Friday, 19 October 2012

Reading Manuel António Pina

Unfortunate circumstances darken this article. I had been labouring on an article about Portuguese poet Manuel António Pina for some days now, and yesterday I had given it the finishing touches to have it ready to post today. So it was a sad coincidence to discover, moments ago, that Manuel António Pina passed away hours ago, at the age of 68.

Manuel António Pina was a Portuguese poet who had a vast oeuvre published from the 1970s onwards. His first book was in fact a children’s book, in 1973. The following year he made his poetic debut. Since then he had been active in these fields, as well as in writing for newspapers, for which he was better known. In spite of a large and praised body of work, I only discovered him after he received the Camões Prize in 2011. Curious, I recently read him for the first time. I’ll leave his poetry for another time, today I’m going to write about his enigmatic novella Os Papéis de K. (K.’s Papers, 2003).

Perhaps it’s because I have a tendency to see Kafkaesque vestiges in everything, but I bought this book exactly because the title resonated with Franz Kafka. Although his name isn’t anywhere in the story, his presence however impregnates every page. From the opening paragraph we enter a vague, unstable world, where memory doubts itself, reality is a work in progress, and the narrator, a nameless interpreter, questions the facts of his own bizarre narrative, as if he were living in one of Kafka’s many waking nightmares:

That which I remember (in a present that also seems past to me) is full not only of strangeness and improbability but equally of lacunae, of hesitations and of imprecisions, for maybe I don’t remember the facts but my recollection of them. It may thus happen that what I remember is not what I heard; or that I heard it from another person, in another place, in other circumstances; or even that I myself have dreamt or imagined it.

In the early seventies, the narrator, a Portuguese interpreter, after accompanying a group of businessmen to Hamburg, uses the occasion to travel to Paris to visit his brother, deserter of the colonial wars, forbidden from returning to Portugal (the action occurs before the Carnation Revolution), and who works at Gallimard. Due to an incident, the narrator makes an emergency landing in Amsterdam, where he meets Agnes, a Norwegian woman accompanying K., a Japanese scholar, to a conference in Paris. On the same night of their meeting, K., author of books on history, anthropology and religion, dies from a heart attack. The narrator continues his journey and doesn’t hear from Agnes again until she contacts him asking him if his brother would be interested in reviewing K.’s final manuscript, which K. asked her to destroy, for publication. The narrator gives her his brother’s contact but she never sends him the manuscript. Years pass and they unexpectedly meet at a NATO meeting. She tells him she destroyed the manuscript as requested but that she needs to talk to someone about it. Since she was the one who typed it, she remembers the content well.

   I was starting to get curious. “Was it a history book?”
   “I don’t know, perhaps. Or a novel, I don’t know…”
   “Ah, he also wrote novels…”
   “No, at least not that I knew of… But it was such a strange text, with so many coincidences, that, although it looked like a scientific work… it was a scientific work, I’m certain… and of all the documentation that he gathered…”

K.’s book proposes a fantastic thesis: it was not Jesus, but one of his brethren, who died upon the cross. This is no longer remarkable thanks to Dan Brown. But K.’s thesis continues: Jesus and his followers escaped to Japan, to the region of Hokkaido, where he lived to be 106 and started a dynasty. Agnes also explains that one of Jesus’ great-granddaughters or great-great-great-granddaughters, Hana, was raped and murdered. The culprit, one Sesshu, drowned to death when the river magically flooded his hut near the riverbank. This was, according to K., a punishment meted out by the kami, spirits. Only one of Sesshu’s sons, Genji, survived.

Agnes then tells the narrator that one of the documents she also destroyed was a copy of a school composition written by a girl called Michiko, whose 9th birthday was on August 9, 1945, and who was a victim of the Nagasaki atomic explosion. The original document, which she claims to be in the Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum, is at the centre of K.’s thesis. But more of this later.

Agnes then reveals (Agnes has many things to say; the chapters are short, as if Agnes has to stop a lot to catch her breath because she has so much to say) that K. wasn’t completely Japanese. He had French nationality, and he was Jewish. After he lost his family during the war, he left to France and then Norway, where he hired Agnes as a secretary. He was the father of Michiko and believed he was the descendant of Genji. Furthermore K. believed, and wanted to rigorously prove with historical and scientific documents, that the atomic bomb had been an act of the kami, the Japanese spirits that influence human will, in order to punish Sesshu’s last descendant, Michiko.

“It was the Christian kami that (…) inspired Otto Hann, two years after Michiko’s birth, to discover the process of uranium nuclear fission and, next year, Einstein the letter which he wrote to Roosevelt and was in the origin of the Manhattan Project to build the atomic bomb,” says Agnes. “As it was the good kami who made, later on, other scientists involved in the project to try to avoid launching the bomb.”

And after she tells this amazing fable to the narrator, she disappears again. Although the narrator finds the thesis of the kami fantastic, he believes nevertheless in K.’s despair. The way he sees him is that he was a troubled man who tried to find meaning in chaos, a sort of supernatural explanation to the tragedy of his life. But years later he travels to Japan and starts doubting all the facts in Agne’s story. He visits the Atomic Bomb Museum and finds a poem written by one Michiko, but not the school composition Agnes spoke of. There are other discrepancies between the two Michikos. He investigates further and discovers that Agne’s K. never existed. Some time later he discovers that an Israeli writer has just published a book called K.’s Papers. This writer claims he got the idea for the book from a strange woman who in her turn got it from a young man accompanying the mysterious K. Confused, the narrator even starts wondering if he wasn’t the young man who told her the story.

Anyway, memory is a fiction and the past a sort of dream that dreams us as much as we dream it. But can two men dream the same dream, or the same dream dream them both? If I ever met Amir Zach, the Israeli writer, who would I find? A man or a shadow?

I have no answer as to why Manuel António Pina filled this novella with so many Franz Kafka parallels. They’re simply there, in the text. A writer of Jewish origin who dies before he completes his book and asks a person to posthumously destroy it. The similarities aren’t just with Kafka’s life but with his fiction. K. shares the same single-consonant name as the protagonist of The Castle. K. is writing, not about revenge, Agnes makes a point of stressing this, but justice. For K., the kami were performing a work of justice by continuing to punish Sesshu’s descendants until the line was extinguished. Kafka’s The Trial is also about justice. In both cases, justice seems like a tenebrous abstraction whose scope transcends human dimension. The narrator is baffled to think that spirits would use an atomic bomb just to kill a little girl. But the gods, Agnes argues, can’t have a sense of human proportion, making their actions incomprehensible by their excess, much in the way that Joseph K. can’t understand the gigantic bureaucratic machinery that governs the legal process that ensnares and ultimately kills him.

But more than Kafka, the book is also about memory and the effect of time over memory and facts. Let us then say this novella springs from a point of confluence between Franz Kafka and Marcel Proust. But it’s not just about memory, but also the unreality of reality, the vacuity of facts. Agnes herself is only telling what she remembers of the book she typed. “I’m not sure if I’m doing right by telling you this. He asked me to destroy his papers…” she says. And the narrator replies, “And you destroyed them. You’re telling what you remember. He couldn’t ask you to forget, no one can.” But time itself distorts and erases memories, and beyond time there’s the creative force of every person that changes things alongside time. And this is where I started thinking about the differences between Kafka’s protagonists and K. It occurred to me that Joseph K. and K. the surveyor lack this imaginative faculty. Thrown into horrible circumstances, the threat to their existence is so pervasive that it makes them totally lethargic and impels them to their own destruction. K. the Japanese scholar, supposing that he exists, concocts an alternative history of Western civilization just to explain his tragic life. This is wonderfully terrifying.

I think the book is especially about that. It’s about reality as a work of creation, as a narrative that collapses upon itself. One thing is to think K. was crazy and made up a mad thesis; a different thing is to suspect K. never existed. Another very different thing is realizing the “I” may be the author of this forgery and not remember it.

Literature is, by its very nature, mystification, perhaps Agnes had been deluded by the fact that the manuscript didn’t belong to a precise genre and was instead some confused sort of historical novel, alternating facts with fiction; or, like in Macpherson’s Scottish epopee, mixing documents and imagination under the appearance of a work of investigation. Or maybe K. had simply gone mad. Or Agnes.

Or the nameless narrator, we’re forced to add. Although the novella has less than 80 pages, Manuel António Pina keeps it dense and fast-paced: Shinto, Franz Kafka, the atomic bomb, alternative history, intertextuality, and post-modernist techniques make Os Papéis de K. a mysterious and inventive book. Portuguese literature lost a great writer today.


  1. A fine incidental homage to the author. I liked the K.-esque plot. Appreciate the translations of excerpts.

  2. Thanks for reading, Rise. When time allows it, I plan to post about his poetry.

  3. This sounds like a novel that I would really like; mysterious, full of strange plot twists, etc.

    Both the plot as well the nature of reality and truth questions remind me of Umberto Eco's Foucault's Pendulum.

  4. I was actually thinking of The Da Vinci Code when I read it, with the Jesus Christ dynasty. It's obvious this is much better. I bought today his complete poems, so when I have the time I'll translate some of his poetry.