The Alienist by Machado de Assis

Another of my favourite authorial discoveries last year was Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis, usually just known by his surnames. I stumbled across his short story collection, “A Chapter of Hats”, in the local Oxfam and loved his writing style and his vivid imagination. So when I was in London at the end of the year, I quickly picked up a copy of his novella “The Alienist” from the lovely Foyles. Published by Melville House Press as part of their ‘Art of the Novella’ series, it sounded really intriguing.

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“The Alienist” of the title is one Simão Bacamarte, a physician who sacrifices a burgeoning career to return to his home town and dedicate himself to the new science of psychology. The town welcomes him with open arms, and it’s not long before he’s opened its first asylum and is merrily committing citizens to it, ready to investigate what’s causing their insanity. However, the number of people interred increases; Simão’s wife becomes discontented; the townsfolk start to rebel when obviously harmless and sane people are locked away; and it becomes harder and harder to discern who is mad and who is sane.

The plot of this short book twists and turns marvellously, as the poor confused people of Itaguai try to come to terms with having such a prodigal son of a scientist in their midst. The definitions of sanity are increasingly tenuous and fragile until it almost seems as if the whole town is mad. The army doesn’t help the matter and I started to wonder how Machado de Assis could possibly resolve the story!

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But he did – and brilliantly! This is of course a very clever satire on the human condition, and a wonderful commentary on how varied we mortals are. Sanity is often something of a sliding scale, depending on the mores of the society we live in, and fortunately nowadays we’ve learned to be less judgemental. Some of the reasons given for committing people are laughable and I do hope it wasn’t really like that in the author’s time!

Machado de Assis’ style is wonderfully dry and witty, and this was definitely one of the best of his that I’ve read. Luckily, Daunt Books have very kindly sent me a copy of his “Dom Casmurro” which I’m very much looking forward to reading. If you haven’t read this wonderful author before, “The Alienist” would be a very good place to start!

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