Encountering the World Through Turbulent Fictional Lives


By Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis

Translated from the Portuguese by Gregory Rabassa.

Oxford University Press

219 pp., $25


By Mayra Montero

Translated from the Spanish by Edith Grossman

HarperCollins 192 pp., $21


By Peter Nadas

Translated from the Hungarian By Ivan Sanders With Imre Goldstein

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

706 pp., $30

Considered by many critics to be Brazil's greatest novelist, Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis (l839-1908) was certainly one of its most unconventional. In his fifth novel, The Posthumous Memoirs of Brs Cubas, published in 1880, he took leave of the naturalistic realism that characterized the novels of his immediate predecessors. Indeed, he bid farewell to his own earlier, more conventional approach to novel-writing and found his true - and truly strange - style.

This extraordinary work is narrated by its own recently deceased protagonist, an indolent, well-to-do bachelor who has spent his life dabbling in poetry, love affairs, and politics. Death has enabled him to speak freely. "Perhaps," he remarks, "I'm startling the reader with the frankness with which I'm exposing and emphasizing my mediocrity. Be aware that frankness is the prime virtue of a dead man."

The spoiled son of a rich, slave-owning family that pretends to have aristocratic forbears, Brs Cubas dissipates his life in a way not untypical of his class. In his youth, he squanders vast sums of money on an avaricious courtesan. He is then persuaded by his father to seek the hand of an attractive, well-connected young lady whose family may help him in his political career.

Virgilia, the lady in question, rejects him in favor of a more appealing suitor. After she has married, however, she and Brs Cubas fall in love and conduct a clandestine affair that generates a certain amount of gossip.

Brs Cubas's youthful literary effusions, his desultory attempts to land a political appointment, his fleeting attraction to a pretty girl whom he drops on learning she is lame, his occasional acts of generosity, his more-frequent acts of selfishness, and his hare-brained plan to concoct a poultice that will banish melancholy are among the subjects chronicled.

Comically brief chapters, bizarre digressions, chapters that self-consciously announce themselves as transitions, other chapters that the narrator advises the reader to skip, will remind readers of Laurence Sterne's "Tristram Shandy."

The theme of this antihero's drolly narrated personal history might well be summed up in the title of a poem by Sterne's contemporary Samuel Johnson: "The Vanity of Human Wishes."

Looking back on his life from the perspective of the grave, Brs Cubas feels some mild satisfaction in the fact that he has produced no children to suffer life's disappointments - more than a few of which (though he fails to take responsibility for them) - are his own fault.

If the narrator has few illusions about himself or the world in which he has lived, the author, Machado de Assis, has even fewer.

Ironic, erudite, possessed of a deeply skeptical temperament, he sees through the pretensions and self-deceptions of his characters, yet he is able to satirize their pettiness, even their deceit and cruelty, without becoming rancorous himself.

The descendant of slaves, Machado became one of his country's most respected literary figures, founder of the Brazilian Academy of Letters. But he remained a quietly subversive intelligence. "The Posthumous Memoirs of Brs Cubas" was followed by four more novels just as unorthodox, including one with the captivating title "Philosopher or Dog" (l891) and another, "Dom Casmurro" (l900), which is now available in the same series that brings us Brs Cubas's misadventures.

The Library of Latin America series, published by Oxford University Press, offers English translations of major works of Latin American literature: not only the work of classic novelists like Machado, but the writings of important historians like Joao Capistrano de Abreu (1853-1927) and revered political thinkers like Andres Bello (1781-1865).

The series itself is a welcome idea. General editor Jean Franco and his colleagues seem to be doing an excellent job of selecting the works to be presented.

In the case of this particular volume, however, some of the weaknesses as well as the strengths of the current states of publishing and academe are evident. The distinguished translator Gregory Rabassa has produced an English version that conveys Machado's elegant yet engagingly direct style.

But the coy foreword and the overly esoteric afterword, by two different literature professors, are alike in being ill-suited to the task of introducing Anglophone readers to an unfamiliar work.

What is more distressing about this handsome-looking book, however, is the number of typographical errors in it. The foreword, for example, twice refers to Erasmus's "Praise of Polly" instead of his "Praise of Folly."

Surely, it is not too much to expect a respected publisher like Oxford, issuing an important series of classic texts, to have taken the trouble to see that they were competently copy-edited.

IN the first of her books to be translated into English, Mayra Montero, a Cuban-born novelist and journalist who currently lives in Puerto Rico, skillfully evokes a dark world haunted by violence and intimidation.

In the Palm of Darkness is set in Haiti in the period just before the long-delayed installation of its democratically elected president Aristide. It is a land filled with terror and fear. Much of the terror comes from the mass murders inflicted by the military government's death squads, but the climate of fear extends beyond that.

It's a culture deeply influenced by a potent mix of folklore and strange rituals, a way of "knowing" that strikes outsiders as primitive superstition, but which is shown, in the course of the story, to be grounded in long experience.

Although Montero does not go so far as to endorse voodoo practices, some readers may balk at her cultural relativism. Simply because rationality alone does not always provide human beings with all the answers, it does not necessarily follow that any and every irrational belief is somehow wiser!

But it may be said in the author's defense that what she is doing is using this folk belief as a metaphor for the many aspects of human experience not easily understood by ordinary logic and common sense.

The novel is told in the alternating voices of Victor Grigg, an American herpetologist who has come to Haiti in search of the nearly extinct "blood frog" (grenouille du sang), and Thierry Adrien, the Haitian guide who accompanies him on his excursions into territory that is both forbidding and forbidden.

Juxtaposing the two men's perspectives, Montero contrasts the rational approach of the scientist with the dark "knowledge" that Thierry has acquired over a lifetime of experience.

Looking at the world in which her Haitian characters live, Montero sees darkness and degradation, but also a kind of wisdom at the bottom of it all: a tragic acceptance of loss and an understanding of nature's mysterious power.

The vastly ambitious novel A Book of Memories by the celebrated Hungarian writer Peter Nadas is the first of his works to be published in English. He was born in Budapest in 1942, the son of a state prosecutor in the Communist regime. Nadas's mother died when he was still a boy; his father committed suicide shortly after the ill-fated Hungarian Revolution in 1956, leaving young Peter to be raised in an orphanage.

It took Nadas many years to write this book and five more years trying to overcome the objections of the censors, before it was finally published in Budapest in 1986. It's not hard to guess why the censor were alarmed.

First and foremost, Nadas's novel is truly and profoundly "politically incorrect": not only a critique of the Hungarian Communist regime and its Soviet masters, but a thorough-going rejection of any social system that would subordinate the desires of the individual to the aims of the state.

Moreover, it is full of intensely explicit writing about erotic encounters, heterosexual and homosexual, handled with an aura of high seriousness reminiscent of Proust or Mann.

The central figure is a young Hungarian who, like Nadas, grows up as the son of the state prosecutor in the period following World War II.

Almost every aspect of his life is marked by deep ambivalence. He admires yet fears his father - who, he suspects, may not even be his real father and who put in prison the gentle political dissident who may actually be the boy's biological parent.

Around the core events and emotions of his life is spun a complex, sometimes confusing web of discourse involving three different narrators: the young Hungarian himself, the hero of a novel he is writing set in fin-de-siecle imperial Germany, and the young Hungarian's boyhood friend.

No sooner is the reader caught up in one story than the scene abruptly shifts to another. Yet this calculated discontinuity perhaps befits a hero who is fragmented and lost, unable to make sense of the century in which he lives.

"A Book of Memories" is not easy reading. The writing is often self-defeatingly prolix. There are sentences that go on for a full paragraph, paragraphs that go on for pages in the mode of Mann or Proust, but lacking Mann's precision and Proust's refinement.

But for all its longueurs, this novel offers rewarding insights into countless nooks and crannies of human experience. Peter Nadas may not be the Hungarian Proust or Mann, but he is clearly an important writer in the high tradition of European literature.

* Merle Rubin regularly reviews books for the Monitor.

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