Wednesday, January 02, 2013

A Short Intellectual Puzzle

The Alienist, by Machado de Assis
Paperback: 86 pages
Publisher: Melville House (August 28, 2012)
Language: English
(Tel Silverfish Books about availability)

After the departure the druggist and the alienist mounted their horses and rode homeward. Crispim Soares stared at the road, between the ears of his roan. Simao Bacamarte swept the horizon with his eyes, surveyed the distant mountains, and let his horse find the way home. Perfect symbols of the common man and of the genius! One fixes his gaze upon the present with all its tears and privations; the other looks beyond to the glorious dawns of a future he himself will shape (The Alienist, 17).

The Alienist is a concisely narrated Don Quixote, where Machado de Assis explores the fate of science as the quixotic ideal. One of the greatest masters of Brazilian literature, de Assis was known for his experimentation with the narrative technique in The Posthumous Memoirs of Bras Cubas (or The Epitaph of a Small Winner), and for having influenced Jose Saramago, Carlos Fuentes and Woody Allen.

This drily humored allegory numbers at a concise 86 pages. In short, a scientist – the alienist – sets out to explore the boundaries of madness in a Brazilian town. What ensues traces strange parallels to Michel Foucault’s nonfictional narrative of madness (in Madness and Civilization, 1971). De Assis inverts the definition of insanity more than once, while criticizing 19th Century Brazilian society with tongue-in-cheek insolence.  The provincial quality of the town – the rumors, daily squabbles, the characters of avarice, greed, pusillanimity and foolish innocence – carries a faint whiff of Marquez’s The Chronicles of a Death Foretold while being the precise opposite of the novel’s lyrical convolution. De Assis’ matter-of-fact wit and satire are delightful evening company for anyone seeking brief respite from their daily toil, and leave much food for thought.

Review by:

Ms Rain Che Bian
Public Diplomacy Officer
The Embassy of the United States of America