I flew to Rio de Janeiro on a red-eye, having shared my brain all night with the writer Joachim Maria Machado de Assis, whose novel Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas (better known in English as Epitaph of a Small Winner) I’d read between snoozes. I was in Brazil to cheer on my sister, Sarah, competing in the Olympic Games in triathlon. I try to be a good literary citizen and had bought the book because I wanted to see Rio not just in its new Olympic colors, but also in the strange and shimmering light of literary history.
As the main character of Epitaph of a Small Winner, Brás Cubas says of the novel he is narrating, “this book and my style are like a pair of drunks: they stagger to the right and to the left, they start and they stop, they mutter, they roar, they guffaw, they threaten the sky, they slip and fall. . . .” Rio itself seemed half-drunk, this late in the Games, which had been going on for over ten days, and would finish in a great burst of fireworks and weepy flag-waving the day after my sister’s race. There was something missing, I felt, looking out at this city I had loved so much in a previous lifetime, and I realized that what made it feel a little empty was that I was there without my husband. Ten years ago, we had stayed on Ipanema Beach during our honeymoon, and the city had been sweaty, hot and sexy and bright, a little bit dangerous, full of nightclubs and beaches and strange and delicious food. We didn’t have children or a mortgage then; I’d just graduated from my MFA program and had giant dreams of writing, but no books yet. Rio felt young to us, but maybe we were projecting our own youth onto it.
In fact, Rio is a relatively old city—at least, for the New World—having been settled in 1502 by the Portuguese. The handprints of the colonialists are all over it, in the vibrant fishing life, in the architecture, and in the language, though Brazilian Portuguese sounds to me like someone speaking a very elegant Italian through a mouthful of sawdust. Machado de Assis was born in 1835, between worlds; he was the son of a half-black house painter and a white woman from Portugal. Though he wrote over thirty books, Epitaph of a Small Winner was Assis’s breakout novel, written in 1881 after the writer had suffered such a severe illness that he had to recover from it in a sanatorium. Perhaps because his health was so terrible—the translator of the edition I own calls him “epileptic, myopic, rickety”—the story is morbid, structured as the posthumous autobiography of an indolent and vain man named Brás Cubas, whose playfulness masks bitter misanthropy.