Brazil is the largest country in South America. Due to the cohabitation of European settlers, former African slaves and Native American peoples, Brazil is a veritable melting pot of cultures with its own version of Portuguese as the spoken language. An emerging power in the world, Brazil provides military and diplomatic aid for peacekeeping in varied regions. Most people associate the country with its world leading soccer team. For me Brazil always brings to mind the colossal Christ the Redeemer, standing tall, looking over the colorful Rio de Janeiro, spreading his protective arms over his people.
Brazilian literature is a vast, living, breathing organism, growing everyday in size and reach. The amount of world class writing available from the country is simply mind boggling. The most easily recognizable and commercially successful name is Paulo Coehlo with his The Alchemist. While I liked some of his work like Veronica Decides to Die, the books off late like The Witch and The Spy just seem to be playing to the expectations of the audience and not living up to the hype associated with Coehlo’s name.
When I started researching the authors to read from Brazil, the list grew to be too big to manage and I was unsure for while about a choice of reading. So I started out with the absolute first classic available. Machado de Assis lived and wrote in the mid 19th century. He is hailed as the greatest writer of all time from Brazil and is supposed to be the pioneer of magical realism. His The Posthumous Memoirs of Bras Cubas has the narrator speaking about his life, mistakes and learnings posthumously. It is unlike anything I have read so far and I expect to be engrossed till the end.
The Posthumous Memoirs of Bras Cubas has a chatty narrator speaking from beyond the grave. Bras Cubas has just lost his life and is trying to come to terms with eternity. He is most likely speaking to make sense of the life he lived and has the urge to share it with others in the form of a book. The narrative is leisurely since the narrator doesn’t have anywhere to get to or any deadline to keep. The way he relates the story is heavy with irony.
The story often gives a touch of magical realism. Bras Cubas, in delirium on his death bed, holds a conversation with Nature – whom he also calls Pandora – who gives him a snapshot of the whole history and calls pleasure ‘bastard pain‘:
‘I saw love augmenting misery, and misery aggravating human debility.’
A life of plenty, lack of struggle and the pampering freedom received from his father who opines:
‘There are different ways for a man to amount to something, but the surest of all is to amount to something in other men’s opinions.’
– makes Cubas prone to sins. He lustily falls head over heels for the loose woman Marcella; the incident where he shows remorse for giving money to the muleteer who saved his life shows greed and uncharitable disposition. He almost falls in love with Eugenia, his mother’s friend Donna Eusebia’s daughter, born with a defect in her leg, but runs away from her as he cannot imagine a lame wife for himself:
‘What I do not understand is whether the world really needed you. Who knows? Perhaps one supernumerary less would have spoiled the human tragedy.’
His one true love is Virgilia, who was initially chosen as a bride for him from his father. But the marriage and the political position it promised did not come through, as Virgilia chose another man after a short interlude with Cubas. Years later when they meet again, both of them are ready for love ‘repeating the venerable dialogue of Adam and Eve.’:
‘Our first exchange of looks was purely and simply conjugal.’
However Virgilia is married now, with a son and is a respectable lady of the society:
‘Poor Fate! Old dispenser of human affairs.’
Their love affair is bound to end in tragedy.
At times the novel is audacious saying the book has ‘rigor mortis’ and saying the greatest defect of the book is its reader. It feels apt when the narrator says:
‘All human wisdom is not worth a pair of tight boots.’
There are many many books from Brazilian authors that I would like to read. Machado de Assis’s masterpiece is a fitting beginning for this exploration.
Other Options from Brazil:
Donna Fiora and Her Two Husbands – Jorge Amado
After the death of her hasband, Donna Fiora marries again. Things take an interesting turn when her dead husband starts visiting her, claiming his marital rights.
The Passion According to G. H. – Clarice Lispector
A woman kills a cockroach and is transported to a primeval world