A Brazilian everyone should read- and no, it’s not Coelho.

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?

A Brief History of Hawking- Redmayne’s performance shines in a sometimes overambitious film.

Let’s get this out the way; Eddie Redmayne is phenomenal in this film. He gives a performance of great nuance as he slowly slips from showing the first signs of Stephen Hawking’s well-known disability into something more recognisable as the physicist that we know today. It is all in the detail; from the eyes to the way he holds his mouth he creates a sensitive portrait of the iconic professor. It is a truly impressive, and quite likely an Oscar winning performance.

Having said that, I would be surprised if the film won the prize for best film, as while relatively well made, and at times very well directed, it is a film that sometimes suffers under the weight of its own subject matter. It takes as its source material the second (and kinder) memoir of Hawking’s wife Jane Wilde (played here by Felicity Jones), and unfortunately, reaches beyond its capacity in doing so.

The film attempts to span almost the entirety of Hawking’s adult life, from when he began as a post-graduate student at Cambridge in 1963 to the mid-2000s. In doing so, it fails to commit to any particular period of the physicist’s life, and as an audience we feel many details are missing. Why, for example, do Hawking and Jane drift apart? We are told almost nothing of his scientific advances either, which is a shame, as this is probably the most interesting thing about the sometimes troubled cosmologist.

Ultimately, this is a personal narrative that fails to build enough of a connection with the characters over a sustained period of time for it to be an effective one; too many parts of their lives are simply left unexplained. It is a pity, because the parts of the film that are good, such as the interaction between Stephen and Jane when he loses his voice and is reduced to speaking through eye movements, can be very powerful and, indeed, moving.

The problem is that it necessarily all feels formulaic. It is impossible to squeeze all the life events of a man who has had so many enormous ups and tremendous downs into a coherent film. It becomes the inevitable formula of personal advance followed by physical setback, followed by time jump ad infinitum. The supporting cast does a perfectly adequate job of carrying the piece, but Redmayne is the right man in the right role, and inevitably steals the show, though David Thewlis is also worth a mention as Stephen’s mentor Dennis Sciama, along with Felicity Jones as the long-suffering Jane.

The direction of the film is largely impossible to criticise. An overuse, in my opinion, of some quite unsubtle religious imagery, is perhaps inevitable given the conflicting beliefs of the two protagonists and the divisions it caused between them, but fortunately doesn’t distract too much from the general flow. The cinematography is also excellent, showing Cambridge in all of its academic glory. However, the home-video style montages that serve as time jumps interspersed throughout the film is somewhat egregious and, probably, too simplistic a device for such a complex subject.

The film is, nonetheless, generally a good one, and certainly an enjoyable one. The performances certainly carry what is on occasion a slow script, and it is worth the entrance money just to watch Redmayne become Hawking. It is truly one of the best performances in recent memory, and I would be not at all surprised if he went home with an Oscar this year, even if the film as a whole did not quite live up to my expectations.