Machado de Assis

One hundred years later, the genius reinvents himself.

Machado de Assis – Credit: Google

You did not have to read his works for the university entrance exam, you are not old enough to remember his face stamped on the thousand cruzeiros bill and you are not addicted to relationship websites in order to be part of his virtual community on Orkut that has more than 80 thousand members, right? Therefore, stop everything and enjoy the celebrations for the centennial of Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis’ death – September 29th – and reclaim the pleasure of reading by getting more familiar with one of the greatest geniuses of Brazilian literature. But, do not forget to turn off the TV!

By Paula Mazulquim

“You cannot read Machado de Assis while watching TV”, teaches Ricardo Sternberg who for 29 years has been giving lectures of Comparative Literature at the postgraduate level and Brazilian and Portuguese Literature at the undergraduate level at the University of Toronto. According to Ricardo, despite the fact that the majority of the students emphasize that it is not easy to ready Machado, it is possible to be at peace with the genius. You just need to start by reading the right book. “Read ‘Dom Casmurro’ not taking into consideration the footnotes”, says Ricardo. The professor also reminds us that in order to make it easier to read, it is worth downloading the internet versions of the book, which does not add any unnecessary interruptions to the original text.

It is not by chance that ‘Dom Casmurro’ is, together with ‘The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas’, one of the most famous works by Machado de Assis. Even if you have never read any book by the author, there is good chance that you have already heard of the controversy surrounding Capitu’s infidelity. This famous character was also present in one of Globo TVs’ soap operas. “I could divide Machado’s originality in two parts: the human behaviour theme and the art that analyses itself”, says Ricardo who recently read Machado de Assis in English and surprised himself with the ‘violence’ present in the author’s text, which seemed even more so in Shakespeare’s language.

The Brazilian professor who teaches Machado de Assis in English (offered for the first time at the University of Toronto in the 2007/2008 program) had the opportunity to get to know the North-American Helen Caldwell (1904-1987) who fell in love with the works of Machado de Assis, studied Portuguese to read the originals and started all the controversy around Capitu’s infidelity. “We will never know if she betrayed [Dom Casmurro/Bentinho] or not… because this does not even interest us since the book is not about adultery”, Ricardo points out.

Because he created characters that are so complex and that still generate doubt after so many decades, Ricardo thinks that the pleasure of reading an author like Machado de Assis comes little by little. “Understanding that the implications present in the author’s texts are not there to exasperate the reader, but is the first step in getting involved with his narrative. Machado de Assis is not simple, he employs sophisticated language to hide the violence behind his themes”, he explains.

A hundred years after his death, Machado de Assis reinvents himself through his universal and down-to-earth human themes. In any case, every reputable immortal goes back and forth in time without any ceremony. And you? Did you turn off the TV and are you ready to get involved with the obscure world of this mulatto of humble origins that has become one of the greatest names in Brazilian literature?

To get a small sample in English you can read one of his short-stories at