Home > 19th Century, Brazilian Literature, Classics, Highly Recommended, Machado de Assis J.-M., Novella > The Alienist by J.-M. Machado de Assis – An absolute must read.

The Alienist by J.-M. Machado de Assis – An absolute must read.

September 9, 2018 Leave a comment Go to comments

The Alienist by J.M. Machado de Assis. 1881 French title : L’aliéniste. Translated by Maryvonne Lapouge-Pettorelli.

In The Alienist, Machado de Assis takes us to a small Brazilian town, Itaguai. Simaõ Bacamarte is an alienist, a scientist and a researcher. He decides to set up a madhouse to treat mental illnesses in his town. It will be Casa Verde (The Green House) and he convinces the town’s council to support the project.

Bacamarte is one of those scientists only interested in science, certain that scientific reasoning can lead to no wrong and blindly following their thinking to absurdity. Doubt is an alien word to him. Science is his ultimate goal, he is selfless in his endeavors in the sense that he doesn’t want to make profit from it, he’s certain his acts are a blessing for humanity. As we all know, hell is paved with good intentions.

What his cartesian and rigorist mind doesn’t see is that the starting point of his work is flawed. Which are the criteria to assess someone’s mental health? He doesn’t really question this part because he’s certain that he knows whether a person needs to be interned.

Soon, one criterion leading to the other, the whole town ends up in Casa Verde. But some will retaliate and see the opportunity to overthrow the town council and take power in Itaguai.

I have never read such a French novella written by a foreigner. Bacamarte and Itaguai would have been great in a post French Revolution Candide. The Alienist is something that Voltaire could have written if he had lived through the mad times of the 1790s. In 100 pages, Machado de Assis castigates scientific bullheadedness, makes a comedy show of how politicians take advantage of a context for their own profit and how easy it is to turn quiet people into a revolutionary mob.

And all along, a thought nags at us: what is mental illness? How do you define it? How does a doctor know when to confine someone to a mental institution? There’s a lot to say about a society by the way they treat their madmen and who they consider “crazy”. The Alienist shows how too much tinkering with criteria can lead to dictatorial decisions, how thin the frontier is between being on the right side and landing on the wrong bank. It also pictures very well the authority mechanisms that make a population unable to talk back to a figure of authority. Here, it’s Bacamarte and his scientific superiority whose power is increased tenfold by his philanthropic behavior. How bad can he be if he does it for the wellbeing of others?

And there’s the final question: is Bacamarte crazier than his patients?

On top of it, The Alienist is a comedy of mores. Bacamarte is friend with the apothecary Crispim Soares who is a total dimwit. The conversations between the two reminded me of the ones between Homais, the apothecary in Madame Bovary and Charles Bovary himself. The dynamics between the two is reversed, though as Homais leads Charles’s way while Soares is in awe of Bacamarte. Machado de Assis makes fun of the prominent citizen of Itaguai, shows their cliques and how fast the public opinion shifts from one side to the other. Flaubert also has this caustic vision of the French society of the time and Madame Bovary is very cheeky novel that demolishes French pillars of society (Church, State, Men of Power) through the ridiculous example of Bovary and Homais.

The rhinoceros on the French cover of the book is not a coincidence or a strange whim from the publisher. We read The Alienist with the same incredulity and dread that we read Rhinoceros by Ionesco. Of course, Rhinoceros was written in 1959 but it describes how a population reacts to a new phenomenon that stuns them, that takes a lot of power and ultimately changes their quotidian by instilling fear in everyday life and how quickly they adjust and collaborate. Anybody can be declared crazy by Simon Bacamarte and this is also a great opportunity to get rid of unwanted relatives or neighbors. People bring supposedly crazy people to Casa Verde.

This is an absolute must read. It’s as if Machado de Assis had captured a sample of humanity and put it in a snowglobe for our observation. It is firmly rooted in a strong literary heritage and raises a lot of questions about sanity, imprisonment, mass movements and imposing a dictatorship.

My French edition comes with a fascinating foreword by Pierre Brunel. Many thanks to the publisher Metailié because it doesn’t happen often enough and it’s very enjoyable.

I’ll end this post with a message to French translators: Please stop translating names and changing the spelling of places, unless it’s a very common name like Londres. It’s irritating. We are educated readers, we know that a Brazilian character is not named Simon, that a German man is Ludwig and not Louis. Stop it. Plus, it messes with my blogging, I have to research all the names to write up my billets in English.

And, last but not least, see Tony’s thoughts about The Alienist here.

  1. September 9, 2018 at 11:06 am

    Yes, I must read this soon!


    • September 9, 2018 at 9:24 pm

      Wonderful. I think you’ll like it.


  2. September 9, 2018 at 12:02 pm

    This sounds excellent. Huge themes within the tight structure of a novella – wonderful! I also totally agree with you about translating names – it’s really annoying and needs to stop.


    • September 9, 2018 at 9:25 pm

      It’s one of those masterfully written novellas. So many things in only 100 pages.

      It’s such a clever take on human nature and human societies.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. September 9, 2018 at 4:16 pm

    I loved this (and several others by Machado de Assis I read around the same time – what a great writer). I really must get back to him. And I totally agree about the names – as I’ve said before, I abandoned a particular translation of War and Peace because I couldn’t handle Andrei being changed to Andrew… 😉


    • September 9, 2018 at 9:27 pm

      I need to get more books by Machado de Assis. Which ones would you recommend?

      About names. I wonder why contemporary translators do it. I understand it from old translations but recent ones?


      • September 9, 2018 at 9:41 pm

        I read “A Chapter of Hats” first which was short stories, and then “The Alienist” and “Dom Casmurro”. All excellent, and I have his “The Wager” lurking on the TBR!


  4. September 9, 2018 at 5:05 pm

    Then you have got to, got to read ‘Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas’ (also known as ‘Epitaph of a Small Winner’) and ‘Don Casmurro’.
    And I have got to read the play ‘Rhinosceros’ by Ionesco which I have heard of before. .


    • September 9, 2018 at 9:30 pm

      I’ll look for it. Hopefully the French title is one of those.

      Yes, Rhinoceros is a great play that shows the rise of a dictatorship. If you’re in the mood for theatre, have a look at Ubu Rex by Alfred Jarry too.


  5. September 9, 2018 at 6:09 pm

    Je note, il ne semble pas avoir encore lu d’auteurs brésilien ….


    • September 9, 2018 at 9:37 pm

      Même pas l’inévitable Paolo Coelho?

      J’avoue que moi non plus, je n’ai pas lu de littérature brésilienne, à part celui-ci, que je recommande vraiment. On dirait un livre du siècle des Lumières, un Voltaire certainement mais aussi Diderot ou Montesquieu.

      L’aliéniste est vraiment un petit bijou.

      Liked by 1 person

      • September 10, 2018 at 3:36 am

        Ah si tu as raison, j’ai lu l’alchimiste. Un livre formidable de Paolo Coelho.


  6. September 9, 2018 at 8:04 pm

    You’ve been writing up your “could have almost been written by Diderot” books. You are right, like the Pessoa story, this is another one that could have come from the French Enlightenment.

    There are now at least four translation of the novella in English, several of them just from the last few years. Good. And a good starting place for Machado de Assis, a rich writer. He wrote many different kinds of things well.


    • September 9, 2018 at 9:43 pm

      Yes, you’re right. The Anarchist Banker and The Alienist have two things in common: they’ve been written in Portuguese and sound like French literature from the Enlightenment Era.

      After reading the essay in my edition, I also wonder if it sounds so French because of Pinel, Charcot and Dr Blanche, all involved in the field. (Some say that Pinel is the father of modern psychiatry)

      Which other Machado de Assis would you recommend?


  7. September 9, 2018 at 10:03 pm

    I am looking at amazon.fr. There are several in the same series with the one you have pictured here. Frankly, any of those are probably good. There is a selection of stories, La montre en or et autres contes. Several years ago, I could not help making fun of a critic who said that Machado had written, in his stories, “at least sixty masterpieces of world literature,” but I was joking about the specific number. Machado was one of the great story writers.

    Then there are Machado’s last five novels. The most famous is Dom Casmurro which is the one read by every Brazilian in high school. Mémoires posthumes de Brás Cubas is maybe better, but it is a wild and crazy book, as the title suggests. Quincas Borbas is crazy, too – a philosopher has maybe been reincarnated as a dog, maybe.

    I thought Esaü et Jacob was not as good as those three, but still good. I have not read Ce que les hommes appellent amour.

    Dom Casmurro will likely seem quite French to you, in story and style.


    • September 10, 2018 at 9:10 pm

      I’ll have a look at what Métailié published, they’re a good publisher. Plus, I like their covers.

      Thanks for all the research of the French translations. I think I want to sample the short stories and the novels. The question is: when?

      (I’m trying not to buy any book till the end of the year, unless it’s a Book Club one)


  8. September 10, 2018 at 9:19 am

    It sounds very sharp. I thought I had a copy of his Dom Casmurro on the shelves, but it seems to have disappeared. Oh well…


    • September 10, 2018 at 9:11 pm

      It’s excellent, really. I think you’d like it.


  9. September 10, 2018 at 11:06 am

    Brazilian Tales is available in English translation on Project Gutenberg so I have no excuse for not getting started.


    • September 10, 2018 at 9:12 pm

      That’s great, that means you can listen to them when you drive! Project Gutenberg is a wonderful initiative.


  10. September 10, 2018 at 2:26 pm

    It sounds tremendous. I have his Dom Casmurro (so I’ll be able to catch up with Brazilian high schoolers…) and this makes me want to read that so that I can read this!

    You seem to be on a bit of a roll with good reads recently. Is that how it feels for you?


    • September 10, 2018 at 9:15 pm

      Ah, yes, the not-buying-a-book-by-an-author-I-already-have-on-the-shelf rule. It’s good that you stick to it, I try to do it too.

      Well, I hope to read your review about Dom Casmurro one of these days. I should get it too, it sounds excellent as well.

      You’ll like The Alienist, I’m almost sure about that.


  11. September 11, 2018 at 10:46 am

    The Melville House Art of the Novella edition of this is available on Amazon on kindle for £6.94, or in hardcopy for £539.95! Algorithm driven pricing presumably.

    There’s also though a reasonably priced short story collection which includes it so I’ll either get that or the kindle version. Think I’ll pass on the Melville hardcopy though, much as I like their physical editions.


    • September 14, 2018 at 8:42 pm

      Good thing that algorithms aren’t always right: there’s still room for human intelligence.

      I hope you can put your hands on it because it’s worth it. It seems easier to find in French.


  12. September 11, 2018 at 7:54 pm

    de Assis is one of my favourite writers but one who has been difficult to collect in English over the years! The original translation of this (The Psychiatrist) was hard to track down so I was delighted when Melville House released the Alienist (didn’t realise my copy was worth so much!!). Now there is even a Collected Stories in English.


    • September 14, 2018 at 8:45 pm

      This confirms my impression: he’s easier to find in French than in English.
      I’ll get more of his books in the Métailié editions, they’re pretty and interesting. That’s a lethal combination for book lovers.


  13. September 17, 2018 at 1:53 pm

    Getting round finally to reading blog posts that went up while I was travelling and internetless. I went through a period of major Brazilian literature love (still have it, to be honest) and the first writer that was always recommended to me was Machado de Assis.


    • September 22, 2018 at 8:39 am

      Getting aroung to finally respond to your comment! I’ve been away too.
      I don’t think I’ve read other Brazilian books, to be honest.
      Besides Machado de Assis, who would you recommend? (to everyone and to me in particular)


      • September 23, 2018 at 9:41 pm

        And I finally get a chance to answer. My favourite kind of question! Jorge Amado is fun – Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands is a good place to start. Clarice Lispector is surreal but innovative and remarkable stylistically. Rubem Fonseca writes both crime fiction and literary short stories. I do not think much of Paulo Coelho, although obviously he is the best known.

        Liked by 1 person

        • September 24, 2018 at 8:35 pm

          I have read Coelho, in my teens.


  14. January 22, 2020 at 10:57 pm

    Hi! Brazilian here!!

    Machado is really amazing! During High School I was the only from my class who really got to read Dom Casmurro (I was the only avid reader, so, it was easy) and thought it was amazing. December last year I bought the beautiful books « O Alienista » and « Memórias Póstumas de Brás Cubas » released by the publisher Antofágica with illustrations by Candido Portinari (considered the best Brazilian painter, with his mural « War and Peace » in the UN Headquarters).

    I started to read O Alienista this year and really thought that the ideas that this little book raises are incredible. My only complain is that the 3rd person point of view looks too « formal » side with Machado’s works in 1º person (as Dom Casmurro). But I will certainly reread it again.

    Now I’m reading Memórias Póstumas and it is an awe crazy trip! The text is so magnetic, fun and sincere that I have to handle myself to don’t read it all in one day – and I love when a book make me feel that way.

    About the comments above: Machado’s was really translated in French during his life time. There was this publisher Garnier who published his works both in Brazil and France – you can find a public domain translation from Memórias Póstumas in the French Wikisource.


    • January 25, 2020 at 5:47 pm

      Many thanks for your comment and welcome to Book Around the Corner. It’s such a pleasure to read a comment on an older post.

      I haven’t had time to read another book by him yet but I will. Which one would you recommend first?

      And thanks for the info about the French translation.


  1. January 6, 2019 at 11:07 pm

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