The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas
Posted on 12 January 2013
I’m beginning to regret this book. Not that it bores me, I have nothing to do and, really, putting together a few meager chapters for that other world is always a task that distracts me from eternity a little. But the book is tedious, it has the smell of the grave about it; it has a certain cadaveric contraction about it, a serious fault, insignificant to boot because the main defect of this book is you, reader. You’re in a hurry to grow old and the book moves slowly. You love direct and continuous narration, a regular and fluid style, and this book and my style are like drunkards, they stagger left and right, they walk and stop, mumble, yell, cackle, shake their fists at the sky, stumble, and fall . . . (111)
It must be said, however, that this book is written with apathy, with the apathy of a man now freed of the brevity of the century, a supinely philosophical work, of an unequal philosophy, now austere, now playful, something that neither builds nor destroys, neither inflames nor cools, and, yet, it is more than a pastime and less than an apostolate. (11)
As described, above, by the most unique of all narrators—a corpse—the book is such. Like a drunkard, staggering, cackling, stumbling. Playful, philosophical. Being readers in the modern world, we may be used to such daring theatrics in writing style, but thinking of how this book was written in the 19th century, it must have been quite the creative feat.
The hero recounts his life not in old age, where he might’ve been pensive and reflective, but from the void and nothingness after which his life has ended, and where his narrative reflects a detached air, which results in a rather comical one.
I am not exactly a writer who is dead but a dead man who is a writer. . . (7)
I was a handsome young fellow, handsome and bold, who was entering life in boots and spurs, a whip in his hand and blood in his veins, mounted on a nervous, robust, swift steed, like the steeds in ancient ballads . . . (33)
Ironically, he lived a rather passionate life, though heavily in the love realm, but he never lets us forget that he is dead. The reader gets reminded often. He describes himself as the most honest anyone can get, not being tied down by the scruples that come with society.
Perhaps I’m startling the reader with the frankness with which I’m exposing and emphasizing my mediocrity. Be aware that frankness is the prime virtue of a dead man. In life the gaze of public opinion, the contrast of interests, the struggle of greed all oblige people to keep quiet about their dirty linen, to disguise the rips and stitches, not to extend to the world the revelations they make to their conscience. And the best part of the obligation comes when, by deceiving others, a man deceives himself, because in such a case he saves himself vexation, which is a painful feeling, and hypocrisy, which is a vile vice. But in death, what a difference! What a release! What freedom! Oh, how people can shake off their coverings, leave their spangles in the gutter, unbutton themselves, unpaint themselves, undecorate themselves, confess flatly what they were and what they’ve stopped being! Because, in short, there aren’t any more neighbors or friends or enemies or acquaintances or strangers. There’s no more audience. The gaze of public opinion, that sharp and judgmental gaze, loses its virtue the moment we tread the territory of death. I’m not saying that it doesn’t reach here and examine and judge us, but we don’t care about the examination or the judgment. My dear living gentlemen and ladies, there’s nothing as incommensurable as the disdain of the deceased. (52)
The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas has a lot of depth but it’s a light, fun read. It feels very contemporary, too, though it was written in the 1800s. The book is intelligent and quirky and, most impressively, laughs at itself. Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis should be the one to turn to for anyone looking towards sampling a bit of Brazilian literature.
My brain was a stage on which plays of all kinds were presented: sacred dramas, austere, scrupulous, elegant comedies, wild farces, short skits, buffoonery, pandemonium, sensitive soul, a hodgepodge of things and people in which you could see everything, from the rose of Smyrna to the rue in your own backyard, from Cleopatra’s magnificent bed to the corner of the beach where the beggar shivers in his sleep. (66)
And I’ll leave you with sound advise.
Uninstructed reader, if you don’t keep the letters from your youth, you won’t get to know the philosophy of old pages someday, you won’t enjoy the pleasure of seeing yourself from a distance, in the shadows, with a three-cornered hat, seven-league boots, and a long Assyrian beard, dancing to the sound of Anachreonic pipes. Keep the letters of your youth! (161)
Translated from the Portuguese by Gregory Rabassa. (He did a grand job.) I read this for Stu’s Advent in Brazil, for which I’m a month late.