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MLN 116.2 (2001) 467-469
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Machado de Assis:
Reflections on a Brazilian Master Writer
Richard Graham, ed. Machado de Assis: Reflections on a Brazilian Master Writer. Austin: U. of Texas P, 1999. xii+134 pp.
Part of Texas's Critical Reflections on Latin America series, this volume comprises four essays, each taking a different approach to Machado de Assis's novels, and all concentrating on his most famous work, Dom Casmurro. Graham's stated intention is to "call new attention" to Machado de Assis (vii) while presenting critical essays representative of the current disagreements over interpreting his work. This compendium is primarily of interest to specialists in Machado de Assis and, to a lesser degree, to Brazilianists in general. All of the essays engage in ongoing scholarly debates regarding Machado de Assis's authorial intent. While the general question of authorial intent may be compelling to virtually any student of literature, the debates specific to Machado de Assis have a life and history of their own. The articles in this book are a continuation of those particular debates, and require some understanding of their history.
John Gledson's "Realism and Intentionalism Revisited" is a continuation of a long-standing line of argument, insisting that Machado de Assis was a realist in the sense that his works responded directly to Brazilian social, economic and cultural conditions of the time. The essay in this volume mainly contests criticisms leveled at his earlier studies, especially his monograph, The Deceptive Realism of Machado de Assis (1984) and in particular the criticisms of Abel Barros Baptista, a vocal proponent of viewing Machado as an anti-realist. Gledson argues that the infamous unreliability, skepticism and relativity that characterize the narrator of Dom Casmurro make up a "datable" phenomenon (3), and that Machado's ambiguity encourages "the reader" to read between the lines and arrive at a censure of the social structures and cultural assumptions motivating the novel's narrator. In his defense of determining the intention behind Machado's experiments--including Machado's own questioning of the validity of authorial intention--Gledson cites the need for more serious study both of historical context and of Machado's lesser-known works.
"Dom Casmurro: Simulacrum and Allegory," by João Adolfo Hansen, responding also to Baptista's analysis, takes up the arguments regarding Machado's peculiar practice of assigning "authorship" of texts to fictional narrators whose own discourse throws doubt on their integrity as storytellers. Machado's primary theme, according to Hansen, is the "unrepresentability of modern existence" (29). He argues that Machado's efforts to "hide" himself from identification by readers render his authorial intentions unobtainable by textual analysis. Rather than attempting to draw from the narratives, as many critics have done, cues as to Machado's intentions for interpreting the stories, readers should regard Machado's novels as a strategy for questioning the validity of mimesis and the cultural assumptions that support mimesis. Under particular attack are the empiricism and the "unity of the person" [End Page 467] demanded by the "order and progress" of a positivist society (32). As an example of such readings, Hansen suggests that rather than focus on whether the narrator of Dom Casmurro is justified in believing his wife to be an adulteress, " . . . the reader will forget the functionality . . . and will want to know why jealousy has become resentment, following the process of cause and effect given shape by the fictional author" (45).
Sidney Chaloub, in "Dependents Play Chess: Political Dialogues in Machado de Assis,"
disagrees on the issue of reader interpretation of plot and character. He insists that Capitu, the banished wife, should be regarded as a seductress. The point of his article is to demonstrate how Machado de Assis's novels represent and critique class relations characteristic of 19th-century Brazil. Chaloub details Machado's portrayal of how members of dependent classes in 19th-century Brazil, operating under a "seigneurial" ideology (54), had to resort to manipulation and dishonesty as tactics for survival. Chaloub is unhesitating in attributing to these dependent characters--Dom Casmurro's Capitu...