The Posthumous Memoirs of Br?s Cubasby Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis, Gregory Rabassa, Enylton de Sa Rego, Gilberto Pinheiro Passos
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"Be aware that frankness is the prime virtue of a dead man," writes the narrator of The Posthumous Memoirs of Bras Cubas. But while he may be dead, he is surely one of the liveliest characters in fiction, a product of one of the most remarkable imaginations in all of literature, Brazil's greatest novelist of the nineteenth century, Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis.
By turns flippant and profound, The Posthumous Memoirs of Bras Cubas is the story of an unheroic man with half-hearted political ambitions, a harebrained idea for curing the world of melancholy, and a thousand quixotic theories unleashed from beyond the grave. It is a novel that has influenced generations of Latin American writers but remains refreshingly and unforgettably unlike anything written before or after it. Newly translated by Gregory Rabassa and superbly edited by Enylton de Sa Rego and Gilberto Pinheiro Passos, this Library of Latin America edition brings to English-speaking readers a literary delight of the highest order.
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The Authors Demise
For some time I debated over whether I should start these memoirs at the beginning or at the end, that is, whether I should put my birth or my death in first place. Since common usage would call for beginning with birth, two considerations led me to adopt a different method: the first is that I am not exactly a writer who is dead but a dead man who is a writer, for whom the grave was a second cradle; the second is that the writing would be more distinctive and novel in that way. Moses, who also wrote about his death, didn't place it at the opening but at the close: a radical difference between this book and the Pentateuch.
With that said, I expired at two o'clock on a Friday afternoon in the month of August, 1869, at my beautiful suburban place in Catumbi. I was sixty-four intense and prosperous years old, I was a bachelor, I had wealth of around three hundred contols, and I was accompanied to the cemetery by eleven friends. Eleven friends! The fact is, there hadn't been any cards or announcements. On top of that it was raining--drizzling--a thin, sad, constant rain, so constant and so sad that it led one of those last-minute faithful friends to insert this ingenious idea into the speech he was making at the edge of my grave: "You who knew him, gentlemen, can say with me that nature appears to be weeping over the irreparable loss of one of the finest characters humanity has been honored with. This somber air, these drops from heaven, those dark clouds that cover the blue like funeral crepe, all of it is the cruel and terrible grief that gnaws at nature and at my deepest insides; all that is sublime praise for our illustrious deceased.
Good and faithful friend! No, I don't regret the twenty bonds I left you. And that was how I reached the closure of my days. That was how I set out for Hamlet's undiscovered country without the anxieties or doubts of the young prince, but, rather, slow and lumbering, like someone leaving the spectacle late. Late and bored. Some nine or ten people had seen me leave, among them three ladies: my sister Sabina, married to Cotrim--their daughter, a lily of the valley,--and ... Be patient! In just a little while I'll tell you who the third lady was. Be content with knowing that the unnamed one, even though not a relative, suffered more than the relatives did. It's true. She suffered more. I'm not saying that she wailed, I'm not saying that she rolled on the ground in convulsions, or that my passing was a highly dramatic thing ... An old bachelor who expires at the age of sixty-four doesn't seem to gather up all the elements of a tragedy in himself. And even if that were the case, what least suited that unnamed lady was to show such feelings. Standing by the head of the bed, her eyes cloudy, her mouth half open, the sad lady had a hard time believing my extinction.
"Dead! Dead!" she kept saying to herself.
And her imagination, like the storks that an illustrious traveler watched taking flight from the Ilissus on their way to African shores without the hindrance of ruins and times--that lady's imagination also flew over the present rubble to the shores of a youthful Africa ... Let it go. We'll get there later on. We'll go there when I get my early years back. Now I want to die peacefully, methodically, listening to the ladies sobbing, the men talking softly, the rain drumming on the caladium leaves of my suburban home, and the strident sound of a knife a grinder is sharpening outside by a harness-maker's door. I swear to you that the orchestra of death was not at all as sad as it might have seemed. From a certain point on it even got to be delightful. Life was thrashing about in my chest with the surging of an ocean wave. My consciousness was evaporating. I was descending into physical and moral immobility and my body was turning into a plant, a stone, mud, nothing at all.
I died of pneumonia, yet if I tell my reader that it wasn't so much the pneumonia that caused my death but a magnificent and useful idea he might not believe me and, nevertheless, it's the truth. Let me explain briefly. You can judge for yourself.
As it so happened, one day in the morning while I was strolling about my place an idea started to hang from the trapeze I have in my brain. Once hanging there it began to wave is arms and legs and execute the most daring antics of a tightrope-walker that anyone could imagine. I let myself stand there contemplating it. Suddenly it took a great leap, extended its arms and legs until it took on the shape of an X: decipher me or I'll devour you.
That idea was nothing less than the invention of a sublime remedy, an antihypochondriacal poultice, destined to alleviate our melancholy humanity. In the patent application that I drew up afterward I brought that truly Christian product to the government's attention. I didn't hide from friends, however, the pecuniary rewards that would of needs result from the distribution of a product with such far-reaching and profound effects. But now that I'm on the other side of life I can confess everything: what mainly influenced me was the pleasure I would have seeing in print in newspapers, on store counters, in pamphlets, on street corners, and, finally, on boxes of the medicine these three words: Bras Cubas Poultice. Why deny it? I had a passion for ballyhoo, the limelight, fireworks. More modest people will censure me perhaps for this defect. I'm confident, however, that clever people will recognize this talent of mine. So my idea had two faces, like a medal, one turned toward the public and the other toward me. On one side philanthropy and profit, on the other a thirst for fame. Let us say:--love of glory.
An uncle of mine, a canon with full prebend, liked to say that love of temporal glory was the perdition of souls, who should covet only eternal glory. To which another uncle, an officer in one of those old infantry regiments called tercos, would retort that love of glory was the most truly human thing there was in a man and, consequently, his most genuine attribute.
Let the reader decide between the military man and the canon. I'm going back to the poultice.
Now that I've mentioned my two uncles, let me make a short genealogical outline here.
The founder of my family was a certain Damiao Cubas, who flourished in the first half of the eighteenth century. He was a cooper by trade, a native of Rio de Janeiro, where he would have died in penury and obscurity had he limited himself to the work of barrel-making. But he didn't. He became a farmer. He planted, harvested, and exchanged his produce for good, honest silver patacas until he died, leaving a nice fat inheritance to a son, the licentiate Luis Cubas. It was with this young man that my series of grandfathers really begins--the grandfathers my family always admitted to--because Damiao Cubas was, after all, a cooper, and perhaps even a bad cooper, while Luis Cubas studied at Coimbra, was conspicuous in affairs of state, and was a personal friend of the viceroy, Count da Cunha.
Since the surname Cubas, meaning kegs, smelled too much of cooperage, my father, Damiao's great-grandson, alleged that the aforesaid surname had been given to a knight, a hero of the African campaigns, as a reward for a deed he brought off: the capture of three hundred barrels from the Moors. My father was a man of imagination; he flew out of the cooperage on the wings of a pun. He was a good character, my father, a worthy and loyal man like few others. He had a touch of the fibber about him, it's true, but who in this world doesn't have a bit of that? It should be noted that he never had recourse to invention except after an attempt at falsification. At first he had the family branch off from that famous namesake of mine, Captain-Major Bras Cubas, who founded the town of Sao Vicente, where he died in 1592, and that's why he named me Bras. The captain-major's family refuted him, however, and that was when he imagined the three hundred Moorish kegs.
A few members of my family are still alive, my niece Venancia, for example, the lily of the valley, which is the flower for ladies of her time. Her father, Cotrim, is still alive, a fellow who ... But let's not get ahead of events. Let's finish with our poultice once and for all.
The Idee Fixe
My idea, after so many leaps and bounds, had become an idee fixe. God save you, dear reader, from an idee fixe, better a speck, a mote in the eye. Look at Cavour: It was the idee fixe of Italian unity that killed him. It's true that Bismarck didn't die, but we should be warned that nature is terribly fickle and history eternally meretricious. For example, Suetonius gave us a Claudius who was a simpleton--or "a pumpkinhead" as Seneca called him--and a Titus who deserved being the delight of all Rome. In modern times a professor came along and found a way of demonstrating that of the two Caesars the delight, the real delight, was Seneca's "pumpkinhead." And you Madame Lucrezia, flower of the Borgias, if a poet painted you as the Catholic Messalina, along came an incredulous Gregorovius who did a great deal to quench that quality and even if you didn't come out a lily, you weren't a smelly fen either. I'll take my position between the poet and the savant.
So, long live history, voluble history, which is good at anything, and, getting back to the idee fixe, let me say that it's what produces strong men and madmen. A mobile idea, vague or changeable, is what produces a Claudius--according to the formula of Suetonius.
My idea was fixed, fixed like ... I can't think of anything fixed enough in this world: maybe the moon, maybe the pyramids of Egypt, maybe the dead German Diet. Let the reader find the comparison that fits best, let him find it and not stand there with his nose out of joint just because we haven't got to the narrative part of these memoirs. We'll get there. I think he prefers anecdotes to reflections, like other readers, his confreres, and I think he's right. So let's get on with it. It must be said, however, that this book is written with apathy, with the apathy of a man now freed of the brevity of the century, a supinely philosophical work, of an unequal philosophy, now austere, now playful, something that neither builds nor destroys, neither inflames nor cools, and, yet, it is more than a pastime and less than an apostolate.
Let's go. Straighten out your nose and let's get back to the poultice. Let's leave history with its whims of an elegant lady. Neither of us fought the battle of Salamina or wrote the Augsburg Confession. For my part, if I can ever remember Cromwell it's only because of the idea that His Highness, with the same hand that locked up Parliament might have imposed the Bras Cubas poultice on the English. Don't laugh at that joint victory of pharmaceutics and puritanism. Who isn't aware that beneath every great, public, showy flag quite often there are several other modestly private banners that are unfurled and waving in the shadow of the first, and ever so many times outlive it? To make a poor comparison, it's like the rabble huddled in the shadow of a feudal castle, and when the latter fell, the riffraff remained. The fact is they became big shots and castellans ... No, that's not a good comparison.
In Which a Lady's Ear Appears
When I was busy preparing and refining my invention, however, I was caught in a strong draft. I fell ill right after and I didn't take care of myself. I had the poultice on my brain. I was carrying with me the idee fixe of the mad and the strong. I could see myself from a distance rising up from the mob-ridden earth and ascending to heaven like an immortal eagle, and before such a grand spectacle no man can feel the pain that's jabbing at him. The next day I was worse. I finally did something about it, but in an incomplete way, with no method or attention or follow-through. Such was the origin of the illness that brought me to eternity. You already know that I died on a Friday, an unlucky day, and I think I've shown that it was my invention that killed me. There are less lucid and no less winning demonstrations.
It might not have been impossible, however, for me to have climbed to the heights of a century and figure in the pages of newspapers among the great. I was healthy and robust. Let it be imagined that, instead of laying down the bases for a pharmaceutical invention, I was trying to bring together the cements of a political institution or a religious reformation. The current of air came and efficiently conquered human calculations and there went everything. That's the way man's fate goes.
With that reflection I took leave of the woman, I won't say the most discreet, but certainly the most beautiful among her contemporaries, the one whose imagination, like the storks on the Ilissus ... She was fifty-four then, she was a ruin, a splendid ruin. Let the reader imagine that we had been in love, she and I, many years before and that? one day, when I was already ill, I see her appear in the door of my bedroom.
Chimene, Qui L'eut Dit? Rodrigue, Qui L'eut Cru?
I see her appear in the door of my bedroom--pale, upset, dressed in black--and remain there for a minute without the courage to come in, or held back by the presence of the man who was with me. From the bed where I was lying I contemplated her all that time, neglecting to say anything to her or make any gesture. We hadn't seen each other for two years and I saw her now not as she was but as she had been, as we both had been, because some mysterious Hezekiah had made the sun turn back to the days of our youth. The sun turned back, I shook off all my miseries, and this handful of dust that death was about to scatter into the eternity of nothingness was stronger than time, who is the minister of death. No water from Iuventus could match simple nostalgia in that.
Believe me, remembering is the least evil. No one should trust present happiness, there's a drop of Cain's drivel in it. With the passing of time and the end of rapture, then, yes, then perhaps it's possible really to enjoy, because between these two illusions the better one is the one that's enjoyed without pain.
The evocation didn't last long. Reality took over immediately. The present expelled the past. Perhaps I'll explain to the reader in some corner of this book my theory of human editions. What matters now is that Virgilia--her name was Virgilia--entered the room with a firm step, with the gravity that her clothes and the years gave her, and came over to my bed. The outsider got up and left. He was a fellow who would visit me every day and talk about exchange rates, colonization, and the need for developing railroads, nothing of greater interest to a dying man. He left. Virgilia stood there. For some time we remained looking at each other without uttering a word. What was there to say? Of two great lovers, two great passions, there was nothing left twenty years later. There were only two withered hearts devastated by life and glutted with it, I don't know whether in equal doses, but glutted nonetheless. Virgilia now had the beauty of age, an austere, maternal look. She was less thin than when I saw here the last time at a Saint John's festival in Tijuca and, as she was someone who had a great deal of resistance, only now were a few silver threads beginning to mingle with her dark hair.
"Are you making the rounds visiting dying men?" I asked her. "Come now, dying men!" Virgilia answered with a pout. And then, after squeezing my hands, "I'm making the rounds to see if I can get lazy loafers back out onto the street."
It didn't have the teary caress of other times, but her voice was friendly and sweet. She sat down. I was done in the house except for a male nurse. We could talk to each other without any danger. Virgilia gave me lots of news from the world outside, narrating it with humor, with a certain touch of a wicked tongue, which was the salt of her talk. I, ready to leave the world, felt a satanic pleasure in making fun of it all, in persuading myself that I wasn't leaving anything worthwhile.
"What kind of ideas are those?" Virgilia interrupted me, a little annoyed. "Look, I'm not going to come back. Dying! We all have to die. It's enough just being alive."
And looking at the clock:
"Good heavens! It's three o'clock. I've got to go."
"So soon?" "Yes. I'll come back tomorrow or sometime later."
"I don't know if you're doing the proper thing," I replied. "The patient is an old bachelor and the house has no women in it ..."
"What about your sister?"
"She's going to come and spend a few days here, but she can't get here until Saturday."
Virgilia thought for a moment, straightened up, and said gravely:
"I'm an old woman! Nobody pays any attention to me anymore. But just to put an end to any doubts I'll come with Nhonho."
Nhonho was a lawyer, the only child from her marriage, who at the age of five had been the unwitting accomplice in our love affair. They came together two days later and I must confess that when I saw them there in my bedroom I was taken by a reticence that prevented me from replying immediately to the lad's affable words. Virgilia sensed this and told her son:
"Nhonho, don't pay any attention to that big trickster there. He doesn't want to talk so he can make you think that he's at death's door."
Her son smiled. I think I smiled, too, and everything ended up as a big joke. Virgilia was serene and smiling. She had the look of immaculate life. No suspect look, no gesture that might have given anything away, a balance in word and spirit, control over herself, all of which seemed--and perhaps was--strange. As by chance we touched upon an illicit love affair, half-secret, half-known, I saw her speak a disdainful word and a bit indignantly about the woman involved, a friend of hers besides. Her son felt satisfied when he heard that strong and fitting word and I asked myself what the hawks might have said about us humans if Buffon had been born a hawk...
It was the start of my delirium.
As far as I know, no one has ever spoken about his own delirium. I'm doing just that and science will thank me for it. If the reader isn't given to the contemplation of these mental phenomena, he may skip this chapter and go straight to the narrative. But if he has the slightest bit of curiosity, I can tell him now that it's interesting to know what went on in my head for some twenty or thirty minutes.
At the very first I took on the figure of a Chinese barber, potbellied, dexterous, who was giving a close shave to a mandarin, who paid me for my work with pinches and sweets: the whims of a mandarin.
Right after that I felt myself transformed into Aquinas' Summa Theologica, printed in one volume and morocco-bound, with silver clasps and illustrations. This was an idea that gave my body a most complete immobility and even now I can remember that with my hands as the book's clasps crossed over my stomach, someone was uncrossing them (Virgilia most certainly) because that position gave her the image of a dead person.
Finally, restored to human form, I saw a hippopotamus come and carry me off. I let myself go, silent, I don't know whether out of fear or trust, but after a short while the running became so dizzying that I dared question him and in some way told him that the trip didn't seem to be going anywhere.
"You're wrong," the animal replied, "we're going to the origin of the centuries."
I suggested that it must be very far away, but the hippopotamus either didn't understand me or didn't hear me, unless he was pretending one of those things, and when I asked him, since he could talk, if he were a descendant of Achilles' horse or Balaam's ass, he answered me with a gesture peculiar to those two quadrupeds, he flapped his ears. For my part, I closed my eyes and let myself go where chance would take me. I must confess now, however, that I felt some sort of prick of curiosity to find out where the origin of the centuries was, if it was as mysterious as the origin of the Nile, and, most of all, whether the consummation of those same centuries was really worth anything: the reflections of a sick mind. Since I was going along with my eyes closed I couldn't see the road. I can only remember that a feeling of cold grew stronger as the journey went on and that a time came when it seemed to me that we were entering the region of perpetual ice. In fact, I opened my eyes and saw that my animal was galloping across a white plain of snow, here and there a mountain of snow, vegetation of snow, and several large animals of snow. Everything snow. A sun of snow was coming out to freeze us. I tried to speak but all I could manage was to grunt this anxious question:
"Where are we?"
"We just passed Eden."
"Fine. Let's stop at Abraham's tent."
"But we're traveling backward!" my mount retorted mockingly.
I was vexed and confused. The trip was beginning to seem tiresome and reckless, the cold was uncomfortable, the ride furious, and the result impalpable. And afterward--the cogitations of a sick man--if we did reach the indicated goal, it wasn't impossible that the centuries, annoyed at having their origin infringed upon, would squash me between their fingers, which must have been as age-old as they. While I was thinking along those lines we were gobbling up the road and the plain flew under our feet until the animal became fatigued and I was able to look more calmly at my surroundings. Only look: I saw nothing except the vast whiteness of the snow, which by now had invaded the sky itself, blue up till then. Here and there a plant or two might appear, huge and brutish, the broad leaves waving in the wind. The silence of that region was like a tomb. It could be said that the life of things had become stupidity for man.
Had it fallen out of the air? Detached itself from the earth? I don't know. I do know that a huge shape, the figure of a woman, appeared to me then, staring at me with eyes that blazed like the sun. Everything about that figure had the vastness of wild forms and everything was beyond the comprehension of human gaze because the outlines were lost in the surroundings and what looked thick was often diaphanous. Stupefied, I didn't say a word, I couldn't even let out a cry, but after a time, which was brief, I asked who she was and what her name was: the curiosity of delirium.
"Call me Nature or Pandora. I am your mother and your enemy."
When I heard that last word I drew back a little, overcome by fear. The figure let out a guffaw, which produced the effect of a typhoon around us; plants twisted and a long moan broke the silence of external things.
"Don't be frightened," she said, "my enmity doesn't kill, it's confirmed most of all by life. You're alive: that's the only torment I want."
"I'm alive?" I asked, digging my nails into my hands as if to certify my existence.
"Yes, worm, you're alive. Don't worry about losing those rags that are your pride, you're still going to taste the bread of pain and the wine of misery for a few hours. You're alive. Right now while you're going crazy, you're alive, and if you consciousness gets an instant of wisdom, you'll say you want to live."
Saying that, the vision reached out her arm, grabbed me by the hair, and lifted me up as if I were a feather. Only then did I manage to get a close look at her face, which was enormous. Nothing more serene; no violent contortion, no expression of hatred or ferocity. The only expression, general, complete, was that of selfish impassivity, that of eternal dearness, that of an immovable will. Wrath, if she had any, was buried in her heart. At the same time, in that face of glacial expression there was a look of youth and a blend of strength and vitality before which I felt the weakest and most decrepit of creatures.
"Did you understand me?" she asked me after some time of mutual contemplation.
"No," I answered, "nor do I want to understand you. You're an absurdity, you're a fable. I'm dreaming most certainly or if it's true that I went mad, you're nothing but the conception of a lunatic. I mean a hollow thing that absent reason can't control or touch. You Nature? The Nature I know is only mother and not enemy. She doesn't make life a torment, nor does she, like you, carry a face that's as indifferent as the tomb. And why Pandora?"
"Because I carry good and evil in my bag and the greatest thing of all, hope, the consolation of mankind. Are you trembling?"
"Yes, your gaze bewitches me."
"I should think so. I'm not only life, I'm also death, and you're about to give me back what I loaned you. You great lascivious man, the voluptuosity of nothingness awaits you."
When that word, "nothingness," echoed like a thunderclap in that huge valley, it was like the last sound that would reach my ears. I seemed to feel my own sudden decomposition. Then I faced her with pleading eyes and asked for a few more years.
"You miserable little minute!" she exclaimed. "What do you want a few more instants of life for? To devour and be devoured afterward? Haven't you had enough spectacle and struggle? You've had more than enough of what I presented you with that's the least base or the least painful: the dawn of day, the melancholy of afternoon, the stillness of night, the aspects of the land, sleep, which when all's said and done is the greatest benefit my hands can give. What more do you want, you sublime idiot?"
"Just to live, that's all I ask of you. Who put this love of life in my heart if not you? And since I love life why must you hurt yourself by killing me?"
"Because I no longer need you. The minute that passes doesn't matter to time, only the minute that's coming. The minute that's coming is strong, merry, it thinks it carries eternity in itself and it carries death, and it perishes just like the other one, but time carries on. Selfishness, you say? Yes, selfishness, I have no other law. Selfishness, preservation. The jaguar kills the calf because the jaguar's reasoning is that it must live, and if the calf is tender, so much the better: that's the universal law. Come up and have a look."
Saying that, she carried me up to the top of a mountain. I cast my eyes down one of the slopes and for a long time, in the distance, through the mist I contemplated a strange and singular,thing. Just imagine, reader, a reduction of the centuries and a parade of all of them, all races, all passions, the tumult of empires, the war of appetites and hates, the reciprocal destruction of creatures and things. Such was that spectacle, a harsh and curious spectacle. The history of man and the earth had an intensity in that way that neither science nor imagination could give it, because science is slower and imagination is vaguer, while what I was seeing there was the living condensation of all ages. In order to describe it one would have to make a lightning bolt stand still. The centuries were filing by in a maelstrom and yet, because the eyes of delirium are different, I saw everything that was passing before me--torments and delights--from that thing called glory to the other one called misery, and I saw love multiplying misery and I saw misery intensifying weakness. Along came greed that devours, wrath that inflames, envy that drools, and the hoe and the pen, damp with sweat and ambition, hunger, vanity, melancholy, wealth, love, and all of them shaking man like a rattle until they destroyed him like a rag. They were different forms of an illness that sometimes gnaws at the entrails, sometimes at thoughts, and in its Harlequin costume eternally stalks the human species. Pain relents sometimes, but it gives way to indifference, which is a dreamless sleep, or to pleasure, which is a bastard pain. Then man, whipped and rebellious, ran ahead of the fatality of things after a nebulous and dodging figure made of remnants, one remnant of the impalpable, another of the improbable, another of the invisible, all sewn together with a precarious stitch by the needle of imagination. And that figure--nothing less than the chimera of happiness--either runs away from his perpetually or lets itself be caught by the hem, and man would clutch it to his breast, and then she would laugh, mockingly, and disappear like an illusion.
As I contemplated such calamity I was unable to hold back a cry of anguish that Nature or Pandora heard without protest or laughter. And, I don't know by what law of cerebral upset, I was the one who started to laugh--an arrhythmic and idiotic laugh.
"You're right," I said, "this is amusing and worth something--monotonous maybe, but worth something. When Job cursed the day he was conceived it was because he wanted to see the spectacle from up here on top. Come on Pandora, open up your womb and digest me. It's amusing, but digest me."
Meet the Author
Gregory Rabassa is the highly acclaimed translator of One Hundred Years of Solitude and many other works of Latin American fiction. Enylton de Sá Rego is a Professor in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese at the University of Texas at Austin. Gilberto Pinheiro Passos is a Professor of Comparative Literature at the University of São Paulo.
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