but before that? Be honest: you couldn't have named any. Now you can name one. It's interesting that the field is so obscure.

Well, that's not actually the reason I discovered/decided to read this novel. The reason is that I was tooling around the internet sometime ago, reading about Tristram Shandy, and saw it cited as a book that was heavily influenced by Sterne. So I filed it in the back of my mind as something to check out at some point, and that some point is now. Or then, I guess. Since I'm finished with it now. Bah.

The idea is that these are the titular Brás Cubas' posthumous memoirs, literally: that is, he's narrating them from beyond the grave. He relates his life: born into a rich family, his long-term affair with a married woman, his failed political aspirations, his mad philosopher friend, &c, and then he dies. And that is about it.

The debt Assis owes to Sterne is obvious: the book consists of over a hundred short chapters, including a few of only a few words or no words at all, and the narrator is constantly commenting on the book itself and the process of writing it. There are sundry digressions. For all that, though, it would be easy to overstate things: it's much less wildly digressive than Tristram Shandy, and there's much more of an actual narrative.

Look, I'm not gonna lie to you people: I enjoyed the metatextual elements of the novel, but I have to admit, on the whole, I found it kinda boring. The narrative itself—which, as noted above, is central to the proceedings—isn't that interesting, and there aren't any likable or particularly interesting characters (there's the BIG difference between this and Tristram Shandy). And then at the end it just sort of stops and you think, wait, why, what was the point of all that? I do not mean to insult the good people of Brazil, but their greatest novelist has not impressed me.


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