Monday, 25 June 2012

Genius is madness, becoming sane: the detective fiction of Fernando Pessoa

“Three months, four months ago – I write in January 1908 – there died in London, of general paralysis, a man who was most remarkable. He was obscure and reserved, though he was not modest. He lived far from the active world, a philosopher and a dreamer. His name was William Byng and he was said to be ex-sergeant.”

So begins the preface to Tales of a Reasoner, an unfinished collection of detective stories Fernando Pessoa started writing in 1906, while still living in Durban. It is ironic that in 2012 we continue to publish new books by Pessoa. At the time of the Portuguese poet’s death in 1935, he had only published one book, the nationalist prophecy poem Message. At the moment I’m writing this, his collected works encompass over twenty volumes of poetry in his name, poetry in his name written in English, poetry of his heteronyms, prose of his heteronyms, The Book of Disquiet, letters, criticism, essays, short-stories, theatre, and more. The legendary chest full of thousands of pages he left behind never ceases to produce new surprises. The most recent surprise is Tales of a Reasoner, fragments of stories Pessoa wrote in English, under the pseudonym of Horace James Farber, which shed new light on his love for the detective genre. Together with the essay “Detective Story,” an analysis of the genre, they’ve been made available to the public in a single bilingual volume for the first time.

I found the story fragments rather maddening, because there’s nothing more frustrating than reading incomplete detective stories, unless they’re deliberately written like that, and in Pessoa’s case they weren’t. Like many other projects he intended to finish, he left this incomplete. The tales are obviously influenced by Edgar Allen Poe, whom Pessoa considers the greatest of the detective story writers (at one point Pessoa planned to translate and publish Poe’s tales of deduction in Portuguese), and also Arthur Conan Doyle. And Byng’s approach to solving crimes – analysing the psychology of criminals instead of gathering facts – is also reminiscent of G.K. Chesterton’s method which he put to use in his notable Father Brown stories. However there doesn’t seem to have been any relationship – Pessoa’s stories predate them and he doesn’t mention Chesterton once.

Byng isn’t a very interesting character, perhaps because Pessoa didn’t believe characters in detective stories should be very complex. Thus he owes more to Auguste Dupin’s austere reason than to Sherlock Holmes’ vibrant eccentricities. We know little of Byng, except that he was a former sergeant, and that “the end of his life was sad,” the narrator ominously declares in the preface. Byng liked Kant, Descartes, and Thomas Aquinas. And he was an eccentric man, but only because the narrator says so, not because of anything he actually does in the stories. Storytelling, I fear, was not Pessoa’s forte. Although Byng hardly comes alive in the page, we know that he dies of delirium tremens. “That man who drinks,” the narrator says. This detail is pure Pessoa. Before Raymond Chandler invented the hard-drinking detective, Pessoa was already taking him to his logical extreme.

However, these fragments and the incomplete essay are enough to give a good idea of how Pessoa conceived the detective story. In his view, the genre was purely intellectual entertainment, and a detective story should worry less about mystery than with unravelling the mystery. He makes a good distinction between mystery story and detective story in the essay: “A tale of mystery is the delight of the many: nothing more is needed for it than the most level reason and no imagination at all: a woman with a mysterious past, a girl who cannot speak some oppressive secret, blackmail, murder, robbery and the devil knows what more.” Mystery tales are all about keeping the reader on the edge of his seat, and Pessoa rightly argues the point that it’s very easy to make something mysterious by just omitting information. Detective tales, however, are about unravelling mysteries. “If ‘detective tales’ were called ‘decipherment stories,’ that juster title would define them as the usual one does not. For the detective story differs from the simple mystery tale in that the mystery tale is based on its mystery and the detective tale on the decipherment of the mystery.” For this reason he declares that, “The tale of mystery is imaginative, the detective story is intellectual, in its essence.”

The first of the stories, “The Case of the Science Master,” opens with views similar to the ones expressed in the essay. The narrator introduces himself as a lover of the genre and comes down hard on mystery stories: “From the earliest youth I have been attracted, in a way more or less morbid, by all things inscrutable or strange, no matter whether fact or fiction. To healthy exercise and even to good reading I have too often preferred that large portion of literature dealing with subjects horrible or mysterious. But my mind was healthy in so far as it rejected with scorn the impossible and, many times, the improbable inanities of the “Monte Christo” [sic] type, stupid extravagances such as flowed swiftly from the pen of Ponson du Terrail and others I found exasperating and foolish.”

There are two interesting points to consider here: first of all, the narrator remarks that detective fiction is not ‘good reading.’ This is not Pessoa’s view; in his essay he defends it from the critics who saw it as an inferior genre. On the other hand, Pessoa believed that in order to remain true to its strengths, the detective tale was incompatible with the requisites of good literature. Other writers since him have fortunately proved this is not the case.

The second point is that poor Ponson continues to take a beating on my blog. If you’ve read my article on Eça’s detectivenovel, you’ll remember that he gently mocks Ponson in it. Eça, however, had a unique charming way of insulting people without looking like he was insulting them. But what’s the problem with him? Ponson was a harmless peddler of dime novels and an accomplished adventure writer whose influence on 20th century popular culture is undeniable – without Rocambole we’d have no Arsene Lupin, no Fantomas, no Doc Savage –, and although uncredited he continues to shape popular fiction to this day. He easily stands alongside R.L. Stevenson, H. Rider Haggard and Bram Stoker. Pessoa, however, was a mediocre storyteller. He may have been the greatest poet of his time, but he couldn’t create a compelling character to pay for his alcohol fix. For all his attempts, he couldn’t even finish one of his detective stories, and what he left us doesn’t speak well of their merit.

In this sense Pessoa resembles the narrator, who dreams of becoming a great detective, but lacks the skills to solve actual crimes:

“I have, of course, often attempted the solution of real problems. Some newspaper articles reporting weird or complicated cases have given me the most unspeakable worry; I have often spent the sleepless nights in striving to think out how a wooden legged burglar with a heavy box, who had burgled some iron safe, could have got out through a 4th story window which was fast closed and shuttered and thence down nothing into the street below. When some smart detective had solved the case, it was found that the man had just gone out by the door, a means of exit which I do not think I considered.”

The narrator, accepting his inability to solve crimes logically, meets Byng during the investigation of a murdered teacher, and thus becomes the narrator of his exploits. In the first story, Byng lays down many of his methods. Byng isn’t very concerned about morality, just with the intellectual challenge. “You may, of course, consider a crime as a moral act – I mean as an act concerning morality, in a contrary way of course –, or you may consider it a mental act, if you have regard to the intellect behind it. But these considerations are erroneous. A crime is not a moral act.”

Byng isn’t very interested in facts and data, although he considers them too. No, Byng is more interested in human psychology and the character of the criminal. He believes solving crimes is mainly about investigating the “human faculties or conditions used in the carrying out of physical acts,” since what “is traceable in all crimes is the temperament of the criminal.” A detective then must concern himself primarily with the criminal’s mind. This happens to be very similar to Chesterton’s approach. Chesterton in “The Secret of Father Brown” explains the method of his detective priest in this way: "You see, I had murdered them all myself... I had planned out each of the crimes very carefully. I had thought out exactly how a thing like that could be done, and in what style or state of mind a man could really do it. And when I was quite sure that I felt exactly like the murderer myself, of course I knew who he was."

In one of the mini-articles he wrote for the magazine El Hogar, Jorge Luis Borges wrote this of Chesterton and detective fiction: “The solution, in bad detective fiction, involves material reasons: a secret door, an extra beard. In the good ones, involves psychological reasons: a fallacy, a mental habit, a superstition. An example of good ones – and even of the best ones – is any tales by Chesterton.” Like Father Brown, Byng is less a fact-checker than a reader of souls. The former sergeant reflects a lot about psychology. For that purpose he’s even created a table of human temperaments to classify criminals:

  1. Genius (under action of Perversion)
  2. Excitable (under action of Perversion)
  3. Excitable (courageous)
  4. Excitable (not courageous)
  5. Animal type (courageous)
  6. Animal type (not courageous)
  7. Greek type (not courageous)

Some of these classifications require hilarious explanations. The Greek type, Byng explains, “is the union of the widest perception of the beautiful and the great with a deteriorated moral sense; I call this the Greek type because the latter Greeks were remarkable for their sense of the beautiful and of the great and for their nauseous perversions of its use.” The Greek type, Byng warns us, “will kill his lifelong benefactor with the greatest coolness, as easily as he will disgrace his own daughter or his own sister.” But worry not, dear reader, for Byng assures us that ‘such moral degradation is very uncommon,’ so the chances of the reader ever meeting a Greek type criminal in his lifetime are slim.

Equally curious is the category of genius. “Genius is madness, becoming sane,” Byng declares in a nice turn of phrase. But this type is also rare. In these tales Pessoa proves to be a very well-read man in the forensic science of his time. Not only does his discuss psychology, but also phrenology, handwriting analysis, and Cesare Lombroso’s now outdated theories on ‘born criminals.’

The other stories have their own delights: “The Case of the Quadratic Equation” is about the investigation of a mathematician who killed himself after receiving a letter requesting him to solve an apparently basic equation. My favourite, however, is “The Case of Mr. Arnott,” which has a Borgesian premise: it’s about a stranger who enrolls an innocent man in a secret society, which may not exist at all. The motive is never ascertained. The initiate is made to change his name and make a mark in his face to be identified by other members, allegedly – but maybe not; maybe it’s just a pretext for the stranger to turn him into a double of another man for some nefarious purpose. Byng’s labyrinthine digressions into the possibilities of this case constitute the best part of the stories. Like all the other tales, only fragments remain, without a resolution, but it was the most promising of the bunch, and includes this excellent sentence: “The best way to keep a secret from him were to make him believe there was no secret.”

The weakest story is “The Stolen Document.” It’s not an actual Byng story, but rather a ‘correction’ of Poe’s “The Purloined Letter,” Pessoa intending it to be a ‘presumed true account of the stolen letter affair.” Pessoa always had a serious problem in surpassing the people he admired. He worried about living in other people’s shadow and usually this resulted in a heightened sense of importance (in The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis, José Saramago pokes fun at Pessoa’s envy of Luís de Camões, who was the national poet he could never become). This tale may predate the Byng stories and it’s inconclusive whether Pessoa was attempting to rewrite it as one of his tales. It’s the shortest fragment and so there’s not much more to be said about it.

This leaves us with the essay “Detective Story,” the highlight of the book. It shows Pessoa’s deep knowledge of the genre’s histories and its tropes, and in it he makes lists of things writers should beware of. For instance, he warns writers against romantic subplots, and long subplots that distract from the mystery’s unravelling. In this regard he faults Conan Doyle’s A Study in Scarlet for its imperfection because of the tedious Mormon backstory, which he thinks should have been explained in a single paragraph. I very much agree with him on this one.

Pessoa wasn’t impressed either by threats against the detective and the narrator, since that had nothing to do with the proper act of detection. So of Richard Freeman’s novel The Shadow of the Wolf (1925), he asks, “Why, also, the attempts on Thorndyke’s and the narrator’s lives? We know Thorndyke is unkillable and the narrator is presumably still alive when he narrates.” In other words, the writer shouldn’t waste his time creating thrilling sequences – that’s telling an adventure story – since we all know the detective can’t die. Fortunately this orthodox view never had many proponents.

Pessoa also railed against coincidences, the use of occult elements, and withholding facts from the reader. He considers three ways of putting all the facts before a reader and still ‘puzzle him with a logical conclusion.’

Since real crimes tend to be unremarkable and don’t lend themselves to fiction, Pessoa recognizes that crimes in fiction must be ‘abnormal,’ and he lists five ways of being so: “(1) by the introduction of coincidences, (2) by the intromission of new discoveries or invention, (3) by the natural superposition of one crime or another, or, at any rate of one suspicious or mysterious circumstance upon another, (4) by the confusion, deficiency or superfluity of evidence, (5) by the creation of an abnormally intelligent criminal, who naturally devises an abnormally skilful crime.” Pessoa deplores the first two methods, appreciates the third and fourth, and considers the fifth the best method.

Furthermore, he believed detective stories should be simple in plot and short in length, for “there is never a problem that need take up very much space.” But if that’s the case, there are many fine detective novels that would be excluded because of Pessoa’s orthodox conception of the genre. 

Finally he tackles the critics of the detective genre: “A very erroneous idea has great acceptation – namely that a detective story is but a literary composition of an inferior kind. Critics, especially those who occupy themselves with poetic and philosophical works, are very unanimous in decrying this kind of tale. They look upon it as something needing no imagination and little if any logic. But they are in this mistaken – that they have never attempted to analyse the stories I treat of, that they have never considered what a detective story really is, and what faculties are needed for its writing.” I agree with him: detective fiction has its own rules, logic and purpose, and to judge it against the requisites of fine art is meaningless. A detective story should worry about being a good detective story, not meet the criteria of academics. But if Pessoa is harsh on critics who only care about high art, he’s too much of an elitist to go softer on the public. “The crowd judges from the same premises and it draws an opposite conclusion” and wrongly considers “those authors to have reached the limit of human sharpness.” For the readers, “the tales are perfect.” But of course they’re too stupid to recognize a good detective story, and easily confuse Ponson du Terrail with the best. If only people would read his unfinished essay, they’d possess the critical tools to adequately judge their merit.

Pessoa showed to be conversant with contemporary British detective fiction, the home of the genre. Although he started writing it in 1906, he continued throughout the 1920s and he discusses the works of Arthur Morrison, Richard Freeman, Mary Roberts Rinehart. His essay bears striking similarities with Ronald Knox’s 1929 “Decalogue,” a series of rules on detective fiction writing, and also S. S. Van Dine’s 1928 “Twenty Rules for writing detective fiction.” Although Pessoa’s essay started in 1906, he kept writing it throughout his life, so one can’t know if he was familiar or not with these lists. Although he never finished a story, his love for the genre was clear, and he’s a staunch defender of the genre as a game, something I think much of modern crime fiction has lost sight of in favor of being socially relevant or thinking it needs to compete with high art in its own terms.

Sunday, 17 June 2012

A Pursuit of the real: The poetry of Sophia de Mello Breyner Andresen

Half my soul is made of sea scent.
- Sophia de Mello Breyner Andresen, “Atlantic”

Most Portuguese kids will probably discover Sophia de Mello Breyner Andresen through one of her children’s books, in elementary school. My first was A Floresta (The Forrest, 1968), the story of a little girl who befriends a magical dwarf living underneath a tree. It wasn’t until many years later that I discovered Sophia was also a poet, one of the best ones of the 20th century, heir to the greatness of Fernando Pessoa and Miguel Torga. A poet of vast emotional complexity and an enchanting worldview; a wordsmith who relied on clear and simple words and castigated the abuses of language. Prophet of a mystical union between Man and Nature, lover of the sea and the ancient pagan gods, defender of truth and dignity, Sophia’s poetry was the synthesis of a life-long fascination with Hellenic culture and Christian humanism, and she was a poet of many facets; but whatever mask or voice she used to express herself, she always wrote for the individual. From her maternal grandfather, royal physician and lover of poetry, she learned that “not all intellectuals are intelligent” and that it’s important to ‘reject exaggerations, pedantry and showing off.” Her poetry, deeply refined and erudite, rather than keeping readers at bay involves them in its apparent simplicity. And yet she never ceased to criticise the depreciated value of high culture in our consumerist society:


They look embarrassed
Petrified they read on the wall the centuries’ number
Their gaze turns opaque
Sometimes – as if by mistake –
They cross paths with statues

(Where is the journey’s old brooding lingering?)

Outside they hurriedly take snapshots
Like someone unburdening himself of all that
They walk in herds like animals

Sophia de Mello Breyner Andresen was born in 1919, in Porto, in the North. Her paternal great-grandfather was Danish, and on her mother’s side she belonged to Portuguese aristocracy: her mother was the daughter of the Count of Mafra, a nobleman of liberal traditions. Sophia spent her childhood in two places that shaped her poetic imagination: her grandfather’s farm, called Quinta do Campo Alegre, which today is Porto’s Botanical Garden; and the summer house on Granja Beach, where Sophia and her family spent their Summers, a place which for the young child was magical and made her fall in love with the sea and the oceans for the rest of her life. Her cousin, the writer Ruben A. (1920-1975), wrote in his memories that in Campo Alegre there was a Christmas tradition of the family’s children putting on shows. In order not to be left out, Sophia, at the age of three, before she could even read, was taught by a housemaid to recite the poem “A Nau Catrineta” (The Catrineta Ship), a legend which narrated a disastrous sea journey to Brazil in the year 1565, and which the novelist Almeida Garret had recorded in Romanceiro, a 1843 collection of Portuguese folklore and oral stories. Poetry and the sea were connected in her mind since childhood. “I found poetry before even knowing there was literature,” she wrote one day. Her maternal grandfather also introduced her to the poetry of Luís de Camões and Antero de Quental. This grandfather was a fascinating person too: Tomás de Melo Breyner was the royal physician of D. Carlos I, and was responsible for embalming him and his son, the prince D. Luís Filipe, after their assassination in the 1908 Regicide that paved the way to the Republic.

Sophia studied in Porto until she was seventeen and then left for Lisbon to pursue higher education, but after a few years studying Classic Philology she left the course; however the Hellenic world found a permanent place in her poetic oeuvre, offering her symbols, themes, myths and historical events to work upon. Her love for antiquity also caused her to visit Greece several times as well as the Mediterranean civilizations. But the ancient world was already a childhood fascination. At the age of twelve she read The Odyssey in a French translation, urged by her mother, a compulsive reader. “In Homer I recognized that naked and integral happiness, that splendour of the presence of things.” The presence of things is one of the main themes of her poetry. “Poetry was always for me a pursuit of the real.” Poetic language, she argued, wasn’t a mirror to reality, as 19th century realists conceived literature, but a scalpel operating on reality, cutting away the accumulated lies and misconceptions, restoring to things and concepts their truth and substance. At the age of twelve she started writing poetry.

In 1940, persuaded by a friend, she published her first poems in the magazine Cadernos de Poesia, founded by the poet Ruy Cinatti (1915-1986), where she met other poets, including Jorge de Sena (1919-1978), whose friendship laster even after he left Portugal thanks to the letters they continued to write each other. She also contributed to other historical magazines in Portuguese poetry: Távola Redonda (1950), also founded by Cinatti, and Árvore (1951), created by the poet Albano Martins (b. 1930), one of the great names in contemporary Portuguese poetry. In 1944 her father paid for the publication of 300 copies of her first book of poems, simply titled Poesia (Poetry). This collection included poems she had written at the age of fourteen, but it was a powerful debut that showed considerable maturity. Sophia described her creative process in this way: “Fernando Pessoa used to say: ‘A poem happened to me.’ My fundamental way of writing is very close to this ‘happening.’ The poem shows up made, it emerges, given (or as if it were given). Like listening to and writing down a composition.” In her first collection many of her themes are already present: history, the sea, the gods, the poets she admired, her memories of Granja Beach, and the harmony between Man and Nature:


Moonlight fills the earth with mirages
And things today have a virgin soul,
The wind stirred amidst the foliage
A secret and fugitive life,
Made of shadow and light, terror and stillness,
Which is my soul’s perfect chord.



Of all the corners of the world
I love with a stronger and deeper love
That ecstatic and naked beach,
Where I joined the sea, the wind and the moon.


I smell the earth the trees and the wind
That spring fills with perfumes
But of them I only want and search
The waves’ savage excitement
Rising towards the stars like a pure scream.

And in the poem “The Garden and the Night” she already reflects about her conception of poetry as simple and pure language, when she notes that she writes

Words I undressed of their literature,
To give them their primitive and pure form,
Of formulas and magic.

She also pays homage to the pagan gods:


Evohé god who gave us
Life and wine
And in it men found
The taste of sun and resin
And a multiple and divine consciousness.

And to the heroes of antiquity:


Perfection, eternity, plenitude
Trickled from the sacred youth
Of your limbs.

Light danced in all your steps
And the ardent pallor of your divinity
Rose in the purity of spaces.

Tightly your fingers
Beyond vague anxieties, uncertainties and secrets
Gripped luck’s fingers.

And the fate that in us is chaos and mourning,
In you was truth and harmony
A pure and absolute path.

Her conception of Nature also changed, from the subjectivity of the poetic “I” seen in this excerpt from the poem “In All the Gardens”

One day I’ll be sea and sand,
Everything that exists I’ll join,
And my blood drags in each vein
That embrace that one day will open itself

to a cosmic vision of Mankind historically integrated in the natural world, as we can see in “The First Man:”

He was like a tree of the born earth
Confusing his life with the ardour of earth,
And in the vast singing of the full tides
His veins continued to beat.

Created in the measure of the elements
The soul and feeling
In him weren’t torments
But grave, great, vague,
Reflecting the world,
And the bottomless echo
Of earth’s ascension in spaces
Were the impulses of his chest
Flourishing in a perfect rhythm
In his arms’ gestures.

Here man isn’t created in God’s image, but in the measure of the elements, establishing a link with Nature – man isn’t something external, an afterthought creation that can be imposed on her, but grew organically alongside her. And poetry was a means of restoring this connection. “Poetry doesn’t necessarily ask me a specialization since its art is an art of being. It’s also neither time nor labour what poetry asks of me. Nor does it ask of me a science or an aesthetic or a theory. Rather it asks for the entirety of my being, a consciousness deeper than my intelligence, a loyalty purer than the one I can control.”

In 1946 she married the lawyer and journalist Francisco Sousa Tavares, a monarchist and anti-fascist activist. Sophia moved to Lisbon definitely and joined the anti-Salazar resistance, attacking him and his regime through her poetry and joining several causes, namely the defence of political prisoners. Right up to the 1970s her poems were another weapon against fascism, but in a country ruled by propaganda this was just the natural development of a poetry that strived to reveal and preserve the truth of things. “For poetry is my explanation with the universe, my intimacy with things, my role in the real, my meeting with voices and images. Thus poems don’t talk of an ideal life but of a concrete life: the angle of a window, the noise in the streets, the cities and the rooms, the shadows of walls, the apparition of faces, silence, distance and the glow of stars, the night’s breathing, the scent of limes and oreganos.” So in order to stand up for the concrete life she became a fierce opponent of Salazar.

Her book Livro Sexto (The Sixth Book) received in 1964 the Great Poetry Prize from the Portuguese Society of Authors. It was the last time the SPE gave this award before being closed down by the political police after the Luandino Vieira incident. This book is a milestone in her oeuvre because it shows her poetry becoming more political. For her politics and poetry were not incompatible. “He who sees the wondrous splendour of the world is logically made to see the amazing suffering of the world. He who sees the phenomenon wants to see the whole phenomenon.” At times her resistance took the form of a plea to be purified of the vanity and deception that hovers over Portugal, like when she asks the Lord to

Erase the empty and vain mask
Of mankind,
Erase the vanity,
That I may lose and dissolve myself
In morning’s perfection.

She sees man as deeply corrupted for turning away from nature. Although she was a Christian, she had a complex and contradictory relationship with God. For instance she recognizes the imperfection in the world God created, which leads her to rebuke her:

Lord if from your pure justice
The monsters I see around me are born
It’s because someone beat you or led astray
Your ways in I know not what darkness

Maybe it was the rebellious angels.
A long time before I arrived
Your work had already been split

And vainly I seek your ancient face
You’re always a god who doesn’t have a face

No matter how much I pursue you.

It’s important to note that she speaks with God as her equal here; although the English language can’t show it, she’s using the 2nd personal singular here instead of the more reverential 2nd personal plural. And see how in the second verse counting from the end she writes god with a small g, as if he were just one god amongst the many pagan ones she also believed in.

However if she sometimes feels despair she also has hope that Portugal will survive the Estado Novo dictatorship:


We will rise again beneath the walls of Knossos
And in Delphi the centre of the world
We will rise again in the harsh light of Crete

We will rise where words
Are the names of things
Where outlines are clear and vivid
There in the sharp light of Crete

We will rise where stone the stars and time
Are the kingdom of man
We will rise to stare straight at the earth
In the clean light of Crete

For it is good to clarify the heart of man
And to lift the black exactness of the cross
In the white light of Crete

This poem speaks of the spiritual regeneration of Portugal, when it becomes again a place when words mean again the names of things, instead of tools the state uses to manipulate the people. It’s a poem of hope, where Crete’s light becomes a metaphor for the truth that needs to resurface in a country of lies. Many of her poems of this time were about the moral degradation of Portugal, of ideals and values bought and sold cheaply for personal profit or simply for fear. Other poems were more direct in their anti-fascist struggle, like “Catarina Eufémia,” an elegy of a famous martyr murdered by the army during a protest, It begins with the verse: “The first theme of Greek reflection is justice,” a theme she constantly returns to. Being a poet of the natural world, it’s also inevitable that the city becomes a metaphor for the decadence of Portuguese society, as this brief poem shows:


The almost visible threats appear
Dead moons
Are born in the exhausted horizon
And I’m strangled by giant octopuses
In the streets’ sadness.

However her most direct attack on Salazar is the short poem, “Old Vulture:”

The old vulture is wise and smoothes his feathers
Rottenness pleases him and his speeches
Have the gift of making souls smaller

Political speeches, or propaganda, are the opposite of poetry, which amplifies the human spirit. “Even if it speaks merely of stones or wind, the artist’s work always tells us this: That we’re not just tormented beasts in their struggle for survival but we’re, by natural right, heirs of freedom and the dignity of being” – words spoken in 1964 when she received the SPE’s award. Obviously her poetry was heavily censured. The state once even forbid love poems she had written for her husband from being read on a TV show. So when democracy was restored in 1974, she celebrated with this little poem:


This is the dawn I was waiting for
The primal day whole and clean
Where we rise from night and silence
And free we inhabit the substance of time.

I think it’s fascinating how the last verse implies that Portugal was living cut off from history, existing in a bubble of fantasy time. In 1975 she was elected for a deputy seat in parliament. In 1976 she abandoned political life and devoted the next thirty years to poetry. Politics was really just a small part of her career and she spent most of her time writing of pagan gods, myths and heroes, writing poems to her friends, like Cinatti, Sena and Ruben A, and celebrating the great poets, like Camões, Dante, Lord Byron, and Fernando Pessoa, one of her fixations. Her ability to emulate other styles was so perfect she wrote a series of poems in homage to Ricardo Reis (collected in Dual, 1972) adopting the pagan heteronym's style:


Listen, Lydia, how the days run
            Falsely still,
And in the shadow of foliage and words
            The gods reveal themselves
As if to drink the occult blood
            That made us watchful.


Make your life in front of the light
A lucid terrace right and white,
            Sweetly cut
            By the river of nights.

The careless step in so lost a road
Live, without becoming it, your fate.
            Inflexibly watch
            Your own absence.

Another one of her great poems is “The Furies,” a modern reinterpretation of the Greek myth:

Banished from sin and the sacred
Now they inhabit the humble intimacy
Of daily life. They are
The leaky faucet the late bus
The soup that boils over
The lost pen the vacuum that doesn’t vacuum
The taxi that doesn’t come the mislaid receipt
Shoving pushing waiting
Bureaucratic madness

Without shouting or staring
Without bristly serpent hair
With the meticulous hands of the day-to-day
They undo us

They’re the peculiar wonder of the modern world
Faceless and maskless
Nameless and breathless
The thousand-headed hydras of efficiency gone haywire

They no longer pursue desecrators and parricides
They prefer innocent victims
Who did nothing to provoke them
Thanks to them the day loses its smooth expanses
Its juice of ripe fruits
Its fragrance of flowers
Its high-sea passion
And time is transformed
Into toil and the rush
Against time

She also mastered the epigram, a literary genre popular with the Greeks, and some of her best poems sometimes last one, two or three verses:


God during the day is a word
A breath of vastness and smoothness.

Between 1944 and 1997 she published fourteen poetry books, and in 2001 she published her final poems. In 1958 she branched out into children’s fiction, initially for her five children. She also wrote short-stories, plays and essays. She translated William Shakespeare, Euripides, Paul Claudel, and Dante Alighieri, whose translation of Purgatorio earned her a prize from the Italian government. In 1999 she received the Camões Prize for her oeuvre. She passed away in 2004. She has three books available in English: Shores, Horizons, Voyages…, Log Book, and Marine Rose.

NOTE: The translations of the poems “We Will Rise” and “The Furies” were done by Richard Zenith, because they were frankly better than mine. Everything else was translated by me to the best of my abilities. Also, check Tom’s posts about her over at Wuthering Heights.

Saturday, 9 June 2012

Václav Havel: Protest

You know, sometimes it all seems like a beautiful dream – all the exciting opening nights, private views, lectures, meetings – the endless discussions about literature and art! All the energy, the hopes, plans, activities, ideas – the wine bars crowded with friends, the wild booze-ups, the madcap affrays in the small hours, the jolly girls dancing attendance on us! And the mountains of work we managed to get done, regardless! That’s all over now. It’ll never come back!

Protest is the final part of Václav Havel’s Vanek trilogy, which revolves around the author’s comical alter ego, Ferdinand Vanek, an unassuming, meek playwright and political activist who’s always running into people who embody conformity and moral cowardice in the former Soviet Czechoslovakia.

This time Vanek is invited by the writer Stanek to visit him at his study. Like the apartment from Unveiling, the elegance and opulence in Stanek’s study surprises and embarrasses Vanek. The room is covered with bookcases, there’s a built-in bar and even a surrealist painting adorning a wall.

Stanek has invited Vanek over because he needs his experience in political activism to draft a protest letter against the arrest of a pop singer. Previously Stanek had made some unofficial calls to friends in the party to help him, to no avail. Ironically, Vanek arrives with a letter already written – the pop singer plays an important role in inspiring non-conformist in the youth - and fifty signatures collected. Vanek excitedly hands him the letter, expecting him to add his signature to the others, and that’s when the play takes that unique Havel turn into an exercise in self-deception and the power of language to obfuscate moral matters.

Stanek is a writer but not like Vanek. Stanek has never been importuned by the state: he writes for state television, and although he complains about the constant censorship, he lives reasonably well off and without many pangs in his consciousness. He has friends in the party. He lacks experience in activism, hence his need for Vanek. And the pop singer in question happens to be his daughter’s fiancée, although he assures Vanek he’s not moved by personal feelings. But he recoils at the idea of signing the protest letter. In short, Stanek is Vanek’s opposite.

Stanek, like many writers of his generation, initially welcomed the ideals of the Soviet Union only to grow disillusioned:

Stanek: You took me to task for my illusions and my over-optimism. Good Lord! How often since then I’ve had to admit to myself you were right! Of course, in those days I still believed that in spite of everything some of the ideals of my youth could be salvaged and I took you for an incorrigible pessimist.
Vanek: But I’m not a pessimist –
Stanek: You see, everything’s turned around!

Although he claims to be ashamed of working for the state, his actions tell a different story. He seems to live only for his writing and for his garden, about which he constantly boasts. By being apolitical, he’s avoided surveillance and prison, unlike Vanek:

Stanek: Can our sort bear it all?
Vanek: You mean prison? What else can one do?
Stanek: As far as I recall, you used to be bothered by haemorrhoids. Must have been terrible, considering the hygiene in there.
Vanek: They gave me suppositories –
Stanek: You ought to have them operated on, you know. It so happens a friend of mine is our greatest haemorrhoid specialist. Works real miracles. I’ll arrange it for you.

This dialogue not only reveals their political differences, but Stanek’s power over him: if he wanted he could get him medical help. Stanek’s compliance with the party line has yielded him benefits. Stanek, however, in spite of his lack of political commitment, feels indignant over the state of the country:

Stanek: It’s disgusting, Ferdinand, disgusting! The nation is governed by scum! And the people? Can this really be the nation which not very long ago behaved so magnificently? All the horrible cringing, bowing and scraping? The selfishness, corruption and fear wherever you turn! What have they made of us, old pal? Can this really be us?
Vanek: I don’t believe things are as black as all that –
Stanek: Forgive me, Ferdinand, but you don’t happen to live in a normal environment. All you know are people who manage to resist this rot. You just keep on supporting and encouraging each other. You’ve no idea the sort of environment I’ve got to put up with! You’re lucky you no longer have anything to do with it. Makes you sick at your stomach!

Therefore he admires Vanek and his friends for having taken the “almost superhuman task” of preserving the remnants of the country’s moral consciousness. “The more you’re exposed,” he says, “the more responsibility you have towards all those who know about you, trust you, rely on you and look up to you, because to some extent you keep upholding their honour, too!”

Stanek’s heartfelt indignation and his praise of Vanek’s activism, however, are comically grotesque in light of the fact that he refuses to sign the protest letter. In private, he has no trouble confiding with Vanek his contempt for the current socio-political order. But his actions belong to a man who wants to retain the privileges this same order has given him. He respects Vanek only insofar as he can put in motion a protest to release the singer without getting Stanek involved, and one has reason to suspect his concern and honesty. The play reaches its zenith when Stanek delivers a long speech explaining, with a logic as twisted as a corkscrew, why his signature would cause more harm than good to the movement to release the pop singer. Havel’s talent has always been in turning logic and reason inside out; in almost every play he’s written there comes a moment when a character aligned with power convincingly perverts common sense to justify a thought, a decision or an action. Of his many logic twisters, Stanek may be his supreme achievement.

When I read this trilogy a second time, I came to the conclusion that it’s about people running away from themselves, hiding their true nature in false words and false gestures not just from others but from their own consciousnesses. In Audience there’s Vanek’s boss who philosophically believes in everyone helping each other, but then is unmasked as an opportunist working for the state surveillance. In Unveiling, a couple that has sold out to the party tries to tempt Vanek into becoming like them to assuage their guilt. Now in these two plays the characters unravel themselves, thy reach a point where their self-delusion breaks down and they come face to face with who they are. Stanek, however, is special in that he’s so good at manipulating language that he manages to give a convincing justification to avoid political activism, in a manner that portrays him as noble and Vanek as an uppity moral crusader. Stanek is an organism totally fit to survive in a totalitarian state: he’s wrapped himself so tightly in his own narrative of self-deception that it’s become reality for him.

The finale arrives like a punch in Vanek’s stomach that further illustrates how repressive regimes naturally encourage such intellectual perversions. Like I wrote in my review of Audience, Vanek is usually portrayed as a loser, as a good-intentioned man who never achieves, and this play gently mocks the usefulness of his activism. Vanek’s only success is remaining true to himself, which in an oppressive regime is no mean feat.

Protest is an excellent conclusion to the Vanek trilogy. Together, it’s one of the funniest and most powerful works I’ve ever read from the world of theatre, a sublime use of satire to address urgent themes like politics, morality, conformity, censorship and cowardice.