My last few posts have been of quite a serious nature, and I actually can’t bring myself to write about all the terrible things that are happening in the world all the time. It gets a little too much, even for someone who hates injustice as much as I do. So today, I thought I would take a step back from it all and talk about one of the lights of my life – literature.
For anyone that hasn’t read my bio (and let’s be honest, why would you, the interesting stuff is all here), I studied modern languages at university, specifically Spanish and Portuguese. That meant I came into contact with a fair amount of Latin American literature whilst I was studying, and it’s something I love. Now, of course, there are the greats; Borges, García Marquez, Vargas Llosa, – I could go on, but would not wish to bore you.
Without a doubt these are all literary giants, and fully deserve their place among the pantheon of the continent’s most celebrated. I am not, however, going to talk about them today – others will do so in the future, and indeed have done so, much more eloquently than I could, and as such I will leave them to it.
No, today I wish to write about an author who I believe is sometimes overlooked in the category of Latin American greats. An author who does not receive as much attention as some of the authors from the 20th century, and perhaps missed the wave of popularity upon which Latin American literature has surged since magical realism’s irresistible rise. The writer I refer to is Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis, author of Dom Casmurro, one of the most fascinating books of the 19th century. He is, of course, a very well respected novelist, but is perhaps not as well known as he should be among Anglo-Saxon readers, and as such I try to promote his work at every opportunity.
Looked at simply, his magnum opus ‘Dom Casmurro’ is a modern(ish) reimagining of the Othello story, set in 1890s Brazil. The book is wonderful for so many reasons, but what drives my fascination with it to heights that other novels never quite manage to achieve is the narrative itself. We follow the protagonist, Bentinho, who is also the narrator, from childhood, as he deals with familial dramas, the priesthood, and relationships. He falls in love with his sweetheart Capitu, and on the surface it is a story of that love becoming realised and the subsequent betrayal.
The plot is interesting in and of itself, but it is this narrative voice that pushes this book to the level of classic in my opinion. Rarely has any first person narrative that I have read been so simultaneously interesting and engaging. No matter how hard many authors try, one of the most notoriously difficult things in literature is to get a narrator to engage with the reader immediately, but Machado does it brilliantly.
From the very beginning of the story the reader is on Bentinho’s side, everything is conveyed with such innocence and occasional naivety that the possibility that everything he is saying might not be completely accurate is not even considered until much later in the book than we might otherwise. Dom Casmurro feels like a friend telling you a story, with in-jokes and asides directed at the reader, drawing them in and making them a character in Bentinho’s narrative, and it is that that helps us to engage with Bentinho, and to feel his emotions so starkly.
In short, then, if you happen across a copy of Dom Casmurro in translation (there is a fantastic one by Helen Caldwell, just don’t read the introduction until after reading the story!) then I would heartily recommend you buy it and devour it immediately. Machado is perhaps not as well known as he might be, but this is no reflection on his literary capacity, and anything written by him is more than worth reading, though, as you may be able to tell, Dom Casmurro remains firmly my favourite.
Anybody that has read Machado, or has any other recommendations, I would love to hear from you. No doubt next week I will be back writing about things that have annoyed me once more, so it has been nice to escape for an hour, at least. After all, what is literature for if not to escape the horrors of our own world and enter the magic of another?