Machado de Assis: A new translation by John Chasteen

Machado de Assis at the age of 57, Wikipedia.
Machado de Assis at the age of 57, Wikipedia Commons.

One of my favorite ways to engage students in thinking about another part of the world is through literature. For this reason, I’ve been reading the short stories of Machado de Assis in John Charles Chasteen’s new translation, which is named after perhaps the author’s most famous short story, the Alienist. It’s often said that Brazil is the sepulchre of great literature. There is still no English translation of Taunay’s, A Retirada da Laguna, an epic first hand account of a disastrous retreat during the Paraguayan War, which is widely hailed as a literary masterpiece. And even people who know the work of Mario Vargas Llosa and Gabriel Garcia Marquez are likely to be unfamiliar with Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis (1839-1908), likely the greatest Brazilian writer of all time.

Machado de Assis was born into the Brazilian empire, which largely escaped the widespread conflict that Spanish America experienced after independence, despite a host of regional rebellions. His father was the son of freed slaves, and his mother was Portuguese. He had an irregular education, but managed to learn four languages, and become a great novelist, poet, and writer of short stories. He was the first president of the Brazilian Academy of Letters.

He was also a man caught in the contradictions of his times. On the one hand, he worked in the imperial bureaucracy, and was a staunch defender of the monarchy. On the other, he was not white, in a slave-holding society that -as Chasteen notes- was becoming more focused on race at the end of the century. Abolitionists harshly criticized Machado de Assis for not attacking slavery, and his most brutal attack on the institution (“Father Against Mother,” which is included in Chasteen’s collection) was published after he died.

Perhaps because of his life, Machado de Assis was fascinated by irony, which drew him to the writings of Voltaire, at a time when his home city of Rio de Janeiro was infatuated with all things French. He also focused on psychology, and the vanities that shape human behavior. The power of clothing to influence  how people perceived themselves and others -whether through a hat or a uniform- is a recurring theme in his work. So is the difficulty of judging others, and understanding why they behave as they do.

Machado de Assis’s stories still hold their bite, from the discussion of sexuality in “A Singular Occurrence” to the brutal final two pages of “Father against Mother.” One of his longer short stories, “the Alienist” reflects on the nature of not only madness but also power, and has hints of George Orwell. Chasteen’s translation is true to the spirit of the stories, which I have read in Portuguese. Chasteen has done an outstanding job capturing the give and take of the dialogue. This brief book (seven short stories, and one longer) would be wonderful for classes on Latin America and Brazil. Still, they are best read for their ability to examine human psychology, as well as to evoke a time and place -nineteenth century Rio de Janeiro, when young people of both genders strolled Ouvidor street to see and be seen, and when Congress was a place to go to be entertained by speeches.

If you are interested in Brazil, you might want to ready my own book on Brazil’s political history.

Shawn Smallman, Portland State University

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