Books: Epitaph of a Small Winner / The Posthumous Memoirs of Bras Cubas (Machado De Assis)

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2013-02-18 15:00:00 No comments

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I am a deceased writer not in the sense of one who has written and is now deceased, but in the sense of one who had died and is now writing.

Fiction is about what's impossible, but not what's implausible. It is impossible that a man would tell us his autobiography in the form of a novel after his own death. It is not implausible that he would use such a story to ruthlessly burst apart the hypocrisy of others, and himself as well. A dead man worries nothing about his reputation or his standing in the eyes of others — except maybe posthumously, and even then why should he, in limbo, worry? — and so who but someone like him would be best suited to showing up the living for the fools they are?

Epitaph of a Small Winner -- also known as The Posthumous Memoirs of Braz Cubas -- is one of those miracles of literature that seems to have barely any right to exist in the first place. Its pessimism and bitter irony seem decades, if not centuries, out of phase from the 1880 in which it was written — more the child of a Luigi Pirandello or even a Louis-Ferdinand Céline (although without that author's repugnancy). Wipe away the topical details of life in late 19th century Brazil, and you have a story that not only hasn't dated but seems immune to irrelevancy.

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The book is the story of Cubas's life, retold by the man himself from beyond his own grave, and with all of the hindsight that would only be available to the dead. He has died at the age of sixty-four after what anyone else would consider to be a good life: money in his pockets, material comforts around him, and few worldly attachments. In the days before he caught pneumonia and dropped dead he was hatching a grand cure for humanity's ills, a "plaster" ("poultice" in another translation) to soothe any agony. We never find out what it is, in much the same way the Answer (er, Question) for Life, The Universe and Everything perishes with its creator when the Earth is blown up in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. It scarcely matters, because the more we read of Braz Cubas and the more we see how he reflects back on his own inwardly dissolute and outwardly respectable life, the more we wonder if it is death that he now sees as the cure and life itself as the affliction.

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Epitaph is told in 160 short chapters, each of no more than a few pages each — the sort of thing recent readers have grown familiar with courtesy of authors who do so mostly out of a need to circumvent the short attention spans of their audiences. The technique itself is not new; Tristram Shandy (to which the book owes a few other debts) did it as well. But everything about the way de Assis presents us with Cubas's story of his life, from the narrative itself to the cutting insights he gleans from it, remove any sense of the book being a product of another age. The topical details of nineteenth-century Brazil are one thing, but that a book is set in such a place would not be what dated it; it is the attitude, the mindset that the story provides which seems both immediate and timeless. de Assis uses the short-chapter format  to extract sharp little insights from the goings-on in his story, and to drop them in our laps with the ferocity of a tennis ball served courtesy of an overhand smash.

The philosophy delivered through this format is no less pointed: it is that of a dead man, one divested entirely of shame, and capable of speaking of both himself and the rest of his fellow humanity with equal dismay. What makes the book seem less utterly misanthropic than gently bemused is I think, is the fact that Braz Cubas is as unsparing with himself as he is with anyone else. If humanity is little more than an endless procession of marching feet leading from wombs to tombs, he has been nothing more than another pair of those same feet. He speaks of how, as a boy, his father gave him license to be a rascal, right up into and through his adolescence, and how this allowed him to realize there were ways of continuing to be a rascal as an adult that he could not only get away with but even enjoy a degree of respectability for in the right circles. He re-encounters a young love, now kicked to the side of life's road and left decrepit, and justifies his repulsion by chalking up her misfortune to greed. He entertains a long-standing affair with a married woman, not because he loves her, but simply because he enjoys the idea of taking something that is not his and getting away with it. And through all of it he admits that it is only because of death's release that he is able to speak sincerely about any of this. "We dead folk are not concerned about [society's] judgment. You who still live, believe me, there is nothing in the world so monstrously vast as our indifference."

The most devastating parts of the story seem to come at right angles to the material, only to reveal how they are actually emanating from the heart of it. In chapter 75, "To Myself", the narrator digresses within the space of a real-world second to muse about the woman, Dona Placida, who owns the house which he uses as a place of assignation for the married woman he is romancing. What would she think, he muses, if she were to learn that she had been summoned into the world, "in a moment of love" as Bras Cubas puts it, so that she might simply suffer all the trials of Job (and enjoy none of the rewards)? And is it wrong for him to muse on this because Dona Placida herself speaks to him of her suffering as a way to wring sympathy from him, and then just as quickly recants it? It is yet more evidence for him that life itself is the source of all suffering, and that death sets us free in more ways than one.

Leave it to a dead man to say such things, you might well say, and you might well be right. The metaphysical absurdity of the book is so much of what becomes fascinating about it, in both big ways and small. At one point Braz Cubas muses that he has written a chapter that could stand to be cut out, and declares he will do so. But we just read that chapter, which implies that what we are reading is not the book that he has written but the book as he imagines he is writing it, since of course a dead man cannot actually write a book. de Assis understands this completely, and so unlike many other authors who devise a narrative gimmick mostly for the sake of novelty (see, we are telling this story backwards) or some silly form of surprise revelation (" ... and then he discovered he was a tomato"), here he uses it to great ironic, and often sarcastic, effect. In the same way a man with a hammer sees all as a nail, a dead man would of course only see death as being the only unifying element in life. And only in retrospect, only in death — that is, only long after it's too late for the wisdom to be of any use — can Braz Cubas see how so much of what he savored in his life was nothing more than luck, greed, or his own stony indifference to the suffering of others.

The fact that all living things die is only part of the truth Braz Cubas believes he has hard-won by virtue of dying. He sees all human endeavor, his own included, as a matter of folly, of the various ages of man (he calls them "Editions") being "thinking erratums: Each period in life is a new edition that corrects the preceding one and that in turn will be corrected by the next, until publication of the definitive edition, which the publisher donates to the worms." One wonders if the worms have been the receipients of Braz Cubas's actual "manuscript"; it's more than likely, given how in de Assis's other novel Dom Casmurro the narrator at one point asks the insects lunching on the rotting remains of a book for their own esteemed literary criticism. It is the cynicism of Voltaire, himself name-checked by Braz Cubas's insane pseudo-philosopher friend Quincas Borba, deviser of a system of thought he dubs "Humanitism" which consists of nothing more than finding justifications for why everything is exactly fine as it is. Borbas also earns himself his own book of his own courtesy of de Assis: Philosopher or Dog?, a title which I suspect reflects de Assis's feelings about most self-professed thinkers — that there is more value in a mediocre specimen of the former than there is in most of any of the latter. After all, Bras Cubas himself has no end of philosophy to offer the reader — not just his "plaster", but his "Theory of Human Editions" and the "Law of the Equivalency for Windows", whereby we let fresh air into our lives by taking two when we can't get five.

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It is in the book's last lines that Braz Cubas tightens the focus of his story back to himself, and gives the title its meaning. With life itself being the source of all suffering (something that brought to mind Yozo Oba of No Longer Human's exhortation that "living itself is the source of sin"), it only makes sense that he would realize in the end, his life of "negatives", the title of the final chapter. The one win of his life would be the fact that he had not brought anyone else into the world and thus "transmitted to no one the legacy of our misery". If he wasn't able to bring anything into the world of consequence, the least he was able to do was keep from cluttering the world up all the more — a view that might well outlast the modernity the book regards from its century-past perch with pitiless scorn.

de Assis is not well known outside of Brazil or other Portuguese-speaking nations, despite his work having been available in English for sixty-plus years and having everyone from Susan Sontag to Woody Allen singing his praises. I suspect part of why he remains so minimally discussed is because the appeal, and the pleasure, of his work — especially as embodied in Epitaph — is so difficult to describe from the outside. So much of its merit is a matter of attitude and tone and not material per se. Epitaph is a dark-humored book but at the same time not quite a dark one: there is a lightness of spirit to the whole thing (if also a bleakness of outlook) that makes it possible to read it without feeling oppressed. It also helps that de Assis had great clarity of mind and insight to bring to his subject: there is more to think about on any one page of this book, and at greater length, than there is in the whole of most others. And that much more to savor, and to return to.

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