New Discovery: Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis

As I confessed last week, I know very little about Brazilian literature and intend to use Litro’s Brazilian-themed issue to rectify this. Like I say, I’m no expert (I am probably as inexpert as anyone could possibly get) and at first I was unsure of where to start. Last week’s attempts to source Brazilian folklore and fairy stories were thwarted by a lack of translated material. I had hoped to begin by investigating oral folk traditions and so on, thinking they might make for a good kind of prologue to the rest of the country’s literature, but the week was flashing by and I couldn’t find anything. I did discover the incredible tradition of Cordel Literature, which if you’re blessed with any Portugese you can learn more about here; but again I couldn’t find out much info. If anybody reading this has any tips for discovering these, I would love to hear them.

Finally, I changed tact and picked up a fat anthology of Brazilian short stories (specifically, the Oxford Anthology of Brazilian Short Stories). It promises to cover everything through from the earliest to the most contemporary of Brazilian writers. It’s reassuringly comprehensive and, to my delight, I have absolutely fallen in love with the stories of the first author it presents.

This is Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis, usually referred to as the shortened Machado de Assis, enigmatically referred to by Wikipedia  as ‘The Warlock from Cosme Velho’ (I wish I could tell you why, but I’ve yet to find an explanation other than that was where he lived – maybe I’ll get one to you in a future post). He’s a writer I quickly felt I should have heard of already, listed in the anthology and in several online potted biographies as the greatest writer in Brazil’s history. That said, ‘the greatest’ is always a big claim to make about anything, and normally makes me a little wary of expecting too much. But it turns out he’s brilliant. Obviously I’m not qualified to comment on his historical rating, but I can merrily enthuse about his work.

Machado is the first up in the anthology because it’s in chronological order and he’s credited as the founding father of the Brazilian short story. As such he was publishing his writing in the late 1800s and first decade of the 1900s. That’s interesting to me, because that’s the period in which literature in English really began to divide into the genres of the real and the fantastic. People like Thomas Hardy were writing very detailed realism like Jude the Obscure, while others like H G Wells were effectively inventing the fantasy/sci-fi novel with works like The Time Machine. In those days English literature started on its path towards the rigidly defined genre boundaries we’re lumped with today. I don’t know much about Brazilian literature specifically, but I do know a little bit about magic realism, which is a concept with its roots very firmly dug in Latin American writing. Magic realism is what it says on the tin: the coexistence of magic and reality.  In other words, it might be what you end up with if commercial factors don’t segregate your literature into realism and fantasy. By these terms, Machado is a magic realist. Little fantastical flourishes coexist effortlessly with the reality of his characters’ emotional lives.  As you may have gathered from the nature of my soap-boxing in the previous few sentences, this appeals to me immensely.

A flavour of what Machado’s stories are about: The Siamese Academies tells of a king and his concubine who swap their souls so they can live as the opposite gender, The Secret Heart is about a cold, cold surgeon slicing the paws off of animals to see if he can mend them again, Wedding Song (my favourite so far) is about artistic frustration and a little supernatural connection that only music can make.  The stories are short but the characters are drawn with elegance and emotional truth. Best of all, the prose has a crisp quality that seems to lend itself well to translation. Its precision makes the writer in me deeply envious. Machado cuts to the quick of human thought and feeling without breaking into a sweat. I am delighted to have discovered him.

Next time I’m going to jump forward a few decades and see where that takes me, and so on the next week and the next, with a view to eventually reaching Clarice Lispector and beyond.  If I don’t get a chance to post again before Christmas, I’d like to take the opportunity to wish you all a very happy one and a whole lot of festive cheer.

Ali Shaw

About Ali Shaw

Ali Shaw is the author of the novels The Man who Rained and The Girl with Glass Feet, which won the Desmond Elliot Prize and was shortlisted for the Costa First Book Award. He is currently at work on his third novel.

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