short fiction by joaquim maria machado de assis

Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis

 

(1839–1908)

 

Acclaimed as Brazil’s greatest writer and founder of the Brazilian Academy of Letters, Machado de Assis (known simply as Machado in Brazil) is an incomparable figure and an exception for his time, whether for being the grandson of slaves, for being entirely self-educated, for never having traveled beyond the vicinity of Rio de Janeiro, or for his invention of an original moral, ethical, and philosophical world in his fiction. Machado’s importance is that he changed the course of Brazilian and, by extension, other colonial literatures by making his characters, narrators, and readers self-consciously aware of their inauthenticity. His stylistic inventiveness and precocious modernity were effective in superimposing the idea that, in Brazil, old stories were being recycled in deceptively new forms. His persistent tone of irony, pessimism, and skepticism came in free doses, so as to allow his characters to meet their inexorable fates without any alteration in the eternal, measured pulse of his unorthodox and obtrusive narrative frames.

 

Machado published some 200 stories in the literary and social magazines of his day, many of which were reprinted in his seven books of short stories published from 1870 to 1906. The first two, Contos Fluminenses (1870) and Histórias da Meia Noite (1873), are usually grouped as early works alongwith his first four romantic novels, published every two years from 1872 to 1878 (Resurreição, A Mão e a Luva, Helena, and Iaiá Garcia). Beginning with Papéis Avulsos (1882) and followed by Histórias Sem Data (1884), Várias Histórias (1896), Páginas Recolhidas (1899), and Relíquias de Casa Velha (1906), Machado exhibits a polished, concise, and masterful style in sixty-three stories. A parallel style can be seen in his five major novels, which scholar Jorge de Sena called a “quintet” that includes two recognized masterpieces in world literature, the Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas (1880) and Dom Casmurro (1899). Those novels are likewise composed in a series of short chapters resembling stories or parts of stories. Whether in the short stories or the novels, Machado is known for a subtlety and perfection of form, psychological suggestion, implication involving suspense and irony, narrative play and humor, and reflective analysis of behavior, social habits, motivations, desires, and illusions. The depth of futility of human endeavors falls within the perspective of a universal human comedy staged by forces that are beyond control or influence.

 

Fewer than two dozen of Machado’s stories have ever been translated into English (Brazilian Tales, 1921; The Psychiatrist and Other Stories, 1963; The Devil’s Church and Other Stories, 1977), whereas the critic Antonio Candido considers that at least sixty are masterpieces of world literature. Indeed, Machado is without equal in the whole of Latin American literature.

Cover Image

 

 

Wedding Song

 

Just imagine that it is 1813. You are in the Carmo Church, listening in on one of those good old-fashioned celebrations that was one of the principal national pastimes and symbols of musical artistry. You know what a High Mass is, so you can imagine what a High Mass would have been like back then. I am not calling your attention to the priests and the sextons, nor to the sermon, nor to the young carioca women’s eyes, which were already beautiful at that time, nor to the mantillas of the somber women, nor to the knee breeches, the wigs, the valances, the candles, or the incense. None of them. I am not even speaking of the orchestra, which happens to be superb. I am limiting myself to pointing out a grayish head to you. It is the head of that old man conducting the orchestra with such spirit and devotion.

 

His name is Romão Pires. He is probably sixty years old, no younger, and he was born in Valongo, or thereabouts. He is a good musician and a good man. All of the musicians like him. Maestro Romão is his known name, and to say known and public were the same thing in such matters at the time. “Leading the mass is Maestro Romão” was equivalent to another kind of announcement years later: “Appearing on stage is Actor João Caetano” or “Musical Artist Martinho is to sing one of his best arias!” There was a certain flavor to it, a delicate and popular attraction. Maestro Romão leads the celebration!

 

Who did not know Maestro Romão, with his cautious air, lowered eyes, sad smile, and slow-moving pace? All of that disappeared when he was in front of the orchestra; then a spark of life spread throughout the Maestro’s entire body and all of his gestures. His gaze was brighter and his smile lit up. He was another person. Not that the mass was his. The one that he was leading in the Carmo, in particular, belonged to José Maurício. Nevertheless, he led it with the same love that he would have exhibited had it been his own.

 

The celebration ended. It was as though an intense light had gone out and left his face barely illuminated by ordinary light. There he was, coming down from the choir loft, supported by his cane. He went to the sacristy to kiss the hands ofthe priests and he took a place at the dinner table. He did it all indifferently and quietly. He ate dinner, left, and walked along the Rua da Mãe dos Homens, where he resided with an old black man, pai José, who was like his own mother, and who, at that moment, was conversing with a neighbor.

 

“Here comes Maestro Romão, pai José,” said the neighbor.

 

“Oh! Good-bye, sinhá!”

 

Pai José jumped up, went into the house, and waited for the Maestro, who, in a little while, entered in his usual manner. The house was neither luxurious nor cheerful. There was not even the slightest trace of a woman, old or young, no little birds that sang, no flowers, or lively or joyful colors. It was a gloomy, barren house. The most cheerful object was the harpsichord, which Maestro Romão would sometimes play while contemplating. On a nearby chair, there were some sheets of music. None was his.

 

Ah! If only Maestro Romão could, he would be a great composer. It seems as though there are two types of callings: those that have a voice and those that do not. The former are successful. The latter experience a constant and sterile struggle between inner impulses and the absence of a means of communication with others; Romão represented the latter. He possessed an innate calling for music. He carried within himself many operas and masses, a world of new and original harmonies that he did not manage to express or put down on paper. That was the real cause of Maestro Romão’s sadness. Naturally, people did not fully understand that sadness. Some used to attribute it to one thing, while others attributed it to another: illness, a lack of money, or some old grief. However, the truth is this: the reason

for Maestro Romão’s unhappiness was his inability to compose, to express what he felt. It was not as though he had not scribbled a lot down on paper or probed his harpsichord for hours on end. But everything came out of him shapelessly, without either inspiration or harmony. He recently had come to feel ashamed of his lack of originality, and now he no longer tried.

 

And in the meantime, if he could, he would at least try to finish a certain work: a wedding song he had begun three days after his marriagein 1779. His wife, who was then twenty-one years of age, and who died at twenty-three, was not very pretty, not even somewhat. However, she was extremely kind and loved him as much as he loved her.

 

Three days after their marriage, Maestro Romão felt something like an inspiration come from within. He then envisioned the wedding song and wanted to compose it. However, the inspiration could not be expressed. Like a bird that had just been captured and tried to escape through the bars of the cage. Down, up, anxious, and frightened. It was in this way that the inspiration was thrashing about within our musician, locked inside of him, not able to come out, finding no door, nothing. Some notes flowed and he wrote them down, filling only one sheet of paper, nothing more. He persisted on the following day, ten days afterwards, and on twenty occasions during the time he was married. When his wife died, he reread those first conjugal notes and was again left sadder for not having been able to put down on paper that feeling of lifeless happiness.

 

Pai José,” he said as he came in, “I feel out of sorts today.”

 

Sinhô ate something that did not agree with you . . .”

 

“No, I have not been well since this morning. Go to the drug store . . .”

 

The druggist sent over something that Maestro Romão took that night. On the next day, Maestro Romão still did not feel any better. It is important to say that he suffered from heart disease—a serious and chronic illness. Pai José became frightened when he realized that neither medication nor rest alleviated the pain. He wanted to call the doctor.

 

“What for?” said the Maestro, “it will go away.”

 

He did not get any worse that day, and he held up well throughout the night. Not so for the black man, who barely slept two hours. The neighborhood, which had just found out what was going on, spoke of nothing else. Those who had maintained a relationship with the Maestro went to visit him. They told him that there was nothing to worry about, that he was bothered by minor illnesses of the times. One added comically that it was a clever ploy on his part to avoid the beating that the druggist was giving him in backgammon. Another said it was love. Maestro Romão smiled, although he was telling himself that he was nearing the end.

 

“It is over,” he thought.

 

One morning, five days after the celebration, the doctor found him really ill, and that was exactly what Maestro Romão read into the doctor’s expression, behind the misleading words.

 

“It is nothing! It is better not to think of music.”

 

Music! The doctor’s very words gave the Maestro an idea. As soon as he was alone, with the slave, he opened the drawer where he had kept, since 1779, the wedding song that he had begun. He reread those difficultly formed and unfinished notes. Then he had an extraordinary idea. He would finish the work now, regardless of how it turned out. Whatever he could compose would be fine. At least he would leave a little of his soul on Earth.

 

“Who knows? If, in 1880, the work is performed, someone may say that a certain Maestro Romão . . .”

 

The beginning of the song ended with a certain la; this la, which fell nicely into place, was the last written note. Maestro Romão ordered his harpsichord brought to the back room, the one that looked out onto the garden. He needed fresh air. While standing by the window, he was able to see through the window at the back of another house. He saw newlyweds, who had been married for only eight days, leaning forward with their arms on each other’s shoulders, hands clasped. Maestro Romão smiled sadly. “They are just starting out, whereas I am on my way out,” he said. “I am going to compose this song, which perhaps they can play . . .”

 

He sat down at the harpsichord. He reproduced the notes and came to the la. . . .

 

La, la, la. . . .

 

Nothing. He did not get any farther. Nonetheless, he knew music as well as he

did people.

 

La, do . . . la, mi . . . la, si, do, re . . . re . . . re . . .

 

Impossible! There was no inspiration. It was not that he wanted a profoundly original piece; but something, at least, that was not like any one else’s, in order to complete what was already begun. He returned to the beginning again; he repeated the notes, hoping to recover a shred of the obscured sensation. He thought about his wife and the early years. In order to complete the illusion, he stared out of the window in the direction of the newlyweds. They were still there arm in arm, hands clasped. The only difference was that now they were looking into each other’s eyes instead of looking down. Short of breath from his illness and impatience, Maestro Romão returned to the harpsichord; the sight of the newlyweds failed to provide him with the necessary inspiration. The succeeding notes did not come.

 

La . . . la . . . la . . .

 

In despair, he got up from the harpsichord. He grabbed the paper on which he had written; he proceeded to tear it up. At that very moment the young girl, enraptured by her husband’s stare, spontaneously began to hum something never sung nor heard before. It had an unmistakable la, followed by a beautiful musical phrase. It was exactly the one that Maestro Romão had been pursuing, although not discovering, for so many years. The Maestro listened to it sadly, he shook his head, and that night he died.

 

 

—from K. David Jackson (ed.), Oxford Anthology of the Brazilian Short Story, 2006

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