Dom Casmurroby Machado de Assis
Bentinho Santiago, cosseted only child of a rich widow, lives next door to Capitu, the daughter of a lowly government official. As childhood friendship turns to adolescent love, an obstacle to the union exists in the form of a vow made by Bentinho’s mother before his birth: her son is to be a priest. The lovers’ situation appears hopeless, but
Bentinho Santiago, cosseted only child of a rich widow, lives next door to Capitu, the daughter of a lowly government official. As childhood friendship turns to adolescent love, an obstacle to the union exists in the form of a vow made by Bentinho’s mother before his birth: her son is to be a priest. The lovers’ situation appears hopeless, but resourceful Capitu is not easily discouraged. De Assis weaves a powerful and ultimately tragic story of love and disillusionment, full of the subtle irony that is the hallmark of his writing. In Capitu, his enigmatic heroine, he has also created one of the most fascinating characters in Brazilian fiction.
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One evening just lately, as I was coming back from town to Engenho Novo on the Central line train, I met a young man from this neighborhood, whom I know by sight: enough to raise my hat to him. He greeted me, sat down next to me, started talking about the moon and ministerial comings and goings, and ended up reciting some of his verses. The journey was short, and it may be that the verses were not entirely bad. But it so happened that I was tired, and closed my eyes three or four times; enough for him to interrupt the reading and put his poems back in his pocket.
"Go on," I said waking up.
"I've finished," he murmured.
"They're very nice."
I saw him make a move to take them out again, but it was no more than a move: he was put out. Next day, he started calling me insulting names, and ended up nicknaming me Dom Casmurro. The neighbors, who dislike my quiet, reclusive habits, gave currency to the nickname, and in the end it stuck. Not that I got upset. I told the story to some of my friends in town, and they call me it too for fun, some in letters: "Dom Casmurro, I'm coming to dine with you on Sunday." "I'm going to Petropolis, Dom Casmurro; it's the same house in Renania; see if you can't drag yourself away from your lair in Engenho Novo, and come and spend a couple of weeks with me." "My dear Dom Casmurro, don't think I'm letting you off the theater tomorrow. Come and spend the night in town; I'll give you a box, tea, and a bed; the only thing I can't give you is a girl."
Don't look it up in dictionaries. In this case, Casmurro doesn't have the meaning they give, but the one the common people give it, of a quiet person who keeps himself to himself. The Dom was ironic, to accuse me of aristocratic pretensions. All because I nodded off! Still, I couldn't find a better title for my narrative; if I can't find another before I finish the book, I'll keep this one. My poet on the train will find out that I bear him no ill will. And with a little effort, since the title is his, he can think the whole work is. There are books that only owe that to their authors: some not even that much.
Now I have explained the title, I can proceed to write the book. Before that, however, let me explain the motives that put the pen in my hand.
I live alone, with a servant. The house I live in is my own; I decided to have it built, prompted by a such a personal, private motive that I am embarrassed to put it in print, but here goes. One day, quite a few years ago, I had the notion of building in Engenho Novo a replica of the house I had been brought up in on the old Rua de Matacavalos, and giving it the same aspect and layout as the other one, which has now disappeared. Builder and decorator understood my instructions perfectly: it is the same two-storey building, three windows at the front, a verandah at the back, the same bedrooms and living rooms. In the main room, the paintings on the ceiling and walls are more or less the same, with garlands of small flowers and large birds, at intervals, carrying them in their beaks. In the four corners of the ceiling, the figures of the seasons, and at the center of the walls, medallions of Caesar, Augustus, Nero and Massinissa, with their names underneath ... Why these four characters I do not understand. When we moved into the Matacavalos house, it was already decorated in this way: it had been done in the previous decade. It must have been the taste of the time to put a classical flavor and ancient figures into paintings done in America. The rest is also analogous to this and similar to it. I have a small garden, flowers, vegetables, a casuarina tree, a well and a washing-stone. I use old china and old furniture. Finally, there is, now as in the old days, the same contrast between life inside the house, which is placid, and the noisy world outside.
Clearly my aim was to tie the two ends of life together, and bring back youth in old age. Welt sir, I managed neither to reconstruct what was there, nor what I had been. Everywhere, though the surface may be the same, the character is different. If it was only others that were missing, all well and good: one gets over the loss of other people as best one can; but I myself am missing, and that lacuna is all-important. What is here, if I can put it this way, is like dye that you put on your beard and hair, and which only preserves the external habit, as they say in autopsies; the internal parts will not take dye. A certificate saying I was twenty years old might fool others, like any false document, but not me. The friends I have left are all of recent date; all the older ones have gone to study geology in God's acre. As for female friends, I've known some for fifteen years, others for less, and they almost all believe in their own youth. Two or three might persuade others, but the language they use forces me to consult dictionaries, a tiresome occupation.
All the same, though life may have changed, that's not to say it's worse; just different, that's all. In certain respects, life in the old days now seems stripped of the charms I once thought it had; but it is also true that it has lost many of the thorns that made it painful, and I still have a few sweet, enchanting memories. Truth to tell, I go out little and seldom converse much when I do. I have few amusements. Most of the time is taken up with looking after the orchard and the garden, and reading. I eat well and don't sleep badly.
But everything palls in the long run, and this monotony ended up wearying me, too. I wanted a little variety, and had the idea of writing a book. Jurisprudence, philosophy and politics occurred to me; but I didn't have the necessary energy for such projects. Then I thought I might write a History of the Suburbs, less dry than the memoir Father Luis Goncalves dos Santos wrote about the city of Rio itself; a modest undertaking, but it required documents and dates as preliminaries, all of which would be boring and time-consuming. Then it was that the busts painted on the walls started to talk to me, and to tell me that, since they couldn't bring back times past, I should take a pen and recount some of them. Perhaps the narration would beguile me, and the old shades would pass lightly over me, as they passed over the poet--not the one on the train, but the author of Faust: "Ah, come ye back once more, ye restless shades?"
This idea delighted me so much, that the pen is trembling in my hand even now. Yes, Nero, Augustus, Massinissa, and you, great Caesar, urging me on to write my own Commentaries, I'm grateful for the advice, and I'm going to put down on paper the reminiscences that come into my head. In this way, I will relive what I lived then, and strengthen my hand for some weightier work. To work then: let us begin by evoking a celebrated November afternoon that I have never forgotten. There were many others, better and worse, but that one has never been erased from my mind. Read on and you will understand what I mean.
I was about to enter the drawing room, when I heard my name spoken, and hid behind the door. This was in the Matacavalos house, in the month of November: the year is a trifle remote, but I have no intention of changing the dates of my life just to suit people who don't like old stories--it was in 1857.
"Dona Gloria, madam, are you still set on the idea of sending our Bentinho to the seminary? It's past time he went, and there may be a difficulty in the way." "What difficulty?"
"A great difficulty."
My mother wanted to know what it was. Jose Dias, after a few moments' careful thought, came to see if there was anyone in the corridor; he didn't notice me, went back and, subduing his voice, said that the difficulty lay in the house next door, the Paduas.
"I've been going to tell you this for some time, but I didn't dare. It doesn't seem right to me that our Bentinho should be hiding away in corners with Turtleback's daughter: that's the difficulty, because if the two of them start flirting in earnest, you'll have a struggle to separate them."
"I don't think so. Hiding away in corners?"
"In a manner of speaking. Always whispering to one another, always together. Bentinho is never out of their house. The girl is a scatter-brain; the father pretends he doesn't see; wouldn't he be pleased if things went his way ... I can understand your gesture; you don't believe people are so scheming, you think everyone is open and honest ..."
"But, Senhor Jose Dias, I've seen the two children playing together, and I've never seen anything suspicious. Look at their ages: Bento's hardly fifteen. Capitu was fourteen last week; they're two children. Don't forget, they've been brought up together, after that great flood, ten years ago, when the Paduas lost so much; that's how we came to know one another. And now you expect me to believe...? What do you think, brother Cosme?"
Uncle Cosme replied with a "Hmmph," which, translated into the vernacular, meant: "This is all in Jose Dias' imagination; the youngsters are having fun, I'm having fun. Where's the backgammon?"
"Yes, I think you are mistaken."
"It may be, madam. It is to be hoped you are right; but believe me that I only spoke after a great deal of careful thought ..."
"In any case, time's getting on," interrupted my mother; "I'll go about putting him into the seminary straight away."
"Well, so long as the idea of making him a priest hasn't been abandoned, that's the main thing. Bentinho must do as his mother wishes. And in any event, the Brazilian church has a glorious destiny. Let us not forget that a bishop presided over the Constituent Assembly, and that Father Feijo governed the Empire ..."
"Governed with his ugly mug!" interrupted Uncle Cosme, giving rein to old political rancor.
"I'm sure I beg your pardon, Dr. Cosme: I'm not defending anyone, just stating facts. What I mean is that the clergy still have an important role to play in Brazil."
"What you want is a sound drubbing: go on, go and get the backgammon. As for the lad, if he's got to be a priest, it really would be a good idea if he didn't start saying mass behind doors. But look here, sister Gloria, is it really necessary to make a priest of him?"
"It's a promise, it must be kept."
"I know you made a promise ... but a promise like that ... I don't know ... When you think about it ... What do you think, cousin Justina?"
"Well, I suppose everybody knows what's best for himself," went on Uncle Cosme, "Only God knows what's best for everyone. Still, a promise made so many years ago ... What's this, sister Gloria? Crying? Come now! Is this something to cry about?"
My mother blew her nose without answering. I think cousin Justina got up and went over to her. Then there was a profound silence, during which I was on tenterhooks to go into the room, but another stronger urge, another emotion ... I couldn't hear the words that Uncle Cosme began to say. Cousin Justina tried to cheer her: "Cousin Gloria, cousin Gloria!" Jose Dias kept apologizing: "If I'd known, I wouldn't have spoken, but I did so out of veneration, out of esteem, out of affection, to fulfil a harsh duty, the harshest of duties...." IV
The Harshest of Duties!
Jose Dias loved superlatives. It was a way of giving an impressive aspect to his ideas; or, if these latter were lacking, they made the sentence longer. He got up to fetch the backgammon, which was in the back of the house. I flattened myself against the wall, and watched him go by with his starched white trousers, trouserstraps, jacket, and cravat. He was one of the last people to use trouserstraps in Rio de Janeiro--perhaps in the whole world. He wore his trousers short so that they would be stretched very tightly. The black satin cravat, with a steel ring inside, immobilized his neck: it was the fashion at the time. His jacket, which was made of cheap cotton, lightweight and for indoor use, on him looked like a formal frock coat. He was thin, emaciated, and beginning to go bald; he must have been about fifty-five. He got up with his usual slow step: not the lethargic gait of a lazy man, but a logical, calculated slowness, a complete syllogism, the premise before the consequence, the consequence before the conclusion. The harshest of duties!
He didn't always proceed at that slow, stiff pace. He could also move in a flurry of gestures, agile and quick-moving, and he was as natural in one mode as in the other. Also, he laughed aloud, whenever necessary: it was a forced but somehow infectious laugh, in which his cheeks, teeth, eyes, his whole face, his whole person, the whole world seemed to laugh with him. At serious moments, he was extremely serious.
He had lived with us as a dependent for many years; my father was still at the old plantation at Itaguai, and I had just been born. One day he turned up there offering his services as a homeopathic doctor; he carried a Manual and a portable dispensary. There were fever epidemics around: Jose Dias cured the overseer and a female slave, and would not accept any payment. So my father suggested he should stay and live there with us, with a small stipend. Jose Dias refused, saying that it was his duty to bring health to the poor man's hovel.
"Who's preventing you going elsewhere? Go where you like, but come and live with us."
"I'll come back in three months."
He came back in two weeks, accepted food and lodging with no other stipend, other than what they might be pleased to give him on festival days. When my father was elected deputy and came to Rio de Janeiro with the family, he came too, and had his room outside in the grounds. One day, when the fevers came back to Itaguai, my father told him to go and attend to our slaves. Jose Dias at first said nothing; finally, with a sigh, he confessed that he was not a doctor. He had taken the title to help spread the new doctrine, and he hadn't done it without a great deal of hard study; but his conscience didn't allow him to take on any more patients.
"But you cured them the last time."
"I believe so; it would be better however to say that I followed the remedies prescribed in the books. There, there lies the real truth, in the sight of God. I was a charlatan ... No, don't deny it; my motives may have been worthy--they were. Homeopathy is the truth, and I lied in the service of truth. But it's time to set the record straight."
He was not dismissed, as he requested at the time: my father could no longer do without him. He had the gift of making himself amenable and indispensable; when we wasn't there, it was almost as if a member of the family were missing. When my father died, he was terribly distressed, so they told me: I don't myself remember. My mother was very grateful to him, and didn't allow him to leave his room in the garden. After the seventh-day mass, he went to take his leave of her.
"Stay with us, Jose Dias."
"Madam, I obey."
He had a small legacy in the will, a gilt-edged bond and a few words of praise. He copied these words out, framed them and hung them up in his room, above his bed. "This is the best bond," he would often say. As time went on, he acquired a certain authority in the family: or at least, people would listen to what he had to say; he didn't overdo it, and knew how to give his opinion submissively. When all's said and done, he was a friend: I won't say the best of friends, but then nothing's perfect in this world. And don't think he was naturally subservient; his respectful politeness was more the product of calculation than of his true character. His clothes lasted a long time; unlike people who soon wear out a new suit, he had his old ones brushed and smoothed, meticulously mended, buttoned, with the modest elegance of the poor. He was well-read, though in a disorganized fashion: enough to amuse us over dessert, or in the evenings, or to explain some strange phenomenon, talk of the effects of heat and cold, the poles and Robespierre. Often he would recount a journey he had made to Europe, and would confess that if it hadn't been for us, he would have gone back; he had friends in Lisbon, but our family, he said, under God, was everything to him.
"Under God or above Him?" Uncle Cosme asked him one day.
"Under Him," echoed Jose Dias, full of reverence.
And my mother, who was religious, was pleased to see that he put God in His proper place, and smiled her approval. Jose Dias nodded his head in thanks. My mother gave him small amounts of money from time to time. Uncle Cosme, who was a lawyer, entrusted him with the copying of legal documents.
Uncle Cosme had lived with my mother since she had been widowed. He was already widowed then, as was cousin Justina; it was the house of the three widows.
Fortune often plays strange tricks with nature. Brought up for a serene life living off capital, Uncle Cosme did not make money as a lawyer; he spent more than he earned. He had his office in the old Rua das Violas, near the law courts, which were in the Aljube, the old prison building. Uncle Cosme worked in criminal law. Jose Dias never missed a single one of his speeches for the defense. He would help Uncle Cosme on and off with his gown, complimenting him effusively at the end. At home, he would recount the arguments. Uncle Cosme, despite a pretense of modesty, gave a contented smile.
He was fat and heavy, short of breath and with sleepy eyes. One of my oldest memories is of seeing him every morning mounting the animal given him by my mother, and which took him to the office every morning. The slave who had gone to get it from the stable held the reins while he lifted his foot and placed it in the stirrup; after he had done this, there followed a moment for rest or reflection. Then, he gave the first shove--his body struggled to get up, but didn't manage it; a second shove produced the same effect. Finally, after a long interval, Uncle Cosme gathered all his physical and moral strength together, propelled himself one last time off the ground, and successfully landed in the saddle. Rarely did the animal fail to show by some gesture that it had received the world on its back. Uncle Cosme adjusted his ample form, and the mule went off at a trot.
Nor have I ever forgotten what he did to me one afternoon. Although I was born in the country (which I left when I was two) and in spite of the customs of the time, I didn't know how to ride, and was afraid of horses. Uncle Cosme lifted me up and sat me astride the mule. When I found myself so high up (I was nine), alone and unprotected, with the ground way below, I began to scream desperately: "Mamma!, Mamma!" She hurried to the scene, pale and trembling, thinking someone was killing me. She lifted me down and comforted me, while her brother asked:
"Sister Gloria, how can a grown lad like him be afraid of a tame mule?"
"He's not used to it."
"Then he should get used to it. Even if he's to be a priest, if he has a country parish, he'll have to ride a horse; and, here in the city, until he's a priest, if he wants to cut a figure like the other lads, and doesn't know how to ride, he'll have good cause to complain of you, sister Gloria."
"Let him, if he wants to; I'm afraid."
"Afraid! How absurd!"
The truth is that I only learned horsemanship later, less for the pleasure of it than because I was ashamed to say that I didn't know how to ride. "Now he'll really be chasing the girls," they said when I began the lessons. The same could not be said of Uncle Cosme. With him, it had been an old habit, and a necessity. Now, he was done with flirting. They say that when he was younger he was very popular with the ladies, and was a fervent political enthusiast; but the years had removed the greater part of his political and sexual ardor, and corpulence had dealt a final blow to his ambitions, both in the public arena and in more intimate spheres. Now, he only carried out his duties, without his old enthusiasm. In his leisure hours he would sit staring, or playing cards. From time to time he would tell jokes.
Series Editors' Introduction.......................................vii Dom Casmurro: A Foreword............................................xi DOM CASMURRO.........................................................3 Dom Casmurro, the Fruit and the Rind: An Afterword.................245
Meet the Author
Machado de Assis, Brazil’s greatest novelist, was a founder and first president of the Brazilian Academy of Letters. Robert Scott-Buccleuch held the Machado de Assis Medal for his translations.
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