Most readers and reviewers of the works of Joachim Maria Machado de Assis (1839-1908) lay emphasis on the 'modernity' of his writing: the playfulness of his narrative structure, the psychological insights he tosses off without the benefit of living after Freud or Lacan, the whimsical diversions and parenthetical fancies. There's nothing wrong with that interpretation; Machado is clearly unlike any other writer in any language in his half of the 19th C. But he had a model, an obvious influence whom he acknowledges in his books: Laurence Sterne (1713-1768), the Emglish author of Tristram Shandy and A Sentimental Journey. The linkage between Sterne and Machado is more than stylistic. It's the centrality of "sentiment" in their narratives. I don't mean "sentimentality" in the current sense of excessively sloppy emotion. In the literature of the 18th C, "sentiment" referred to an heightened sensitivity, a keen aesthetic sympathy, a 'feminine' receptivity to experience, and among English writers like Sterne and Fielding, a disposition toward mockery of conventions. Goethe was a 'sentimental' writer in extremis, but without that fine sense of mockery. Rather than being a modernist, to my mind, Machado de Assis was the last 18th C sentimentalist. That doesn't preclude the fact that his influence on later Brazilian and Hispanic-American writers was modernizing. It was. Machado can legitimately be regarded as the founder of Latin American literature, the first world classic of his whole continent.
Quincas Borba hasn't found a niche in the 'canon' of classics for most anglophone readers, despite the efforts of Harold Bloom, the great canonizer. This recent translation by Gregory Rabassa should open the way to greater recognition. It's fluid and idiomatic in English, and it captures much of the quirky originality of Machado's prose style. Don't look for a well-ordered logical narrative. The author hops in and out of the narrative frame at will. If there's a convention of story-telling, Machado aims to break it. He's sly, elusive/allusive, satirical/sardonic, and insistently mocking, both of his fictive characters and of you the reader. He dances circles around us, sticks out his tongue at our expectations, yet remains as endearing as a mischievous street urchin.
And in fact he was born a mischievous street urchin, a colored child in the slums of a Brazilian city. His life was a unpredictable, almost fanciful, as the tale of Rubião, the chief character of this novel. Rubião has reached early middle age as a lackadaisical school teacher in the province of Minas. By chance, he befriends an eccentric 'philosopher' named Quincas Borba, who instructs him that "to the victor belong the potatoes." When Borba dies, Rubião inherits a vast fortune and a dog, also named Quincas Borba, who may or may not possess the spirit of the philosopher. The new millionaire moves to Rio, falls absurdly in love, suffers obsessions, innocently squanders his wealth with the help of friends ...
... and no one he meets fares much better in terms of rational self interest. Humans delude themselves if they think they are more sensible than dogs. They're whimsical victims of their own sentiments.