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43 - Fantastic Latin America

A man finds a canary in a junk shop, and upon realizing that the little bird talks, he takes it to his home, thinking that this discovery will change the course of humanity. Yet, the man doesn't know that his new pet is quite a philosopher.

In the comments, we reflect on the problem of assuming; we present the storyteller Antonio Rocha and talk about the Brazilian writer Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis.

This episode was produced with the support of PRX and the Google Podcast Creator Program.


"I am beginning to be sorry that I ever undertook to write this book. Not that it bores me; I have nothing else to do; indeed, it is a welcome distraction from eternity. But the book is tedious, it smells of the tomb, it has a rigor mortis about it; a serious fault, and yet a relatively small one, for the great defect of this book is you, reader. You want to live fast, to get to the end, and the book ambles along slowly; you like straight, solid narrative and a smooth style, but this book and my style are like a pair of drunks; they stagger to the right and to the left, they start, and they stop, they mutter, they roar, they guffaw, they threaten the sky, they slip and fall...

And fall! Unhappy leaves of my cypress tree, you had to fall, like everything else that is lovely and beautiful; if I had eyes, I would shed a tear of remembrance for you. And this is the great advantage in being dead, that if you have no mouth with which to laugh, neither have you eyes with which to cry."

Source: Posthumous Memories de Brás Cubas by Machado de Assis. Published by Penguin Classics.


Welcome, dear listeners of Tres Cuentos, the bilingual podcast dedicated to Latin America's literary, historical, and traditional narratives. I am Carolina Quiroga-Stultz, and today we begin a nine-week journey through Fantastic Latin America!

The opening of the episode was written by today's featured author Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis in his book The Posthumous Memories of Brás Cubas.


To those who have been with us, the name Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis perhaps sounds familiar; we featured one of his stories, "The Bonze's Secret," early this year on episode 35.

Then why bring him back? Well, since we are about to dive into the beginnings of Latin America's Fantasy, I thought Mr. Machado de Assis could do the honors.

Curiously, when I began my research on the genre of Latin American Fantasy, I had in mind narratives like Narnia, The Lord of the Rings, oh! But how wrong was I. There is a big problem with assumptions. I thought that the cannon of fantasy was what some British and a South African author (J.R.R. Tolkien) had written. But as we say in Colombia, "Latino America es otro cuento," is another story.

The nine stories that are part of this season vary from quirky, witty, eerie, and spooky. But I dare to say that there is a common thread, humor, and the idea that anything can happen in Latin America.

Today's story "Canary Thoughts" can be found in the book Collected Stories of Machado de Assis, translated by Margaret Jull Costa and Robin Patterson, published by W.W Norton & Company, Inc.

This funny story that helps us reflect on the futility of human assumptions regarding what reality is, comes in the voice of the Brazilian-American storyteller Antonio Rocha. I will tell you more about him and his brilliant career in the states after the story.

A man finds a canary in a junk shop, and upon realizing that the little bird talks, he takes it to his home, thinking that this discovery will change the course of humanity. Yet, the man doesn't know that his new pet is quite a philosopher.

Canary Thoughts

Written by Machado de Assis

Translated by Margaret Jull Costa and Robin Patterson

Read and adapted by Antonio Rocha

Once in a land far away called Brazil before cars even existed in the world there lived Macedo.

Macedo was an astute scientist who studied the feathery type, he was a dedicated and keen ornithologist, and this is the story of a very bizarre something that happened to him.

He was once walking down a busy street when all of a sudden, a horse drove car came careering towards him and almost knocked me over. He escaped by jumping out of the way and into the doorway of a vintage shop. You know, one of those antique shops that we come across many times during the summertime. You may find a treasure here and there, but they are mostly filled with junk.

Macedo right away forgot about the incident and became intrigue by the character of the shop that was before him. He right away noticed the owner who was way in the back dozing in a folding chair. A man who seemed unaware of the noises coming from the street, unaware of the potential new customer that was by the door. He was a ruin of a man, with a grubby, straw-colored beard and, on his head, a tattered cap that had perhaps failed to find a buyer. He appeared to be a man without a past, unlike some of the objects he was selling

The shop was dark and crammed with the bent, broken, rusty objects one usually finds in such places, and all in the state of disorder one would expect. Crowding the area around the shop’s entrance were pots without lids, lids without pots, buttons, shoes, locks, a black skirt, straw hats and fur hats, picture frames, a pair of binoculars, a stuffed dog, slippers, gloves, various vases, a velvet bag, two coat racks, a catapult, a thermometer, some chairs, a backgammon set, two wire masks for some future Mardi Gras, as well as other things he either didn't even see, all leaning or hanging or on display in equally ancient glass cases.

Macedo was just about to leave when he spotted a cage hanging in the doorway. Like everything else, it was very old, and, it was not empty, a canary was hopping about inside. The little creature's color, animation, and grace lent a touch of life and youth to the surrounding junk.

As soon as he was noticed by Macedo’s curiosity, he began to jump from perch to perch, within the confinements of the cage, as if to say that in the midst of that graveyard-like shop there was at least one ray of sunlight. A tremendous sensation of pleasure entered Macedo’s heart, followed by an indignant sense of anger at the fate of these creature.

Macedo thought to himself what owner could have had the heart to sell him for a few coins? Or given him away for free to a small boy, who, in turn, sold him on so he could by something more interesting.

The canary paused, faced Macedo and trilled:

"Whoever you are, you're clearly not in your right mind. I had no owner, nor was I given to a child who then sold me on. Those are the imagining of a sick mind; go cure yourself, my friend"

"What? So, your owner didn't sell you to this shop where you bring light like a ray of sunlight?"

Macedo was so intrigued by the bird’s ability to communicate that he was not even aware that he was communicating with the bird.

"What? I don't know what 'sunlight' means."

"Excuse me, are you saying you came here of your own accord, without anyone's help, unless, of course, that man sitting over there is your owner?"

"My owner? That man is my servant, he gives me food and water every day and with such regularity that if I had to pay him for his services, it would cost me a pretty penny, but canaries don't pay their servants. Indeed, since the world belongs to canaries, it would be ridiculous for us to pay for something that already exists in that world."

Macedo was astonished by these responses, and didn't know which to find most amazing, his language or his ideas. The canary words emerged as charming trills but entered his ears like human language. He looked around to make sure he was indeed awake; yes, it was the same street, the same sad, damp, gloomy shop. Still hopping back and forth, the canary was waiting for him to speak. Macedo asked him then if he didn't miss the infinite blue sky...

"My dear fellow, what does 'infinite blue sky' mean?"

"Tell me, then, what you think of this world. What is the world?"

"The world, the world is a junk shop, with a small, square wicker cage hanging from a nail; the canary is the master of the cage he inhabits and of the surrounding shop. Everything else are illusion and lies."

At this point, the old man, you know the shop owner woke up and shuffle over to him. He asked Macedo if he wanted to buy the canary.

"Oh! Yes, I am very interested, but first how did you come upon this bird?"

"Oh! Let me see! Oh yes! I bought it from a barber, along with a set of razors. The razors are in very good condition, would you like to see them."

"No, I only want the canary."

Macedo paid the asking price, took the canary home and bought a much larger cage made of wood and wire, and he ordered painted white and placed on the veranda, from where the bird could see the garden, the fountain, and a scrape of blue sky.

Macedo now intended to make a long study of this phenomenon but would say nothing to anyone else until he had reached the point where he could dazzle the whole century with his extraordinary discovery. And so he dove into his research, he began by alphabetizing the canary's language, to study its structure, its links with music, the creature's aesthetic feelings, his ideas, and memories. Having completed this initial philology and psychological analysis, he immersed myself in the history of canaries, their origins, their early history, the geology, and flora of the Canary Islands, whether he had any knowledge of navigation, and so for and so on. They talked for long hours, with Macedo taking notes, and him waiting, hopping about, and trilling about his newfound home the white cage.

Since Macedo had no other family than two servants, he had ordered them not to interrupt him, not even with a letter or an urgent telegram or an important visitor. They both knew about his scientific studies, and so found these instructions perfectly normal, and did not suspect for a moment that the canary and Macedo could understand each other.

Macedo worked harder than ever before, he slept very little, waking two or three times in the night to pace about. Then, he would return to his work, rereading, expanding, and amending his thoughts. He had to correct more than one of the canary's observations. Three weeks after he came to live in Macedo’s house, Macedo asked him to repeat his definition of the world.

"The world is a fair-sized garden with a fountain in the middle, a few flowers and shrubs, a little grass, clear air and a scrap of blue up above; the canary, who is the master of this world, lives in a vast white circular cage, from which he views all these things. Everything else are illusion and lies."

Macedo’s obsession with his new work reached heights. However, he could not yet write the article he intended to send to the National Museum, to the Historical Institute, and to various universities, not because he lacked material, but because he still needed to compile and confirm all these observations.

Macedo was obsessed, he was not sleeping well, not eating well. And it all came together, all of a sudden on a Saturday morning. Macedo woke feeling ill, with his head and back aching. The doctor ordered complete rest. So, he remained bed ridden for five days.

Each morning, one of the servants was tasked with cleaning the cage and giving the canary his food and water. The canary said nothing to him, as if he knew that the servant lacked scientific training.

On the sixth, Macedo could not stay away from his fellow the bird, so he left the confinement of his bedroom, only to discover that the canary had escaped while the servant was cleaning its cage. His first impulse was to strangle the servant; overcome with rage, he slumped into a chair, his head spinning, unable to speak. The servant defended himself, swearing that he had taken every possible care, but that the bird had cunningly escaped...

"Did you look for him?"

"We did, sir. At first flew up onto the roof, and so we went after him, then he flew over to a tree and disappeared. I've been asking everywhere, the neighbors, the local farmers, but no one has seen him."

Macedo looked for his fellow canary everywhere, advertised, but all in vain. Macedo was out of his mind and surrendered to his bedroom for a few more days.

One of his closest friends came to visit him and insisted that they went out for a walk.

"Come on Macedo a bit of fresh air will do you wonders. Come over to my house, you love my gardens, it will be a good distraction."

Macedo agreed. They went for a stroll in the garden before supper, it was indeed a lovely idea. Macedo loved his friend’s old colonial state, with its mansion, and its beautiful and lush gardens.

All of a sudden Macedo heard a voice trill out this question:

"Hello, Senhor Macedo, where did you disappear to?"

It was the canary. He was perched on a branch up above. You can imagine Macedo’s feelings and what he said to him. His friend thought he had gone mad, but Macedo could care less what his friends was thinking about. Macedo addressed the canary tenderly, begging him to come back and resume their conversation, in their world composed of a garden, fountain, veranda, and a white circular cage...

"What garden? What fountain?"

"The world, my dear friend."

"What world? I see you have lost none of your bad professional habits. The world is an infinite blue space, with the sunup above."

No, the world is more than that, its everything, including the junk shop...

"A junk shop? Do such things exist?"

And with that the canary flew up to his new world of infinite blue skies and the sunup above.




Very well, let's go back to the physical place that constitutes your reality. Now, it brings to mind that old saying that goes, "the grass is always greener on the other side of the street." Sometimes when everything in life seems to work perfectly, when we feel luckier or more intelligent than others, it may seem that others could improve their lives if they practiced our way of life. But when we are going through a rough patch, it appears that those others are having a better time and have the key to happiness and abundance.

In the story, the main character makes all kinds of assumptions. He even invents an origin-tragic story to explain why the little bird ended up in that shop. In his tendency to generalize based on what he perceives about the shop owner, he says, "He appeared to be a man without a past, unlike some of the objects he was selling, a man who did once have a life."

This reminds me of the times when children seemed to have a hard time understanding that I, or any other adult, was a child once. It is as if children assume that we, grown-ups, come already developed, that pretty much we are ordered online and delivered old, grumpy, and boring.

On the other hand, if we reflect further, we could ask ourselves, how many times have we met someone and have constructed a whole back story for them based on generalities. And, from there, we either like or dislike what we see, only to realize later how wrong we were, that in our minds, we labeled the other person a villain, a victim, or a hero. But, of course, they are just as human, as afraid, lost, confused, happy and hopeful as we are.

Before we dive more into the life of today's featured author, Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis, allow me to introduce today's voice.


Antonio Rocha is an award-winning internationally acclaimed storyteller. A native of Brazil, he began his career in the performing arts in 1985. In 1988 he received a Partners of the Americas grant to come to the USA to perform and deepen his mime skills with Mime Master Tony Montanaro. Since then, he has earned a Summa Cum Laude Theater BA from USM (University of Southern Maine) and studied with Master Marcel Marceau. Mr. Rocha's unique fusion of mime and spoken word has been performed from Singapore to South Africa and many places in between including sixteen countries on six continents.

With his tenor voice, realistic sound effects, unique characters, and mesmerizing moves, Antonio can reach a vast age group entertaining kids and adults. He is sure to tickle your funny bone and delight your soul no matter your age. Antonio's programs include folktales, original personal stories, myths, comedy, movement pieces, and stories based on his immigration to the USA from Brazil. Antonio has three very entertaining and educational award-winning DVDs, a picture book, and a few awards, including the coveted Circle of Excellence Award by the National Storytelling Network.

If you want to hear Antonio Rocha in action, stop by his website, there are some very entertaining videos there. One interesting thing that came out of Antonio's collaboration with our podcast is that Antonio had already incorporated the story "Canary Thoughts" in his repertoire. Oh! The power of stories!


Moving on. Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis was born on June 21, 1839, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, and died in the same city on September 29, 1908.

Machado de Assis's literary career includes poetry, novels, short stories, plays, chronicles, translations (including Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens (1812-1870), parliamentary reports, music scores, economic outlook articles, and much more. In other words, we are just scratching the surface of his literary genius.

Like Dickens, Machado de Assis had to work from an early age and, through determination and self-education, developed his literary skills and amassed vast knowledge.

Joaquim suffered from epileptic seizures. This condition was often not properly treated during the 19th century. This caused some damage to his social well-being. At the age of 17, Machado de Assis became a printer's apprentice. He also taught himself several languages, like some of our dear listeners may be doing at this moment!

One of the highlights of his life was meeting his beloved wife, Carolina Augusta Xavier de Novais. When she died in 1904, she left behind a devastated husband that followed her only four years later.

To understand the importance of Machado's contribution to Latin American literature, I will read a quote from the famous US writer Susan Sontag who considered him "the greatest author ever produced in Latin America," surpassing even Borges. Oh! I hope this doesn't ruffle the feathers of Borges fans.

Machado de Assis's novels were authored during the 19th century when Brazil was going under a period of upheaval. The nation was remaking itself after the abolition of slavery in 1889 and the institution a democracy in 1889. For more information about Brazil's history during this period, I recommend reviewing episodes 35 and 27.

Machado's literature questions what it means to be Brazilian, self-scrutinizing and critiquing society as other nineteenth-century novelists did in their respective countries. However, what sets him apart from his contemporaries is Machado's humor and the use of the untrustworthy first-person narrator. To that, I must add one more thing. Unlike other writers of his time who focused on depicting the reality of the working class, Machado created a few fictional members of the Brazilian upper class, in this way dissecting the farse of those in power.


To conclude today's program, I want to close with another of Machado's quotes about how things lead to the creation of other things.

"The best thing to do is to loosen my grip on my pen and let it go wandering about until it finds an entrance. There must be one – everything depends on the circumstances, a rule applicable as much to literary style as to life. Each word tugs another one along, one idea another, and that is how books, governments, and revolutions are made – some even say that is how Nature created her species."

And that is all for today. We will be back next Thursday with another episode in English about another author who has left a positive and intriguing mark in literature: Ruben Dario. This Nicaraguan writer tells us a story of what it might mean to stay young forever. Until the next cuento! Adios, adios.

Tres Cuentos Podcast is produced with support from PRX and the Google Podcasts creator program.


Machado de Assis: an introduction to one of Brazil's most celebrated writers. George Newton. Published on December 18 2020. Url:

Posthumous Memories de Brás Cubas by Machado de Assis. Published by Penguin Classics.

Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis Brazilian author, by The Editors of Encyclopedia Britannica URL:

Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis quotes. URL


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