Tuesday, June 15, 2010

More Machado: Dom Casmurro

I read the 19th-century Brazilian writer Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis's brilliant The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas two years ago, and I'm now finally getting around to reading some of his other masterpieces. Machado is a very contemporary-seeming writer. He uses metafictional techniques that came to be called postmodern, although they date from the beginnings of literature: The Odyssey has an unreliable narrator, The Canterbury Tales and The Decameron call attention to themselves as texts, Don Quixote has multiple layers of narrative, and Tristram Shandy employs unusual typography. These, along with the plays of Shakespeare, are among Machado's literary inspirations, and his works belong in their company as classics of world literature.

Dom Casmurro (Sir Dour, originally published 1899; translated into English by Helen Caldwell, Farrar, Straus and Young, 1953) has the same sort of lightly ironic and self-aware narrator as The Posthumous Memoirs. But—like Brás Cubas—Dom Casmurro has some rather large blind spots, of which the reader gradually becomes aware over the course of the novel.

Bentinho (our narrator) and Capitú are neighbor children who grow up together and, as teenagers, discover the emergence of new feelings for each other. (In a pattern which becomes typical, other people are aware of those feelings before Bentinho himself is.) Bentinho's mother and other relatives raise objections to the prospective match: his mother because she has always wanted Bentinho to become a priest, and the relatives because Capitú's family is distinctly lower on the social ladder. Machado—himself the son of a wall painter and a washerwoman, and with mixed-race ancestry—must have known something about social and class barriers.

(Mild spoilers follow, so if you're planning to read Dom Casmurro soon you may want to skip this paragraph.) Thanks largely to Capitú's patience, steadfastness and good judgment, obstacles which seemed insurmountable are gradually overcome, and the couple embark on what should be a life of mutual felicity. But the poison of Bentinho's jealousy is soon doing its destructive work. Masterfully, Machado implicates the reader in Bentinho's suspicions. But after the tragedy unfolds, in one chilling sentence he casts doubt on everything that has gone before, and suggests that Dom Casmurro's jealousy—like that of Othello, to whom there are multiple allusions in the text—is entirely baseless.

Because we see events entirely through Dom Casmurro's eyes, a certain ambiguity lingers over the narrative, and we can't be sure which interpretation of events—Dom Casmurro's or the one we begin to suspect—is the true one. And in the end, the truth, whatever it may be, matters less than the consequences of Dom Casmurro's caustic jealousy. Dom Casmurro is a compelling and disturbing portrait of a man systematically destroying his own happiness.

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