Wednesday, December 7, 2011

That’s what you would have seen had you read slowly - Machado insults me

Quincas Borba, the mad Brazilian philosopher, is a secondary character in Machado’s The Posthumous Memoirs of Bras Cubas (1881).  He appears in Machado’s next novel as well, Quincas Borba (1891), although the title may well refer to his dog, also named Quincas Borba (“I will survive in the name of my dog,” Ch. V).

Borba’s philosophy is some sort of extreme version of “everything happens for the best”: “His last words were that pain was an illusion and that Pangloss was not as dotty as Voltaire indicated” (Ch. XI).  What happens in the novel that bears his, or his dog’s, name is that he dies, bequeathing his enormous fortune and his dog to his nurse, a 41 year-old nebbish named Rubião. 

Newly rich, Rubião moves to Rio de Janeiro where he lives in luxury, is fleeced by opportunists, and begins to believe that the dog Quincas Borba actually is the deceased philosopher, or contains his spirit, or something like that, but anyway now talks to him.  He also falls in love with the first woman he meets, who is unfortunately for him married and faithful, more or less.

As with Machado’s other mature novels, Quincas Borba is fragmented: 201 chapters in 267 pages.  Unlike Bras Cubas or Dom Casmurro (1899), this novel is in the third person, with an intrusive narrator, which we all know is the worst of all possible narrators.  Actually, most of the novel is written in a typically Flaubert-like manner, with the point of view centered on a single character at any given point, but hopping around from chapter to chapter, e.g.:


“It’s clear to me," Dr. Falcão was thinking on the way out.  “That man was the lover of this fellow’s wife.”

That is an entire chapter, and close to our entire time spent in the thoughts of this character.  Where Machado’s first person novels crush minor characters under the egotism of the narrator, Quincas Borba breathes life into many characters, including, as one might guess, a dog.  The purpose of that interfering narrator, besides joking around, is to break up the ordinary novelistic narrative.  Just as I think the novel is about Rubião’s pathetic pursuit of a married woman, say, Machado shifts somewhere else, to other characters with other problems.

Machado is dismantling the ordinary novelistic story but not replacing it with some clever alternative.  I can read, with satisfaction, for the surprises along the way, but not for the pleasing resolution of all of the little plots.  The reader looking for that will be less pleased.

Chapter CVI is revealing.  Machado has distributed an elaborate set of clues about a couple having a secret love affair, but in these chapters he not only explains the mystery away but insults the reader who fell for it, calling him (me) a “wretch” and refusing to apologize for including the obfuscatory details: “There was no reason for me to cut the episode or interrupt the book.”  Anyway, the real story was perfectly clear: “That’s what you would have seen had you read slowly.”

I read slowly.  Machado is hectoring other readers.

I have gotten nowhere with this novel.  So more tomorrow.  What it all means, maybe.

No comments:

Post a Comment