Things I like: O alienista (The Psychiatrist)

About eight years ago, I lived in Fremantle, Western Australia. I had a great time there, working as a door-to-door salesman (more on this in the future), getting into scrapes, going clubbing and listening to Royal trux and the Flaming Lips. I also indulged my habit of wondering around second-hand bookshops looking for new, interesting books that I thought I’d enjoy.

One such book was a collection of Latin American short stories edited by Thomas Colchie (it’s still available second-hand from Amazon or you could spend a pleasant afternoon in an actual shop, looking for it). The anthology is packed with moving and amusing stories by writers from all over Latin America, translated into English. At the time, I knew nothing about Latin American authors (still don’t, really), except that I had enjoyed the dreamy romance and masculine mendacity of Love In The Time of Cholera.

I devoured the collection and have read it several times since. But one story I always come back to, and must have read nine or ten times now is The Psychiatrist (O alienista) by the famed Brazilian author Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis. First published in 1882, The Psychiatrist tells the story of one Dr. Simão Bacamarte, a famous physician who decides to start studying psychiatry. He constructs a mental hospital in the town of Itaguaí and begins the process of committing those who appear to be mentally ill according to his theories.

The story is an obvious metaphor for the abuse of science, power and authority on the part of Bacamarte but it’s also a stinging (and hilarious) indictment of bureaucracy, populism, demagoguery and selfishness. Another fascinating aspect of the story is that even though it was written in the 1880’s, if not before, it seems to gently foreshadow much of the madness that was coming with the century ahead.

In turn funny and thought-provoking, O alienista is also helped along by the very modern direct-narrative form employed by its author. Machado de Assis had a very interesting background as he was apparently the son of a mulatto housepainter and a Portuguese washerwoman, not an upbringing which one would expect to produce a famous writer and journalist (at least, not in the 19th century). His writing is clear, simple, witty and absorbing and The Psychiatrist almost feels like it might have been written in 1952.

If you’ve not been lucky enough to enjoy this fine piece of literature, I cannot recommend it strongly enough. It’s almost certainly available in numerous anthologies and if you find a copy of Colchie’s, it’ll be accompanied by a fine selection of great Latin American writing.

Update: Apparently, you can still buy the anthology I have, published under a different title.

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