Thursday, 19 January 2012

Aquilino Ribeiro: When The Wolves Howl

Translations work in mysterious ways. Why do some books get translated and others don’t? Why did Aquilino Ribeiro’s novel When The Wolves Howl, of all possible novels, get translated into English in 1963? I have no answer for this. I find it mildly amusing, however, that its translator, Patricia Lança, regrets it nowadays.

Patricia Lança is the daughter of a Portuguese father and an Irish mother. She was a short-lived Portuguese politician after Portugal became a democracy again, in 1974. But her political career started earlier, in the 1940s, in the British Communist Party. I presume, given her connection to Portugal, she must have had sympathy for the plight of its people under Salazar’s dictatorship, called the Estado Novo (New State). In order to contribute to the good fight against totalitarianism, she translated Aquilino Ribeiro’s novel. It made sense: Aquilino was a stringent, openly-declared opponent of Salazar; he was admired by the communists, more for his outspoken opposition to the tyrant than for his novels, which they didn't have the aesthetic acuity to appreciate. And the novel in question is one of the most overt attacks against the Novo Estado in the guise of literature ever written. It was also a popular book because of the ensuing lawsuit it produced. I can imagine Miss Lança believing she was doing her revolutionary duty by making the world aware of Ribeiro’s talent and what was going on in Portugal.

But time changes everything. Miss Lança has taken a conservative; she currently writes for The Salisbury Review, which is probably a more noble occupation than translating left-wing novelists. I suppose her remorse came the day she discovered Aquilino Ribeiro was a bad man. You see, the author, in his youth, took part in the regicide that ended the monarchy in Portugal and paved the way for the democratic Republic, in 1910. On the 1st of February 1908, King Carlos I and his heir were assassinated by two gunmen, who in turn were killed on the spot. Two years later Portugal was a Republic thanks to a military coup. It is believed that there was a third gunman in the crowd and that he was Aquilino Ribeiro, in spite of his always denying it. He did, however, join revolutionary groups and he was even arrested once when a box of explosives he was hiding in his apartment exploded. I guess you can't collaborate with The Salisbury Review without finding such disorderly behavior untenable. She also has an ideological grudge against José Saramago, whom she calls the Ignoble Noble.

Aquilino Ribeiro was, in the words of Patrícia Lança, a terrorist. Fuck yeah, he was! Which also means he was more interesting than 99 per cent of most writers. Which also means he had balls, balls to write a novel attacking a dictator at the risk of being arrested and tried for it. This act of courage does not seem to have mitigated at all her newfound contempt for him. That's a pity, Aquilino could always do with a few more translators on his side.

When the Wolves Howl, published in 1958, was the last novel Aquilino Ribeiro wrote. It begins with the return of Manuel Louvadeus, a small landowner and farmer, from Brazil, where he failed to make his fortune, to his home town in the mountains, arriving in the middle of a dispute between the locals and the government over control of the mountain’s ownerless lands. The government, claiming to be bringing progress to an uncivilised and impoverished region, wants to plant valuable trees where only wild bush grows; but in order to carry this out they’ll have to cut off access to the mountain, which the population has used since time immemorial to gather food, collect fuel for the winter, and take their cattle for grazing. Obviously they see this as a threat to their freedom. The government is bringing laws, restrictions, regulations, rules, fences, et cetera, and the people, fond of their ancestral freedom to use those lands as they see fit, are prepared to revolt in order to defend their way of life.

Manuel, an articulate, intelligent man, becomes a natural, but reluctant, leader but also tries to hold the population’s violent instincts at bay, preferring dialogue to physical confrontation. Things don’t go well of course. On the day the engineers arrive with workers and machines to start the reflorestation operations, fights ensue; although Manuel stops a group of people from attacking the forces of authority, a second group shoots at the engineers. In spite of his innocence and diplomatic good will, he’s arrested and charged with instigating the revolt.

The novel also shows the prejudice of the judicial courts and their subservience to the executive branch. Impartial justice did not exist at the time. When Manuel and others are brought to court, their sentences are already determined and the trial is a mere formality. The judge, however, is determined to prove that Manuel is a “crypto-communist” and member of a revolutionary group (at the time the Communist Party operated clandestinely and its existence wasn’t even officially accepted). To the judge it’s unthinkable that the people, upset by the intrusion of the state on their lives, would spontaneously rise up to defend their rights. Everyone is happy in Portugal, according to state propaganda. The state is infallible. Patsies are created to prove its infallibility.

I’m not Aquilino's greatest fan (1), nor have I thoroughly read his work; but I know enough of him to realize that this was an unusual novel for him. I knew his voice to be critical of society, religion, government, manners, Portuguese people’s typical small-mindedness, cultural backwardness, yes. But this is him at his most political. Aquilino is clearly on the side of the farmers and peasants, and he paints the government as greedy, arrogant and indifferent to the miseries of the people it should serve. The fact that Manuel Louvadeus had to migrate to Brazil, historically a destiny for Portuguese emigrants in search of a better life, already speaks volumes about a failed country where people had no hopes of living in with dignity. The novel describes in detail the abject poverty most citizens lived before 1974 and the gap between the State and the population. Emigration is, sadly, a constant in our country, a country that never had much of a stable, functional economy. Curiously, Aquilino's Portugal, with its mass emigration, is slowly returning because of the sovereign debt crisis and crushing austerity measures.

Aquilino was criminally charged with portraying public institutions in a negative light but the charges were dropped after intellectuals, some international figures included, rallied in support of him. Aquilino was the most popular Portuguese novelist at the time, widely admired in and outside Portugal, and had even been nominated for the Nobel Prize. So under internal and external pressure, Salazar had to back down. Aquilino Ribeiro died five years later, and the press eulogized him as the great novelist he was.  

Nowadays he isn't widely read, probably because he seems old-fashioned, and because he had the largest working vocabulary ever used in Portuguese literature, which makes him a quisguous chore for the fysigunkus who hates dictionaries. I even  have a morbid curiosity to read the English translation one day. Once a celebrated Portuguese translator told me that he had read Aquilino in French and hadn't recognized the prose as is. I fear it won't look any better in English. Aquilino was a master stylist of Gongoric complexity, whose carefully-constructed sentences embodied a rich world of colors, shapes ideas and sensations. He was also a compiler of archaic and regional words, giving his prose a rustic flavor that defeats translation's infatuation with the cosmopolitan. Somewhere G. K. Chesterton wrote that philosophers could understand each other in different languages because all the words they use are the same; and that's true: words like idea, mind, absolute, abstract, will, system, sublime, energy, matter, spirit, etc., tend to share the same roots. Things get more complicated when you try to talk about ordinary things. Aquilino was an expert at finding and using the names of things, many of them without easy translation in another language. Aquilino is a difficult writer, both lexically and syntactically, and he used vernacular and regional expressions full of color and nuance. This hasn't only made him unknown outside Portugal, it makes him even difficult for the average Portuguese reader. As such he's better known as an ethical role model than for his command of language.

Difficulties aside, he should translated. His importance is tremendous. José Saramago admired him and wrote about him in The Notebook. Besides the beautiful prose, always something scarce in the world, his unsentimental portrayal of a brutish, crude world of poor people barely capable of keeping their dignity, is something that sadly continues to be too familiar in our days.

(1) Follies of my youth: he's one of my favorite novelists. 16/07/2016.


  1. Thanks for this post about a writer I wan't familiar with, Miguel, and thanks as well for the inclusion on your blogroll. I hope to read a work each by three of Portugal's more famous writers (Eça, Pessoa, and Saramago) sometime this year, but in the meantime it's nice to hear about somebody and something less obvious for a change. P.S. Best of luck with your new blog!

    1. Thanks for the kind words. Your blog has great stuff: you posted some time ago an excerpt from Bioy Casares' diary where he discussed Eça with Borges. I loved that. It's always enjoyable to know two of my favourite writers liked one of my favourite writers.