Let’s talk about luxury. Not that one, but the one that goes through the objects that I covet. One of these objects is the 1600-page-book “Os Romances de Machado de Assis” (the Novels of Machado de Assis) edited by the Glaciar publishing House, containing among others “Memórias Póstumas de Brás Cubas”, “Memorial de Aires” e “Dom Casmurro”, “Quincas Borba”, “Esaú e Jacob”, “Helena”, … This beast of a book waits for me (or I’m waiting for it; take your pick). Being neigh on impossible to find it despite having been published quite recently, I just had to make do with Chasteen’s translated collection. After having finished it, it’s also become a cult object.
- “To be Twenty Years Old” (Vinte anos! Vinte anos!)
- “The Education of a Poser” (Teoria do medalhão), my favourite story; the poser in the story resembles a few Portuguese politicians from the here and now, but I won’t name them in case one of them is reading this…I’m sure I could find further examples from other political milieus
- “The Looking Glass” (O espelho)
- “Chapter of Hats” (Capítulo dos chapéus)
- “A Singular Occurrence” (Singular Ocorrência)
- “Terspischore” (Terpsícore)
- “Father Against Mother” (Pai contra mãe)
- “The Alienist” (O Alienista)
Assis is the master of portraying everyday life, popular culture, women, male power and pretensions, and the politics of the elite. His short stories were written mostly for and about the Brazilian ruling class, exploring its psychology, holding up a mirror in which it could recognize and laugh at itself. Assis did that in a Portuguese prose of such pristine elegance and felicity, that Brazilians (and Portuguese readers) came to love his narratives that always seemed to unearth something profoundly true about themselves.
In 2008 I attended a conference at Calouste Gulbenkian where the theme under discussion was the Centennial of Machado de Assis’ death. Seven years later what I remember from that conference was the fact that someone wrote an essay about the inexistence of the Novel of Manners in Assis’ work, which is a thesis I tend to agree with. (Re)-reading Assis all this time later (I haven’t “touched” him since 2008) I’m all the more convinced of this. In this beautifully collection translated from the Portuguese by John Charles Chasteen we can see several instantiations of this thesis. What we constantly see is Assis’ attempt at establishing contrasts between characters, i.e., it is all about a character study that tries to deepen the characteristics of each character and the situations they go through. The driver here is not mere entertainment:
“For starters, we don’t have just one soul, but two.”
“That’s right, two. Every human being has two souls, one that’s inside, facing out, and another that’s outside, facing in. [ ] the second, external soul can be almost anything: a fluid, an object, an action, another person. For example, the buttons on a shirt can function as a person’s external soul, so can a polka, a card game, a book, a drum, or a pair of boots. The second soul has the same life-giving function as the first. Together, they complete the human spirit in the way that two halves complete a walnut. [ ] Not uncommonly, the loss of an external soul becomes life threatening. Remember Shylock, the Shakespearean character? ‘Thou stick’st a dagger in my heart,’ says Shylock when he loses his gold. His gold was his external soul, you see, and losing it meant death to him.”
In the original in Portuguese:
Em primeiro lugar, não há uma só alma, há duas...
- Nada menos de duas almas. Cada criatura humana traz duas almas consigo: uma que olha de dentro para fora, outra que olha de fora para entro...  A alma exterior pode ser um espírito, um fluido, um homem, muitos homens, um objeto, uma operação. Há casos, por exemplo, em que um simples botão de camisa é a alma exterior de uma pessoa; - e assim também a polca, o voltarete, um livro, uma máquina, um par de botas, uma cavatina, um tambor, etc. Está claro que o ofício dessa segunda alma é transmitir a vida, como a primeira; as duas completam o homem, que é, metafisicamente falando, uma laranja. Quem perde uma das metades, perde naturalmente metade da existência; e casos há, não raros, em que a perda da alma exterior implica a da existência inteira. Shylock, por exemplo. A alma exterior aquele judeu eram os seus ducados; perdê-los equivalia a morrer. "Nunca mais verei o meu ouro, diz ele a Tubal; é um punhal que me enterras no coração." Vejam bem esta frase; a perda dos ducados, alma exterior, era a morte para ele.
Source: “Obra Completa, de Machado de Assis, vol. II, Nova Aguilar, Rio de Janeiro, 1994.
Watch the way Chasteen transposes the above dialogue into English. It’s nothing short of masterful.
Also worth mentioning is Chasteen’s introduction to Assis’ work, because it gives a cultural and an historical snapshot under which we can read this 7 short stories and one novella collection (“The Alienist”). Also as a bonus is Chasteen’s introductions to each of the individual pieces.
This the first time I’ve read Machado de Assis in a language other than Portuguese. I was curious on how well the translated Assis would look like in that other language. I must say I was rather positively surprised with the result. I was expecting a clunky and awkward translation, but what I got was a discourse in English that was able to capture Assis’ narrative shifts and reversals with great timing, something I always thought not to be possible in a language other than Portuguese. Where lies Assis’ art? It’s in his ability to seamlessly shift character perspectives in the narrative: it’s up to the reader to discern what the sometimes unreliable narrator of the story says happened, but it’s an entirely different matter to decide what the reader think really happened.
For those of you able to read Portuguese, reading this collection gives the added bonus of providing several “readings” on Machado de Assis: (1) reading him in English and trying to remember some of the most original phrases in the original and reading him side-by-side in a Portuguese vs English translation and (2) trying to understand some of the choices/liberties Chasteen had to take to express Machado de Assis in another language, like the abovementioned example.
Machado de Assis has always something in store upon re-reading. This revisitation of the “The Alienist” for the umpteenth time made me realize there's more to Dr. Simão Bacamarte (surname with a double meaning in Portuguese…) than meets the eye.
Who’s crazy and who’s normal? Assis makes us suspicious, doubtful. Along with that the usual irony and sarcasm are also present throughout all the stories.
For those of you who never read Machado de Assis, do yourself a favour, read him, especially if you hate those novels of today’s fiction where the narrator believes the reader is a moron and keeps on explaining (showing instead of telling) what’s happening in the story…