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Round-up: Machado de Assis and Jennifer Makumbi

Machado de Assis, Epitaph of a Small WinnerThis novel is dedicated to “the first worm that gnawed at my flesh.” That is not a metaphor: Epitaph of a Small Winner is the fictional memoir of Braz Cubas, a late-19th century wealthy Brazilian man, and is written (literally) from beyond the grave: a posthumous memoir, so to say. That sets the tone for some truly dazzling flights of fancy, presaged by the following warning on page 10:

“The reader, like his fellows, doubtless prefers action to reflection, and doubtless he is wholly in the right. Se we shall get to it. However, I must advise him that this book is written leisurely, with the leisureliness of a man no longer troubled by the flight of time; that it is a work supinely philosophical, but of a philosophy wanting in uniformity, now austere, now playful, a thing that neither edifies nor destroys, neither inflames nor chills, and that is at once more than pastime and less than preachment.”  

Braz Cubas takes us through his misspent youth at the University of Coimbra (“I was a harebrained scholar, superficial, tumultuous, and capricious, fond of adventures of all kinds, engaging in practical romanticism and theoretical liberalism, with complete faith in dark eyes and written constitutions…“), his early-adult melancholy at the passing of his mother (“I believe that it was then that the flower of melancholy in me began to open, this yellow, lonely, morbid flower with its subtle and inebriating perfume…”), early failures in love, and then dedicates most of the memoir to a tumultuous and caustically adulterous affair with the wife of an ambitious minor politician. The narrative is fragmented, meandering, often self-referential and full of all kinds of digressions, but sustained by a lightness of tone and a conspicuous refusal to take anything – life, love, death, politics, the world – too seriously.

Beneath the lightness of tone, however, lies an unsparing, almost savage critique of social institutions, human vanity, and human conceit(s). Sometimes, this rises to the surface in an offhand, blink-or-you’ll miss it manner (“…but if you have a profound and perspicacious mind (and I strongly suspect that you will not deny this)…”), while at other times it takes the form of a lengthier digression, which might be straight out of The Devil’s Dictionary:

“I like epitaphs; among civilized people they are an expression of a secret and pious egoism that leads men to try and rescue form death at least a shred of the soul that has passed on, with the expectation that the same will be done for them.”

Or:

“As his manner was very sharp, he had enemies who accused him of barbarity. The only fact alleged to support this charge was that he frequently committed slaves to the dungeon and that they were always dripping blood when released; but, apart from the fact that he did this only to fugitives and incorrigibles, one must remember that, as he had long been engaged in smuggling slaves into the country, he had become accustomed to long-established methods of treatment that were somewhat harsher than those practiced in the regular slave trade, and one cannot honestly attribute to a man’s basic character something that is obviously the result of a social pattern.”

There is a particularly acute deconstruction of male vanity, which has all the markings of a proto-feminist critique (“… but the man, considering himself the irresistible cause of the [adulterous] affair and the vanquisher of the other man, becomes rightfully proud…”), and moments of sudden, serious depth, that stand out because of the contrast with the rest of the novel (“at dusk one seeks in vain the fresh exhalations of the morning…”).

In its epigrammatic quick-wittedness, Epitaph of a Small Winner is reminiscent of passages from Assis’ contemporary, Oscar Wilde; in its jocular narrator making light of the world, it anticipates some of Vargas Llosa’s comic novels, such as Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter; and in its uncanny ability to draw a vast sweep in space and time simply by recounting individual events and stories, there are obvious comparisons with Garbiel Garcia Marquez. It is not difficult to see why Epitaph of a Small Winner is accepted as a classic of Brazilian literature.

(NYT review; the book is available on Amazon).

Jennifer Matumbi, Kintu 

The form of Kintu is familiar to readers of postcolonial fiction of a certain kind: the story of a nation, told through the travails of a single extended family through the generations. In terms of its story, however, Kintu is unique. Anchored around a senseless, violent death on a road in the Ugandan countryside, Kintu spans the pre-colonial kingdom of Buganda, the era of colonialism, Idi Amin’s wars, and Uganda’s transition into the 21st century. There is a sprawling cast of characters – all part of an extended family descended from a half-historical, half-legendary figure called Kintu (“Kintu” is, in fact, a central character in Bugandan creation myth), whose single misdeed many centuries ago brought down a curse that continues to dog the family. Teachers, evangelists, incestuous twins, a military leader, and many others – their lives and paths intersect, separate, entwine, separate again, and finally come together in a haunting denouement at the end of the novel. There is a smattering of magic as well, vaguely reminiscent of The Famished Road, but only vaguely.

In the Introduction to Kintu, Aaron Bady writes that Makumbi “vowed to tell the story of Uganda with colonialism placed in perspective: not to say that the colonial encounter wasn’t important, but that it wasn’t the only thing that was.” Nonetheless, for me, some of the most striking passages from the book have to do with colonialism. For instance:

“After independence, Uganda – a European artifact – was still forming as a country rather than as a kingdom in the mind of ordinary Gandas. They were lulled by the fact that Kabaka Muteesa II was made president of the new Uganda. Nontehless, most of them felt that “Uganda” should remain a kingdom for the Ganda under their kabaka so that things would go back to the way they were before Europeans came. Uganda was a patchwork of fifty or so tribes. The Ganda did not want it. The union of tribes brought no apparent advantage to them apart from a deluge of immigrants from wherever, coming to Kampala to take their land. Meanwhile, the other fifty or so tribes looked on flabbergasted as the British drew borders and told them that they were now Ugandans. Their histories, cultures, and identities were overwritten by the mispronounced name of an insufferably haughty tribe propped above them. But to the Ganda, the reality of Uganda as opposed to Buganda only sank in when, after independence, Obote overran the kabaka’s lubiri with tanks, exiling Muteesa and banning all kingdoms. The desecreation of their kingdom by foreigners paralysed the Ganda for decades.”

Even more striking is a piece of imagery developed by a teacher, lately returned from the colonial metropolis (a familiar figure in postcolonial literature), in a piece he is writing for the local magazine:

Buganda, unlike the rest of Africa, was sweet-talked onto the operating table with praises and promises. Protectorate was the plastic surgery to set the sluggish African body on a faster route to maturity. But once under chloroform, the surgeon was at liberty and did as he pleased. First he severed the hands then cut off the legs and he put the black limbs into a bin bag and disposed of them. Then he got European limbs and set upon grafting them on the black torso. When the African woke up, the European had moved into his house… Though the African was too weak to get up, he still said to the European, “I don’t like what you are doing, my friend. Please get out of my house.” But the European replied, “I am only trying to help, brother. You are still too weak and drowsy to look after your house. I will take charge in the meantime. When you’re fully recovered, I promise you will work and run twice as fast as I do… But the African body rejected the European body parts. Africa says that they are incompatible. The surgeons say that Africa discharged itself too soon from hospital – that is why it is hemorrhaging. It needs a lot more continual blood and water pumped up intravenously. The surgeons say, “Nonsense, we did the same to India, see how fast it’s running.”

And perhaps, most effective of all, the rawness of this:

“God became an idea. If there was a God then he was a racist. In anger, Miisi walked away from religion.”

(Africa in Words review; Jennifer Makumbi interview; the book is available on Amazon)

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“We all need witnesses of our lives in order to live them…”: Carlos Fuentes’ ‘The Death of Artemio Cruz’

Artemio Cruz, sometime revolutionary hero, later exploitative landlord, is on his deathbed, “an old man whose features are fragmented by… uneven squares of glass.” His unloved wife and daughter hover around, attempting to extract the location of his will; a priest tries to get him to repent, while his secretary is ever-present with a list of his most corrupt dealings. In the midst of this cacophony, Artemio Cruz feels himself slipping into “nostalgia, which is another form of growing old, more ancient, going back.” As he dies, the scenes of his past flash into memory, in the form of discrete events that shaped his life. There is no coherence or structure to his last, disjointed thoughts, and his reminiscing alternates with keen awareness of his failing bodily functions, and resentment for the pseudo-solicitous individuals making his last moments excruciatingly painful.

Through the rambling recollections of one man, Carlos Fuentes’ novel describes the Mexican revolution, its promise, its failure, and its cynical betrayal by those who made it. Two hours before being summarily executed during the fag end of the long revolution, Cruz’s jail-cell companion speaks in the voice of the author: “those who want a real, radical, intransigent revolution are, unfortunately, ignorant, bloody men. And the educated ones only want half a revolution, compatible with the only thing they really want: to do well, to live well, to take the place of Don Porfirio’s elite.” Cruz proves him right by surviving, returning to dispossess his aristocratic father of his lands, marry his sister against her will, and create a political/economic empire as brutal and exploitative as that of the aristocrats.

In Fuentes’ novel, it is often difficult to separate the authorial voice from the voice of Artemio Cruz. Fuentes’ anger at the betrayal of the revolution is palpable, and often it spills out onto the pages, which crackle with a rage and intensity that the dying Artemio Cruz is quite beyond the capacity to feel. Normally, this would detract from the quality of the novel. But in The Death of Artemio Cruz, with its rotating narrators, one more voice added to the already existing medley hardly strikes a discordant note. Amidst the universe of characters that populate fifty years of Mexican history, “a country incapable of tranquility, enamored of convulsion“, Fuentes can simply take his place as another individual living it all, rather than an author imposing his point of view from on high.

To the extent that the story of Artemio Cruz is the story of the revolution betrayed, its very inception seems to foreshadow its ultimate failure. In the beginning, it appears that the story of Cruz is your run-of-the-mill story of disillusionment: the idealistic young revolutionary is heartbroken and permanently embittered when his first lover, who would meet him in each town after the fighting was done, is summarily executed during the war and left hanging from a tree for him to find; from that day on, ideals are shattered, love is banished from the world, and he lives to inflict injury upon his fellow beings. But matters are not so simple, because it turns out that the origins of their love were anything but pure:

“He would return. Where? To that mythical beach that never existed? To that lie about the beloved, to that fiction about a meeting on the beach invented by her so that he would feel clean, innocent, sure of being in love? He threw the glass of mescal to the floor. That’s what mescal was really good for: destroying lies. It was a beautiful lie… he would have to believe that beautiful lie forever, until the end. It wasn’t true: he hadn’t gone into that Sinaloa town as he had so many others, looking for the first unwary woman he’d find walking down the street.”

And he had raped her.

The suggestion seems to be that there was never a time of innocent revolution, a time before betrayal and corruption, a time when there was a possibility that things might turn out differently. To which origin? Cruz – or Fuentes – or someone else – asks at another time. “... no one wants to return to the phony golden age, to the sinister origins, the bestial grunt, the struggle for bear meat, for the cave, for the flint, return to sacrifice and madness, to the nameless terror of the origin.

And the matter seems to be sealed by the death of Cruz’s son in the Spanish Civil War, fighting beside the anti-fascists, just a little distance from safety beyond the French border. The only way for the revolution to remain uncorrupted, it seems, is to be defeated, and the only way for a human being to remain uncorrupted is death.

In its polyphonic structure, uncertain chronology, corrupted protagonist, and acute historical awareness, The Death of Artemio Cruz has drawn comparisons with that other great Mexican novel, Pedro Paramo. Certainly, there are similarities; but while Pedro Paramo recounts without judgment, The Death of Artemio Cruz is – to paraphrase Sartre – a “committed novel”. By the end, Fuentes has made it abundantly clear that Artemio Cruz (and, by extension, Mexico) has betrayed… someone, or something, although (apart from the enigmatic jail-cell speech excerpted above), we’re never quite told what.

Below all that, however, there is an undercurrent of something else: that Artemio Cruz’s actions are understood – if not justified – by the raison d’etre of all revolutions, that elemental human passion: of shaping the world in one’s own image. “It was an invitation to adventure, to plunge into an unknown future in which procedure would not be sanctioned by the sanctity of custom. He invented and created everything from below, as if nothing had happened before, Adam without a father, Moses without the Tablets of the Law. Life wasn’t like that, the world ordered by Don Gamaliel wasn’t like that.” And Artemio Cruz rejects guilt because he refuses to adjudge himself guilty of sins against a morality that he did not create, but found already made.

Despite all his anger, Fuentes insures that there is enough complexity, in history and in the character of Artemio Cruz, to render easy judgments impossible. Something has been lost, we keep feeling, both by Cruz and by Mexico, but again, it is difficult to say quite what they could have gained.

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