The Looking-Glass by Machado de Assis (tr. Daniel Hahn)

Thanks to the Pushkin Press Essential Stories series I’ve had the opportunity to explore the short stories of Herman Melville (a new author for me) and Fyodor Dostoevsky (an author I’d read before but only in full-length novel form). This latest collection has introduced me to another new author, the Brazilian writer Machado de Assis, who lived from 1839-1908. This book contains ten of his stories, translated from Portuguese into English by Daniel Hahn.

When trying a new author for the first time, you never really know what to expect, but since Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis (usually just referred to by his surnames) is described as one of Brazil’s greatest authors I thought he would surely be worth reading, even if the stories turned out not to be to my taste. Fortunately, I did find most of them quite enjoyable, providing lots of insights into the various sides of human nature. Although the stories were written more than a hundred years ago and on the other side of the world from me, they were still relatable because, of course, human beings aren’t really all that different, no matter where or when they lived.

The longest story in the book, which could probably be considered a novella, is The Alienist, in which Simão Bacamarte, a physician, opens an asylum in the town of Itaguaí. Bacamarte has a genuine interest in the new science of psychology and begins committing patients to the asylum so that he can study their symptoms. However, the numbers being admitted rapidly start to increase as it becomes clear that sane people are being sent there as well. Once most of the population of the town has been locked up and the others begin to rebel, Bacamarte is forced to reconsider his criteria for deciding who is sane and who is not, with surprising results!

Another story, The Stick, follows the story of Damião, a young man who escapes from a seminary and is afraid to return home because he’s convinced his father will send him back. Instead, he seeks the help of Rita, his godfather’s lover, who lets him stay in her house until the situation is resolved. Rita is a teacher of lacework and embroidery and has several young girls working for her. Damião discovers that one of them, a black slave called Lucrécia, is being badly treated and he must decide whether to intervene. I found this story interesting because Machado himself was the mixed-race grandson of freed slaves – and slavery was not abolished in Brazil until 1888.

Apart from The Canon, which describes a noun and an adjective searching for each other inside a man’s brain (too bizarre for me), I found most of the other stories intriguing in different ways. The Fortune-Teller, The Tale of the Cabriolet and Midnight Mass were some I particularly enjoyed. However, although I don’t usually include ‘trigger warnings’ in my reviews, I should mention that in The Secret Cause there are some graphic descriptions of animal cruelty which aren’t very pleasant to read!

At the end of the book, I was interested to read Daniel Hahn’s note on the translation where he explains why he deliberately tried to retain the 19th century feel of the original writing, even though this wasn’t necessarily the easiest option for a translator. I think this was the right decision – it worked for me and I found this collection a good introduction to the work of Machado de Assis.

Thanks to Pushkin Press for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

9 thoughts on “The Looking-Glass by Machado de Assis (tr. Daniel Hahn)

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