Thursday, 28 November 2013

José Saramago: The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis

By now everyone knows that I did not hold a José Saramago month this November. I hope I did not disappoint anyone. If we still had the honour of having him amongst the living, last November 16 he would have celebrated his 91st anniversary. I never planned to make last year’s event a habit, it just grew organically out of my interests at the time, something I thought about over a period of months. In a way, I never stop celebrating José Saramago, before November I had already read four books by him and written twice about them. As it often happens, I have more ideas for my blog than time to write about them (and the books related to said ideas), and thus, without any planning, this November I found myself occupied with a series of posts showcasing some 19th century Portuguese writers. Having completed that goal, however, I knew I could not let the month end without celebrating his memory. I always hoped I’d have time for a short tribute. As I slowly grow nearer the point where I have read his entire oeuvre, it becomes harder to continue writing about him. At first I wanted to write about Os Apontamentos, the collection of articles and editorials he wrote when he worked as a newspaper editor between 1972 and 1975. But when I actually read it I found it a monotonous stew of politics, propaganda and demagogy, and even I, so receptive to engaged writers, had trouble digesting it, and had no desire to inflict excerpts upon my readers. So I decided to re-read The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis.

I first read this novel almost ten years ago, maybe late 2004 or early 2005. I know this because Seeing had just come out. I had accompanied my mother to a medical appointment, and she left her things with me in the hallway, including this novel. Now several times before I had tried to read Saramago but always collided against his thick paragraphs, long sentences and unmarked dialogues. At the time I considered him unreadable. But when I opened the cover of Seeing and started reading the first lines everything fell into place at last, something clicked inside me, I saw the light, choose your metaphor. But I only had the time to read a few pages before my mother returned. For the first time, however, I thought I could read one of his novels, but I decided to start cautiously and choose one whose story and themes would interest me. So I read The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis, because of Fernando Pessoa and Ricardo Reis, poets I greatly admired. Looking back, I could have started with an easier book. I not only chose his longest novel but also one that, uncharacteristically, has almost no plot. In Saramago’s novels anything can happen, but in this one not a lot does.

True, the title already contains a remarkable premise. Published in 1984, the novel chronicles the last nine months in the life of Ricardo Reis, poet, doctor and monarchist who exiled himself in Brazil in 1919 in the wake of a botched counter-revolution that sought to reinstate the monarchy in Portugal. In December 1935, following the news of the death of poet Fernando Pessoa – Reis receives a terse telegram from poet Álvaro de Camps, his companion from the days of the seminal literary magazine Orpheu – Reis returns to Portugal to start a new life. This premise doesn’t sound remarkable unless the reader knows – and every Portuguese reader does – that Ricardo Reis existed only as a figment of Fernando Pessoa’s fanciful imagination, as one of the poetic personae he invented throughout his life, what he called a heteronym, not a mere pseudonym, but an autonomous conscience with a birthday, biography, astrological chart and even a poetic style. Pessoa made Reis a classicist poet with pagan beliefs, a fatalistic composer of odes. He wrote poems distinctively different than the ones by Pessoa-himself, and even prose. The simplest ideas astonish us, and now it seems incredible that before Saramago no one had the simple idea of turning one of the heteronyms into a fictional character. But this also poses a question about the novel’s reception by non-Portuguese readers: how many get the joke? And if they don’t get it, how does that change their perception of the novel?

Perhaps it doesn’t change much, at first. Once the early sense of wonder vanishes, Saramago doesn’t treat Reis differently than any other fictional character. His mission remains the same, to give content to the void, to imbue ideas with life, to shape Pessoa’s broad strokes – classicist, doctor, monarchist – into a fully functional personality capable of interacting with the world and getting involved in situations. But Reis’ presence brings into question the entire unreality of fictional writing, the reader in the know can only smile at the magic trick in front of him. The reader knows he doesn’t exist, that someone called Fernando Pessoa just made him up. Reis defies the reader’s natural predisposition to believe in the reality of the characters. A reader can believe in Anna Karenina or Hans Castorp, they come to us in a pure state, that is, they carry no association of ideas, whereas with Reis we know a magician is playing a magic trick in front of our eyes. Saramago, however, is just writing Reis the way he first encountered him. When he was a young man and discovered his poems in a public library, he actually thought he was a real person. The idea for this novel, then, can be traced back to his teenaged years. To emphasize Reis’ illusion he even has him reading a non-existing book, Herbert Quain’s The God of the Labyrinth, from Jorge Luis Borges’ short-story. And the narrator never ceases to bring attention to this trick. “I’m alive, he murmured, then out loud, sonorous, I’m alive, and since there was no one to disprove him, he believe it.” Indeed he only has the life Saramago gives him, he knows Pessoa didn’t give him a lot to work it. When Reis signs the register at a hotel the text tells us that “he picks up the pen, and writes in the register book, about himself, what is necessary for one to know who he is, on the ruled page, name Ricardo Reis, age forty-eight years, born in Porto, civil status single, profession doctor, lasts residence Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, whence he arrived, travelled via the Highland Brigade, it seems the beginning of a confession, of an intimate autobiography, everything that is hidden is contained in this single manuscript line, now the problem is finding out the rest, just that.” The rest becomes the bulk of the novel. Reis doesn’t have true memories. “He remembers having sat there in other times, so distant that he can doubt if he himself lived them.” The key word here is himself. Ricardo Reis is a figment of Pessoa’s mind, and now he’s a figment of Saramago’s, his memories exist only insofar as Saramago creates them. Let’s look at another scene: Reis is reading the news about Pessoa’s death. “This newspaper doesn’t say more, another says the same in a different way, Fernando Pessoa, the extraordinary poet of Message, a poem of nationalist exaltation, of the most beautiful things recently written, was buried yesterday, death surprised him on a Christian bed in the S. Luís Hospital, Saturday night, in poetry he wasn’t just himself, Fernando Pessoa, he was also Álvaro de Campos, and Alberto Caeiro, and Ricardo Reis, there it is, the mistake, the lack of attention, writing from hearsay, when we well know that Ricardo Reis is in fact this man who is reading the newspaper with his own open and living eyes, doctor, forty-eight years of age, one more than Fernando Pessoa’s age when his eyes were closed, those in fact dead (…)” Here’s the ultimate paradox, the incoherence at the heart of the novel’s reality: in this world it is public knowledge that Reis is one of his heteronyms, so how is it possible that he’s also an autonomous protagonist? As a paradox, it has no solution, the reader just has to accept it and move on.

Although the reader can doubt Reis’ existence, the world he moves in is very real. Saramago was fourteen in 1936 and used his memories of the time to recreate this fateful year. Furthermore he went to libraries to read newspapers and he filled a diary with dates, events, ads, trivia, etc. When Reis arrives in Portugal, after sixteen years in Brazil, a taxi driver tells him that he’s going to find “great changes around here, and with these words the driver suddenly shut up.” War vessels rest at Lisbon’s docks, expectant; there’s a feeling of melancholy and menace in the air. The narrator describes Lisbon in dark tones, a rainy, still, sad-looking place, dying, if not dead already, without knowing it, thinking itself alive thanks to vigorous fascist propaganda that paints a country headed towards a new era of glory. The taxi driver leaves him close to the hotel, he goes in to book a room, “then he imagined himself returning from the hotel, with a room or still without it, and the taxi nowhere, gone with the luggage, the clothing, the everyday objects, his papers, and asked himself how would he live if he were deprived of these and all his other goods.” Like in so many instances in the novel, the line is blurred regarding which thoughts belong to Reis and which ones are narratorial intrusions, this after all can be read as an ironic jab at the dictatorship’s economic policy that subjected most of the population to poverty, and also the power the state has to deprive a man of freedom. What Reis is merely imagining is what thousands of political prisoners actually experienced. Later in the novel, he’ll be watched by the police. Once Reis books a room at the Hotel Bragança, what happens? Not much. He starts a sexual relationship with a hotel maid, Lídia, and a platonic one with Marcenda, a middle-class woman with a paralyzed hand. He reads newspapers, watches the Carnival, goes to Fatima, reads a rubbish novel called Conspiração – recommended by Marcenda’s father, Doctor Sampaio – that extols the dictatorship’s patriotic policies, and towards the end of the novel he attends a fascist rally, not because he supports it, but because he wants to understand why people go. “Interesting changes” happen to Reis towards the end, the narrator states, ironic. Reis doesn’t change at all. He also happens to meet and chat with Fernando Pessoa from time to time, who continues to live nine months after his death, for the nine months he spent in the womb. They discuss politics, women, books, life and death, but it all seems trivial, with a wink at the reader, nothing taken too seriously. Reis himself is a very frivolous character, although a poet and a doctor, an educated man, his thoughts are average, almost superficial and banal. He’s an observer, not a thinker, and his observations don’t stimulate him to great actions or decisions, he’s a walking hesitation, a conformist. His biggest change in the novel is to move from Hotel Bragança to a rented house, and even that decision is motivated by the fact that the hotel staff starts giving him sideway glances after the police calls him in for questioning, and also to have more privacy to see Lídia, who sacrifices her free time to become his housemaid. The narrator does not abstain from criticising Reis for this inactivity. “Therefore let us not ask the poet what he thought or felt, it was precisely not to have to say it that he makes verses.” This is harsh, but not undeserved.

The crappy novel Reis reads, with the exact cover described in it
Of the novel’s three epigraphs, two of them, one by Reis, another by Bernardo Soares, restate the idea of not acting. Soares says that finding “ways of not acting” were his life’s purpose. And Reis defends that wise “is the man who satisfies himself with the world’s spectacle,” a verse from one of his odes. He’s a man preoccupied with not being bothered by things too much. In 1919 he leaves Portugal because of a failed monarchic revolution in Porto. In 1935 he leaves Brazil also because of a revolution (his life seems eerily similar to poet Jorge de Sena’s itinerary). When he arrives he finds a euphoric population, strangely hopeful, celebrating the dictatorship’s tenth anniversary. It wasn’t just the official propaganda that projected a construct of a happy country, the nation did support the dictatorship, and the reasons can be better explained in Vasco Pulido Valente’s excellent history books. To keep a long story short, in 1911 republicans overthrew the monarchy and created a republic regime, but they never got full support from the population and their power was restricted mainly to Lisbon: although democratic in appearances, the first republic was itself a dictatorship that persecuted Catholics, anarchists, socialists, unionists, workers and anyone who opposed the republican party, filled prisons with thousands of political prisoners, and used state terrorism to further its goals; it never managed to create a stable regime and governments seldom lasted, so when the military dictatorship overthrew the first republic in 1926, people didn’t miss it – for them it was the promise of a new beginning, a stable, orderly, safe Portugal. Considering that just a few years before one was likely to die from a terrorist bomb or a shot in the middle of the night, this was a step up. Although the first republic has been enshrined in modern times, few acknowledge that it was but a preview of the Estado Novo. Fernando Pessoa, as we should all know by now, was one of those who initially welcome the new military regime. Pessoa himself was a conservative liberal in the classic tradition who didn’t dabble in politics, a neutral personality that transpires into most famous heteronyms: Alberto Caeiro is a poet who just observes Nature without drawing metaphysical illations from it, and we know already what Soares and Reis thought.

Although we’re led to believe that Ricardo Reis is the protagonist, I think the title is misleading at the same time it’s honest. The year of the death of Ricardo Reis. 1936. As I re-read the novel it became so clear to me that it is as much about him as it is about this fateful year. Fascism is rearing its ugly head all over Europe: Portugal is already ruled by Salazar; Spain is on the brink of a civil war that sends waves of Spanish refugees into Portugal; Italy is waging a war against Ethiopia; and Hitler is putting the finishing touches on his war of world domination. Ricardo Reis is always reading the newspapers – a leitmotif – which inform him of the world’s many horrors. Still he barely has a formed opinion about most events. Lídia, and her brother, a communist sailor, is more outspoken than him acts as moral counterweight to Reis’ passivity. Although he’s absent from the action, Lídia’s brother informs part of the narrative, for being a communist he becomes the one who supplies her with facts and news that she discusses with Reis, a counter-voice to the official propaganda. He’s also one of the sailors who takes part in the sailors’ September 8 Rebellion, an actual event in which two war ships tried to leave Lisbon’s harbour and give the government an ultimatum, only to be caught by fire from land batteries. So Saramago deploys Reis in this world falling apart. Faced with all this horror, Saramago seems to be asking, how can you remain neutral, my dear Reis, indifferent? What will you do? Reis’ final decision is anti-climatic but wholly in line with his personality.

Although a lot is praised and criticised about Saramago’s run-on sentences, long paragraphs and unmarked dialogue, I think few appreciate what makes his prose so exuberant, it’s not facile things like long sentences and unmarked dialogue, it’s the total concession he makes to prose freedom, nothing is too bizarre for him to write, no digression is impossible, there’s nothing the narrator can’t say or think or show. Saramago writes as if there were no rules, and indeed he proves there aren’t, language is a tool to serve the writer, to go where he wants, not to impose him rigid forms. I’m sure I wrote it once, if I didn’t I’ve thought it often, that the best character in Saramago’s novels is the omniscient narrator. There’s hardly any plot, like I said, but since we’re in the company of a master storyteller it doesn’t matter, he can enlarge the most mundane of situations. Let’s just consider this passage where Reis thinks about his unborn son:

He remembers Lídia is pregnant, with a boy, according to her every time she says it, and that boy will be born and will go to the wars being prepared, it’s still too soon for the ones of today, but others are being prepared, I repeat, there’s always an after for the next war, let’s do the math, he’ll come into this world around March next year, if we give him the approximate age one tends to go to war, twenty-three, twenty-four years, what war will we have in one thousand nine hundred and sixty one, and where, and why, in what abandoned plains, with the eyes of imagination, but not his, Ricardo Reis sees him riddled with bullets, brunet and pale like his father, son only of his mother because his father won’t claim him.

In 1961 Portugal started the infamous Colonial Wars to block its African colonies’ processes of independence. The narrator makes a long leap in years here to comment on events that haven’t happened in the novel yet, I don’t know another novelist who’d have the courage, perhaps that’s the wrong word, the poor taste to break verisimilitude like this, because in the end what Saramago does is writing like a man of poor taste, a man ignorant of all the refined rules the realist novel enshrined during the 19th century and which so many continue to idolize. With the eyes of imagination, but not Ricardo Reis’, this is the core of José Saramago’s novelistic style, above and behind the characters a greater imagination looms, far freer than them. This presence exists in all novels, even in the ones that strive for realism or use first-person subjective narrators, he just has the dignity of being more honest than the others.

This review was written for the 2013 European Challenge.

Wednesday, 27 November 2013

In those times the fever of navigation burned in us like a chronic disease: Portuguese history with Oliveira Martins

If Alexandre Herculano was Portugal’s first great historian of the 19th century, Oliveira Martins (1845-1894) was its last great one. Inseparable from the Generation of ’70, the name given to the young group of artists and intellectuals who emerged around the 1870s, he befriended and maintained lasting relationships with several of its members: for instance, he wrote the preface for Antero de Quental’s sonnets, and in Eça de Queiroz’s The Correspondence of Fradique Mendes he even exchanges letters with the titular hero. An unsuccessful novelist himself, after debuting with a now forgotten novel, Febo Moniz (1867), Oliveira Martins made a name for himself in the social sciences, writing about topics as diverse as economics, socialism, biography, colonialism and anthropology. But nothing earned him the reputation he maintains till today like the history books he wrote. In 1879 he published two history books that made him famous: História da Civilização Ibérica and História de Portugal, the former about the history of the Iberian Peninsula, the latter about Portuguese history. In 1880Portugal Contemporâneo came out, picking up where the previous book had stopped. On top of that he also turned his attention to England, the Roman Empire, Hellenism, Christianity and literary criticism. In his indispensable book on Portugal, Miguel de Unamuno writes extraordinary panegyrics to Oliveira Martins; he goes further than his countryman Menéndez y Pelayo, who “said that he was the most artistic historian that the Peninsula had in the last century; for me, I think he was its only historian-artist.”

   The most artistic and most penetrating. His fancy reached depths never reached by the tiresome and tired science of others. His História da Civilização Ibérica should be a compendium for every learned Spaniard and Portuguese; and there shouldn’t be any American, of those who from time to time search in our history and caste the forebears of theirs, who did not know this admirable book.
   Instead of repeating, once again, clichés about what was the Spanish soul at the time of the discoveries and the conquest of America, it would be good if they went to find rich suggestions in books such as Oliveira Martins’.
   In his brief pages we find more doctrine, more sociology and more psychology than in many volumes over-stuffed with information.

Prior to discovering Unamuno’s book, a rich source that has guided my readings for a couple of months now, I had never read Oliveira Martins, but I could tell that a writer so robustly recommended deserved more attention. Finding his books nowadays requires time and patience, because as it tends to happen with historians, they get supplanted by new ones, and I uncharacteristically had to resort to second-hand books. How many 17th French historians are still read, or 18th century English ones? In his time, Jorge Luis Borges could still heartily recommend Edward Gibbon, but mainly for aesthetic reasons, or pleasure, no longer as history, not because Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire is better than any history of Rome from the last fifty years, although as far as I’m concerned it may still be. One of the books that most piqued my curiosity was Oliveira Martins’ two-volume Portugal nos Mares (1889), about the role of the sea, the navy and the maritime discoveries in Portugal’s history. Now, there have certainly been better, up to date books since its publication, notably Jaime Cortesão’s thorough and seminal three-volume history of the Portuguese discoveries. Furthermore, we’re soaked in this stuff from primary school on. Nevertheless, Oliveira Martins, with his wealth of detail and colourfulness, gives volume and contour to the school lessons that often are nothing more than the superficial ticking off of dates disjointed facts. Furthermore, Oliveira Martins wrote in that inimitable 19th century style that made pages beam with verve; Borges was correct, there are always aesthetic reasons. Alas, my edition is not the one I preferred but an abridged version, but for our intentions it will suffice.

The book, even in its abridged version, is filled to the brim with wonderfully useless knowledge. We learn, for instance, that a 17th century ship bound to India, if we’re talking about one with a tonnage of 550 tons, was manned by a crew composed of no less than 123 crewmen, plus 250 soldiers. It enumerates different models of ships, and even the types of weapons a ship carried with it, and the quantity, the terms are so many and so singular I fail to even find translations for them. Battle tactics are also not overlooked and Oliveira Martins gives a vivid description of just what happened when two enemy crews came face to face in the middle of the sea. How he knows, I have no idea, but he’s persuasive and aesthetic enough for me. This is the sort of book authors of history novels pillage to pepper their books with convincing details. Naval laws, how much ships cost to build, how much they carried, what kind of taxes, fees and tariffs they paid, the legally murky matter of corsairs (in the early times of seafaring, it was normal for nations to grant corsairs permissions to attack allied vessels, and everyone was alright with that because no legislation regarding the sea existed yet, it was a no man’s land, open to everyone), the influence the legend of Prester John exerted on the Portuguese discoveries (a king financed ships with the intention of discovering this fabled Christian kingdom, reputed to exist somewhere in Africa), this and much more receives considerable attention in the book. Sometimes he even turns to historical documents for a glimpse of the psychology (or apparent lack of) of the 16th century sailor. Here’s an excerpt from the account of a Dutch seaman who travelled with Vasco da Gama on his second voyage to Calcutta. We’ll skip right to the end, where they’re coming back to Portugal and meet some difficulties:

   On July 14 we started having a shortage of bread and victuals, and we were still 1780 miles away from Lisbon.
   On July 30 we found an island where we killed more than 300 men, capturing a large number. We collected water there and we sailed on the first of August.
   On 13 August we sighted the North Star again and we were still 600 miles away from Portugal.
   In the year of 1502 the infidels lost 180 ships; and if these hadn’t been lost things would have gone bad to us, because they were enemies.
   And thus we returned safe and sound to Portugal.


And praised be the Lord for islands.

For reasons of brevity I’ll have to narrow down the book to three topics: the rise and fall of Portuguese seafaring, the figure of the Infante D. Henrique, and Fernão Magalhães’ journey. Also, lots of history will have to be left out, but there’s always Wikipedia.

In summarizing the history of Portuguese seafaring, Oliveira Martins is also sketching what he calls the Portuguese people’s collaboration in the “work of modern civilization,” which to him emanates from the single-minded drive and actions of one man: the Infante D. Henrique (1394-1460), son of a king but never king himself. The author tells us that Portugal’s most glorious era emerged from the Infante D. Henrique’s triumph in an ideological battle with his royal brother, D. Pedro (1392-1449): the latter fostered the policies of his forebears – increasing the population, creating an economy based on agriculture and fishing, protecting the borders from Spain; the former, a visionary ahead of his time, believed in maritime expansion, “crazed by the sea, burning in his head, with obscure legends of medieval geography, the heroic ambitions of learning, of empire and of power characteristic of the Renaissance.” With time, the Infante D. Henrique’s vision overwhelmed his brother’s temerity and isolationism and Portugal’s destiny became inextricably linked to the sea, for better and for worse. For a while, though it seemed only for the better. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

“Portuguese navy is born with national independence,” states the author. The conquest of Portugal started from north to south, for we mustn’t forget that our first king, D. Afonso Henriques (1109-1185), was a descendant of nobility from the Kingdom of León. As his armies claimed land from the Moors, Christian harbours became vulnerable to the Muslim pirates who infested the waters from the North Sea to the Mediterranean. BY sheer luck, at the time Crusaders were going to Syria via the peninsula, and Lisbon was the ideal port to stop to refresh; so King Afonso Henriques allied himself with them to conquer the city. The battles for the control of the coast raged on for decades, until everything down to Algarve was under Portuguese rule. Already during the reign of the second king, D. Sancho I (1154-1212), the monarch contracted the services of a Genovese admiral to teach the arts of ship-building and cartography; at the time, the Genovese enjoyed the greatest of reputations as sailors. Thus began the Portuguese navy, created to defend merchant ships and whale fishing along the coast. So important did Lisbon’s importance as a port grow, that by the time of D. Fernando (1345-1383), the city was one of Europe’s main hubs of maritime commerce: Oliveira Martins cites accounts of the time in stating that at any give time, there could 400 to 500 ships just in Lisbon; and 100 or 150 more in the ports of Sacavém and Montijo. Those were small ships, with an average tonnage of 100 tons, and he estimates that Lisbon’s annual maritime movement was around 250 to 300 thousand tons. Lisbon was also already a cosmopolitan city then, open to people from Genoa, Lombardy, Morocco, Aragon, Milan, Corsica and Galician. Oliveira Martins attributes to D. Fernando important measures to foster the development of the navy: he stimulated the sale of new goods, acted as a bank giving out loans to merchants who wanted to prepare ships, insured them against losses, and created benefits and perks for seamen, for instance exemption from army service for those who joined a crew. Oliveira Martins informs us that these protectionist measures, much frowned upon at the time of his writing, so averse to the laissez-faire worldview, were nevertheless the same policies that every nation after the monarch implemented to create powerful navies with imperial ambitions, namely France, Holland, England and the USA.

However, there is a huge difference between having a navy and using it to discover the world. The rise of Portugal as a maritime power happens because of the vision and determination of the Infante D. Henrique, who in 1418 set up a navy school in Sagres to study new charts, astronomy, mathematics, maps and to train seamen. Better than anyone else, he intuited the potential of the discoveries. Impelled by his vision, the Portuguese begin the Era of Discoveries. Thanks to expeditions and voyages promoted by him, the archipelagos of Madeira and the Azores were discovered. Next the Portuguese started exploring the African coast, discovering Gambia and Cape Verde. In 1434, Gil Eanes navigated past the Cape Bojador, a point on the African coast that up until then had been considered impassable. By the time of the Infante’s death, in 1460, the African coast had been explored all the way down to Sierra Leone. In 1488 Bartolomeu Dias traversed the Cape of Good Hope (in what is currently Cape Town, South Africa; the cape received that name from King D. João II, before it was known as the Cape of Storms), proving the connection between the Atlantic and Indic Oceans, and opening the sea route to the fabled Indies, where Vasco da Gama arrived in 1498.

Before the Portuguese, seafaring in Europe was mainly restricted to the Mediterranean and along the coastlines, venturing into the ocean was folly and certain death. For that new type of voyage a new type of ship was necessary, and the Portuguese invented it: the caravela, or caravel. “A ship was needed that was like the Arabs’ horse, lively, quick, intelligent, docile and sober,” explains Oliveira Martins. Two caravels sailed with Columbus on his voyage through the Atlantic. We all know the story of what happened next, of how he discovered the Americas thinking he had discovered the westward route to the Indies. What is less known is what nearly happened to him when he returned to Europe. On his return trip, he didn’t go straight to Spain, instead he stopped in Lisbon, in the Year of our Lord 1493. King D. João II (1455-1495), who had continued the maritime explorations after the Infante, his great-uncle, wasn’t happy to know that a Genovese sailor had just claimed for Spain new lands. Our chronicles tell us that the king’s advisers told him to kill Columbus so news wouldn’t reach Spain. Apparently he was a rowdy, discourteous fellow and it would be easy to make it look like he had brought death upon himself. The king did not pay heed to them, and there’s an alternative history book here somewhere. By the way, did you know about the modern theory that Columbus was in fact Portuguese? In recent years, several Portuguese books have defended this claim. It would be cool it it were true, we’d have a hat trick then, three out of three: Vasco da Gama, Fernão Magalhães and Columbus, such a lovely pattern, but history doesn’t care about aesthetics.

With the discovery of the route to India and the commerce of spices and other exotic goods, Portugal became richer than it ever was and the discoveries gave way to imperial ambitions, discovered lands became occupied lands, and the first Portuguese colonies date from this period. Fleets were sent to conquer native harbours and to impose colonial administration, agents of the crown became renowned for their military prowess and ferocity, like Afonso de Albuquerque (1453-1515), who conquered Goa, Malacca and almost single-handedly created the Portuguese empire in Asia, where the Portuguese ruled only briefly, for they were never strong enough to defend its territories from local forces and the new emerging European empires. When the Oriental dream ended, Portugal turned to Brazil, with its gold and diamonds, and when that too ended, Portugal focused on its remaining African colonies, which gained vital importance for the nation in the final decades of the 19th century, and Salazar in the 20th century still tenaciously tried to retain them, fighting bloody wars for them during the 1960s and 1970s, until they too were gone after 1974. As the empire crumbled, Lisbon’s importance dwindled from centre of the world to mere port of call, where ships stopped for reloading and tourists for refreshing. At the time Oliveira Martins wrote the book, the situation was grim: in1878 Portugal was almost at the bottom of the world list in terms of tonnage carried by its navy, a humiliating position for the nation that had “given the world to the world,” as we like to say in our nostalgia for the empire. Oliveira Martins identifies one of the country’s reasons for such a poor rating with its inability to make the leap from sail boats to steam-powered ships. In the past, Lisbon’s dry docks had been the most famous of Europe, and nations had their ships and fleets built in them. But as often happens with us, we failed to innovate and allowed new technologies to leaves us behind. Oliveira Martins also attributes the decline to the loss of sovereignty to Spain in 1580 and the depletion of resources in the several Anglo-Spanish Wars of the 16th and 17th centuries, as well as damaging commercial treaties signed with England after it regained its independence. Apropos of the Anglo-Spanish War, the infamous Invincible Armada was built in Lisbon’s dry docks, and the fleet itself sailed from the Tejo river. This I had not learned at school. Oliveira Martins also enumerates the types and number of ships and soldiers, and even lists their nationalities. Many Portuguese sailors were part of the crews, and it’s also speculated that the failure of the armada was due to the mutual hatred nurtured by Portuguese and Spanish crewmen. I should hope so.

In the end, India and the discoveries were Portugal’s ruination. They created Portugal’s first sovereign debt – D. Sebastião (1554-1578) had to default, the first of many times Portugal declared bankruptcy – and the monarchy had to contract the first foreign loans to finance the voyages, plus the widespread dream of making quick money interrupted the normal development of society as thousands left for the Indies with schemes of making their fortunes there. The country was neglected, its interior depopulated, everything was put into the service of the discoveries and the voyages that brought rich spices and indeed made a few rich, but hardly any of those fortunes were channelled into important infrastructures or innovations to develop the nation. It created only an indolent moneyed class that imported all essential goods from Europe.

Finally we reach to my favourite essay in the book, concerning the life and famous voyage of Fernão Magalhães, better known to the world as Ferdinand Magellan. “Colombus, Vasco da Gama and Magalhães are the three eminent names of the history of navigation. The discovery of America, the maritime way to India, and the passage of the Atlantic to the Pacific, cataloguing in its trip around the globe the world’s seas – those are the three famous moments that close the truly epic cycle of human daring and curiosity.” Sure, Oliveira Martins had a soft spot for him, but things were not always peachy for Magalhães. He tells us that the populace “stoned the nephews of the renegade, chasing them to the point of having to move to Maranhão, at the time still deserted, returning later to Jafe, but hiding the last name, which the heirs only retook towards the end of the 18th century.” Magalhães was considered a traitor, a Portuguese who had sold himself to the odious Spanish crown, and rivalry between the two Iberian nations was at an all-time high then, with each country claiming half the world to explore. The Treaty of Tordesillas had given one hemisphere to the Portuguese to explore, and the Spaniards had received another. At the time of his great voyage, Magalhães believed that the Moluccas (current Indonesia and known at the time also as the Spice Isles, valuable beyond measure) could be arrived sailing westward. The Portuguese had already discovered it circa 1512 going through the Indic, and it was believed to be located within their hemisphere. But Magalhães, like Colombus, believed he could reach India via the Atlantic, and he also thought the island was located in the Spanish hemisphere. Therefore Oliveira Martins gives sounds reasons that his motivation to work for Spain was not treason so much as a clear understanding of politics of the time: if the Moluccas were under Spanish territory, only a Spanish-sponsored expedition could undertake the journey.

Fernão Magalhães was born in 1480. At the age of 25 he sailed to India, a soldier and adventurer; in 1508, back in Lisbon, he enlisted once more to India. In 1511 he was under Afonso de Albuquerque’s command in the conquest of Malacca. In 1512 his services had achieved him a place in the Court, where he set about studying charts and developing his theory of a westward path to the Moluccas. According to Oliveira Martins, he “wasn’t born to be a courtier” and after a new campaign in the siege of Azamor, he returned again to Portugal to meet the Court’s indifference; “one can’t say hostility, because the renown of the soldier was not such as to provoke jealousy.” According to what is know (in 1889), he left Portugal because he had been denied a pay-rise. Although spite was the reason he abandoned Portugal, political prowess was his motive to go to Spain; he believed he could reach the Moluccas by crossing the Atlantic, and only the Spanish crown could finance that enterprise. In October of 1517 he arrived in Seville. “This is the moment when his enterprise begins – to end with his death, like Alexander’s,” the author says.

Before Magalhães attempts had been made to find this elusive westward passage, but searches had never located any river that led to the yet-unnamed ocean behind America. Since Cortez and Pizarro it was known that this ocean existed but no one knew how to get a ship in its waters, not just because of the Andes, a “wall against the sea” but because “the great American rivers,” with the exception of Oregon, all of them run towards in the Atlantic. Is this really true? Magalhães’ arrival in Seville coincided with the rise of King Charles I. While reading this book one notices how so often the discoveries were the result of stubborn and resolute men who defended their visions and paid no heed to nay-sayers. . Charles I, the Infante Dom Henrique, Columbus, Magalhães, all seem men possessed by visions, by a truth beyond tangible grasp, almost like mystics. What made them so certain? Who knows, but o how they achieved results!

With a contract signed in 1518, Magalhães set about making preparations. In Portugal, meanwhile, King D. Manuel was being advised to assassinate the wayward countryman. “This opinion, against which we should not feel indignant in the slightest, was perhaps the most reasonable for the time. Let us not a rack or a dolt out of the bishop. Murder was common in those italianized courts; and the chronicles speak of the political murders by D. João II and by D. João III.” Yeah, we’ve noticed. This was another assassination that did not happen and Magalhães lived to set out with five ships. His crew was composed of Spaniards, foreigners, like the Italian Antonio Pigafetta, who bequeathed to posterity a diary of the journey, a Genovese sailor who wrote an account too, and also Portuguese sailors. “In those times the fever of navigation burned in us like a chronic disease. Travelling, discovering, conquering, pirating, was the passion of a century for the Portuguese’s children.”

From the start the voyage saw conflicts between the Portuguese and the Spaniards, and a mutiny soon ensued from the Spaniards’ side. After a man called Cartagena was arrested for insubordination, a friend called Quesada released and they took three of the five ships – San Antonio, Concepcion, Victoria – and attacked Trinidad and Santiago. A naval battle followed, with Magellan triumphant and in control of the five ships once more. Culprits were decapitated and quartered, others were abandoned on the shore, the captain showed no mercy. Not long after, Santiago sank during a reconnoitring mission, the crew escaped unharmed. Magalhães decided to winter in the South American coast. Citing Pigafetta’s diary, Oliveira Martins explains that one day they saw a native who was so tall they called him a giant, or a patagón, big foot, hence the name Patagonia. “Indeed, the first relations of the crew with the natives were peaceful, becoming only ferocious, as always, the moment Magalhães arrested a pair of Patagonians aboard to take them to the Spanish king.” Oh don’t worry, it’s going to get worse.

Around October 1518 food was running low and the ships were in poor conditions, so the crew debated returning to Spain. Magalhães refused, hell-bent on fulfilling his vision. Treason set in once more, this time a Portuguese first mate called Gomes took hold of the Santo Antonio and fled back to Spain. Magalhães persisted with his three remaining ships. Finding a strait they went through it, in the meanwhile christening the land around them as Tierra del Fuego, and on September 27 they arrived on the other side, at last they were in the Pacific, thus named because of its calm waters. Victoria was the first ship to sail in its waters. “Having reached the Pacific, Magalhães only had to die in the enterprise, to satisfy, like Alexander or Albuquerque, the demands of aesthetics; without which there are no heroes. Vasco da Gama lived too much.”

Ultimately greed, arrogance and warmongering killed Fernão Magalhães. Not satisfied with finding the strait, he sailed on westwards, insisting in reaching the Moluccas. Along the way he ransacked and attacked small native kingdoms, demanding vassalage to the King of Spain. One day, with fifty men, he tried to do the same to one such kingdom and found himself facing a small army composed of three to four thousand men on the marshes as they tried to disembark. The natives never gave them a chance to reach the shore, as arrows were fired at them; the armours they used resisted but the natives realized their legs were vulnerable and an arrow lodged itself in Magalhães’ leg, and soon he was overwhelmed by enemies as his men run back to the ships. Thus died the Alexander of the Seas, or whatever. With hardly any men left to navigate three boats, they burned down Concepcion and continued their journey westward, finally reaching the Moluccas on November 6, 1521. On 6 September 1522 Victorian arrived in Spain again. Poor Magalhães never reached the Moluccas, and ironically the Treaty of Saragoza later allowed Portugal to retain them: since astronomers and mathematicians couldn’t determine if the islands were in the Portuguese or Spanish hemisphere, the Spaniards just allowed them to keep it in return for a payment.

Oliveira Martins’ book is a fascinating, informative, often entertaining read. The only caveat is that one needs to make allowances, many allowances. One should never forget that he writes from the perspective of a European who had no doubts the European empires were destined to rule the world forever.

“This persistence, gentlemen, this tenacity of a nation in the concretization of its destiny, is our greatest title of glory. The Portuguese strength presents itself to us with the character of an element. And if to this constancy civilization owes the discovery of a world, politics owes the Portuguese genius the types of institutions on which, for colonial exploration, one can say lies, for three centuries now, the whole richness of Europe.” Words uttered in Madrid in 1891. I can just imagine his heart breaking if he were alive today and saw the Columbus centennial anniversaries being charged with celebrating a racist, genocidal slaver. He lists several of those noble institutions, to wit, penal colonies, colonial administration, the use of exiled criminals to populate colonies, commercial companies, the reinstatement of slavery, the creation of the first native protectorates. Just imagine someone defending this today. Interestingly, one of the institutions practiced by the Portuguese he admires was the miscegenation of species, that is, promoting the marriage of Europeans with natives to ground them in the colonies, and in no other place do we see this ethnic diversity more clearly than in the Brazilian people. I guess we were less racist than the British, there’s always that in our favour.

And so ends my series of posts on 19th century Portuguese writers. Before the month is over, there will still be José Saramago, because it is November after all.

Saturday, 23 November 2013

Almeida Garrett and Alexandre Herculano

In Miguel de Unamuno’s book on Portugal, the Spanish author mentions but never elaborates on the lives and works of two important writers: Alexandre Herculano (1810-1877) and Almeida Garret (1799-1854). So far this month we’ve met writers who left their marks on the second half of the 19th century. With these two authors, however, we look back at the birth of modern Portuguese literature, particularly of prose narrative. 

Garrett and Herculano, in the background
A notable Portuguese historian, Vasco Pulido Valente (b. 1941), on contrasting this generation of writers with the proceeding one, the famous Generation of ’70 which birthed Eça de Queiroz, Antero de Quental, Ramalho Ortigão and Oliveira Martins, defined their chief difference as one of hope in politics: Eça’s generation had nothing but disdain for it, doubted its usefulness and, save for Oliveira Martins, generally abstained from it, save for one or another inconsequential public office (Eça represented Portugal as consul in England and France, far from the real policy-making centres). This generation had matured at the hour of the empire’s long twilight, disillusioned with a backward nation that more and more lagged behind in Europe’s march of progress, and for them nothing but art (and science for Oliveira Martins) could rejuvenate the country. No wonder they all came to no good: suicide, bitterness, nationalism, isolation, and marriage…

Not so with Herculano and Garrett. Neither man shied away from playing active roles in the great questions of their time. A liberal and a defender of a constitutional monarchy, Garrett participated in the 1820 liberal revolution that instated the first Constitutional government in Portugal. In 1823, with the military coup orchestrated by D. Miguel (1802-1866), who wanted to restore an absolutist monarchy, Garret fled to England and then to France. Herculano, also enamoured with liberal ideals, took part in the 1831 botched rebellion against D. Miguel’s dictatorship and he too escaped to England and France. In 1932 both returned to Portugal as soldiers enlisted in the army of D. Pedro IV (1798-1834), younger brother of D. Miguel, and fought in what our history calls the Liberal Wars, that ended in 1834 with the coronation of D. Pedro as the ruler of a constitutional monarchy (he would did just months after victory, of tuberculosis). As men who had seen the end of absolutism, they had good reasons to be optimistic and to take active roles in their country’s public life, so much so that both were even elected as deputies. According to Vasco Pulido Valente, in his time, Garrett’s peers admired him more for his oratorical skills than for his fiction, which they deemed a gentleman’s hobby, and Herculano as a historian, for introducing modern historiography in Portugal and for bringing scientific rigor to the writing of history, radical theories for the time that earned him the ire of conservative factions, particularly the clergy. Tireless, they held a multitude of jobs and activities in their lives. Almeida Garret was also poet, playwright, editor, novelist and journalist; Herculano idem, plus librarian.

Of course today we mainly remember them for their literature (although Herculano’s reputation as a great historian has not eroded). In their exiles in England and France, and in other travels, both men discovered such writers as Victor Hugo, William Shakespeare, Walter Scott, Goethe and Schiller, they drank heavily from Romanticism’s cup and both share the credit for introducing Romantic literature in Portugal, in the landmark year of 1844. The year before, Garrett had written the tragic play Frei Luís de Sousa and privately staged it for a select group of friends, Herculano included. The following year he published his play, while at the same time Herculano published a historical novel called Eurico, o Presbítero. As a corollary of their Romantic facets, they also caught the fever of fairy-tales, folk tales, legends and fables that swept over Europe at the time, and in the manner of the Brothers Grimm set about compiling Portuguese folktales: Herculano edited Lendas e narrativas (1851), Garrett Romanceiro e Cancioneiro Geral (1843). As Romantics, they also took an interest in the past and history. Herculano is not just the father of the Portuguese novel (O Bobo, from 1843), but also the father of its historical novel, in the moulds of Walter Scott. Both Eurico, o Presbítero and Frei Luís de Sousa take history as their starting point. Garrett’s play goes back to the 16th century, to the catastrophic Battle of Ksar El Kebir, where King D. Sebastião died, causing a crisis of heirs and the nation’s loss of sovereignty to Spain; in the play, a noblewoman worries over the return of her husband, who disappeared in the battle; she’s remarried on the assumption that he died, but since no body was found, she lives in dread that he’ll come back. And return he does, disguised as a pilgrim, much like Odysseus on his return to Ithaca. Herculano’s novel goes further back in time, before even Portugal is a nation: 711 CE, the Arab invasion of the Iberian Peninsula. One book is set in the decline of the empire, the other in its inception. I will not however linger over Garrett’s play, another book by him will keep us occupied. But first some words on Eurico, o Presbítero.

Alexandre Herculano
“Chronicle-poem, legend or whatever it may be,” Herculano called it, not quite knowing what it was, a new thing in Portuguese letters anyway. The novel, by the way, comes with his own notes, insightful and displaying his vast historical knowledge. In them he explains that he wanted to write about “a time in transition – the death of the Gothic Empire and the birth of the modern societies of the Peninsula.” The novel starts with a description Visigoth society, which occupied the peninsula between the fall of the Roman Empire and the Arab invasion. The tone is elegiac since it’s also describing the end of a civilization, although he also argues that the ‘moral strength of the nation’ had disappeared by the time the Arabs invaded, no doubt using this decline as an analogy for Portugal at his time, still running on the past glories that ended at Ksar El Kebir, which runs against José Saramago’s interpretation of his novels.

The protagonist is Eurico, an officer in the Visigoth army, brave, fearless, and enamoured with Hermengarda, daughter of the Duke of Cantabria, who sneers at a suitor from humble origins for his daughter. Heartbroken, Eurico becomes a presbyter and travels to Carteia, near Gibraltar, where he lives in solitary wilderness seeking communion with God. His sensibility and eccentricity mystifies people around him, who conjure legends about him:  

Each one waved his novel aided by the beliefs of superstition: criminal arts, dealings with an evil spirit, penitence for an abominable past life, and, even, madness, everything was used to explain the presbyter’s mysterious ways. The rude people of Carteia couldn’t understand this life of exception, because they didn’t understand that the poet’s intelligence needs to live in a vaster world than that on which society has crossed such petty limits.

Alexandre Herculano, it should be noted, as he became more and more disillusioned with public life, turned into a notable reclusive. Miguel de Unamuno’s one reference to him is saying that he “committed suicide by isolation – like monks.” Then rumours of overseas threats start reaching the Visigoths:

Incredible things are told about those people who assail Africa, called Arabs, and who, in the name of a new creed, intend to erase the vestiges of the Cross in the world. Who knows if to the Arabs was entrusted the punishment of this corrupt nation?

With the arrival of the Arabs, Herculano gives us several set pieces, like the Battle of Guadalete, where the invaders achieved a decisive victory in the peninsula and marked the fall of the Visigoth Empire, and later the Battle of Covadonga, the turning point in the resistance. Between these two events, Herculano parades a cast of characters, both fictional and historical, like Tariq ibn Ziyad, the Muslim general who lead the invasion between 711 and 718, Roderick, the fallen Visigoth King, Oppas the Bishop of Seville, whom the author portrays as a traitor on the side of the Arabs, and Pelagius of Asturias, brother of Hermengarda, and legendary founder of the Kingdom of Asturias, where the first armed opposition to the invasion started. The founding of the Kingdom of Asturias, of course, also marks the beginning of Portugal, first centuries later with the independence of the Kingdom of León, from whose nobility descended the first king of Portugal, D. Afonso Henriques (1109-1185), who devoted half his life to conquering land from the Moors for his newly-founded kingdom.

Between the two great battles, we follow the lives of Eurico, Hermengarda and Pelagius. Hermengarda has become a nun, and there’s a vivid description of a mass suicide of nuns to avoid capture. Alas, Hermengarda is stopped before she stabs herself and is sent as a present to the Emir as a sex slave. Meanwhile, Eurico, on knowing of the invasion, picks up his weapons again and rides to war under the identity of the fearful Dark Knight, who wreaks heavy losses on the enemy and inspires his countrymen to fight the oppressor. Learning that Hermengarda is a prisoner, he invades the Arab camp, rescues her from the Emir, and restores her to Pelagius, leader of a ragtag band of soldiers. The novel ends with the Dark Knight revealing his identity to Hermengarda and bidding her farewell before riding off to fight at the Battle of Covadonga, his fate left unexplained.

Eurico, o Presbítero is not a novel I particularly enjoy for reasons of style, since I find Herculano’s writing tedious, dry and his characters insipid. There’s erudition, I love the man’s vocabulary, it’s a novel to read with a good dictionary at hand, but I think he lacks the imaginative power to dramatize history; then again, I’ve never cottoned to Walter Scott either. No doubt his history books are better, hopefully one day I can regale my readers with episodes from his book on the origins of the Portuguese inquisition, now doesn’t that sound fun?

Almeida Garrett
Almeida Garret’s Viagens na Minha Terra (1846), as a work of literary fiction, deserves more consideration and has had more influence on the Portuguese novel. Published periodically in his own newspaper, this indefinable genre-defying book is simultaneously a travel book, a novella, literary criticism and unpredictable ruminations about everything that catches the author’s fancy. From the title it purports to describe his travels from Lisbon to Setúbal, by boat and on horse, but he discusses everything save the places he visits, or the landscapes and customs.

Re-reading this book since high school, the first thing I notice is the intertextuality; on every page he’s just showing off his knowledge of history, literature, philosophy, and politics. The man’s the ultimate pedant, but he does it so charmingly. Just consider the first paragraph:

That one travels around one’s room at the foot of the Alps, in Winter, at Turin, which is almost as cold as Saint Petersburg – that’s understandable. But with this weather, with this air that God gave us, Xavier de Maistre himself, if he were writing here, would at least go to his backyard.

Ha, that’s a nod to Xavier de Maistre’s A Journey Around my Room. I hadn’t read this one at the time, I missed the joke. Like I did the ones about Laurence Sterne’s black page, Lord Byron, Miguel de Cervantes, Eugene Sue, Victor Hugo, Goethe, Joseph Addison, Schiller, and a handful of ancient Greek poets. I wonder, why bother teaching a book like this in high school? The students won’t get nine tenths of the references and the teachers won’t bother to explain them, they probably don’t know most of them either. This book is the product of a lifetime of reading, and only a lifetime reader can get it, or even bother to try.

The narrator, by the way, is also a bit of a liar. “My destination is no less than Santarém: and I declare that of everything I see and hear, of everything I think and feel I shall write about,” declares the author. On July 17, 1843, he sets out on his journey with friends from Terreiro do Paço, where he boards a boat. But he gives the reader a fair warning not to expect the typical travel book. “These interesting travels of mine will be a masterpiece, erudite, brilliant, with new thoughts, something worthy of the century. I must tell the reader, so that he may be prepared; he mustn’t think that they are one of those fashionable scribbles that, with the title Impressions of Travel, or some such, fatigue the presses of Europe without any gain or advancement for the species.” Ah, his ego, how I love the tone of his ego. Towards the end, though, he writes, “It bothers me heavily, dear reader, if you expected something else from my Travels, if I break to you, without intending, the promise you thought you saw in this title, but which I did not certainly make. Did you want perhaps that I told you, milestone by milestone, the road’s miles? Foot by foot, the heights and lengths of the buildings? Number by number, the dates of its foundation? That I summed up for you the history of each rock, of each ruin?...” Well, yes, after you said you’d write about all you saw and heard. Oh, but the stuff in your head is infinitely more interesting. One of literature’s most extraordinary narrators, and I’ll arm-wrestle anyone who disagrees.

Since there’s not much of a narrative, perhaps we should just highlight good bits. We have, for instance, the aforesaid intertextuality:

I don’t remember Lord Byron ever celebrating the pleasure of onboard smoking. It’s a remarkable forgetting in the most boat-loving, most sea-prose poet that ever was, and who even sang sea-sickness, the most prosaic and nauseating of life’s miseries! Well then, on a day like this, feeling in one’s face and hair the cooling breeze that passed above the water, while one languidly breathes in the narcotic exhalations of a good Havana cigarette, that’s one of the few sincerely good things that we have in this world.

We have reflections about progress with a wonderful metaphor from Don Quixote:

   A few years ago there was a profound and learned philosopher from beyond the Rhine who wrote a work about the march of civilization, of intellect – what we’d call, to be better understood by all, progress. He discovered there are two principles in the world: the spiritualist, which marches without paying attention to the material and earthly part of this world, with its eyes fixed on its great and abstract theories, rigid, dry, hard, inflexible, and which may well be personified, symbolised by the famous myth of the Knight of la Mancha, D. Quixote; the materialist, which, without giving any importance to those theories, which it doesn’t believe in, and whose impossible concretizations it considers all utopian, may well be presented by the rotund and fat presence of our old friend, Sancho Panza.
   But, as in the story of the malicious Cervantes, these two principles, so adverse, so disharmonious, however walk always together; now one more farther behind, now the other more ahead, hampering each other many times, helping each other seldom, but progressing always.
   And here’s what’s possible to human progress.
   And here’s the chronicle of the past, the history of the present, the program for the future.
   Today the world is a vast Barataria, where King Sancho rules.
   Then D. Quixote will come.
   Common sense will come with the millennium: reign of the children of God! It’s promised in the divine promises… like the King of Prussia promised a constitution; and hasn’t failed yet, because – because the contract doesn’t have a date; he promised, but didn’t say when.

We have him ribbing Romanticism…

   I shall certainly disappoint the benevolent reader; I shall lose, due to my fatal sincerity, all I had achieved in his estimation in the first two chapters of this interesting travel.
   But what did he expect of me now, of me who dared declare myself in these Romantic eras, century of the strong sensations, of descriptions at broad and incisive strokes, which are carved into the soul and run with blood into the heart?
  At the end of the preceding chapter we stopped at the door of a roadside inn: what roadside inn should it be, today in the year of 1843, at Victor Hugo’s beards, with Doctor Faustus trotting over people’s heads, with the Mysteries of Paris in the hands of everyone?

… before making a description of the posada in Cervantes’ time, followed by an anti-capitalist diatribe, and then he describes the roadside inn.

More reflections, now on virtues:

I shall always give first place to modesty above all the beautiful qualities. – Even above innocence? – Even, yes. It takes one fault to lose innocence; of modesty only grave charges, only true crimes can deprive one of it. An accident, chance can destroy the first; the latter only an action by oneself, determined and voluntary.

A fun game for tourists:

   The café is one of the most characteristic features of a land. The experienced and refined traveller arrives anywhere, enters a café, observes it, examines it, studies it, and has learned what country he’s in, its government, its laws, its costumes, its religion.
   Take me blindfolded to any café wherever you want, don’t uncover my eyes until we’re in the café; and I declare that in less than ten minutes I can tell you where I am, if it be a sublunary country.

On the aesthetic use of friars:

   Friars… Friars… I don’t like friars. The way we saw those of this century still, the way we understand them today, I don’t like them, I don’t want them for anything, morally and socially speaking.
   From an artistic point of view, though, I miss the friar a lot.
   In towns, those grave and serious figures, with their habits down to the feet, almost all picturesque and some elegant, traversing the crowds of monkeys and dolls in their tights coats and bulbous hats that distinguish the stylish European race – they interrupted the monotony of ridicule and gave the people physiognomy.
   In the fields, the effect was even bigger: they characterised the landscape, poeticized the most prosaic situation in hill or valley; and so necessary, so compulsory were their figures in many of those pictures, that without them the panel is no longer the same.
   Besides, the convent in the settlement or the monastery in the wilderness animated, gentled, gave soul and greatness to everything: they protected the trees, sanctified the fountains, filled the land with poetry and solemnity.
   Which neither can nor will the barons and money-lenders who replaced them do.
   The friar was up to a point the D. Quixote of the old society.

One of the things I better remember from Miguel de Unamuno’s book is his mentioning the friars in Garrett’s books; he’s right, he has friars everywhere in his books, his famous tragedy is after all Frei Luís de Sousa.

A send-up of Énio-Manuel de Figueiredo, an obscure Portuguese playwright of his time, so obscure I had to look him up on Wikipedia. After tersely describing the comical value of several of his tragedies, he goes for the jugular:

   Poet in Prose Years! Oh! Figueiredo, Figueiredo, what a great man you were, for you imagined that title that is in itself a volume! There are books, and I know many, that shouldn’t have titles, nor do the titles belong to them.
   Please tell me what’s the purpose, what is the meaning of [Eugene Sue’s] The Wandering Jew put in the frontispiece of that interminable and commercial novel moving around the world, more wandering, more endless, more undying than its prototype?
   And there are titles also that shouldn’t have a book, for it’s not possible to write any book that becomes them as they deserve it.
   Poet in Prose Years is one of those.
   I don’t read any of the rare things that nowadays are written in a truly beautiful way, that is, simple, truthful and, consequently, sublime, that won’t bellow with sincere sorrow from inside: Poet in Prose Years!
   For is this century for poets? Or do we have poets for this century?...

There’s more, there are anti-war appeals and pastoral scenes, there’s poetry. He also tries his hand at a narrative, the nightingale girl story. “It’s the first episode of my Odyssey; I’m afraid of getting into it, because the ladies of our land say that Portuguese isn’t good for that, that French has another I don’t know what…” The story is set against the background of the Liberal Wars, and of course the protagonist is a friar, Frei Dinis. Because Garrett hated friars, but he loved them. The novella-within-the-book is my least favourite part of the book, actually, it’s so conventional and dreary by comparison with the madness of the ruminations, I’m still not sure it’s not a parody of something. If Herculano gave us the classic novel, Garrett gave us the open novel, and like he brought the action to modern times, so did Camilo and Eça follow his lead. Unfortunately, the formal irreverence of this book seldom found fertile ground in Portuguese fiction, formally most of our great 20th century novelists – Aquilino Ribeiro, Agustina Bessa-Luís, Vergílio Ferreira – could easily have written their novels in the 19th, the great exceptions being Saramago and António Lobo Antunes.

So there you have it, two more pieces for the jigsaw puzzle that is Portuguese literary history here at St. Orberose.

Sunday, 17 November 2013

I shrouded reason in my faith, and found peace in inertia and oblivion…now one thing remains: to know if God exists! - The sonnets of Antero de Quental

In the 1870s Portugal saw emerge a group of young writers and intellectuals who, animated by new literary trends coming from Europe and by political aspirations to turn the country into a republic, tried to revolutionize society, politics, and the arts. Members of this group, which history came to call the Generation of ’70, included, amongst others, Eça de Queiroz, Ramalho Ortigão, the historian J.P. Oliveira Martins and the poet Antero de Quental. A socialist, founder, with Oliveira Martins, of a republican newspaper aptly called A República, scourge of the defenders of Romantic aesthetics deeply entrenched in Portuguese literature, Antero de Quental renewed poetry by incorporating in his verses relentless psychology, metaphysical contemplations, and irony, and he maintained his poetry fresh for refusing to adhere to a single system or dogmas, and for constantly challenging himself with new pursuits of the truth. The collection of his sonnets shows very well the restlessness of his spirit and the many changes in his outlook over his year. In 1886 Os Sonetos Completos de Antero de Quental came out, with a preface by his friend Oliveira Martins. Antero didn’t publish more poems in life because in 1891, as Miguel de Unamuno dutifully informs us, he joined the time-honoured ranks of great suicidal Portuguese men. Diagnosed with bipolar disorder, Antero lived his last years in deep depression, not doubt disappointed his intentions to change Portuguese society failed, a frustration generally shared by the members of the Generation of ’70, who, in their twilight years, realized their lives had amounted to nothing save writing a handful of great books. Eça de Queiroz, who did not shot a bullet through his head, settled down, became a respectable family man and lived his final days writing turgid books like The Illustrious House of Ramires and The City and the Mountains. Political events of the time may also have precipitated Antero’s suicide, namely the infamous episode of the 1890 British Ultimatum to Portugal. At the time Portugal’s African lands claimed a stretch of horizontal land that crossed the continent, from Angola to Mozambique. This cut off Great Britain’s colonies in what we now call South Africa. The British did not like this because they had plans to build a railway that would connect Cairo to Cape Town, as envisioned by Cecil Rhodes, and so the British Prime-Minister Lord Salisbury promptly ordered the Portuguese to abandon the area in between, and the Portuguese government acquiesced. In Portugal many saw this as a national humiliation: a famous Portuguese explorer wrapped himself in the national flag and immolated himself in protest; university students wrote anti-monarchist pamphlets, the poet Guerra Junqueiro wrote the darkly-titled Finis Patriae (the end of the nation), the republican movement blamed this on the crown and used the incident as a rallying call for the Republic. For Antero, who had lived through the failure of socialism in Portugal, and whose final poetry showed an increasing amount of darkness and pessimism, this episode may have triggered his decision to kill himself.

Antero de Quental remains one of the most popular and studied Portuguese poets of our time, and his influence continued well into the 20th century. As the initiator of a new current of metaphysical poetry, he prefigured the poetry of another mystic, Teixeira de Pascoaes, and of Fernando Pessoa. After returning from Durban, in 1905, Pessoa discovered his sonnets, which inspired him to write his own sonnets. In 1908 he made plans to write “Mors Dei – some 20-40 sonnets as Anthero’s on God” (he uses the pre-1911 spelling of his name), and even undertook, before abandoning it, the project of translating his sonnets into English, to publish them in his short-lived publisher Olisipo. Fragments of a preface to this tentative book and incomplete translations of thirty-one poems currently exist, once again attesting to Pessoa’s remarkable ability to finish nothing he started. To his credit, he clearly laboured over them more than I did, he tried to respect the heroic decasyllabic verse (stresses on the sixth and tenth syllables) and the rhymes, whereas I just took a more prosaic approach that also eschews the sonnets’ musicality, alliteration and rhythm. The fragments of Pessoa’s preface do not say a lot about Antero. For information on Antero we should turn to a far more interesting preface, the one written by his friend Oliveira Martins, who calls the poet “perhaps the most characteristic figure of the Portuguese literary world.” Here we have three excerpts that give us a good idea of the poet:


I don’t know a more difficult physiognomy to sketch, because I never met a nature more complexly well gifted. If it were possible to uncoil a man’s soul, the way a cable is uncoiled, Antero de Quental would have enough soul for a whole family. He’s known to be a poet in the highest sense of the word; but at the same time his is the most critical intelligence, the most practical instinct, the most lucid wisdom known by me. He’s a poet who feels, but his reason thinks what it feels. He thinks what he feels; he feels what he thinks.


Afflicted by crises, “from which are born his verses, for Antero de Quental does not make verses the way literati do: they’re born from him, they spurt from his soul like sighs and agonies. But, that notwithstanding, he’s refined and demanding like an artist: his tears will have the contour of pearls, his moans will be music. The artistic faculties that generate statues and symphonies are the ones that vibrate in his aesthetic soul. The notion of forms, of lines and sounds, he possesses it to an extraordinary degree: not the same with colour and composition. He disdainfully calls pictures panels, and there he abhors description and the picturesque. He’s an artist, in what art contains of most subjective. His poetry is sculptural and hieratic, and therefore fantastic. It’s exclusively psychological and Dantesque: it can’t paint or describe: he finds that inferior and almost unworthy.


He’s above all a stoic, without ever ceasing to be quite sceptical; he’s a mystic, but with a strong dose of irony and humour; he’s a misanthrope, when he’s not the most affable of men; the most convivial and joyful; he’s a pessimist, who nevertheless thinks everything’s fine in general.

The collected sonnets follow a chronological scheme dividing them in five distinct periods. Guided by Oliveira Martins, we’ll sample each one:

1860-1862. This period, according to Oliveira Martins, is characterised by embryonic pessimism. While Portugal received from France a current of optimism, Antero wrote more in line with the worldview of Schopenhauer, whom he hadn’t yet read. In this period he expresses theological doubts and a metaphysical sadness born from his condition as man, a creature that can never satisfy itself.


What mortal beauty compares to thee,
O dream vision of this burning soul,
Reflecting upon me your immense glow,
The way sea mirrors the sun above it?

The world is large – and this urge enjoins me
To seek you on earth; and I, poor believer,
Throughout the world seek a merciful God,
But I only find his altar… naked and old…

What I worship in you is not mortal.
What are you here? Pitiful look,
Drop of honey in a poison cup…

Pure essence of the tears I cry,
And my dreaming dream! If true,
Unveil yourself, vision, to heaven at least!


A torrent of light falls from the mountain:
Lo the day! Lo the sun! O beloved husband!
Where is there in the world a single care
That will not dispel the world-bathing light?

Pain-spurted flower in a lonely crag,
Rebellious sea or congealed gulf,
Where is a godly being so forgotten
For whom heaven has neither peace nor relief?

God is father! Father to all creatures:
And to all beings his love he gives:
Evil is always remembered by his children…

Ah! If God to his children gives fortune
In this holy hour… and I can only be sad…
A son I shall be, but a shunted son!


‘Tis narrow life’s cup of pleasure:
Large, like the ocean is large and deep,
And like it infertile for fortunes,
The bitter calyx of disgrace.

And yet our soul, when it moves
Through the world, uncertain pilgrim,
Asks of life only pleasure, fertile love,
It is with that hope that it abides.

This immense wishing, it is God’s law…
And yet illusion overwhelms life,
And orders to seek light and returns darkness!

Ah! If God lighted an intense point
Of love and pain in us, in the burning fight,
Why create the mirage… or why take it away?


If it’s law, what rules the dark thought,
To make vain the seeking of truth,
Instead of light finding darkness,
Making each new invention a fall:

It’s law also, although raw torment,
To search, always search clarity,
And only having as authentic reality
What shows us bright understanding.

What choice the soul’s, amidst so much deceit?
If one hour it believes in faith, then doubts:
If it searches, and finds only… madness!

Only God can aid about so much mischief:
Let us wait for the light of another life,
Let earth be exile, heaven destination.


I search not in this life glory or fame:
What do I care about the crowd’s vain noise?
Today, god… and tomorrow, forgotten
Just like the extinguished flame’s glow!

Uncertain gleam, scarcely emitted,
Such is fortune: a lost echo,
The more called, the more hidden,
Motionless and mute to the calling voice.

Of that crown every flower is a mistake,
Just a mirage in illusory cloud,
Just vain words of a fabulous spell.

But crown me thee; on the inglorious brow
Fasten the sovereign laurel…
You’ll see, then you’ll see if I love glory!


In vain we struggle. Like an opaque mist,
The uncertainness of things envelopes us,
Our soul, while it creates, while it turns,
Ensnares itself in its own nets.

Thought, creator of a thousand plans,
Is vanishing, dissipating steam;
And problem-solving ambitious will,
Crashes like a wave caught between rocks.

Children of Love, our soul is like a hymn
To light, to liberty, to the fertile good,
Orison and outcry for a divine presence:

But in lonely, arid, deep deserts,
Our voices echo, that Destiny
Hovers mute and implacable above the world.

1862-1866. “Psychologically it’s the least original, artistically it’s the most brilliant,” writes Oliveira Martins. I particularly like this period for its recurring use of dream visions, which, I think, also contradict Oliveira Martins’ claims that the poet did not like description in his poems:


I dream myself sometimes king, on some very
Faraway island, in the Oriental seas,
Where night is balsamic and shiny
And the full moon gleams over the water…

The scent of magnolia and vanilla
Lingers in the diaphanous, sleepy air…
The sea, with fine waves of spume,
Slowly licks the edge of the woods…

And while in the ivory veranda I
I recline myself, lost in endless meditation,
You, my love, wander under moonlight,

In the long garden by the clearing,
Or you rest under the palm trees,
A familiar lion by your feet.


I dreamt – dreaming is not always vain –
That a wind took me in a frenzy,
Through that constellated space
Where an eternal gentle dawn laughs…

The stars, guardians of the morning,
On seeing me pass by sad and mute,
Looked at me and said carefully:
Where, my poor friend, is our sister?

But I cast down my eyes, fearful
They’d see my great deep sorrow,
And skulked furtive and silent.

Nor did I dare tell them, to the stars,
Tell your pure little sisters how you,
My love, are false, and unworthy of them!


I smoke and meditate. The horizon’s castles
Rise up, at night, and grow, a thousand colours,
And either spread in the sky vivid ardours,
Or smoke, strange-mountained volcanoes…

Then, what vague forms come ahead,
Which seem to dream mad loves?
Souls that go, through light and horrors,
Passing by the boat of that aerial Acheron…

I put out my cigar while you put out
Your light, o sun… we’re all left alone…
In this solitude do I consume myself!

Oh Western clouds, oh vain things,
How I understand your colour, for, like you,
I see beauty and height go up in smoke!


I don’t doubt the world in its axis
Spins suspended and moves in harmony;
That man ascends and goes from night to day,
And to man insect and rock ascend.

I don’t call God tyrant, nor do I complain,
Nor do I call life’s heaven cold night:
I don’t call existence a shadowy hour;
Order, chance; nor law, disorder.

Even now Nature remains my mother…
She’s my mother… Ah, if I at the pretty
Face can’t smile; if I’m desperate;

If there’s nothing to warm my coldness;
If I’m full of bitterness and sadness…
It is to be believed that I alone am guilty!


I dream that I’m a moving horse.
Through deserts, suns, and dark night,
Love’s paladin, longing I search
For the enchanted palace of fortune!

But already I faint, exhausted and hesitant,
Broken the sword already, the armour torn…
And lo suddenly I sight it, dazzling
In its pomp and airy gracefulness!

With heavy strikes I bang the door and cry:
I am the Vagabond, the Disinherited…
Open up, golden doors, before my woes!

The golden doors open up, strident…
But inside I find only, pain-filled,
Silence and darkness – and nothing else!

1864-1874. “In this period, Antero de Quental is nihilistic as a philosopher, anarchist as a politician; he’s everything that’s negative, he’s everything that’s excessive; and he is so in such a definitive, dogmatic and affirmative way, that we hesitate to believe in the conscience by him employed.” I’d just like to add that in this period we can find the sonnets where Antero most clearly defends his socialist and republican ideals:



So conquer your future by yourself,
Since your celestial guides have left you
Forsaken over an unknown land,
Man – outlaw king – dark beggar!

If you don’t wait upon heaven (so pure,
But so cruel!) and the grieved heart,
Already you feel free of delusions,
Of the delusions of the old lying love;

Rise up, then, in the stoic majesty
Of a lonely and haughty will,
In a heroic soul’s supreme effort!

Make a temple from the prison’s walls,
Harnessing the eternal and living immensity
In the circle of light of your Idea!


In the solemn woods there’s the cult
Of the eternal, intimate primitive force:
In the mountain, the bold cry of the captive soul,
From the heart, in its unrevenged struggle:

In the constellated space the passing
Figure of the sun-warming nameless Someone:
In the sea ‘tis heard the grave and distressed
Voice of a struggling God, powerful and ignorant.

But in the dark cities, where
Blood-drenched revolution rises freely,
Like a fire that a wild wind kindles,

There’s a higher mission, higher glory:
Fighting, at history’s great light,
The eternal fights of Justice!

                        Surge et ambula!

You, you serene, sleeping spirit,
Left at the shadow of the secular swines,
Like a Levite at the altar’s shadow,
Away from the battle and the earthly uproar,

Wake up! It’s time! The sun, high and plain,
Has scared away the maggots in the tombs…
To rise from the those seas’ bosom,
A new world waits a nod only…

Hark! It is the great voice of multitudes!
It is your brethren, rising up! They are songs…
But of war… and they are fighting voices…

Rise up, then, soldier of the Future,
And from the pure dream’s sun rays,
Dreamer, make a fighting sword!


Reason, sister of Love and Justice,
Once again listen to my prayer.
It is the voice of a heart that wants you,
Of a free soul, to you alone submissive.

It is for you that the moving dust
Of stars and suns and worlds remains;
And it is for you that virtue prevails,
And the heroism’s flower spurts and grows.

For you, in the tragic arena, nations
Search for freedom, between lightnings;
And those who see the future and think, mute,

For you they can suffer and don’t despair,
Mother of robust children, who fight
With your name written on their shields!

1874-1880. “His pessimism becomes systemic: it’s a whole philosophy, to which corresponds, as a sentimental expression, a transcendental irony.”

                                   Dixit insipiens in corde suo: non est Deus

Leave the clouds, raise your brow and hear
What your rebellious children say,
Old Jehovah of the long hirsute beard,
Alone in the fortifications of your Heaven:

“The empire of brute force has at last ceased!
Emancipated, we won’t suffer anymore
The clever and tenacious-handed tyrant
Who’s had us like sheep for a thousand years!

While you were sleeping undisturbed,
We sighted the road for freedom,
Which smiled at us with indefinable gestures…

We’ve tasted of the fruits of truth…
O great God, o strong God, o terrible God,
You are nothing but a vain banality!”


(To Dr. José Falcão)

Rising up their arms to the distant sky
And encompassing the invisible gods,
Men cry out: “Implacable gods,
Whom triumphant destiny serves,

Why did you create us? Ceaseless
Time flows and makes only endless
Pain, sin, illusion, horrible fights,
In a cruel and delirious whirlpool…

Now weren’t we better in the merciful
Peace of nothingness and what is not yet,
Left asleep for all eternity?

Why did you call upon us for pain?”
But the gods, with even sadder voice
Say: “Men, why did you create us?”



Like a wind of death and ruin,
So Doubt blew across the Universe.
Suddenly it was night, the world
Immersed in a dense and algid mist.

Not a star shines, not a bird trills,
Not a flower smiles in its airy cradle.
A subtle poison, vague, dissipated,
Has poisoned divine creation.

And, in the middle of the monstrous night,
Of the glacial silence, that hovers and stretches
Its shroud, from where death droops,

Only a humble flower, mysterious,
Like a vague protest from existence,
Blossoms at the bottom of consciousness.


(To Gonçalvo Crespo)

Amongst the children of a damned century
I too have taken the place at the impious table,
Where, under merriment, sadness moans
From an impotent desire for infinite.

Like others, I spat on the ancestor altar
A laughter made of bile and impurity…
But, one day, my firmness was shook,
My contrite heart gave me a blow!

Alone, full of tedium and weakness,
Tearing the levees of the constricted cry,
My sad soul turned to face God!

I shrouded reason in my faith,
And found peace in inertia and oblivion…
Now one thing remains: to know if God exists!

1880-1884. “When he wrote the first sonnet of [this series], Antero de Quental decided to destroy all his morbid poetries. He felt remorse for having ever been in an emotional mood that now horrified him. He thought that those dark verses could not console anyone, and would harm many people.” Oliveira Martins rescued some of the sonnets destined for destruction. In this period Antero has discovered peace, and also Buddhism, “the most philosophical and least phantasmatic religion invented by man.” Later he redefines Antero’s relationship with this oriental system: “‘Hellenism crowned by Buddhism,’ that’s that formula that Antero de Quental has used more than once to express his thought to me – his chimera!” In these poems Antero finally seems to have achieved his much-desired inner peace, but wrapped in inaction and a longing for self-obliteration non-existence, making them, in my view, his most terrifying sonnets:


(To J.P. Oliveira Martins)

It rests, after so much fighting,
My heart at last rests in peace.
I’ve realized, at last, how vain it is
To quarrel with Luck and the World over good.

Penetrating, not with a dry brow,
The temple of illusion’s tabernacle,
I only found, with pain and confusion,
Darkness and dust, some brute matter…

It is not in the vast world – as immense
As it may seem to us in our youth –
That the soul quenches its intense desire…

In the sphere of the invisible, of the intangible,
Over deserts, empty, solitary, the spirit
Flies and hovers implacable!


(To Santos Valente)

I was rock, in the past, and was, in the old world,
Bark or twig in the unknowable forest…
Wave, I spumed, breaking myself in the corner
Of granite, my so very ancient foe…

I roared, a beat maybe, seeking shelter
In the cavern that darkens heathers and broom;
Or, primitive monster, I raised my forehead
In the limey swamp, sea-green pasture…

Today I am man – and in the vast shadow
I see, by my feet, the multiform ladder,
Spiralling down in immensity…

I question the infinite and sometimes weep…
But, my hands reaching for the vacuum, I worship
And aspire only to freedom.

                               Eternal flux and reflux…
                               João de Deus

Night sleeps reclined against the hills.
Like a dream of peace and oblivion
The moon appears. The wind fell asleep,
Also asleep the valleys and fields…

But with me, night, full of divine
Attractions, wrestles with my thoughts.
I feel around myself a foggy crowd,
The Fates and the pilgrim Souls!

Unfathomable problem!... Terrified
Thought steps back!... And drooping
And stupid with the power of exhaustion,

I gaze unconscious the visionary shadows,
While through the solitary beaches
Your ancient voice, o sea, echoes.


(To D. Nicolas Salmeron)

You who I can’t see, and stand near me
And, furthermore, inside me – who encircle me
With a cloud of affections and ideas,
Which are my beginning, middle and end…

What a strange being you are (if being) who thus
Carry me with you and take me about
To unspeakable regions, redolent
With enchantment and dread… with no and yes…

You are a reflection only of my soul,
And instead of facing you with a calm brow
I startle myself on seeing you, and tremble and beseech you…

Mute when I speak… if mum, you dote upon me…
You are a father, a brother, and it is a torment
Having you by my side… you’re a tyrant, my love!


I told my heart: look in how many
Vain roads we walk! Now think
From this austere and cold height,
The wilderness our cries sprinkled…

Dust and ashes, where flower and charm!
And night, where Spring light was!
Look at your feet the world and despair,
Sower of shadows and morbidity!

Nevertheless the heart, made valiant
In the school of repeated torture,
And in the use of pain-turning believers,

Replied: From this height I see Love!
Living was not in vain, if this is life,
Nor were deceit and pain too much.


To live thus: without jealousy, or longing,
Without love, without lust, without caress,
Free from anguish and happiness,
Dropping about the ground roses and thorns,

To be able to live in all ages;
To be able to walk in all byways;
Indifferent to good and to deception,
Confusing jackals with little birds;

To promenade about earth, and finding sad
All things I see around me, spread over it;
To look at life as if through a dream;

To arrive where I arrived, to reach the heights
Where now I find myself – that is to have arrived
At the extremities of Peace and of Fortune!