You may not have heard of him, since his reputation has for various reasons not been as great as is deserved, but Machado de Assis was a master of the short-story form. Slavery still existed for the first 49 years of his life, but although he was born into poverty, he went on to become the most distinguished of Brazilian writers, garnering praise from Salman Rushdie, Woody Allen and Susan Sontag, among others. This is an excellent translation from the Portuguese by John Gledson, who also provides an incisive introduction that muses on reasons why Machado's reputation might have fallen behind – including his bleak vision.
The stories here veer from social comedy to realist misery. Machado experienced the extreme lows and highs of society but rather than offering opinion, his stories are nuanced and ambiguous.
The title story begins one April morning in 1879. The solicitor Conrado wears a lightweight hat but his wife Mariana asks him to sacrifice wearing it into town, believing that it makes him seem coarse, commonplace and vulgar. Mariana is a passive, sweet woman who has no children but loves her furniture like a mother. Conrado retorts: "Don't imagine that a person buying a hat is committing a free, voluntary act; the truth is that he is obeying an obscure determinism."
Many of the stories hinge on such supposed trivialities which serve to illustrate the characters' neuroses and indecisiveness. The intensity of emotion that can latch itself on to such seeming pettiness is brilliantly evoked. Throughout the collection, the minutiae of quotidian incident is a stark contrast against the great sweep of political and historical events, as the author shows individuals struggling to fit into society – and to feel at home in their own skins. It's not only hats but the human mind that Machado excels at exposing.