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Friday, September 30, 2016

Brazilian Tales

(source: Os Melhores Contos Brasileiros de Todos Os Tempos)
no copyright infringement intended

I was interested to read some works by Machado de Assis: my friend Filipe Ponzi (a young Brazilian from Caxias do Sul with whom I share a passion for quality cinema, particularly for the films of Kuleshov) had told me about this author as one of the greatest. I was thinking to start with one or two of his short stories, to get a first grasp of Machado's world. Here another friend came to help (also a Brazilian, Pedro Lima, teaching Spanish and Portuguese in Maceió). He suggested a collection of Brazilian stories, containing some short-prose by Machado, among other authors.

The collection was edited by Flávio Moreira da Costa (Brazilian novelist, storyteller, essayist and anthologist) and published by Ediouro in 2009: Os Melhores contos Brasileiros de todos os Tempos. Machado was there with seven short stories. Actually a separate chapter of the collection was dedicated uniquely to him (the other authors were grouped following some thematic or stylistic criteria).

All this looked fine, but one thing: I could advance in a Portuguese text only very slowly, having in parallel a translation, let's say in Spanish, and trying some correspondences, to the point that I was no more sure which of the two tongues I was actually learning. To say nothing that this was Brazilian Portuguese, probably using copiously all kind of regionalisms and very local slang.

Soon I found another collection of Brazilian Tales, this time translated into English.

(source: Brazilian Tales, Boston 1921)
no copyright infringement intended

It was a book from 1921, printed in Boston by The Four Seas Company, a publishing house that ceased its existence sometime in the early 1920's (most probably in 1923, as far as I could find out on the web). Editor and translator was Isaac Goldberg, a Harvardian man of letters, historian of Latino-American literature, fluent in Yiddish, Spanish, French, German, Italian, and Portuguese (wow!). The book was dedicated to J.D.M. Ford (a Harvard professor of French and Spanish, and Chairman of the Department of Romance Languages, between 1911-1943).

(source: Brazilian Tales, Boston 1921)
no copyright infringement intended

The copy belonged to the Public Library of the City of Boston. It was worn-out, looking extremely fragile (no wonder, as it had been used since 1921) and the library had needed to put inside a warning label for future readers. Hand annotations could be seen here and there throughout the pages. That was giving a nice familiar look to this collection of Brazilian Tales. You see, a book continues its life long time after it is printed, passing from a reader to another, advancing along generations, and each one adds a tiny bit to the story. And then, after years, when opening such an antiquated copy, it is something beyond the story the book is about, you feel like a quiet murmur, coming from the untold stories of all those who had it browsed. And your own sensibility is added in turn, over many layers of sensibility left there through the years.

(source: Brazilian Tales, Boston 1921)
no copyright infringement intended

There were six tales in the book, three of them written by Machado de Assis (The Attendant's Confession, The Fortune-Teller, and Life). The other three were respectively by José Medeiros e Albuquerque (The Vengeance of Felix), Coelho Neto (The Pigeons) and Carmen Dolores (Aunt Zeze's Tears). All authors belonging to the Brazilian belle époque.

Some of these stories had previously appeared in two Bostonian newspapers (Boston Evening Transcript and Stratford Journal). Now they were gathered in this collection, seemingly a pioneering volume, since the need of an introduction, placed in front of the six stories. Actually this introduction was a comprehensive study authored by Isaac Goldberg: a presentation of the four authors included in the collection, an analysis of their works and of the context they had activated within, influences on them coming from other authors, Brazilians or from the world literature, then an outline of the entire history of Brazilian literature, and a discussion about its distinct persona versus European Portuguese. Here the opinion of Goldberg was coming against some other specialists. For example José Veríssimo, a noted Brazilian man of letters, had doubted whether the existence of an entirely independent literature would have been possible without an entirely independent language. The opinion of Goldberg was radically opposite: more than one single literature can exist within the same tongue, the national life making the difference as much as the national language. And he was concluding that a book like Alencar's O Guarany could not have been written outside of Brazil; and neither Veríssimo's own Cenas da Vida Amazônica.

(source: Brazilian Tales, Boston 1921)
no copyright infringement intended

I read all six stories one after another without leaving the book. Each one kept my interest and made me curious to go to the next one. I don't want to spoil them, so I would limit myself just to a few remarks.

Machado's The Attendant's Confession impressed me the most. It's a piece of rare virtuosity. Just a few pages and all contradictions coexisting in the human soul are explored up to their ultimate expression. Fear down to horrible terror, acceptance of your destiny, revolt against it up to committing murder, deep remorse followed by hypocrite self-embellishment of your conscience and continuing your life, bits of remorse pinching you now and then, suppressing them and going on. Realizing with horror that the story is about yourself! Dostoyevsky was coming to my mind, then the whole setting sent me rather to Poe. But it's Machado: you have the paradoxical impression of several opposite stories seamlessly woven together, all this controlled by the author with a sure hand, with a great sense of keeping the balance and not letting any strident note.

A parallel with the technique of Poe can also be made for two other stories from the collection, one by Machado (The Fortune-Teller) and the other by Medeiros e Albuquerque (The Vengeance of Felix). Both are good in their own right (though maybe showing their age), but The Attendant's Confession is a masterpiece. As to Machado's third work included in the collection (Life), frankly I need to know much more of what he wrote to be able to place it somewhere in his universe.

About Coelho Neto's The Pigeons I have already written my impressions here. For me it suggested an essential synchronicity inside nature, humans and the environment following the same rhythms, humans and animals as pairs; this going maybe even further, among all forms of life; a synchronicity that reveals itself especially in the ultimate moments, when all we have proudly believed about us goes away and what remains is just the biological truth. And also the meaning of tradition, this bag of apparently absurd superstitions, as a treasure coming from the very beginnings of humanity, when our understanding of surrounding nature was unaltered by civilization.

And now about the last story of the collection (Aunt Zeze's Tears, by Carmen Dolores). It adds to this corpus a feminine presence, telling us something about the level of sophistication reached by the Brazilian literature of that period. Carmen Dolores' activity as short story writer, novelist and journalist covered the whole half part of 19th century. Aunt Zeze's Tears is the story of a spinster, living a joyless life confined to the limits of keeping a brother's household, a quiet domestic tragedy masterfully told with poignancy and restraint.

(Machado de Assis)

(Coelho Neto)

(Medeiros e Albuquerque)

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