Books

Machado de Assis’s Afterlives

The Brazilian novelist’s overlooked politics

Ratik Asokan
Black and white portrait of Machado de Assis
Machado de Assis at age 57, 1896. Courtesy Biblioteca Nacional do Brasil.

Abolition, when it finally arrived, was a festive occasion in Brazil. The streets of Rio de Janeiro were packed on May 13, 1888, the day Princess Isabel granted the country’s last remaining slaves their freedom. Plays and orations were put on in honor of the decree, known as the “Golden Law”; blacks and whites were encouraged to mix in celebration. There “remains a general consensus among Brazilians,” writes the historian Marcus S. Wood, “that the hours directly following the [proclamation] were among the most ecstatic and genuinely optimistic that Rio has ever witnessed.” Famously, Isabel signed the decree with a pearl-and-diamond-encrusted quill. In photographs, you can make her out above the chaos, perched on the balcony of the Imperial Palace, waving at the gathered crowds.

The Brazilian writer Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis attended the Golden Law celebrations. He left a terse record of the events: “There was sunshine, great sunshine, that Sunday of 1888 when the senate voted the law, which the Regency approved[,] and we all went out on the streets. Yes, I myself went out in the street, the most closed of all the big snails, I entered the parade in an open coach, the guest of an absent fat friend, we all breathed happiness, it was all a delirium.”

In contrast to the bombast of the day’s journalism (“A Day That Will Go Down in History,” one headline read) there is something hushed, even ironic about this passage. Machado lingers on the surface of events—the weather, the atmosphere, the rush of impressions—as if recounting a performance, and a seductive one at that: “In truth it was the only day of public delirium I ever remembering having seen,” he concludes.

The legacy of slavery looms large over the career of Machado de Assis. He grew up in the shadow of Brazil’s four-decade-long manumission; in his writings, he pondered how this drawn-out process changed—or failed to change—his country. In an era when slavery was a literary taboo, when only the elite were literate and “literature” was an elite pastime, Machado imagined the lives of slaves and servants, looked hard at poverty and backwardness, and was not afraid to depict acts of racial violence. At the same time, he was attuned to the psychology of the slave-owning classes, who sensed their glory days were drawing to an end. That he could slip between these incommensurate perspectives owes much to his distinctive biography: Machado was a poor mulato (mixed-race individual) who was welcomed into the white elite.

In a famous photograph from 1901, Assis poses with members of “A Panelinha,” a literary club which included the most respected writers, statesmen, and nobility—all of them white. The picture speaks to the adulation he received from contemporaries, who missed the critique of Brazilian society seething beneath his playful style. A century later, things are not so different, though Machado has been translated into many languages and is recognized as an avant-garde master, said to prefigure the narrative games of writers as different as Calvino, Kafka, and Nabokov. Far less attention has been paid, however, to the social dimension of his work, despite the renewed discussions about race in the literature of the Americas. In fact, Machado’s formal innovation and social criticism are two sides of the same coin. He lived amid the white elite, who remained deaf to all appeals for reform; his achievement was to invent a narrative style that captured their racial pathologies. If he turned away from European realism, this was not out of greed for novelty but because the genre offered little traction on the colo- nies’ social inequalities. Writing from “the periphery of capitalism,” as the critic Roberto Schwarz put it, Machado de Assis painted a timeless image of underdevelopment. No writer of the nineteenth century looked harder at Brazil’s social ills, from whose clutches the country is yet to escape.

machado de assis was born in 1839 to mixed-race agregados, or indentured servants, who were tied to an estate. Technically, he was a “descendent of slaves,” as Anglophone biographers rush to point out, though as much was true of most Brazilians. (In 1822, when Brazil formally severed its ties with the Portuguese Empire, over half the country was enslaved.) He might be more usefully described as belonging to the racially mixed working class, which lived one rung above absolute misery. Only a series of lucky breaks—imagine Oliver Twist turning into Charles Dickens—led him away from manual labor and to a life of writing.

The details of Machado’s early life are hazy, though he was clearly something of a savant. Legend has it that he picked up most of his education outside the classroom, learning Latin from the local priest and French from an immigrant baker, reading anything he could get his hands on. At seventeen, he was hired as a typist by the Imprensa Nacional, where he courted older writers with a Balzacian resolve. Soon he was publishing stories, poems, plays, and librettos, as well as filing crónicas (nonfiction essays) for periodicals. (Little of this apprentice work, and none of the journalism, has been translated into English.) By his early twenties, he was an established fixture on the scene, with an “unusual perspective as an outside insider,” as K. David Jackson writes in his recent biography Machado de Assis: A Literary Life (2015). A marriage to a well- born Portuguese woman (they had a long and apparently happy relationship) and employment at the Ministry of Agriculture, Commerce and Public Works (he was promoted to the head post in three years) soon followed. In his thirties, Machado also wrote four romantic novels—his readership was largely female—turning on the entanglements of high-born men and low-born women.

While the writing from these years seems inconsequential, one marvels at the tenacity with which Machado scaled the great molehills of culture and society. In another sense, his rise through official patronage reflects—as if within a distorted mirror—the paradoxes of this transitional period in Brazil, which was rushing to embrace a “color-blind” ideology, even as slavery remained to be fully dismantled.

When he was around forty years old, Machado suffered a protracted mental breakdown, which allows for a tidy periodizing of his career. Everything before (save for some short stories) can be filed as amateur; everything after is worth reading, the great accomplishment being the “Carioca Quintet,” five thematically linked novels set within Rio’s propertied classes. Composed in the final decade of the Second Empire—the period between independence in 1822 and democracy in 1889—these books have an air of a national stock-taking. Popular histories remember the Second Empire as the time when European values of “liberalism” supposedly took root, bearing fruit in a constitutional republic. Machado cast a more skeptical eye over this vaunted transformation. For his white heroes (they are usually men), racial superiority is common sense, and acts of progressive legislation—in 1850, the slave trade was abolished; in 1881, the children of slaves were freed; and in 1885, slaves over sixty were freed—are bureaucratic irritants. Yet they have drunk deeply from the waters of liberal ideology and make sure to come across as individuals acting on their own free will.” The moral drama of the books turns on this contradiction. Plunging into the dreamworld of the white elite, Machado explores how radically opposed conceptions of freedom and unfreedom coexist in the same psyche.

Machado first addressed this dilemma in the novel for which he is best known, Memórias Póstumas de Brás Cubas (1881)—though you would not gather as much from the book’s modern reception. Brás Cubas has typically been celebrated, particularly in the Anglophone world, for its “extravagant modernist antics” (Michael Wood’s phrase) and its playfulness. It has been described as “a masterpiece of Epicurean irony” (William L. Grossman), “thrillingly original” (Susan Sontag), a book “that plays with language and tone and structure rather than offers representation” (Colm Toíbín), even “the moment when the novel learned to dance” (Parul Sehgal, in 2020, in the New York Times). Adjectives like wit, charm, and playful, are strewn through the notices.

Brás Cubas is indeed inventive, shapeshifting, and wickedly funny. But at heart, this is a book about inequality, possessed of a molten anger, which is disguised in roars of bitter humor: “laughter through tears,” to crib a term from the Russian formalists. That Machado endows his hero with great wit and erudition, not to mention a robust self-consciousness, is all part of the puzzle. He tells the story of Brazil’s racially segregated society by documenting, from the inside, the moral and intellectual shortcomings of the white elite. The freewheeling style that emerges with Brás Cubas should be understood as an attempt to depict this class in all its complexity. Far from a turn away from “representation” (whatever that means) the book gets at the heart of the matter.



the novel’s ironies begin with the title, which echoes Chateaubriand’s Mémoires d’Outre-Tombe (Memoirs from Beyond the Grave). The French aristocrat sat down to compose his memoirs near the end of his life, after he had been banished from France; he promised to write with absolute candor, as if from beyond the grave. Machado takes that idea one step further: the narrator of his novel is actually dead. “I passed away at two o’clock in the afternoon on a Friday in August in 1869, in my beautiful mansion in the Catumbi district of the city,” Brás Cubas tells us on the first page. “I was in my sixty-fourth year, still robust and prosperous, a bachelor possessed of some three hundred contos.” (All quotations are from Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas, translated by Margaret Jull Costa and Robin Patterson.) Chateaubriand was a prolific writer and historian, a diplomat, and one of France’s most important statesmen; there is good reason for his memoirs to take up two volumes. For his part, Brás has aristocratic pretensions and almost bribes his way into a diplomatic position. But otherwise, the two men could not be more different—which is part of the point.

Brás Cubas might be described as an anti-memoir. The novel opens with the narrator’s death from an untreated illness, then loops back to his birth (“On that day, the tree of the Cubas family brought forth a beautiful flower”), proceeding more or less chronologically thereafter for two hundred hectic pages. The “life story” that unfolds is unrelentingly banal. Born into a wealthy family of traders—later, his brother-in-law will add slave trading to their honors—Brás follows the well-trod path of a bourgeois son and heir. Like any man of his position, he aimlessly studies in Europe, groans through bathetic affairs with courtesans and married women, and makes a late, abortive play for an arranged marriage and a state sinecure. Brás is a spectator to his gradual undoing, tossed here and there by the gentle currents of bourgeois aspiration, buoyed by a trust fund. He is a “complete mediocrity whose life can be summed up by a series of negatives,” as Jull Costa and Patterson put it in their introduction.

Brás has advanced from beating slaves to wondering about their damaged inner life—in the process paying a backhanded tribute to their humanity. He even seems to recognize his role in setting the cycle of violence in motion, though he evinces no remorse on this count.

These episodes are filtered through Brás’s self-conscious first-person, which marks a sensational advance in Machado’s narrative thinking. Brás narrates his wretched exploits in a breathless, insistent present tense—like a man watching a replay of his life—jumping from non-event to non-event. The episodes build up, though they don’t build on each other, which gives the story a kind of aimless tension. Again and again, Brás sets his mind on some prize—an affair, a job opening, a good property—fixates on achieving it for a few pages, finds the task beyond his ability, and then moves on to something else. He is a curious mixture of idleness and hyperactivity; no ambition seems to touch his deepest self. In this sense, he is a kind of parody of liberal self-volition. Brás would like to think he’s driven by interests and aspirations, but he cannot hide his naked indolence, an inherited class trait.

A similar drama unfolds at the level of ideas. Brás is always thinking, analyzing, drawing up hypotheses, pondering human motivations; his ceaseless mental activity makes him seem like the will to learning incarnate. Yet every idea is forgotten even as it surfaces, piling up in a catalogue of wasted insights. Again, there is a sense that thinking is a game, to be played at low stakes, all the time—a propensity most evident in Brás’s self-presentation, which can be described as a kind of navel-gazing picaresque. (In his preface, Machado nods to Laurence Sterne and Xavier de Maistre.)

The story proceeds in a series of brief chapters, which come in every shape and size: social essay, mock pensée, gossip column, capsule history; boudoir dialogue, deathbed drama, street encounter, party set-piece—along with some straight reminiscing. In cycling so rapidly through styles, Brás reveals an inability to focus—not even on his own life!—while also displaying a bottomless capacity for invention and self-invention. At times, he comes close to giving away the game, interspersing the story with baleful little meta-reflections, as in the chapter “Pointlessness,” which consists of one sentence: “But, unless I am much mistaken, I have written an utterly pointless chapter.” On the whole, though, the tone remains combative: “The greatest defect of this book is you, reader. You are in a hurry to grow old, and the book moves slowly; you love direct, sturdy narration, a regular and fluent style, and this book and my style are like drunkards, they sway right and left, stop and go, moan, roar, cackle, threaten the skies, slip and fall.” Throughout, Brás displays a merciless self-awareness, which gives the novel a confessional tone. Of the charity work he does late in life, he admits that it was done to “give me a really excellent opinion of myself.” Of his feelings for Virgilia, Brás realizes that “my compassion was just another form of selfishness.” “Frankness,” as he tells us early on, “is the prime virtue of the dead.”

Yet there remains something ersatz about this soul-searching, as if Brás were performing for a jury, though he tends to get his lines wrong. His pedantic trails of self-scrutiny often lead to vacuous conclusions—a source of black comedy. For instance, mid- way through the novel, Brás is saved from a riding accident by a bystander. Having lost control of his mule, he has fallen out of the saddle, his foot caught in the stirrup. The mule makes as if to gallop away, only to be caught at the last moment by a passing muleteer. Back on his feet, Brás contemplates the appropriate manner of thanking the stranger who has saved his life. He first considers giving the man three gold coins, then reconsiders—perhaps that is too much to offer a manual laborer—and drops down to two coins, then one coin, and he finally settles on a silver coin. Then the kicker:

[The muleteer] hadn’t acted in the hope of gaining any reward or out of virtue, he had simply responded to an impulse natural to his temperament and to his trade… so, one way or the other, there had been no merit in his actions at all. I was greatly distressed at this thought; I told myself I had been profligate, and charged that one silver coin to the account of my many former extravagances; I was filled (yes, why not say it?), I was filled with remorse.

The muleteer’s unthinking selflessness is incomprehensible to Brás, who is convinced that people act only out of self-interest. As for his own behavior: Has miserliness ever been so exquisitely conveyed?

This episode is emblematic of Brás’s general tendency toward self-justification. He is an immoral and impulsive man who speaks a moral, deliberate language. He does whatever he wants and concludes that it’s the right thing. In the afterlife he replays his sins with a vehemence that borders on self-loathing. Yet in the end, as in the beginning, he remains rooted in his privilege, which blinds him to life’s social valence. He barely reflects on the source of his inheritance, still less on the hardships of his servants, and gives no thought whatsoever to the general immiseration that plagues his country. In sum, Brás’s curiosity never strays beyond the bounds of the upper-class imaginary. The limits of his moral perspective are made clear when slavery enters the picture.

slaves are present throughout the novel, though they largely pass unnoticed. They enter with a meal, or to clean, and exit as quickly, without troubling Brás conscience, which is only proper. As Nabokov notes in another context: “the kitchen and the servants’ hall…stood as far removed from [my mother’s] consciousness as if they were the corresponding quarters in a hotel.” Standing out against the gray of this general indifference are three, brief, scalding moments, when Brás consciously turns his attention to the subject. These are like the acts of an ideological play, charting the evolution of the Brazilian elite’s attitudes toward slavery at differ- ent stages through the century.

Act one occurs in childhood. Born in 1805, Brás grows up in the decades when the Brazilian slave trade was at its height, and the Casa Cubas is overflowing with black servants. (Unlike in the United States, where slavery was largely limited to plantations, domestic slave labor was rampant in Brazilian cities.) Barely out of infancy, he unleashes a reign of domestic terror, earning a charming nickname, “Little Devil,” for getting in the way of the servants: “I once cracked open the head of a slave-woman simply because she refused to give me a spoonful of the coconut dessert she was making.” Later, he is even given a personal slave boy, Prudêncio, who receives special treatment: “I would place a rope between his teeth as a bridle, climb onto his back, and then, with a stick in my hand, I would whip him and make him carry me hither and thither.” These sadistic expressions of privilege stand as an image of pre-liberal class oppression. The child has inferred from observing his elders that slaves are to be considered property, and this early abuse ushers him into the habits of dehumanization.

Brás has outgrown these violent delights by his adolescence, which is around when Brazil broke from the Portuguese Empire. (In 1822, the year of independence, Brás begins his first romance.) These are the decades when liberal ideas arrived in Brazil, prompting a sea-change in the thinking of the ruling classes, who were drawn to the concept of individual rights and human justice, although they did not care to extend these privileges to their racial inferiors. The contradiction is piquantly caught in the Constitution of 1824, which included a “Declaration of the Rights of Man” but left slavery unmentioned. Act two is set during this transitional period and can be roughly dated to the 1840s.

Brás is by this point a middle-aged bachelor. Returning home through his neighborhood one morning, he comes upon a public altercation: “a crowd that had gathered to watch one black man whipping another in the square.” The lasher turns out to be Prudêncio, whom the Cubas family set free some years earlier, and who has since managed to purchase his own slave, now being educated in public—a common practice at the time. Brás immediately steps forward and orders Prudêncio to end the beating. “The incident at Valongo was ghastly,” Brás reflects: “But only from the out- side. As soon as I probed further with the knife of reason, I found within it a kernel that was amusing, discerning, and even profound. It was Prudêncio’s way of ridding himself of all the beatings he had received by passing them on to someone else.”

Brás’s speculation is subtle, humane, and considered, uncannily anticipating Fanon, who would have appreciated the irony. Brás has advanced from beating slaves to wondering about their damaged inner life—in the process paying a backhanded tribute to their humanity. He even seems to recognize his role in setting the cycle of violence in motion, though he evinces no remorse on this count. These subtle reflections thus amount to a kind of divorced, anthropological engagement. In this sense, Brás embodies the contradictions of this transitional period, when blacks were grudgingly admitted as “separate but equal,” while every effort was made by whites to abdicate responsibility for the past.

The novel’s final act comes after 1850, when the slave trade was abolished. The decree, which had little domestic support, was passed under pressure from the British Crown; a black market was soon set up to meet the lingering needs of the upper classes. Brás’s enterprising brother-in-law, Cotrim, is one of the lucky businessmen who smoothly transition from slave trading to slave smuggling. His success attracts jealously, with rumors spreading about his labor practices. Brás sets out to defend Cotrim’s honor:

The only concrete allegation in that regard was his habit of frequently sending slaves to the calaboose from where they would emerge dripping blood. However, in addition to the fact that he only did this with recalcitrants and runaways, one should bear in mind that, having long been involved in smuggling slaves into the country, he had become accustomed to the somewhat harsher treatment required by such a trade, and one cannot attribute to a man’s original nature those aspects that are purely the effect of his position in society.

Violence seems to be understood as an inherent wrong, and the language of the law has taken over (“allegation,” “bear in mind”). Yet Brás struggles to forgive the wrongdoer, who is innocent even when caught with blood on his hands. The mention of smuggling turns a crime into an excuse (“harsher treatment required”) and the argument about social relations makes a mockery of liberal thought. In any case, Brás is not seriously worried that Cotrim will land in trouble with the state, since it exists to serve white men of his position. Rather, he is concerned with keeping up appearances. Violence no longer seems becoming in the upper classes.

Here Brás’s engagement with slavery breaks off. But Machado would chart the peculiar institution’s gradual demise in a series of increasingly dark prose works, some of which were directly inspired by unfolding legislation. “Among Saints” is a short piece of satire that commemorates the 1885 Law of the Sixty-Year-Olds, which emancipated all slaves above that age. The crass decree essentially allowed slave owners to let go their infirm slaves, sparing them the cost of upkeep. Their response is satirized in the story, about a planter who emancipates the freshly dead corpse of a slave in order to save on the burial. The rearguard action falls to new lows in Counselor Ayres’ Memorial (1908), which follows the tribulations of slave traders against the backdrop of the impending Golden Law. When he learns that the bill’s passing is inevitable, the Baron Santa-Pia abruptly decides to free his own slaves: “I want to furnish definite proof that I consider the government’s act a spoliation because it interferes in the exercise of a right that belongs solely to the proprietor, and I now exercise this right to my own loss for the simple reason that I can and will do so.” (Quoted from Helen Caldwell’s translation.) The Baron is easily dismissed as a lunatic. Yet the logic of his plea reveals something more troubling. The right to freedom and the right to property are on par in the eyes of liberalism; Santa-Pia is simply choosing one over the other. In this, he stands in for the Brazilian elite of the Second Empire, who selectively adopted liberal values, coopting ideas that suited their purposes, while casting aside those that challenged their privilege.

while early reviews of Brás Cubas were tepid, the book’s reputation has risen steadily in Brazil. The change began in the 1920s, when avant-garde writers like Mário de Andrade found a guiding light in Machado’s formal risk-taking and sociologists discovered the riches of Brás’s fraught psyche. Later Marxist critics like Antonio Candido and Roberto Schwarz found the book to be a powerful metaphor for Brazil’s backwardness. Today Brás Cubas is regarded in Brazil as Oblomov is in Russia and Pedro Paramo in Mexico: a “distinct social and national type,” in Schwarz’s words, someone still found in the ranks of the elite.

The book’s political relevance also remains undiminished. In the century following Machado’s death in 1908, the Brazilian state has engaged in erasing the legacy of slavery, rebranding itself as a place of racial harmony, all the better to appear progressive. Meanwhile, it has instituted minimal affirmative action and engaged in no meaningful reckoning on race. The same period witnessed a series of counterrevolutions: the military coup of 1930, the junta of the 1960s and 70s, and the election of Jair Bolsanaro in 2019. In each case, demagogues came to power welcoming economic development while opposing social reforms like land redistribution and welfare. Machado de Assis was among the first to diagnose this national predilection for piecemeal modernization. In Brás Cubas, he presented a figure whose consciousness forever wavers between the forward thrust of greed and regression of bigotry. Chatting away in the afterlife, Brás still haunts his country.

Ratik Asokan is a writer and editor. His essays have appeared in The Nation, New York Times Book Review, and the New York Review of Books. Originally from Mumbai, he lives in New York.
Originally published:
June 28, 2021

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