SEPTEMBER 22, 2020
“TO THE WORM that first gnawed at the cold flesh of my cadaver I dedicate as a fond remembrance these posthumous memoirs,” reads Flora Thomson-DeVeaux’s translation of the dedication of this extraordinary book, a milestone in Latin American literary history. Memórias Póstumas de Brás Cubas (The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas) is not an autobiography published after the death of the author — we are quickly informed by its witty, capricious, insolent narrator in a delightful play on word order in Portuguese (“eu não sou propriamente um autor defunto, mas um defunto autor”) — but rather a fictional memoir written “postmortem.” First published in 1881, Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis’s novel has now received a doubled English afterlife in translations by Thomson-DeVeaux (Penguin Classics) and by Margaret Jull Costa and Robin Patterson (Liveright).
Machado de Assis was born in Rio de Janeiro in 1839, 17 years after Brazilian independence and almost 50 years before the abolition of slavery in 1888. He was the son of a mulatto Brazilian wall painter and a Portuguese woman of humble origins from the Azores. His grandparents on his father’s side were freed slaves. He worked as a typographer’s apprentice, proofreader, translator, and middle-ranking bureaucrat. Largely self-taught, he began to publish in magazines and journals early on, soon establishing himself as a poet, critic, translator, and novelist. In 1896, he co-founded the Brazilian Academy of Letters, of which he was president until his death in 1908.
Machado de Assis has received a staggering amount of praise — “the supreme black literary artist to date” (Harold Bloom), “the greatest writer ever produced in Latin America” (Susan Sontag), “another Kafka” (Allen Ginsberg), “a writer a hundred years ahead of his time” (Salman Rushdie) — and much of it owes to The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas, which Dave Eggers calls, in his foreword to Thomson-DeVeaux’s translation, “a glittering masterwork and an unmitigated joy to read.” The book was unlike anything the author had written before and unlike anything being done at the time, harkening back to Laurence Sterne and Xavier de Maistre and looking forward to Virginia Woolf and James Joyce.
Over the course of a 160 short, fragmented chapters, the narrator of Brás Cubas, a member of the upper class, introduces himself, hallucinates, is born, falls in love, feels deeply, recovers instantly, fails bombastically, scorns, complains, endlessly digresses, dissects the flaws of others, affronts the reader, proposes a “theory of human editions,” and all along reflects with inimitable charm on human existence, corruption, greed, and hypocrisy. While the narrative shifts in time and somersaults from cliché to searing originality, from the intimate to the universal, from the trivial to the metaphysical, Machado’s Portuguese is by turns florid and tight, rhythmic and fragmented, full of ifs, buts, qualifications, ambiguities, and irony. The overall effect is outrageously funny and volubly impertinent:
[T]he greatest defect of this book is you, reader. You are in a hurry to grow old, and the book moves slowly; you love direct, sturdy narration, a regular and fluent style, and this book and my style are like drunkards, they sway right and left, stop and go, moan, roar, cackle, threaten the skies, slip and fall …
Yet, for all the similarities, Machado’s Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas is not Laurence Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman (1759). The key discovery of Roberto Schwarz, the eminent Brazilian Machado scholar, is that the capriciousness of the novel’s style expresses the capriciousness of a class. There is a correspondence, Schwarz argues in A Master on the Periphery of Capitalism (Um Mestre na Periferia do Capitalismo, 1990) between the narrator’s voice and the particularities and contradictions of 19th-century Brazilian society. “[W]e should underline this ideological ambivalence of the Brazilian elite,” reads John Gledson’s 2001 translation of Schwarz:
They wanted to be part of the progressive and cultured West, at that time already openly bourgeois (the norm), without that affecting their being, in practice, and with equal authenticity, members and beneficiaries of the last large slave-owning system in that same West (the infringement). Now, was there a problem in figuring simultaneously as a slave owner and an enlightened individual?
Now, how do you translate that?
Machado’s cantankerous narrator, with his “drunkard” style, is thus himself a critique of his country’s self-deluding aspirations. The author’s stylistic exercise in volubility disguises a strategic interrogation of arbitrary power.
The question that inevitably hovers over all the superlative references to Machado in English is how come so few English speakers in the 21st century have read him? With these two new translations of Brás Cubas, there are now five English versions of the novel (the first two, by William L. Grossman and E. Percy Ellis, were undertaken in the 1950s; the third, by Gregory Rabassa, came out in 1997) — definitely not an insignificant number. Each translator has taken a different approach, but the latest, published within a few weeks of each other, almost demand a comparative reading.
Margaret Jull Costa is an acclaimed British literary translator who has received several awards for her translations of, among many others, Fernando Pessoa, José Saramago, António Lobo Antunes, Javier Marías, Bernardo Atxaga, and Carmen Martín Gaite. In 2018, together with Robin Patterson, she put together the landmark volume The Collected Stories of Machado de Assis (Liveright). Their new translation of Brás Cubas includes a brief and illuminating introduction, a short biographical note, and very few footnotes. The translation seems to be primarily concerned with accessibility for contemporary Anglophone audiences, which at times involves editing punctuation, expanding phrases for clarity, trimming back flourishes, and employing a stereotyped representation of African American form of address, “massa,” to translate the surely problematic Portuguese word “nhonhô,” one of the ways slaves addressed young masters. For instance, where the Portuguese reads “Fiquei prostrado” (“I was left prostrate”), Jull Costa and Patterson’s explain, “I was prostrate with grief”; “faltava-me o essencial, que é o estímulo, a vertigem” (“I lacked the essential, that is the stimulus, the vertigo”) grows into “I lacked the essential ingredient, the necessary stimulus, the emotional vertigo”; “era a flor dos cabeleireiros” (“he was the flower of hairdressers”) is simplified to “he was the most perfect of barbers”; “tomavam a bênção” (referring primarily to the specific gesture of “kissing the hand”) is rendered literally as “ask for a blessing.” Such minor alterations, which every translator makes, take on greater weight when the text itself addresses the importance of small stylistic choices. Thomson-DeVeaux’s translation features a wonderful passage on these matters:
If the reader still recalls Chapter XXIII, he will observe that this is now the second time that I have compared life to a torrent [Jull Costa and Patterson have added “of filth”]; but he will also note that this time I have added an adjective: perpetual. And God knows the power of an adjective, principally in new and balmy countries.
Thus, to the voice of Machado’s narrator who seems exquisitely aware of the strength of words and extremely attentive to the details is added the somewhat fearful voice of the translators who do not seem always confident in their readers’ resilience to ambiguities. No doubt with the intention to be helpful, the translators often expand and clarify with more words than the necessary, offering “a regular and fluent style” and thereby loosening the tight connection between form and content in Machado’s Brás Cubas.
Flora Thomson-DeVeaux’s is the first extensively annotated English translation of Memórias Póstumas de Brás Cubas. Her translation foregrounds, among other things, the novel’s significant references to slavery and its pernicious effects on Brazilian society. Not only does Thomson-DeVeaux explore the issue of Brazilian racial dynamics in her excellent introduction and endnotes, her attention to these themes is also reflected in her translation choices. While other translations may employ “nannies,” “Negro nurses,” “servants,” or “houseboys,” Thomson-DeVeaux’s consistent choice of “slave” confronts the Anglophone reader with the true status and condition of these characters. The focus of her The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas is not reader comfort but a deep engagement with social reality.
This commitment to historical memory is also prominent in the way previous English translations of Brás Cubas are explicitly mentioned, quoted, assimilated, or confronted in Thomson-DeVeaux’s careful and meticulous translation. Probably one of the best-known chapters of the book is 68, “The Whip,” in which Machado’s narrator strolls through the Valongo Wharf in Rio de Janeiro, a site where almost a million African slaves disembarked and were traded until 1831. There he sees his ex-slave Prudêncio, now free, whipping a black man he has now bought as his slave. At first, Brás is taken aback, but he quickly makes sense of it all:
This was Prudêncio’s way of freeing himself from the blows he had received — by passing them on to another. I, as a child, had ridden on him, put a bit in his mouth, and thrashed him mercilessly as he groaned and suffered. Now that he was free, however, the master of his own arms and legs, able to work, rest, and sleep, unshackled from his former condition, now he had surpassed himself: he had bought a slave and was paying back, with steep interest, the sums he had received from me. See how clever the rascal was!
Thomson-DeVeaux brings across the unique rhythm of Machado’s prose, reproducing Brás’s clipped, highly punctuated syntax with great care. The peculiar tension between the sophistication of the style and the cruel absurdity of the content is maintained in English, allowing a unique 19th-century proto-Modernist Brazilian voice to be heard at full volume, in all its subtleties.
At one point, Brás suggests that human existence is a succession of editorial refinements. “Let Pascal say that man is a thinking reed,” he declares. “No; he is a thinking erratum, that’s what he is. Each season of life is an edition that corrects the last and that will be corrected in turn until the definitive edition, which the editor delivers to the worms, free of charge.” Translation, however, is a reversal of the process, helping important works of literature escape from the worms. All five English translators of Machado de Assis’s masterpiece have ensured that his posthumous hero remains as alive and contradictory as ever.
Tal Goldfajn is assistant professor of Spanish and Portuguese Studies at the Department of Languages, Literatures and Cultures at UMass Amherst. She is the author of, among other works, Word Order and Time in Biblical Hebrew Narrative (Oxford University Press), and is a practicing translator (Spanish, English, Portuguese, French, Hebrew).