Friday, 31 October 2014

Important Announcement: The Travels of Mendes Pinto

I just discovered, via Book Depository, that the University of Chicago Press is releasing a paperback edition of Fernão Mendes Pinto's 1614 book of voyages, one of the jewels of Portuguese literature.

Mendes Pinto (1510/14-1583) was a seaman, a diplomat, a pirate, a slaver, an explorer, an ambassador, a Jesuit novice and a celebrated writer. In 1537, in the height of the Discoveries, when the mysterious Orient had snared many of his countrymen’s minds with its wonders and riches, he boarded a ship heading to India. This was the beginning of a strenuous sojourn abroad that consumed more than 20 years of his life, and that took him to Malaysia, modern-day Myanmar, Siam, the Moluccas, China and Japan. In his travels he attacked ships, enslaved crews and was many times enslaved and sold himself, and was one of the first Europeans to make contact with many Asian nations. He took part in one of the earliest Portuguese expeditions to Japan, and he prided himself on having helped introduce firearms there.

What makes this such a great book? First of all, its realism; Mendes Pinto was not writing, like Marco Polo, from hearsay, or making stuff up like Mandeville: he was a truthful observer of everyday reality and his eyewitness accounts have historical value as richly detailed descriptions of that era. He was not working from former canons; like many of the great Portuguese explorers of that century, who were thankfully quite ignorant of Latin and the ancient authorities, and poor students of Humanism, he ignored all the nonsense from the Greeks and Romans and set about rewriting what was known about geography from personal experience. He was, and this is no understatement, one the earliest modern European traveller to apply what we now call the scientific method, free from preconceived notions, to travel writing.

He’s also important in anthropological and post-colonial studies. He was a generous, tolerant, unbiased observer of foreign customs; oh, he was a bloody, brutal man, a throat-cut pirate with slaves, but that had not so much to do with European superiority as with the fact that that was how things were in the ocean: one day you made a fortune, the next day you were someone else’s fortune. And for all his bad luck, he never lost his ability to look at others, or the Other, with humanity and respect, carefully detailing their rituals and dresses and foods and manners with a wondrous gaze. At the same it’s quite critical of the expansion of the Portuguese Empire, built on war and rapacity.

And it also reads like a great thriller, or adventure novel, or picaresque novel. There are pillaging of native villages, pirate pursuits, violent shipwrecks, and the protagonist wanders around in rags in China where he’s captured and treated with much curiosity.

Finally it’s a great autobiography; perhaps it’s even the first great autobiography of an anti-hero; Mendes Pinto doesn’t mince words about his taste for plunder, slaves, money and power, and is quite graphic on the means he achieved his goals. At the same time he’s quite critical of himself and the final pages sees himself seeking atonement in the Company of Jesus, after meeting its founder, St. Francis Xavier. It was a crazy life. After two decades in Asia he returned to Portugal, secluded himself in a farm and wrote his memoirs between 1569 and 1578, although they were only published in 1614, after receiving the Inquisition’s approval. When it came out, it was so fantastic people thought he had made it all up and for a long time he was considered a liar, at worst, or at best a great fabulist. But it was a bestseller and endures as a great work of literature.

You want more praise? Brazilian novelist Guimarães Rosa vouches for it. Speaking of his “passion for ancient Portuguese authors,” the wordsmith and polyglot once declared in an interview that he pinched archaic vocabulary from Mendes Pinto for his famous novel, The Devil to Pay in the Backlands.

The book is translated and edited by Rebecca D. Catz, an expert on Mendes Pinto. The book was translated as The Peregrination in the ‘90s, but that edition only has 450 pages; the new one has over 700 and is in the hands of a person who has been studying the author for decades now. Everyone should rush to buy it because it’s one of the literary events of 2014.

Tuesday, 28 October 2014

Gustav Meyrink: Der Kardinal Napellus

As you all know, Jorge Luis Borges, or Georgie as he was called then, spent his youth in Europe, travelling. The timing wasn’t good since the trip coincided with World War I, and the Borges decided to stay in neutral Switzerland waiting for the conflict to end. Georgie decided to make the most of his time by learning German, a hobby he attributes to reading Thomas Carlyle. Better informed readers will know the relationship between Carlyle and the German language. Anyway, in 1916, Georgie, living in Geneva, bought an English-German dictionary and tried to read Goethe, Kanta, Heine’s poetry, readings that would remain with him forever. Around that time one baroness Helene von Stummer introduced him to Gustav Meyrink’s The Golem, thanks to which he discovered the Kabala, and he was hooked on the author’s work, which so strongly appealed to his taste for wonder, mysticism and horror. “Contrary to his contemporary, the young Wells, who sought in science the possibility of the fantastic, Gustav Meyrink sought it in magic and overcoming of any and every mechanical artifice.” In 1929, back in Argentina, he translated some of his short-stories into Spanish and sent a copy to Meyrink; he wrote back a letter wherein, “perhaps because he didn’t know our language well, praised my translation.” Always humble, Georgie.

Der Kardinal Napellus is one of the volumes composing Borges’ legendary Library of Babel collection. As I state from time to time, one of my life objectives is to read every volume. The list has many virtues: first of all, if you happen to find the actual volumes, they come included with short prologues by Borges himself. But the selections also have the value of directing us to strange, interesting but time-forgotten writers, and they tell us so much about Borges’ tastes and influences. Some are extraordinary discoveries, but I’ve also tended to meet one or two disappointments; Meyrink, I fear gravitates more towards the latter.

Perhaps reading him in the 21st century is not as exciting as it was in 1916, perhaps the novelty doesn’t seem that novel anymore; for me his mixture of weirdness, mystical nonsense, suspicion of science, and raptures of insanity just tend to blend into the stuff produced by other fantasy writers of the time. His prose, to make matters worse, isn’t particularly interesting, it’s bland and straightforward in the style Borges favoured and incredibly made look so enticing. None of this would be problematic if the stories were strong, but for me they weren’t. The volume contains three short-stories, each one wackier than the other.

In the first one, which gives the volume its title, one lonely, sulky Hieronymus Radspieller spends his days on a lake working on a probe to reach its depths. The people in the region consider him an oddball and harbour stories about him. One day he meets them in an inn, excited and sad because his probe has reached the bottom of the lake, the greatest depth known to man, and now he doesn’t know what he’ll do next; his life has lost its meaning. Down-beaten, he starts telling them his past. In his youth he belonged to a religious sect, the Blue Friars, whose emblem is the aconitum napellus flower. The friars water these blue flowers with the blood from their own flagellation and also feed doses of its venom to their sectarians. Radspieller explains the many rituals and his growing fear that the flowers are vampire-like creatures sucking away his vitality, leaving him empty. The more he thinks about it, the more doubts he gets about staying with the friars, so he runs away and devotes his life to science. Then at the end something happens that turns him insane.

In another story, someone called J.H. relates a story to a young man about a religious order he belonged to with his grandfather. Meyrink loves sects and cults and religious orders. The narrator finds out this Johann Hermann who has discovered immortality; the method has to do with living in abnegation of worldly things, in order to counteract the “vipers of hope” which he also calls the “Blood Leeches.” Hope, desires, waiting, for him these are the things stopping men from attaining immortal life; they age people, sap away their life force (again the life force). If man stops wanting things, he goes on living forever, for “what we call life is just death’s waiting room. Suddenly I realized in that precise moment what time is; we ourselves are forms generated by time, bodies that seem matter, but are nothing but coagulated time.” Impressed the narrator tries to follow his austerity, but realizes he can’t be like him, immortality is out of his grasp.

In the last story, a bastard is hired by a nobleman as his gardener. But strange things are going on in the mansion. He narrates a meeting between his employer and other men; it turns out they’re members of some secret cult that is fighting to save Mankind’s soul from the 20th’s plunge into mechanization, at least that’s what I think their goal is. “In this last quarter of a century, the mechanical principle swiftly conquered a consistent supremacy, we can declare it with all tranquillity; however if things turn out as we expect, in this 20th century mankind almost won’t have time to see sunlight, it’ll be too busy cleaning, oiling, keeping intact and repairing the machines’ pieces, which don’t stop increasing.” All of this worries them because Man might have the power to conquer and civilize the cosmos, and that’s a bad idea. “How do you think the moon would look like after two weeks? In each crater there would be a race track, and, all around it, areas for draining off sewage.” And that’s not the worse part. “Would you peradventure like the planets to be telephonically connected according to the Stock’s working hours, and that the Milky Way’s double stars be forced to display official marriage certificates?” This’s like crazy talk, man! Well, the Moon Brothers, as they are called, won’t go down without a fight. Too late the gardener discovers he’s there to be used in part of a ritual, whose purpose is not very clear. Or, as the final pages imply, maybe he’s insane. Maybe he’s insane tends to neatly explain away every incoherence in Meyrink, meaning they’re not incoherences after all.

I can’t completely dislike these stories because they’re filled with unexpected insanity. Meyrink perhaps was not a great writer but his mind clearly didn’t operate on any recognizable level, I’m not even sure it belonged to this dimension. I can certainly see why Borges fawned over Meyrink, although I can’t say I share his admiration for the Austrian author. Still, there was something seriously deranged about German-language literature around this time: Meyrink, Alfred Kubin’s The Other Side, Franz Kafka. What was wrong with these people?

Sunday, 26 October 2014

José Saramago: some pictures

I've been too busy, not lazy, to write more often this month; but in an effort to keep some activity around here, I found just the short, quick and easy thing to post. Today I returned home with a new book from a second-hand bookshop. It's called Ler Saramago: o romance, by Beatriz Berrini, a Brazilian literary scholar, and it's a collection of essays on the great novelist; it was published in August 1998, just months before his receiving the Nobel Prize. Strangely enough the book is now out of print, which only makes me more excited for owning a copy.

One of the coolest bits about it is a series of photographs at the end of him hanging around with other writers; I thought you'd like to have a look at them. The first one shows Saramago with Israeli novelist Amos Oz and their Brazilian editor, Luiz Schwarcz. Oz is the short one:

This is him with Italian playwright and Nobel Prizer recipient Dario Fo. When Fo received it in 1997, the next day he phone Saramago to apologize for "stealing" his prize. That's the kind of good humour and generosity I always associate with Fo:

Here he's with two of his pet dogs, Camões and Pepe, stray dogs he adopted on the Lanzarote island. Saramago is a huge dog lover, and they show up in several of his novels:

This one shows him with Portuguese poet Eugénio de Andrade and Spanish poet Rafael Alberti:

This one everyone knows who he is; that's Gabriel García Márquez with his wife, Mercedes:

The following picture was taken in England, when Saramago accepted an honoris causa from Manchester University. This picture, for reasons I can't easily explain, is the most moving to me. The man next to him is the heroic Giovanni Pontiero, his long-time British translator, who kept on translating Blindness even as he himself was dying from an illness which was causing him blindness. Said death occurred February 10, 1996, his birthday:

And these are Josefa da Conceição and Jerónimo Melrinho, his grandparents and the most important people in his life. Saramago's Nobel Prize acceptance speech was about Jerónimo, whom he described as the wisest man he ever knew, even though he was an illiterate pig farmer:

And here's Saramago with the great, but too internationally unknown, Spanish novelist Gonzalo Torrente Ballester:

And Saramago with famous Brazilian novelist Jorge Amado:

Here's Amado and Torrente Ballester again, talking to Brazilian novelist Nélida Piñon, whereas Saramago is entertaining Salman Rushdie:

And finally Saramago with Susan Sontag, who's doing well after her adventure with Fantomas:

Nope, there was no point to any of this.

Sunday, 12 October 2014

Julio Cortázar: Fantomas versus the Multinational Vampires

So you want Argentine literature? You want literature of doom? Well, I have just the thing for you.

In 1911 Marcel Allain and Pierre Souvestre performed a feat of simultaneity: in one fell swoop they wrote one of the worst novels in history and created one of fiction’s most important characters. Certainly, both claims are debatable, the second one more than the first one anyway. Even for the penny dreadful standards of the time, Fantômas is a horrible work of popular fiction. Robert Louis Stevenson, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Jules Verne, Gaston Leroux would be ashamed of sitting in a table with those two. But Fantômas the character was born for the nascent era of bad taste: just a few years later he was being turned by film pioneer Louis Feuillade into a serial that appealed to the illiterate masses that couldn’t even read bad novels. And in the twenties the surrealists, eager to champion any crude, talentless piece of garbage just to upset the bourgeois, turned him into a sort of patron saint. Even Apollinaire and Joyce joined the fantowagon. If you ever read the novel, I recommend the Penguin Classics edition, just for the superb John Ashberry introduction: at the same time he mercilessly explains what’s wrong with it, he demonstrates the reach of the character’s influence across 20th century Modernism. 

As a comic book fan, however, I first noticed Fantômas’ importance via other comics. In 1962, Italian sisters Angela and Luciana Giussani created Diabolik, a super-villain who is one of Italy’s longest-living characters, still published today. Legend has it that Angela got the inspiration from a paperback Fantômas novel abandoned in a train. Diabolik would inspire a whole sub-genre of Italian comics, the fummetto nero, or dark comics, devoted to crime, horror, fantasy stories involving villains and anti-heroes as protagonists. But Diabolik also influenced a Mexican super-villain called Fantômas: in spite of the name, he borrowed Diabolik’s skin-tight mask and a penchant for super-scientific crimes. This Mexican Fantômas had a secret HQ, 12 female assistants named after the zodiac signs, was a millionaire, used his fortune to make the world a better place, went about the world having James Bond-like adventures and hanged around with all the cool people: once he brought Jane Fonda to his lair to watch Luis Buñuel’s The Exterminating Angel. No, really:

And that’s how Fantômas crossed Julio Cortázar’s path. In February 1975 Fantômas #201 found our anti-hero investigating and neutralizing a conspiracy to burn all the libraries in the world and intimate writers into never writing again. This forced him to get in touch with some writers like Octavio Paz, Alberto Moravia, Susan Sontag and Cortázar in order to prevent literature’s doomsday. “For your love of art, do something, Fantômas!” begs a shocked Octavio Paz. “I will, you can count on me!” declares the masked anti-hero. Around this time, the real Cortázar was in Brussels, participating in the Russell Tribunal, which had convened for the second time to investigate crimes by US-backed Latin American dictatorships. Somehow he got wind of the comic book and decided to write a hybrid book mixing his text with its panels, using its plot but taking it in a decidedly more political direction.

I’m not sure when I read Fantomas versus the Multinational Vampires; it must have been around 2002-2004. I think it was my first Cortázar. I’m almost certain I had read Borges and García Márquez by then, and still believed that South American writers were all geniuses. I’m relatively sure that’s why I read him, although I was also taken by the comic book pictures. It didn’t take me long to learn that most South American writers were as mediocre as most non-South American writers, but I didn’t get that conviction from reading this book. Marie-Alexandra Barataud, in an essay on it, calls it the “prototype of a new genre whose definition and nomenclature are yet to be created and determined.” In 2014 we celebrate two Julio Cortázar dates: 100 years since his birth (1914) and 30 years since his death (1984). Semiotext(e) has recently translated this curiosity into English. Thanks to internet hubbub over it, I figured it was time to re-read it. For me there are two main aspects to focus on here: there’s the meta-textual, inter-textual aspect; and there’s the political aspect. If this book will survive it’ll be because of the first one, although I suspect the innovative structure and reference games were just the means to get the second one out. In any event at the time I was too young to appreciate the importance of both.

The third-person narrative starts with “our narrator” (that’s how Cortázar is called throughout the book) coming out of the Russell Tribunal and heading to the train station. Because of the tribunal, “Brussels seemed to have been colonized by the Latin American continent, a detail which to the narrator seemed strange and beautiful at the same time.” Well, hardly beautiful: they were there to give eye-witness accounts of the atrocities carried out by the dictatorships on civilian populations. Stopping in a kiosk to buy a newspaper he’s astonished to find the stands covered only with Mexican periodicals; the newsvendor can’t explain this and he ends up buying a Fantômas comic book, which causes him embarrassment when he finds his co-travellers reading French periodicals. The comic book is of course the episode wherein Fantômas foils a plot to destroy the world’s libraries. The actual cover says, “An exceptional adventure… the world’s culture is burning… Watch Fantomas in trouble, getting in touch with the greatest contemporary writers!” “Who are they?” wonders Cortázar. As it turns out he’s one of them. In the compartment he starts talking to the other passengers, including a blonde reading a celebrity magazine and a priest, who’s horrified at the fact that all the Bibles have disappeared.

Meanwhile Fantomas is alerted to the problem and interrupts a dinner with real-life actress Ira Von Furstenberg. Before he can do anything, though, more libraries burn: in Rome, in France, in Tokyo, in Moscow, in Buenos Aires. “A good thing Borges is retired,” says the narrator. When he arrives in Paris, he gets a phone call from Sontag, giving him a “diastole of joy” since she’s not known for phoning much. Unfortunately she’s calling on serious business: she’s been hospitalized, her legs broken. “You’re up to date, of course,” she says. He’s not. “Hang up and keep reading, stupid.” She means the comic book; he hasn’t reached that part in the story yet. As he turns the page he sees Fantomas telling Libra, one of his assistants, to call a series of writers: Cortázar is on the list. The “real” amusingly remarks the irony of calling him to Barcelona, in the comic book, when he’s actually in Paris, marvelled at his newfound powers of ubiquity. After getting up to date he calls back Susan; she tells him that the comic book’s finale is a false happy ending: Fantomas thinks he’s unmasked and brought down the conspiracy, but he’s barely scratched the surface of the threat. It’s not hard to see where this is going: the book is a criticism of hero narratives about extraordinary individuals who single-handedly make the world a better place. The reality is a bit more complicated than that.

All the meta-textual, genre-hybridization stuff is what makes this book so cool, but there’s no denying this was all a means for Cortázar to make a political statement. At the same time Fantomas was easily saving the world from a wacky plot against books, Cortázar was in Brussels investigating real crimes, real murders, real rapes, real tortures. And no one was paying much attention to that. The passengers he travels with are a microcosmos of that indifference. There’s the sexy but dumb blonde who’s more interested in Claudia Cardinale’s divorce, Alain Delon and Aristotle Onassis’ financial problems. There’s the priest who admonishes a child for playing with marbles, representing the societal forces that exert people not to think outside the box, to behave in public, to obey their masters, , to accept the natural order of things. The narrator himself reflects grimly on the uselessness of spending eight days in the tribunal, “tired ad nauseam of accounts of assassinations, torture, persecutions, prisons in Chile, Brazil, Bolivia, Uruguay (…),” a job perhaps he only took on to placate the “cramp of guilt, of not doing enough, eight days of work for what, for a paper conviction that no immediate power could put in motion (…).” And the people who should take notice of what the Russell Tribunal are doing, i.e. American citizens, probably won’t even know it because the media won’t tell them, so they don’t have to panic about their government being in the business of funding dictatorships and masterminding the overthrow of democracies. As Sontag puts it, “You’d do a lot better if you told the whole world about the tribunal’s composition, because over here, not to say in almost the entire Latin America, no one’s aware of it.” So what better vehicle than fiction to tell the truth and reach out the masses? Moving away from the popular but false lone hero narratives, Cortázar fights on three different fronts. One, he criticises the notion that one single man can solve the world’s problems; the problems are global and it takes everyone’s involvement in them to make a difference. Secondly, he criticises the idealism of defending books. “What are books compared to who reads them, Julio? What good are all those libraries if they’re only available to a few? That too is a trap for intellectuals. The loss of a single book moves us more than hunger in Ethiopia, that’s logic and understandable and monstrous at the same time,” says Sontag. It’s worth noticing that she gets all the smart lines; Julio sounds like a moron being lectured by her: this too is part of the appeal of the book, the narrator’s self-deprecating nature. And three, he ridicules the silliness of comic book plots (really, laser technology that destroys books?) that keep us entertained but oblivious to the interconnections of governments and multinationals. This book serves as an indictment of the CIA, Henry Kissinger, presidents Nixon and Ford, but also of the capitalist system that needs puppet dictators like Pinochet to boost their profits. As the book progresses, the comic book panels give way to actual documents showing the complicity of multinationals in overthrowing South American democracies. Was Cortázar successful in conveying his message? Considering the book was only published in American this year, the country that more urgently needed to read it, the answer is No; as always, he’s just preaching to the converted. But if literature has to be didactic, and I think it can be, this is the way to do it. Aesthetics and ethics all in a neat package.

One is tempted to conclude with one of those “best ever” hyperbolic statements, but I don’t really know what this is best ever of: it’s not the best novel ever written because it’s not a novel; it’s not the best novella ever written because it’s not a novella; it’s not the best comic book ever written because it’s not a comic book. There isn’t a name for what it is, and in that case it can’t be the best ever of anything because there’s nothing else quite like it. Presuming there’s ever anything like it, Fantomas versus the Multinational Vampires raised the bar really high for the next writer.

The Spanish version, complete with pictures, can be read here. This book was read for Richard's Caravana de Recuerdos' 2014 Argentinean (& Uruguayan) Literature of Doom.