Extract > Dom Casmurro
First published in 1899, Dom Casmurro is acknowledged as the finest achievement of the Brazilian novelist Machado de Assis and among the most important novels ever written in the Portuguese language.
Bentinho, only child of a rich widow, lives next door to Capitu, the beautiful and charismatic daughter of a lowly government official. Childhood friendship turns to love, but an obstacle to their union exists in a vow made by the boy’s mother that her son should go to the seminary to become a priest. The situation appears hopeless, but the resourceful and ambitious Capitu is not so easily discouraged…
Written from Bentinho’s perspective, Dom Casmurro is one of the finest examples of unreliable narration. Here, quite brilliantly, he describes the moment youthful romance is realized, while simultaneously hinting at something latent in Capitu’s character.
Everything aroused Capitu’s curiosity. There were times, however, when I don’t know whether she was learning or teaching or doing both together as I did. I’ll save that for another chapter. In this one I’ll merely say that some days after my agreement with José Dias I went next door to see my friend. It was ten o’clock in the morning, and Dona Fortunata, who was in the garden, did not even wait for me to ask after her daughter.
‘She’s in the living-room combing her hair,’ she said. ‘Creep in quietly and give her a fright.’
I crept in, but either my feet or the mirror betrayed me. It probably wasn’t the latter, which was a little twopenny mirror (pardon its cheapness) bought from an Italian pedlar, with a rough frame and a tin hook, hanging on the wall between the two windows. If it wasn’t that it was my feet. Whichever it was, the truth is that I had barely entered the room when comb, hair, the girl herself flew into the air and I heard her say, ‘What’s wrong?’
‘Nothing’s wrong,’ I replied. ‘I came round to see you before Father Cabral arrives for his lesson. How did you get on last night?’
‘All right. Hasn’t José Dias spoken yet?’
‘I don’t think so.’
‘When is he going to?’
‘He told me that today or tomorrow he’ll bring up the subject. He won’t go straight to the point but just mention it in passing. Then he’ll say what he has to. First he wants to find out whether my mother has made up her mind …’
‘Her mind’s made up all right,’ interrupted Capitu. ‘And if we didn’t need someone to win her over once and for all it wouldn’t be worth broaching the matter. I don’t know whether José Dias has that much influence, but I think he’ll do everything he can if he’s convinced you don’t want to be a priest. But will he be able to? She normally listens to him. But if … Oh, this is hell! You insist he does, Bentinho.’
‘I will. He’ll have to speak to her today.’
‘I promise. Let me see your eyes, Capitu.’
I had remembered José Dias’s description of them, ‘sly and cunning like a gypsy’s’. I didn’t know what he meant by sly, but I knew what cunning was, and I wanted to see whether they could be called that. Capitu allowed me to gaze at them and examine them, only asking what the matter was and whether I hadn’t seen them before. I found nothing out of the ordinary – their colour and their tenderness were well known to me. My drawn-out contemplation apparently gave her a different idea of my intention; she imagined that it was a pretext to look at them much closer, with my longing eyes steadily fixed on hers, and as a result her own grew larger, ever larger and darker, with an expression that …
Rhetorical muse of lovers, give me an exact poetical image to describe those eyes of Capitu. I can think of no comparison which, without lowering the dignity of the style, can convey what they were and the effect they produced on me. Whirlpool eyes? Very well then, whirlpool eyes be it. That is the idea her new expression brings to mind. They had some mysterious, powerful fluidity that drew one into them like a whirlpool or a wave receding from the beach on a stormy day. So as not to be dragged in I clung to neighbouring parts – her ears, her arms, her hair that fell loosely over her shoulders. But immediately I returned to seek those pupils, that ever-growing wave, dark and profound, that threatened to reach out, suck me in and engulf me. How many minutes did our game last? Only the clocks of heaven could register a space of time so infinite and yet so brief. Eternity has its own clocks, which never stop, yet still it wishes to know the duration of our joys and our suffering. To know the extent of the torments of their enemies in hell serves to double the pleasures of the favoured of heaven. Similarly, the number of the delights their foes enjoy in heaven increases the agony of those condemned to hell. This further torture was omitted by the divine Dante. But I have no intention here of emending the poets. What I wish to say is that after a brief pause I seized hold of Capitu’s hair, this time with my hands, and said to her – for the sake of saying something – that I would comb it for her if she wished.
‘More likely you’ll get it all tangled.’
‘If I get it tangled you can disentangle it afterwards.’
Capitu turned her back to me and faced the mirror again. I took hold of her hair, gathered it together and began passing the comb through it from her forehead down to the very tips, which hung at her waist. But with her standing up it was no use. Don’t forget that she was a trifle taller than I, though I would have had the same problem had we been the same height. I asked her to sit down. ‘It’ll be better if you sit down here.’
She sat down. ‘Now we shall see the famous hairdresser,’ she said, with a laugh.
I went on combing her hair with the utmost care, dividing it into two parts to form the two plaits. I did not do this all at once, or quickly as professional hairdressers might suppose, but slowly and deliberately, savouring the touch of those threads that were a part of her. It was clumsily performed, sometimes through carelessness, at others on purpose so that I could undo what had been done and redo it. My fingers brushed her neck or the cotton frock that covered her shoulders, giving me a sensation of pure delight. But no matter how much I wished it interminable, her hair ended. I did not pray to heaven to make it as long as that of Aurora because I was as yet unacquainted with that divinity, to whom the old poets introduced me later in life. But I wanted to go on combing it for centuries on end, to weave two plaits that would enclose eternity in an infinite number of coils. If you find this too exaggerated, unhappy reader, it is because you have never combed a young girl’s hair, never placed your adolescent hands on the youthful head of a nymph … A nymph! I’m completely given up to mythology. Just now, speaking of her whirlpool eyes, I even wrote ‘Thetis’. I crossed out ‘Thetis’, so let us cross out ‘nymph’, too. We’ll merely say a beloved creature, a word that includes every power, both Christian and pagan. Finally I finished the two plaits. Where was the ribbon to tie the ends together? There on the table was a miserable piece of crumpled silk. I joined the ends of the plaits, tied them together with a bow, put the final touches to my work, plumping it out here, flattening it there, and then said, ‘It’s finished.’
‘Does it look nice?’
‘Have a look in the mirror.’
Instead of going to the mirror what do you think Capitu did? Don’t forget she was sitting down, facing away from me. Capitu leaned backwards, tilting her head so far that I was obliged to catch hold of her to prevent her falling, for the back of the chair was low. Then I bent over her, which brought our heads together, but inverted so that the eyes of the one were in line with the mouth of the other. I told her to lift her head up or she would get dizzy or hurt her neck. I went so far as to say she looked ugly, but not even that argument moved her.
‘Get up, Capitu.’
She wouldn’t. She didn’t raise her head, and we remained there gazing at each other until her lips parted, my own drew closer, and …
That kiss produced an extraordinary effect. Capitu stood up quickly, while I retreated against the wall in a kind of trance, speechless and misty-eyed. When these cleared I saw that Capitu had hers fixed on the ground. I did not dare to speak, and even had I wanted to my tongue was tied. Dazed and incapable of movement I had no strength to tear myself from the wall and throw myself at her feet with a thousand passionate words of endearment. Do not mock my fifteen years, precocious reader. At seventeen, Des Grieux (Des Grieux himself) had as yet given no thought to the difference between the sexes.
We heard footsteps in the corridor; it was Dona Fortunata. Capitu pulled herself together quickly, so quickly that when her mother reached the door she was shaking her head and laughing. With no guilty look or trace of embarrassment her laughter was frank and spontaneous, and she justified it by saying gaily, ‘Mamma, look what this fine gentleman hairdresser has done to my hair. He asked me if he could finish combing it, and this is what he has done. Just look at these plaits.’
‘What’s wrong with it?’ said her mother, good-humouredly. ‘It looks very nice. No one would say it was done by someone who didn’t know how to arrange hair.’
‘What, Mamma? This?’ retorted Capitu, undoing the plaits. ‘How can you say that, Mamma?’
And with that charming, capricious air of disdain she occasionally displayed, she picked up the comb and passed it through her hair to redo it. Dona Fortunata called her stupid and told me not to mind, her daughter was just a scatterbrain. She gazed tenderly from one to the other. Then, so it seemed, she grew suspicious. Seeing me standing silent, glued to the wall, she perhaps realized that we had been engaged in something more than hairdressing and gave a dissimulating smile.
Since I, too, was anxious to say something to disguise my confusion, I summoned up a few words; they came all right but in such a rush that they filled my mouth, not one being able to escape. Capitu’s kiss had sealed my lips. No matter how hard I tried I was unable to utter so much as an exclamation, not a single syllable. All my words flowed back to my heart with the message: Here’s a fellow who won’t get very far in the world as long as he is dominated by his emotions …
And so, caught red-handed by her mother, we were two utterly different people – she concealing with her words what I cried aloud by my silence. Dona Fortunata brought my hesitation to an end by saying that my mother had sent for me for my Latin lesson; Father Cabral was waiting for me. It was a means of escape; I said goodbye and went out into the corridor. As I went I heard the mother scolding her daughter for her bad manners, but the daughter made no reply.
I ran to my room and gathered my books, but instead of going down for my lesson I sat on my bed to think about the hairdressing and the rest. I shuddered and suffered black-outs in which I lost consciousness of myself and the things around me. Then I came to and I saw the bed, the walls, the books and the floor; I heard some vague sound outside, either near or far off, and then everything vanished and I could feel only Capitu’s lips … I could feel them, soft and full, against my own, pressed to hers, joining each to the other. Suddenly, involuntarily, without thinking, the proud words broke from my mouth, ‘I am a man!’
I was afraid that someone might have heard me, for I spoke the words out loud. I ran to the bedroom door, but there was no one outside. I came back inside and repeated to myself in a whisper that I was a man. I can still hear the echo of those words. The joy they gave me was indescribable. Columbus knew no greater when he discovered America. Forgive me the banality in view of its aptness, for it is a fact that in every adolescent there is an undiscovered world, an admiral and an October sun. More discoveries were to come later, but none stirred me so much as that. José Dias’s accusation had alarmed me, as had the old palm tree’s advice, and our names scratched on the wall by Capitu had been a shock; but these were nothing compared to the ardour of that kiss. Such feelings might have been false or illusory. But if they were true, they were the bare bones of truth, not its flesh and blood. Even our hands touching, clasping, fused, as it were, together, could not express everything.
‘I am a man!’
When I repeated this for the third time I thought about the seminary but did so as one thinks of a danger that has passed, an evil avoided, a nightmare ended. Every instinct told me that men are not priests. My blood was of the same opinion. Once again I felt the touch of Capitu’s lips. Perhaps I am overdoing my osculatory reminiscences, but it is the essence of nostalgia to live and relive our memories of the past. And of all those from that time, this was, I believe, the sweetest, the freshest, the most all-embracing, the one which most clearly revealed me to myself … I have others, also sweet, vast and numerous, of various kinds, many of them intellectual and equally vivid. But no man, however great, can have any to match this.
MACHADO DE ASSIS, Brazil’s greatest novelist, was born a mulatto and an epileptic in a poor carioca district of Rio de Janeiro in 1839. Throughout his life he never ventured more than a few miles outside his native city, working as a newspaper reporter before entering the Civil Service where he rose to become head of a department. A happily married man, he devoted all his spare time to writing, publishing more than two hundred short stories and nine novels, including Esau and Jacob, Yayá Garcia and The Wager (also published by Peter Owen). Machado de Assis was one of the founders of the Brazilian Academy of Letters and its first president. He died in 1908.