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.