Sunday, 23 December 2012

Jesus Christ in Lisbon

In the spirit of the season I’m reviewing a play about Jesus Christ returning to Earth… and being crucified again.

Jesus Cristo em Lisboa (1927), a tragicomedy in seven acts, resulted from the collaboration between two Portuguese writers I need to read more about: Raul Brandão and Teixeira de Pascoaes. Brandão (1867-1936) was the author of Húmus, a novel I’ve written extensively about; he’s the father of the modern Portuguese novel and one of José Saramago’s 11 favourite writers. Pascoaes (1877-1952), whose popularity has waned, was in life considered the great Portuguese poet. Both men were fervent Christians, something they had to publicly point out when they had to defend the play from critics.

As Brandão and Pascoaes explained in an open letter to a newspaper, “We merely tried to wake up the Christian spirit in materialistic and fallen souls. We wanted to paint our social milieu and what in it would represent the living presence of Jesus. The tragicomedy results from this conflict.” As Christians, both men were appalled when critics started accusing them of heresy, blasphemy and attacking the name of Jesus Christ. In spite of their good intentions, it’s easy to understand why readers misread the play. The text is infused with the message of Christ, but more importantly it’s riddled with the cynicism, stupidity and cupidity of men, to whom Christ’s message means absolutely nothing.

Raul Brandão
When Jesus Christ shows up in Portugal, first he visits the countryside, where he spends a night with a family of poor farmers and manual workers. These are wretches who harbour no illusions about a better life. “”Earth exists to kill us in life with work and to eat us up after death.” They have no future, they don’t believe their hardships will be rewarded with a better afterlife, there’s just darkness ahead of them. A blind man is the first one to notice that a shadow is on their door porch and they invite the stranger to enter and sit by the fireside. Soon Jesus starts preaching and mesmerising his listeners with his message. The local rector is called for because there’s a man pretending to be Jesus Christ. A defender of the order, he fears the influence of this stranger. “He may be a dangerous man. He knows how to speak to the wretched.” Christ leaves and the rector forbids his congregation from following him. His word ends up being stronger than Christ’s.

Already in Lisbon, Jesus ends up in a police precinct for disturbing the peace. Again he gets in trouble with the authorities, because he preaches the truth. The truth, however, is what people don’t want to hear. “Now I ask you, Commissioner, sir, who can put up with the truth? May God deliver us from the truth! If I went about telling the truth to everyone I know, I’d be in jail already. And if he starts telling the truth, the world ends. Truth is a lie!” says a man in jail. This is one of the problems Jesus faces against in the play: his messages flies in the face of the forces that have built civilization.

Teixeira de Pascoaes
Nevertheless prison can’t hold Jesus and he leaves with a crowd of followers. Wherever he goes he only hears complaints from people who have led miserable lives without having received anything for their decency and goodness. Jesus’ simple message of love falls in deaf ears since living goodly requires a superhuman effort that few are not fit for. This aspect of the play is one of its greatest weaknesses, and in general of all theology: it doesn’t really say how Christ’s message could ever be put into practice. To the laments of people who have only known poverty, exploitation, injustice, humiliation, Christ replies with wishes of a poor but honest life, as if that by itself were enough. The play was written during the Estado Novo dictatorship and Christ’s message here resembles in essence one of the favourite slogans of the pious Salazar, “Poor but Honourable.”  

With his severe message of austerity, Jesus doesn’t seduce anyone. Instead he has to resort to a sort of hypnotic power, to some unheard words he whispers in the ears of doubters which convinces them. If this hadn’t been written before the rise of Adolf Hitler, I’d even say it was a critique of the dictator’s much talked powers to sway crowds. I’d love to interpret the play like that. But as the authors themselves explained, although situations may be comical, they never intended for Christ to be anything but beyond reproach. I can only assume it’s their beliefs that blind them to the inhumanity and aloofness of their Christ.

With magical powers or not, Christ continues to spread his totalitarian message of a kingdom of miserable wretches. The government is forced to take notice of him and to discuss his threat:

Fourth Minister: And what does He want?
President: To destroy this world and replace it with another.
Fourth Minister: And what does He say?
President: What He says we all know. We’re sick of knowing it. We hear it perhaps in our consciousnesses.
Jew: I don’t know anything…
Second Banker: Neither do I.
Prime-Minister: Destroy this prodigious world of activity! The great inventions, progress, wealth and beauty?
Another Minister: Replace it with what?
President: With poverty and truth.

The world moved on in spite of the message of Christ and not because of it. Progress and civilization are the by-product of greed and imperialism. “Minister, sir, being a thief is an honour that takes us to the Capitol. What did Alexander the Great do? He stole. What did Julius Caesar do? He stole. What did Napoleon do? He stole! And what do I do? I steal like they stole. I’m somebody!” says a Jew in the meeting. The world is built on a lie, Christianity is a conservative doctrine that would have kept the world static. Or as someone says, “The devil is a futurist.” Christianity is only good to keep the masses under control while their leaders build civilization and the future for them. At least that’s the pessimistic premise of the play.

This play also proves what every writers has intuited: writing about evil is easier and funnier than writing about good. Every scene with Christ is fake and lifeless. On the other hand, the antics of the devil or the cynical dialogues between ministers and bankers are always fascinating. Pulling off goodness and virtue is hard work, but evil is always fascinating. Like the Devil says to Christ, in victory, man belongs more to earth than heaven, earth, the world of the senses, the material world, the realm of the devil. He of course is the first to recognize that man is not totally evil, that he lives torn between the poles of light and darkness. “Man himself is an eternal conflict.” But he also seems convinced that most of the time men will choose his side.

But not even the Devil is as violent as the crowds that condemn in on his way to public execution. “You forced us to look up, when everything forces us to look down,” they shout at him, it seems furious at Jesus for having brought hope in a world unfit for it.

Although this play didn’t generate the levels of hatred and indignation José Saramago’s novel The Gospel According to Jesus Christ caused, Brandão and Pascoaes were still attacked for their portrayal of an ineffective Jesus Christ and a callous Mankind. Reviews were mixed, tending to the negative. One newspaper called it a scandalous book that had nothing recommendable. It’s curious how values change. The book to me has nothing too scandalous about it; I was more perturbed by the casual anti-Semitism which didn’t bother anyone. Another newspaper urged Christians not to buy the book. The play itself wasn’t staged until decades later. Other newspapers favourably compared it to Goethe’s Faust, and Spanish and French reviews were more positive (I was surprised Brandão and Pascoaes were so internationally well-known at the time). One of the most positive reviews, the one I agree most with, came ironically from a priest, who understood the point of its authors. For him it’s not strange that the world would crucify the world again. What’s fascinating is that, after two millennia, the world didn’t learn its lesson. The first time people were ignorant. The second time they had no excuse to reject his message. The tragedy of the play is that history never changes.

I’ll be back next week. Meanwhile I wish everyone a Merry Christmas and lots of books on their stockings!

This play was read for the European Reading Challenge.

Thursday, 20 December 2012

Did Daniel Defoe Invent Misery Lit?

Then it occurred to me, What an abominable creature am I! and how is this innocent gentleman going to be abused by me! How little does he think, that having divorced a whore, he is throwing himself into the arms of another! that he is going to marry one that has lain with two brothers, and has had three children by her own brother! one that was born in Newgate, whose mother was a whore, and is now a transported thief! one that has lain with thirteen men, and has had a child since he saw me! Poor gentleman!' said I, 'what is he going to do?' After this reproaching myself was over, it following thus: 'Well, if I must be his wife, if it please God to give me grace, I'll be a true wife to him, and love him suitably to the strange excess of his passion for me; I will make him amends if possible, by what he shall see, for the cheats and abuses I put upon him, which he does not see.

Daniel Defoe took to writing novels when he was almost sixty and today he’s considered the father of the English novel. His first and most popular novel, Robinson Crusoe, is one of the hallmarks of the medium and a continuous source of inspiration. Defoe was interested in how fiction could seem real enough to fool people and in how the appearances of reality could mask fiction. His novels tended to revolve around this: Robinson Crusoe is the fictional autobiography of a shipwrecked man. A Journal of the Plague Year takes the form of a diary and novels like Moll Flanders and Memoirs of a Cavalier pretend to pass off as memoirs too. As such the matter of realism became an inescapable preoccupation of the British novel. Novelists like Samuel Richardson continued to develop this trend with epistolary novels that explored the introspectiveness of characters. Others like Jonathan Swift rebelled against realism and went back to the earlier sources of Cervantes and Rabelais; in parts Gulliver’s Travels is a parody of Robinson Crusoe.

This is all just to say that Daniel Defoe is an important writer in the history of the novel. He wrote the oldest first-person singular novel that I know of; his incursions in stretching the credibility of fiction to its limit have turned into elaborate hoaxes that are now a staple of literature, from Jorge Luis Borges to Michael Crichton everyone creates these literary forgeries; he also wrote the first female-centric novel that I know of, drawing praise from Virginia Woolf herself for his treatment of women. So I don’t think his reputation has anything to fear from my not liking Moll Flanders very much.

Robinson Crusoe is a great novel. Moll Flanders certainly has its exceptional qualities but I found it a tad duller. And it’s not because of lack of plot. The story of Moll Flanders is just action, action, action, and bawdy to boot. The tribulations of Crusoe on the island suffered nothing in fascination because of his loneliness, but Moll Flanders, entrenched in the daily bustle of London, fails to ignite the same spark of interest. It’s not that the story isn’t interesting, but it becomes repetitive. By now everyone knows the story of Moll Flanders: born in the Newgate prison, raised by a goodly foster family, seduced by rakes who didn’t marry her, then forced to use her feminine wiles to catch a good husband, several times married, including with her own brother, then a kept mistress and thief, before settling down with a respectable husband and a good annual income. I’m not spoiling anything that isn’t in the original title of the novel.

This novel strikes me as an elaborate joke about morals, written under the pretence of telling the life story of a wicked woman who discovered repentance in old age:

To give the history of a wicked life repented of, necessarily requires that the wicked part should be make as wicked as the real history of it will bear, to illustrate and give a beauty to the penitent part, which is certainly the best and brightest, if related with equal spirit and life.

The wickedness is very convincing, the repentance less so. Defoe regales the readers with a list of crimes, sins, debauchery, greed and deceit. This novel is as bawdy as the 18th century is reputed to be, the word whore is liberally thrown around; John Cleland’s Fanny Hill, a classic of erotica, is prim compared to this novel. Incest, thievery, con tricks, and general ruthlessness characterize the life or Moll Flanders, legendary amongst the criminal underworld. Flanders only knows misery and treachery in the world. Reviewing her childhood, she complains she didn’t have any chances in her life, which is not true, making her perhaps also the first unreliable narrator:

I have been told that in one of neighbour nations, whether it be in France or where else I know not, they have an order from the king, that when any criminal is condemned, either to die, or to the galleys, or to be transported, if they leave any children, as such are generally unprovided for, by the poverty or forfeiture of their parents, so they are immediately taken into the care of the Government, and put into a hospital called the House of Orphans, where they are bred up, clothed, fed, taught, and when fit to go out, are placed out to trades or to services, so as to be well able to provide for themselves by an honest, industrious behaviour.

Had this been the custom in our country, I had not been left a poor desolate girl without friends, without clothes, without help or helper in the world, as was my fate; and by which I was not only exposed to very great distresses, even before I was capable either of understanding my case or how to amend it, but brought into a course of life which was not only scandalous in itself, but which in its ordinary course tended to the swift destruction both of soul and body.

She writes this before she explains how she was an orphan brought up in a parish until she was old enough to enter into a family’s service and work for a living. Being old enough back then meant being eight years old. A reasonable age considering people entered college around the age of thirteen. But terrified of working, young Flanders manages to postpone her leaving the parish and then she becomes a sort of mascot for a well-to-do family. And after she’s no longer kept by ‘public allowance’ she starts making a living with her own needle work. Her chances were no different than others at a time, so her path into crime and vice is wholly her own matter, even if she blames others. More ironically, her criminal life eventually turns her into the ‘gentlewoman’ she was dreaming about becoming since childhood.

Now given that this novel pretends to be the autobiography of a real woman, and given that its theme is her triumph over all her life’s abuse, and given that, the repentance angle aside, the real popularity of this novel is owed to the sordid details and voyeuristic pleasure of her moral degradation, can’t we say that, besides his many other great pioneering efforts, Daniel Defoe is also the grandfather of misery lit? I think this is something well worth someone’s time to study.

Reading Moll Flanders has the added pleasure of watching something new being tried out. Reading novels was certainly a popular activity when he wrote this, otherwise the opening sentence would make no sentence: “The world is so taken up of late with novels and romances, that it will be hard for a private history to be taken for genuine, where the names and other circumstances of the person are concealed, and on this account we must be content to leave the reader to pass his own opinion upon the ensuing sheet, and take it just as he pleases.” It can’t be said that Defoe was creating a new type of reader, the reader of novels, but he was certainly refining him. In any event this novel feels fresh to 21st century eyes. I’m fascinated by the sensuousness of the world. There’s no introspection, the world is physical, made of shapes, sounds, movements. Even when she wants to write of the horror of being locked up in Newgate, all Flanders can do is describe the place:

I was now fixed indeed; 'tis impossible to describe the terror of my mind, when I was first brought in, and when I looked around upon all the horrors of that dismal place. I looked on myself as lost, and that I had nothing to think of but of going out of the world, and that with the utmost infamy: the hellish noise, the roaring, swearing, and clamour, the stench and nastiness, and all the dreadful crowd of afflicting things that I saw there, joined together to make the place seem an emblem of hell itself, and a kind of an entrance into it.

It’s a novel of incidents, actions, gestures, voyages that occur between pages without the customary details that go into world-building. There’s no sense of turning up beautiful sentences with that Flaubertian rigidity of the mot juste, the words just flow as the purpose requires it. Flander’s horror of becoming a thief is never believable, but the methods she uses to rob people are. Moll Flanders is a study about the creation of a criminal, more concerned with social circumstances than inner states, and the idea that the protagonist repents is certainly debatable. The fact that her repenting is to be reserved for a second volume that never sees the light of day is certainly part of the elaborate joke I said I consider this novel to be, a dark comedy about how crime does pay after all.

I read this novel for the European Reading Challenge.

Sunday, 16 December 2012

Revolution, what is it good for?

The rediscovery of Albert Cossery started after his death in 2008. Since we lost this magnificent novelist New Directions and the NYRB have translated four of his novels. Born in 1913 into an Egyptian bourgeois family, Cossery attended a French-speaking school in Egypt and developed a love for French literature early on. Years later, during a trip to the United States, a meeting with Henry Miller prompted him to publish his first book, Men God Forgot. In 1945 he settled in Paris, where he lived for the remainder of his life. The theorizer and promoter of a unique philosophy of life which emphasized a brand of laziness conducive to meditation, he only published seven more novels, practically one per decade. A cult writer in France, Cossery is one of literature’s best kept secrets.

Although he lived most of his life in France, Cossery remained exclusively interested in Egypt and the Middle East. His novels contain the smells and sounds of another great writer of Egypt, Naguib Mahfouz. His main topics were wealth and poverty, power and freedom, hedonism and activism. His cast of characters never changed: thieves and the wretched, prostitutes and madmen, nihilists and cynics, greedy businessmen and ineffectual intellectuals. He’s been called an anarchist, which misunderstands the activities of actual anarchists. Cossery reserved a lot of scorn for the powerful and wicked of this world, but his fiction is one of resignation not contestation. He riled against corrupt politicians and power-hungry dictators, but he would have deplored the efforts of revolutionaries to oust them. Cossery was a sceptic who didn’t believe in the moral or social improvement of mankind. The world is what it is, with its timeless stupidity and inequality, and everything one can do is sit back and enjoy the gross spectacle.

Cossery was a political fabulist, in the sense of Leonardo Sciascia and José Saramago. But if Seeing showed Saramago’s belief in the power of people to defeat the lies of their rulers, and if Equal Danger reiterates that the only solution in a corrupt world is to hold fast to one’s convictions, Cossery’s novels declare that the world is an unredeemable cesspool. Two novels illustrate this well: The Jokers and Une Ambition dans le Désert. The Jokers follows a group of hedonistic pranksters who concoct a plan to ridicule a regime and get away with it. Basically they print and disseminate posters over the city praising the government; but these posters are so sycophantic, so servile and groveling in their intention to please the powerful, that the rulers feel embarrassed by them and become the laughing stock of the populace, which believes the posters were created by the government itself. The original title is La Violence et la Derision, which means Violence and Derision, the two ways of fighting totalitarianism. These pranksters, unlike the terrorists of the novel, don’t act for any purposes other than to amuse themselves. Dictatorships will always exist and those who topple them are no less eager to have power for themselves – that is the grim message of the novel; at best one can have some fun with them, but thinking about upsetting the natural order is fruitless. Human nature is what it is.

Une Ambition dans le Désert, still unavailable in English, is an even more fierce attack on the good intentions of revolutionaries. In Dofa, a fictional emirate in a Middle Eastern region rich in gold, bombs are exploding. It seems a revolutionary group has appeared in order to overthrow the regime. I’m not spoiling a lot of the story by revealing that the revolution is an invention of the prime-minister, Ben Kadem, in order to rise the profile of his poor country abroad. Upset that of all the emirates in the region, his is the only one that doesn’t have oil, condemning his country to poverty, he tries to ignite a revolution that will swallow the region just so he can stop it and attract the attention of the world upon him.

The novel opens with Samantar, a typical Cossery protagonist, young, handsome, a cynic interested only in the material and sensual world, being interrupted in his lovemaking with a fifteen-year-old girl as another bomb explodes. He’s the first one to realize that there’s something wrong with the revolutionaries and also to understand the long-term consequences of it on the country. Even before he finds out the revolution is fake he’s already against it because for him ‘there were always people in all latitudes to whom peace was repugnant, people who nurtured absurd hopes of rebellion.’

He gets the first suspicions after reading the group’s pamphlets:

The most incredible thing in this story was the fact that the attacks were claimed by a self-entitled Gulf Liberation Front, whose reputation was completely unknown and whose pamphlets, badly printed and one would say written by a handful of ignoramuses, were characterised by an obsolete revolutionary jargon and clearly denounced the arduous labour of novices too handsomely paid for that task.

Sharing his doubts with his friend, Hicham, he asks, “Have you ever seen a revolution made by illiterates?” But unlike Samantar, Hicham is supportive of the revolution:

Hicham was by nature a pacifist and was horrified of violence, but he nurtured the deepest respect for all and every radical contestation against established order, even if generator of calamities. It seemed to him that an individual who promoted terrorism in order to bend the dogma of the intangibility of regimes was, in essence, depository of the noblest human feelings.

But Hicham, Samantar fears, doesn’t see the big picture. If a revolution erupts in the area, the imperial powers controlling the oil wells around it will intervene in order to contain it. “Those sons of bitches will bring with them everything I detest: order, work and money This ideal place will be polluted forever. We live in the most civilized corner on Earth because we don’t own anything. We can live as freely as the birds in the sky; the government doesn’t even notice it: it’s so poor it doesn’t even have the means to worry itself with the lives of its citizens.”

Samantar believes the regime will use the revolution as an excuse to go after people like himself and his friends who live in the margins of society and are known opponents of the government. Samantar is determined to avoid the end of his peaceful life. He’s not so much worried about his people as his own carefree life that so far has avoided the authority’s attention.

That’s why I hesitate to call Cossery an anarchist. The genuine anarchism of its intellectual theorizers, of Peter Kropotkin and Mikhail Bakunin, has nothing to do with this egocentric contempt for society. Anarchism, like communism or socialism, is a progressive social movement that seeks to reorganize society. Regardless of its practicability or impracticability, it’s a movement of masses, not individuals, that hinges on changing the world and building one of those fabled social utopias the 20th was so prolific in dreaming about. Samantar’s utopia is actually conservative, as seen in his love for poverty, the ideal status to him. The idea of poverty as the best form of life surely owes more to Christianity than anarchism. But more damning is his scorn for those who wish to reform the world. Like the poet Ricardo Reis, Samantar believes that "Wise is he who is satisfied with the spectacle of the world." That this spectacle is horrible doesn’t bother him, it just adds more amusement. Samantar considers himself an enlightened who has attained a great truth about the way the world works. His friend Shaat, recently released from prison and deeply involved in the terrorist plot, lays out the substance of this truth: “At best, the brutal excesses of these people constituted a highly instructive spectacle which made him comforted in his universal contempt.” Shaat has been hired to build bombs and has accepted it, not out of convictions but because he’s bored and needs a distraction. There’s no indication that he truly believes in the cause. “He remained convinced of the fundamental stupidity of the world and didn’t feel any will to reform it.” His one complaint to Higazi, his boss, is that the revolution hasn’t attracted women. “But what about women? My dear Higazi, a revolution without women can only attract a strict clientele, that of pederasts. We need to recruit some beautiful girls, don’t you think?” Even when he’s taking part in a revolution, his prime concern is pleasure.

But even though Samantar and Shaat smart enough to see the underlying truth about the world, they are not completely free. In Cossery’s novels absolute freedom is achieved only by madmen. In this book Tareq, the local fool, is the only one who can lambast the government with impunity, earning Samantar’s admiration:

The acuity of his vision – the pinnacle of madness – placed him in the frontline of revolutionaries, but no one minded the pernicious germs he sowed in his path; authorities could do nothing against the sarcasms of an idiot, recognised as such by a whole population. At the smallest opportunity, Tareq took advantage of that governmental generosity, resulting from the fact of their fearing ridicule, and used and abused all liberties, as if he were a free radio broadcasting from abroad.

The government is ruled by Ben Kadem, the mastermind of the revolution. He can’t get over the fact that his emirate doesn’t have any oil and so was left out of the imperial power’s plans for the region. It’s not just Ben Kadem that laments the emirate’s lack of oil, but also the sadistic cops trained for torture who were never capable of putting their skills to work:

During the economic dream, some cops singled out for their sadism had been trained in the arts of torture by the instructors of the great imperialist power, in a school specialized in that area, located within that same power. Since their return, the members of that team, about half a dozen (the poverty of the emirate delayed the promotion of a higher number of sadists), waited in vain, reduced to an unemployment capable of shattering nerves. Sometimes one of them was spotted, recognizable due to something sinister and dubious which characterises henchmen, even in moments of leisure, sitting at a café table, while they consciously ripped a fly or a cockroach (…)

Ironically Ben Kadem finds out that orchestrating a revolution is had work. Noticing the lack of popular support, he accuses Higazi of being incapable of getting the revolution started: “With so many people spending their time cursing the government and you can’t mobilize them for their liberation! What do they want? Here’s a revolution falling on their laps and they show ill will in participating in it. It’s afflictive! I would have sworn that all of Dofa’s population was just waiting for an opportunity of drinking the blood of tyrants. This fight concerns them; it’s the fight of the poor. Have they all become rich?”

Higazi explains, “That’s just the problem, your Excellency! They know they’re poor, but they also know the emirate is poor and that there would be nothing to share at the end of this revolution. Therein lies the Achilles’ heel of our endeavour. It would be necessary to make them understand that our purpose is to thrown down the neighbouring regimes, which, to them, are overflowing with riches. But that would take its time for in their ignorance they can’t imagine that such a source of richness can one day fall in our hands.”

The outcome of the revolution is up to the readers to find out. I’ll finish this review by saying that Une Ambition dans le Désert is one of the best novels I read in 2012. Every time I read a novel by Cossery I think it’s his best one, that’s just how good he is. This novel echoes many ideas developed in the equally extraordinary The Jokers, particularly the pointlessness of fighting regimes with violence. “To kill a minister, what nonsense. It’s conferring an honour upon someone who has no value,” says Samantar. Cossery’s novels are not easy novels, even if there’s nothing complicated about them; but their ideas can be cruel and unsentimental and Cossery’s worldview can be deeply bleak and hopeless. Like many writers, Cossery hates the rich and the powerful. Unlike most writers, he doesn’t have any expectations about a better world. What he says and shows about the world isn’t popular, it’s not what people want to hear, and I’m not going to say I agree with him, but he’s too interesting to be ignored.

This book was read for the European Reading Challenge.

Wednesday, 12 December 2012

A Belgian in Ecuador

If you’ve read my post about Jorge Luis Borges’ list of favourite books, A Personal Library, you know that the Argentine master included Henri Michaux’s book A Barbarian in Asia in it. Alas, I have not succeeded in finding it. But I did manage to find a Michaux book called Ecuador. On the last page of the Portuguese edition I can read that my copy belongs to a print run of only a thousand copies. It was published in 1998 by an independent publisher, Fenda, that specialised in unusual writers and no longer exists. I suppose I should count myself lucky for being one of the thousand. The book itself lived in my ambulatory stack of unread books for about two years – sometimes it was on the book-filled stool next to my bed, sometimes inside a closet where I keep lots of books piled up on each other willy-nilly because I’ve run out of shelves. And a few weeks ago I finally read it.

A Barbarian in Asia, according to what I’ve read about it, is a travel book about Michaux’s trips to China and India. And Ecuador is the diary of a year-long trip to Ecuador. Michaux (1899-1984) was twenty-eight when he took this journey to this South American country. It starts in December 1927 and ends in January 1928, the same year he published it. It was his first book, and it was an unusual travel book.

The book is not without its incidents – starvation, diseases, dangerous encounters with local fauna, drugs – and the traditional descriptions of customs, people, fashions, monuments, landscape that are the stock and trade of travel books. But Michaux focused mostly on introspection and he had a witty sense of humour. His long boat journey across the Atlantic allows him to write about boredom:

To think that twenty-five million fishes have seen us pass, Boskoop, have seen your stupid hull, God knows thinking about what when they saw us, to speak only of the adults. We also passed closed to algae, close to a bit of everything. And we knew nothing, saw nothing, not one fish, not one alga, nothing.

Boskoop! A great bind crossing the Atlantic. If we were inside a bag it’d be the same.

It’s understandable why many boats end up in the bottom of the sea. They don’t deserve anything else.

Four thousand miles without seeing anything. Big and small waves, splashes, some crests threatening to jump over the rail, huge waves against at the prow, flying fishes and even a storm; in a word: nothing! Nothing!

After several days in the high sea, he writes in despair, “But where’s the journey anyway?”

Once he sets foot on Ecuador, there are typical passages about the idiosyncrasies of the country:

It’s hard to determine the weather in Ecuador. In the high plateaus, people use to say, and it’s correct: the four seasons in one day.

In the morning, Summer.

At noon, Spring. The sky starts turning cloudy.

At four o’clock in the afternoon, rain. Cool.

Winter night, cold and luminous.

Therefore, when you go about for several straight hours, clothing constitutes a real difficulty.

They desperately come out with a straw hat, a linen jacket, a fur coat and an umbrella.

Michaux was also a poet and the book is peppered with poems about Ecuador: from monuments to mountains, from animals to customs, Michaux found a way of turning his impressions of the country into poetry:

The San Pablo Lake

Light must your waters be.
But you are so sombre.
Usually lakes are happy,
They have boats and laughter, houses surround them.
But you are so sombre.
One thousand two hundred meters up,
There where the water of triumphant lakes are imagined to be rosy,
You are sombre, shallow even.
The Imbamburo crushes you,
Overpowers you, humiliates you.
It shoots immediately from your shore upwards, so far upwards.
It’s a great mountain,
(Not counting it’s a great volcano.)
It calls you “Well!” It calls you “Joint!”
It fills itself up with colour in the peak,
And only leaves you the measure of your shadow.
Oh sad, oh sombre!
Oh eel-coloured Lake!

Mera-Satzayacu (Napo)

This stage happens in the desert.
This desert is a forest.
Four days of roots and mud.
Neither birds, nor serpents, nor mosquitoes.
And the earth is cold and there are swamps everywhere.
And yet it’s the tropical forest.
One need only see its luxury, its nuptials, its look of mucous membrane.
A mucous membrane that rather looks like a gutter.
One walks on foot and there are no paths.
With the feet laughed at! Laughed at! Mocked!
The ground doesn’t give a damn, it doesn’t tell us yes or no,
It gurgles at will,
It receives us up to the waist.
Laughed at! Laughed at! Mocked!
The roots flay us,
Unhinge and break our joints,
Viscous, slippery, they push us,
Throw us down, illuminate us
And lose us in one of the infinite infectious holes
That form the forest’s floor.
I, above all, am sensitive to cold.
At night I felt great shudders.
Malaria, I though.

And sometimes he just fills the diary with musings:

On drugs:

A round word, which encompasses almost my entire idea of Asia and which was an idée fixe in my youth: Opium. Now I know you… and you’re not one of mine.

This badly incorporated perfection means nothing to me. Better ether, more Christian: it tears mean from himself.

Opium remains in my veins. It fills them with enchantment, satisfaction.

Well. But what good does that do to me? It embarrasses me.

What’s left of me, if my nerves are smothered?

On returning to Paris:

I’m going to back to Paris, and when one returns to Paris without a penny, for all we care we may have crossed Brazil and the tropical forest and we won’t have escaped the claws of misery, and we can’t stop thinking dourly about the bug-filled room that we’ll have to find in that great Paris that we know, ah yes, that we know so well.

At least for once this truth must be said.

On money:

Money! Money, one day I’ll speak about you. In this century, one is not a poet who doesn’t say good things about money. Looking back, until I lose sight of it, my life doesn’t leave this gear. Let us be calm, however. Perhaps it’s the effect of laudanum mixed up with the ether.

Sometimes it’s just a sentence. “For young people, cities are a good exercise on hatred.” Obviously Michaux didn’t want to hate because he set out to discover the whole world.

Finally, one of my favourite passages:

Don’t take me for dead just because the newspapers announced that I’ve already disappeared. I’ll become more humble than I am now. What else. I’m counting on you, reader, I’m counting on you reading me one day, on you, female reader. Don’t leave me alone with the dead, like a soldier on the front who doesn’t receive letters. For my great anxiety and for my great desire, chose me from amongst them. Speak to me then, I’m begging you, I’m counting on it.

Frequently some ask why the young men of this generation are desperate. It’s because they realize they’re being sacrificed. They can glimpse the beautiful age. They won’t live in it. Which one of them wouldn’t accept to end his life now to live in the year 2500?

This state of spirit is new in the world. In the past we didn’t expect from the future everything we expect.

This isn’t a review, it’s just evidence that Henri Michaux existed. I’m just doing what Michaux is asking. I’m reading him. Few writers are this honest in asking to be read. Let us all applaud Michaux for his honesty and read him. He’s not afraid to admit he’s counting on us. How many writers tell their readers they count on them? Yes, there’s something special about him.

This was written for the European Reading Challenge.

Wednesday, 5 December 2012

Italo Calvino: The Road to San Giovanni

Italo Calvino.

Now there’s a writer I don’t particularly like who nevertheless keeps pulling me into his books. There are writers I read once or twice and decide they’re not for me, and stay away from them with little or no regret – Arthur Rimbaud, Cormac McCarthy, Charles Dickens –, and writers I wish I liked more. Of the Calvino books I’ve read, very few have appealed to me, and it wasn’t by lack of searching and trying. In fact I’ve read everything he’s written that is considered essential, and more.

The Baron in the Trees is one of the best novels I’ve ever read, living in my personal list of masterpieces side by side with The Master and Margarita, One Hundred Years of Solitude and Seeing, but then The Cloven Viscount and The Non-existent Knight, although written in the same style, lack its imagination and richness of incident and character. If on a winter’s night a traveller is an uneven novel: one half is composed of lovely chapters addressed at the reader, the other half of unconvincing literary pastiches. The first volume of Cosmicomics was indeed comical, and whimsical, but the sequel, T Zero, seemed redundant. In The Castle of Crossed Destinies the author used a Tarot card to compose the narrative, but the execution left much to be desired. I’ve forgotten everything about The Watcher, but perhaps it wasn’t a bad novella. The Argentine Ant and Smog, in any event, are very, very good, the first one being something of a comical horror story. Invisible Cities is a brilliant masterpiece and still one of the most unusual books of my life. Mr. Palomar and Marcovaldo are interesting at first but then become repetitive and formulaic. Some of the stories in Numbers in the Dark and Other Stories are very good, others not so much. The same can be said about Under the Jaguar Sun. Regarding his compilation of Italian folktales, I only managed to finish the first volume - there’s only so much patience for three books where the story is always about a poor but goodhearted boy who helps a disguised fairy who grants him magical powers, which the boy then uses to vanquish evil and pass tests in order to marry a princess. Why Read the Classics? is one of the best collections of literary essays I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading, up there with anything by Jorge Luis Borges or Milan Kundera. So, dear reader, I’m not exaggerating when I say I’ve given Italo Calvino lots of chances.

And I continue to read him. Recently I finished reading The Road to San Giovanni, a short collection of autobiographical writings. When I have so many other writers I know I love waiting to be read, I can’t explain what attracts me to him. Perhaps it’s because, in spite of the disappointments, I know he’s a great writer and peerless imaginer. His best short-stories are on the level of the best by Borges, Dino Buzzati, Horacio Quiroga and G. K. Chesterton. He’s written at least three of the best novels of the 20th century. But when I don’t like him, I don’t just dislike him, his writing seems like the worst in the world. If the reader is wondering if there’s a reason for all this masochism, why I bother so much, it’s because the rewards of books like Invisible Cities, The Baron in the Trees, The Argentine Ant and If on a winter’s night a traveller have made all the disappointments worth it.

Sadly I’m running out of fiction to read. I only have A Plunge into Real Estate, Difficult Loves, and The Path to the Spiders' Nests left to read, I think. That means it’s time to branch out into his non-fiction. I wonder what treasures I’ll find there. Perhaps his book about fairy-tales, Sulla Fiaba, will be better than his compilation of the same. Perhaps Six Memos for the Next Millennium is the greatest collection of lectures about books ever written. Perhaps his account of living in Paris - Hermit in Paris – is the literary autobiography to end them all, although competition is fierce. Perhaps, I’m not holding my breath. The Road to San Giovanni didn’t leave me very optimistic.

The books collects five loose articles written between 1963 and 1977, these “exercises in memory” are autobiographical accounts lifted from the several magazines they were originally published in, articles that most likely were never meant to be put together, probably a book quickly edited to life by Esther Calvino after she ransacked her dead husband’s writing desk and cabinet files to make a quick buck. And what else are literary widows supposed to do? Throw out their husbands’ writings? That’s just too cruel to imagine. It is necessary that everything a writer writes be published, nothing must be left out, how else can academe survive?

Calvino’s father, his childhood love for cinema, the Italian resistance, Parisian garbage, and an impenetrable reflection about the “opaque,” those are the five topics of this little book.

The exercise I liked the most was the first article, about Calvino’s father, a scientist, botanist and farmer. The article is by no means a love letter to him, although it’s not a cynical or detached look at a troubled relationship either. Calvino’s father was a man in love with nature, a scientist who used agriculture as a means to give stability and order to his life. He lived for the field, the harvest, the plants and crops . Calvino, on the other hand, was from an early age in love with the city, its lights, its smells and colors, its people. The road to San Giovanni was the road that lead to his father’s field, where he pilgrimaged to every morning, and sometimes Calvino and his brother had to go too to help bring back the produce. Calvino went listlessly, anxious to return and go to the beach or to the movies. “I didn’t recognize neither a plant nor a bird. Things were mute for me,” he explains.

Calvino’s house was situated between two worlds. Downwards there was ‘the city with sidewalks window-shops cinema posters newspaper kiosks, and the Colombo Piazza just one step away, and the marina (…)” But if he left through the kitchen door, into the stream running in the back of the house, he’d enter another world. “That was the door my father, dressed as a hunter, gaiters on, always went out, and you could hear the step of the boots on the stream, and the dog’s tin whistling, and the creaking of the gate overlooking the San Pietro road. For my father, the world started up there, and the world’s other part, the one down here, was just an appendix, sometimes necessary because of matters at hand, but strange and insignificant, to cross in large strides, almost on the run, without turning his eyes around him.”

This Robinson Crusoe-like man was in love with plants and his passion was growing them, a passion he regrets he didn’t pass onto his children, who had already been corrupted by the pleasures of the city. It was a means, Calvino says, of ‘giving an end to the endless universe,’ a way of finding certainty, stability, order. But his children showed him that that stability would die with him. Young Calvino was trying to make sense of the world with other means, namely literature.

“Speaking one to another was difficult. Naturally verbose both of us, possessed by a sea of words, together we were mute, we walked in silence side by side on the way of San Giovanni. For my father words had to serve as a confirmation of things, and as a sign of possession; for me they were predictions of still badly seen things, unclaimed, assumed.”

I sympathise with Calvino’s isolation – I too get mute around my father, who is a highly intelligent man who nevertheless sees books as unpractical, pointless things; finding topics of conversation that interests both of us is a challenge.

After this fascinating reconstruction of his childhood we move into his love for cinema. From 1936 to the beginning of World War II, Calvino writes that he was a daily movie-goer, and a big lover of American cinema, up until fascism forbade most American cinema to promote national productions, and after 1941 forbade it completely it because they had become enemies. It’s a curious reminiscence about silent cinema era, but the uninitiated may have some time caring about the dozens of names of titles and actors he lists. Silent cinema was never my forte, I’m more mid-sixties onwards, with a particular fondness for the seventies.

Next Calvino briefly describes a morning when he was fighting in the Italian resistance. I think it’s the shortest of the articles, and it’s a sober and un-heroic in tone. It left me wondering if he ever wrote about his wartime experience again: I think that would bee very interesting to read in detail.

His living to Paris becomes the basis of an article about Parisian garbage – yes, really. “Of the domestic tasks, the only I perform with some competence and satisfaction is taking the garbage out.” He describes the methods, the rituals of taking the garbage out, the history of Parisian garbage collecting, filled with dates and names, and even makes sociological observations about garbage that are very pertinent and whimsical. He makes a connection between Italy’s inability to manage garbage collecting and its Christian mentality, as a consequence of its disinterest in the material world, but I think he forgets to add garbage disposal is such a tricky thing in Italy because it’s in the hands of the Mafia which uses it as political leverage.

This was my second favourite of the articles. I never expected an article about trash could be interesting, but Calvino really makes a convincing argument that this mundane ritual is more magical and wondrous than we take t for granted.

The final article absolutely made no sense to me, it was a very elaborate and impenetrable attempt at talking about the opaque, and the style manages to be as dense as the theme. Other than that cute gag, there’s nothing to recommend about it.

The Road to San Giovanni isn’t spectacular reading, it’s not even obligatory reading. Italo Calvino has greater books and there’s no reason to read this one before Invisible Cities of The Baron in the Trees. We must consider priorities.

I read this for the European Reading Challenge.

Monday, 3 December 2012

Some words on the books I received for my birthday

Yesterday I celebrated another birthday. And of course I received books, eight new books to be precise.

I have lots of new poetry to read. One of the presents was Manuel Alegre’s Obra Poética, a two-volume hardback collection of his poetry between 1960-2008. Alegre (b. 1936) is a literary and political celebrity in Portugal because of his opposition to Salazar’s dictatorship. Conscripted as a soldier to fight in the Angolan War, he deserted and joined the revolutionary guerrilla. He spent time in prison and his poetry was forbidden in Portugal during the dictatorship and had to circulate in samizdat editions. Twice he ran for presidency, twice I voted for him, twice he lost. I never read anything by him, so I’m curious to give his poetry a try.

I’m equally ignorant of the poetry of Ruy Duarte de Carvalho (1941-2010), collected in Lavra. He was born in Portugal but became an Angola citizen in 1983, where he spent his childhood and for whose national independence he fought.

I’m more familiar with Teixeira de Pascoaes, the author of As Sombras/Á Ventura/Jesus e Pã. Pascoaes (1877-1952 was considered one of the best poets of his generation, and he was one of the few Portuguese poets Fernando Pessoa admired. The inventor of Saudosismo, a literary current based on saudade, or the feeling of sadness we feel when someone we love is absent. According to Pascoaes, this feeling was the defining trait of the Portuguese identity. A religious and mystical poet, he wrote of God and the spiritual world with extraordinary lyrical beauty. Before the end of the month I hope to write about a play he wrote with Raul Brandão.

Of Fernando Pessoa I didn’t get any poetry, but I did get another one of his incomplete and fragmentary short-stories, A Hora do Diabo, a tale about the Devil. The editor’s introduction is longer than the actual text.

I also received José de Almada Negreiros’ Manifestos e Conferências. Almada Negreiros (1893-1970) was one of Pessoa’s best friends and one of Portugal’s greatest modernists. A genuine Renaissance Man, he was a precursor of surrealism, co-existed with dada and tried to introduce Futurism in Portugal. He was a great writer of manifestos and thinker of art. I can’t wait to delve into this amazing book.

Another book I got was José Eduardo Agualusa’s Um Estranho em Goa. Agualusa is an excellent Angolan writer, but this is a travel book about his journey to Goa, a former Portuguese colony in India. I’m very curious to read his thoughts about this place.

Several months ago I read a book by Gonçalo M. Tavares and didn’t like it very much. Tavares (b. 1970) is considered the best of the young Portuguese writers. In English he has a few novels available, Jerusalem and Learning to Pray in the Age of Technique. The book I received, Um Homem: Klaus Klump/A Máquina de Joseph Walser, contains the first two books of this loose tetralogy. Perhaps it’s the best place to begin. I want to understand what all the hype is about.

Finally a book called Portugal e os Portugueses, by a priest, Manuel Clemente. It’s a collection of essays. I don’t know anything about the author, I’m awfully ignorant of our essayists. But I’ve skimmed through the book and there are interesting reflections about history and society in it. We’ll see if I can extract something out of it for the blog.

And this is what I received for my birthday. I don’t think I’ll be starting any of these books in 2012, even if I’m anxious to read some of them, but I’m so swamped with piles of unread books it might be a while before you see them mentioned in the blog again.

Friday, 30 November 2012

José Saramago Month: The Wrap-Up Post

If I read another José Saramago book I’ll go crazy.

Just kidding. I’ve been enjoying it a lot, but it’s time to wrap up the José Saramago Month and move on to other readings.

Unless memory fails me, I had the idea for this event back in August, when I was reading Saramago’s diaries, and it suddenly dawned upon me that if he were alive he’d celebrate his 90th birthday this year. As a fan I couldn’t let the date pass unnoticed.

My intention to mark the occasion with some readings, however, turned into a month-long event that took proportions I didn’t foresee and demanded more energy and time than I expected. As November approached I had a handful of drafts nearly finished, and lots of notes dispersed throughout the margins of books that I had to hastily convert into coherent and intelligible blog posts. I had no idea I was going to end up writing nineteen posts for this. In some cases I had just finished reading the book days before I published a post about it. As such some posts feel more rushed than others.

I’ve been blogging for less than a year and this was the first time I hosted an event in my blog, and this experience taught me a lot. It taught me that having good planning and a posting schedule are essential, two things I didn’t have. At first I struggled with structure but in the end I think I did a good job with it. I tried to divide the month in four themes: his biography; his diaries; a sampling of his translated fiction; and finally a sampling of his untranslated work. I also learned that I should make sure I have enough material to fill out a whole month’s worth of posts. Sadly due to some miscalculations on my part, some books I ordered didn’t arrive on time. That’s the reason I paid so scarce attention to Saramago’s poetry and this final week was so poor in posts. I still plan to write about his poetry next year. Another thing I learned is that reading with a purpose can be beneficial. Although organising this event was intimidating, it also forced me to finally read some books I kept postponing. And everything I read helped me discover something new about Saramago, fill many gaps in my understanding of his worldview, connect many pieces between his novels and life, and get a generally more substantial picture of the man behind the words. So dear reader, if you think I’ve been teaching you anything about José Saramago, believe me when I say that I was the one humbly learning.

I didn’t have a structure for this, but early on I realized, I thought anyway, that it would be a more valuable use of my time and energy, and more interesting for the reader, if I focused on the wealth of books that haven’t yet been translated into English. For that reason I didn’t dwell on reviews of his prose fiction; the reader can easily find blogs that do that better than mine. What I believed I could bring of new to the table was some commentary on his plays, his poetry, his newspaper writings, his political articles, and his diaries. I hope this met the expectations the reader had about a José Saramago Month.

I have motives to think this was a successful event. Visits to the blog increased during this month, and I’m thrilled to discover that José Saramago has so many fans out there. The biography was one of the most popular posts of the month, which to means there are many people interested not just in the writer but also in knowing more about the man. Saramago, who didn’t believe in separating writer from man, would be the first to say knowing his life is essential to understanding his literature. However I think it’s amusing that the most popular post of the month was 1995: Only Mediocre Writers Are Translated. Why, I do not know.

I started this as a personal project, a labour of love, and I didn’t expect anyone else to join me. Even so, once more I have to thank Brian Joseph from Babbling Books for having joined me with his lovely review of The Stone Raft. I also thank everyone who followed this event and left a comment on the blog this month.

The José Saramago Month is officially over. I’m very happy with the results. Above all I wanted to create a space to remember, honour and promote José Saramago, my favourite novelist, and I think I achieved that. I thank everyone who joined me in keeping his memory alive.

Wednesday, 28 November 2012

José Saramago's Science Fiction Epic Poem

I couldn’t let this event pass without writing about José Saramago’s poetry. Well, I could have of course; I could have organized it in many different ways and I could have left his poetry out since it’s a negligible part of his oeuvre. I don’t consider myself an expert on Saramago and if I feel somewhat confident to make analyses of his novels, it’s because I’ve read lots of them (re-read some even) and picked up some ideas and noticed some patterns along the way. But when it comes to his poetry I’m a nullity. Of his earlier poetry I know nothing in first hand, just what I read about it, some good and mostly bad (and from the author himself). I know for instance that of his first poems, written in the 1940s, Saramago preferred not to have them published, and that tacitly says a lot about what he thought of them. I know that his first book of poetry, Os Poemas Possíveis, according to his biography, didn’t set the world on fire with their quality and innovation. And I know Provavelmente Alegria was better received by the press and the writers of the time but didn’t necessarily signal the rise of a fresh new voice in the Portuguese literary landscape, which didn’t have room for more poets anyway.

But I have read O Ano de 1993 (The Year of 1993) and liked it. To recapitulate what I wrote before: on March 16, 1974 there was a failed coup to overthrow Marcello Caetano’s fascist regime. Portugal had been a dictatorship since 1926 and there had been several unsuccessful coups over the years. In March of 1974, however, few probably expected that just a month later, specifically April 24, another coup would finally overthrow fascism. Saramago was one of the many who saw his hopes of freedom crushed in March, and in order to dissolve his frustration, sadness and rage, he started writing a narrative poetic allegory about a future where mankind is ruled by machines.

Well, it’s not The Wasteland and Saramago isn’t showing fear in a handful of dust. Saramago was, I think I’ve stated it before, a fan of science fiction and horror, the book is interesting for how he manages to integrate common tropes of the genre with his own sensibility, his own words, to create his own science fiction epic poem.

The plot is really a cliché of science fiction: slowly the slaves and hunted humans develop a consciousness of their own servile state and organize a resistance that defeats the mechanical tyrants. And once more mankind is free to rebuild a utopia from the debris of civilization. It’s a violent, tender, serene and hopeful book. It’s a book about the high cost of freedom and why cost has to be made. It’s a poem that speaks of the regeneration of a dying world, of the rebirth of mankind, children, words, society, ideas, nature.

The poem obeys a rigid style: it’s written in declarative sentences, without commas or any other punctuation marks. It’s divided in thirty chapters. Each stanza can go from several lines of verse to just one. The verses have a sing-song tone to it, a cadence that carries the reader throughout the narrative, told in a serene, tranquil voice in spite of the horrors described and the bizarre imagery, it’s like the voice of a weary man who has lived and seen too much to the point of sensorial numbness.

This is how the poem opens:

The people are seated in a Dali landscape with the shadows severely cut out because of a sun that we will call still

When the sun moves like it happens outside paintings the clarity is less and the light is far less aware of its place

It doesn’t matter that Dali was such a bad painter if he painted the image necessary for the days of 1993

(One day I will rediscover his quote about how he disliked surrealist paintings; as it is it’s in the back of my memory but I can’t pinpoint its source.)

The first people we meet in the poem are living in gutted buildings, in the dark, trembling with cold:

And they say last year’s winter was much sweeter or smoother or more benign although the word is old in 1993

While they speak and utter important things like this

One person is scratching enigmatic lines on the floor which can be either a portrait or a declaration of love or the word left to be invented

The reader at first doesn’t know who these people are. The poem isn’t clear with answers, it takes its time. The narrative slowly accumulates details and images. Later we read that

The inhabitants of the city sick with the plague are gathered in the great square which became known like this because all the others were clogged with ruins

People are ordered to stand in attention for no purpose. They live not for themselves but for absent rulers. Their existence knows only servitude and misery, taking orders and living in buildings where elevators no longer work. Their lives are carefully controlled, curfews exist, and those who break them are severely punished:

The interrogation of the man who left his home after the curfew hour started fifteen days ago and hasn’t ended yet

The inquirers ask a question every sixty minutes twenty-four each day and demand fifty-nine answers for each one

It’s a new method

They believe that it’s impossible that the true answer isn’t amongst the fifty-nine that were given

There are humans living outside the city they once lived in. Inside the city is inhabited by creatures metaphorically called wolves, who prey on men. Other humans live underground. There are humans allowed to remain in the city, and these are counted every night three times. They’re not allowed to keep their doors locked:

It’s important that the doors be permanently open in order not to waste the time of those keeping the census


The first count is made by rats the second by snakes the third by spiders

The inhabitants prefer the snakes and the rats in spite of the cold and scaly contact of the snakes and the fine scratching of the rats’ claws

But the spiders bring the greatest fear

A verse informs that ‘every night two or three inhabitants in the city go mad.’

Then the great uprising begins, the fire of rebellion starts burning in man’s spirit again, and a bloody war is fought, between mechanical eagles and elephants and hungry humans with sticks and spears. With the victory of mankind over its mechanical rulers, people rediscover the earth under their feet again, the world becomes fertile again to provide to the species with everything it needs, slavery is abolished and men learn to live off their own work and not the exploitation of others. The finale is written in a way of prophecy, and it may well be the most uplifting thing Saramago ever wrote, this may the most hopeful of his books, the hopes and dreams of a man who started writing this book when he still lived under a dictatorship and finished it during a democracy that, for a short while, allowed him to believe the world really could one day become his book’s paradise.

Next Friday, the end.