CBR12 BINGO: Green
Note: I read the version translated by Margaret Jull Costa and Robin Patterson, published in 2020.
When you open a book and find that it is dedicated to “the first worm to gnaw the cold flesh of my corpse,” you know it isn’t going to be your run-of-the-mill novel. I might not find that so unusual (I do enjoy my share of darkly humorous authors), though, if this novel hadn’t been originally published in 1881. Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas combines the charm of 19th century wit with a weirdly modern and unconventional structure and narrative.
As indicated by the title, the narrator Brás Cubas has passed on from this earth. As he notes in the first paragraph of the first chapter, “I am not so much a writer who has died, as a dead man who has decided write.” He quickly (well, four chapters later, but most of the chapters are brief), “this book is written in a leisurely fashion, as befits a man no longer troubled by the swift passage of time; it is an extremely philosophical work, although its philosophy is somewhat uneven, one moment austere, the next playful, a work that neither builds nor destroys, neither inflames nor calls, and which is more pastime than doctrine.” The narrator frequently diverges from his own story with tangents such as critiquing his own work, as in the chapter “The problem with this book,” (“I’m beginning to regret writing this book”) or to comment on the reader’s habits, as in the chapter “To myself” (In case some of my readers skipped the preceding chapter, I will merely remark that they need to read it in order to understand what I said to myself. . .”). The chapter tiled “The age-old conversation between Adam and Eve,” merely suggests a conversation between Brás Cubas and his lover Virgília without listing any actual dialogue.
None of this should suggest that the book is without plot. The narrator does get around to telling the reader about his life, in which he grows up indulged by his father, enjoys many advantages, has opportunities to marry (“Yes, I was that good-looking”), and finally dedicates much of his adult life in a love-triangle with the married Virgília. Is this novel a comedy of manners? A satire? A philosophy? I’m honestly not sure, but author Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis was definitely “teasing” society. The closest thing I can liken it to (not in structure, but in tone) is Candide, which I haven’t read since college, so I can’t really vouch for any similarities, except to say that Machado de Assis does reference that Voltaire work a number of times, so I think I may be on to something. Then again, he references lots of literature, from Don Quixote to Shakespeare. The narrator also contemplates a philosophy called Humanitism, espoused by his friend Quincas Borba. Quincas Borba is also described as a crazy person, so you can see where Brás Cuba stands on said philosophy.
I’d describe this book as cheerfully pessimistic. In the end, although Brás Cuba never got the government position he wanted, never married, and never had children, he considers his life a success since he has not “[bequeathed] to any creature the legacy of our misery.” Is it any wonder Woody Allen once listed Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas as one of his favorite novels?
I was on the fence about this one, but as I write the review I’m realizing how much it did actually win me over.