Thursday, June 4, 2009

Douglas Messerli | To the Dogs (on Domício Coutinho's Duke, the Dog Priest and Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis's Quincas Borba)

Machado de Assis

Domicio Coutinho

Douglas Messerli
To the Dogs

Domício Coutinho Duke – O cachorro Padre (Recife, Brasil: Bagaço, 1998), translated from the Portuguese by Clifford Landers as Duke, the Dog Priest (Los Angeles: Green Integer, 2009)

Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis, Quincas Borba (Rio de Janeiro: Pariz. H.Garnier, 1892)
Translated from the Portuguese by Clotilde Wilson as Philosopher or Dog? (Quincas Borba)
(New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux/Noonday Press, 1954)

From the very beginning pages of Duke, the Dog Priest the reader is thrown into a debate underlying the absurdity of Brazilian author Domício Coutinho’s premise: for his novel fabulously purports to be the tale of a dog who desired to become a priest—or a least to learn Latin. Most American readers—readers who have encountered few twentieth-century native examples of this genre within the confines of “serious fiction” outside of works such as John Hawkes’ Sweet William and The Frog, Tom La Farge’s The Crimson Bears, and a handful of other works—may quietly put down this book, send for their children, or read on in the hopes of encountering a lightweight fantasy. Americans have no great literary tradition of animal characters as do the Japanese, for example, with books such as I Am a Cat, or the Brazilians, well acquainted with their early classic—to which this work makes reference—Quincas Borba, Machado de Assis’s story of a philosopher dog.

Indeed, at times in this remarkable narrative there are fantastical elements—particularly when Duke takes to the street as a free dog, and reencounters a former dog-acquaintance Poor Devil—that seem almost to belong to the Disneyfied world of Lady and the Tramp. But let the reader be warned: this tale, narrated by Amarante, a Brazilian and former sacristan (“he prepares the altar, lights candles, assists at mass, teaches prayers, aids virgins, widows and abandoned wives. He also secretly tests the virtues and character of the wine”) living in New York (Nova Eboracense), will challenge the most sophisticated of readers in its dazzling mix of priests, brothers, nuns, students, church workers, parishioners, city luminaries and, yes, a dog named Duke and the marvelous tales of their interrelationships. If Duke, the Dog Priest were to have a single theme at its center—and fortunately Coutinho presents an almost perversely diverse and multifaceted world wrapped around dozens of thematic possibilities—it would be that even the smallest of actions affects nearly everyone. And, in that sense, each small tale within this encyclopedic work of stories within stories is as important as the next in its inevitable interconnectedness.

Recognizing this fact, the wise critic might leave it at that, highly recommending the book to his readers without attempting to unravel the tightly interlinked narratives at the heart of this book. I am a somewhat foolish commentator, I suspect, and accordingly will attempt to share some of my reading experiences, particularly since this is a book which, as a sage publisher, I hope to someday bring to press.

Duke, the Dog Priest is not truly centered on the adventures of its “central” canine character. Strangely, moreover, given the likeable character of this faithful beast, many of the figures of St. Thecla, a church that was formerly a convent school with an adjoining school run by nuns, find it difficult to tolerate an animal in their midst. Father Thomas would as soon (and later does) kick the poor dog in its haunches as care for it. The kitchen’s dishwasher, Boris steers clear of the beast. From the start we are told that Father Creus, the church chronicler, is the source of many of the stories concerning the miraculous adventures of Duke, but his relationship with the dog within the fiction itself is minimal. Duke, a vengeful gift from a beautiful three-time widow, is loved and cared for by only two major figures in this fiction (three if we include Dorothy’s cousin, Lourdes, whose own female dog, Lora, is sister to Duke and later—to employ the anthropomorphic language of this book—his “beloved” bitch): Little Fred, a kitchen worker, and the intensely pious Brother Alphonse. The vast majority of stories in this volume reveal the pasts and presents of the whirlwind of figures living within and outside of the religious community.

Although Duke is not truly at the center of this fiction, his bestial actions are. The reader is led to understand from the beginning how exceptional he is: how, overhearing classroom lessons in church catechism, he desires to embrace the faith, how he wishes to learn Latin, is willing to become a “dog priest,” and how he comprehends the structure of the universe. Yet Duke is unable to follow one of the most important tenets of priesthood: chastity. The major event of the fiction, indeed, is his carnal (and incestuous) mating with his dog-sister Lora, an incident that occurs while Brother Alphonse shops in a store, outside of which he has tied the dog. Upon returning to the street, Alphonse is so shocked (and, apparently, allured) by these animals in sexual frieze that he is unable to take action in order to separate the two. The event, which he confesses to his fellow brothers and priests over dinner, is dismissed as something beyond his control; but as the evening progresses, he comes to realize that his inability to act was in some respect an identification with the animal and an indirect participation in the bestial (and incestuous) act. Unable to approach the severely critical Father Thomas, he seeks, with Duke in tow, outside help, but is refused confession at a nearby church because of the late hour. Sent far uptown on a quest for a place where he can confess, he is tormented by the denizens of the late night streets, and, after discovering that the church for which he is searching is temporarily closed, he turns back, tortured by self-doubt and what he believes are the devil’s taunts.

Encountering a prostitute, (Rosely, formerly a young student of the adjoining school, cast out because of drawing sexual graffiti, including a picture of the brother himself, upon the bathroom walls) he passively accepts her invitation to have sex in her nearby apartment. Returning to the church, having dragged the poor dog behind him in his rush to escape, he hangs himself as punishment. Recognizing his master’s desperation, Duke attempts to save him, but is, after all, only a dog, and, ultimately, can only bark to awaken the other brothers from their sleep—too late.

The consequences of this terrible act of obsession are numerous: Duke runs away in the process of attempting to follow the funeral cortège; Rosely determines to become a religious novitiate in recompense for her seduction; Father Thomas’s sometimes violent determination is weakened, his faith threatened; Boris gradually falls into madness. Despite the trials and tribulations put before her, Rosely is confirmed, learning at the affair the identity of her mother—and father. Returning for a visit, Amarante discovers that the previously spiritually motivated world has literally gone to the dogs: St. Thecla has been destroyed, the only remaining remnants of the life of the religious community being Little Fred walking Duke’s son, Rex, and Father Thomas now living where few readers might suspect. And Duke? In a terrible storm, he has been lifted up into the stars and now sits at the foot of Sirius, the luminary of the constellation Canis Major, the Great Dog.

At times almost a manual of religious percepts, at other times a catalogue of neighborhood gossip, a fable about the ability of both man and beast to overcome impossible odds, a tale of both incredible faith and insufferable doubt, Duke, the Dog Priest reminds us that, like Felipe Alfau’s nearly lost masterwork, Chromos, some of the best of American writing is the gift of its nonnative-born residents.

Reprinted from The New Review of Literature, V, no. 1 (Fall 2007)
Copyright ©2007 by Douglas Messerli

The major character of Brazilian novelist Machado de Assis’ great classic, Quincas Borba—translated into English as Philosopher or Dog?—is a kind of everyman, an innocent who is deluded and ultimately goes mad, but is far from being “dim-witted” as the book’s jacket describes him. Rubião has once been a director of a boy’s school, we are told, and has closed the school in order to care for a friend, Quincas Borba, a philosopher who is ailing. He comes under the influence of the philosopher in attempting to comprehend certain of his teachings, most notably Borba’s theories of “Humanitism” which maintain, among other things, that the major principle of the life is humanity, a “unique, universal, eternal, common, indivisible and indestructible force that sums up the universe, and the universe is man.” As does Candide’s Pangloss, Borba, accordingly, argues in his circular logic that, given such a role, the human race necessarily must behave as it behaves, fighting for survival and dominance, even war being seen as a beneficial preservative.

Although near death, Borba suddenly determines to travel from his home in Barbacena to Rio de Janeiro to take care of business affairs, leaving the care of his dog, whom Quincas Borba has named after himself, to Rubião. After several weeks, the friend receives a letter from the philosopher, wherein Borba claims to be Saint Augustine, and a week later the old man dies, willing his entire estate—along with the care of his dog—to his disciple.

Although Rubião may not thoroughly comprehend the teachings of the philosopher, I have chosen the word “disciple” because the meandering plot that follows makes it clear that the author is in some manner retelling the story of Quincas Borba—detailing his descent from sanity to lunacy—in the tales of Rubião and his adventures in the great capitol city that follow.

Machado de Assis’ novel is nearly overstuffed with humanity representing, in one form or another, the principles of “Humanitism,” characters fighting for survival and dominance, most often at the one another’s expense. On the train to Rio, Rubião meets a young couple, the predominant figures in his series of adventures, an intelligent young man, Christiano de Almeida e Palha, and his young wife Sophia. Enchanted with the meek and quiet Sophia and her exuberant, young husband, Rubião readily tells them of his new-found wealth and reveals his plans. The man is so disarmingly innocent that Christiano warns him not to tell his affairs to strangers: “Discretion and kind faces don’t always go together.”

Indeed, they do not! For, although Rubião soon makes friends with the couple, and is a regular visitor in their house, he is soon asked for loans of money, requests he is only too ready to grant. The seemingly shy woman is soon revealed as a flirtatious wife fully aware of her own beauty and only too ready to use it in conquering the hearts of the males she encounters, including Rubião. In his innocence, however, he confuses cultural flirtatiousness with romance, and crosses the line by admitting his love to Sophia, who responds with distressed shock. The friendship between the couple and Rubião soon resumes, in part, because the young Palha is still in his debt. An even closer relationship soon develops as Rubião becomes a partner in Palha’s new importing business.

Rubião has also made friends with Dr. Camacho, a politician/journalist whose politics seems to consist of being on the right side of every cause. He too is happy to consort with the new visitor to the city, particularly since Rubião is only too happy to fund his newspaper. Others avow friendship, rewarded with nightly gatherings at Rubião’s house with lavish meals and drink.

Sophia attempts to marry her cousin, now living with her and Palha, to Rubião with no success; ironically she is now courted at the dinner event by Carlos Maria, a young man far more handsome than Rubião, whose proclamations of to Sophia are received far differently from the older man’s. But Carlos Maria, unlike the smitten Rubião, is not truly in love with anyone except himself; his marriage to Sophia’s cousin, Maria Benedicta, is perfect, for she has such a low self-esteem that she is quite willing to serve as a submissive wife and accept his common outbursts of dissatisfaction with her and their life together.

Meanwhile, Palha, who now serves as executor to Rubião’s finances, is increasingly impatient with the man’s readiness to give away his fortune, including gifts of jewelry to his own wife. As Palha becomes more and more successful—despite the fact that he has still not repaid his own debt to Rubião—he ends their partnership, perhaps so that he will not have share his own new-found wealth. The nightly dinners at Rubião’s home continue, despite the fact that the host is often late or absent from the events. Just as Rubião has been misled in affairs of the heart of Sophia and others, so is he misled in politics by Camacho, who insists that Rubião will soon elected to government office. In short, ideas of grandeur gradually expand in Rubião’s mind, as he begins gradually to lose his sense of perspective, harboring a suspicion that Quincas Borba, the philosopher, may actually reside in the dog for whom he has become the guardian.

Numerous other characters come and go in Rubião’s increasingly frenetic life—figures who, like nearly all the Rio de Janeiro citizens the author presents, struggle for what Quincas Borba has described as “the potatoes” of life, not only the true necessities but what they mistakenly perceive as necessary for their pleasures—money, love, class, power. Is it any wonder that Rubião, who has been only generous and open in all his relationships, should also desire these things?

Convinced he is Napoleon III, Rubião alternates between moments of sanity and utter lunacy, ultimately going along the streets greeting his imaginary subjects, followed by gangs of mocking children, including a young boy whose life he once saved from being overrun by a carriage. Like the philosopher before him, given the behavior of the vast humanity into which he has been thrown, Rubião becomes “someone else,” a being at war with the world about him.

Now without money, Rubião has little to offer his former friends, who half-heartedly (the easily distracted and comically portrayed Dona Fernanda being, perhaps, the one exception) seek treatment for him; but as he comes close to being cured, Rubião determines to return to his old home in Barbacena, where the “fever” once more overcomes him. Although he has taken in by an old friend, he dies laughing: “To the victor, the potatoes!” The dog—or is he, after all, the true philosopher, himself seeking attention and love—dies three days later in the street.

Machado de Assis’s brilliant satire is at once a loving acceptance of the condition of man, and a somewhat cynical view of mankind’s intentions. As the author, himself, explains the apparent contradiction: “The Southern Cross, which the beautiful Sophia would not gaze upon as Rubião begged her to do, is too high in the heavens to distinguish between man’s laughter and tears.”

Copyright ©2009 by Douglas Messerli


  1. I recently came accross your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I dont know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.


  2. I recently came accross your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I dont know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.