Isaac Goldberg et al - Brazilian Tales
Brazilian literature, as Isaac Goldberg's introduction helpfully informs us, “has been divided into four main periods.” Writing from the start of the twentieth century, Goldberg places the four Brazilian authors he has translated amongst their national contemporaries, and provides a neat history of Brazilian literature. The four stages – of which the present has existed since roughly the 1840s – have involved a slow disassociation from the wellspring of Portuguese literature, as Brazil intellectually emancipates itself from the mother country. His introduction is indispensable to the work itself, and takes up a good quarter of the short collection. Brazilian Tales is a valuable entry point into late nineteenth and early twentieth century Brazilian literature, with the unfortunate caveat that much of this literature is either untranslated or out of print.
Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis is the star of this collection, with three of the six stories written by him. Machado de Assis is perhaps most famous in the English speaking world for his The Posthumous Memoirs of Bras Cubas, a novel succinctly summarised by its own title. Goldberg quotes a prominent Brazilian critic concerning Machado de Assis: “All these judgments are confirmed by his latest book, wherein may be noted the same impeccable correctness of language, the same firm grasp upon form, the same abundancy, force and originality of thought that make of him the only thinker among our writers of fiction, the same sad, bitter irony ..."
The short stories selected from Machado de Assis' Varias Historias show an early form of literature that would go on to influence many South American authors, up to and including Roberto Bolaño. The Attendant's Confession is an excellent story detailing the encroaching madness of the protagonist as he insists on upholding the reputation of the colonel who insulted him, who beat him, who was horribly violent to him – but who was also very rich, and named him his sole heir. The Fortune-Teller is a tale of murder and Tarot, wrapped into a tight bundle by the protagonist's penchant for thinking in terms of, and quoting from, Hamlet. Machado de Assis touches lightly on the problem of the intellect versus superstition, but the main thrust of the story comes from the heightening tension of Camillo's future as it is revealed by the Fortune Teller. How much of it is true, and what does it being true really mean for the characters? Lastly there is Life, a story told in dialogue between Prometheus and Ahasverus. My knowledge of religious matters is rather small, which leaves me in a difficult position when it comes to critiquing this story. There are heavy references made to Greek mythology and to the Bible, and indeed the story itself hinges upon an intimate familiarity with both.
The Vengeance of Felix by José de Medeiros e Albuquerque is a story told in a deliberately casual, almost infuriatingly casual, manner, but the plot of the story is as bitter and nasty as can be. Medeiros e Albuquerque combines the banal with the horrible, for example in this paragraph: “Just about this time there happened to them the worst of all possible adventures. The son, whom the father had not seen for several weeks, one fine day attacked a peaceful citizen and, with a terrible knife thrust in the stomach, despatched him to a better world; as to which event circumstances seemed so contrary that the son allowed himself to be arrested." The Felix in the title is a grumpy old man paralysed by illness, but his vengeance is effective and cruel. Medeiros e Albuquerque's style is effective in lulling the reader into believing the story is nothing more than a breezy excursion into a simple family's home, which makes the brutality of the finale all the more shocking.
The Pigeons is a frustratingly symbolic story, as characters stand about watching pigeons fly, and wonder about what these metaphorical birds mean. Everything is ominous which means nothing is ominous, except that the characters would have it be so. Coelho Netto expects us to consider the pigeons as fraught with meaning as he does, but we cannot – too much is expected from them, and the hints of magic that surround the pigeon's nest fails to click with the protagonist's predicament of a dying child. The Pigeons is by far the weakest of the stories and, considering the slimness of the volume and the richness of Goldberg's introduction, it is difficult to understand why this story was selected over another.
Carmen Dolores' story, Aunt Zeze's Tears, is a prototype for the novels and stories in the magic realism genre that would become so influential and popular in the mid to late twentieth century. Aunt Zeze's Tears is a very short story, with Aunt Zeze being the type of woman who can be killed from the tears a poem inspires. “A veil of tears spread before her sight.... In vain she tried to repress them, to force a smile of thanks upon her face. The smile wrinkled into a dolorous grimace; she succeeded only in convulsing her contracted visage with the sobs that she sought to restrain." Carmen Dolores writes with compassion and includes just enough mystery to tie the story together, but she doesn't quite have the firm grip on unforced magic in a mundane situation of, say, Alejo Carpentier or Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Her story shows the way but not the destination, which perhaps achieved its summit in Garcia Marquez' One Hundred Years of Solitude.
Isaac Goldberg's introduction provides an excellent starting point for English-speaking readers curious about Brazilian literature. The four authors selected show the first tentative steps toward some of the major aspects of South- and Latin-American literature in the twentieth century. It is a shame, then, that so many of these authors are virtually impossible to find in translation. Even Machado de Assis is difficult to find outside of his major works, and I was unable to find any of the remaining three author's writings in English outside of this text. Nonetheless Brazilian Tales is recommended because of the strength of the writing, and the slimness of the volume. I was able to read this work only through Project Gutenberg – I would be greatly surprised if anyone is able to find it in print.