Friday, December 2, 2011

One was within the other, like the fruit within its rind - layers of Dom Casmurro

Two stories in Dom Casmurro, surface and subsurface.  Bento Santiago, a lawyer who lives in an exact duplicate of his childhood home, decides to write the story of his life with his teen sweetheart and later wife Capitú, the most important female of the Brazilian literature.  This story turns into two stories, at least.

1. Despite early love and promises of devotion, Capitú has an affair with Bento’s best friend Escobar, and Capitú’s son Ezekiel is from Escobar.  The memoir is actually the prosecutor’s case against Capitú, a presentation of the evidence of the affair.

I see that I have already violated my schema.  The novel has branched.  The memoir of Bento (story 1) is also the proof of Capitú’s guilt (story 2).  This branch is visible in the structure of the novel, which, after an introduction, consists of a relatively straightforward and even sweet 100 pages of thwarted true love, and then another 100 pages of Bento's escape from the priesthood into marriage, leaving only 60 pages for marriage, children, death, betrayal, and that sort of thing.  It is during this last section that it becomes clear that what started as one kind of story has turned into something else, even if Bento claims otherwise:

If you remember of Capitú the child, you will have to recognize that one was within the other, like the fruit within its rind. (Ch. 148)

This is from the last page of the novel.  The narrator recognizes the problem, it seems, and insists that there is no branch at all, or if there is it is “the result of some chance incident.”

3.  The evidence for Capitú’s guilt, is, it turns out, thin.  Perhaps she did not have an affair at all, and Ezekiel is, in fact, Bento’s child, and he ruins everyone’s lives solely because of his jealousy and paranoia.  Bento’s case against Capitú is actually the case for, or the case against himself.

References to Othello run through the novel – explicit ones, like Chapter 135, “Othello” – and Bento identifies himself with Shakespeare’s character, although he perversely recognizes that if he is right the role does not fit, since Desdemona is not guilty.  He misreads Othello just a bit:

“And she [Desdemona] was innocent!”  I kept saying to myself all the way down the street.  “What would the audience do if she were really guilty, as guilty as Capitú?  And what death would the Moor mete out to her then?  A bolster would not suffice; there would be need of blood and fire, a vast, intense fire to consume her wholly, and reduce her to dust, and the dust tossed to the wind, in eternal extinction…” (Ch. 135, ellipses in original)

Bento no longer sounds like Othello at all, but like his namesake Iago, barely mentioned in Dom Casmurro aside from Bento’s last name. Strictly speaking, the reader, entirely dependent of the enclosed world of a narrator who may well be insane, has no certain way to judge the behind-the-scenes events of the novel.  The contradictory stories coexist.  The one in fact implies the other.

4.  More branches.  Bento writes his memoir to convince whom of Capitú’s adultery (himself, maybe, to assuage his guilt)?  Or is Bento’s guilt entirely in his subconscious, repressed, leaking into his text without his knowledge?  Is the memoir a prosecution, or a confession?  I detect hints of another possibility, too.  What if Bento is concealing something worse?

Well, when Brazilians complain that the English-speaking world undervalues their greatest novel, this is why.  It is a deconstructionist masterpiece, a text which casts a shadow more real than the text itself; the shadow may in turn have its own shadow; the novel is the aggregation of the text and all of the implied shadow stories.  The book is packed with uncanny echoes of The Good Soldier (Ford did not know Machado), Pale Fire (Nabokov never read Machado), and Borges (who read Machado long after he, Borges, had written his central works).  (Or so I understand all of this).

You will see that I have borrowed and rewritten much of Jenny’s piece from yesterday.

I am also reading Helen Caldwell’s translation, by the way.


  1. Ooh. Ooh. Must. Read. No more to say than that.

  2. I'm trying to decide if I should write about my Crazy Theory about the book, but with just one reading that is probably a mistake. Hints are not enough - real evidence is necessary.

    But anyway, it may be a book with an unreliable surface which implies a contradictory subsurface which in fact conceals an even deeper, more horrifying sub-subsurface.

    And even if it is just the first two, it's somethin' else.

  3. What's with the translations? - I have Robert Scott-Buccleuch's.

  4. You have Scott-Buccleuch? Then you have the good one. And by "good" I mean:

    "But far worse is to come. Scott-Buccleuch's most astonishing decision as a translator is to eliminate entire chapters of Machado's text - without, incidentally, justifying or even mentioning this in his introduction."

    Daphne Patai, "Machado in English," in Machado de Assis: Reflections of a Brazilian Master Writer (1999), ed. Richard Graham, Univ. of Texas Press, p. 96.

    So, you have a collector's item.

  5. And that's better, is it, than the other translation? - Well, I'm sure the missing bits were unimportant and it actually improves the text.

    I also have Esau and Jacob. Are you reading that?

  6. I would say worse, but at least one (well, only one) professional translator disagrees. As you might guess, the Scott-Buccleuch translation is loathed by Machado scholars.

    I think I am still sufficiently hopped up on Machado to read Esau and Jacob and maybe the last novel, too.