This most unique novel is very well known and well regarded in Brazil, but is largely unknown elsewhere. Every once in a while it’s “rediscovered” (most recently, due to a new translation) by someone who wonders how a novel from the late 19th century can be so modern.
This is my second reading (first time was back in high school), and it remains one of the most hilarious, most radical and most puzzling (in a good way) novels I’ve read. Like Pale Fire, which I read earlier this year, it plays so much with the form of the novel that it’s hard to say what the novel is. It could be called postmodern, except it’s not recent enough for that.
Part of it is a straightforward love story; part of it is social critique, and part of it is about philosophy and the human condition. The structure of the novel consists of hundreds of very short chapters, which means that it’s constantly switching gears. Despite that the author of the memoirs is supposed to be dead, which means that he’s not bound by time constraints or fear of public opinion, which would allow him to write an honest history of his life, his writing is full of twists and turns, never settling into a conventional narrative.
It’s so full of energy that it’s not surprising that people think of it as very current. It doesn’t feel like a 19th century novel at all. Although, it might show a bit of age in the references it makes–and the book makes many, both to itself and to other literary works: a lot of them are references to 18th and 19th century works that might not be familiar to modern readers. (Some of them were not familiar to me, to be sure.) Otherwise it’s as current as ever.