A Singular Occurrence by Machado de Assis, 1883
The magic trick:
Mixing narrative voice with a pensive character study
You really can’t top the opening sentence of this one – at least in the translation I read. “Some really strange things happen,” our narrator says to both his friend and the reader. And away we go.
It reminds me of more recent voice-driven authors like Murakami or Bolaño, where the narrative spirit reaches out and grabs the reader from the start.
So we have that comparison established. But where those authors and those kinds of stories tend to continue in an almost iconoclastic fashion, this story – published in 1883 – is more interested in its characters than it is its voice.
In fact, it turns out to be a quiet, pensive, sad character study full of ambiguity.
Not the kind of thing you usually find mixed with such a voicey narration.
And that’s quite a trick on de Assis’s part.
‘Some really strange things happen. Do you see that lady over there, going into the Holy Cross Church? She’s just stopped in the porch to give a beggar some money.’
‘The one in black?’
‘That’s right: she’s just going in. She’s gone.’
‘Say no more. I can see the lady brings back memories, and recent ones, judging by her figure; she’s a fine-looking young woman.’
‘She must be forty-six.’
‘Oh! Well-preserved, then. Come on, stop staring at the ground and tell me everything. She’s a widow, of course?’
‘All right, her husband’s still alive. Old, I suppose?’
‘She’s not married.’
‘Sort of. She must be called Dona Maria something-or-other. In 1860 she was commonly known as Marocas. She wasn’t a seamstress, she didn’t own property, she didn’t run a school for girls; you’ll get there, by process of elimination. She lived in the Rua do Sacramento. In those days too she was slim, and certainly lovelier than she is today; she had quiet manners, and never swore. In the street, modest as she was, with her faded dress buttoned up to the neck, she still had a lot of admirers.’
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