Thursday Fiction Corner: Zulfikar Ghose on Machado de Assis


“The modern short story as created by Chekhov, Kafka, Henry James, Conrad and Joyce is a marvel of world literature. Add Machado de Assis to that list and you will find yourself in a world of sheer magic.” — Zulfikar Ghose

We are proud to be distributing Dalkey Archive Press, one of the leading publishers of avant-garde fiction and literature in translation! In today’s edition of Thursday Fiction Corner, we have an excerpt from an article at by poet, novelist, and literary critic Zulfikar Ghose. In “The Real Magicians of Latin America,” Ghose discusses the writing of some of the great authors of Latin America, and argues that no such list could be complete without Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis, whose newly translated Stories is newly available from Dalkey Archive Press. You can read the article in its entirety here.

The Real Magicians of Latin America
By Zulfikar Ghose

As has happened before in literary history, posterity’s impartial eye sees among the neglected shadows what a past age, blinded by the intense light in which it stared at the illumined famous, had all but completely missed. As our enchantment for the likes of Márquez and Vargas Llosa, which has been nourished and sustained by the publishing industry’s need to project writers of little more than ordinary stature as giants, diminishes, a more fastidiously discriminating perception shows us the figures who had been cast in the shadows. In South American fiction contemporaneous with Márquez is the remarkable Álvaro Mutis; before him Felisberto Hernandez, María Luísa Bombal, and Graciliano Ramos; and before them all, writing his best work at the end of the 19th century, the truly great Machado de Assis (1839-1908).

An unprecedented literary feast awaits readers for whom these names are new. Forget the thirdraters you were sold as geniuses, forget your Forsters and Hemingways, your Bellows and Lessings. Reader, come out of the tapas bar where you’ve been nibbling at stale, over-salted snacks and deluding yourself you’re at a banquet, come where your taste buds may experience ecstasy. A new English translation of the stories of Machado de Assis provides us with an occasion to commence this feast.

Now, to celebrate the occasion that prompted these reflections, the publication this spring by Dalkey Archive Press of a book simply titled Stories, which contains 13 of Machado’s stories, 10 of them never before published in English translation, plus an essay by Machado, translated by Rhett McNeil. For readers new to Machado, this book makes an excellent introduction.

Succinct and informative, McNeil’s prefatory essay rightly points out that had Machado “written in English, French, or Russian, he would be ranked alongside Dickens, Flaubert, and Gogol.” In a brief biographical note, McNeil records the astonishing facts of Machado’s life: born to racially mixed parents in 1839 when slavery was yet to be abolished, poor and uneducated, Machado taught himself several languages and read “Dickens, Sterne, and Shakespeare in English; Flaubert, Balzac, and Stendhal in French; Dante, Leopardi, and Ariosto in Italian; Goethe, Heine, and Schopenhauer in German; as well as Cervantes in Spanish.”

Incidentally, there you have evidence that genius is not a gift of nature but the result of determined hard work. With the rare exception of a Mozart or a Picasso, all great artists discover their genius in a profound study of the tradition, absorbing the whole of it in that internal chemistry of the individual’s tormented self, and then bursting forth with that re-arranged amalgam of traditional forms that is perceived as a new style and accorded the designation of a new art form.

McNeil’s choice of the stories to translate provides the reader with a taste of Machado’s “formal playfulness, ironical pathos, and stylistic subversiveness.” The selection opens with ‘The Psychiatrist,’ a novella, in which a scientist takes over a town, imposing his theories about mental health on the citizens that prove the majority of them to be insane. Having confined the majority to an asylum, the doctor decides that it is the sane minority that needs treatment, so the insane are set free and the sane incarcerated. Further doubts convince the doctor that the only person who really needs to be confined to the lunatic asylum is he himself. But it’s not just the story that makes ‘The Psychiatrist’ interesting, it’s Machado’s wit, his incidental observations with their philosophical undercurrent, his graphic depiction of human behaviour, and that bemused ironical voice behind the narrative that have the reader entirely under a magical spell.

‘The Psychiatrist’ was first translated into English by William Grossman whose rendering of Machado’s Portuguese had always struck me as competent, especially his version of Brás Cubas in which he captures Machado’s very special ironical tone. But comparing McNeil’s translation of ‘The Psychiatrist’ with Grossman’s shows how even a translator one had trusted can be occasionally deficient; it has been disappointing to note that in some passages Grossman does not translate so much as paraphrase: one gets the idea but does not hear the voice. McNeil takes one closer to the original.

A good translator produces a text that creates the impression that the work was composed in the language into which it is being translated while a poor translator slips into awkwardness, condenses the original into a generalised idea, or quietly skips a phrase. A glaring example of the latter is Grossman’s rendering of Machado’s final paragraph in Chapter XI where Grossman reduces the narrative to a paraphrase of the content and skips the important opening phrase, which is perfectly translated by McNeil as “Thus proceed the affairs of humanity!” and without which Machado’s voice is lost.

The second story in McNeil’s selection, ‘The Immortal,’ is one of Machado’s best: a homeopathic doctor tells the incredible story of his father who, having drunk an elixir given him by a native Indian, becomes immortal; thus, he lives during different times and in a variety of geographical settings where he is a participant in some important historical events. Immortality turns out to be a curse, for regardless of time and space the human race is seen trapped in its narrow, self-centred concerns and the only prospect before one is that of eternal boredom. It’s a hilarious and absorbing narrative that is philosophically serious. The idea of a character who lives longer than normal mortals and is at the centre of the principal historical events of a succession of centuries seemed familiar. Reading Machado’s tale made me do a double-take: I had done the same thing with my Gregório in The Incredible Brazilian trilogy, making him theoretically immortal through reincarnation, so that he is present and at the centre of the important events in Brazilian history through several centuries. I had been inspired by Thomas Berger’s truly magical Little Big Man in which the long-lived hero is associated with the history of the American West. And here was Machado’s story that had done the same thing in the century before us!

That is the mark of the great writer: a Cervantes or a Sterne, a Melville or a Conrad creates the template of crucial symbols, like a planetary centre, to which succeeding generations of writers bring their particular variations, like so many stars around a sun, and our earthly experience, released from the weight of gravity by the sheer force of a new, individual style, rises to become timeless and universal.

The other stories in McNeil’s selection are well chosen for the diversity of their form and content. Whether mimicking the Socratic dialogue or pretending to discover lost chapters of the Bible or merely producing a comedy of manners, and though full of learned asides and literary cross-references, Machado is always a brilliant entertainer. Ironical, cynical, intellectual and profoundly pessimistic he may be; yet on each page he makes one smile, if not laugh out loud. His formal range as a short story writer is astonishing. The modern short story as created by Chekhov, Kafka, Henry James, Conrad and Joyce is a marvel of world literature. Add Machado de Assis to that list and you will find yourself in a world of sheer magic.

Read the full essay at

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