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Dom Casmurro ()

When a novelist writes from the perspective of an omniscient narrator, it at least creates the illusion that we're hearing a full and fair version of events. But it is a peculiarity of first person narrative that some of the very best and some of the very worst novels which use the technique leave us wondering what the story might sound like from the perspective of a different character.  We all assume that Sam Spade and Phil Marlowe are reliable sources on the events they relate, but even if we trust Ishmael, don't we wonder what Ahab's version of the great novel Moby Dick might be ?  And when it comes to a dreadful novel like Barbara Kingsolver's Poisonwood Bible, one of the most noticeable flaws of the novel is that the villain of the piece is unfairly vilified and we're left wishing he had a voice.  Several authors have actually used this idea as a starting point, and in novels like Wide Sargasso Sea, Jack Maggs, and Wicked, have given us alternate versions of classic stories from the perspective of a different character (N.B., yes I'm aware that the source novels for these three are not all told in the first person).  These derivative novels are not necessarily effective, Wicked is the only one I'd recommend, but they do reflect a general recognition that, as in real life, even in a fictional story, the narrative of a participant must be suspect, and that our reliance on that narrator may leave us with mistaken impressions.   This concept resides deep within our culture: what, after all, is the New Testament but God's recognition that Man has his own side of the story ?

In Dom Casmurro (which translates roughly as "Lord Taciturn"), the aged narrator, Bento Santiago (or Bentinho), relates the story of his romance with Capitolina (known as Capitu), his childhood neighbor and sweetheart, in 1850's Brazil.  For love of this girl he schemes his way out of seminary and the priesthood, despite his mother's vow that if God would make her child healthy she would see that he became a priest.

Though the breaking of this vow is troubling, and Bentinho seeks to rationalize it away, the memoir seems essentially to be  a love story.  Bentinho and Capitu marry.  He has a successful law practice.  He's devoted to his mother throughout her life and remains great friends with Escobar, whom he met while attending seminary.  After considerable effort, Capitu bears a son and the loving couple's lives seem complete.  But gradually certain comments and asides begin to intimate that all is not as it appears.

A darkness begins to cloud the previously sunny story.  Bentinho reveals a jealous side to his character; at times insanely jealous.  He hints that his story is building towards a tragedy.  Finally, he even starts to openly identify with Othello.  As this transformation proceeds, the reader begins to question the reliability of Bentinho's narration.  In particular, thinking back on his descriptions of Capitu we become suspicious of his motives.  He has mentioned things like her being more mature than he at the time of their initial courtship, and several remarkable instances where she was able to deceive her parents effortlessly, while he had great difficulty doing the same.  It becomes more and more noticeable that Capitu, though the book becomes an indictment of her, is never allowed to defend herself.  It's almost certainly reading too much into the novel, but I was struck by the fact that on two occasions Capitu actually writes out words, and that they form a kind of palimpsest in which she sends the reader a secret message : when they are first courting she scratches :


on a wall; and then later, after quizzing him about his devotion to her, she crawls one word in the dirt : liar.  Perhaps this is Machado's way of offering us just a glimpse of Capitu's defense, a coded message that Bentinho is lying about their relationship.

At any rate, the novel is marvelous--sly, witty, and insidious.  Machado subverts the first person narration and creates tantalizing, unresolvable doubts in the reader's mind.  It's no wonder that he is considered Brazil's greatest novelist and Capitu its most beguiling heroine; like the Mona Lisa, much lies hidden behind a masterful portrait.  If, like me before I happened to pick up a copy of this book, you've never heard of Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis, do yourself a favor and seek him out.  He's well worth the effort.


Grade: (A+)


See also:

Latin American
Joaquim Machado de Assis Links:

    -ESSAY: On Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis’s Rise to the Top of Brazilian Literature: Robin Patterson and Margaret Jull Costa Trace the Author's Beginnings (Robin Patterson and Margaret Jull Costa, August 3, 2020, Lit Hub)
    -REVIEW ESSAY: Rediscovering One of the Wittiest Books Ever Written (Dave Egger, 6/02/2020, The New Yorker)
    -REVIEW ESSAY: “The Greatest Defect of This Book Is You, Reader”: On Two Translations of Machado de Assis’s “The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas” (Tal Goldfajn, SEPTEMBER 22, 2020, LA Review of Books)

Book-related and General Links:
    -Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis (1839-1908) (kirjasto)
    -ENCYCLOPAEDIA BRITANNICA : Your search: "machado de assis"
    -EXCERPT : Chapter One of Dom Casmurro By JOAQUIM MARIA MACHADO DE ASSIS Translated by JOHN GLEDSON
    -EXCERPT : First Chapter of ''The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas'
    -INTRODUCTION : to Dom Camurro by Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis (R.L. Scott-Buccleuch)
    -ENCYCLOPEDIA.COM : Machado de Assis, Joaquim Maria
    -PROFILE : Who Was Machado de Assis? (espelho)
    -PROFILE : Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis (Carla Dieguez, Interlog)
    -ESSAY : Rediscovering the `espirito' of Machado. (Lauren Weiner, New Criterion)
    -ESSAY : Those Words Those Eyes : Capitu has been portrayed as a woman with "a gypsy's eyes, oblique and sly." The most intriguing female character of the Brazilian literature is celebrating its 100th anniversary. Has Capitu betrayed her husband Bentinho or not? This burning question has tormented generation upon generation of critics and readers. (Elma-Lia Nascimento, Brazzil)
    -ARCHIVES : "assis" (NY Review of Books)
    -REVIEW : of  Don Casmurro  and The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas By Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis (K. David Jackson, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of Quincas Borba By Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis (1891)(Jonathan Keates, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of ESAU AND JACOB By Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis. (Jenny McPhee, NY Times Book Review)
    -BOOK LIST : Outskirts of the fin de siècle :  Five underappreciated novels from the last time the century turned. (Phillip Lopate , Salon)
    -BOOK LIST : The Best Pages of Our Lives : Which are the best books produced by the Brazilian literature this century? A panel of experts prepared a list of their 50 favorite novels. (Elma Lia Nascimento , Brazzil)

    -Modern Brazilian Literature (Professor Susan D. Martin)