Epitaph of a Small Winner

Epitaph of a Small Winner



The Pequod Review:

Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis (1839-1908) was one of the great early Brazilian novelists, whose books have a depth and freshness that make them excellent reads even for modern audiences. His best book is Epitaph of a Small Winner (alternately titled The Posthumous Memoirs of Bras Cubas), a charming and amusing fictional memoir written by the narrator Bras Cubas after his death. The first chapter of the book gives an immediate sense of its playfulness and irreverence:

Chapter One – The Death of the Author

I hesitated some time, not knowing whether to open these memoirs at the beginning or the end, i.e., whether to start with my birth or with my death. Granted, the usual practice is to begin with one’s birth, but two considerations led me to adopt a different method: the first is that, properly speaking, I am a deceased writer not in the sense of one who has written and is now deceased, but in the sense of one who has died and is now writing, a writer for whom the grave was really a new cradle; the second is that the book would thus gain in merriment and novelty. Moses, who also related his own death, placed it not at the beginning but at the end: a radical difference between this book and the Pentateuch.

Accordingly: I expired at two o’clock of a Friday afternoon in the month of August, 1869, at my lovely suburban home in Catumby. I was sixty-four, sturdy, prosperous, and single, was worth about three hundred contos, and was accompanied to the cemetery by eleven friends. Only eleven! True, there has been no invitations and no notices in the newspapers. Moreover, there was a fine drizzle…

What follows is an entertaining, and generally chronological, account of Bras Cubas’s life. While Cubas died without having realized any personal or professional success, his narrative is consistently engaging and full of wit and absurdity. Almost despite himself, he comes up with occasionally profound aphorisms about human nature:

Man is...a thinking erratum, that's what he is. Every season of life is an edition that corrects the one before and which will also be corrected itself until the definitive edition, which the publisher gives to the worms gratis.

The book also has a cheery self-awareness, with side comments addressed directly to the reader. In one section, Machado offers us a choice:

The book must suffice in itself: if it please you, excellent reader, I shall be rewarded for my labor; if it please you not, I shall reward you with a snap of my fingers, and good riddance to you.

By the end of the book, he emerges with a measure of optimism, as he finds solace in the fact that at least he didn’t pass along his unhappiness to any children: “I had no progeny, I transmitted to no one the legacy of our misery.”