Monday, 1 September 2014

António Lobo Antunes: child, doctor, soldier, gigolo

María Luisa Blanco is a Spanish journalist: she directed the newspaper ABC’s cultural supplement and then moved to El País. Between April 2000 and February 2001 she interviewed Portuguese novelist António Lobo Antunes. On weekends she drove to Lisbon, stayed there 3 days, met him 5 hours per day and then returned. She says that he never limited the interviews’ time but “he never wasted his time having lunch, dinner or even a beer with me.” But on the last day of the project he invited her for a meal with him and his daughters. The journalist met him between the writing of two novels: Não Entres Tão Depressa Nessa Noite Escura (2000) and What Can I Do When Everything's On Fire? (2001), whose work in progress he alludes to all the time.

It was a difficult time in Lobo Antunes’ life. Maria José, his first wife, the great passion of his life, had passed away in February 1999, weighing 27 kilos. Although they separated in 1976, and he remarried, they remained friends and to like each other; one day she called him informing him that she had cancer and didn’t have a lot of time left He moved in with her, who still lived in the same house they shared when he came back from the war in Angola; they lived together during the five months she managed to remain alive. While taking care of her he started a new novel, Exortação aos Crocodilos (1999), he literally wrote it by her bedside. In spite of the sickness, he claims it was a period of great happiness for both of them. When Blanco met him, he was still living there, with his two oldest daughters, Joana and one also called Maria José.

Under these circumstances Lobo Antunes granted Blanco 12 interviews; she also interviewed his parents. These interviews constitute a treasure of information that should keep scholars, fans and enemies entertained for many years to come: he talks about his childhood, his family, his medical studies, his taste in books, the war, his novels, the writers he likes and doesn’t like, his working methods.

I’ve collated all the data that I considered essential and interesting, and also unknown to English readers who may be into his novels (he believes there are lots of them; I’m less optimistic), and tried to organize them into two articles: this post will focus on his personal life; the next one will be about his writing process and his thoughts on literature.

Lobo Antunes was born in 1942, in the Benfica neighbourhood of Lisbon, the first of 6 children. He grew up in an aristocratic and privileged milieu: both his grandparents had been generals; his father was a neuropathologist; his mother, this being Portugal, lived around her husband’s orbit. The son lived in a bubble isolated from the regime and never experienced any political repression. Although he enjoyed the name of an important family, his parents were not rich and lived in a regime of austerity. He claims he “liked to go eating at [his grandfather’s] house because there was soup… two dishes… At my parent’s home we dined one soup; the same soup from lunch.” His relationship with his parents was cold and distant; they were not tender people, he can’t remember his mother ever kissing him. But when interviewed, she claimed that he had been a happy child. They loved to read, loved culture and transmitted that love to their son: his father, an aficionado of Vermeer and Velázquez, made his children copy Gaugin paintings; although he found it boring, Lobo Antunes later considered this a useful way of instilling discipline in him. But the favourite person of his childhood was his grandfather, a conservative, a monarchist and a supporter of dictator Salazar. At the age of 7 he took the boy to Padua for his first communion; they travelled through Europe and visited museums. Although the grandfather spoiled him with the tenderness he craved at home, his father wanted him to grow up ready to stand on his own, to be his own man, independent and responsible. “That was my childhood. I had to be the best, the strongest. If I arrived home and they saw another kid had hit me, my father got angry because I hadn’t struck back. ‘He was older than me,’ I protested. ‘Bite his testicles,’ my father replied.”

He remembers that he decided to become a writer at the age of 7. His mother, who loved to read, had taught him to read and write at the age of 5. “My mother says that ever since she can remember I was always writing, not playing or doing sports, because I devoted all my time to it.” But although the adults enjoyed culture at home, they did not want their child becoming an artist and gave him his first negative reviews when he showed them his writings. “Like a good mother she encouraged me, she told me: ‘This is worthless, you study and become a doctor, because you’ll never amount to anything as a writer.’”

Undeterred he continued to read and write, in a environment of pragmatic people whose intelligence existed only for making money: when he was 13 his grandfather asked him if he was gay only because he liked writing. He read everything in the family library. His father introduced him to Céline at the age of 14. His mother gave him money for public transportation, but he preferred to walk and buy books. He also had an aunt who deposited money into an account every month for him; when he turned 18 he withdrew the sum and blew everything on books. I think we can all relate. Then there was also school. “It was in high school that I started reading the Portuguese writers of the 19th century. But at the time, more than novels, what I really wanted to write was poetry. At the age of fourteen or fifteen I had a poetry collection.” But he wasn’t very good at it and quit by the age of 19. My impression is that he’s a frustrated poet who resigned himself to writing novels. He started a novel in his twenties but left it unfinished.

Then came the day he enrolled in the University. He wanted to study at the Faculty of Letters, but his father put him in Medicine against his will. “I was angry with him, but then I became happy all my life for having a scientific education. Besides my education helped me a lot as a writer because if I had gone to the Faculty of Letters, I'd certainly be writing like Sartre or Camus, or maybe I'd be a literary critic.” He continued to write throughout the course; he was a bad student because he didn’t care about it and repeated the first year three times. He also stayed out of the student protests against the regime, which were quite violent at the time, with police invading the campus to beat the crap out of rioters. Lobo Antunes didn’t care about politics and has continued not to care. Eventually he finished the course and left to London, hoping to work in the hospital Somerset Maugham worked in.

Portugal had been at war with its African colonies since 1961 and military service was mandatory. His army life started around 1969 or 1970. Like thousands of young men at the time he was dragged into the war. “I remember in a special way that I cried a lot on the New Year's eve night of 1970. It was a terrible night for me because on January 6 I had to leave for the war and that night, yes, I cried through that night.” Although his family was important it didn’t use its influence to stop him from going. “The children of important people didn’t go to the war,” he says. He didn’t come back until April 1973. He thought about deserting but a friend, Captain Ernesto Melo Antunes, talked him out of it. Although he didn’t want to go, he doesn’t hate his father for standing idle and has tried to extract something positive from his war experiences. Although he claims he did and saw many horrible things, he also believes the war helped him to become a better person: it thought him to be disciplined, a quality he needs to write his novels, comradeship, to understand true pain and to learn that he wasn’t the centre of the world, that other people existed. It was in the war that he began to understand the world better. The negative aspects tend to disappear in the background of the happy moments there. “The human being has an enormous capacity for forgetting, otherwise life would be horrible, it’d be like Primo Levi and his constant concentration camp stories, at the fifth camp I’m sick of them and of Primo Levi.”

His sojourn in Africa was a long sentiment of boredom punctuated by moments of horror and danger. He and the others could spend five days in HQ without doing anything all day, rattled only by a few attacks at night, then they’d head into the bush for five days and return exhausted to rest five more. During all this time, of course, he read and write. He missed ordinary things like cups and curtains on the windows; they always dined at five o’clock in the afternoon because the army didn’t have money for lights. He liked to be with the natives and liked meeting the tribe leaders; he built a personal dictionary to understand them, but had it confiscated by the secret police. He hated PIDE agents, they showed up whenever there were prisoners to be taken by helicopter.

Before leaving Portugal he “wanted to have a child because I thought I was going to die.” His first daughter was born in 1971. He wrote daily aerograms to his wife; she kept them and Lobo Antunes tells Blanco that he hoped they’d be published after his death. In fact they were published in 2005. Maria José came to Africa to be with him; she got sick with malaria and nearly died. Their daughter was also there, to the soldiers’ delight, who sort of considered her a collective daughter and took turns taking her for walks. Sometimes mother and daughter were left alone when Lobo Antunes left for the bush.

One of the best recollections of the war is his friendship with Ernesto Melo Antunes (1933-1999), one of the architects of the 1974 revolution. An officer who publicly opposed the war, he nevertheless carried out his duties with rigour; Lobo Antunes says with pride that thanks to his sense of discipline his unit was the one that suffered less casualties. This was another important lesson: discipline saved lives. When they returned in 1973 Melo Antunes involved him in the revolutionary movement. This was the only period in his life when politics mattered to him: at first he was enthused and when the regime fell he lived the ideals and hope of the time, even joined the Communist Party. But then came the disappointment with the revolution and a growing suspicion of politics, especially of the authoritarianism inside the party. “They told me that, as a writer, I had to make social art and that kind of things. That type of discipline didn’t please me, naturally.” Since Lobo Antunes does not hide that his writing is autobiographical, it’s not a stretch to see that disillusionment portrayed in the characters of Fado Alexandrino. At the time of the interviews he claimed not to vote.

He shares with Blanco a frequent dream. Although he doesn’t dream about the war, he dreams of being called back. “It’s a horrible dream: the war rages on, I’m called again to fall in as lieutenant, I show resistance… Always the same dream. Yet the war never shows up, never does; they just call me. In the last dream a body-guard showed up who told me: ‘Well, I’m here too; I’ll go with you…’ I never dream with the war; just with this. It’s a dream of tremendous anguish.”

After the war he went to work at the Miguel Bombarda mental hospital. When he chose his specialization he chose psychiatry because it gave him more time to write. He had to work for a living and wrote at night, at home, after his wife quickly cleared the dining table away. Everything he wrote, however, he destroyed, showing no interest in publication. In 1976 he left Maria José. He was 25 and she was 17 when they met and he considers her the great love of his life, and a great friend who believed in his talent. “I owe her my perseverance in writing. If it hadn’t been for her, for the enormous faith in me, and which she kept until her death, maybe I’d have abandoned it. She was convinced since she was seventeen that I was going to win all the prizes in the world.” He still can’t explain why they split; he says it was what everyone was doing after the revolution. Portugal was a traditional, puritanical country, divorce was taboo. Suddenly everyone was free to do everything they wanted, the sexual revolution was starting, a bit later there than in the rest of the world. “After the revolution many people split up, certainly because, as I was saying, we didn’t know how to manage freedom.” This dissolution of traditional values is also shown in Fado Alexandrino (1983). He never blames her. “I suffered a lot, I didn’t feel happy, and in those situations a person starts acting in a self-destructive way, with a stupid and incoherent behaviour.”

Although we see traces of this separation in Fado Alexandrino, its influence is more visible in his first novel, Memória de Elefante (1979). “Yes, Memória de Elefante is the story of that breaking up and it’s a book where you can guess a great suffering.” He adds, with his typical melancholy humour: “My Swedish translator jokes that I broke up because I needed working material.” In any event, with his first novel autobiography became one of the marks of his oeuvre: it’s a one-day-in-the-life kind of novel about a doctor who leaves home in the morning, heads for the hospital where he works, then goes out at night to pick up a prostitute in a bar, all the while full of stream of consciousness segments about his childhood, the war, the dictatorship, lost love, etc. The title means elephant memory and refers to his prodigious memory, which earned him this nickname as a child. Rejected by several publishers, it was picked up by a small one. The reviews were mixed, in those post-revolutionary times who you were mattered more than your talent, he was still in good terms with the CP but states that some people didn’t like to see this young aristocrat writing novels. But it was a huge hit: it sold thousands of copies and almost overnight he was a best-seller. He gave interviews and even went on TV. Three months later he published (the already written) The Land at the End of the World (1979). If the first novel stemmed from his break-up, the second one was inspired by his career as a gigolo.

For a few years after 1976 his life was an out-of-control mess. The author himself identifies a tendency for obliteration. “There is in me a very self-destructive part, that's very clear and the idea of suicide chases me all the time. An idea I don't why it exists because I've never had depressions. I've been through situations of enormous despair, but I never fell in depressions or sadness. I don't know. It's a thought that has always been with me.” After he left Maria José he started serially sleeping around with women and gambling. He worked in the mental hospital, made good money, started going to a casino and became addicted to gambling; there he also picked up strangers for one-night stands. Lobo Antunes, before he got old and fat, was a very handsome man and he even got a clientele: he was so popular, women talked amongst themselves and some looked him up just to sleep with him. Allegedly some considered him the best fuck in Lisbon. It wasn’t as great as you might presume. “It was a difficult period, after the separation. And I didn’t ever meet them… Sometimes I see a woman and I think: ‘Did I sleep with her?’ I think so, but… what’s her name? All that time I didn’t write anything. I spent two years without writing. I couldn’t write.” As readers of The Land at the End of the World know, the novel is precisely about a war veteran-cum-doctor who picks up a woman in a bar and takes her home to screw her. Incidentally, I detest his first two novels and maintain that he didn’t become a good novelist until Knowledge of Hell. Anyway, he sought a doctor to treat his addiction and he got himself back on track, but not without some traumas. “I felt physical repugnance, not just of women, but also of myself.” He claims that thanks to his daughters, to watching them grow and growing closer to them, he’s started feeling a different sensibility towards women. It was after his cure that hospital friend and non-fiction writer Daniel Sampaio (my mom loves his books) convinced him to publish. This information was provided, not by Lobo Antunes, but by his father.

Not long after their publication, one of these books made its way into the hands of Tom Colchie, the literary agent and translator involved with Jorge Amado, Cabrera Infante, Ernesto Sabato and Guimarães Rosa at the time. “When I received a letter by him telling me that he wanted to be my agent I didn’t reply to him thinking it was a joke. He wrote me a second one and I told him yes because, his fame and his efficiency as an agent aside, I thought it was chic to have a New York agent.” Colchie turned him into a world writer, although it took a few years for him to become successful.

In 1985, when he started making enough money from his books, he semi-retired from medicine, although he continued going to the hospital to see patients. The man Blanco meets didn’t strike me as a particularly happy man. Deaf on one ear, a condition he inherited from his mother, and forced to wear a hearing device, he thinks it makes him look ugly and ridiculous. He considers himself helpless in the quotidian and needs his daughters to do the most ordinary things like going shopping, driving, or filing income tax returns, he has no mind for practical things. Regarding friendship, he declared himself a solitary man with few friends: Nelson de Matos, his editor, Tom Colchie, his agent, José Cardoso Pires, a fellow novelist, and the aforementioned Melo Antunes – the latter two were dead at the time of the interviews. And on that cheerful note we end the biographical post. 

Next time: the books he loves! The writers he hates! And the secrets to writing great novels!

Monday, 25 August 2014

A true fan's guide to Jorge de Sena

After drawing up lists for Fernando Pessoa and António Lobo Antunes, I felt like doing the same for Jorge de Sena (1919-1978), one of the 20th century’s greatest poets, and as far as Portuguese poetry is concerned only a notch below Pessoa and Luiz de Camões, and also Portugal’s greatest literary critic. This time I’m sticking just to books by him; the truth is, if I added what exists about him, the list would implode. Sena was such a prolific writer – in fact my theory, after reading his letters to Sophia de Mello Breyner, is that he died, at the age of 58, from hard work – that he has an ever-growing bibliography. Although he passed away in 1978, his wife, Mécia, now aged 94, has carried out a strenuous battle of decades to publish a vast collection of posthumous documents that threatens to surpass in size Pessoa’s famous chest. By the way, I say strenuous because Sena, after he went Thomas Bernhard on his country and people, became a persona non grata in Portugal, for which reason a lot of his work disappeared from bookstores without publishers showing interest in rescuing them from oblivion. 2013 was the annus mirabilis: all his poetry written in life, after staying out of print for decades, was finally collected in a single volume. Together with what’s currently available and what can be found, after some searching, in used bookstores, it’s a great time to be a fan. But to be a true fan you need to read the following:


Poesia 1

Published last year, this collection supplants the anthology I used a few years ago to write about Sena’s poetry. It collects only the poetry he published in life, which still amounts to about 800 pages. Fortunately there are plans to publish a second volume collecting all his posthumous poems. I’m not sure they contain the prefaces he wrote for his individual books, but I hope so, he was an excellent reader of his own work.


Hopefully this little volume of poetry will become unnecessary once the second volume comes out. But as far as his single volumes of poetry are concerned, this is one of his most popular. Published after his life, it owes its longevity to its polemical nature: this is a series of poems he wrote vituperating and satirizing Portuguese intelligentsia, society, mythology, and politics.

Signs of Fire

Remarkably this novel, the only one he wrote, was translated into English. It’s a long novel and quasi-autobiographical. It’s a bildungsroman about a young poet who reaches maturity in 1936, during Salazar’s dictatorship and with the Spanish Civil War in the background.

The Wondrous Physician

Also translated into English, this erotic-fantastic novella is inspired by classic Portuguese literature and is a variation on the Faust theme: a young man sells his soul to the Devil, acquires magical powers and uses them to seduce ailing women. Because wouldn’t you?

Os Grão-Capitães
Antigas e Novas Andanças do Demónio

Collections of short-stories.


A posthumous collection of short-stories, left unfinished if I’m not mistaken.

Mater Imperialis

A collection of one-act plays.

O Indesejado

A play about the myth of D. Sebastião, our version of the Arthurian legend.

Monte Cativo

A hodgepodge of literary texts and projects that the author never completed.


Uma Canção de Camões
Os Sonetos de Camões e o Soneto Quinhentista Peninsular
A Estrutura de Os Lusíadas e Outros Estudos Camonianos e de Poesia Peninsular do Século XVI
Trinta Anos de Camões

These four books attest to Sena’s fascination with Luiz de Camões. He studied him for more than 30 years and it can be easily said that he was one of the greatest experts on Camões that ever lived. On top of that he also made valuable contributions to studies of 16th century Portuguese poetry.

Fernando Pessoa & Cª Heterónima

Published in two volumes, this book collects several texts Sena wrote about Pessoa throughout his life. His arrival in poetry is concomitant with his interest in Pessoa’s life and work; he corresponded with the Holy Trinity of Pessoa scholars – José Régio, Adolfo Casais Monteiro, José Gaspar Simões – still in his twenties and gained access to his world through them. The result was a series of interesting and nowadays curious texts: for instance, Sena was one of the first critics to write about the poet’s connection to Aleister Crowley, at a time in Portugal when many still thought the infamous magician did not exist.

Estudos de Literatura Portuguesa (3 volumes)
Do Teatro em Portugal
Sobre a Poesia Portuguesa

He also made more general contributions to the study of Portuguese literature. He wrote about poetry, theatre, novels and even foreign books about Portuguese literature. In a country that culturally formed itself around France, Sena was also unusual in that he paid attention to how Portuguese literature was received in the UK.

Estudos de Cultura e Literatura Brasileira

Like many Portuguese writers, he was deeply interested in what was going on in Brazil. Furthermore he lived there, in exile, for a couple of years: the result was a book fully devoted to Brazilian literature.

A Literatura Inglesa
Sobre Literatura e Cultura Britânicas
Inglaterra Revisitada

These three books demonstrate his interest in English literature. Unlike most of his countrymen, whose attention was turned mainly to France, Sena followed the British too. Nowadays some of these books serve as lucid primers for Portuguese college students.

Dialécticas Aplicadas da Literatura
Dialécticas Teóricas da Literatura
Sobre Teoria e Crítica Literária

Sena didn’t just apply literary criticism, he reflected about it. I don’t know many Portuguese critics, save Casais Monteiro, who took the time to meditate on the art and science of literary criticism. In these three books, however, Sena showed a long preoccupation with understanding just what criticism was, what it was for and how it should be performed.

Maquiavel, Marx e Outros Estudos
Sobre Cinema
Sobre o Romance
Amor e outros verbetes

These are four heterogeneous books about divers matters: cinema, the modern novel (at the time, anyway), studies on Machiavelli and Karl Marx. For an unconditional fan of Sena, they’re not redundant.


In the last decade there’s been a boom on the publication of Sena’s correspondence. It turns out that, besides writing lots of poetry and essays, he had the time to correspond with many important people in Portugal and abroad. I continue to pine for the fabled correspondence between Sena and José Saramago, but so far we have:

Jorge de Sena/Eduardo Lourenço: Correspondência

Eduardo Lourenço is one of Portugal’s best essayists and philosophers, particularly interested in literary studies and especially in the poetry of Fernando Pessoa. So as you can see, there are lots of reasons for them to hang out together.

Jorge de Sena/Vergílio Ferreira: Correspondência

Vergílio Ferreira is considered one of Portugal’s finest novelists. An existentialist at heart, influenced by Malraux and Sartre, he passed away in 1996. He’s virtually unknown outside Portugal, save in France, overshadowed by the likes of Lobo Antunes and Saramago.

Jorge de Sena/Guilherme de Castilho: Correspondência

I honestly didn’t have the faintest idea who this gentleman was before learning that Sena had exchanged letters with him. An internet search tells me that he was a diplomat, essayist and literary critic. It’s a lot clearer now.

Jorge de Sena/José-Augusto França: Correspondência

José-Augusto França is another critic: he’s the author of one of my favourite books on Eça de Queiroz, although his real love lies in the history of Portuguese visual arts and has countless books on painting. He’s also the author of a fine anatomy of the year 1936, essential reading for fans of The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis.

Jorge de Sena/Mécia de Sena: Correspondência 1959-1965

And amidst all those letters, he found the time to write to his wife too.

Jorge de Sena/Delfim Santos: Correspondência 1943-1959

Delfim Santos was a philosopher with specific interest in German philosophy. The internet tells me that he was classmate of Casais Monteiro in high school, and later was teacher of famous writers like Luiz Pacheco and José Cardoso Pires. It’s worth noticing that Sena started corresponding with him when he was in his early twenties.

Jorge de Sena/António Ramos Rosa: Correspondência 1952-1978

António Ramos Rosa, who passed away in 2013, was a literary critic and poet, with a vast work spread across dozens of books. Alas many of them are out of print and I’m anxious for the inevitable edition of his complete poems. He was considered a great poet but I practically know nothing about him and if it hadn’t been for Sena I wouldn’t know him at all.

Jorge de Sena/Raul Leal: Correspondência 1957-1960

Raul Leal was a friend of Pessoa and allegedly insane. I keep promising to write one day about the sex scandal that involved the two, a graphically homosexual book and the upheaval it caused amongst society’s reactionary forces, including a young student who one day would become a dictator.

Jorge de Sena/Sophia de Mello Breyner Andresen: Correspondência 1959-1978

I’ve written about this one before.

Jorge de Sena/Carlo Vittorio Cattaneo: Correspondência 1969-1978

Published last year, I think, here we have Sena corresponding with an Italian critic who specialised in Portuguese literature and who translated some of his poetry, thanks to which Sena received the 1977 Etna-Taormina International Prize. 



It collects several small diaries Sena wrote during the 1940s and 1970s; most of the pages are devoted to his years of exile.

Entrevistas 1958-1978

Two decades’ worth of interviews.

Rever Portugal

Although Sena was a poet and literary critic, he was also interested in politics. He never joined a party, too individualistic for that, and unlike his countrymen he wasn’t crazy about the communists. But his poetry shows preoccupations with ethics, truth, human dignity and the abuse of power. This book collects his political writings and concern the political situation in Portugal: the dictatorship, the Colonial War and the hopes and failures of the Carnation Revolution.

América, América

Texts about his life in America. I’ve written about it before.

O Reino da Estupidez

This was my latest acquisition. Split in two volumes, it’s a collection of satirical texts, much like Dedicácias, only in prose format, that makes mince meat of the stupidity, illusions and backward mentalities of his countrymen. The title says everything: the kingdom of stupidity, keeping alive Portuguese writers’ time-honoured tradition of inventing vicious epithets for the Portugal they love to hate; no, really, I could write a whole post on that. The second volume, published posthumously in 1978 and never reprinted since then, has become a costly rarity. A rarity I now happen to own. I was so happy I felt like writing this post.

And this is basically what you need to read to become a Jorge de Sena true fan. I hasten to add that I’m a few dozen books away from being a true fan. But with perseverance, hard work and God on my side I’ll earn that title yet.

Saturday, 16 August 2014

Henri Michaux: Un Certain Plume

Henri Michaux (1899-1984). The author, of German and Spanish ancestry, was born in the Belgian town of Namur. In 1922 he discovered The Songs of Maldoror and decided he wanted to be a writer. He travelled extensively (many of his books are travelogues) and must have been one of the earliest 20th century writers to describe the effect of mind-expanding substances, thanks to his collaboration for the mystical magazine Hérmes. Known and admired in the Romance languages, beginning to show up English thanks to NYRB, I first came across his books thanks to Jorge Luis Borges’ A Personal Library that gives us a glimpse into his favourite writers. Ever since I’ve searched for and read Michaux’s books in the hopes of finding A Barbarian in Asia, Borges’ choice. The funny thing is, I don’t particularly like Michaux’s writing, but since I can’t find that book I just go on reading the others to fill the vacuum. To date I’ve read Mes propriétés and Ecuador (both from 1929), two wildly different books (one is poetry, the other a travelogue), and the author’s own favourite book, Plume (1936), a collection of short-stories about a passive man called Monsieur Plume. Plume is one of several Mrs that populate literature: Mr Cogito and Mr Palomar come to mind too. (I also noticed a strong resemblance to, or influence upon, one of Gonçalo M. Tavares’ short-story collection.)

The first Plume stories were published in 1930, were called Un Certain Plume and numbered 10 stories. Gallimard republished them in 1936: four stories were added, one was excised, years later another one was added to it, and those constitute the stories of my edition, which also contains an essay by one René Micha, no doubt to stuff the book: without it the book would be 47 pages long, thanks to the essay it reaches a whopping 76 pages, meaning it’s about the size of the stories. Sometimes I have the impression it was my favourite part of the book.

The first story is called “A Peaceful Man” and is the archetypical Plume story. “Stretching his hand outside bed, Plume was startled not to find the wall. ‘Will you look at that, he thought, it’s as if ants had eaten it,’ and he went back to sleep.” This is just the beginning. His wife shakes him up to tell him the house has been stolen, not that it bothers him, since he goes back to sleep. Next a train runs over them, killing his wife and drenching him in her blood. He goes back to sleep. He’s charged with her murder and the judge sentences him to death. “‘Sorry but I didn’t follow the trial carefully,’ said Plume. And went back to sleep.” This could be Kafkaesque, but since these stories were published in 1930, it’s doubtful Michaux knew them already. It’s better to say it’s surrealistic, absurd before Beckett. The next story is about Plume in a restaurant. By mistake he asks for something that’s not on the menu. The waiter is mad and asks explanations, but Plume fumbles and the manager gets involved, then a cop whom he tries to bribe, and in the end he’s giving explanations to the secret police. Another story is about him being pushed around while travelling. “But he didn’t say anything, he didn’t complain. He thinks about the poor bastards who can’t travel at all, while he can, he travels, he’s always travelling.” In another short-story he complains about a pain in his finger and the doctor decides to cut it off. “I still have nine fingers,” he says in consolation. In a variation of the restaurant story, there’s another where he munches a horrible dish of food without complaining.

I think this is more Alfred Jarry than Franz Kafka myself, some stories are just incomprehensible, bewildering, fragmentary, or my translation just read horribly. (I also have that suspicion.) Not all stories are about his passiveness. Some have to do with his naivety. Another shows him as a mass murderer who kills a group of Bulgarians aboard a train to make room for himself; I’m not making this up. In another one he’s the Ambassador of Denmark in an unnamed kingdom and is seduced by the Queen who uses obvious ploys to get naked in bed with him, just when the King walks in; the narrative abruptly ends before we see what happens.

Others are just plain weird. Distractedly he finds himself walking on the ceiling, like, yeah, sure. In another one he accidentally pulls a person’s head off his shoulders and tries to pin it back. Ah, yes, that’s always a nuisance when it happens. In the final story Plume is a father but the child falls inside a bear cage and is mauled to death.

Plume sometimes is married, sometimes the wife is dead, sometimes he’s married again and is a father. Often he travels. He spends a lot of time in bars and restaurants. He can be passive but also murderous. He’s cowardly and naïve but also dangerous, stupid but philosophic. He’s a restless creation always foiling a sense of identity or the notion of character altogether. Micha likens Plume to early Chaplin movies, which Michaux admired, claiming that like in these movies Plume has “neither begging nor end,” he’s just a flux of adventures and movements. According to him, Plume stories are like literary versions of Chaplin movies. I can deal with that interpretation.

The stories change a lot and are not consistent in humour, clarity, tone and quality; several just went over my head. “These adventures don’t run towards the same direction, and Plume does not always perform the same task. The work’s unity, which is real, should not impede us from seeing it as a multiple movement, or even a sort of rupture,” explains Micha. I register and acknowledge this, even so I didn’t care for much of the book, which is already slipping away from my memory as a mere entertainment between better books. But it has some fabulous moments.

Meanwhile I'm going on vacations for a few days. Bye for now.

This book was read for the 2014 European Reading Challenge.

Wednesday, 13 August 2014

Gonzalo Torrente Ballester: Yo no soy yo, evidentemente

After five novels Gonzalo Torrente Ballester begins to paint a clear picture in my mind. There are themes he returns to, namely the questioning of reality, the intersection between fact and fiction and how what we reality is just an external simulacrum of men. In La Saga/Fuga de J.B. a historian discovers that the millennial history of Castroforte is a fiction conjured by a secret society; in Fragmentos de Apocalipsis a novelist shows off his meta-fictional omnipotent powers within the dimension of the novel he’s writing; in La Isla de los Jacintos Cortados another novelist travels back in time to prove that Napoleon was conjured by a committee of statesmen; in Las Islas Extraordinarias a detective discovers that the world’s economical engine secretly runs within a small dictatorial archipelago ruled by a tyrant who doesn’t have actual power. My latest encounter with the author’s is coherent with these novels: Yo no soy yo, evidentemente, published in 1987, follows the efforts of two academics to make sense of a mysterious writer, Uxío Preto, who may or may not have existed but who claims, in a letter to a magazine, to have written three novels whose authorship are disputed by critics and scholars.

In chronological order, the names of the three novels, written since World War II and in different parts of the world, are: Aquilina y la flauta de Pan, La ciudad de los viernes incertos and La historia que se busca em los reflejos. In a letter to the Nuestra Terra magazine Preto, a possible Galician author, claims that he wrote all three novels. “Many professors have verbally elucubrated or published critical works about each one of them without it crossing their minds that they could be attributed to an unarguably unique brain: it would be a lot more tolerable if, remaining in anonymity, they had reached the conclusion, scrupulous amongst the possible logics, that no one has written them; if they had been considered spontaneous apparitions from one of those collective or perhaps abstract entities which carry the responsibility, with a generalized satisfaction that is almost general, of authoring so many important historical events, for sure more important than many literary works, although less decisive for Mankind’s fate; I mean wars or revolutions, and a few scandalous matrimonies.” After taunting the experts of literary studies, he challenges them to ascertain the truth. “There’s no other solution, dear professors, than returning to the old ignorance and formulating it precisely in the terms I propose. Are the three novels by the same author? Is it Úxio Preto? Find out. And who is, was, or will remain being, Uxío Preto? Finding out seems less easy, a task for detectives or poets.”

To confuse matters even more some time later a book called Autobiografía póstuma de Uxío Preto shows up describing, in three eclectic chapters, the genesis of each novel. This posthumous autobiography whets the interest of Mr. Sharp, chairman of the Romance Languages Department of an American university. (“Uxío Preto is one more case of those writers who are almost unknown outside universities’ language departments, save in their own countries, where they’re ignored.”) Anxious to make a name for himself with the solving of this mystery, after milking the remaining papers of his secretary and lover’s dead husband, a genius of Linguistics, that she gave him to further his academic career, he enlists the help of Ivonne, an assistant who specializes in reading books in Spanish and who published a structuralist study of “adversative and dubitative forms” in Preto’s oeuvre. Although she neglected the narrative aspect of the novels to focus on the syntax and doesn’t show particular aptitude to carry out literary biographical investigation, she’s the closest thing to an Uxío Preto expert, so she gets the job. Mr. Sharp is convinced that Preto never existed. “Did Uxío Preto die? How can he die if he wasn’t born?” he asks after reading the autobiography. To him he’s nothing but a collective invention, like a secret society that crafted an idea and then let it loose (it’s all very Borgesian).

Ivonne and her partner, Álvaro Mendoza, a brilliant Mexican teacher, set out to discover everything they can about this sketchy figure. Their main clues are in the Autobiography. Although the names used in the book apparently relate to pseudonyms, there are three specific chapters (title Gamma, Zeta and Sigma) dealing with the creation of the novels that have each an “alphabet soup” containing encoded names that refer to real people. And so the hunt begins.

This is a good moment to pause to admit that I didn’t love this novel. As I try to hold within my brain everything GTB attempted with this novel, I must applaud him for another narrative labyrinth of dazzling virtuosity that he’s gotten me used to. What bothered me about it was not the labyrinth itself but what happened outside it. After five novels I’ve also realized that GTB loves to fill novels with romance: there’s always someone in love, falling in love, anguishing over love. In previous novels this wasn’t so excessive as to contaminate my enjoyment of the more interesting elements to me: the puzzles, the flights of fancy, the careful structure of his expansive, tentacular sub-narratives. But in here it’s just too much: Mr. Sharp lives an abusive love affair with a castrating woman, Mrs. Madison, the secretary who secreted her dead husband’s papers to him in order to build his career; Ivonne worries that Mr. Sharp is using Uxío Preto to seduce her; in Spain Mendoza meets an old friend who secretly loves him and only Ivonne is perceptive enough to realize it, prompting her to do some strategic matchmaking to bring together the two lovers. That’s nice but I don’t care, I wanted more literary sleuthing scenes. I mentioned this novel has a touch of Borges, but the virtue of Borges’ stories is that he had a pure devotion to the Idea, nothing mattered outside the development and exhaustion of the Idea. Another comparison I can make is to Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire: this novel operates on two levels, let’s say Kinbote’s level and the Zembla level; GTB’s novel also has two levels: the investigation and the genesis chapters. The problem is that every time we jump from the investigation to the chapters there’s a palpable sense of loss of narrative thrust, they’re just not as interesting, and I suppose it’s because they’re more mundane love stories. Nabokov kept the Zembla narrative absurd from start to finish and it’s a joy to read it, but GTB never makes Preto a memorable character capable of carrying his own sections.

In Gamma Preto, living in Spain, hangs around with a gypsy dancer called María Elena, according to him a graceful dancer and a liberated woman, who dies in the same airplane that claimed Leslie Howard’s life. He finds out she made him her heir and he receives a fortune. Later he meets a writer named Néstor Pereira (or Pereyra) who co-writes Aquilina y la flauta de Pan with him. Except Néstor may just be a figment of his imagination, even though he becomes involved with a real woman. In Zeta Uxío Preto and one Pedro Teotonio Viqueira exchange letters about what turns into La ciudad de los viernes incertos; again it’s not clear if Viqueira exists. Zigma, written as a play, has Preto, dressed up like an Inquisitor and masked by a hood, questioning a woman called Leticia about a season in Venice with one Froilán Fiz and his suicidal alter ego, Melitón Losada. Of three I enjoyed the last the most.

What, to me, redeems these sections is the way they’re dismounted by the others; after each genesis chapter there’s a chapter with Ivonne and Mendoza questioning the “alphabet soup” people, who give contradictory testimonies about them. In Spain, Mendoza, with the help of María Magdalena, meets the aging Don Bernardino, a washed up would-be writer who thinks he’s been unjustly forgotten by the younger generation. He doesn’t have kind words for Preto. “He had a grey, lifeless look. He lacked personality. He only opened his mouth to say nonsense, banalities or inconveniences. A few times we asked him to go away, but he always returned like a beat up dog. We even suspected that he was a snitch, who earned a few coins from the Police by telling them what was being told in my literary meetings.” Of María Elena he says that she was a “very mediocre dancer” and a “big whore” who had sex with anyone, including Bernardino. Informed that the British army hired her to cheer the soldiers up, only for her to die on the same airplane carrying actor Leslie Howard that was shot down by the Germans in 1943, his reaction is delicious: “That they died together proves the inexistence of God or of anything that can replace it. It can’t be understood, no, not even if we think that natural forces are blind, that death is blind. I think that if the Germans knew what a contradictory cargo the airplane carried, they would have reconsidered just because María Elena and Leslie Howard can’t be equalled in death. It’s a metaphysical injustice.”

Bernardino also claims to have written the first novel and hopes that Mendoza’s study will restore the fame he deserves. The man has a huge opinion of himself, as we can deduce from this comparison. “It’s out fate, sir. Oblivion. Federico had to die in order for the world to realize that they had killed a great Spanish poet. But the others, the ex-pats and those who remained here, we lacked that sinister propaganda. Does one have to die to achieve glory?” But the plot thickens. Mendoza checks the British registers and can’t find any woman called María Elena hired by the army or amongst those who died in the crash. Did she exist under a different name? Did Preto invent her too, and is Bernardino backing up this lie in order to carve a role for himself in the story? Is the fact that he insists he wrote the novel true? Or is he creating a new version, hoping to supplant Preto’s since he’s allegedly dead and can’t dispute it? These are the labyrinth bits that I liked! It gets better: they meet another eye-witness, Don Armando, who remembers things differently. To him “Uxío did not lack talent, but as a human being he was a true disaster, an anarchist without remission, one of those men who seem to enjoy destroying themselves with the pretext of defending their independence…” He doesn’t doubt that he wrote the novel but is not sure about the other two.

Similar contradictions crop up when Ivonne interviews Marquise Úrsula, who may have inspire a character called Ute in the second novel. And also with Virucha Portabales, the Spanish teacher who may have been the basis for Letician. Questioned about Froilán, she admits she met a man with that name, she almost loved him but refused to go with him to Venice.

It’s not only a question of whether the genesis chapter describe real events; it’s questioned whether some of the figures even existed. For instance, a woman claims to have known and loved a writer called Néstor Pereira, but Preto himself insinuates that he’s just a personality he made up. “On asking myself if Néstor Pereira possessed his own entity, I wanted first and foremost investigate if he owned a body, mere astral figure, for, as I’ve been repeating to the point of tedium, even if he used mine, it was also true that on certain occasions I had seen him, contemplated him outside myself, with his cane hitting his shoes. It could be an illusion, yes; but why haven’t I suffered from others? Was my brain ill and as such it had specialized in imagining the person of Néstor real? (I don’t say personality, because that doesn’t need a visible body for anything.)” Likewise Pedro Teotonio Viqueira, with whom he corresponds, may just be an alias or identity. “If the figure of Nestor was somewhat rigid and stable, Pedro Teotonio Viqueira was a lot more flexible and elusive, with a dash of disillusioned neglect and a bit of caprice, according to the style of painting at the time, without ever becoming extravagant.” And after Preto finished interrogating Leticia and removes his hood she says that he and Froilán are almost identical. Like I’ve said Froilán’s chapter was my favourite of the three, here he seems to be wrestling with an evil entity that is trying to destroy his relationship with Leticia. She says, “Froilán’s words were deep and seductive, enveloping like a caress; but the other spoke ill to me about my lover with my lover’s voice. Not the same, some differences. Melitón had less of a Gallician accent.” He’s like a demon, which suggests the idea of possession, cajoling his host to kill himself in order to get rid of him. To complicate matters a bit more, Leticia meets a mysterious woman called Nicole, a fierce feminist novelist, who has strange conversations with her about Froilán. “One can tell you admire him. Perhaps in excess.” Another time she asks her, “Don’t you want to be free?” When Virucha explains to Ivonne why she chose not to go with the man called Froilán, she explains she didn’t want to give up her dreams for uncertainty, “to renounce myself.” It’s as if Leticia and Nicole were an exteriorization of Virucha’s dilemma between being herself and following Froilán. Sounds kooky, sure, but I like it; it’s like a mirror. Even Froilán asks Letician if Nicole isn’t to her what Melitón is to him. It’s worth noticing that La historia que se busca em los reflejos means precisely The story where reflections are searched for, as if GTB were winking at the reader (and he probably was).

Although the novel starts with the questions, Who is Uxío Preto? What is Uxío Preto?, I think GTB is also interested in displaying the power writers have to transform reality. As I’ve written in the past, the author left to America in the 1960s, the heydays of meta-fiction and his novels since that time show that he quickly excelled at incorporating these novelties (with lots of obscure easter eggs only those initiated into his world would get. For instance, Pedro Teotonio Viqueira is named after a Portuguese ambassador called Pedro Teotonio Pereira and Miguel Viqueira, a Spanish-born Portuguese critic who knew the author. There’s even the name-dropping of Carmen Becerra, a real-life critic who’s also written extensively about him.). His fiction doesn’t presume to be realistic, he even doubts objective reality is possible; for him it’s a question of how the world is remade by the writer. The fact that the sleuths look for direct connections between fact and fiction, only to constantly find out distortions and supposed models that don’t see themselves in the finished objects, reveals how GTB conceives imagination. It’s not far from the preoccupations Philip Roth shows in The Counterlife, part of the Nathan Zuckerman saga, that cycle of novels that is exactly about the interaction of fact and fiction. As Zuckerman muses, “expecting the woman next to you, whom you suspect of cheating on her husband, to reveal herself to you as Emma Bovary, and, what’s more, in Flaubert’s French” is ridiculous, characters don’t exist fully-formed in reality, there’s always an imaginative effort behind their creation.

As the novel approaches its conclusion, is there a conclusion at all? No, there isn’t, and that’s another of its strengths. Who is Uxío Preto will remain unsolved. The last chapter, gripping and tense like a good thriller, despite its necessary anti-climax, offers a handful of solutions for the mystery without committing itself to any. We’ve had the Borgesian hypothesis (a secret society like in “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius”), and Mendoza admits that the theory of madness is “one of the solutions, in any event a cold rational and whimsical madman,” although he prefers the possibility of a trickster. “It may be, although not necessarily, an insatiable trickster, someone who invents a problem without apparent solution to amuse himself, but who induces certain people to search it: someone who, for years, carries out a very minute operation destined almost exclusively to professors of Literature.” But GTB, in case you don’t know, is also an aficionado of Fernando Pessoa, the poet who multiplied himself into different poets, and Mendoza suggests a Pessoan-esque theory too: the trickster may be “one of those people who urgently need to become others, who can only subsist being others. Thus, this nameless man does the same Alonso Quijano did: he inhabits characters, tries to be them. He finds himself as Uxío Preto, as Nestor Pereyra, as Froilán Fiz, although these last two are already second degree invocations, multiplications of the first one. That is: X invents Uxío Preto, this one the others. And we don’t know if he does it in earnest or jokingly. I interpret the existence of Melitón Losada, not like a botch, or an excess, but like a warning that the unfolding can continue towards infinity, but also that each invented personality can keep whatever class of relationship with the one it proceeds from, that they can engender one another in theoretically endless series and always on poor terms.” In this sense, the personalities would be heteronyms that overwhelmed their maker. “I don’t discard the hypothesis that at least three of those imaginary characters imposed themselves more forcefully than the others and demanded to be realized in a manner distinct from the narrative word.”

So is it a joker or a madman, “a necessary enigma of existence, like one of those unknown stars which are talked about because of their influence on the visible stars?” Well, I’ve collated the evidence and this is what I think. We can start with what Ivonne tells the woman who was not Leticia: “Has it occurred to you, miss Portabales, that both you and me are obeying the orders Uxío Preto sends us from beyond the grave? Or in any event from nothing more than a bunch of words.” Whoever designed this mystery clearly likes games; the fact that he adds “alphabet soups” to the Autobiography alludes to that ludic side of the investigation. And in another book by GTB, a collection of essays edited by Miguel Viqueira (Sobre literatura y el arte de la novela), he asks, “Is it so hard to admit that this writing thing is nothing but a game?” So we have a writer who publicly treats literature like a game. Well, isn’t what Uxío Preto is doing, directing his sleuths beyond nothing more than a bunch of words, what every writer does with his readers? We’re all at the mercy of the author, going where he wants us to go. This novel is an allegory for the act of reading a novel. It’s not a good solution but it’s what I’ve got. Others may arrive at better interpretations. I’m not sure they’ll be substantially more rewarding. The novel’s penultimate sentence is “good luck.” I don’t think it’s written ironically.

This is my final contribution for Winstonsdad's Blog and Caravana de Recuerdo's 2014 Spanish Language Literature Month.

Sunday, 10 August 2014

Once I wrote a page about what would happen if Don Quixote killed a man: Jorge Luis Borges on Don Quixote

We’re back for another episode of Osvaldo Ferrari and Jorge Luis Borges talking about literary stuff. Recently I read Don Quixote so I thought I’d soak up a bit of what Borges wrote about this great novel. He’s written essays about it and, I find out via Ferrari, even wrote poems about Miguel de Cervantes; Borges’ poetry is my Achilles’ heel. Strangely I was under the impression that he had included the novel in the Personal Library, but it’s not there.

As always, Ferrari suggests the theme. He remembers Borges that once, during a conference in an American college, he said that Alonso Quijano was his best friend (and not Adolfo Bioy Casares?). “I think Unamuno said that Don Quixote is now more real than Cervantes. Well, he is by the fact that we imagine Alonso Quijano directly and we imagine Cervantes through biographies, or outward news…” This is typical Borges, considering the books more real than the physical world…

Ferrari’s question allows Borges to digress on his lifelong fascination with this Spanish novel. One of the first things that struck him, when he first read it, was the protagonist’s fast progression into madness. “Yes, what called my attention, when I was still a boy, was it saying that he became mad without them showing the stages of madness. I thought it was possible to write a short-story – only such a short-story would be somewhat imprudent, no? – a short-story that showed the stages of madness: that showed how, for Alonso Quijano the quotidian world, that place in the dusty La Mancha region, went about becoming unreal and the world of the Matter of Britain more real. But that’s alright, we accept it; and we enter his world right in the first chapter. And maybe… maybe what matters is that a writer presents us with amenable people, and maybe that’s not so hard, because the reader tends to identify himself with the first character mentioned. That is, if we read Crime and Punishment, for instance, we identify from the start with Raskolnikov for he’s the first character we know. And that helps us be his friend, for on reading that we’re him; because reading a book is being the successive different characters of the book. Well, I mean, in the case of the novel, if that novel is any good.”

Ferrari goes on to say that the act of reading comports with identifying oneself with the author. “Yes, in a sense it’s also being the author, all of that; a series of metamorphoses, of changes, which are not painful, which are pleasant. Why, that idea by Unamuno that Don Quixote was an exemplary character seems erroneous to me because he most certainly is not; he’s more of a choleric and arbitrary lord. But since we know he’s harmless… Once I wrote a page about what would happen if Don Quixote killed a man. But that worry of mine was absurd, since you understand from the start that he can’t kill anyone, that he has to be a sympathetic character. And the writer never exposes him to that danger. And then I thought about the possible consequences of that impossible act for Don Quixote, I though what could happen, and I don’t know what possibilities I suggested. But the fact is we feel that Alonso Quijano is a friend.”

When asked about Sancho Panza, he explains that he doesn’t feel the same. “I feel he’s more of an impertinent. Since boyhood that I also think that they talked too much: I imagine it’s more natural for them to have long stretches riding together in silence. But since the reader expected the delicious dialogues, Cervantes couldn’t afford that luxury. When I read Martín Fierro I thought the same thing, I thought it was very odd that Cruz told right away his whole story to Fierro: I thought it was more natural to tell him little by little.”

Their conversation leads them to discuss the tradition of chivalric romances, how Ludovico Ariosto influenced Cervantes via Orlando Furioso and how both drank from the British, French and Roman sources of legends and myths. “Both felt, shall we say, the flavour of those three “matters:” Britain, France and Rome. And at the same time they realized it was all a bit ridiculous, a bit extravagant.” And he continues, “right in the first canto of Orlando Furioso, when he talks about Charlemagne, it’s ridiculed a bit. But at the same time it was precious to Ariosto, who understood that that was all unreal; and maybe that’s what he liked so much about it. In Cervantes that’s even stronger.”

Ferrari also mentions the similarities between Borges and Alonso Quijano, both inhabitants of a library, although Borges disagrees. “I think I wrote in a sonnet that I, unlike Alonso Quijano, had never left my library. Because even though I’ve travelled all over the world, I don’t know if indeed I’ve left the first books I read.” Ferrari says he remained loyal to the “initial library” in his father’s house. “Yes, and besides that, since I’m myopic my first memories are not, shall we say, of the neighbourhood of Palermo, not even my parents’ expensive furniture, but rather books, illustrations, maps, well, the book spines, and why not the hard covers? That is, my first recollections are those, are really recollections more of books than of people.” I think all book lovers can relate a bit to this.

Read for Winstonsdad's Blog and Caravana de Recuerdo's 2014 Spanish Language Literature Month.