Wednesday, 12 August 2015

Against Impossible Translations

e começo aqui e meço aqui este começo e recomeço e remeço e arremesso
e aqui me meço quando se vive sob a espécie de viagem o que importa
não é a viagem mas o começo da por isso meço por isso começo escrever
mil páginas escrever milumapáginas para acabar com a escritura para
começar com a escritura para acabarcomeçar com a escritura por isso
recomeço por isso arremeço por isso teço escrever sobre escrever é
o futuro do escrever sobrescrevo sobrescravo em milumanoites miluma-
-páginas ou uma página em uma noite que é o mesmo noites e páginas
mesmasm ensimesmam onde o fim é o comêço onde escrever sobre o escrever é não escrever sobre não escrever e por isso começo descomeço pelo
descomêço desconheço e me teço um livro onde tudo seja fortuito e
forçoso um livro onde tudo seja nada esteja seja onde umbigodomundolivro um umbigodolivromundo um livro de viagem onde a viagem seja o livro
o ser do livro é a viagem por isso começo pois a viagem é o comêço
e volto e revolto pois na volta recomeço reconheço remeço um livro
é o conteúdo do livro e cada página de um livro é o conteúdo do livro
e cada linha de uma página e cada palavra de uma linha é o conteúdo
da palavra da linha da página do livro um livro ensaia o livro
todo o livor é um livro de ensaio de ensaios do livro por isso o fim-
comêço começa e fina recomeça e refina se afina o fim no funil do

This wall of incomprehensibility constitutes the first 20 lines, or versicles (in the ecclesiastic sense of the word) of the first section of Haroldo de Campos’ experimental tour de force. Between 1963 and 1976, publishing it piecemeal in transient magazines, he composed Galáxias, a powerful potpourri of poetry and prose. A travelogue on the surface, the real journey takes the text to the far end of verbal iconoclasm as Haroldo (known by his first name in Brazil) does away with plot, character, social responsibility and message to focus on language. Brother to so many writers of the time who became suspicious of realist literary conventions (or as he calls it, “orthocento realism”), he set out from the creed that “writing about writing is the future.” For the duration of the book, anyway, he seemed to believe that and created a remarkable work of metafiction that has itself as its subject and destiny.

Physically, the book exhibits a special care and presentation: it is composed of fifty sections, each with a variable number of versicles that never exceeds a whole page; the verso of each section is blank, a deliberate and meaningful choice since the text explores the lacunae between words and readers, the space where the books comes to life as the reader frees himself from it and lets it drift towards the readership. The first and last sections are in italics and have a fixed position, although in theory a shuffling of the middle sections would permit a very high number of permutations that altered interpretations – the ideal edition would allow the reader to move pages around like fascicles. Although in prose, you can see that the lines don’t go all the way to the end of the right margin, but vary in size like verses. The text eschews capital letters and punctuation, and the reader must decide where a sentence ends and another one begins. The first words give the impression of starting in mid point: “e começo aqui” means “and I start here,” which is perhaps the first of many jokes since the use of a lowercase letter gives the impression that in fact something precedes it. That something (for this book invites entering the realm of wild associations), may be something as simple as the author’s awareness of James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake’s influence upon his text:

"riverrun, past Eve and Adam's, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs."

In 1962 Haroldo and his brother, Augusto, took a crack at translating this untranslatable book into Portuguese: the result became a book called Panorama de Finnegans Wake.

Reading Galáxias and other altiloquent, magniloquent, inaniloquent, explaterating gasconades strewn with galimatias written by parisologists and other morologists recently has made me think about the fact that some literature resist translation, that some texts, springing from an author wanting to use the unique qualities inherent in a given language, welding themselves so strongly to its fabric, risk damage on attempts to separate them. And such books exist quite a lot in English. 

I think, for instance, of Christian Bök’s Eunoia, a collection of lipograms. A well-behaved lipogram has trained itself in the art of deliberate aphasia, forgetting a letter or a set of letters for ludic reasons. In organizing his book, Bök divided it in five chapters, each chapter using only words with one specific vowel; for example, Chapter A opens with this text:

"Awkward grammar appals a craftsman. A Dada bard as daft as Tzara damns stagnant art and scrawls an alpha (a slapdash arc and a backward zag) that mars all stanzas and jams all ballads (what a scandal). A madcap vandal caps crafts a small black ankh – a handstamp that can stamp a wax pad and at last plant a mark that sparks an ars magna (an abstract art that charts a phrasal anagram). A pagan skald chants a dark saga (a Mahabharata), as a papal cabal blackballs all annals and tracts, all dramas and psalms: Kant and Kafka, Marx and Marat. A law as harsh as a fatwa bans all paragraphs that lack an A as a standard hallmark."

For its control and virtuosity, for  its elegance and natural flow, the whole book deserves ardent accolades. A quality I notice that Bök shares with Haroldo and the others I deal here is the use of foreign words (fatwa, ars magna) and wordplay (Kant/Kafka, Marx/Marat). These writers who seem so unconcerned with the translatability of their work actually show proficiency in, or at least curiosity about, foreign languages: they see far beyond the parameters of theirs and deal with language beyond a mere species rank, to use a biological analogy here, instead they go up to kingdom rank. Much like an ecologist may not differentiate between animal and plant, this writer doesn’t see the distinction between words and onomatopoeias is like that. We may take the famous example from Finnegans Wake:

"The fall (bababadalgharaghtakamminarronnkonnbronntonnerronntuonnthunntrovarrhounawnskawntoohoohoordenenthurnuk!) of a once wallstrait oldparr is retaled early in bed and later on life down through all christian minstrelsy."

Bök’s book leads me to two thoughts: firstly, that it can’t be translated; secondly, that something similar can’t be created with the Portuguese language, at least not without tremendous effort, and perhaps not even so. The barriers to a translation stem, in part, from the differences that always exist between two languages. But to mind what Bök is also using specific attributes of his language, attributes that don’t exist in Portuguese. For one thing, Bök takes full advantage of English’s simple morphology, namely its fewer conjugations and declensions. As a general rule, verbs in the present tense add an –s at the end to change the person; the past tense gets an –ed; nouns and adjectives, to form a plural, use the –s ending too. Things don’t work like that in Portuguese. An English speaker may decline stanza as stanzas, but, let us say, avatar turns into avatares. Bacchanal just needs that extra –s, but bacanal turns into bacanais. For reasons lost in time, the Portuguese language abhors pairing consonants together, so it constantly wedges them with vowels. The fact that English words tend to be monosyllabic also means they have less vowels per word and so less chances of different vowels per word. So it’s no surprise that Bök uses monosyllables so much: bard, daft, damn, art, scrawl, arc, zag, mar, jam, cap, craft, black, ankh, stamp. This also implies using few Latinate words (another general rule: Anglo-Saxon-based words tend to be shorter). Furthermore, the English word has a very laidback about its look and doesn’t care how it ends. The Portuguese language, though, avoids endings in consonants: so vandal becomes vândalo, and abstract becomes abstracto. In Bök’s hands, English grammar’s poverty in comparison to Romance language’s becomes a strength that he exploits with success.

Of course Bök can’t circumvent the imposition of writing in the present tense to avoid the past tense its their –ed finales. I actually expected Chapter E to be in the past tense, but the author kept it coherent throughout the book. Once again, the idea of finding equivalents in Portuguese is a pipe dream. A literal translation, obsessed with semantics, would not fare very well and would sink in a quagmire of nonsense in no time. Haroldo dos Campos had an interesting for this. As a celebrated translator, he gave much thought to the matter of translating those difficult beasts. He coined the world “transcreation” for the operation of adapting the book to the target-language. In essence he proposed creating an original text using the qualities of the new language. But even so, even taking many liberties, in Bök’s case it would be very difficult to maintain his restraints and produce something. Bök had to use the present tense to stay safe, but that wouldn’t help a Portuguese translator.

A verb like falar (to speak) once conjugated ruins everything: eu falo (I speak), nós falamos (we speak). A solution would be to use the third person of the plural: ele fala (he speaks) since the infinitive form and the third person of the present tense tend to have the same root: andar/anda, parar/pára, calar/cala. In other persons of the verb a consonant change indicates the change of person. This is because Romance sentences have more information than English ones, this is what allows us to eliminate pronouns and maintain clarity. I’m reminded of a point Guy Deutscher makes in Through the Language Glass: it’s not just a matter of what a language leaves out, but what it keeps in.

Another problem I anticipate in a hypothetical translation is the gender of the words. If you want to make a text just with the vowel A, that means you have to use the feminine since – another general rule –  the –a ending means feminine words: menina (girl), gaja (gal), pata (she-duck). Of course it’s more complicated than that: agma (fracture) is feminine, but agalma (decoration) is masculine. The author, in need of vocabulary, would have to mix both genres which would raise more problems, since the definite masculine article is o and the definite feminine article is a, so we’d write a agma and o agalma.

I’m not arguing it’s impossible to do a lipogram like this (I confess that, a few years ago, when I first heard of Eunoia, I tried to write single-vowel poems and quickly gave up), but it brings up many difficulties of which the English language is safe. My real point, really, is that this book is so extraordinary exactly because Bök understands the uniqueness of his language. 

Other books bring up other problems: for instance, texts that rely on sounds, on alliteration. I turn to my fresh copy of John Lyly’s Euphues (edited by Leah Scragg) and transcribe almost at random an entire paragraph

"The freshest colours soonest fade, the teenest razor soonest turneth his edge, the finest cloth is soonest eaten with moths, and the cambric sooner stained than the coarse canvas: which appeared well in this Euphues, whose wit, being like wax, apt to receive any impression, and bearing the head in his own hand, either to use the rein or the spur, disdaining counsel, leaving his country, loathing his old acquaintance, thought either by wit to obtain some conquest, or by shame to abide some conflict; who, preferring fancy before friends and his present humour before honour to come, laid reason in water, being too salt for his taste, and followed unbridled affection, most pleasant for his tooth."

Here we have a taste of Lyly’s heavily-ornate style wherein a alliterations gallop freely: freshest/fade/finest, teenest/turneth, colour/cloth/cambric/coarse/canvas. I especially admire that “stained” at the end because I didn’t really think “soonest” would grow out of its repetitive role: first it created an internal rhythm, but then it ties up the running S sound with that “stained.” Amazing too the preponderance of the C sound, how Lyly almost begins and ends the sentence with it. This is high-precision verbal engineering. The entire paragraph is. Notice how the F sound propels itself through the sentences, notice how it disappears only to reappear in the final sentence with preferring /fancy/before/friends/before/followed/affection. It’s worth remarking that between “finest” and “preferring” he never uses a stressed F syllable – it’s as if he were saving that particular sound for the end, like an echo of the beginning. Is there a reason for that? Is it a matter of design, of symmetry, mirroring beginning and ending? I don’t know, perhaps he just wanted to show – the whole book is about showing off. But it’s impressive nonetheless.

It’s impossible to translate Lyly literally, unless we change the similes and/or the sounds: “canvas” is tela in Portuguese, so that would reorganize the whole sentence; but “cambric” is cambraia, so perhaps we have to change the fabric to words with a stressed T syllable: ciclatão, cretonne, ratina, tarlatana, none of which has the attributes of cambric, of course in transcreation that would not matter. Another problem: as I’ve written before, the English language is monosyllabic, which means its sounds are not just heard but seen immediately on the page, there’s a strong, immediate connection between sound and picture. In a series of words like this – counsel, country, acquaintance, conquest, conflict – only one isn’t instantly visually perceived as having the stress on a C sound. Even words with more than one syllable tend to have the stressed one in the first place: colours, cloth, cambric, coarse, canvas. This makes it a lot easier to spot alliteration in English texts, and I wonder if its English literature’s long infatuation with it doesn’t stem from that. The Portuguese language, in turn, tucks away its stressed sounds in the middle of words.

Another characteristic derived from the monosyllabic nature of the English language is its rhythm. I only noticed this when William H. Gass mentioned George Saintsbury’s A History of English Prose Rhythm. Gass, like Lyly, holds the monopoly on alliteration, but that’s not what interests me here; the author of Middle C also speaks a lot about rhythm. Since I’m always curious to learn more about his art, I hoped Saintsbury could reveal some new facet. Now words in general tend to have at least one stressed syllable, this is what allowed the ancient Greeks to create several metric feet – trochee, spondees, molossus, and so forth. But I didn’t know that some English words could have secondary stresses. The word pronunciation, for instance has stresses in pro-nun-ci-a-tion (red for secondary, bold for primary). This no doubt allowed prose writers like Jeremy Taylor, John Donne and others to avoid combining words that would create a long string of unstressed syllables, keeping the text lively, fast, active. In fact Saintsbury sees in the variety of feet the glory of rhythm:

I had never even noticed, until I was actually writing this comment, and therefore I need hardly assure the reader that I had never, even half unconsciously, led up to the discovery, that in the above scansion no two identical feet l ever follow each other, not so much as on a single occasion. Now we have observed, from the first, that variety of foot arrangement, without definite equivalence, appears to be as much the secret of prose rhythm as uniformity of value, with equivalence or without it, appears to be that of poetic metre.

I mention this in relation to Gass because I noticed that he does the same. I believe he works his prose in a way to keep a sustained balance of stresses syllables. The least random paragraph I can use to substantiate this claim is Middle C’s first paragraph:

Mir-i-am, whom Jo-ey Skiz-zen thought of as his moth-er, Ni-ta, be-gan to speak a-bout the fam-i-ly’s past, but o-nly af-ter she de-cid-ed that her hus-band was safe-ly in his grave. His frown could si-lence her in mid-sen-tence; e-ven his smiles were curved in con-de-scen-sion, though at this time in his ab-sence, her be-loved hus-band’s vir-tues, once ad-mit-ted to be man-y, were writ-ten in lem-on juice. He had a glare to bub-ble paint, she said. Her re-col-lec-tion of that look caused hes-i-ta-tion still. She would a-ppear a-larmed, wave as if she saw some-thing gnat-ting near her face, and stut-ter to a stop. Jo-ey was helped to re-mem-ber how, at sup-per-time, for o-nly then was the fam-i-ly gath-ered as a group, the spoon would be-come still in his fa-ther’s soup, his fath-er’s head would rise to face the di-rec-tion of the of-fend-ing re-mark, his norm-al-ly plac-id look would stiff-en, and fires light in his eye. His stare seemed un-will-ing to cease, al-though it prob-ab-ly was ne-ver held be-yond the life-time of a min-ute. But a min-ute... a min-ute is so long. Cer-tain-ly it con-tin-ued un-til his daugh-ter’s or his wife’s un-easy ex-pres-sion sank in-to the bot-tom of her bowl, and the guilt-y head was bowed in an at-ti-tude of a-pol-o-gy and sub-mis-sion.

I think here we can see a care in composing sentences with a regular beat, avoiding long series of unstressed syllables. This, to my ear at least, gives the text a lively, punchy effect. I don’t presume for this scansion to be definitive; even Saintsbury held doubts about some stresses. However I don’t think minor alterations will change my claim; in fact I made a point of, when in doubt, to consider such words as the, in, of, as, etc. unstressed, so should we stress them that would actually benefit my point.

Part of this effect results from the use of secondary stresses. But when I looked it up, I learned that the Portuguese doesn’t have secondary stresses, because no can agree where they fall. A word like “unconstitutional” has 6 syllables: un-cons-ti-tu-tion-al, that helps keep that regular beat I spoke of; but in Portuguese it has 7 syllables: in-cons-ti-tu-ci-o-nal. This is problematic if we want to also translate the rhythm. Saintsbury’s writers managed to bring Greek metrical feet into prose, effectively creating the often-mentioned but seldom-seen poetic prose, thanks to innate grammatical features. That’s pretty remarkable. Doing the same in the Portuguese language, is quite hard; translating a novel by Gass (to say nothing of his relentless Lyly-like alliteration) would have to ignore this beat. It would not be a terrible loss, to my mind, but again I just want to emphasize the difficulty of translating certain characteristics.

That brings me to Haroldo de Campos’ Galáxias. The abovementioned excerpt displays many of strategies liable to entomb the book in the Portuguese language: first of all we have inner rhymes and alliteration: meço, começo, recomeço, arremesso; the use of agglutination (milumapáginas, or “mil e uma páginas,” meaning “one thousand and one pages.” Also acabarcomeçar, which connects acabar [finish ]and começar [begin]). There are also many word coinages and puns like sobrescrevo (presente tense of to overwrite) and sobrescravo (a blend of sobre and escravo, or over and slave). Other sections present other challenges: alliteration (escoria/cárie, canto/conto), tautology inside word pairs (in the sentence “lumínula de nada” the joke, I guess, is that nula and nada both mean nothing), and portmanteau-words (cascara: máscara + casca, or mask + shell). Words are paired because of similarities or because they rhyme (“arisco árido,” “coração vulcão,” “mais a calma cal a calma cal calada do primeiro momento do primeiro”). Haroldo goes particularly crazy with portmanteau-words in a section devoted to deriding newspaper writing. Galáxias is a book committed to explaining itself, and so it goes by exclusion of parts. Thus it’s very vehement in explaining to the reader that literature and journalism do not go hand in hand. Some of the words it comes up to deride newspapers are priceless, and I imagine a translator would have fun with them:

Forniculário (fornicar and foliculário: to fornicate and a noun meaning crappy journalist)

Dédalodiário (dédalo and diário: a noun derived from Daedelus that means labyrinth, and a daily)

Dromerdário (dromedário and merda: dromedary and shit)

Hebdomesmário (hebdomadário and mesmo: a weekly newspaper and the adjective same, in the sense that newspapers are always the same)

Haroldo is also aware of the difficulty of his book, therefore he schools the reader on how to read it. My favourite pun is when he frontally declares that his book is a “pestseller.” Haroldo is nothing but realistic.

From these many examples we can conclude that discovering and using the unique qualities of a given language is essential in creating literary works of superlative quality. It’s disturbing to consider how little the average writer needs to know of a language to write a book in it. A surgeon who operated with the equivalent of what such writer knows about words would kill most of his patients either out of ignorance, clumsiness or a combination of both. But in the direction of such a meticulous intimacy with language lies probable ostracism and oblivion, for it does not invite translation. Paradoxically, such writers, thanks to their use of multiple foreign languages, frequently demonstrate a more cosmopolitan frame of mind than the so-called universal writers who erase all specific features of their language in a misguided to say something that speaks to more people. For such writers language is just a nuisance that they’d bypass if only they could invent a way of writing without words, the major great enemy of the delusion of universalism.

Still it’s not a totally bleak situation. Finnegans Wake has been translated into several languages. Although it glories in its own reputation as a livre maudit, Galáxias is not untranslatable. I’d like to draw the reader attention to a handful of translations Odile Cisneros and Suzanne Jill Levine have made. These are the first 20 versicles of their version:

and here I begin I spin here the beguine I respin and begin
to release and realize life begins not arrives at the end of a trip
which is why I begin to respin to write-in thousand pages write thousandone pages
to end write begin write beginend with writing and so I begin to respin
to retrace to rewrite write on writing the future of writings's the tracing
the slaving a thousandone nights in a thousandone pages
or a page in one night the same nights the same pages
same resemblance resemblance reassemblance where the end is begin
where to write about writing's not writing about not writing
and so I begin to unspin the unknown unbegun and trace me a book
where all's chance and perchance all a book maybe maybe not a travel
navelof-the-world book a travel navelof-the-book world where tripping's the book
and its being's the trip and so I begin since the trip is beguine and I turn
and return since the turning's respinning beginning realizing
a book is its sense every page is its sense every line of a page every word
of a line is the sense of the line of the page of the books which essays
any book an essay of essays of the book which is why the begin ends
begins and end spins and re-ends and refines and retunes the fine funnel of
the begunend spun into de runend in the end of the beginend refines
the refined of the final where it finishes beginnish reruns and returns

Difficult as they may be, one must believe that there’s always an ideal translator for the book. If difficulty scares some translators away, its demands also inspires the tenacity in to devote years to solving problems of linguistic equivalence. Thinking that Julián Rios’ Larva: Babel de uma noche de San Juan could be turned from Spanish:

1 El trifolio de nuestro Roman à Klee?
Tresfoliando em nuestra folía à deux: m'atrevo no m'atrevo, trevo a trevo, hojeando las nocturnotas de nuestras bacantes, aún por cubrir ((Busca, Gran Buscón emboscado, a tus busconas em el follaje...) Ehe? Trevoé! Trevo trevoso... [Sauberes Klee! Valiente terno! Eterno... No hay folía a dos sin tres?, se preguntaba una noche el inaudito calculador de los mil alias papeleando com su bella babélica (( : Apila!, pila a pila...)) en la torre de papel. Babella, milalias y... Herr Narrator. Qui?, inquirió ella. Una especie de ventrílocuelo que malimita nuestras voces, explicó.

Into English:

1. The trifolium of our Roman à Klee?
Three-partying through our folie à deux: do I, don't I, he loves me he leaves me not, leaf by leafing through the nocturnotes of our bacchantes, back hunting buck-beans in the back cuntry. ((Seek, Dartful Lodger, your tarts in Hyde Park...)) Living in clover... [Sauberes Klee! Awesumptuous trio! This summer sum of some of the... There's no threesome folía dos? he would calculatedly ask himself one night, that highest bidder of a thousand aliases paperilously perusing papers whith his babelic beauty (( : Sing, sing, christening after christening)) in the Tower of Paper. Babelle, Milalias and... Her Narrator. Qui? she inquired. Who? A sort of ventriloquacious nut who misproduces our voices, he explained.

(Larva: A Midsummer Night's Babel, translated by Richard Alan Francis, Suzanne Jill Levine and Julián Rios)

Is not something I would have imagined possible until I discovered it. Still this is not so much a translation as what Haroldo calls “transcreation,” that is, the creation of an original text from the source, translating it to the strengths of the target-language. He devised this term precisely for problematic texts where other considerations besides semantics had to take precedence, where the form or spirit is more important than the message. In the case of the translators of Larva, what we see is a trade-off: puns in the original are dropped whereas new ones are created in English, and some are reimagined.

The pun of “tresfoliando” is sadly lost: it echoed folía (madness), and also foreshadowed the fact that the novel is three-voiced (tres = three).

The similar series of words busca/Buscón/busconas has a more complex treatment. Buscón, of course, is the name of Francisco de Quevedo’s 16th century picaresque novel The Swindler, whereas buscona means prostitute. The translators changed this pun to reference Charles Dicken’s Artful Dodger, and created a new pun that plays with the game hide and seek. The inner rhyme between terno and eterno is lost in favour of the portmanteau word “awesumptuous.”

Some jokes actually becomes harder in English: the name of the character, Milalias, is Spanish for “mil alias,” literally “a thousand aliases.” That’s clear in Spanish, but not so in the English translation. Still, there’s the addition of paperilously, which I quite love.

The word ventrílocuelo shows the difficulty of translating morphology. The world here stems from ventrílocuo (ventriloquist) but with an ending (cuelo) that means of dubious quality, mediocre. The English language has trouble with this because it’s a language almost devoid of morphological endings. In Romance languages, the way a word ends says a lot about it. Some English words, of course, retain them, like poet and poetaster (bad poet), or critic and criticaster (bad critic). In this case the English version actually means the opposite, since loquacious gives the impression he’s handy with words. The solution, usually, is to add a modifying word, in this case “nut,” which changes Herr Narrator’s personality. But like I say, in a work of transcreation the importance is to generate new puns, or preserve the existing ones, at the expense of literal meaning.

As such, more than in other cases, the reader of Larva: A Midsummer Night's Babel may very well be reading a whole new novel. This is not a consequence or a loss, it’s just a solution. As I hope I’ve shown, the English version keeps a very challenging dose of wordplay designed for its new language, and so the reader should see that as a compliment and a privilege. In principle, books like Eunoia, Euphues, Middle C, and Galáxias can achieve similar feats, provided the right translator discovers them. And we readers would have much to gain from that.

Sunday, 2 August 2015

The Poet and the Magician Revisited

As my long-term readers may remember, back in 2013 I wrote about the letters Fernando Pessoa and Aleister Crowley exchanged in 1929. At the time of my reading I had two different impressions: first of all I held the impression that, the mythical nature of the interlocutors notwithstanding, the letters and the subsequent meeting in Lisbon left a lot to be desired; secondly, I thought it was deplorable that no one had ever written a novel about it, using the meeting as a catalyst for something more interesting.  

Well, I was wrong about my second point: unbeknownst to me until a few months ago, in 2007 up-and-coming novelist David Soares published his first novel fictionalizing this event, titled A Conspiração dos Antepassados, or The Conspiracy of the Ancestors. It was also the first book I read by him, and it was one of the most complete and well-balanced books I’ve read this year so far, equal parts intelligent, entertaining and gripping.

Soares (b. 1976) has pioneered the writing of genre fiction in Portugal, making unusual incursions into horror, thriller and what we nowadays call urban fantasy, in a country that has always looked with contempt and derision at anything that isn’t conventional tedious realist fiction, with the exception of academy-approved magical realism. Well, the novel’s plot is unapologetically fantastic. In Lisbon, the obscure poet Pessoa is mourning his mother’s death and finding it hard to recapture his poetic inspiration, attends a séance, patronized also by a mysterious Baron of Teive, to learn how to reach the dead, sabotages his fleeting romance with Ofélia de Queiroz, and begins hearing voices reciting sentences that, he later finds out, belong to Crowley’s The Book of the Law. In Tunisia, the infamous mage is feeling his magical powers exhausted, has a violent spat with his current Scarlet Lady that ends with head trauma and abortion for her, and worries more about how to regain his old magical prowess. Things start looking better when in Paris he meets an old friend, Cyril Grey, a magician himself, who hands him a case with an ancient manuscript belonging to the Portuguese Renaissance painter Francisco de Holanda (or d’Ollanda) and that contains the instructions to produce a Moonchild, a perfect being of extraordinary power who could rule the world. Grey and his partner, the magician Simon Iff, who had unsuccessfully tried to create the Moonchild, stole the manuscript from a secret society called The Three Hundred and now are on the run – Iff, believes Grey, has already been murdered by a magician called Oliver Haddo. Before disappearing, Grey asks Crowley to find out what happened to their old friend and to exact revenge. Receiving a letter from Pessoa, who in the meantime has discovered that the voices recite lines from his book, he considers that an omen since D’Ollanda is also Portuguese and travels to Lisbon where he enlists he befuddled poet’s help. Investigating, they unearth the secret behind the conception of King D. Sebastião, who turns out to be the real Moonchild, and also discover why he disappeared in Africa after the calamitous Battle of Ksar El Kebir. Oh, and there’s a secret society composed of hybrid insect-men after them.

De Holanda's Artwork: excuses to show it are scarce
Like all writing, this plot wouldn’t amount to anything if Soares weren’t a solid writer. Although conventional in structure, he has qualities that I appreciate. First of all he loves vocabulary and isn’t afraid of using it; he loves the awkward, archaic adjective and he doesn’t let clarity get in the way of precision: solifugous (something or somebody that flees from sunlight), occiput for the lower part of the skull, operculum, and even words I don’t know in English: it’s always reassuring to know that the author knows the verb for the sound elephants make (barrir). He’s also not afraid of using foreign words into the text when convenient: French, Latin, and another language I presume to be Hebrew (kabbalah shows up, of course). And then there’s a plain effort to come up with unusual word combinations of words: somewhere he uses “soul shavings” and elsewhere “odoriferous ballast” for the smoke someone has just inhaled. But above all Soares enjoys the oddball simile: distant pulsars blink “like wreckage hurled from the collision of two galaxies;” the cold air that awakens D. Sebastião when he arrives at another dimension feels “like an ice injection;” the Hells Mouth abyss where Crowley really faked a suicide is a “cave [that] expelled everything, as if it were rinsing its mouth, cleaning itself of algae caries and crabs;” cigarette smoke ascends from an ashtray “to glue itself like a spider web on a frame hanging above the bed;” streets rise “like scales on Lisbon’s back;” and so on throughout its almost 400 pages. (I’m not surprised that Soares considers Alexander Theroux’s Darconville’s Cat his favourite novel).

For us book worms, there’s also the pleasure of spotting small references to other books: when Pessoa asks a person at his office if he’s ever read António Mora, the joke of course is that no one could have read it since Mora, the pagan philosopher, was one of the poet’s heteronyms; when Pessoa thinks about “having to make ends meet” that’s a shout-out to António Mega Ferreira’s book on Pessoa’s many attempts at setting up private businesses (the title is Fernando Pessoa – Fazer Pela Vida, which is how we say “to make ends meet” in Portuguese); Pessoa strolling about Lisbon and wondering what he’d say if he met one of his heteronyms may be a reference to José Saramago’s The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis, which has the opposite situation: a heteronym going about Lisbon and having conversations with Pessoa’s ghost; not to mention allusions to verses he has not yet written – knowing Pessoa’s poetry is not mandatory to enjoy the novel, but heightens the experience. For the comic book lover (Soares also writes them) there are also Easter eggs if you’re familiar with Alan Moore’s From Hell and Grant Morrison’s The Invisibles. Soares can sometimes indulge in sheer essayism when he reconstructs Lisbon in the 1930s, or when he points out the occult lore hidden in every stone and façade and statue, much like Moore’s psychogeographical jaunt through London (Grey also predicts a coming war, much like Robert Lee does at the end of the comic book). As for The Invisibles, Soares is gracious enough to remember those who before him used the myth of the Moonchild in fiction. As most people don’t know, Grant Morrison’s superb sci-fi/occult thriller about a cell of anarchists fighting against an insectoid species for the freedom of Mankind – one of its many subplots involves the bad guys trying to bring forth a royal child called the Moonchild. Of course Morrison himself was only appropriating Crowley’s fantasy novel Moonchild (1923) which is also about warring magicians trying to create the Moonchild. Simon Iff and Cyril Grey happen to be characters from that novel (Iff also shows up in detective stories whose Wordsworth Edition collection I own but have not yet read), not to mention that Oliver Haddo is the character William Somerset Maugham created based on Crowley himself. By the way, the Baron of Teive and The Three Hundred come from Pessoa’s own oeuvre. The interesting thing about the Moonchild is that, if Moore clearly influenced Soares, Soares got to the myth first. In 2009 Moore started publishing The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Volume III: Century, which was about the League trying to stop a magical conclave from giving birth to the Moonchild/Antichrist (also known as Harry Potter) and since the concept of the League is to fusing existing fictional worlds together, Allan Quatermain and Mina Murray bump into Oliver Haddo and Simon Iff, plus Carnacki (!) and Karswell Trelawney (from a fine M.R. James short-story). There’s an interesting essay in comparative literature waiting to written on them.

Soares also shows a debt to Moore and Morrison (or an affinity) in a more subtle way: his love for erudition and research. The novel is extensively researched and annotated (he provides a lengthy bibliography at the end – very From Hell, that), and on every page he shows ease in talking about the private lives of Pessoa and Crowley, or in discussing occult lore, or in simply connecting many strands of arcana into a coherent, persuasive whole. People with a better knowledge of occultism could probably write a more in-depth analysis of that aspect of the novel, but I’ll just mention one aspect: the scatology. Throughout the novel Soares associates magic with bodily functions. “The body is a bicolor mosaic tiles of fair skin and dark blood.” Paracelsus, he informs us, used excrements in his potions, and there was even an Italian called Christian Franz Paullini who created a “scatological grimoire” with receipts for balms based on human and animal feces. Soares knows his stuff, he does. During the reading I sensed that Pessoa was often associated with semen (he’s a great masturbator in the novel), which perhaps culminates with a bizarre scene where he goes to a brothel, picks out a prostitute with a hump and asks to cum on it; and Crowley would be more associated with blood, given his violent behavior; but going through my notes I realized that Crowley at every turn has his hands steeped in semen, blood and feces. “Blood is a magical medium,” says the mage to an assistant; and he brags about inventing a way of performing sex in that requires sexual activity – his two favorite things together. When Crowley first appears in the book he’s in the bathroom tasting his own diarrhea. There are also ample appearances of vomit, piss, snot, sweat, veins, viscera, and amniotic liquid. A character to join The Three Hundred must sever a finger, that is, make a blood sacrifice. Magic may deal with the spirit, but it’s performed with the whole body. In two different occasions, when he needs to activate the magical properties of an athanor, and when he must open a gateway into a dimension called Daath, he masturbates as part of the ritual. Even better, in order to get out of Daath he must be literally shat back into his reality through a demon’s anus (the demon is called Choronzon, by the way, whom Crowley once actually met). I liked this messiness because it’s tedious to see how often magic in popular culture is portrayed, with nice-looking wizards and plastic Halloween wands. Soares’ magic is dirty, filthy, vicious, not for the faint-hearted, and has a more convincing air about it. No drippy fluorescent thunderbolts, just your body – self-reliant magic.

Soares’ research also extends into the lives of his protagonists. Since I know Pessoa better than Crowley, I enjoyed his forays into the latter; even so I thought he attempted and interesting and successful thing in showing similarities between the two. After his mother died, Pessoa became depressed. “In the same he was forgetting how to talk to the living, he had lost a long time now the ability to hear words from the dead.” He drinks, he wears his mother’s clothes. Madness is a preoccupation: “He was afraid of going mad and the horror was not groundless because he was a worker of the brain: it was his professional illness.” Crowley, trying to recover his juju in Tunisia, also fears going crazy: “an unknown fear of going crazy was turning the discharging of magical energy heavier. What if, because of that fear, he died the wrong way? He could end up in the wrong company: that was very dangerous.” In the same way Pessoa wonders what a young woman like Ofélia could see in him, the mage wonders why Olsen hangs out with him. Pessoa is trying to beat writer’s block; Crowley worries that his magical prowess has abandoned him forever. The affair of ancient manuscript is essential in renewing their lives. Since they’re real-life characters, I don’t think I’ll ruin the twists by saying that Pessoa will survive until 1935 and Crowley until 1946. But the experience changes them: the poet resumes his writing and creates the 1934 poem Message; Crowley, struggling to write an explanation of The Book of the Law, after receiving the manuscript beats his own writer’s block.

Both Pessoa and Crowley are recalcitrants who don’t conform to society; both abjure groups; both are conservative and despise socialism; both are deeply individualistic and resent others who try to meddle in people’s lives. Both also saw themselves as teachers of the ideal life. Pessoa once defined himself as an “indiscipliner of souls” (I was surprised this famous expression wasn’t used in the novel), and Crowley sees himself as a master who teaches others to do away with masters and live according to their own will: “Do as thou wilt shall be the whole of the law.” They’re both aware that around them most people are failures, and envious and resentful of those who succeed. Both live on the margins. Crowley flat out rejects a normal life. Pessoa also refuses one. “I don’t suffer from abnormal compulsions,” he says. “What’s an abnormal compulsion for you?” asks Crowley. “Marry. Have children. Pay taxes.” Deformity plays a role here: physically normal, their minds are skewed. The insectoid members of The Three Hundred, through, demand ritual deformity but want to impose spiritual sameness on mankind. So it’s no surprise that Pessoa and Crowley, in their battle against The Three Hundred, are really performing a battle, not unlike the magical anarchists in The Invisibles, between free will and oppression.

Another strand of subtext is the relationship between magic and writing. “… Write and may writing be for you a source of pleasure…” says The Book of the Law. For Pessoa it’s anguishing, actually; and Crowley also despairs to learn how to write about the said book. And yet it’s also a balm. When Crowley finds himself stranded in Daath and travels through an endless plain, he recites poems to himself. Writing is a form of magic itself, an elixir of immortality: “Yes, to be immortal is a mark of the gods and man will never achieve it, save through his oeuvre,” says Crowley. Language can be a magical weapon, like in the African myth of Ditaolane, a baby-god who slays a gigantic serpent by uttering words at it. And Pessoa describes a pen like “a fallen sword with a drop of shining blood on the widest bit of the blade.” Both writing and magic require a touch of cruelty, reclusion and loneliness; Crowley to be a great magician must indulge in obnoxious behavior; although Pessoa is milder than his counterpart, he watches the world go by without taking part in it. “Writing is a dangerous activity,” says he to a workmate. “Why?” Because, replies the poet, “… It doesn’t teach you to live.” “Then what is it good for?” “To write better!” This is their obsession: to the besta at their respective arts, at the price of not knowing normalcy. Soares himself doesn’t refrain from brief meta-commentaries on craftsmanship: “Magical thought was like the novelist’s authorial voice: a quality that could not be thought except by the experience of erring. Magic was very similar to fiction writing: the word used to denote the act of casting a spell was the same used to denote the act of spelling a word – spell - and what was a grimoire but a grammaire?” I’d add the verb to curse, which means both to damn someone and to use bad language.

But the writing and the magic have a benefic effect on them. Alan Moore somewhere said that magic is nothing but a method of self-improvement, a way of producing effective change on our live, of pointing it towards a more meaningful direction, of controlling it. Crowley would agree: “Magic makes people more responsible for their fate by giving them the opportunity to change.” At the end of their ordeal he says to Pessoa, “I think we’ve transformed into something that we couldn’t have reached on our own.” What that transformation entails is left for the reader to decipher.

David Soares is the novel’s real magician. A Conspirações dos Antepassados is a triumphant mixture of genre fiction’s page-turning enthusiasm with above-average writing and a depth of learning that would leave Alan Moore and Alexander Theroux dazed. He doesn’t just know his data inside out, he shows genuine affection for his subjects, and he makes his reader become just as interested in his obsessive themes. His fantastic world, a bit out of synch with ours, is fully coherent and immersive. I usually don’t need fictional worlds to be coherent and credible to enjoy them, but those who consider solid world-building a sine qua non condition, Soares doesn’t disappoint. His erudition persuades, and entertains.

If a contemporary Portuguese novelist needs to be translated into English, it’s David Soares.