Esau and Jacob is the last of Machado de Assis's four great novels. At one level it is the story of twin brothers in love with the same woman and her inability to choose between them. At another level, it is the story of Brazil itself, caught between the traditional and the modern, and between the monarchical and republican ideals. Instead of a heroic biblical fable, Machado de Assis gives us a story of the petty squabbles, conflicting ambitions, doubts, and insecurities that are part of the human condition.
Like Balzac's Human Comedy, Machado de Assis's major novels provide readers with a social physiognomy--a map of surface phenomena that indicate deeper cultural meaning. This novel, written in 1904, harks back to the waning years of Brazil's monarchy, in the 1880s. Natividade and Augostinho Santos are upper-class Brazilians living in Rio de Janeiro. When Natividade gives birth to twins, she succumbs to "plebian" superstition by anonymously visiting an Indian fortune-teller who hints that her twins fought in the womb. Even after birth, the brothers are continually in conflict. Pedro is a legitimist, who hangs a portrait of Louis XVI over his bed; Paulo is a radical, hanging a picture of Robespierre over his. Their status as adversaries is cemented by their dueling courtship of one girl: Flora Batista. While Flora's parents try to anticipate the events that will transform Brazil from a kingdom to a republic, Flora puzzles over her choice of lovers. Her indecision leads her first into hallucination and finally into death. In Machado's novels, the characters' observations of the plot are as important as the plot itself. The observers here are Natividade, who notices the hostility between her sons, and Counselor Aires, a retired diplomat who records his thoughts in a series of notebooks. Disguising his contrarian viewpoints in baroque compliments, Aires positions himself as a detached psychologist, searching for the truths of temperament beneath ephemeral conflicts of opinion. Machado is both a first-rate humorist and a prescient experimenter with narrative convention. This fresh translation, sponsored by the Library of Latin America, will hopefully attract new readers to one of the great 19th-century novelists. (Oct.) FYI: Esau and Jacob is edited, with a foreword and notes, by Dain Borges, and includes an afterword by Carlos Felipe Mois s. Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.