Friday, February 24, 2012

The verb rigidly defined the action - Machado de Assis in the courtroom and dressing room

The pair of Machado de Assis stories Clifford E. Landers translated for Words without Borders a couple of years ago are excellent; perhaps I should say more about them.  Curious reader can test my impressions against them and can come back here and really rake me over the coals.  One is “A Visit from Alcibiades”; t’other is “Justice Unbalanced.”  The former is the only English translation of the story; the latter exists in another version more accurately but somehow irritatingly titled “Wallow, Swine!” (“Suje-se Gordo”).

“A Visit from Alcibiades” is deliberately minor, but still tasty.  The narrator, reading Plutarch’s Life of Alcibiades,  somehow summons the Athenian general and dandy.  After some fuss, the story turns out to be a satire on clothes – thus the need for Alcibiades in particular.  The narrator is going to dress the Athenian for a ball:

"Black tubes!" he exclaimed.

These were the black trousers that I had just put on.  He exclaimed and laughed, a cynical laugh in which surprise mingled with mockery, greatly offending my sensitivity as a modern man.  Because, Your Excellency will note, although to us our times may seem deserving of criticism, even of execration, we dislike it when an ancient ridicules them to our face.

That last line is prime Machadian (Assisisian?) humor, as is an earlier aphorism, “death is the ultimate sarcasm.”  Next in the narrative comes, each more absurd than the last, the cravat,  then the frock coat, then, as a climax, the hat, and I suppose I should stop there.  I said it was minor!  But the sense of Machado in the story is strong.

“Justice Unbalanced” is more clearly one of those Masterpieces of World Literature.  The narrator tells us about two terms on a criminal jury.  In the first trial, he and his fellow jurors convict a man of a minor forgery.  The narrator is shocked by a “corpulent and redheaded” fellow juror who seems to judge the guilt of the defendant by the pettiness of his crime.  I am going to switch to the quite different, more vivid version of the story found in The Devil’s Church and Other Stories and the Oxford Anthology of the Brazilian Short Story:

“And all for twenty dollars, a pittance.  Let the swine wallow in his filth!  Wallow, swine, wallow!”

“Wallow, swine!”  I confess I was astonished.  Not that I understood him nor felt that he was being fair, and that’s why I was astonished.

The big twisteroo occurs when the narrator again serves on a jury, and the defendant turns out to be the red-headed juror, now thin, charged with embezzling a huge amount of money.  No matter what the other evidence might be, the narrator is sure of the man’s guilt.  I will switch back to Landers for contrast:

The verb rigidly defined the action.  "Steal something big!"  It means a man shouldn't commit an act of that kind except for a considerable sum.  No one should defile himself for a few coins.  If you're going to steal, steal something big!

The story ends on an ambivalent note with the narrator drawing a quite different lesson from the story than I did, one that focuses my attention on his motives and psychology.

A couple of days ago I claimed that the stories of Machado de Assis were unlike his novels, but my last claim is exactly of a piece with the novels.

I hope someone is currently translating another collection of Machado de Assis stories for me.


  1. I think I liked the story about the canary best from The Devil's Church.

  2. "A Canary's Ideas" is outstanding. It is an epistemological parable.

    I did not write about this side of Machado at all.