Friday, July 24, 2020

Brazilian Tales, edited by Isaac Goldberg

Foundations of a national literature
Machado de Assis
As one might expect, Brazilian Tales, published in 1921, is a collection of short stories by Brazilian writers. The volume was edited by Isaac Goldberg, a literary jack-of-all-trades who translated works from French, Italian, German, Yiddish, Spanish, and in this case, Portuguese. Goldberg also wrote over 30 volumes of the Little Blue Books series in diverse areas such as biography, music, freethought, and world literature, including The Spirit of Brazilian Literature and Brazilian Short Stories. In addition to the six short stories collected in this volume, Goldberg also supplies a brief but educational introduction to the history of Brazilian letters. He explains that Brazilian literature began as an extension of Portuguese literature and often tried to emulate European culture. By the end of the 19th century, however, Brazil had developed its own national literature, unique to Brazilian culture and society, that deserved to be recognized worldwide.

If Brazilians were asked to choose their nation’s greatest author, the consensus would likely be Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis. According to Goldberg,“When the Brazilian Academy of Letters was founded in 1897, Machado de Assis was unanimously elected president and held the position until his death.” Half of the six selections Goldberg includes in this volume are authored by Machado de Assis. The first two entries, “The Attendant’s Confession” and “The Fortune-Teller,” are both suspenseful tales somewhat reminiscent of Edgar Allen Poe. Though murder figures into both plots, however, they are more about morality than the macabre. The third selection, “Life,” is a horse of a different color. This piece is a dialogue between the legendary “Wandering Jew” Ahasverus and the Greek god Prometheus. Nineteenth century writers loved to invoke classical mythology for such philosophical exercises, but “Life” is unlikely to hold much appeal for twenty-first century readers.

Of the remaining selections, “The Vengeance of Felix” by José Medeiros e Albuquerque is the least satisfying. This tale of revenge concludes with an intended “surprise twist” ending, but the reader sees it coming a mile away. The last two entries are of higher literary merit. Coelho Netto’s “The Pigeons,” uses a native superstition to heighten the poignancy of a family tragedy in an Indigenous household. In “Aunt Zeze’s Tears,” the title character is a proverbial “old maid,” but still young enough to hold out hope for finding love. Author Carmen Dolores delivers a nuanced and psychologically insightful character study that results in a quite moving narrative.

This book is only about 150 pages long, and the word count on each page is pretty low. It seems that brevity was a major consideration in Goldberg’s selection criteria, and this is the book’s major fault. These stories, each of which is only 10 to 20 pages long, are over before they ever really go anywhere. Most are just character sketches followed by an abrupt ending. Nevertheless, the quality of the writing is quite good all around. Reading these brief scenes makes one wonder what these talented authors could do with an entire novel. To that end, Goldberg does suggest some novels in his introduction. Later in the 20th century, Latin-American literature gained in popularity, and Brazilian writers like Jorge Amado, Clarice Lispector, and Paolo Coelho achieved renown. Back in 1924, however, Goldberg was one of the first critics to draw attention to the literature of Brazil. His Brazilian Tales provides an informative and enticing introduction to that country’s literature of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Stories in this collection

The Attendant’s Confession by Jaoquim Maria Machado de Assis
The Fortune-Teller by Jaoquim Maria Machado de Assis
Life by Jaoquim Maria Machado de Assis
The Vengeance of Felix by José Medeiros e Albuquerque 
The Pigeons by Coelho Netto 
Aunt Zeze’s Tears by Carmen Dolores

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