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Dom Casmurro by Joaquim Maria Machado de…
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Dom Casmurro (1899)

by Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis

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“Dom Casmurro” is one of those books that, if you had the good fortune of given a solid Brazilian education in the humanities, you would be quite familiar with. In fact, de Assis is still regularly assigned in literature classes there, and is regarded as one of the greatest writers working in the Portuguese language in the nineteenth century. It’s one of those serendipities of history that we Anglophones don’t know him better; as many commentaries on the novel all too enthusiastically point out, he displays some unusual parallels to writers whose names are more familiar to our ears, namely Flaubert, Balzac, and Zola.

On the surface, it’s a simple enough love story between Bento, a young boy whose mother has ambitions of him becoming a seminarian and his beloved Capitu. Bento actually goes to the seminary for a short time and meets and befriends a fellow seminarian named Escobar. There is a possibility that Escobar also loves Capitu, but de Assis leaves this wonderfully ambiguous. Flaubert, however, never played with the unreliable narrator to the extent that de Assis does in this novel. Because of the open ambiguity of Escobar’s feelings, Bento and his ravenous jealousy are left to narrate the novel as they will – and it does seem that his jealousy becomes a character all its own. It shapes the entire world of Escobar’s intentions, all the while never leaving Capitu the time to shape her own or explain her actions. Does Bento have reason to feel this jealousy, or is it all just a figment of his own imagination?

These questions, which would otherwise form a good denouement for the action, are never resolved. You’re left in the position that Bento is, examining the minute details of his relationship for signs of Capitu’s infidelity. It’s difficult to tell whether someone like Ford Madox Ford knew of de Assis’ work , but if he did I wouldn’t be the least surprised. The similarities with “The Good Soldier” (which postdates this novel by fifteen years) are uncanny: the use of the unreliable narrator in the examination of a love triangle (or is it even a triangle at all?) is extraordinarily riveting and effective. For those weaned on the European canon and interested in branching out and finding new writers whose names might not be as well-recognized in the English-speaking world, you could do a lot worse than Machado de Assis. ( )
  kant1066 | Apr 11, 2014 |
A fascinating narrator, exposing his inadequacies and incongruity via the telling of his story. It's a story that can be read psychologically or sociologically; about being out of touch with reality. ( )
  snash | Mar 12, 2014 |
If you want to read a classic of Brazilian literature, then it has to be Dom Casmurro by Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis. Never heard of him? Not surprising — on the rare occasions when you come across anything about literature from South America, it will typically reference the big names like Colombia's Gabriel García Márquez or Isabel Allende from Chile. As for Brazilian writers, about the only one to get much world wide attention is Paulo Coelho.

Machado de Assis isn't as well-known outside his home country but within Brazil it's a completely different story. Dom Casmurro, the book considered his finest novel, is required reading for every child in the country. It's on the school syllabus in much the same way that Bronte, Dickens and Austen were in the UK (until the government started messing around with eduction and children were no longer have to read whole books)

This is a novel in the realist mode that ranks alongside many other great nineteenth century novels like Madame Bovary or Anna Karenina which similarly focus on love, marriage and adultery. But the similarity only extends to the theme and not to the way de Assis handles his subject.

The novel purportes to be an autobiography written by Bento Santiago, a lawyer from Rio de Janeiro. We meet him as a semi reclusive man in the maturity of his life, the occupant of a substantial house built as a replica of his childhood home. He is alone, with few friends still alive.

After years of wedded bliss to a childhood sweetheart, he suspects that he has been cuckolded; that his wife Capitú, has cheated on him with his best friend and that her child is not his.

Writing, he decides, will relieve the monotony of his life. Ideally he wants to write something about jurisprudence or politics but that will require more energy than he has available right now; so instead he opts for the easier path of recording reminiscences from his past.

Through the narration that ensues, we follow him from his early adoration of Capitú, the girl next door who he believes similarly adores him. They cannot declare their love publicly however — his mother has him marked down for a glittering career in the church and would not welcome any disruption to those plans. So off he goes to the seminary, the first stage of the journey towards accomplishing the vocation his mother is sure is his destiny. Bento of course has other plans and the rest of the story traces his desperate efforts to keep Capitú's affection, win over his mother to his plans, and marry the girl of his dreams.

Described in such terms would suggest Dom Casmurro is a straight forward linear narrative. Far from it. The chapters are very short (some in fact just one paragraph long) and not necessarily connected to each other by the order of the events they supposedly relate so undermining the usual 'beginning, middle and end' way of narrating.

Machado also plays with his reader's expectations about the traditions of a love story, confounding those expectations by making Bento so completely unreliable as a narrator that we question whether there really was any grande passion with Capitú. Bento says his version of events is 'the unvarnished truth' and yet he admits that he has a poor memory, unable to remember even the colour of the trousers he wore yesterday let alone the colour of his first pair. Once we begin to doubt his veracity on the nature of his early relationship with Capitú, then the field is wide open to question whether she really is an adulteress. Is this a figment of Bento's over active imagination?

Inventive he certainly is. He frequently digresses from the story of his love and his life to pontificate on Brazilian life and society or about ministerial reshuffles, slavery, the need to re-write Othello and train travel. Beneto is someone inclined to chatter about anything that just pops into his head, regardless of whether it has anything to do with his story.

Reading this novel I gained the distinct impression that Bento - and Machado - were inviting the reader to understand that their story was a complex series of illusions, that nothing is really what it seems.

"Shake your head reader; make all the incredulous gestures you like. throw the book out even, if boredom hasn't made you do it already; anything is possible. But if you haven't done so and only now do you feel like it, I trust that you will pick the book up again and open it at the same page without believing that the author is telling the truth."

In questioning the narrator's ability to accurately render the very events they are meant to be presenting, Machado also draws attention to the way in which the whole process of writing is an artifice.

Mischevious. Quirky. Puzzling. By the end of Dom Casmurro I wasn't absolutely sure what kind of book I had just read or what was true and what was fabricated. But I did know I had enjoyed being led down many garden paths. ( )
2 vote Mercury57 | Aug 12, 2013 |
Machado de Assis is apparently Brazil's best-loved author and an antecedent of the magical realist style, and I'd never heard of him until this year. It's exciting when I find things like this. Well, that and a little humbling.

Dom Casmurro is a weird and wonderful book. It's about a lifelong love affair in which one person betrays the other; the mystery is who has done the betraying. The narrator doubles back on himself, loses track of his thoughts, lies both to us and to himself, and generally mucks everything up in a series of short,sharp chapters with titles like "Let us proceed to the chapter" and "Let us enter the chapter."

Early on, a minor character explains that life is an opera. Not metaphorically. Satan, "a young maestro with a great future," is cast out of the conservatory of heaven after rebelling, but not before stealing a cast-off libretto of God's. He turns it into a full opera and begs God to hear it. At last God relents, but refuses to have it played in heaven; instead, he creates this world as a special stage to hear Satan's composition - which, in the lonely fleshing out, has accidentally lost or distorted some of God's themes. "Indeed in some places the words go to the right and the music to the left...Certain motifs grow wearisome from repetition. There are obscure passages...and there are some who say that this is the beauty of the composition and keeps it from being monotonous." I can't do it justice; you'll have to read it for yourself. It's beautiful.

If your version comes with a foreward by Elizabeth Hardwick, do not read it. It spoils everything. Luckily, I've quit reading forewards beforehand for exactly this reason.

Heather suggested that Tolstoy's novella The Kreutzer Sonata would make a good companion read, so I obediently read that next; she was totally right. They go together perfectly. ( )
  AlCracka | Apr 2, 2013 |
Dom Casmurro é brilhante não apenas pelo estilo inigualável de Machado de Assis, mas por ser um romance essencialmente sobre a dúvida. Não interessa nem um pouco se Capitu traiu Bentinho ou não, o que interessa é o quanto isso o obcecou durante grande parte de sua vida.
Esse livro me faz lembrar algo que o Nabokov disse, sobre como em um livro não importa em nada se identificar com um ou outro personagem, mas se identificar com o autor. ( )
  JuliaBoechat | Mar 30, 2013 |
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Uma noite destas, vindo da cidade para o Engenho Novo, encontrei no trem da Central um rapaz aqui do bairro, que eu conheço de vista e de chapéu.
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0195103092, Paperback)

The unreliable narrator and the fictional memoir are long-standing literary traditions. Nineteenth-century Brazilian author Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis uses both to brilliant effect in his novel Dom Casmurro. Narrated by Bento Santiago, this memoir looks back over a life filled with the suspicion of betrayal: Bento is convinced that his wife had an affair with his best friend, and that his son was the result of it. Though he has no real evidence to support this belief, Bento becomes so obsessed with it that, in the end, he commits crimes far worse than the suspected adultery to avenge himself. The memoir itself is a kind of justification for his actions; Bento, now alone, recreates the environment of his childhood and attempts to rewrite the facts of his life--in essence, reconstructing the past.

Among readers familiar with Latin American literature, Machado is considered a master. His novels blend black comedy with deadly accurate social commentary and an unerring perception of human psychology to create works that are brilliant, complex without being opaque, and joys to read. The Oxford University Press edition is ably translated by John Gledson and accompanied by critical essays that will help orient readers unfamiliar with Machado's work.

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:55:13 -0400)

(see all 5 descriptions)

Like other great nineteenth-century novels - The Scarlet Letter, Anna Karenina, Madame Bovary - Machado de Assis's Dom Casmurro explores the themes of marriage and adultery. But what distinguishes Machado's novel from the realism of its contemporaries, and what makes it such a delightful discovery for English-speaking readers, is its eccentric and wildly unpredictable narrative style. Far from creating the illusion of an orderly fictional "reality," Dom Casmurro is told by a narrator who is disruptively self-conscious, deeply subjective, and prone to all manner of marvelous digression. As he recounts the events of his life from the vantage of a lonely old age, Bento continually interrupts his story to reflect on the writing of it: he examines the aptness of an image or analogy, considers cutting out certain scenes before taking the manuscript to the printer, and engages in a running, and often hilarious, dialogue with the reader. But the novel is more than a performance of stylistic acrobatics. It is an ironic critique of Catholicism, in which God appears as a kind of divine accountant whose ledgers may be balanced in devious as well as pious ways. It is also a story about love and its obstacles, about deception and self-deception, and about the failure of memory to make life's beginning fit neatly into its end. First published in 1900, Dom Casmurro is one of the great unrecognized classics of the turn of the century by one of Brazil's greatest writers. Newly translated and edited by John Gledson, with an afterword by Joao Adolfo Hansen, this Library of Latin America edition is the only complete, unabridged, and annotated translation available of one of the most distinctive novels of the last century.… (more)

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