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Machado de Assis

I've just finished enjoying Epitaph of a Small Winner by the 19th-century Brazilian literary pillar Machado de Assis, renowned for his pessimistic wit. It's about the life and loves of a member of the leisure class, covering some of the same satirical ground as a picaresque novel or Voltaire's Candide but from above rather than below. There's even a pessimistic answer to Dr. Pangloss in the form of a character named Quincas Borba, who apparently figures in some of de Assis's other novels.

It forced me to overcome a couple of literary phobias. I'm not in the habit of reading much that predates, say, Hemingway, and as I've said before I'm skeptical about translations.

On the first point, Louis de Bernieres asserts in an introduction that de Assis was a postmodernist, due to his employment of various currently fashionable formal tricks -- starting his story at the end, in the voice of a posthumous narrator, with self-referential chapters as short as a single sentence. De Bernieres' claim is less startling if you accept the Borgesian view that there's nothing new under the sun. He calls Homer a postmodernist, too, for starting his story in the middle. At any rate, de Assis has a clever style that suits contemporary taste. And some of his aphorisms anticipate current usage, too -- "We kill time and time buries us" isn't so far from "Life's a bitch and then you die."

As for the translation, it didn't seem so bad. The version I read was done in 1952 by William L. Grossman; there's also more recent translation by Gregory Rabassa in print under the title The Posthumous Memoirs of Bras Cubas but the older seemed less clumsy when I spot-checked them in the library. (The original Memórias Póstumas de Brás Cubas from 1880 is available online. Hooray for expiring copyrights!)

I enjoyed the book enough that I'm doing something more ambitious: I'm now trying to read some of his short stories in parallel Portuguese and English versions. I'm starting with O Alienista (The Psychiatrist) about the establishment of a rural mental hospital, excellent fodder for de Assis's pointed humor. Reading a paragraph in Portuguese, then in English, then checking it again in Portuguese takes some discipline but it's fun. And it puts me right in the middle of the old translation problem again. I'm not good enough to catch errors in tone, but I find myself gnashing my teeth at every turn as the translator rearranges paragraphs and, worse, edits content completely out. Let's hope I improve enough to bypass the middleman.

books 2004.04.24 link