An inner voice seemed to be saying to him: “Sleepwalker, open your eyes, see what you are doing; your embrace is a hangman’s noose, your scruples make you odious; your solicitude is worse than angry rage.” – Machado de Assis, Helena
My hands may have trembled slightly as I turned the last few pages of this incredible book written by Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis, a turn of the century Brazilian writer, the powerful story, Helena, translated by Helen Caldwell, left me weakened with emotion.
“What thread of logic could tie together his broken, scattered ideas? He did not speak, he did not dare raise his eyes, he sat in a lifeless stupor.”
Something of a mystery story, hopeless love, capitulation to senseless societal expectation, and the bonds of family regard, the story is told by de Assis in such a way that my own doubts, suspicions, trust, and logic were strung along at his bidding. I tried to maintain an indifferent rational to puzzle out the truth, but I could not. I suspected where the author willed, I trusted at his word, and was struck down by the final revelation- I was, I confess, perfectly played.
“But where did reality cease and appearance begin? Had he been dealing with an unlucky wretch or with a hypocrite?”
The book is not very long but has many wonderful observations –
concerning love and affection: “There is no use arguing with sentiment: one loves or one hates, as the heart wills.”
Doubt and suspicion: “When suspicion germinates in the mind the least incident assumes a decisive aspect.”
Poverty and Wealth: “‘ I believe that a strong, young, intelligent man has no right to sink into penury.’ ‘Your remark,’ said the young man, smiling, ‘has the aroma of the chocolate that you drank, no doubt, this morning, sir, before going to hunt.'”
The aroma of chocolate- I love that. What a beautiful summation of entitlement and an inability, not from stupidity so much as from sheer ignorance, to comprehend the ill fortune of destitution.
“Do not speak,” the priest continued. “To deny it is to lie; to confess it is idle.”
But it is of course the multilayered love stories that intertwine to the point of strangulation that is the heart of the book. Parental, fraternal, incestual, romantic: it’s a tangle that de Assis unwinds and tightens with divine mastery. Wonderfully told, it’s the sort of book I have to let be still in my heart for a while before I can contemplate another.
“Even now that he abandoned me with the sole purpose of not taking away my happiness, he has wrested from me the last resource in which I had placed my hope…” – Machado de Assis, Helena