Four years ago I read three collections of the short stories of the Brazilian writer Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis. With a bit of scrounging in anthologies I ended up reading forty of his stories. Since then three more collections have been published in English, increasing both the quantity of good stories available and also the redundancy. The novella The Psychiatrist or The Alienist (1881-2) is now published, and in print, in three different translations, for example.
Good news, but confusing. Now there is room for specialization. I read Selected Short Stories (2014), translated by Rhett McNeil, published by Dalkey Archive, and the title is accurate – these stories (1878-86), including The Psychiatrist, are specifically selected to show the most experimental side of Machado. These are the Dalkeyest of his stories.
There was once a barrel-maker and demagogue named Bernardino, who, in the realm of cosmography, professed a belief that the world was an enormous tunnel of marmalade, and in the realm of politics insisted that the throne should belong to the people. (“The Dictionary,” 90)
The barrel-maker becomes king and through a series of events kicks off a language reform, including a Dictionary of Babel:
There wasn’t a single phrase that bore resemblance to the spoken language. Consonants scrambled atop consonants, vowels were diluted by other vowels, words with two syllables now had seven or eight and vice versa, everything was jumbled, mixed up; a complete absence of vigor, of elegance: a language of shards and tatters. (93)
That last phrase, especially, has a pure Dalkey flavor to it.
In the next story, “The Academies of Siam,” a king and his favorite concubine switch bodies – why not? – and learn a valuable lesson about their advisors. “She couldn’t understand how it was that fourteen men gathered together in an academy could be the light of the world, yet, individually be a bunch of camels” (103). In the next, “The Priest, or The Metaphysics of Style,” Machado describes the journey of an adjective and a noun in a priest’s brain, before they are joined romantically and written on a page.
Give me your hand, dear lady, my reader; stay close to me, good sir, good reader. Let’s trudge along with them. (108)
Conceptual, satirical, odd, that is the rule in this collection. Lots of parables of artistic creation. “Fusion, transfusion, diffusion, confusion, and profusion of beings and objects” (“Ex Cathedra,” 129)
The playful conceptual stories show an essential side of Machado de Assis. It is hardly his only side, though. We will have to go elsewhere for his poignant social protests (“Father against Mother”) or his Chekhovian psychological insight (“Midnight Mass”). Aside from the political parody of The Psychiatrist, there is surprisingly little of Brazil in Selected Stories. There is plenty about Brazil in stories in Machado’s other modes.
Perhaps someday someone will publish in English Machado’s stories as they were originally published. A complete and non-redundant set would be handy. Still, it’s not so bad now, is it?