Thursday, October 23, 2008

Machado de Assis: A Chapter of Hats and Other Stories

Miranda France reviews Machado de Assis' A Chapter of Hats and Other Stories.
Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis, who died 100 years ago this month, is Brazil's most famous writer. He has been less successful outside Brazil, possibly because his dry, laconic style does not chime with our perception of Latin American fiction.

Machado de Assis's style is more closely related to that of Saki or Sterne than the magical realists of recent times. His humour is dark, verging on bleak. His acuity is second to none.

The author's own life makes a compelling story. He was born in 1839, the mixed-race grandson of freed slaves. He is thought to have taught himself to write, and later became fluent in English and French.

Harold Bloom has called him, somewhat patronisingly, "the supreme black literary artist to date". For Woody Allen, he was "a brilliant and modern writer whose books could have been written this year".

The stories in this collection are reminiscent of Allen in the way they plunge into the action, often with a couple of friends engaged in energetic banter on a street corner. One might be telling the other a gossipy story - about love, jealousy or sex.

"She wasn't a seamstress, she didn't own property, she didn't run a school for girls; you'll get there, by process of elimination." The other man's interjections give the story added fizz.

Machado de Assis was fascinated by psychology and human motivation. His characters are never merely irked or enthused by events: they get caught up in dangerous emotions.
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