The Alienist by Machado de Assis

The Alienist, another of the recent Art of the Novella publications, is, shamefully, the first thing I have managed to read in full by Machado de Assis. (Dom Casmurro, I hear you calling my name, and loudly, don’t worry!) The title may be a bit puzzling—it’s a little-used synonym for psychiatriast, and probably chosen because it is closer to the original O alienista.

The scene is set with a description of the rise of Simão Bacamarte, “one of the greatest doctors in all Brazil, Portugal, and the Spains”—at least, according to “[t]he chronicles of Itaguai,” a town in Brazil somewhat distant from Rio de Janeiro. After distinguishing himself around South America and Europe, the doctor decides he wants to specialize in what he describes as “[t]he loftist possible goal for a doctor,” that is, “[t]he health of the soul.” Dr. Bacamarte, now settled back in Itaguai, decides to open an asylum—something never before contemplated there, and which makes people a bit nervous. But the town council comes around right away, and The Green House is established.

As the brilliant doctor that he is, Bacamarte not only treats people in The Green House, but he also decides who must be treated there. And I do mean “must.” Involuntary confinement begins first for those widely recognized as mad, but soon extends to those who aren’t so recognized—and soon, to anyone who dares to question Bacamarte’s decisions on the subject. After all, if you’re questioning the opinions of a psychiatrist on someone’s insanity, you must be insane! This all comes from Bacamarte’s special theory about insanity: “Till now, madness has been thought a small island in an ocean of sanity. I am beginning to suspect that it is not an island at all but a continent.” That is, most people are insane.

Soon, many in Itaguai are more than worried, and there is a small and unsuccessful insurrection. The Green House continues to absord more and more of the population. Eventually, Bacamarte begins to change his theories on madness. He was wrong all along! All the asylum-dwellers are let out, and replaced with everyone who hadn’t previously been confined! This is again because of Bacamarte’s special theory, or rather, a reversal thereof: how could nearly everyone be mad? He must have been wrong—a touch of insanity is normal, and it is those who appear completely sane who are not (and, thus, in need of medical attention).

The jacket copy of the Melville House edition, translated by William T. Grossman, asks, “How can one individual judge another’s sanity? And what do you do when your community is held to ransom by a mad despot who does a frighteningly good impression of a rational human being?” I think these questions are far too reductive. The problem in Itaguai is not really Dr. Bacamarte: it is the insidious label of “madness” and the conclusion so easily assumed from it, that the mad must be involuntarily incarcerated, not because of their acts, but because of an alleged medical condition that can not be satisfactorily described, understood, or otherwise pinpointed by medical professionals at all. Itaguai is eventually saved when Bacamarte sequesters himself in The Green House, but the accusation of madness and its consequences are still as dangerous as ever—Machado de Assis’s satire goes far beyond these bounds.

I have given you hardly any of the writing, which is lovely. This is, as they say, “a ripping tale.” And very funny. Read it!

5 comments to The Alienist by Machado de Assis

  • Yes, yes – if anyone is thinking “I dunno, maybe the book is not really like she says” – it is, it is just like she says.

    I suspect the Caleb Carr bestseller has had the beneficial spillover of recovering Machado’s original title.
    Amateur Reader (Tom) recently posted..This was an injustice on God’s part – introducing Giovanni Verga’s Little Novels of SicilyMy Profile

  • I have the Art of the Novella series, but this one must be new enough it didn’t come with my full set. Bummer – it looks really great, and I’ve been meaning to read de Assis. Will add this to my list!

    It sounds like de Assis writes satire like Durrenmatt. Have you read The Physicists?

  • A pro-tip from an amateur, Michelle. The writer’s full name is Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis, so Machado de Assis is actually the writer’s surname. In Portuguese, they shorten it to Machado.

    Similarly José Maria de Eça de Queirós just becomes Eça, thank goodness.
    Amateur Reader (Tom) recently posted..This was an injustice on God’s part – introducing Giovanni Verga’s Little Novels of SicilyMy Profile

  • Curious and curiouser about this book. ‘The Psychiatrist’ as title already seemed alienating to me. But it’s cool that Melville reinstated the literal one. It’s been translated 3x already. Alfred Mac Adam was the one who first salvaged the title but he produced a useless limited edition. And there’s the fairly recent one.
    Rise recently posted..Mondo Marcos, and a martial law fiction reading listMy Profile

  • Michelle—Yes, this came out only last week. There are some more titles upcoming for fall that I’m pretty excited about too. I have read the Physicists, boy that was a long time ago, but I think you’re not far off. I really liked Durrenmatt and have wanted to get back to him for some time! I do think you will like Machado de Assis, despite my own limited experience. Tom has read a bunch more and it all sounded grand!

    AR—Thanks for the talk-up! This is one for which, the more I think about it, the more I liked it. And the more I keep thinking back to it!

    Rise—The one thing I am not crazy about with the Melville House series is the numerous new translations it seems to involve. I mean, of books that are already translated. Also how much of it is translated from languages for which I’d rather read the original. There were four books in this recent batch and one was Baudelaire; I’ll take the French, please. I don’t suppose I can persuade some publishing house to only publish works written either in English or translated from languages I can’t read though!