In which I rediscover a comedic and philosophic genius who is criminally underread
Title: Epitaph of a Small Winner or The Posthumous Memoirs of Braz Cubas
Author: Machado de Assis
What it’s about: Dear readers, I have a treat for you in this thoughtful and amusing novel by the most important author you’ve never heard of. The book would probably be considered postmodern . . . if it hadn’t been written about sixty years too early. Machado de Assis is also widely considered to be the greatest Brazilian writer of all time. Yet, you’ve probably never heard of him or any of his great works. I would be completely in the dark as well, if it wasn’t for a very influential English teacher in my past–Mr. Mashburn. My high school AP English teacher, Mr. Mashburn assigned de Assis’s masterpiece, Quincas Borba (sometimes published in English as Philosopher or Dog?) as summer reading. At the time, we couldn’t find the book in the library or any of our local bookstores. We ended up having to order it online from the one publisher that was printing it in English, a small press that specialized in translating South American books. So that was my first exposure to de Assis and I have to say that Quincas Borba stuck with me, if only because of the difficultly I had in acquiring it. But it was more than that. de Assis has the ability to write about matters of the mind in a way that is still extremely accessible and of giving powerful metaphors and allegories that stick with you. I still remember Borba’s maxim: “To the victor, the potatoes!” So as I browsing Barnes and Noble a few weeks ago, a wave of nostalgia swept over me when I noticed Quincas Borba in the stacks, and next to it, to my surprise, several other novels by Machado. I chose Epitaph for my return to Machado’s work.
Since my desperate search in high school many years ago, a larger U.S. publisher has taken on his works and they are now much more widely available, and well worth your time I might add. To my mind, Epitaph of a Small Winner is more accessible than Borba. It’s comic and written in an easy style of short chapters, each no longer than two of three pages and some as short as a few sentences. Each chapter reflects on an episode in the life of the now-dead narrator Braz Cubas, who is setting down his life history from beyond the grave. Cubas is a member of the elite in Rio de Janeiro. His life is by no means extraordinary, but the workings of his mind provide the intrigue. The conceit in itself is interesting, but the narrator’s clever observations and meditations on love and writing itself are what give the book its depth. I found myself chuckling aloud on the subway at Cubas’s witty asides or wanting to dog-ear a page as I came across a profound or beautiful idea.
Would I recommend? Yes. It’s a book that will make you think, but it will also make you smile, laugh, and sigh. And if you aspire to know the classics, this is one that you shouldn’t overlook.