Sunday 21 June 2009

Machado de Assis

Epitaph of a Small Winner by Machado de Assis (born on this day in 1839) sat on my bookshelves for years before I picked it up and read it - I don't know why, and I'm very glad that I eventually took it down and read it. It is one of those great unclassifiable books, ostensibly a memoir written from beyond the grave by a dead man, Bras Cubas, and dedicated thus: ' To the worm who first gnawed on the cold flesh of my corpse, I dedicate with fond remembrance these Posthumous Memoirs' . Beginning with Bras Cubas's ironic death (he had just invented a supposedly revolutionary medicine), it then loops backwards to his childhood and proceeds to tell , after a fashion, the story of his life. Yes, the influence of Tristram Shandy is very apparent, as is that of Schopenhauer, for this is a robustly pessimistic piece of work. Totting up his life as if it were a profit-and-loss account, he considers himself a 'small winner' for not having had any children to pass the misery of life on to. But even Machado's pessimism is ironic, playful and elegantly comic, as in his near contemporary, the great Portuguese novelist Eca de Queiros... What is perhaps most remarkable about Machado de Assis is that a man of such lowly origins - born poor and 'black' - should have managed to immerse himself as deeply as he evidently did in Portuguese, English, French and German culture, and to rise so fast and far in society. Perhaps it says something for the Portuguese style of colonialism and relatively relaxed attitude to 'blackness' - I don't know - but Machado de Assis is certainly a Brazilian writer who belongs to a much wider world, and, if you haven't come across him, is well worth seeking out.


  1. Sounds curiously fascinating - will check it out and thanks for the tip! Perhaps the sentiment of being a 'small winner' is more about being unique, something I can identify with, having neither children nor tattoos.

  2. Hello Susan - thanks for commenting - a newcomer I think? Like your shop...