When I finished this Brazilian novel by Machado de Assis and translated by Helen Caldwell — published in 1899, just on the cusp of the 20th century — the strongest thought in my mind was, “This is the saddest story I have ever heard.” More on that later.
This is a story narrated by Bentinho (the eponymous Dom Casmurro, which means something like Lord-Drawn-Into-Himself, or perhaps Lord Taciturn.) Towards the end of his life, he claims he wants to rejoin his old age and his adolescence, when he was happiest, and so the story is told in a long series of flashbacks.
Bentinho is destined by his pious mother to become a padre, but he feels no inclination for the priesthood. What he does feel an inclination for is his next-door neighbor, the sly, lovely Capitú, and she for him. The next hundred and fifty pages are almost (almost!) a conventional love-story, as the two young lovers plot to keep Bentinho at home. He has to go to seminary, but only for a little while, and while there he makes a lifelong friend: Escobar, who later marries Capitú’s best friend, Sancha. It really couldn’t be any prettier.
But here the vague hints that darkened the first part of the book begin to wind around each other, and the narration takes a lurch. After a good deal of effort, Bentinho and Capitú have a beloved child, Ezekiel, named after Escobar, and their lives seem complete. But after a little while, certain asides and comments hint that not all is as it appears. His story begins to lean toward outright tragedy, and we know which one it’s supposed to be: Othello, of course, a man driven by jealousy and betrayal to ruin his life and his family’s.
But this book is far too sneaky, too wicked and complex, to lead us by the hand so neatly. Bentinho is a gloriously unreliable narrator, a liar throughout the book, even to God (he is always promising God thousands of Our Fathers in return for favors and then canceling the debts.) He claims on several occasions that Capitú can deceive people effortlessly while he cannot, but he is never caught in a lie. And even if you take the open Othello references at face value, Bentinho is not the persecuted Moor. Watch the sleight of hand: his last name is Santiago. (There are dozens of other Shakespeare references: Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet, The Taming of the Shrew — someone, write me a thesis! They probably have, in Portuguese.)
Is Bentinho the virtuous, betrayed husband? Is he insanely jealous of a chaste wife? We only see his side of the story; Capitú is never allowed to defend herself. We have only his evidence, such as it is: a strong resemblance, and a moment of unguarded pain at a funeral. Is it enough? We are left to wonder, but the ruinous damage has been done.
There is one clue. Capitú herself gives us a kind of written message, a coded word to the reader. When she and Bentinho are still young, he comes across her scratching words into the wall between their houses. BENTO, she writes, and CAPITOLINA. Then, a moment later, after some promise of his, she writes under his name, liar.
It couldn’t have been based on Ford Madox Ford’s novel The Good Soldier; it was written fifteen years earlier. Yet structurally, emotionally, and brilliantly, that’s what it reminded me of. The unreliable narrator. The long, rambling flashbacks. The two couples. The jealousy. The way, in the end, that no one won. The marvelous, marvelous book. (The Good Soldier, incidentally, is in my top ten; this is an admiring comparison.) Oh, wonderful: the saddest story I have ever heard.
I read this as part of Amateur Reader (I think I must call him Tom now)’s Portuguese Literature Challenge. He is over here examining lots and lots of literature in Portuguese, and his posts are fearfully and wonderfully made. Join in!