Machado de Assis is known for his blending of classic 19th-century style with a sensibility that seems to presage postmodernism. His ironic voice, his love of dark humor, and his predilection for reflexivity and metafictional frames make his works, such as The Posthumous Memoirs of Bras Cubas (also translated as Epitaph of a Small Winner) read as if they were written in the late 20th century. This new collection of his short stories, translated by Rhett McNeil, focuses particularly on what McNeil describes as his experimental period, from the publication of Posthumous Memoirs in 1880 up to his death in 1908.
Fully half of the collection is comprised of the novella “The Psychiatrist” (also known as “The Alienist”). The story, in which Machado de Assis sends up provincial life in a Brazilian town, reveals the author’s sensitivity to social class, political alliances, and religious affiliation. Through a series of increasingly over-the-top scenes and reversals of fortune, the story lambasts bourgeois and village pretensions; it also destabilizes our understanding of insanity, as the psychiatrist asks, “But were [the patients] truly insane, and cured by me, or was what appeared to be a cure nothing more than the discovery of their perfect mental disequilibrium?”