The Brazilian writer and journalist Joaquim Maria Machado De Assis wrote his most experimental stories between the years 1878 and 1886, amidst a general body of work which has won him the praise of the late American critic Susan Sontag, the Mexican novelist Carlos Fuentes, and, yes, Woody Allen.

“I couldn’t believe he lived as long ago as he did," enthuses the film director. “You would’ve thought he wrote it yesterday.. Great wit, great originality, and no sentimentality.”

This reviewer is not sure what actual stories Woody Allen has been reading to make him suggest that Machado de Assis could have been his own contemporary. Rhett McNeill’s translation of this selection, at least, firmly places Machado de Assis in his nineteenth century milieu.

Born in Rio de Janeiro in 1839, Machado De Assis was the grandson of freed mulatto salves. On his death in 1908, he was given a state funeral, with full civic and military honours, the first occasion on which such was bestowed on a man of letters in Brazil.  

In these ten stories, Machado de Assis’s sense of the fantastic prefigures the work of the Argentinian Jorge Luis Borges.

The collection begins with The Psychiatrist, whose protagonist ends up locking up an alarming number of a town’s citizens in his house, including his own wife. However, following serious protest he releases the captives. Instead, he begins to lock up the most apparently well-balanced folk.

Are they really the mad ones, you find yourself asking, as this 62-page satirical, mischievous tale nears its conclusion, mad because they are able to survive so well in a mad world? A pattern in two of his stories is someone who lives for centuries, and wants to die, from a combination of intense boredom and/or having seen too much of the same recurring things. 

“My father was born in 1600 . . “ “Excuse me, but you mean 1800, naturally ...” Thus begins the second story, The Immortal, which concerns the narrator’s father who lives for over 200 years after drinking a mysterious elixir. The picaresque tale brings him around the globe, in a variety of adventures, as time moves on, and his various wives die in succession. It’s a mixed blessing, this immortality business, as the 27-page story reveals.

In The Academies of Siam, the King of Siam is persuaded by his mistress to switch souls, inhabiting her body for a year as she inhabits his. Thus she is in effect the king, though it is her character inside his body. At the end of the year, when they are about to revert back to their original selves, she announces that she is pregnant, saying she feels "both paternal and maternal sensations." The story draws to a close with a sense of ultimate conquest on the part of the guileful mistress, a kind of soul usurping.

A Lady concerns a seriously vain woman who tries to remain at the age of 30 all her life. She gets away with it, kind of, even after the first grandchild arrives (she pretends to be the mother.) Voyage Around Myself is the most credible of the scenarios, an impassioned love story that may hark back to the less experimental, more naturalistic Machado de Assis. That was before he began to push the boundaries of what fiction could do. Recommended for sheer weirdness.

Paddy Kehoe