Note: The version I read is a translation by Margaret Jill Costa and Robin Patterson, published in 2023.
One of the best things about CBR BINGO is that it prompts me to read books that might otherwise languish on my TBR, such as Dom Casmurro, by Joaquin Maria Machado de Assis. Checking back on my past reviews, I realize that the last time I read this author was when I read his other masterpiece, Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas, for CBR12 BINGO!
Machado de Assis is one of Brazil’s most cherished writers. Born in 1839, he was the grandson of freed slaves. Slavery was not abolished in Brazil until 1888, when Machado de Assis was already 49 years old, a fact I learned after being slightly surprised by the casual mention of slaves throughout this novel. In spite of his family’s poverty and lack of opportunity for education, Macado de Assis rose through various bureaucratic positions until finally gaining prominence as a writer and poet. He taught himself French, English, German, and Greek, and eventually founded the Brazilian Academy of Letters. Nevertheless, he has never had a vast following among English-speaking readers, which is a shame.
Dom Casmurro is a simple tale about an aging man named Bento Santiago, who is one day moved to document the story of his life. His life is not all that extraordinary, to be honest. He falls in love with the girl next door, maneuvers with her and a close family friend to avoid being sent to the seminary, eventually marries and has a son, and then becomes jealous and suspicious. In his old age, where the novel begins, he has taken to living in a reproduction of his childhood home, suggesting a sort of Citizen Kane-type regret (rather, I guess Citizen Kane suggests a type of Dom Casmurro-type regret).
Clearly the telling of the tale is more important than the plot, and Macado de Assis’s style is difficult to define. His work is generally thought of as literary realism, though some critics have suggested anti-realism, so even the critics can’t agree. His narrator is unreliable, one of my favorite literary devices (I can’t get enough of narrators you can’t trust). In the first chapter, named “About the title,” Bento explains that he had been given the nickname “Dom Casmurro” by an acquaintance whom he offended by nodding off while the man was reading poetry. “Don’t go looking up ‘casmurro’ in any dictionaries,” Macado de Assis writes, “You won’t find the sense in which the common folk use it, for they use the word to mean someone silent and self-absorbed. The ‘Dom’ is ironic, as if I were giving myself airs and graces. And all because I fell asleep! Anyway, I couldn’t come up with a better title for my story; if I fail to find another by the end of the book, Dom Casmurro will have to do.”
Right off the bat, we understand what kind of narrator we’re dealing with. He’s the kind of person who, as a child, would bargain with God to grant him favors but then never follow through on the promised payment. When he prays to be allowed to not enter the seminary, he promises to say a thousand Paternosters and a thousand Ave Marias. “This was a huge number. And to make matters worse, I was already laden down with unfulfilled promises. I had recently promised to say two hundred Paternosters and two hundred Ave Marias if it didn’t rain on a certain afternoon outing to Santa Teresa. It didn’t rain, and I still had not said my prayers. . . . It was a way of bribing the divine will with sheer quantity. . . .But what can you do with a soul that has been idle since the cradle and whose idleness has remained undiminished by life!” Whether it’s his entire future or a pleasant afternoon on the line, Benito bargains with the same carelessness.
Much like the narrator does in Brás Cubas, Bento frequently includes tangents. “Listen: it won’t take long to tell you the story,” he says, more than once. He speaks directly to the reader and critiques his own sorry attempts at telling his tale: “Shake your head, dear reader; look as incredulous as you like. Even put the book down if you haven’t done so out of sheer tedium.”
At the heart of Bento’s story is his love for Capitu, the girl he’s wanted to marry since they were barely more than children. Eventually, after marrying the love of his life, he grows jealous and suspicious. Whether he is justified in his jealousy is never confirmed. Certainly he seems to have a case, but. . .unreliable narrator. He tries to persuade the reader regarding Capitu’s deception, but he also, unwittingly, provides multiple references that give the reader reason to doubt him and believe in Capitu’s innocence. The reader can’t possibly know the truth from his account. No doubt theses have been written on this topic and to say “Did she or didn’t she?” is too simplistic. In researching Machado de Assis, I stumbled on this very thoughtful analysis (many spoilers, if that needs to be said of a novel written in 1899).
I regret that my education lacked exposure to more Latin American literature, and to Macao de Assis in particular. This novel is deceptively simple, easy to read, and at times very funny. Yet I feel it’s a novel that invites the reader to re-read almost immediately upon completion, to catch all the subtlety that was missed the first time around.