A Chapter Of Hats And Other Stories – Machado de Assis

Translated by John Gledson

For a person who loves to read translated literature, I actually have several blank areas in my reading, one of which is South American writing. I dipped a toe in last year with “Where There’s Love, There’s Hate”, and of course I’ve read quite a bit of Borges in the past (and I have his complete works on my shelves). But Machado de Assis is a new name to me, and the title and blurb on this one hooked me in the Oxfam, which is why I found myself in 19th century Brazil before Christmas!

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The author sounds an intriguing character; as Wikipedia says, “Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis, often known by his surnames as Machado de Assis, Machado, or Bruxo do Cosme Velho (June 21, 1839 – September 29, 1908), was a Brazilian novelist, poet, playwright, short story writer, and advocate of monarchism. Widely regarded as the greatest writer of Brazilian literature, nevertheless he did not gain widespread popularity outside Brazil in his own lifetime. He was multilingual, having taught himself French, English, German and Greek in later life.”

Machado de Assis was born of a mulatto father and an Azorean Portuguese mother, and growing up in the last country to abolish slavery (1888!) can’t have been easy. The theme of dominance of one people over another comes up again and again in his works, particularly the later stories in this collection, although he is never overt in his criticisms, and apparently didn’t speak out against slavery during his lifetime; which is understandable, given his complex heritage.

“A Chapter of Hats” contains 20 short stories, written between 1978 and 1906, so covering a good span of the author’s working life. And an entertaining bunch they are! There are tales of troubled marriages, people losing their identity while living in solitude, discussions of whether the hat maketh the man, youthful obsessions with older women and the fidelity (or infidelity) of lovers!

… Camilo was an innocent in the moral and practical sides of life. Time had taught him nothing, and he was not provided with the crystal spectacles nature puts into some people’s cradles to foresee the effects of time. He possessed neither experience nor intuition.

Some of the stories are lighter and more entertaining fables, but some (mainly the later ones) are dark indeed. For example, in “Father against Mother” an impoverished man gains the money he needs for his family to survive by brutality towards someone in a lesser position with tragic consequences, proving that it depends upon what point on the social scale you are as to whether your behaviour is acceptable. In fact, as the stories go along, you can almost see Machado de Assis’ attitude towards humanity hardening; in the early tales he’s content to point out foibles and portray social comedy, but near the end of his life he was making strong statements about human nature and the wickedness therein.

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Machado de Assis has a wonderfully individual style, and it’s a hard one to pin down in words. His narrator seems to discuss the characters with the reader; his imagery is unusual and particularly striking:

Then he made an incredulous gesture: it was the idea of hearing what the fortune-teller had to say, passing by in the distance, far away, with huge grey wings; the idea disappeared, came back again, and once more faded out of his mind; but a little later it flapped its wings again, closer now, sweeping round in concentric circles.

One of the most memorable stories here is “A Famous Man”, the tale of a composer of popular polkas who yearns to compose what he regards of great musical works like Beethoven and Mozart; he is unable to accept the gift of music he has, instead wishing for something else. Whether or not this is a self-portrait of the artist himself, and he wished to produce epic works, doesn’t really matter in the end; because Machado de Assis produced some gems of stories. They’re touching, thought-provoking and enjoyable and his characters are instantly recognisable as people we might meet anywhere. Yes. human beings really are the same all over the world, with the same traits and foibles and loves and hates; and Machado de Assis brings them to life brilliantly in the Brazilian landscape. This was a lovely collection of stories and I’m sure I’ll be encountering the author again! πŸ™‚

 

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