Monday, 10 September 2012

Life is a simulacrum. Better yet: life is a simulacrum

November 13.

I always hear the same noise of death that slowly gnaws and persists…

And so begins Húmus, the great novel about death and God, the death of God, why we’re hostages of the dead, why it’s alright to kill people if God is dead, and why it’s necessary to bury the dead a second time. All this palaver is just to disguise the fact that I don’t know what this novel is about.

At a simplistic level, Húmus may be about a man tearing himself apart over the existence or non-existence of God. It’s a reflection on how fear of death created in men a double reality: the people they pretend to be, in order to gain Heaven, and the people they truly are. The narrator calls this illusion the dream. He no longer dreams it.

Húmus starts with a fantastic description of the village the nameless narrator lives in, wherever that is, a place over which a ‘darkened and uniform tone’ hovers.

In the hallways spiders weave their immutable webs of silence and tedium and an invisible ash slowly buries manias, rules, habits, everything.

Ah, tedium. That’s so Fernando Pessoa. This book, I wrote before, is the spiritual companion of The Book of Disquiet. I don’t think that’s as scabrous a comparison as it sounds.

Then he compares the village to a vast sepulchre like Pompey:

Here all our dreams are buried… Under these capes of vulgarity there are perhaps dreams and pain that trifles and habits don’t permit to rise to the surface. It strikes me that these beings are trapped in a stone wrapping: maybe they want to talk, maybe that can’t talk.

Then he picks up the idea of the first sentence:

Silence. I cock my ears and always listen to the persistent work of woodworms gnawing wood and souls for centuries now.

This is basically the novel in a nutshell. The narrator is obsessed with death and his mind is clearly losing it because God is dead, and that changes everything. He’s trying to reinterpret life without God, how it works when all certainties crumble, when the myth that supported centuries of habit, thoughts and ideas vanishes. He talks about other villagers and how this affects them, but these people may not exist, they may just be constructs of his deranged mind. Maybe. This should all be boring but he makes it work for 250 pages.

Death is reduced to a ceremony, in which people dress in mourning and leave visiting cards. If I could I’d restrict life to a neutral tone, to a single smell, of must, and the village to the colour of blotting paper. Things and beings form the same mould, like cryptogamic vegetation, randomly born in a humid place. They have their king, their passions and a suspicious odour. They disappear, reappear without any apparent reason and from one day to the next in a span of Universe that strikes them as being the whole world. They absorb the same salts, exhale the same gases, and suppurate a phosphorescent liquid, which perhaps corresponds to feelings, to vices or to discussions about the immortality of the soul.

Ah, yes, the immortality of the soul, the salient point of his reflections.

Life is fictitious, words have lost their reality. And yet this fictitious life is the only one we can bear. We’re here like fish in an aquarium. And sensing that there’s life on the other side, we go to the grave without noticing it. And not only is this monstrous and grotesque life the only one we can live, it’s also the only thing we defend with despair. – Oh yes… oh yes… We’re all acting here.

Did I mention there’s almost no dialogue? The first chapter, “The Village,” is a loose, aerial view of the village, jumping from villager to villager, without stopping for frivolous descriptions; instead it just accumulates mental ticks, habits, prejudices, behavioural patterns, ideas, the pointless rituals around which the dream was built.

None one us knows what is and isn’t. We live on words. We go to the grave with words. They make us submit, they subjugate us. They weigh tons, they have the thickness of mountains. It’s words that contain them, it’s words that lead us. But there are moments when each one of us grows twice in size, there are moments when life strikes me as being illuminated by another clarity. There are moments when each one shouts: - I didn’t live! I didn’t live! There are moments when we come across another greater figure, which strikes fear on us. Is life just that? As much as I want I can’t get rid of small actions, small ridicules, I can’t get rid of imbecilities. I have to put up with this idea and this ridiculous gesture at the same time. I have to be grotesque next to life and death. Even when I’m alone, my laughter is idiotic. And I’m alone and night. Behind that wall there’s the infinite sky. In order not to die of awe, in order to bear this, in order not to be alone and mad, I invented insignificance, words, honour and duty, consciousness and hell.

And I’m alone and night is not a typo, by the way. “Certainly we’re nothing but echoes,” he claims. People live dual lives: the respected façade and the madman inside them:

Life is a simulacrum. Better yet: life is a simulacrum.


Only insignificance allows us to live. Without it, the madman preaching inside us would have already taken over the world. Insignificance compresses an excessive force.

The madman inside him may be Gabiru, but more on him later. “Them” means the dead, who exert too much control over the living. This insignificance he speaks of is many things: the dead, religion, consciousness. All things that only make sense thanks to God. For if God exists, the main concern of life is to get ready for death:

We’re all here waiting for death! We’re all here waiting for death!

Or as he succinctly puts it:

Religion without hell is doomed.

But once God is out of the picture… there’s still consciousness to wrestle with. More on that later too.


  1. I really love the passages quoted above. The parts about living on words and the fictitious nature of life reminded me a little bit of some of the ideas that I found in It's Getting Later All the Time by Antonio Tabucchi.

    1. Ah, great, Raul Brandão already has a fan in the English world! If only Margaret Jull Costa or Gregory Rabassa would translate him...

      Have you ever read Fernando Pessoa's The Book of Disquiet? I'm sure you'd love it, Brian.

  2. Have not read that one but I am looking at it online right now. It looks terrific!

    1. Yes, it is, it's of of the best books of the 20th century.