The radical intellectuals of nineteenth-century Latin America, heirs of the independence movement that began in 1811, set themselves the task of exposing the corruptions of empire in their pamphlets and their poetry. But the South American we should consider the true declarer of intellectual independence from the Old World—the true Simón Bolívar of letters, if you will—was no radical. The Brazilian Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis (1839–1908), monarchist and votary of the decidedly unrevolutionary-sounding French literary movement called Parnassianism, offered in fact the most iconoclastic account of the ideas and institutions—even the personality traits— which his countrymen inherited from Europe.

Machado was bent on exploring every kind of self-delusion of which the male ego—epitomized by the Latin ego—was capable. Of his nine novels and several dozen short stories, The...


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