`I have already compared my style to the progress of a drunk.' But what an entertaining drunk!

Brazil: WORDS OF THE WEEK; This summer sees an unprecedented influx of Brazilian artists and writers. The Long Weekend salutes their arrival with Louis de Bernieres' introduction to a new publication of Epitaph of a Small Winner by Machado de Assis, above

The rise of Machado de Assis to world eminence was even more of a miracle than it normally is for those few writers who attain it. He was of mixed race, epileptic, an orphan, half-educated, unhealthy and myopic, and he never once left his native Rio de Janeiro, yet he taught himself English and French, inveigled himself into Brazil's literary milieu, wrote a vast amount in almost every literary vein, and became (by unanimous vote) the president of the Brazilian Academy of Letters, a post he held from 1897 until 1908. All this while holding down a regular job as a civil servant. He was one of the very few writers who not only received a state funeral, but deserved it.

Modern readers receive a surprise upon delving into Machado's work. "Oh, it's Brazilian," they think whilst hefting the volume in their hand. "It's bound to be exotic, full of strange animals and customs and beautiful prostitutes, and magic, and gods with African names, and revolutions, and violence ..." They think wrongly, however, for Brazil's literature has always been wider and more varied than we foreigners have realised, and, furthermore, Machado was writing at a time when Brazil's literary consciousness was still almost completely European. He inhabits the same territory as Manzoni of Italy (1785-1873) and Eca de Queirs of Portugal (1843-1900). His influences were first French and then English, but naturally and inevitably he also kept abreast of Portuguese letters, once famously accusing Eca de Queires of having plagiarised Madame Bovary in Cousin Basilio.

Despite this, Machado's voice is more similar to Eca than to any other of his great contemporaries. There is the same irony, the same mockery, the same limpid style, the same urbanity and lightness of tone, and the same preoccupation with protagonists who have plenty of time and money, but who make nothing of their lives. Eca de Queires has been neglected in the English-speaking world, but he is at least comparable with Flaubert, Dickens, Zola and Balzac.

Machado, on the other hand, is not only comparable to Eca, but also seems to have been born 100 years before his time, which is perhaps why he appeals to modern writers as diverse as Salman Rushdie, Paul Bailey and William Cooper.

The latter also, incidentally, writes like Machado, in snack-size chapters that tempt you to read just one more before you feed the cat, or get out of the bath, or turn off the light. Cooper also compares for wit and deftness of touch.

Machado would have laughed at me for what I am about to say (and please, dear reader, do not be put off) - but he is really a post-modernist writer. Of course we all know that there is nothing remotely new about post-modernism - Homer begins the Odyssey half-way through, after all, and Les Liaisons Dangereuses is composed of letters - but there is more of it about these days. Alongside Machado's very 19th-century habit of confiding directly in his readers, we find a text that has been deliberately and playfully fragmented. We are offered delightfully whimsical and irrelevant passages of light philosophising, we find chapters that are only one sentence long, chapters which are quite strangely inconsequential, chapters about why Machado has not written a chapter, chapters consisting of dots and punctuation marks. We are referred to other chapters, as if Machado is spoofing a legal document or an academic tract, and he reflects often upon the text itself, so that, as he says, "I have already compared my style to the progress of a drunk." But what an entertaining drunk! This is the kind of drunk who has had three glasses of excellent red wine, has loosened his belt by one notch, and has just hit his stride. "I like jolly chapters," says one of his characters. "They are my weakness." Fortunately for us, each and every chapter of Machado, however dismal, is a jolly one. Every sentence, in fact, is a jolly one, and a fair proportion of them ought to be collected in a small volume entitled The Wit And Wisdom Of Machado de Assis. Here is a selection:

"The best way to appreciate a whip is to be holding it in one's hand."

"Philosophy is one thing, and actual dying is another."

"A ridiculous old age is the last and perhaps the saddest surprise of human nature."

"God alone knows the power of an adjective, especially in new, tropical countries."

"I know you have a certain philosophy - but let's talk about dinner."

And, of course, "To the victor the potatoes".

Quite apart from the sheer pleasure that we derive from several passages, of great poetic force, this "jolliness" is the reason why we do not go out and hang ourselves after reading Machado. That he is a pessimist is something that has been so frequently reiterated that one hardly dares to controvert it, and it is true that he presents us with the arbitrariness of fate and the inevitability of death.He tells us that our romantic loves are venial and ephemeral, and that our inveterate apathy always triumphs over our deepest passions and noblest aspirations. He tells us that a freed slave goes out and buys a slave of his own. He demonstrates the irresistible tug of our basest desires, and the emptiness of our high philosophies.

Dom Casmurro is perhaps an exception, but for the most part his books do not leave us with a bitter aftertaste. We have, it turns out, hugely enjoyed the experience of reading him, because Machado is unlike the greater majority of pessimists and satirists, in that he is not for one second a misanthropist. On the contrary, he likes us quite a lot, and there is no sourness, hostility or contempt in his manner as, with a kind of detached amusement and with one eyebrow raised, he sketches out our foibles, follies and delusions. This is not pessimism; it is a profound and affectionate celebration of the triviality and inanity of the human race.

Machado is still laughing at us from 6ft down, and cordially invites us to join him, both in his laughter and in his grave. Enjoy his books, and if you go to Rio, place a potato on his tomb.

The Epitaph of a Small Winner is the first in a quasi-trilogy which continues with Quincas Borba, Philosopher or Dog? and ends with Dom Casmurro. The "epitaph" is narrated by its dead protagonist, Braz Cubas, and is written with "the pen of mirth and the ink of melancholy". Braz relates the story of an adulterous love affair that finally fizzles out, and, indeed, the entire story of his life, which also fizzles out.

In the meantime Braz has suffered some reverses, betrayed lovers and friends, lost a fiancee in a plague, become a disciple of the mad philosopher Quincas Borba, whose "humanitism" is clearly a spoof of the optimistic philosophies then fashionable, and has become a deputy in parliament for only one term of office. He has wasted his life entirely, but, after all, what else can one do with it, and what else might it be for? In death he is consoled by the one small thing that there was on the plus side.

Introduction by Louis de Bernieres to `Epitaph of a Small Winner' by Machado de Assis (Bloomsbury, pounds 6.99). To buy the book, call Exel Cash Sales (01634 297123), p&p free on UK mainland.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Recruitment Genius: Appointment Maker / Telesales

    £15000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: One of the UK's leading supplie...

    Recruitment Genius: Trainee Field Sales Executive - Dereham

    £25000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This organisation is proud to b...

    Recruitment Genius: Trainee Field Sales Executive - OTE £30,000

    £25000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This organisation is proud to b...

    Recruitment Genius: Audit Assistant

    Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: Graduate Opportunities are available at a lead...

    Day In a Page

    Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

    Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

    One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
    The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

    The enemy within

    People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
    Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

    Autumn/winter menswear 2015

    The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore
    'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

    'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

    Army general planning to come out
    Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

    What the six wise men told Tony Blair

    Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
    25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

    25 years of The Independent on Sunday

    The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
    Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

    Smash hit go under the hammer

    It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
    Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

    The geeks who rocked the world

    A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
    Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

    Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

    Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea
    America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

    America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

    These days in the US things are pretty much stuck where they are, both in politics and society at large, says Rupert Cornwell
    A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

    A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

    A veteran of the Fifties campaigns is inspiring a new generation of activists
    Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

    Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

    A C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
    Growing mussels: Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project

    Growing mussels

    Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project