Monday, 23 December 2013

Eça de Queiroz: The Correspondence of Fradique Mendes

In August 1900 when death took Eça de Queiroz away, he was residing in Paris, preparing the publication of three novels: The Illustrious House of Ramires, The Correspondence of Fradique Mendes and The City and the Mountains. The first two still came out that year, the third in the following one. Of this trio of posthumous novels, I have no reservations in expressing my preference for the narrative of Fradique Mendes. For me this short novel went against the visible decline that characterises the author’s work after 1888. This was the year of The Maias, his magnum opus, and he also received orders of transference to the Portuguese consulate in Paris, a change of airs that pleased this cosmopolitan writer very much, particularly because he counted many French writers – Charles Baudelaire and Victor Hugo in his youth, and later Gustave Flaubert, Emile Zola, whom he met – as his masters, and because Portugal’s provincialism at the time exasperated him, a reason why he had turned to this culture to help him rejuvenate stuffy Portuguese letters and bring them closer to modern European literature. The convergence of events seemed to augur a brilliant new age for him. Let’s not forget Eça died rather young, at the age of 54, so still in his prime when he relocated to the French capital. But in the twelve years that separate the publication of The Maias and his death, he directed his efforts to other endeavours and produced mostly minor works: in several newspapers and magazines he published many of his short-stories, which Luís de Magalhães collected in the 1902 Contos; in 1890 he published Uma Campanha Alegre, a collection of articles he wrote for Ramalho Ortigão’s satirical newspaper As Farpas; he also wrote prefaces and pieces for friends’ books (including a text for Antero de Quental - In Memoriam, a collective homage to the great poet), newspaper articles, and even directed a magazine called Revista de Portugal. Now during this period he also started new novels, particularly The Illustrious House of Ramires, which began serialization in the aforementioned magazine in 1897. But by then, I fear, the rot had already set in his work: The Illustrious House of Ramires posited the aristocracy, tradition and the empire as the nation’s only salvation, and enforced a nationalistic rejection of the socialist, Europeanist values of his youth; The City and the Mountains, by its turn, served as Eça’s mouthpiece for a series of attacks on urban civilization, with its unauthentic way of living and reliance on the illusions of science and progress, exalting instead nature and a healthy, genuine countryside life. As a thesis it’s feeble and clichéd, and it didn’t convince this blogger who’s lived most of his life in a big city, and I can’t help seeing both novels as symptomatic of the instinctive reflex for isolationism and rural idolatry that afflicts Portuguese writers whenever life runs contrary to their plans.

The man who wrote these novels had little to do with the young flaneur who roamed the streets of Lisbon with his knockabout friends well into the night, drinking, eating and partying until their money ran out, and then went to bang on friends’ doors asking for more money, which he probably had no intention of repaying; the oriental traveller who brought hashish from Egypt to his friends; the young Satanist who revered Baudelaire, Goethe and Poe; the socialist who believed in Proudhon; the prankster who shocked Lisbon with a literary hoax called The Mystery of the Sintra Road, and then with Ramalho Ortigão shocked it again with the corrosively satirical newspaper As Farpas. Young Eça had no scruples about shocking people. In 1871 he gave a conference at the famous Casino Conferences, a socio-politico-literary event that served as an outlet for the ideas discussed by the members of Cenacle, an informal group that met in Jaime Batalha Reis’ room. These conferences introduced literary Realism in Portugal, advocated the separation of church and state and outlined an educational reform, and had the authorities not stopped them would also have discussed socialism, the republic and positivism. In spite of the clash with the authorities, the conferences, and the Cenacle before it, consolidated and gave a purpose to the Generation of ’70, whose members – Oliveira Martins, Antero de Quental, Ramalho Ortigão, Eça – endeavoured to usher Portugal into the modern age. Young Eça’s irreverence knew no bounds, often he played the Young Turk, lambasting writers like Alexandre Herculano and Camilo Castelo Branco, perhaps he even suffered from a megalomaniac conviction in his ability to revolutionize Portuguese letters – but he believed in it so convincingly that he did just that, and novels like The Crime of Father Amaro and The Relic had no precedents in the country, not only in their sustained attack on one of the vested pillars of society, religion, not only in their absolute rejection of lyrical sentimentalism, but also in their commitment to the Flaubertian maxim of le bon mote. Eça didn’t just introduce new ideas, but also a new form of writing about them.

To understand what precipitated Eça’s change from an iconoclastic writer to an apostate of his earlier principles, we would need to understand the social and historical context of fin-de-siècle Portugal, a task for which I’m hardly prepared, but I’ll sketch a few ideas. First of all, by 1888 the Generation of ’70 had come to realize that their aspirations had found no fertile ground to produce the radical, profound changes they desired in society, culture and politics. Frustrated and defeated, Oliveira Martins gave a name to their dissatisfaction when he created the group Os Vencidos da Vida (roughly translated as Beaten by Life), whose ranks filled with the men from the Cenacle and the Casino Conferences. In 1889 Eça joined the group, which regularly met for informal discussions at hotels and restaurants. Their sense of failure gained a new dimension with the British Ultimatum of 1890: to make a long story short, Portugal had occupied the African territories between Angola and Mozambique, and the UK wanted them cleared to make way for a railway that would connect Cairo and Cape Town; so the British ordered the Portugal to retreat, and the government acquiesced. This political incident sent the nation into a crisis of sovereignty and existence, for many this was a sign that Portugal was finished: people wrapped themselves in the flag and immolated themselves, and the monarchy came under heavy criticism for its weakness; the poet (or pamphleteer) Guerra Junqueiro, one of those Beaten by Life, wrote the crepuscular Finis Patriae, Latin for end of the nation. The Portuguese Republican Party, which until then had believed in a peaceful compromise with the monarchy and in structural reforms to solve the political instability that afflicted the nation, radicalised its positions and openly advocated the violent overthrow of the monarchy, paving the way for the 1908 Regicide and the republican revolution in 1911. On the opposite end of the political spectrum, positions were no less extreme: nationalism, tradition and the revaluation of the figure of the King were the cure for Portugal’s ills, this said argued. Eça was one of those who praised the King as the only man who could save Portugal. The men Beaten by Life believed saw themselves as royal advisers, hoping to steer the monarch towards effective political reforms that would restore Portugal’s glory. Alas, that did not happen. Another factor, small compared to the crisis I’ve sketched, but which I think should not be neglected, is the fact that in 1886 Eça had married, which also helps explain the domesticity and complacency of his final decade, in which he settled down as a respectable husband and father of four. Long gone was the mischievous, disreputable moocher who scribbled epic poems on the walls of filthy patios while waiting for friends to run home to fetch money to pay his restaurant bills.

Not everyone will agree with my judgements on Eça’s final novels. Tom, at Wuthering Heights, possibly thinks differently, and has written about both novels in more laudatory tones. As we can attest from the excellent passages he quotes, it just so happens that even Eça’s lesser efforts come peppered with powerful hilarious bits. For me, though, The Correspondence of Fradique Mendes raises above their complacency because its eponymous hero was born under very different circumstances than The Illustrious House of Ramires (a reaction to the British Ultimatum) and The City and the Mountains (an attack on the same French culture which showed him the way to revolutionize Portuguese letters, and panegyric to the authentic Portuguese personality, which, of course, is indissociable from the country’s rural reality).

Fradique Mendes, poet, traveller, explorer, aesthete, a vanguardist, scientific connoisseur, always up to date on the current trends, intelligent, talented, sophisticated, who nevertheless does nothing with his life, comes not from the circumstances of Eça’s final decade but from his reckless youth. As we all now know thanks to the previous post, circa 1869 he and other members of the Cenacle invented a Satanic poet called Fradique Mendes, wrote poems in his name (he’s the author of a book called Poemas Macadam Poems), and, in a hoax predating The Mystery of the Sintra Road (where he makes a cameo) convinced some people that he was a real person. Mendes was a collective endeavour, with bits from Eça, Jaime Batalha Reis and Antero de Quental (who wrote the preface for Macadam Poems). We know that in 1870 he reappears in Eça and Ortigão’s The Mystery of the Sintra Road. After this supporting role, Eça started planning an entire novel about Fradique Mendes. He explains its genesis in a 1885 letter sent from Bristol to Oliveira Martins:

   I’ve been having such a period of stupidity that not only was I not able to send you a bit of well-manufactured prose – but I lacked even the courage to announce to you a working plan I thought of for Província. One can’t make literary promises when one is feeling so singularly stupid. What I thought of was – a series of letters about all sorts of topics, from the immortality of the soul to the price of coal, written by a certain great man who lived here sometime ago after the siege of Troy, and before the one of Paris, and whose name was Fradique Mendes! Don’t you remember him? Ask Antero. He knew him. Distinguished man, poet, traveller, philosopher in his spare time, dilettante and sensualist, this gentleman, our friend, has died. And I, who enjoyed him and attended him in life, and who was privy to his spirit’s picturesque originality, had the idea of collecting his correspondence – as it has been done for Balzac, M. de Sévigne, Proudhon, Abélard, Voltaire and other immortals – and I’m publishing, or with to publish, it in Província. Fradique Mendes corresponded with all sort of different people, all sorts of men as we say in the official Bible of this land. He writes to poets like Baudelaire, to statesmen like Beaconsfield, to philosophers like Mr. Antero, and to elegant people like (I can’t think of any elegant person right now save Barata Loura) and to characters who are none of this, such as Fontes. Besides that he has lovers, and discusses the metaphysics of desire with them. And in the letters to his tailor one finds the most profound rules for the art of enchanting. When he’s travelling, in Japan or in Central Asia, he paints landscapes and habits. And when he comes to Portugal, he paints for his friends in London and Berlin the things and ideas of Chiado, S. Bento, of the tobacco shops and the saloons.
   Immense was the task of collecting these letters, but the Província looks at no expense, etc, etc.
   Hm! what a topic! and with this modest title – The Correspondence of Fradique Mendes. Preceded, of course, by a study about the life and opinions of that mourned gentleman. These letters must be published without order, except of dates – and therefore one here another there. That’s what I thought of for Província.

In 1888 Eça published, in a newspaper ran by Oliveira Martins, the first Fradique Mendes letters. Things get trickier after that. We know that in 1900 The Correspondence of Fradique Mendes came out, although this edition included only the ‘remembrance and notes’ section, the frame narrative of the actual letters. These weren’t published until 1929 under the title of Cartas inéditas de Fradique Mendes. My edition is deficient in that it’s a reproduction of the 1900 edition. English-speaking readers should rejoice over the fact that Gregory Rabassa’s translation (Tagus Press, 2011) comes complete. These letters, as Eça explains above, are addressed to real and imaginary people, a narrative trick that heightens the sense of veracity, making it a variation of previous hoaxes involving this character. It seems whenever Eça wanted to push the boundaries of how far authenticity could go, he turned to Fradique Mendes.

For me what makes this book different, and better, than his other late novels, is that it’s a study of personality. I think the others are more concerned with propaganda. Now, Eça always explored ideas in his novels, but he refrained from a moralising tone. One of the remarkable things about his novels is that they abound in evil, cruelty, pettiness, laziness, hypocrisy, and yet seldom, if ever, do they judge these things as sins or faults. Of course this may also have to do with the fact that many of them live under self-deception, in their own minds they’re perfect, or their narrators (I’m thinking of O Conde de Abranhos) provide eulogies for their masters. The novels’ refusal to judge is a reflection of the characters’ own inability for self-criticism. This novel, much like O Conde de Abranhos, is hagiography. The unnamed narrator repeatedly insists that Fradique Mendes is an exceptional individual, when he’s nothing of the sort.

The narrator explains how his relationship with Fradique Mendes started in 1867, when he read his poems in A Revolução de Setembro (in real life this magazine published them in 1869). The narrator belonged to the Cenacle and defines the year of 1867 as a transitional year, where their idols changed from Victor Hugo to the new poetry of Baudelaire, of which Fradique Mendes was a follower. With his friend J. Teixeira de Azevedo (Jaime Batalha Reis), they meet the poet in Lisbon, but he’s on the eve of going abroad. In 1871, during a trip to Egypt (Eça undertook one between 1869 and 1870), the narrator reencounters Fradique Mendes in Cairo. The poet is involved with Bábism, a Persian religion (I thought it was made up until I looked it up) named after the Farsi word bab, or door. After hanging around for a while, they go separate ways and don’t meet again until 1880. During the intervening years he receives news of him from friends who’ve met him, and their words already attest to the creation of a modern mythology. In 1877 Oliveira Martins writes to him, saying that he considers Fradique Mendes “the most interesting Portuguese man of the 19th century. He has curious resemblances to Descartes!” Ramalho Ortigão goes further: “Fradique Mendes is the most complete, the most finished product of civilization which I’ve drenched my eyes in. No is more superiorly gifted to triumph in Art and in Life.” Ironically, only J. Teixeira de Azevedo (Batalha Reis was one of the three creators of the satanic poet) feels an “insuperable antipathy” for him. Was Eça killing his parents to make himself his sole creator? Antero had already disowned him in 1872.

Antero’s absence from the book is quite conspicuous. Not one of the sixteen letters is addressed to him, although he’s mention here and there. However the great poet’s life permeates the entire book. In my previous post I wrote that Fradique Mendes had similar qualities to Antero de Quental: both are from a noble family of the Azores. Both had an unusual upbringing, although Fradique Mendes’ takes the prize. He’s reared by his maternal grandmother, D. Angelina, translator of Friedrich Klopstock. The topic of education was an obsession in Portuguese letters at the time, and it’s not uncommon too in Camilo or Eça a compact description of their protagonists’ schooling. “His first education was singularly entangled: D. Angelina’s chaplain, a former Benedictine priest, taught him Latin, the doctrine, horror of Masons, and other solid principles; then a French colonel, a tough Jacobin who fought in the 1830 siege of Saint-Merry, came to shake these spiritual foundations, making the body translate Voltaire’s Pucelle and the Declaration of the Rights of Man; and finally a German, who helped D. Angelina dress up Klopstock in Filinto Elísio’s vernacular [a neoclassical poet], and called himself a relative of Emanuel Kant, completed the confusion by initiating Carlos, even before his moustache grew, in the Critique of Pure Reason and the metaphysical heterodoxy of the professors of Tubingen. Fortunately by then Carlos was already spending long days riding in the fields, with his pack of hounds – and from the anemia that the abstractions of reason would have caused him, he was saved by the soft breath of the mountains and the natural purity of the streams from where he drank.” Later Carlos went to “Paris to study in the beer-halls [Antero also lived in Paris for a time] around the Sorbonne, waiting for the maturity that would bring him the accumulated inheritances of his father and grandmother.” We find another link with Antero when the the narrator alludes to Fradique Mendes’ frantic nature “Thus he made himself a babist, to penetrate and unveil babismo. Thus he affiliated himself in a Parisian revolutionary group, the Batignolles Panthers, and attended their meetings, wrapped in a tight sordid jacket fastened with pins, hoping to extract from them the ‘flower of some instructive extravagance.’ Thus in London he joined the rituals of the positivists, who, in the festive days of the Comtiste Calendar, burn incense and myrrh at the altar of Mankind and decorate the image of August Comte with roses.” And theosophy and nihilism. Prior to his death he was preparing a journey to India, to become a Buddhist. This evolution – religiosity, revolution, religiosity again, and nihilism faithfully follow the trajectory of Antero, who in his final became interested in Oriental concepts like Nirvana. Fradique Mendes also served under Garibaldi in the conquest of Sicily and even met Victor Hugo, which certainly makes him an interesting fellow to have at the table during meals, but hardly an extraordinary man or the most remarkable specimen of an entire generation.

When he take away the hollow hype, however, Fradique Mendes led a vapid life. According to essayist António Sérgio, “we read the letters of Fradique Mendes, certainly delightful and of a delicious style, but where one finds not the faintest trace of the letter writer’s philosophic profundity.” But that’s obviously the point. Fradique Mendes is portrayed by his clique as a superior man, but what transpires is a hedonist wastrel, a man full of potential but unwilling to apply himself to any great endeavour, dissipating his talent in reveries, idleness and philosophy de pacotille. He contributes with not a single book, discovery or profound idea. His literary output ended after 1867. I wonder if this novel wasn’t intended as the defining portrayal of the failure of his generation? All the men who praise him have, after all, been Beaten by Life. As much as this novel is a nostalgic look at Eça’s formative years, it also contains a subtle jab at his and his peers’ paltry achievements (when one thinks of the great demands they made for themselves; the books they left are more than enough for me).

Although Eça officially killed Carlos Fradique Mendes, that was not the end of him. In 1997 José Eduardo Agualusa used him as a character in the novel Creole. In 2002 Joaquim Francisco Coelho published A Morte de Fradique Mendes, and José Pedro Fernando gave us Autobiografia de Carlos Fradique Mendes. Save for Agualusa’s, it’s highly unlikely I’ll ever bother. This is not the first time Eça’s characters are reused: in the 1970s a writer brought the Count of Abranhos back, and was critically panned; and a newspaper is currently working with several writers to continue saga of the Maia family, God help us! That’s the price to pay for being one of the few Portuguese novelists with the gift to create unforgettable characters.

And since it’s impossible to end the year on a higher note than Eça de Queiroz, St. Orberose is taking a break until next January. I thank everyone who accompanied me during 2013. Merry Christmas and a Happy 2014!

Sunday, 22 December 2013

Satanism can be said to be the realism of the world of poetry: or how to invent a satanic poet

My posts can sometimes emerge from the paltriest of sources and go through a long period of gestation. For instance almost two months ago I decided to read Anterode Quental’s sonnets to post about them; this compelled me to go have a look at books about him; one of those books concerned a voyage he had made to America, and that sounded so interesting I checked it out at the public library; but inside I found something even more interesting – I discovered Antero had had a hand in co-creating a fictional satanic poet called Carlos Fradique Mendes. I always had considered Eça de Queiroz the sole creator of this fascinating character, who shows up in The Mystery of the Sintra Road and The Correspondence of Fradique Mendes. So imagine my excitement when the book about Antero briefly mentions a whole book devoted to the history of the creation of this globetrotter, friend of Charles Baudelaire and Portuguese representative of the literary school known as the “Northern Satanists,” which includes such luminaries as Ulurus, author of Dawns of Evil. I immediately dropped the book on Antero and purchased Joel Serrão’s O Primeiro Fradique Mendes (1985). 

Joel Serrão

The idea that someone could take the time to write an entire book about the genesis of a literary hoax had never occurred to me. But as Joel Serrão (1919-2008), historian, literary critic (of Fernando Pessoa, António Nobre and Cesário Verde amongst others) and editor, proves in his dense, heavily-researched book is that Fradique Mendes was far more than just a symbol of inertia and dissipation in Eça’s oeuvre; he was a watershed moment in the development of Portuguese Modernism. The book is all the more remarkable because Serrão had to condense the lives and literary trajectories of three distinct men into one coherent study: Antero de Quental, Eça de Queiroz, and Jaime Batalha Reis (1847-1934). The first two by now should be known to readers at St. Orberose; but it’s harder to find occasions to write about Batalha Reis because he wasn’t a man of letters – in fact he was an agronomist who publicly promoted Darwinism, a radical position for the time – but a cultivated man who hanged around with the literati. Serrão justly calls him an “admirable memorialist” because he left behind two important reminiscences about Eça and Antero. It’s not the first time Batalha Reis shows up at the blog, in fact, although he was probably overlooked when I wrote about Eça’s juvenilia, which he edited and wrote a gossipy introduction for. At the time I wrote that the introduction was probably the most important thing about the book, for the insight it gave into Eça’s life when he was in his twenties. Serrão would partially agree since he uses that introduction considerably for the section on Eça. Batalha Reis’ second seminal text was written when he was asked to contribute something to In Memoriam, a tribute book in honour of Antero de Quental edited by his dearest friends. Whereas Eça wrote hagiography, Batalha Reis went the route of anecdote, and described the episode that led to the creation of Fradique Mendes:

One day, thinking about the immense richness of the modern movement of ideas, whose existence seemed to be so absolutely unknown in Portugal, thinking about the Chinese-like apathy of Lisboners, immobilized, for years, in contemplation and the chiselling of half ideas – old, indecisive, second hand, and in poor use – we thought of filling one of the many lamentable lacunae by creating at least a satanic poet. This is how Carlos Fradique Mendes appeared.


Our plan was immense and terrible: it was about creating a philosophy whose ideals were diametrically opposed to the generally accepted ideals, deducing, with implacable and impassive logic, all the systematic consequences of the starting points, as monstrous as they might have been. From that philosophy a poetry naturally came out, a whole special literature, which Antero de Quental, Eça de Queiroz and I proposed to build coldly, applying the processes revealed by analyses of modern Criticism, dismounting and arming emotion and feeling, as if they were known and reproducible material machines.

Batalha Reis plays another pivotal role in this tale: he owned the room in Travessa do Guarda-Mor, Lisbon, where a tight-knit group of academic students with literary aspirations met to discuss, party, sing and create poetry, between the years of 1867 and 1870. Although posterity called this assembly the Cenacle, not without a hint of malice, they were just a group of anarchic, irreverent young bohemians fresh out of university who were trying to find a purpose in life and who intensely felt the tedium of Portuguese society.

Another thing I discovered from Serrão’s book was the importance of Antero de Quental as his generation’s helmsman. Although Eça is by the far the most popular figure of the so-called Generation of ’70, Antero was the one who shaped the wild bunch at Travessa do Guarda-Mor into a movement that publicly intervened in socio-political matters of the time. The Cenacle had to distinct phases, before and after Antero. As Eça himself reminisced years later, before he brought Antero to Batalha Reis’ room, the Cenacle was just “mockery, satanic verses, night parties filled with Torres wine, and rags of facile philosophy,” biased towards art. Under Antero’s guidance, however, the group started claiming a more active role in society, culminating in the Casino Conferences (1871), a series of conferences where they introduced radical new ideas like socialism, secularism and literary realism, which the country was not receptive to and so the authorities closed them down. Serrão points out that Antero was one of the oldest members of the Generation of ’70 and its first major writer (Ramalho Ortigão, who was born in 1836, didn’t write anything until 1870), beginning his literary output in the early 1860s and inaugurating Portuguese Modernism with his 1865 Odes Modernas, and even if, as Serrão says, only 14 people bought the book, it was a quiet revolution in aesthetics (trivia: in 1867 he travelled to France and offered a copy to Jules Michelet).

Then Serrão does serious literary sleuthing. He combs the work of Antero and Eça looking for everything that may have predated the creation of their satanic poet, believed to have been concocted between late 1868 and June 1869, when Antero left to America. It’s a tour of force. Regarding Antero, Serrão stresses out his wavering spirit, unable to commit to a single idea for long, too sceptical for certainties, but nevertheless needing to fill some spiritual or ideological vacuum in his soul. His search for truths led him to try everything: religion, nihilism, socialism, Buddhism, Iberismo (the political idea that Portugal and Spain should form a federation), and suicide. Antero was a tormented man whose mind ebbed and flowed between belief and cynicism. Nowadays it’s generally accepted that he suffered from bipolar disorder which caused his mood swings. In one of his earliest periods of unbelief, circa 1863, he produced a sonnet that was new to me until now, “Sarcasms:”

The road to the infinite is deserted,
Of nothing is but the sky a mirror,
Eternity is a fossil: God is old,
And man looks at the sky with purpose!

The cross of Christ is but splinters,
Cumin seeds are wrapped in the Gospel;
Everybody gives God their advice:
No longer the word Word… just a byword!

None of this gives me trouble;
But Satan dying from cold too…
But no longer any evil to fight…

The doomed unable to give the Devil
His soul freely… out of boredom…
This is what hurts me, what kills me!...

According to the scholar, this poem marks the first appearance of what he dubs “Portuguese literary Satanism.”

Serrão also discloses some facts about Eça that are new to me. For instance, Eça was an actor in his academic years, which shows an inclination to create personae. Between October-December 1866 he wrote the first series of Prosas Bárbaras for the Gazeta de Portugal. I already knew that. At the time Eça was under the spell of Poe, Baudelaire, Goethe, and his texts tended to be macabre and blasphemous, often time focusing on the Devil. I’ll just transcribe this excerpt from one of his articles:

The Devil is the most dramatic figure in the History of the Soul. His life is the great adventure of Evil. He’s the one who invented the ornaments that turn the soul weaker, and the weapons that bloody the body. And yet, in certain moments of history, the Devil is the great representative of human right. He was freedom, fertility, strength, law. He’s then like a sinister Pan, where Nature’s deep rebellions howl. He fights priesthood and virginity, advises Christ to live, and the mystics to enter mankind.

What I didn’t know is that he quit this job and moved from Lisbon to Évora to become a one-man staff at a political newspaper. The newspaper belonged to the opposition and posed a considerable challenge to him, who had to invent several pseudonyms for fake editors, journalists and column writers. “First of all,” writes Serrão, “it’s important to stress that, in Évora, the former actor from the Academic Theater, in Coimbra, quickly realised that what was expected of him or, at least, what could be carried out by him was a particularly complex staging and theatrical performance because everything depended on a single actor in scene… First of all, he had the necessity of performing interest in the problems of this Alentejo city and to vouch for the political party that paid him to make the newspaper. But this wasn’t even what would be harder for him, as he quickly demonstrated in the columns of the Distrito de Évora.” Serrão argues that Eça was motivated by better wages and an opportunity to acquire experience. As I see it, it certainly shaped his forever negative view of politics and journalism. No doubt Eça’s experience as a hack journalist who sold his talents inspired the damning attack against this profession undertaken in O Conde de Abranhos. Another curious titbit: Eça’s first solo novel, The Crime of Father Amaro (1875), was serialized in a magazine run by Batalha Reis and Antero, who did not like Eça’s brand of realism, or perhaps realism as an aesthetic form.

All the biographical side of the book was fascinating. I think, however, that Serrão runs into trouble when he tries to marry the creation of Fradique Mendes with heteronymic theory. As we all know, the word heteronym was coined by Fernando Pessoa to designate the autonomous literary personae that wrote in their own styles – Alberto Caeiro, Ricardo Reis, Álvaro de Campos. The scholar argues the case that Fradique Mendes was the first case of a collective heteronym. His main evidence is the several pseudonyms Eça created for his newspaper, as well as pseudonyms Antero adopted when he wrote reviews of his own poetry. I think his argument is feeble especially because this New Grub Street type of journalism was standard practice at the time and hardly a sign of authorial identity crisis or fragmentation. I fear Pessoa is such an unavoidable figure in Portuguese letters that it’s temping to see everything in light of his ideas. This is what Borges means about great writers creating their precursors and changing the way the past is read. But sometimes a pseudonym is just a pseudonym. Not to mention several of his own findings contradict his point. For instance, Eça the journalist created a correspondent called Eduardo Machado, who is a prototypical Fradique Mendes: he’s rich, he travels, and he hates the poetry of Teófilo Braga; curiously, Serrão attributes all these traits to Antero, meaning Eça was less interested in creating an autonomous literary persona than in eulogizing Antero as the most modern man of his era. By Serrão’s definition, a heteronym is when a writer creates a new persona that acts and thinks from a different mental position. But this also weakens his thesis, since the creation of Fradique Mendes was much in line with what its demiurges were going through (Antero’s crisis of faith, Eça’s obsession with the Devil), not to mention he come to live during “an announcement of a general collapse of traditional values” in Europe. Fradique Mendes wasn’t alien to them, he stemmed right from their milieu.

Whatever may have been the ultimate cause, what we know is that in 1868 Antero was back in Portugal from his trip to France. One day Eça took him to Batalha Reis’ room, where he became the Cenacle’s leader. In June 1869, Antero left again (that restless spirit), this time to America. In August, unbeknownst to him, the magazine A Revolução de Setembro published four poems by one Carlos Fradique Mendes. A note, written either by Eça or Batalha Reis, reads:

   The following poems belong to Mr. Carlos Fradique Mendes – a true poet, who for now only his intimate friends know.
   Inhabiting Paris for many years, Mr. Fradique Mendes personally met Charles Baudelaire, Leconte de Lisle, Banville and all the poets of the new French generation. His spirit, in part cultivated by this school, is amongst us the representative of the Northern Satanists, of Coppert, Van Hole, Kitziz, and especially Ulurus, the fantastic author of the Dawns of Evil.

Fradique Mendes is praised for his subjectivism, his rejection of formulas and classic tradition, his individualism and spontaneity, which exemplifies “the chaos of philosophical, social and aesthetic conceptions in modern times.” Or as Serrão puts it, they were killing Romanticism. Fradique Mendes was a follower of Baudelaire, Poe, Nerval, and in a touch of genius they created a whole new school called the “Northern Satanists.” Ulurus in particular achieved temporary fame, being included by gullible literary critics in books of the time, and readers even ordered “the complete works of this diabolic and fantastic author” from Paris. Of the four poems, two were by Antero, one by Eça, and another by Batalha Reis. I’ll just translate Antero and Batalha Reis:


The cross told the earth where it stood,
The flowery vale, the naked and mute hill,
“What are you, abyss and cage, where all
Things live in pain and blind, feral war?

Always working, you condemned slave,
What do you do that is good and great?
Beaten, you’re just mud, rude and formless;
Revolting, you are but fire and horrid lava…

But there is no high and free mountain
That can equal me! Love, firmness,
I alone am – I am peace… – you are war!

I am the spirit, the light! You are sadness,
The dark and vile mud!...” However earth
Responded: “Cross, I am Nature!”



I like to see in the city’s streets
An old hunchbacked lady,
Full of wrinkles, full of longing
Envious, gazing at the youth,
So faithful, joyful, and carefree.


I think there’s beauty and poetry
In that longing envy of the past,
And in the old lady’s laughing face
One sees, poor thing!, just melancholy,
Sepulchral nostalgia for her engagement.


She stops alone, sometimes, in a corner
Looking at the ground as if awestruck;
And the poor, vain drooping head
Searches in the earth some divine light,
That has run out crushed and faint.


Other times, smiling ironically,
She stops to stare at a gorgeous woman,
Who lives on the visions she produces,
And puts happiness and poetry
Where the old lady sees but ruin and prose.


In the wrinkled old lady I see
In her eyes unforgotten desire!
A broken string giving out its final note!
There she is looking at Spring with lust
And trembling in her hunchbacked walk.

Months later Antero returned from America, and in December of the same year he published the Macadam Poems, written by him but attributed to the satanic poet, giving him life once more. Antero, however, brought him back to bury him. He wrote a preface to the poems, but he wasn’t taken with his brand of poetry and told readers that “we should fight him” for going against the true purpose of poetry. “Satanism can be said to be the realism of the world of poetry. It’s the modern conscience (the turbid and frantic conscience of contemporary man!) [much like Antero’s.] seeing it itself in the spectacle of its own miseries and debasements, and extracting from those observations a sinister psychology, evil through and through, contradiction and cold despair. It’s the heart of the tortured and demoralized man, erecting his state into a universal law…”

At this point in life, Antero was very certain about what the true purpose of poetry was. “Isn’t its ideal, that is, its supreme law, on the contrary, to console, moralise, point out the spiritually beautiful, hope and belief? What is the meaning of the cold contraction of irony in the lips of the virgin made to smile and sing? Poetry cannot be the shout of agony: it’s the heart’s purest and most intimate voice: it’s even in death rattle, it’s especially in hours of duration, a hymn, carmen.”

Now Antero could of course be joking because I don’t sense any of this in his own tormented poetry. One would hardly turn to it for consolation and beauty. But I don’t think he was joking, I think for all his crises of faith he never stopped looking for a higher truth. His friends invariably called him a visionary, a saint, a mystic, a philosopher. His mind was always in the greatest of heights, looking for metaphysics, far from the earthly grime. I presume this is what also made him hostile to Eça’s realism. One was spirit, the other was matter. After this Antero never returned to his satanic poet.

Eça de Queiroz was by the far the person who used him more, and he became almost part of a life-long literary experience to blur the lines between reality and fiction. After the Cenacle friends persuaded Lisboners to order the Dawns of Evil, in 1870 Carlos Fradiques showed up in The Mystery of the Sintra Road, another literary hoax that had Lisboners believing in an amazing story of kidnapping. In 1883 he revised the novel, whose definitive version was published in 1885. But this was not the end of it. In the same year, writing from Bristol, Eça suggests to Oliveira Martins an idea for his magazine, Província:

What I thought of was the following: a series of letters about every sort of matter, from immortality to the price of coal, written by a great man who lived here sometime ago, after the siege of Troy and before the one of Pari and whose name was Fradique Mendes! Don’t you remember him? Ask Antero. He knew him.

The idea was to write a more realistic epistolary novel. The letters would be out of order, “one here one there,” he wrote, giving the illusion that letters had been lost and making references oblique, which was interesting stratagem. Even better, some were addressed to real people, like Oliveira Martins, Antero de Quental, Guerra Junqueiro. The actual letters would also be preceded by a study of and introduction to Fradique Mendes, written by a dear friend. This projected, which came to be called The Correspondence of Fradique Mendes, was published in 1900, shortly after Eça’s death. And it’ll be the next post’s subject.

Wednesday, 18 December 2013

Adolfo Casais Monteiro and Portuguese Modernism

Notwithstanding its peripheral position in relation to the heart of Europe, its historical isolationism, its religious and political conservativeness, and a complacent population, Modernism arrived in Portugal about the same time it erupted in countries like France and Germany. The first stirrings take place between 1862 and 1870, a gestational period for the generation composed of Antero de Quental, Eça de Queiroz, Jaime Batalha Reis, Ramalho Ortigão, Gomes Leal and Oliveira Martins, that starts with the publication of Antero’s seminal Odes Modernas (1865) and ends with the satanic poet Carlos Fradique Mendes, a collective literary hoax (more about him in another post) and embodiment of the absolute rejection of the traditional values of religion, poetry and good taste. Around this time Darwinism was finding acolytes, church dogmas were in decline, German hermeneutics were applying critical reading to the Bible, Schopenhauer’s philosophy was opening cracks in the optimism of the era, and Charles Baudelaire was giving Romanticism the kiss of death. But like Oliveira Martins wrote in his preface to the Antero’s sonnets, the Portuguese poet did not need to have read Schopenhauer’s pessimistic philosophy, then in vogue, to lose his faith in progress, science and religion – his own anguished, sceptical soul, always full of doubts and relentless in its search for truths, had never been deficient in generating its own pessimism. In those five years the abovementioned men matured and found their own paths in life, sometimes radically rupturing with the past.

But just twenty years later these men considered themselves beaten by life and their youthful dreams crushed, and Portuguese culture languished for a few more decades. Then in the 20th century Modernism made a new assault in Portugal, in two distinctive phases. The first, again, was contemporary of vanguard movements such as Futurism, Post-Impressionism, dada and Expressionism, and coalesced around an ephemeral magazine called Orpheu (1915), which in its only two numbers published the poems of Fernando Pessoa and Mário de Sá-Carneiro, as well as prose by Almada Negreiros and Raul Leal and artwork by Santa-Rita Pintor, amongst many other featured writers. This glorious generation was summarily ignored by the public, which considered them fools and maniacs, and its quiet revolution would have evaporated into the ether had it not inspired a new generation, a decade later. The second wave begins in 1927 with the creation of a literary magazine called Presença, founded by writers like Miguel Torga, Branquinho da Fonseca, Edmundo de Bettencourt, João Gaspar Simões and José Régio. After a disagreement that led the first three to walk away from it, a new member joined its ranks in 1930: Adolfo Casais Monteiro.

Adolfo Casais Monteiro

Recently I finished reading O que foi e o que não foi o movimento da Presença, his book on history of the magazine, although it’s more of a collection of loose texts written over several decades, many of them written in Brazil, where he exiled himself in 1954 due to his overt opposition to Salazar. In the second half of the 1930s Casais Monteiro was banned from teaching because of politics. He made ends meet as a writer, translator and editor. Brazil was a favourite destination, due to the language, for those who couldn’t live in the dictatorship; other famous ex-pats include Jorge de Sena and Agostinho da Silva. In Brazil Casais Monteiro got a job at a university and also wrote articles for newspapers, besides continuing his literary studies. Notwithstanding the richness of information about its creation and purpose, the book is not so much a history as a defence of the magazine’s legacy and accomplishments against several of its critics, who according to the author have misunderstood, distorted or been hostile to its objectives. These critics range from intelligent and serious, like Eduardo Lourenço and David Mourão-Ferreira, to ideological lackeys launching attacks on political grounds. But before we try to make sense of why the magazine generated so much hatred, a few words about its three editors.

José Régio (1901-1969) was one of the most complete Portuguese writers of the 20th century: poet, novelist, short-story writer, diarist, essayist, playwright. As far as literary criticism goes, he gets credit as the first person to write about Pessoa and Sá-Carneiro from a critical perspective, in his 1925 college thesis, Pequena História da Moderna Poesia Portuguesa, a bold move considering these two poets were ignored by the academy. Régio was a trailblazer. Although João Gaspar Simões (1903-1987) dabbled in the novel, his fame nowadays rests solely on his pioneering literary criticism; we can single out two seminal biographies: Eça de Queirós, o Homem e o Artista (1945) and Vida e Obra de Fernando Pessoa (1950); he was Pessoa’s first biographer and one of his first editors, organizing his poetry between 1942 and 1945. These two gentlemen hailed from Coimbra, the nation’s oldest university, whereas Adolfo Casais Monteiro (1908-1972) was from Porto, where he briefly worked in the magazine A Águia (famous for the guidance of the poet Teixeirade Pascoaes). He was also a Pessoa scholar, in fact we owe to him the fundamental letter which Pessoa sent him (1935) explaining the genesis of his heteronyms: Alberto Caeiro, Ricardo Reis and Álvaro de Campos, one of the cornerstones of Pessoan studies. Pessoa collaborated with the magazine since its inception and there’s a whole book of just the letters he wrote them. Casais Monteiro was also a poet, although a late bloomer: according to him, he didn’t write poetry until he discovered Presença, at the age of 19. If they had done nothing else with their lives save recognising the greatness of their forerunners, that would have been a tremendous feat. As it is, they took up the cause of Pessoa’s generation, rehabilitated it, explained it, and divulged it to the general public. I just wish to make this absolutely clear to any person who may have enjoyed reading the poems of Alberto Caeiro, or The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis, or The Book of Disquiet: these three men gave the world the poetry of Fernando Pessoa and deserve our lasting gratitude.

João Gaspar Simões

Until 1940, Presença was the centre of Modernism in Portugal. Critics have argued, and certainly not incorrectly, that this new generation was not as radical and genial as the first one. Casais Monteiro doesn’t deny it, but he puts the question in different terms. For him, the first Modernism was chaotic and expressive, the second Modernism was theoretical and pedagogical, in the sense that it sought to educate the general public:

The Orpheu group subsisted – but kept itself as if segregated, unanimously held as a handful of ‘madmen.’ It remained a faction, it did not surrender, but only thanks to Presença will it slowly conquer the deserved place in the public’s esteem – and what a place: two of the greatest Portuguese poets, Fernando Pessoa and Mário de Sá-Carneiro, and an extraordinary artist, Almada Negreiros! But how is it conceivable that they remained ignored? Precisely because they themselves cultivated this neglect, not just out of their love for ‘pretence,’ but even for a noble independence; finally because that generation did not have the essayists and critics who could fight for their values and impose them on the critics.

It’s hard not to feel his sense of pride in his role as the great ambassador of Orpheu, and he’s certainly entitled to a bit of vanity: Presença was the first to pay these artists homage. He’s also defending the importance of the critic in bridging the distance between the artist and the reader, this is critic’s job. For him the previous generation lacked this ability, or the will, to communicate with the public. Indeed Pessoa and the others did not care about publicity: Pessoa only published one book, Message, in his lifetime, Sá-Carneiro committed suicide in 1916, Santa-Rita died of tuberculosis and left orders to destroy all his paintings. As for the public in 1915, no one tried to make the effort to understand or appreciate the bold new language of these artists. Why, understanding, without judging, is another duty Casais Monteiro assigns to the critic. “The Orpheu generation offered especially an explosion of freedom, in the indiscriminate subversion of values, out of a necessity of opposing the corruption of the time with an absolute negation,” he writes, whereas the new generation gave it a ‘direction’ and also strove to explain their ideas to the public. What their followers did was incorporate the Orpheu in the history of Portuguese literature, from where it had been excluded as an abnormality.

But if the abnormal Orpheu was the great rejuvenator of literature, that means the writers deemed normal by the public had to come under fire from the magazine. Presença also fought for a “living literature” as opposed to a “bookish literature” (terms from a Régio article-manifesto from the earlier issues), that is, an academic, stuffy literature, concerned with good taste and afraid of offending. A living literature was willing to open itself up to new ideas, forms and ways of expression. In a country closed upon itself, they tried to introduce foreign writers and educate the public on modern European literature. The magazine wrote about Proust, Dostoevsky (already known since the 1880s in French translations), Thomas Mann, Gorky, Pirandello, Ibsen, and others. To understand why this ‘normal’ literature left much to be desired one would need direct contact with Portuguese literature between 1900 and 1940. But when Casais Monteiro writes that the Portuguese novel stagnated after Eça de Queiroz, he’s not talking lightly. The Portuguese novel remained ensconced between “urban naturalism and regionalism, also naturalist,” he writes, singling out the name of Aquilino Ribeiro, a writer I can attest extended the 19th century novel well into the new one, or Júlio Dantas (hilariously ridiculed in Almada Negreiros’ famous Anti-Dantas Manifesto) and Correia de Oliveira. None of these writers, to Casais Monteiro, was interested in a “living literature,” looking to the past and averse to creating a new language for the modern world, unlike the rejuvenated language of Pessoa and his comrades. Casais Monteiro quotes Jorge de Sena on calling Pessoa an “indiscipliner of souls,” a genius description. He continues, about the purveyors of “bookish literature:” “A literature of men to whom nothing was more terrifying as ‘shocking’ society and meeting its disapproval. Which did not happen with the great romantics [Almeida Garret and Alexandre Herculano] and certainly not with the Generation of ’70.” His exception is Raul Brandão, who was never as popular with the public as Aquilino. In their critical position, they had no qualms about upsetting some sacred cows, as Régio makes it clear in his manifesto about “living literature:”

Living literature is that into which the artist has breathed his own life, and for that reason starts living its own life. Being that artist a superior man due to his sensitivity, intelligence and imagination, the living literature that he produces will  be superior; inaccessible, therefore, to the conditions of time and of space. And that’s only why the plays of Gil Vicente are amazingly alive, and the comedies of Sá de Miranda insolubly dead; all the books by Judith Teixeira are not worth a song picked out from António Botto; the Sonnets of Camões are wonderful, and the ones by António Ferreira dull; a small preface by Fernando Pessoa says more than a big article by Fidelino de Figueiredo; there is more intimate strength in fourteen verses by Antero than in a little poem by Junqueiro; and a popular saying is more beautiful than a sentence by a man of letters.

José Régio
I nearly agree with him on every "duel" here.

Another danger that emerged in the final years of the magazine is the generation that came out of its adolescence between 1935 and 1940, affected by the Spanish Civil, fascism and the Estado Novo dictatorship, creating fertile ground for “social poetry” and the alignment of writers with the left. On the novel front, neorealism was on the rise, a movement that focused on the proletarian struggle and advanced the caused of the Revolution. Practitioners include Soeiro Pereira Gomes and Alves Redol, writers more concerned with portraying the exploited wretched than in matters of quality and style. Presença detested “routine, academicism, formalism and moralising hypocrisy,” it did not care about values but “the revelation of personality,” the total expression of the artist. “Making statements,” writes Casais Monteiro, “is not the role of a work of art, but of criticism or the essay; the domain of art is expression. Here’s a very simple thing that continues to be very obscure for a lot of people.” His motto was that art should be, not serve. In this they too followed Pessoa, who deplored political commitment and was concerned with pure aesthetics. In the late 1930s they certainly needed to defend the importance of originality, sincerity and personality. The magazine’s doctrine that enshrined plurality of views, total individual expression and intellectual freedom did not sit well with several factions. Not just with the fascist status quo (the magazine was born one year after the military coup) but also with the clandestine Portuguese Communist Party, which had nothing but contempt for writers and thinkers who refused to put their pens at the service of the Revolution, traitors of the proletariat. To the PCP intellectuals such as the men who edited Presença were nothing bourgeois intellectuals living in ivory towers, and the magazine was criticised by the left for being oblivious to the great social problems and for dehumanizing art with its stress on subjective individualism instead of collective aspirations. In sum, the PCP wanted the magazine to adhere to the tenets of socialist realism. But Régio, Gaspar Simões, and Casais Monteiro did not want their magazine to be a school, because a school “presupposes one, and only one master – at least in literature,” and they were against masters and fettered personalities. Amidst the outdated men of letters and the polarizing political situation, Casais Monteiro reiterates that Presença “was essential in establishing criticism as a responsible discipline, giving precedence to interpretation and situation over judgement, to aesthetic opinion over moral or social, in reaction against ‘normative’ criticism and the one that presumes to be scientific.” The magazine was a place that made “possible the exercise of free, anti-dogmatic criticism” without subservience to political instrumentalization of literature. As a doctrine and program, I feel a lot of sympathy for it, for its commitment to individuality and self-expression, especially because the PCP was hardly a role model of good behaviour. Although the underground party was probably the best organized force against the regime, it was a case of wanting to topple a right-wing dictatorship to implement a Soviet one.

The magazine terminated in 1940 due to a disagreement between Gaspar Simões and Casais Monteiro. Their relationship never healed after that, and Gaspar Simões spent the next decades denigrating and downplaying his former friend’s role in the magazine. Casais Monteiro, on the other hand, mocks his early infatuation with Freud’s theories, put to use in his biographies of Eça and Pessoa. In later years both men got into name-calling and refuting each other’s interpretations of the magazine’s legacy. And in this particular case I’m reading from Casais Monteiro’s perspective. Since both men have written their versions of the history of Presença, I can’t take everything Casais Monteiro writes in this book at face-value, and even if Gaspar Simões’ vanity and spitefulness are true, they not diminish his achievements as a tremendous critic. Casais Monteiro, however, never wavers in his admiration for José Régio, whom he considered the greatest Portuguese poet since Pessoa (a topic for a future post, I hope), and also pointed out his role in bringing attention to neglected writers like Camilo and Sá-Carneiro, overshadowed by the more popular Eça and Pessoa.

Although Presença died in 1940, fortunately it had sowed seeds that were beginning to blossom in original new ways. In the same year a seminal poetry magazine came out, Cadernos de Poesia, introducing a new generation of poets – Jorge de Sena, Sophia de Mello Breyner, Eugénio de Andrade, Ruy Cinatti – whose motto was poetry for poetry’s sake, independent from party guidelines. As Sena’s letters to Sophia show, the PCP also hounded them for the same motives. Vergílio Ferreira, who had written his first novels in the neorealist fashion, took a turn to Sartrian existentialism. Towards the end of the decade surrealism made its brief but powerful appearance in Portugal, in the form of Alexandre O’Neill, Mário Cesariny, Pedro Oom and António Maria Lisboa. One could say that Presença disappeared when it was no longer necessary. Unfortunately “bookish literature” continues to exist, but Portuguese literature has only come out richer and bolder from Presença’s opening the nation to new influences and ideas.

Friday, 13 December 2013

So you want Gonçalo M. Tavares?

I know I overwhelmingly neglect contemporary Portuguese literature. In my atavistic love for long dead writers I keep coming back to Eça de Queiroz and Fernando Pessoa. I don’t know contemporary literature that well apart from José Saramago and António Lobo Antunes (love the former, find the latter so-so), and I don’t care a lot about the fates of José Luís Peixoto, valter hugo mãe (who writes his name just like that), Nuno Camarneiro, Jacinto Lucas Pires, João Tordo and Gonçalo M. Tavares. In fact apart from the last name, or else this post wouldn’t exist, I haven’t read anything by anyone on that list. I always feel some anxiety about reading Portuguese literature, I always expect a disappointment, in fact I don’t count myself as a fan. I’m not a fan for the same reasons that Miguel de Unamuno extols it: the overwrought sentimentality; the egocentric lyricism; the cult of suffering, pain, melancholy and death practised by our men of letters. What the venerable Spaniard considers praise, though, to me is the diagnosis of a national pathology.

Eduardo Lourenço, philosopher and literary critic, once made a pertinent observation: our novels are stuffed with monologues, usually of a despondent, pained tone; we use them sing our sorrows, not to create characters, invent situations and create a space for clashes of conflicts and worldviews; that polyphony of which Mikhail Bakhtin and Milan Kundera speak in their essays, and which constitutes the richness of the novelistic form, has had a hard time penetrating in our literary habits. In our novels, a single voice dominates the narrative, more interested in introspection than description or imagination. On top of that there’s something very outdated about our writers. Agustina Bessa-Luís, allegedly our greatest living novelist, writes as if the novel hasn’t advanced since Thomas Hardy. I’ve given up reading her. The reasons for our chronic depression are of course explained by history, whereas the backwardness of our literature has to do with our geographical position, in Europe’s corner, cut off from the circulation of European ideas, but also with too many centuries living under the gauntlet of the Inquisition.

I regularly read Eça de Queiroz, Fernando Pessoa and José Saramago because they’re anomalies in this grim panorama; I presume it’s because each was influenced by external sources: Eça by France, Pessoa by England, and Saramago by Spain and Latin America. In general, though, our literature is backward, isolationist, stiff and ignorant of foreign writers and ideas. It is no coincidence, I think, why these three are our most widely translated authors.

But they’ve also started translating this upstart called Gonçalo M. Tavares, and people keep pestering me about him, and I got tired of replying that I know nothing about him. So I decided to read a couple of books. The man comes very well recommended, by the way: he’s won countless awards and prizes, national and international; Eduardo Lourenço and António Lobo Antunes praise his books; Spanish author Enrique Vila-Matas thinks he’s one of the most promising young writers out there, and one day, after I also bother to read anything by Mr. Vila-Matas, and if I enjoy it, I may actually give a hoot about his opinions. My beloved José Saramago also vouched for young Gonçalo, but then again once upon a time he also admired Fidel Castro and he died thinking Hugo Chávez was going to lead South America into a golden era, so what did he know besides writing excellent novels? Born in 1970, Tavares published his first book in 2001; since then he’s published dozens of books, organized into different series. For instance, one such series is called The Neighbourhood, which imagines a fictional neighbourhood populated by people called Mr. Calvino, Mr. Valery, Mr. Juarroz, Mr. Kraus, Mr. Walser, get it? You can read a review at The Mookse and the Gripes. Another series is called The Kingdom, a series of novels of which Jerusalem, Learning to Pray in the Age of Technique and Joseph Walser’s Machine are a part; bizarrely, but not uncommonly for translations, the first novel, Um Homem: Klaus Kump, is not yet available in English. I don’t think Tavares is an awful writer, but I fail to see any greatness so far. The funny thing is that he doesn’t wallow in miserable monologues, he actually has a sense of humour (very rare amongst us), and he clearly strives to invent engaging situations. Not to mention he’s very determined to innovate with each new book. Some of his books defy and implode genres and media, mashing them up into new configurations. His latest book seems to mix essay, fiction and photos and has a very strange title: Atlas of the Body and the Imagination. He’s supposed to be what I want. Maybe we started on the wrong foot.

So far I’ve read two collections of short-stories. One I found mediocre, the other was alright. I began with Histórias Falsas (2005), whose title means false histories or stories; since his characters are historical figures, the ambiguity is deliberate. Tangentially the nine stories are about historical people, but told from the perspectives of fictional or secondary characters: a story of infidelity involving Marcus Aurelius’ wife, Faustina; the story of the rich Listo Mercatore who is influenced by Diogenes’ philosophy; the story of the tyrant who allegedly killed Zeno; the story of a Greek follower of Lao Tse. My personal favourite was about the fictional Arquitas, a man who’s entrusted with Homer’s comic epic, Margites. So, stories, about philosophers and wise men and about how their thoughts shape the lives of others. The word wisdom is constantly bandied about, as if Tavares believes that repeating it will magically imbue with the profundity it desperately seeks, although it never rises above banalities; the man seems particularly infatuated with the book’s oft-repeated line that power curves itself to wisdom, Tavares is an intellectual so he has to toot his own horn, but a casual glance at history shows that power only cares about intellect to use it, not to be used by it. A while ago I happened upon a newspaper article by the historian Vasco Pulido Valente, the go-to guy for 20th century Portuguese history, that dated from the early 90s, in which he made a shocking claim, to me anyway: the article was about how neoliberals have successfully imposed their ideology on the current era, but what I found especially upsetting was that he called Henry Kissinger an intellectual. This was upsetting because never before had I considered Kissinger an intellectual, for me he was just a politician, a different creature, but as Valente rightly says, and which I ignored, Kissinger was a historian, therefore an intellectual, before he joined the Nixon administration. It was also upsetting because it seems like a slander against the word intellectual. But he’s absolutely right, and I’m just an idealistic fool. Often Tavares tried to shock me with this book, but it never succeeded, unlike that little article.

The book, however, has made me think about how easy it is to manipulate the reader’s critical attitude towards a book. For instance, if a writer adds an epigraph to a book, and that epigraph happens to be a line taken from a Jorge Luis Borges poem, it’s easy to steer readers into certain associations. As it happens, the reviews I’ve read of this book have brought out the predictable adjective Borgesian. No doubt had he added a line from Raymond Carver they’d call it Carvaresque. At least the man has good taste in epigraphs. I don’t see enough similarities between their work to understand the comparison. What distinguishes Borges from other writers is that he was perhaps the only person who wrote literature without people. His is a literature purely of ideas, objects and concepts: gigantic libraries, books with infinite pages, fake books, fake book reviews, labyrinths, fictional religious sects, supernatural artefacts. Even when he creates characters, they’re mostly ideas – the Immortal from ‘The Immortal’, or the man who couldn’t forget anything from “Funes The Memorious.” As radical as he’s sometimes called, Tavares doesn’t have the tilted imagination to write outside the prison of humanness. Perhaps Tavares was thinking about the youngish Borges of A Universal History of Iniquity, but this collection was clearly inspired by Marcel Schwob’s Vies Imaginaires. Schwob, a French symbolist writer of fantasy and horror stories, famous in his time but now forgotten, wrote this curious compendium about famous men, poets, killers, leaders, and thinkers – Burke and Hare, Captain Kidd, Empedocles, Herostratus, Petronius, Pocahontas, etc. Through their lives he praised all that was marvelous, vile and mysterious in human history. As I saw the names of Zeno, Diogenes, Homer and Marcus Aurelius on each page, this was the writer I kept thinking of, certainly not Borges.

Água Cão Cavalo Cabeça (2006) moves into weirder territory, and for that reason I enjoyed it more. Just from the title one can tell this is not a normal book: Water Dog Horse Head. As a title it makes no sense, but then again neither do most stories inside. But first of all let’s read the first three stories:

The old lady whose head shakes, in the café

   Silence, not like at mass or in the army. The fright that suspends us completely comes from within. As if my feet existed the moment before and disappeared the next moment.
   You’re going to die, my dear. Prepare your black shoes, you have to buy black shoes, don’t forget.
   An old lady seated in the café trembles in the head, she can’t hold it; sometimes she does the actual gesture (of trying to hold it), but she doesn’t have strength in the hands either, and life is petty, it’s banality, it’s sickness and blood. In the cafés, in beds with lovers, in the chair waiting for father’s death, in the street, unawares, one dies everywhere, in every space and time; it must have happened (by the hundreds) during mass, during a funeral thousands must have died, fell on the ground, one immediately thinks a fainting: for whom do we weep now that there are two dead and where do we go if there are two processions moving in opposite directions?
   Two soldiers, instead of burying the corpses of their friends killed in battle, escaped their orders, and in a small bar, still with the uniform stained with blood, send for a woman – a prostitute – and both go upstairs with her to a room and fornicate her. One putting his penis in the mouth and the other fornicating her from behind, like dogs do to bitches and men to women or to other men.


   At a given moment they stopped. The bloodied dog howled. But it wasn’t dead.
   (We’re all brothers, brothers.)

   Let’s suppose she was called Maria and was a bad and false woman. One day, without knowing why, she had two men around her. She was grabbed, thrown onto the floor, raped.
   Maria arrived home and couldn’t say a thing. Her sister cried. Maria had blood-shot eyes, her body dark, she trembled, unable to speak. Blood on the clothes.
   And for Maria – who was bad, always scheming, false – for her certain people cried. Five at least (for I counted them): the sister, the mother, the father, a girl (sometimes they talked); and some other person who hasn’t been seen until today.
   What do I care about dogs? An animal is more or less a machine and in their struggle may the best one win. Hitting a dog is the same as spanking a machine. What’s the point, what wickedness is that?
   Chance and circumstances. It’s fate, the crossing between an event and a man, which amplifies or not the kingdom of banality. It depends little on the man – almost everything is imposed by his day, by his demands for almost always obscure things.
   And the only phenomenon strange to the survival instinct that orders any man, animal or existing angel, is love. But love is so popular amongst the living it’s become a feeling of crowds: one must fear it the way one fears the mottos of any exalted crowd.
   The dog may be seen as balanced music (harmony is the word) due to its four legs (like an organic table). But if you cut one of the dog’s paws our live changes, and bleeds everything, like one who is betrayed by a woman or the death of one’s father.


   The toothache, tremendous: how can reason move with this local, stupid fever?
   Start singing, imbecile: the voice washes away the fever, hides it. Anyway, it, the fever, is better in others than in you.
   Jazz music (in the back).
   A bar in the middle of Paris, two prostitutes doing gestures (a scene, as we call it), the thigh is too lascivious – like a donkey’s erect penis.
   How are you? You’re a beautiful woman.
   I fall asleep, this black garter, the music.
   From outside someone comes from the rain, they tell me my father is burning and I say:
   I ask for another beer.
   “This music, do you hear it? Someone said words were invented by deaf people. You should sing, my dear, make noises with your body.”
   On rainy days: you write with the finger on the wet glass. There are words that, written, cut the glass  like thieves’ tools. Example? This sentence:
   The animal gnawed my father’s bones.
   On television, days ago, they talked about a theft of rifles and ammo.
   There are armed men outside: I hide myself in the brain.
   The woman sings a stupid song. The dog wants to get in the bar and the prostitute kicks him hard in the nose.
   I say:
   “Your black garter.”
   “It’s for this,” she said.
   “The same thing, undress slowly!”
   The song ended.
   “The money first.”
   “No,” I say, “the black garter first.”
   She removes the garter.
   “Now the money.”
   (I’ll cut her neck, I’ll cut her neck, I’ll cut her neck.)
   I get the wallet out of the jacket and take off the jacket. I take the money out of the wallet. I take off the shirt. I give her the money (I was going to give her shirt instead of the money, what are you thinking? In death, brother, in death.)
   “Money’s missing.”
   (Do I slap her? Do I?) I slap her and say:
   “You shouldn’t kick dogs that want to listen to jazz.”
   She asks:
   “Why did you hit me?”
   Dogs don’t listen to jazz easily. (I didn’t tell her that.)
   I gave her the rest of the money and some more:
   “For being so nice,” I said, “and for not screaming when I hit you more.”
   “You won’t hit me more.”
   I gave her a punch – on the right side of the face. I went to the jacket. A larger note. I gave it to her.
   She’s bleeding. She insults me:
   “Bastard!” (She doesn’t understand I like playing; should I show her already all my hatred for things?)
   I started talking, undressing my pants:
   “And if you drop fire on my brain
   I’ll continue to bring you in my blood.”

   “That’s verses,” I said.
   A poet.
   She repeated:
   But she continued to undress.

   I started talking. I said:
   “The dog trying to get in a bar full of smoke.”
   I’m naked and it rains, the rain is idiotic and evokes remorse, but we’re guilty of anything, my dear, you didn’t fish me, Christ, I survived the saints, I’m here in the prostitute’s house and I’m going to kill her.
   “I have here a medical report,” I say.
   “Don’t bother me, you son of a bitch,” she says. (She still didn’t understand I like the game, do I show her my hatred for things? Wait; first the game. Playing with other people’s anguish.)
   “It’s a head scan.”
   I went to pick it up. I pulled it out of the envelope.
   (I’m naked and she has a disgusting body: the tits, hair in the belly button, broken thighs.)
   “You’re not very pretty,” I said.
   She removes (puts on?) one of her black garters.
   “I’ll show you.”
   I took out the head scan. I sat next to her in the bed with the scan in hand. I’m naked and excited, and she has a filthy body. I show her the scan.
   “This is a head and this head has problems.”
   She asks me:
   “When do we fuck?”
   “A brain can be seen from inside like ribs. See?”
   The sagging tits, filthy, a fruit with a rotten bit touching my shoulder.
   “I’m getting dressed,” she said but remained seated in the bed, exactly in the same position. “You’re crazy.”
   I thought: I’m going to cut your head like in the guillotines.
   (A tremendous toothache.)
   I get up, I’m naked, I take the scan in my hand, the rain doesn’t stop, fortunately, the wet pane: don’t write that sentence.
   I grab the scan and placed it on the pane. I explain the differences between the parts of the brain, but the woman isn’t listening, she’s crying.
   “You locked the door,” she said.
   “I’m going to talk some more,” I said. “Then I’m going to cut your throat with the scan’s paper.”
   I moved it (the paper) along my index finger and cut myself. I started bleeding:
   “It’s very sharp,” I said.
   A blade like five scan leaves glued to each other.
   She’s trembling. The jazz music doesn’t reach here because we climbed many stairs (what floor are we in?) and there are doors, a row of them timber and timber and timber.
   A study on sound. Timber and timber and stairs and timber and timber.
   “You’re going to die before my father,” I told her, and she spat on me, “and it’s fair,” I told her.
   The rain.

I transcribed these three to make my point that this is a book about loose associations. The first three stories goad the reader into thinking they’re connected, but it’s a purely associative trick of the mind. A prostitute has sex with two soldiers, then we move on to a woman who’s been raped by two men (the same event in different words?), next we go back to a prostitute (the same?). Whatever may be, the reader’s mind starts looking for patterns. The book is, I think, very much about those things, like the title, where we try to find connections between the items: dog and horse are both animals; dog, horse and water both start with the letter c in Portuguese; or is there a progression – element, animals, head (brain)? Knock yourself out. Tavares clearly relishes in trapping us in such sleuthing, and for that reason the book is full of soldiers, prostitutes, dogs (symbols of violence and rage?), children (lots of strained relationships between parents and children),  disease and injuries, and crimes and perversions like murder, suicide, adultery, incest, plus general cruelty and insanity, a big tapestry of signs and echoes. In particular the book returns to prostitutes, not only do they show up as characters, but out of nowhere the narrator starts using them as metaphors:

If they knock you down, fight on your knees, the ancients said. If they knock you down even further, I say, if they knock you down completely, if they thrown you onto the ground, become a prostitute.


To throw something far away first you need to hold that thigh tight, then make a quick jerk with your arm, and finally suddenly halt and project the wrist forward. That’s how prostitutes expel their heart when they suck with their lipstick-painted mouth the penis of the old man they don’t know, and the bed has springs that emit noises (shrieks) at the same time the prostitute sucks the penis of the old man who’s seated and waits, and that’s how the catapult works.

He goes for shock in a lot of scenes:

There was music in the funeral – what was his name? – and the bums have more decorum with music than with their dicks. In the bathroom they compare size, piss, one onto the other, laugh boisterously. Their pants pissed, bending with laughter, like petty and lively chimpanzees. But not with music.

No, really, here’s the ending of one about a girl with mental problems:

   Once a seven-year-old boy called the girl freak and mental retard, but most of the boys and girls in the street would never do such a thing. The boy who insulted her received a slap from his own parents when they heard:
   - You shouldn’t do that, they told him.
   Yes, you shouldn’t do that, that’s mean. You should never do that.

Most of the time he’s just plain bizarre, like in this startling discovery at a poetry reading party:

I lift one of the pan’s lids and see the head of a black cat. It scares me. I close the lid. These guys are crazy. I didn’t scream and made no noise. I’m alone in the kitchen.

And then there’s the bullying, confrontational, direct style of the narrator:

At the café they hate me for taking books and reading them, and writing. They accept and like someone who takes a newspaper and reads for hours, seated. It’s a matter of not feeling stupid, but they are stupid.

From Borges to, I don’t know, Dostoevsky? That killer’s ‘tremendous toothache’ is a dead giveaway. Nothing in it ever manages to shock me, but perhaps I’m just a jaded person, save when I read Kissinger being called an intellectual. I think Tavares is trying too hard to be unpleasant, to upset the reader, to show how he’s so good at creating this cesspit of nihilistic chaos full of weirdness and evil. I’m sure there are people in this world still affected by the likes of that, but I don’t believe in his unpleasantness, perhaps because I have a sense he hasn’t lived it (and he can’t fake it). Lobo Antunes is a lot more credible at doing the voice of the rabid, deranged misanthropic hater, the man did see horrifying stuff in the war in Africa (or perhaps he didn’t and he’s just better at faking this stuff).

I liked this one better, at least the dark humor makes it more palatable, which is to say I wasn’t fully bored by it like in Histórias Falsas. This book continues to have a serious problem for me: I just don’t like Tavares’ prose, I find it ugly; the vocabulary is simplistic (which is something quite unusual for Portuguese writers, so he’s actually radical), and I can’t feel any beauty in his short declarative sentences. Is the man afraid of subordinate clauses? Does he think he’s writing for a newspaper? At least there’s an explanation for how he’s published 32 books in just a decade, with such a vast output the next book I read may actually be good.