I had high hopes for Machado de Assis, but a reading of his best-known novel, The Posthumous Memoirs of Bras Cubas (earlier translated into English under the title Epitaph of a Small Winner), leaves me less than enthusiastic. The most immediately impressive and surprising thing about this novel is its publication date. The book is structurally so Modern, so Postmodern, so bizarrely and specifically and impossibly Nabokovian, that a reader is constantly forced to remind himself it was published in (gasp!) 1880. Even more than Moby Dick and The Confidence Man, Bras Cubas reads like a 20th-century novel written 75 years ahead of time. The intrusive, hyper-self-conscious narration; the 'magic realist' matter-of-factness toward impossible events (such as a narrator who begins writing only after he dies); the cavalier compression of space and time; the persistent provocation of readerly disbelief (the 'I am a book' gambit that produces a proto-Brechtian effect)--all of these characteristics signify literary modernity to modern readers. But we should probably remind ourselves that these same devices were likely seen by the novel's earliest readers as old-fashioned provocations, atavistic Tristram Shandyisms in an age of Realism. Machado's novel is as much a throwback to Sterne and Cervantes as an anticipation of Nabokov and Fuentes. Furthermore, if we look beyond the admittedly amazing formal experimentation, we find at the book's core a fairly conventional novel. Machado's aesthetic radicalism is a largely technical overlay upon a rather standard linear narrative that plays with the same golden balls of eros and inheritance that Balzac batted around, juggled, and sometimes dropped. The core of Bras Cubas is a story we've read many times before. (The narrator seems aware of this, but he can do nothing about the fact that his life is commonplace. He is, after all, dead.)
One aspect of the novel that will certainly shock and alienate modern readers is the matter of factness with which the characters view human slavery. This is surely Machado at his most realistic. The upper-class white inhabitants of 19th-century Brazil portrayed in this book see slavery as an unproblematic fact of life; they accept it implicitly and speak of it without a hint of anxiety or critical consciousness. This touch of realism, rather than Machado's much-discussed experimentation, may be the most mind-bending thing about his novel today.