Dom Casmurro

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!

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11 Responses to Dom Casmurro

  1. I love your review, it’s given me a lot to think about. I also love references especially if I can place them like you did to several Shakespeare’s books. And talking of Amateur Reader, his insight into literature is amazing. Sometimes I don’t comment because I have nothing to say.

    • Jenny says:

      Thanks for stopping by, Nana. This is a marvelous book, full of Shakespeare and many other things as well. I think it’s beautifully balanced (and unbalanced), spinning off the rails without the reader noticing it just at first.

      And I certainly agree about Amateur Reader!

  2. Stefanie says:

    I’ve had a different Machado de Assis book on my TBR list for ages because Alberto Manguel mentions it in one of his books. Now I am going to have to add this one too and actually get around to reading him!

    • Jenny says:

      I think Michael Dirda mentions this one and the Posthumous Memoirs of Bras Cubas in one of his books, which may be why I chose this for the challenge. Am I glad I did! Definitely take the plunge.

  3. anokatony says:

    I’ve read a lot of Machado de Assis including Don Casmurro, and he is a brilliant writer. He should ranked up there with Tolstoy, Doestoyevsky, and other late 19th century writers

    • Jenny says:

      I completely agree that this was a top-notch book. Perhaps “late 19th century” is a thing? I was thinking more “early 20th century.” It had a very modern feel to me, and so does Bras Cubas (I’m nearly finished with it.) Structurally and emotionally, it’s quite different from other brilliant 19th-century takes on the same theme.

  4. @anokatony but is he usually mentioned alongside such names? Because this is the first time I’m hearing his name. Though the others are household names.

    • anokatony says:

      @Nana Fredua-Agyeman I’m saying he ought to be ranked up there with those others. He is pretty much considered the father of South American writing and the inspiration for the Sixties/Seventies Renaissance of South American fiction which included Garcia-Marquez, Cortazar, and Vargas Lhosa and Puig among others. I think it was a translation of Machado’s ‘Diary of a Small Winner’ that started the Renaissance.

    • Jenny says:

      I’m so glad to hear you say this, Tony. I am almost completely ignorant of South American writing — I have read three novels from this entire continent to date — and I am glad to have you filling in the gaps. There could be a lot of names that ought to be in my household, and I wouldn’t know. Many thanks.

  5. Let’s see here.

    1. The Good Soldier – oh yes, I thought the same myself, several times. Machado has this strange effect of suggesting links not to predecessors, and not even to successors, but to writers who cannot possibly have read him. The number of Nabokovian echoes are frankly uncanny.

    A Ford-related question, to which I do not know the answer: Ford’s narrator learns a lot in the process of telling his own story. Is that true of Casmurro? Or does he pretty much tell the story he meant to tell?

    I guess in this case the layering is different: he tells the story he meant to tell, but at the same time tells another story.

    2. How wonderful is Capitú? I think she’s great – a warm, full-bodied, enormously likable character. Am I being tricked here somehow? No, I think her likability and roundedness is necessary. I am just a bit surprised, after Bras Cubas and some of the stories, that Machado wrote that kind of character. Of course, it is not just Machado writing her, but Casmurro. Hmmm.

    3. Tony simplifies – make some room for Alejo Carpentier! – but is basically right. Machado, barely known to the U.S. or English tradition, is a giant and forefather not just in Portuguese literature but now more generally in Latin American lit. And that is without being a “big” writer or thinker like Tolstoy or Dostoevsky.

    4. Great post, all around! I think I’m basically just going to copy it tomorrow. Restated in my own words.

    5. An then what should I write about?

  6. Kinna says:

    I love Machado de Assis and Alejo Carpentier. I’m yet to review my book for the Portuguese Reading Challenge. Thanks for the review.

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