As my long-term readers may remember, back in 2013 I wrote about the letters Fernando Pessoa and Aleister Crowley exchanged in 1929. At the time of my reading I had two different impressions: first of all I held the impression that, the mythical nature of the interlocutors notwithstanding, the letters and the subsequent meeting in Lisbon left a lot to be desired; secondly, I thought it was deplorable that no one had ever written a novel about it, using the meeting as a catalyst for something more interesting.
Well, I was wrong about my second point: unbeknownst to me until a few months ago, in 2007 up-and-coming novelist David Soares published his first novel fictionalizing this event, titled A Conspiração dos Antepassados, or The Conspiracy of the Ancestors. It was also the first book I read by him, and it was one of the most complete and well-balanced books I’ve read this year so far, equal parts intelligent, entertaining and gripping.
Soares (b. 1976) has pioneered the writing of genre fiction in Portugal, making unusual incursions into horror, thriller and what we nowadays call urban fantasy, in a country that has always looked with contempt and derision at anything that isn’t conventional tedious realist fiction, with the exception of academy-approved magical realism. Well, the novel’s plot is unapologetically fantastic. In Lisbon, the obscure poet Pessoa is mourning his mother’s death and finding it hard to recapture his poetic inspiration, attends a séance, patronized also by a mysterious Baron of Teive, to learn how to reach the dead, sabotages his fleeting romance with Ofélia de Queiroz, and begins hearing voices reciting sentences that, he later finds out, belong to Crowley’s The Book of the Law. In Tunisia, the infamous mage is feeling his magical powers exhausted, has a violent spat with his current Scarlet Lady that ends with head trauma and abortion for her, and worries more about how to regain his old magical prowess. Things start looking better when in Paris he meets an old friend, Cyril Grey, a magician himself, who hands him a case with an ancient manuscript belonging to the Portuguese Renaissance painter Francisco de Holanda (or d’Ollanda) and that contains the instructions to produce a Moonchild, a perfect being of extraordinary power who could rule the world. Grey and his partner, the magician Simon Iff, who had unsuccessfully tried to create the Moonchild, stole the manuscript from a secret society called The Three Hundred and now are on the run – Iff, believes Grey, has already been murdered by a magician called Oliver Haddo. Before disappearing, Grey asks Crowley to find out what happened to their old friend and to exact revenge. Receiving a letter from Pessoa, who in the meantime has discovered that the voices recite lines from his book, he considers that an omen since D’Ollanda is also Portuguese and travels to Lisbon where he enlists he befuddled poet’s help. Investigating, they unearth the secret behind the conception of King D. Sebastião, who turns out to be the real Moonchild, and also discover why he disappeared in Africa after the calamitous Battle of Ksar El Kebir. Oh, and there’s a secret society composed of hybrid insect-men after them.
|De Holanda's Artwork: excuses to show it are scarce|
Like all writing, this plot wouldn’t amount to anything if Soares weren’t a solid writer. Although conventional in structure, he has qualities that I appreciate. First of all he loves vocabulary and isn’t afraid of using it; he loves the awkward, archaic adjective and he doesn’t let clarity get in the way of precision: solifugous (something or somebody that flees from sunlight), occiput for the lower part of the skull, operculum, and even words I don’t know in English: it’s always reassuring to know that the author knows the verb for the sound elephants make (barrir). He’s also not afraid of using foreign words into the text when convenient: French, Latin, and another language I presume to be Hebrew (kabbalah shows up, of course). And then there’s a plain effort to come up with unusual word combinations of words: somewhere he uses “soul shavings” and elsewhere “odoriferous ballast” for the smoke someone has just inhaled. But above all Soares enjoys the oddball simile: distant pulsars blink “like wreckage hurled from the collision of two galaxies;” the cold air that awakens D. Sebastião when he arrives at another dimension feels “like an ice injection;” the Hells Mouth abyss where Crowley really faked a suicide is a “cave [that] expelled everything, as if it were rinsing its mouth, cleaning itself of algae caries and crabs;” cigarette smoke ascends from an ashtray “to glue itself like a spider web on a frame hanging above the bed;” streets rise “like scales on Lisbon’s back;” and so on throughout its almost 400 pages. (I’m not surprised that Soares considers Alexander Theroux’s Darconville’s Cat his favourite novel).
For us book worms, there’s also the pleasure of spotting small references to other books: when Pessoa asks a person at his office if he’s ever read António Mora, the joke of course is that no one could have read it since Mora, the pagan philosopher, was one of the poet’s heteronyms; when Pessoa thinks about “having to make ends meet” that’s a shout-out to António Mega Ferreira’s book on Pessoa’s many attempts at setting up private businesses (the title is Fernando Pessoa – Fazer Pela Vida, which is how we say “to make ends meet” in Portuguese); Pessoa strolling about Lisbon and wondering what he’d say if he met one of his heteronyms may be a reference to José Saramago’s The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis, which has the opposite situation: a heteronym going about Lisbon and having conversations with Pessoa’s ghost; not to mention allusions to verses he has not yet written – knowing Pessoa’s poetry is not mandatory to enjoy the novel, but heightens the experience. For the comic book lover (Soares also writes them) there are also Easter eggs if you’re familiar with Alan Moore’s From Hell and Grant Morrison’s The Invisibles. Soares can sometimes indulge in sheer essayism when he reconstructs Lisbon in the 1930s, or when he points out the occult lore hidden in every stone and façade and statue, much like Moore’s psychogeographical jaunt through London (Grey also predicts a coming war, much like Robert Lee does at the end of the comic book). As for The Invisibles, Soares is gracious enough to remember those who before him used the myth of the Moonchild in fiction. As most people don’t know, Grant Morrison’s superb sci-fi/occult thriller about a cell of anarchists fighting against an insectoid species for the freedom of Mankind – one of its many subplots involves the bad guys trying to bring forth a royal child called the Moonchild. Of course Morrison himself was only appropriating Crowley’s fantasy novel Moonchild (1923) which is also about warring magicians trying to create the Moonchild. Simon Iff and Cyril Grey happen to be characters from that novel (Iff also shows up in detective stories whose Wordsworth Edition collection I own but have not yet read), not to mention that Oliver Haddo is the character William Somerset Maugham created based on Crowley himself. By the way, the Baron of Teive and The Three Hundred come from Pessoa’s own oeuvre. The interesting thing about the Moonchild is that, if Moore clearly influenced Soares, Soares got to the myth first. In 2009 Moore started publishing The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Volume III: Century, which was about the League trying to stop a magical conclave from giving birth to the Moonchild/Antichrist (also known as Harry Potter) and since the concept of the League is to fusing existing fictional worlds together, Allan Quatermain and Mina Murray bump into Oliver Haddo and Simon Iff, plus Carnacki (!) and Karswell Trelawney (from a fine M.R. James short-story). There’s an interesting essay in comparative literature waiting to written on them.
Soares also shows a debt to Moore and Morrison (or an affinity) in a more subtle way: his love for erudition and research. The novel is extensively researched and annotated (he provides a lengthy bibliography at the end – very From Hell, that), and on every page he shows ease in talking about the private lives of Pessoa and Crowley, or in discussing occult lore, or in simply connecting many strands of arcana into a coherent, persuasive whole. People with a better knowledge of occultism could probably write a more in-depth analysis of that aspect of the novel, but I’ll just mention one aspect: the scatology. Throughout the novel Soares associates magic with bodily functions. “The body is a bicolor mosaic tiles of fair skin and dark blood.” Paracelsus, he informs us, used excrements in his potions, and there was even an Italian called Christian Franz Paullini who created a “scatological grimoire” with receipts for balms based on human and animal feces. Soares knows his stuff, he does. During the reading I sensed that Pessoa was often associated with semen (he’s a great masturbator in the novel), which perhaps culminates with a bizarre scene where he goes to a brothel, picks out a prostitute with a hump and asks to cum on it; and Crowley would be more associated with blood, given his violent behavior; but going through my notes I realized that Crowley at every turn has his hands steeped in semen, blood and feces. “Blood is a magical medium,” says the mage to an assistant; and he brags about inventing a way of performing sex in that requires sexual activity – his two favorite things together. When Crowley first appears in the book he’s in the bathroom tasting his own diarrhea. There are also ample appearances of vomit, piss, snot, sweat, veins, viscera, and amniotic liquid. A character to join The Three Hundred must sever a finger, that is, make a blood sacrifice. Magic may deal with the spirit, but it’s performed with the whole body. In two different occasions, when he needs to activate the magical properties of an athanor, and when he must open a gateway into a dimension called Daath, he masturbates as part of the ritual. Even better, in order to get out of Daath he must be literally shat back into his reality through a demon’s anus (the demon is called Choronzon, by the way, whom Crowley once actually met). I liked this messiness because it’s tedious to see how often magic in popular culture is portrayed, with nice-looking wizards and plastic Halloween wands. Soares’ magic is dirty, filthy, vicious, not for the faint-hearted, and has a more convincing air about it. No drippy fluorescent thunderbolts, just your body – self-reliant magic.
Soares’ research also extends into the lives of his protagonists. Since I know Pessoa better than Crowley, I enjoyed his forays into the latter; even so I thought he attempted and interesting and successful thing in showing similarities between the two. After his mother died, Pessoa became depressed. “In the same he was forgetting how to talk to the living, he had lost a long time now the ability to hear words from the dead.” He drinks, he wears his mother’s clothes. Madness is a preoccupation: “He was afraid of going mad and the horror was not groundless because he was a worker of the brain: it was his professional illness.” Crowley, trying to recover his juju in Tunisia, also fears going crazy: “an unknown fear of going crazy was turning the discharging of magical energy heavier. What if, because of that fear, he died the wrong way? He could end up in the wrong company: that was very dangerous.” In the same way Pessoa wonders what a young woman like Ofélia could see in him, the mage wonders why Olsen hangs out with him. Pessoa is trying to beat writer’s block; Crowley worries that his magical prowess has abandoned him forever. The affair of ancient manuscript is essential in renewing their lives. Since they’re real-life characters, I don’t think I’ll ruin the twists by saying that Pessoa will survive until 1935 and Crowley until 1946. But the experience changes them: the poet resumes his writing and creates the 1934 poem Message; Crowley, struggling to write an explanation of The Book of the Law, after receiving the manuscript beats his own writer’s block.
Both Pessoa and Crowley are recalcitrants who don’t conform to society; both abjure groups; both are conservative and despise socialism; both are deeply individualistic and resent others who try to meddle in people’s lives. Both also saw themselves as teachers of the ideal life. Pessoa once defined himself as an “indiscipliner of souls” (I was surprised this famous expression wasn’t used in the novel), and Crowley sees himself as a master who teaches others to do away with masters and live according to their own will: “Do as thou wilt shall be the whole of the law.” They’re both aware that around them most people are failures, and envious and resentful of those who succeed. Both live on the margins. Crowley flat out rejects a normal life. Pessoa also refuses one. “I don’t suffer from abnormal compulsions,” he says. “What’s an abnormal compulsion for you?” asks Crowley. “Marry. Have children. Pay taxes.” Deformity plays a role here: physically normal, their minds are skewed. The insectoid members of The Three Hundred, through, demand ritual deformity but want to impose spiritual sameness on mankind. So it’s no surprise that Pessoa and Crowley, in their battle against The Three Hundred, are really performing a battle, not unlike the magical anarchists in The Invisibles, between free will and oppression.
Another strand of subtext is the relationship between magic and writing. “… Write and may writing be for you a source of pleasure…” says The Book of the Law. For Pessoa it’s anguishing, actually; and Crowley also despairs to learn how to write about the said book. And yet it’s also a balm. When Crowley finds himself stranded in Daath and travels through an endless plain, he recites poems to himself. Writing is a form of magic itself, an elixir of immortality: “Yes, to be immortal is a mark of the gods and man will never achieve it, save through his oeuvre,” says Crowley. Language can be a magical weapon, like in the African myth of Ditaolane, a baby-god who slays a gigantic serpent by uttering words at it. And Pessoa describes a pen like “a fallen sword with a drop of shining blood on the widest bit of the blade.” Both writing and magic require a touch of cruelty, reclusion and loneliness; Crowley to be a great magician must indulge in obnoxious behavior; although Pessoa is milder than his counterpart, he watches the world go by without taking part in it. “Writing is a dangerous activity,” says he to a workmate. “Why?” Because, replies the poet, “… It doesn’t teach you to live.” “Then what is it good for?” “To write better!” This is their obsession: to the besta at their respective arts, at the price of not knowing normalcy. Soares himself doesn’t refrain from brief meta-commentaries on craftsmanship: “Magical thought was like the novelist’s authorial voice: a quality that could not be thought except by the experience of erring. Magic was very similar to fiction writing: the word used to denote the act of casting a spell was the same used to denote the act of spelling a word – spell - and what was a grimoire but a grammaire?” I’d add the verb to curse, which means both to damn someone and to use bad language.
But the writing and the magic have a benefic effect on them. Alan Moore somewhere said that magic is nothing but a method of self-improvement, a way of producing effective change on our live, of pointing it towards a more meaningful direction, of controlling it. Crowley would agree: “Magic makes people more responsible for their fate by giving them the opportunity to change.” At the end of their ordeal he says to Pessoa, “I think we’ve transformed into something that we couldn’t have reached on our own.” What that transformation entails is left for the reader to decipher.
David Soares is the novel’s real magician. A Conspirações dos Antepassados is a triumphant mixture of genre fiction’s page-turning enthusiasm with above-average writing and a depth of learning that would leave Alan Moore and Alexander Theroux dazed. He doesn’t just know his data inside out, he shows genuine affection for his subjects, and he makes his reader become just as interested in his obsessive themes. His fantastic world, a bit out of synch with ours, is fully coherent and immersive. I usually don’t need fictional worlds to be coherent and credible to enjoy them, but those who consider solid world-building a sine qua non condition, Soares doesn’t disappoint. His erudition persuades, and entertains.
If a contemporary Portuguese novelist needs to be translated into English, it’s David Soares.