Epitaph of a Small Winner* by Machado de Assis

I’ve already read a book from Brazil for the Read The World challenge, but I really enjoyed this so I thought I’d add it to the blog-pile.

I can’t remember why I picked this up, but I *really* enjoyed it. It’s a C19th novel which is ‘surprisingly modern’ — in scare quotes because that seems to be the default description and I don’t disagree, but I’m slightly uneasy about using ‘modern’ as a term of praise or even description.

It’s ‘modern’ because it’s written from the perspective of a dead man who makes lots of authorial asides, in a generally light tone, broken up into very short chapters (mostly less than a page), with self-referential stuff and intertextual commentary. In other words, it plays with form more than most C19th novels. But rather than comparing it to the modernists and post-modernists, it seems just as natural to refer back; not just to the inevitable Tristram Shandy, but things like Tom Jones and Byron’s Don Juan, which both have ‘authorial’ asides and interjections.

Anyway, that kind of quibbling aside: the application of the style to a very solidly C19th plot, about the lives and loves of the upper-middle classes, worked brilliantly for me. It was apparently just what I needed.

*A note on the title: in Portuguese it’s actually called Memórias Póstumas de Brás Cubas, and some English translations give it the same title: The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas. I can’t really see why they felt the need to change it for this translation†, and it’s also bloody annoying when you’re shopping for a copy until you realise that it’s all the same novel, but there you go.

†A 1950s one by William S Grossman, incidentally.

Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands by Jorge Amado

Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands is a novel about a cooking teacher whose first husband is a charming lowlife, who is always disappearing in search of wine, women, song and roulette, and her second marriage to an upright, responsible, devoted pharmacist who, for all his good qualities, is duller and more reserved. Especially in bed.

Having read the long and mildly tedious Island Boy, I picked it up in the hope it would be a bit more fun. It’s fiction, it’s Brazilian, all the blurbs on the cover go on about it being exotic, sexy, tropical, the work of a great story-teller… all the kind of joyous clichés you’d hope for from the country that gave us Elza Soares, Ronaldinho and the caipirinha. I don’t only want to read books reinforce national stereotypes, but in a wet London November, a bit of Brazil seems quite tempting.

And more importantly, it was recommended by a friend. So after some of the deeply obscure, hit and miss books I’ve read for the Read The World challenge, I was hoping for something juicy and enjoyable. Something that was not likely to feel like a chore.

Sadly it didn’t quite hit the spot. Not because it doesn’t have all those Brazilian clichés: it starts with a character dying unexpectedly during carnival while dancing in full drag, and the whole book is full of gamblers and whores and serenades, and sex and food, and humour and social satire, and a bundle of other things besides. Just reading my own description of it almost makes me want to read it again; but the actual experience of reading it wasn’t so great.

Not that it’s a bad book, but it didn’t ever quite grab me; and after 550 pages, any book that you’re not actively enjoying is going to seem like a bit of a chore. I’d be hard pressed to identify any very glaring problems with it. The characters seemed a trifle two-dimensional — particularly the two contrasting husbands, who might as well be called Id and Superego, or Apollonian and Dionysian — and the plot is perhaps stretched a bit thin; but it might just as well be that I wasn’t in the right mood for it and tried to read too much of it when I was half asleep. So while I’m not about to give it a glowing endorsement, I wouldn’t want to be too negative, either. Pathetically wishy-washy, I know.

» NOM NOM NOM is © Capitu and used under a CC by-nc licence.

Rio 2016!

I think it’s brilliant that Rio is going to host the Olympics. I was going to post a suitably carnivalesque bit of video in celebration, but I found this more downbeat performance by the great Elza Soares; and it’s gorgeous.

I’ve got no idea what she’s singing about, though.

‘amongst other things’

Today’s entry from Darwin’s Beagle diary:

29th May 1832
Rio de Janeiro
Cloudy greyish day, something like an Autumnal one in England; without however its soothing quietness. I wanted to send a note this morning into the city & had the greatest difficulty in procuring anybody to take it. All white men are above it, & every black about here is a slave. This, amongst other things, is one great inconvenience of a slave country.

Darwin was in fact strongly anti-slavery. As a grandson of Josiah Wedgwood he was probably brought up that way, but his experiences visiting Brazil reinforced it and stayed with him for the rest of his life. Still, it’s not the most felicitous bit of phrasing.

Cult of Brasil

I wish the BBC commentators wouldn’t be quite so uncritically fanboy when they talk about Brazil. Yes, they have produced some brilliant players; yes, Ronaldinho is the world’s best player at the moment; yes the current squad is extremely talented and deservedly favourites to win the tournament. But they aren’t superhuman. Today, they looked pretty ordinary, and if the commentators had stopped drooling long enough to actually watch the game, they would have noticed that much sooner.

No wonder England looked so intimidated by them in 2002 – all the players have been brought up on a diet of pro-Brazilian propaganda that even Nike’s marketing department would be hard-pressed to equal.

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