“Such are the perfections of fiction...Everything it teaches is useless insofar as structuring your life: you can’t prop up anything with fiction. It, in fact, teaches you just that. That in order to attempt to employ its specific wisdom is a sign of madness...There is more profit in an hour’s talk with Billy Graham than in a reading of Joyce. Graham might conceivably make you sick, so that you might move, go somewhere to get well. But Joyce just sends you out into the street, where the world goes on, solid as a bus. If you met Joyce and said 'Help me,' he’d hand you a copy of Finnegans Wake. You could both cry.” – Gilbert Sorrentino, Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Lost Classics: Epitaph of a Small Winner

Epitaph of a Small Winner
By Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis
Bloomsbury Publishing

Epitaph of a Small Winner was originally published in 1880 by the Brazilian writer Machado de Assis; the novel’s English title, however, is fairly strange given that a literal translation of the original Portuguese would be The Posthumous Memoirs of Braz Cubas. Indeed, this original title is instructive, since the narrator, Braz Cubas, is a writer who finds himself in an extremely unusual condition: he is quite literally deceased. Unlike the typical bildungsroman, which usually opens with the birth of the protagonist, Cubas begins his tale by describing the moment of his death. This sense of morbidity continues throughout, and the book is even appropriately dedicated ‘To the first worm who gnawed my flesh’.
As the unusual conceit of employing a dead narrator would suggest, Epitaph of a Small Winner is filled with strange and unusual narrative techniques. Machad de Assis is particularly fond of the technique known as parabasis, in which Cubas directly addresses the reader and acknowledges the fictionality of his own story; one chapter is entitled ‘The Defect of this Book’, while another is composed only of the sentence ‘And if I am not greatly mistaken, I have just written an utterly unnecessary chapter.’ At other points the reader is treated to drawings, philosophical digressions, and even one chapter that is left completely blank for the reason that ‘Some things are better said without words.’
In its absurd and inventive humour, Epitaph of a Small Winner reveals a strong debt to Lawrence Sterne’s classic Tristram Shandy, which uses many of the same devices (including a blank chapter!).  But on another level, the book is also possesses a far more straightforward plot than Sterne’s novel; after quickly recounting the details of Cubas’s maturation and first loves, the vast majority of the book relates an extended affair he engages in with the wife of a well-connected politician. While there are many vivid and moving descriptions of this affair, Cubas, himself, is, in many ways, an extremely flawed person, who is economically privileged, selfish, blind to his own motivations and, at his worst, simply self-destructive.
The tone of the book is also considerably darker than Sterne. Epitaph of a Small Winner ultimately paints a fairly misanthropic picture of humanity, and the sense of the book often suggests that the self-invested aspects of humans will always triumph over their best intentions. Part of the darkness is derived from the constant background presence of slavery, which was legal at the time in Brazil; although it is merely implied in the book, the suggestion remains that the easy lives of the affluent characters in the book are made possible by slave labour.
 In its negativity, the Machado de Assis’s novel recalls Voltaire’s Candide. Indeed, Epitaph of a Smaller Winner alludes to Candide in the person of Quincas Borba (about whom Machado de Assis wrote another book, Quincas Borba aka Philosopher or Dog?), a philosopher who creates an absurd system called ‘Humanitism,’ which closely resembles the philosophy of Voltaire’s Doctor Pangloss with hilarious results. Under any title, Epitaph of a Small Winner is a clear classic of world literature and deserves both greater recognition and a wider readership; despite being written in 1880, it’s a work that still feels thoroughly contemporary.

This review initially aired on Triple R’s Breakfasters.

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