Stories by Machado de Assis

Machado de Assis. (Photograph by Marc Ferrez. 1890.)

Machado de Assis. (Photograph by Marc Ferrez. ca. 1880.)

Dalkey Archive Press has just released a collection of newly translated stories written by Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis. The collection is a good occasion for noting that Modernism in fiction was not the exclusive province of Europe and did not have to wait for Joyce. The stories in this collection were published in various Brazilian journals between the mid-1870s to the mid-1880s. This is the period that Machado made a radical shift in style, transforming himself from an amusing teller of parlor romances to a clear-sighted social critic who experimented with a variety of narrative techniques and plot structures.

Machado wrote approximately 200 short stores (in addition to his acclaimed novels) and before this publication only 33 had been translated into English. So the addition of these  13 stories is certainly a boon for that reason alone. But the translation, by Rhett McNeil, is so skillful in following the subtleties in the different narrative voices Macho employs that the volume is both enjoyable and instructive.

What makes the late Machado stories starkly unique is the combination of; (1) blurring the line between naturalism and the fantastic; (2) subtly ironic commentary, which acts as counterpoint to deep psychological insight into the characters and their predicaments; and (3) narrative structures that usually involve at least one significant misdirection and often coil back on themselves to make an ironic or unexpected comment on the nature of the narrative itself.

Other writers around the time were injecting stories with elements of the fantastic. Mark Twain, for example, published Connecticut Yankee in 1889. Maeterlinck would begin his symbolist plays at the end of Machado’s career. Both, however, used fantasy as an effect unto itself. For Twain, it was mainly to produce humorous (or dark humorous) effects. For Maeterlinck the fairy tale structures advertised the symbolism of the themes. Machado, by contrast, admitted fantastic elements as accepted facts, much like a naturalist would use social structures as a given. There is never any mugging over the unreal; when the narrator comments at all it is ordinarily about the characters’ reactions in the given situation, not about the situation. Couples can exchange souls, a psychiatrist is given carte blanche to commit any resident of a town to his asylum, a man drinks an Indian potion that allows him to live forever, Alcibiades returns to life by means of spiritualism. Are these things actually true? In some cases the narrator may have reason to dissemble. But Machado makes no attempt to explain or justify these extravagances. In this way, he was something of a pioneer for later Spanish-speaking Latin American story-tellers, such as Borges (who took this technique to its absurdist conclusions) and the later realismo mágico writers (who employed the fantastic more freely and for other purposes).

As for the narrative point of view, Machado is unflinching in how he reveals the characters’ inner workings and is unsparing in showing the causes and often tragic consequences of the characters’ limited awareness. In this respect, his “psychological” approach was similar to approaches developing in France and Russia. Machado allows the reader to see the inner workings but does not concentrate on the tragedy (as would, for example, Flaubert), preferring instead to allow the character some privacy. Moreover, while Machado was willing to show flaws, some which lead to murder, he never dissects a character to his humiliating core the way Dostoevsky would do. Machado’s view of human nature was no more sanguine than Dostoevsky’s, but his gently sardonic pose made it unnecessary to detail all the attributes of a character’s shortcomings. There is a lightness of touch to his critiques and a willingness to allow the reader to exercise his own judgment. In this respect he reminds one of Jorge Amado, who would be selected to the same Brazilian Academy of Letters 66 years after Machado was chosen its first President.

The last aspect I highlighted, Machado’s plotting technique, is one that I find most interesting. Machado could write a compact short story with an initial premise which picks up momentum before delivering a directly flowing conclusion. A good example is “The Fortune-Teller,” which you can read in a collection of Brazilian tales translated by Isaac Goldberg, Brazilian Tales (Boson: The Four Seas Co.: 1921), found at Project Gutenberg (here). (That book also has two other stories by Machado and is the earliest English version of any of Machado’s short stories.) But Machado’s best short fiction involves narratives which meander as if under their own logic and land in places that are entirely unexpected. Occasionally, the stories do not even land, but just trail off. The effect is something like one has at the conclusion of certain of Chekhov’s tales, when an abrupt or unexpected results induces more reflection than they would if they were inherent in the story’s beginning.

I hesitate to discuss the plot structure of these essentially brand new stories (to English readers) for fear of depriving the reader of the discovery of novelties. Let me simply refer to the story “The Academies of Siam,” which subscribers to Harper’s Monthly can read in the March 2014 issue (here). The story begins with a provocative narration:

Do you know about the academies of Siam? I am well aware that there have never been any academies in Siam, but suppose that there were, and that there were four of them, and just listen to my tale.

The tale begins with a dispute among these academies over a theological point, the gender of the soul. This dispute, as most academic disputes do, becomes intense well beyond its importance. But it soon provides the pretext for one of the concubines in the King’s harem to engineer an intrigue, which will involve the exchanging of souls. The planting of a different soul into an existing person has consequences in the outlook of the new transplant. This in turn requires consultation with the surviving academy, and so the story continues, back and forth, between the concubines’ plottings and the plottings of the academics, neither of which determine the ultimate outcome, which resolves from a different source and yet manages to place in doubt her reliance on the academy in the first place. But of course, as we were told at the outset, that academy never existed. The final sentence is as wry as the opening.

I should note that the stories are both highly imaginative and gracefully told. Beautiful images and flourishes appear unexpectedly, but do not detract from the narrative voice. It is as thought, like the author we are in on some grand joke. “Comedy” exactly as Dante used the term. And while the tales are steeped in learning (classical and Arabic), none of it is flaunted, as it is in too much of European modernism. All of this causes me to wonder why more of these tales are not made available in English.

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  1. Thank-you for your big, generous brain and your restrained and masterful writing.
    Your fan,
    Claire O’B

    • Many thanks, Claire, but you risk damaging your hard-earned reputation for truth-telling by this praise.

      You are the one who writes about real people with important stories. I simply sit in my garret and offer a comment or two on on things I’ve read. If you spend enough time reading, once you reach a certain age, no one wants to talk to you. But this is no particular loss because it gives you more time to read. It’s something of a feedback loop, rather than a virtue. Much like the mechanism that causes one to gulp in air after about 40 seconds of holdings breath.

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