"Art makes life, makes interest, makes importance"

October 13, 2014

"Dom Casmurro" by Machado de Assis (Book Review)

Dom Casmurro, written in 1900, is the greatest novel of the greatest Brazilian author, Machado de Assis, a superb feat of ambiguity and tragic comedy, featuring a wildly unreliable narrator. The name “Casmurro” means “the Morose,” and in this mock memoir written at an advanced age, Dom Casmurro explains the circumstances that made him eligible for this nickname. Machado writes with an almost postmodern sensibility, ironic, tricky and playful at the same time, in almost 150 short chapters of just two pages, full of digressions – which thanks to the shortness of the chapters are never too long – and with frequent direct addresses to the reader, not in the ponderous and patriarchal 19th century way, but in the light ironic manner of the 20th century.

[Machado de Assis]

The story is simple. Young Bento Santiago is inseparable from the vivacious, irresistible Capitu, who lives next door, but there is a big obstacle to their future happiness: his mother has promised God that he will become a priest. Despite much effort and contrivance, Bento can’t avoid entering the seminary, but there he becomes close friends with Escobar, a more active and vital spirit than he himself. Escobar finally comes up with the luminous idea that sets Bento free from his religious and celibate course. Bento now studies law, and Escobar becomes a successful business man. After graduating, when he starts his law practice, Bento can finally marry Capitu, his childhood sweetheart; Escobar marries Capitu’s friend Sancha and they remain close friends. Escobar and Sancha have a daughter, and after a long wait, a son is born to Bento and Capitu. Nothing seems to stand in the way of future happiness... but at a bad moment Bento discovers that his child looks exactly like Escobar and from then on, his life is filled with torture. He starts doubting the fidelity of his wife and looks for proof in her smallest glance at Escobar – he notices that she has eyes like the tides, or like a gypsy. Bento moves from the happiness of first love to the dark shadows of jealousy and obsession, from a blessed boyhood as Bento he changes into the morose and warped Dom Casmurro.

The bulk of the story is concentrated on Bento’s happy youth and his love for Capitu. We get to know his family: a saint-like mother, a grumbling aunt, a sickly uncle and a sycophantic “dependent,” Jose Dias, who lives with the family. But the most interesting character is Capitu, who is charming, warmhearted, beautiful and perhaps just a little bit flirtatious. The marriage and dark years of jealousy only take up one-fifth of the total novel, as if Dom Casmurro in the first place wanted to speak about his happy youth. How high he values that youth is shown by the fact that he has a new house built that is exactly the same as the family house in which he grew up. He seems stuck in the memories of his happy childhood, wanting to forget that his wife has cheated on him with his best friend, and that her child is not his.

The question is of course: has Capitu really been unfaithful to Bento? Or is her supposed betrayal merely the product of an obsessed and paranoid mind?

Machado de Assis leaves this on purpose ambiguous, but the answer seems clear to me: Capitu has not betrayed her husband, everything is the result of Bento’s own corrosive jealousy. Bento apparently can’t handle marriage. He has something of a mother-complex, which the sharp Capitu has noticed early on, for she takes good care to become close to his mother, also during the time that Bento is at the seminary. That he himself has a short moment of fleeting intimacy with Sancha, the wife of Escobar, perhaps also makes him think by inversion of Escobar and Capitu as a couple. And, as is shown so beautifully by Proust in Swann’s Way, once one starts doubting a beloved, no proof of fidelity will suffice anymore, it is like a contagious disease (a pity there was no DNA testing yet). In all, a brilliant and heart-rending novel, but keep your eyes open for the false bottoms.

Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis (1839-1908) was born in Rio de Janeiro, where he lived until his death. He started life with several disadvantages: he was epileptic, born in poverty and his father was a mulatto in a Brazil where slavery still existed. Machado received almost no formal education and was entirely self-taught. Yet he became Brazil’s most influential novelist and short story writer. He also rose to become the president of the Brazilian Academy of Letters, and at his death was given a state funeral. Two other great novels are Memórias Póstumas de Brás Cubas (The Posthumous Memoirs of Bras Cubas, also known in English as Epitaph of a Small Winner, 1881) and Quincas Borba (known in English as Philosopher or Dog?, 1891). There are also scores of superb stories and novellas. Despite his enduring fame in Brazil and notwithstanding praise by great writers and critics as Saramago, Fuentes, Roth, Rushdie, Sontag and Bloom, Machado has never gained the popularity outside Brazil that he deserves.

Dom Casmurro has been translated by Helen Caldwell and was published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux (FSG Classic). The same publisher has brought out several translations of other work by Machado.