Dead man talking

I just finished a book which was written about 130 years ago in Brazil. You would never tell―at least I wouldn’t have. Despite of having been published in 1882, “Epitaph of a Small Winner” by Machado de Assis reads like a very modern, if not postmodern, novel. The original title of the novel was Memórias Póstumas de Brás Cubas and it opens like this:

The Death of the Author: I hesitated some time, not knowing whether to open these memoirs at the beginning or at the end, i.e., whether to start with my birth or with my death. Granted, the usual practice is to begin with one’s birth, but two considerations led me to adopt a different method: the first is that, properly speaking, I am a deceased writer not in the sense of one who has written and is now deceased, but in the sense of one who has died and is now writing, a writer for whom the grave was really a new cradle; the second is that the book would thus gain in merriment and novelty. Moses, who also related his own death, placed it not at the beginning but at the end: a radical difference between this book and Pentateuch.

And thus begins the topsy-turvy ride of 160 fragments, where the book’s now-dead protagonist tries to tally up his mediocre life, taking potshots along the way at anything people would want to consider sacred and profound, and finally arriving at the conclusion that is referred to in the book’s English title―once everything is taken into account, he finished his life “a small winner”.

“Epitaph” really is a remarkable book―and not only in it’s own right, but also by the virtue of the enormous influence it has exerted on the Latin American literature. One of the early nods of recognition to Machado’s masterpiece was of course Oswald de Andrade’s (one of the founders of Brazilian modernism) 1924 book Memórias Sentimentais de João Mirama and it is probably safe to say that in some way or another, “Epitaph” has influenced every Brazilian writer of the 20th century. It has also been a major inspiration to both Jorge Luis Borges and Gabriel Garcia Marquéz, and the line of confessed admirers of Machado’s talent includes names such as Salman Rushdie, Susan Sontag (who has written a foreword to the English translation of “Epitaph”), Carlos Fuentes, José Saramago, Harold Bloom and Woody Allen.

Of course, Machado de Assis had influences of his own. In “Epitaph”, the most obvious literary one is certainly Lawrence Sterne and his The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman. In addition to that, there are several clear references to Schopenhauer’s Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung and Voltaire’s Candide.

Memórias Póstumas de Brás Cubas is widely credited as being one of the earliest works of fiction that employed the technique known as “breaking the fourth wall”. This is precisely what happens in the first paragraph that I quoted above, where the protagonist is aware of the reader, and later in the book there are several occasions where the reader is directly addressed. While not exactly an original invention in general (the same technique was widely used and very popular in Ancient Greek theatre), it was one of the many radically new literary devices that Machado de Assis employed and that nowadays have became pretty much a commonplace (for example, think of Monty Python or Woody Allen, movies such as “Fight Club”, books like “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead” by Stoppard, “Midnight’s Children” by Rushdie, “If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler” by Calvino, “The Name of the Rose” by Eco or “Breakfast of Champions” by Vonnegut).

But even without all those meta-considerations and an illustrious list of fans, “Epitaph” is a ton of fun―and this alone should be good enough reason to read it.


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