Machado de Assis, Epitaph of a Small Winner
Published in Brazil in 1880 as Memórias Póstumas de Brás Cubas
Translated from the Portuguese by William L. Grossman
Foreword by Susan Sontag
This book is an example of a genre woefully under-utilized: the posthumous memoir. As Bras Cubas reports, “I am a deceased writer not in the sense of one who has written and is now deceased, but in the sense of one who has died and is now writing” (5). If only this could happen more often. Just think of all the people who would almost unquestionably be more interesting from the other side of the grave than they are on this side. Kissinger springs to mind.
(A little more seriously: can you think of other novels that use this device? I would love to make a list. Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad, with Penelope in Hades giving her side of the story, is the only one I know, though I’m sure that there are many more. If you think of one, could you respond in the comments?)
“But in death, what a difference! what relief! what freedom! How glorious to throw away your cloak, to dump your spangles in a ditch, to unfold yourself, to strip off all your paint and ornaments, to confess plainly what you are and what you failed to be!” (57) This is the energy that inhabits the 160 very short chapters of this book, as Bras Cubas recounts, in extraordinary style, the rather ordinary life of a 19th century Brazilian aristocrat.
When I first spotted this book, in the library of a monastery, I chose it because it seemed the most worldly book available. However, it is so relentless in stripping away human vanity, pretension and self-delusion that it nearly qualifies as a spiritual text.
The book had grabbed my attention because I instantly loved its title. In fact, “Epitaph of a Small Winner” is actually the subtitle of the original novel. Although I noticed that other people disliked this translation, I found it very readable.
That said, plenty of people over 35 are going to reject this book as soon as they open it for the simplest reason. This is obviously a reprint of a printing done in the Fifties – and it appears to have been done on a mimeograph machine from that period. Letters are fuzzy, blotchy and blurred. Unworthy of Farrar, Straus and Giroux!
It seems condescending to applaud a 19th century book for being “modern”, but, I’m sorry, I can’t avoid it. This is a post-modern text, written in 1880, which may be a bigger trick than a memoir written from the grave. . . Fragmentation, a peculiar viewpoint, commentary on top of commentary – it is all so lively and so much fun. Fans of Rushdie or Saramago (or even Vonnegut or Murakami) will feel immediately at home.
I loved this book both times I read it and I'm grateful it's in print. If it was in print we could actually easily read, that’d be even better.