A Master Storyteller From 19th-Century Brazil, Heir to the Greats and Entirely Sui Generis

A Master Storyteller From 19th-Century Brazil, Heir to the Greats and Entirely Sui Generis

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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