THE POSTHUMOUS MEMOIRS OF BRAS CUBAS BY JOAQUIM MARIA MACHADO DE ASSIS

The Posthumous Review of [P]

I: A Dead Man Writes

No one expects a dead man to write reviews. One doesn’t lower a guy into the ground or watch him disappear into the flames and think I hope he acclimatises quickly because I cannot wait to read his review of Plato’s Symposium. Naturally, death is seen as an impediment to review-writing, as the final full-stop. So, the very existence of this review is, I imagine, something of a surprise, coming, as it does, from someone recently deceased. It was a surprise to me too, by which I mean my ability to write reviews from beyond the grave, not, of course, death itself. Death I had anticipated. Death I knew was coming to me one day. Death, I’m afraid, is belligerent and indiscriminate. But I had always thought that it was obliterating, was a towel thrown over the birdcage, and yet it turns out that it is more like a surprise party, that, yes, the lights will go out, and so one may feel a moment of disorientation, but soon enough someone will flip the switch back on and you’ll be greeted with a loud cheer and the sight of a bunch of people you have to pretend to be happy to see.

II: Karen

One advantage of being dead is being able to do as you like, because, let’s face it, no one can threaten you with any kind of punishment worse than death itself, except perhaps a life-long membership to the Tory or Republican parties. With that in mind I aim to write this review as I please, and it pleases me to write it in an unconventional and digressive fashion. I feel, at this moment, like writing about Karen, even though I’ve not yet even told you the name of the book that I’m reviewing, or what it is about. You may find this diversion interesting, or you may not, and you are certainly free to skip it if your desire for logical order [a concept that doesn’t apply to a dead book-reviewer] is so strong and impossible to ignore. At one time I was a member of a popular social networking site and Karen is a prominent, perhaps the most prominent, reviewer on that website. I don’t want to spend a lot of time boring my readers with background information about Karen, but want, instead, to focus on a comment left on one of her reviews [the dead can read as well as review]. I don’t, either, want to pass judgement on this comment or the person who wrote it. In life I did not know the person, or what their intention was when they wrote what they did, and anyway death is a great humbler of men.

The comment, because I know you’re gagging for details, was something like I’ve realised that you never review books that I’m interested in, and the implication was, I guess, that this meant that Karen’s reviews were therefore not worth reading. And it struck me then that my response to writing is not always the same response that others have. Yes, it took a hammer to the face and brief stint in a box underground for me to have this epiphany. The thing is, Karen could never have reviewed a single book that I want to read [she, indeed, reviewed plenty I wouldn’t even consider now that I have infinite time on my hands] and I would have still read and enjoyed her reviews. Why is that? Because I liked her voice, because, confident in my own ability to choose which books to read, I am not particularly interested in recommendations from other people; what I want most of all from reviews is a style and a voice that pleases me, and hers did. Voice! Voice in writing is very important, dear friends; it can make the most unappealing things appealing indeed [and likewise it can make the appealing seem unappealing]. Gnome sex? Would I ever read a book about that? No, triple no! Would I read and enjoy a review about it? Yes. And so, we have eventually meandered around to the point: Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis’ authorial voice. It is marvellous.

III: Machado de Assis Earns A Permanent Place In My Affections

In his book Dom Casmurro Machado de Assis wrote about jealousy and possible infidelity, about the scold of grand passion, and those were things I could easily relate to as the very young man I was when I first read it. Yet with Bras Cubas I was less able to identify with the central character and his concerns, it being a book about….well, you’ll have to wait until a later chapter to find that out. In any case, it is Machado de Assis’ voice that guarantees this book a permanent place in my affections regardless of whether I am able to relate to the story. It is funny, it is charming, it is insightful and wise; his voice is always engaging, and his prose, which is the physical expression of this voice, is soulful. Joachim had a lot of soul, and I know this because I’ve seen it here in the afterlife; it’s so huge it spans the gates of heaven.

IV: Why Michael Hofmann Is Wrong

The poet and translator Michael Hofmann once said of the novel The Book of Ebenezer Lepage that it is almost unique in that it gives you the whole man. The idea, one imagines, is that the narrative spans the life of the central character and gives you access to his thoughts and opinions on various subjects. This claim of Hofmann’s is quite often regurgitated [unacknowledged, by the way] by other reviewers, which is funny to me because, well, Hofmann is wrong. Firstly, no novel can give you a whole man, it’s impossible. Secondly, if Ebenezer Lepage is the standard for an author giving you the whole man then lots of novels give him to you, for there is nothing out-of-the-ordinary in the depth of Ebenezer as a character and nothing unusual about a book spanning the life of a character.  One such book is Machado de Assis’ The Posthumous Memoirs of Bras Cubas. Bras Cubas is a kind of bildungsroman; it charts, as these things do, the life of one person from childhood into adulthood, and, then, in a novel move, beyond death.

V: The Fly Killer

The narrative of Bras Cubas progresses like a three-legged dog on a rocky road. In structure and tone it is similar to The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, although it is perhaps less sophisticated. The chapters are short and often appear as though they had been shuffled into a random order prior to publication. My favourite chapter in Bras Cubas is The Black Butterfly, in which Bras kills just such a one and laments that had it been blue it might have been spared. It reminded me of all the stupid childish things I used to do when I was still alive, such as the time I was on a bus and noticed a fly struggling to maintain forward momentum as it climbed up a condensation-soaked window. Mindlessly I flicked at it and it fell down to the small pool of water at the base of the window. I watched it drag itself out, like an exhausted dog from a river, and once it had fully extricated itself I flicked it back down again. Rinse and repeat. Eventually the fly gave up and died, and I felt ashamed. I started to imagine that the fly had been female, that it had children and was probably trying to get home to them. The living are a strange lot: barbaric and yet prone to extreme sentimentality.

VI: I Have Never Fallen For A Crippled Girl

I’ve never fallen for a girl with a limp or a withered hand. I don’t think I’ve ever even met one. A couple of months ago, while still among the living, I was having my cooker fixed by a local workman and he was telling me about a girl he dated once. This girl had a cleft-lip, and the man said that he had to end the relationship with her because he was constantly getting into fights due to the comments made by random people in bars and on the street. He said it just wasn’t worth the hassle and bruises. That little anecdote made me sad. Bras Cubas makes up a trinity of great novels in which the central character almost falls for a crippled girl. The other two are Ulysses by James Joyce and The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis by Jose Saramago. This chapter is dedicated to crippled girls. May you always capture the hearts of sensitive boys.

VII: It’s Easier To Love When You’re Dead

It’s easier to love when you’re dead. I found that out quite quickly. Here in the afterlife my patience is less tested, I’m more forgiving, more likely to cherish my enjoyment of things rather than look for defects and criticisms. This applies equally to people and books. When I think about my still-living family and friends now I feel a swelling in my once-beating heart; when I consider humanity at large, whose petty preoccupations and often hysterical sense of self-importance would periodically send me tumbling, belly-flopping, into a dark pool of despair, I now feel an overriding affection. Yes, now I am no longer one of you I find you easier to love. I do not extend this love to the dead though; don’t mention the dead to me.

VIII: Superfluous Man

The Japanese writer Natsume Soseki wrote almost exclusively about men who are on the outside, men who are estranged from humanity in general or from their wives and friends in particular. Superfluous men. These men feel isolated, they cannot relate to their surroundings and their peers. It struck me as I read this book for the second time, a book that had seemed a kind of shaggy dog story on first reading, that it is about a different kind of superfluous man, one that is less existentially oppressed. Yes, Bras Cubas is still a superfluous man, even though he isn’t taciturn and brooding; he forges no career and shuns marriage and children for the greater part of his life. It is merely the case that, as a gregarious man who is possessed of a sparkling wit, it is harder to spot how at odds he is with conventional society.

I mentioned earlier how I could relate less to Bras Cubas than Dom Casmurro, and that is because it is a novel about a whole life, about Time’s whims, and at the point at which I read the book I felt as though I was at the start of my life and my time.

IX: I Was Wrong

Turns out I was wrong.

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