In a famous Hindu parable, three blind men encounter an elephant for the first time and try to describe it, each touching a different part. “An elephant is like a snake,” says one, grasping the trunk. “Nonsense; an elephant is a fan,” says another, who holds an ear. “A tree trunk,” insists a third, feeling his way around a leg.
In the Anglophone world, a similar kind of confusion surrounds Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis (1839-1908), the son and sly chronicler of Rio de Janeiro whom Susan Sontag once called “the greatest writer ever produced in Latin America.”
To Stefan Zweig, Machado was Brazil’s answer to Dickens. To Allen Ginsberg, he was another Kafka. Harold Bloom called him a descendant of Laurence Sterne, and Philip Roth compared him to Beckett. Others cite Gogol, Poe, Borges and Joyce. In the foreword to “The Collected Stories of Machado de Assis,” published this month, the critic Michael Wood invokes Henry James, Henry Fielding, Chekhov, Sterne, Nabokov and Calvino — all in two paragraphs.
To further complicate matters, Machado has always reminded me of Alice Munro.
What’s going on here? What kind of writer induces such rapturous and wildly inconsistent characterizations? What kind of writer can star in so many different fantasies?
The protean, stubbornly unclassifiable Machado was born into poverty, the mixed-race grandson of freed slaves. He had no formal education or training; like Twain, his contemporary, he got his start as a printer’s apprentice. Out of a regimen of ferocious self-education, he established himself, initially as a writer of slender romances for and about the women of the ruling elite.
But in 1879, his style changed — or rather, it arrived. Prolonged illness (Machado was epileptic), and the near loss of his sight, snapped him to attention. The gentle romantic blossomed into a wicked ironist whose authorial intrusions, jump cuts and sheer mischief influenced American experimentalists like John Barth and Donald Barthelme.
Five novels produced in this period — including his masterpiece, “The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas” (1881) — cemented his reputation. If this collection of 76 stories (culled from more than 200) cannot rise to their ranks, it still offers a different and valuable vantage point — especially for readers who like to keep an eye on the life as well as the art.
“The Collected Stories” reveals the arc of Machado’s career, from the straightforward love stories to the cerebral and unpredictable later works. One story is told from the point of view of a needle. Political satire begins to appear. In one tale, a dictator, bald since youth, decrees that all his subjects must also shave their heads, arguing that the “moral unity of the state depended on all heads looking the same.”
Machado’s stories pulse with life. The endings are frequently murky and strange, often abruptly truncated. The title of an early work characterizes them well: “Much Heat, Little Light.”
Certain preoccupations persist: alluring widows, naïve young men, a fondness for coincidence. Machado remained fascinated by femininity and the strictures governing the lives of women — it’s why he reminds me of Munro. Like chess pieces, Rio’s well-born ladies could make only a few authorized moves (Machado was a chess fanatic), but everything was theirs to win or lose.
Above all looms the figure of the bibliomane. “This is my family,” one says, pointing to his bookshelf. These are characters shaped by their reading, sometimes even physically (“his head jutted forward slightly from his long habit”).
It’s a curious feature of Machado’s stories that Brazil is so absent. There are few landmarks, few mentions of the weather. But there are allusions to Molière and Goethe. Novels and authors are the signposts. Like his characters, Machado was a creature of literature; ink ran in his veins. Though he never roved far from his hometown he read widely, claiming all of culture, all of Europe — giving his work that remarkably open, cosmopolitan feel.
This creation of a personal cartography — of anchoring himself in the life of the mind — might explain one of the lingering frustrations with Machado’s work: namely, his refusal to write more explicitly about slavery. He might not have dared; slavery ended in Brazil only in 1888. His stories stay trained, sometimes monotonously, on the elite, slaves flitting through in silence.
Yet Machado is always writing about liberation in his way, which to him begins with the freedom — the obligation — to think. Few fiction writers have written so affectionately about ideas, as if they were real people; he is always describing how ideas emerge and move, the way they can lose their way and get caught in a crush with others. The way they can appear “fully formed and beautiful” at times, or grow “pregnant” with other ideas.
Ideas and fixations elevate and distort in these stories. In one, a man consumed by his pet bird becomes “pure canary.” In another, a father intent on grooming his son to become “a bigwig” demands he cultivate the necessary vapidity: “I forbid you to arrive at any conclusions that have not already been reached by others. Avoid anything that has about it so much as a whiff of reflection, originality or the like.”
To Machado, your identity and the contours of your world are formed not just by your circumstances but by what you think about habitually. You are what you contemplate, so choose wisely. These stories are a spectacular place to start.
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