Book Review: “Dom Casmurro” — A Dark and Delicious Postmodern Enigma

By Matt Hanson

This brilliant novel is not only out to subvert narrative expectations, but to undercut the act of reading itself.

Dom Casmurro by Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis. Translated by Margaret Jull Costa and Robin Patterson. W.W. Norton, 288 pages.

Brazilian Machado de Assis (1839-1908) is the kind of writer who isn’t as nearly well known as he ought to be, at least in America. His personal history is somewhat obscure; what we know is at least as interesting as his acclaimed fiction. A mixed-race descendant of former slaves who lived in the late 1800’s, the diminutive Assis wrote prolifically: he read deeply and widely, mastered several languages (French, English, German and Greek), and ultimately, through his journalism, short stories, and novels, became a household name in his native land years after his death.

Though Machado was outwardly apolitical, many have speculated that he supported the cause of abolition through his participation in Brazil’s Agriculture Department. This government outlet was responsible for arbitrating disputes raised by the Law of the Free Womb: it was established in 1871 that the newly born children of slaves were freed men and women. (Slavery was abolished in Brazil in 1888.) According to some historians, Machado’s activities as a section head almost always opposed the interests of the landowners.

The Posthumous Memoirs of Bras Cubas (translated into English as Epitaph of a Small Winner) is the novel that initially got me hooked. Assis’ narrators have an engaging lightness of tone, a playful way of telling their stories which is infused with a wry, knowing pessimism about the world. His narrators compulsively digress, speaking directly to the reader about the plot as it unfolds. Their meta commentary naturally complicates the reader’s sense of what the real facts of the story might be, quite a difficult epistemological balancing act to pull off, especially in prose, and Assis does it brilliantly.

Which is one of the most interesting aspects of the 1899 novel Dom Casmurro, considered by critics as one of his best, which was recently given a fine new translation. The title of the novel is not the narrator’s real name, which is Bento Santiago, but a snarky nickname given to him by someone he once met by happenstance who was annoyed that a sleepy Bento didn’t like his poetry.

It has been translated  in a variety of ways to signify distinct but related things, like “Mr. Grumpy” or “stubborn and headstrong” or “one who keeps to himself” or “someone silent and self-absorbed.” Bento says the term won’t be found in dictionaries; he can’t vouch for it as an accurate term, but he can’t come up with a better one: “The poet on the train will know then that I bear him no ill will…Given that the title is his, he can, with a small leap of the imagination, consider that the book is also his. There are books that owe little more than that to their authors, some not even that much.”

Bento is an Eeyore-like old man who sits listlessly alone in his house in the suburbs, surrounded by busts of Roman nobles on the walls, recounting his life, which was pretty well shaped by his botched bid for a position in the seminary and his lifelong love affair with the bewitching Capitu, she of the “undertow eyes.” The story of his being more or less pushed into studying for the priesthood against his will  — a victim of his mother’s ambitious desire to see him rise in society — takes up a good deal of the narrative, almost too much at times. This may have been Assis’ way to censure the social hierarchy of his time, a critique that might also overlap with Bento’s having a pretty comfortable existence despite never really having done much to earn it.

Ultimately, though, the book is all about Capitu. She seems to be enough of a loving and lovely woman to explain why Bento might not want to wear the priest’s collar: “My fantasy at that moment was to reveal all to my mother: my love for Capitu and the fact that I had no ecclesiastical vocation.” The depictions of their youthful courtship and flirtation are sweet and lively; it sure sounds like Bento has it made. Until, that is, their child appears (at least to Bento) to look remarkably like a friend of his. Especially around the eyes. Had there been a snake in the garden all along?

Dom Casmurro refuses to be your typical torrid, sexist tale of a woman doing a man wrong. Instead, it plays metafictional havoc with the traditional structure of a whodunit. Our trust in the veracity of Bento’s story is continually undercut by the fact that he is an increasingly unreliable narrator. The book withholds the narrative clues found in a conventional detective exercise (certainly in the 19th century): readers are not given the crumbs to follow to slowly figure out who did what to whom.

Adroitly, Assis leaves crucial gaps in our understanding of what Bento — sorry, Dom — is telling us. He seems to be writhing in a narrative construction of his own making, one inspired by Othello. His growing suspicions that he is a cuckold drive him towards a jealous rage and despair of Shakespearean proportions.

At one point, Bento suggests something about the limitations of language itself: “this is a slight exaggeration, but that is what human discourse is like, a combination of wild excess and modest restraint, two opposites that offset and eventually accommodate each other.” Maybe this is yet another clue, among many, as to how we might make sense of this narrative. There’s no reason for the reader to assume that any of what he says is literally true, even if Bento claims that it is. Maybe, given the delusional nature of words, he should not believe himself.

It’s a dark, delicious, and very postmodern irony: the novel that bears Bento’s nickname, which is seen through his eyes and told through his words, withholds the essential key to understanding what to make of it. Machado is not only out to subvert narrative expectations, but to undercut the act of reading itself. We need language to make sense of the world, yet its perspective is inevitably deficient.  Generations of Brazilian students and critics have written essays about their interpretations of this novel, trying to construct an answer. Is Bento to be believed — or not? In that sense, Machado in this book (and others) anticipates Samuel Beckett in Endgame: “Mean something! You and I, mean something! (Brief laugh.) Ah that’s a good one!”

So maybe there isn’t a definite meaning, which makes Dom Casmurro all the more interesting. As Bento advises, the best books are those that ask the imagination to dream, to stimulate a search for what isn’t there: “You cannot easily correct a confusing book, but you can add almost anything to a book full of omissions. Whenever I read one of the latter sort, I don’t mind in the least. What I do when I reach the end is close my eyes and imagine all the things I didn’t find in it. What a host of fine ideas come to me then! What profound thoughts!….Because, dear reader, everything can be found outside an inadequate book. And just as I fill in someone else’s lacunae, you can do the same with mine.”

Matt Hanson is a contributing editor at the Arts Fuse whose work has also appeared in the American Interest, the Baffler, the Guardian, the Millions, the New Yorker, the Smart Set, and elsewhere. A longtime resident of Boston, he now lives in New Orleans.

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