Sunday, 9 September 2012

Prolegomenon to Húmus



The partition has fallen and I contemplate life. But between me and me there’s a wall. The drama has neither characters nor gestures, nor rules, nor laws. It doesn’t have action. It occurs in silence, unnoticed, between me and me. It’s a perpetual debate.

The most remarkable thing about Raul Brandão’s life is how unremarkable it was. The son of fishermen, he was born in Porto in 1867, finished high school, briefly attended a Literature course, and then enrolled in the army school, ending up working for the Ministry of Defence. He published his first book in 1890, but his career really took off after 1912, the year he retired with the rank of captain. Settling in the countryside with his wife, he died in Lisbon in 1930. It is not impossible that he led an even more boring life than Fernando Pessoa and Franz Kafka.

Like those two writers, Brandão wasn’t very famous or popular or important or valued in his lifetime, even if he managed to actually publish books. That feat alone, which is not negligible, certainly makes him the most successful of the three. But his influence on those who came afterwards, an unavoidable fact now, took a while to get noticed too.

Brandão wrote in a period of Portuguese literature that is a complete mystery to me: that interlude after Eça de Queiroz but not quite before Aquilino Ribeiro (1885-1963), the major figure of the Portuguese novel of the first half of the 20th century; he coexisted with the young conspirator for a brief time. He dies before the rise of neorealists like Alves Redol (1911-1969) and Soeiro Pereira Gomes (1909-1949) in the next decade, dies exactly on the year Ferreira de Castro (1898-1974) publishes The Jungle, a precursor of neorealism, the main aesthetic current of Portuguese literature of that century, characterised by class struggle and the depiction of the squalor of workers and the aspirations of the wretched in all their novelistic nobility. This is probably a good occasion to confess that I know nothing of Portuguese literary history.

Brandão’s place in Portuguese literature was certainly an idiosyncratic one. His acidity and grotesqueness, in spite of the beauty of his prose, had no precedents in the traditional ‘melancholy lyricism,’ to borrow from José Saramago, that characterises so much of Portuguese literature. He wasn’t a realist like Eça either. He was somewhere between symbolism and expressionism, writing intensely about life, death and God, identity, consciousness, morality, with a very philosophical, deceptively rambling style that dispensed with plot, characterisation, story, setting, almost as if the narrator were thinking faster than he could write down the words, a cascade of intense ideas he just has to discharge from his tormented mind. And if it weren’t for the perfection of every sentence, each a little prose poem in itself, one could say he had no control over what he was writing, working instead from frenzied flashes of inspiration.

Brandão was, to put it in a single word, a modernist, one of the first in Portugal, a contemporary of Fernando Pessoa, Almada Negreiros and Mário de Sá-Carneiro, without however having ever belonged to the Orpheu group. He was his own brand of modernism, with a strong inclination for existentialism. Extraordinary as it was, though, his writing would disappear amidst novels denouncing the exploitation of factory workers, landless peasants and child labourers by evil capitalists. During the Estado Novo regime this was of course a heroic enterprise, but great writing I don’t think it was, with a few exceptions.

Brandão’s revival didn’t start until the second half of the century. With time his greatness became familiar and was absorbed into the fabric of Portuguese literature and has been there ever since, looming over many important authors. The novel that has assured his place in literature is Húmus, a very strange novel written during World War I and published in 1917, and arguably Portugal’s first great modernist novel. Starting in 1967, Herberto Hélder (b. 1930), arguably our best living poet, re-wrote the novel as a poem-montage of the same name. The existentialist novelist Vergílio Ferreira (1916-1996), although denying a direct influence, wrote extensively about him in his diaries and literary criticism. Some of the novel’s most feverishly intense hallucinatory fantasies bring to memory the best pages of António Lobo Antunes’ Knowledge of Hell. José Saramago listed him amongst the twelve most important writers of his life. Brandão may well be the most important novelist since Eça given his contribution to the renewal of Portuguese literature. If he had written in any other language, his name would probably be uttered in the same breadth as Kafka and Beckett, be more admired than Sartre and Camus, and be considered a precursor of the nouveau roman.

For a 1917 novel, Húmus is a very unusual artefact. It’s written as a mixture of novel, diary, monologue, aphorisms, in a fragmented structure that eschews spatial settings or character description, without a logical timeline (told over little more than a year), in chapters that alternate between the rant of a nameless author/narrator and the papers of Gabiru, a mad philosopher, a philosopher who may be a figment of the narrator’s imagination. The nameless author/narrator is a person tortured with the idea that God is dead, and he explores, line by line, just what that entails for mankind. It’s Nietzschean down to the fabric of the paper it was printed on, but it’s surprisingly funny, in a vitriolic, misanthropic sort of way. Ever read The Land at the End of the World? Lobo Antunes lifts the hate-filled diatribe voice from this. Saramago’s horrifying descriptions in Blindness? They possibly stem from the apocalypse described in Húmus’ final chapter.

Húmus is wonderfully grotesque, a cry of the soul turned into words. A long philosophical nightmare-monologue in which the narrator repeatedly agonises over the horrible freedom he gained from God being dead. There are characters in the novel, but they may not even exist, the village he lives in may not exist at all, it may all just be a dream, he talks about dreams in almost every page, he may just be crazy too, he is crazy. There’s really no way to describe it. Alright, it’s like The Book of Disquiet’s spiritual brother; it has passages that are just as good, some may even be better. Thanks to its aphoristic, fragmentary nature, Húmus is the most underlineable book I’ve read since The Book of Disquiet. I must have underlined half of it. And there’s no way Brandão could have known Pessoa’s book. Even though both were contemporaries. That Fernando Pessoa is internationally known is not an injustice. But Raul Brandão is an author of world literature stature waiting to be discovered.

I will try to give a sample of what everyone is missing.

8 comments:

  1. Though I am not sure when or how I have reached the point where I am so attracted to works like this, but Húmus sounds right up my ally.

    I really do love these fragmented novels with all sorts of odd characters and plot innovations. I also really love philosophical meanderings on the meaning of life and the universe.

    I am not sure if there is an English translation of this book available, however.

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    1. It's not translated into English. It's a damn shame! It's a brilliant novel. I'll do my best to translate some passages in my next posts.

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  2. Huh. This is clearly puts a pretty big hole in the middle of any non-Portuguese critic's ideas about Saramago or Lobo Antunes. I consider myself warned!

    A publisher like New Directions or NYRB could make a little splash with a translation of this book.

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    1. Can you imagine that I actually searched for Jull Costa and Rabassa's e-mail to recommend they translate this novel? But they're shifty, secretive people who keep to themselves :)

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  3. Maybe I'll Twitter this post to New Directions, etc. What the heck.

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    1. Went to NYRB's website and left them a suggestion to translate this novel.

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  4. So you weren't kidding about a Raul Brandão post! At least now I have some idea of who he is...was... Best of luck with stirring interest in an English translation. I've just read your second post on the book and am more than intrigued. I see that it has been translated into French, however, so I've added it to the pile of books I hope to pick up whenever I may get over there again.

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    1. How dare you! I never kid about my posts!

      You're the second person who's been tempted to pick up the French translation since I started this :)

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