24. ‘The Alienist’ by Machado de Assis

The-Alienist-235x274The Book:

Everybody has quirks. For example, I hate creased book spines. I don’t mind if I get a secondhand, pre-creased book, but if I’m the one to do the damage I’m filled with remorse and a feeling of dismal failure. For the most part these human quirks are just harmless eccentricities (although, having written mine down, it does seem a little worrying), but in the world of ‘The Alienist’ that sort of shit can get you locked up.

Simão Bacamarte, a hugely talented physician, acquires a madhouse for the purpose of studying madness. He analyses people, diagnoses them with various mental ailments and incarcerates them. So far, so normal. But in trying to fix upon an infallible definition of madness, he ends up having to encompass all the oddities of the people he’s surrounded by, until virtually the entire town is behind bars.

Bacamarte’s character really makes this story. He does absolutely terrible things – imprisoning his own, perfectly sane wife, for instance – but you can’t help but like him. He’s a brilliant man who has always worked and thought in terms of black and white (for goodness sake, he chose his wife based purely upon her physical robustness), and thus he is incapable of fitting the complicated, grey world into this rigid structure. Although he does come across as unfeeling, he isn’t cold. The world baffles him at every turn: he is just a man who is trying to understand it, and he is prepared to adhere steadfastly to his principles, no matter the cost.

Of course, in this novella de Assis is also making the reader consider the issue of madness. Where does ‘normal’ end and ‘insanity’ begin, and who – if anybody – has the right to decide? De Assis asks these questions brilliantly and the story turns full circle, back upon the man who initiated the discussion in the first place. In the end he doesn’t provide any answers because, quite simply, they don’t exist – but the journey is well worth a read.

“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.”

The Background:

Another from my Melville House subscription, and my first by this writer who – I must admit – I’d never even heard of before. I know, I must be mad!


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