Friday, 23 November 2012

José Saramago and the play about Camões



- It’s a great, and common, truth that there isn’t a better memory than the one for names, titles, faces and the favours of the powerful. Thus it’s understood that you don’t know about Luís Vaz. A poet he is, the greatest there is in Portugal, and with no other means than his craft. Gentlemen, who, from amongst you, courtiers, religious men, couriers, chamber boys and everyone else present, knows Luís de Camões?

It’s 1570 and things aren’t looking good for Luís Vaz de Camões or Portugal. The King is a sixteen-year-old boy called D. Sebastião who hasn’t married yet and doesn’t seem interested in conceiving heirs, leaving the crown vulnerable to the machinations of his grandmother, D. Catarina of Austria, who wants to unite Portugal and Spain under a single kingdom (as it effectively happened for some eighty years, during the reign of the Filipes, after D. Sebastião stupidly got himself killed in North Africa). The Inquisition is in Portugal, arresting intellectuals and censoring books. The plague has killed fifty thousand already. So it’s a bad time for Camões to return from the Indies, all but broke and with plans of publishing an epic poem called The Lusiads. This is the basic setting of José Saramago’s 1980 play Que Farei com Este Livro? (What Shall I Do With This Book?), a question the poet asks himself as he desperately attempts to have the poem published.

Dozens of plays have been written about Luís de Camões, and not just in Portugal, but if one has a chance of surviving it’s Saramago’s compassionate but unglamorous depiction of the poet’s travails in Portugal. Saramago depicts with his typical sarcasm the bitter irony of Camões’ life: he was the greatest poet Portugal ever had, and yet he lived in poverty most of his life. Saramago paints a portrait of a royal court more interested in intrigues, favours and influence over the king than any admiration for culture or the arts. To this country Camões returns to Portugal, after seventeen years abroad, having failed to make his fortune in the fabled Indies.

The play contains many historical characters; some I already knew, mostly by name, others were extraordinary finds. One example is Diogo do Couto, whose real-life personality can’t be as fascinating as the substance gave to his fictional counterpart. Here’s how a courtier describes him:

Diogo do Couto is a passionate man who seems to have taken a vow to only utter what he thinks to be truths, even if they hurt the ears of whoever is close to him. Not that I have anything against the truth. The truth is the mark of a noble birth, only villains lie, and all Jews and Moors, but it’d be a vicious conversation the one that forgets, amongst people of good birth and clean blood, the conveniences of place and the interests of the occasion. Diogo do Couto doesn’t respect conveniences or obey interests.

An extraordinary character, Diogo do Couto was an historian and also the author of O Soldado Prático, apparently a searing critique of the Portuguese administration in its Indian colonies. “India will be, or I fear it already is, a disease of Portugal. God willing it’s not a deadly disease,” he declares in the play. I’ll have to read his book. In the play (and as historically documented) he has just returned from there, friend of Luís Vaz de Camões, whose poem he tries to help get published.

Another remarkable character is Camões’ mother, Ana de Sá, who has been waiting for him for seventeen years. Ana de Sá is a poor and one would say ignorant woman. Of course she’s also wise and frontal in the way Saramago’s wretched tend to be. Indeed, only Saramago would write about Luís de Camões and remember to include his mother, such a human, quotidian detail, so mundane, so insignificant, but it’s the heart of his vision of the great poet, who, his greatness notwithstanding, was no less flesh and blood than other men.

Back from India, Luís de Camões writes and rewrites his masterpiece while trying to get it published, a difficult ordeal given he has no money, having failed to make a fortune in the colonies. When Diogo do Couto meets him in Mozambique, the poet is begging and living off the alms of friends. His only fortune is the poem:

Ana de Sá: There he sits every day correcting, reading out loud. A lot of what he says I can’t understand, it’s all a prattle about gods and goddesses, names of unknown lands and seas, miracles, things never seen, who, in this Mouraria neighbourhood, would be capable of understanding the world like this?

Diogo do Couto: The world still has a lot to be seen and admired.

Ana de Sá: Some days ago I asked him to read me a clearer passage, that better arrived at my understanding, and he stood looking at me with a very grave look, and after scrambling around he read to me the lines of the old man who was at the sailing away of the ships to India. Do you remember?

Diogo de Couto: Like my own name.

The passage they allude to is the ending of Canto IV; I’ll post a short excerpt:

"O frantic thirst of honour and of fame,
The crowd's blind tribute, a fallacious name;
What stings, what plagues, what secret scourges curs'd,
Torment those bosoms where thy pride is nurs'd!
What dangers threaten, and what deaths destroy
The hapless youth, whom thy vain gleams decoy!
By thee, dire tyrant of the noble mind,
What dreadful woes are pour'd on human kind:
Kingdoms and empires in confusion hurl'd,
What streams of gore have drench'd the hapless world!
Thou dazzling meteor, vain as fleeting air,
What new-dread horror dost thou now prepare!
High sounds thy voice of India's pearly shore,
Of endless triumphs and of countless store:
Of other worlds so tower'd thy swelling boast,
Thy golden dreams when Paradise was lost,
When thy big promise steep'd the world in gore,
And simple innocence was known no more.
And say, has fame so dear, so dazzling charms? (1)

This is one of the most famous episodes of the poem: on the day Vasco da Gama’s ship is about to sail to uncharted seas in the hopes of finding a maritime way to India, a crowd is gathered at the Tejo river to send it off, and suddenly an old man starts prophesying that these explorations will bring no good to Portugal.

Luís de Camões, described by Diogo as a proud man, burns with impatience to have his poem published and to be finally recognized for the greatness he believes he possesses. And yet few recognize his value. The King has no interest in poetry. And the Count of Vidigueira, the grandson of Vasco da Gama, the explorer and seaman immortalized in The Lusiads, refuses to pay him for the poem claiming he doesn’t need him to write his ancestor’s life for him and that he didn’t commission the work. Another problem he has to circumvent is the Inquisition, which finds some ideas in the poem objectionable to the church’s doctrines.

“Portugal lacks a free spirit, it has a beaten spirit in excess. Portugal lacks joy, it has tears in excess. Portugal lacks tolerance, it has absolutism in excess.” These words, some of the best found in the play, are spoken by Damião de Góis. Historian, royal chronicler and philosopher, Góis was one of the fathers of Portuguese humanism and introducers of the Renaissance’s tendencies in the country, a man who travelled in Europe, met Luther and was a friend of Erasmus. Also a friend of Diogo do Couto and Camões, he tries to intervene in his favour in the royal court, only to be himself arrested by the Inquisition. (The play doesn’t explain, but he died in 1574, allegedly murdered) When Camões, after his book passes an examination, boldly declares to an inquisitor that Góis is an innocent man, he receives in reply, “Everyone’s guilty. It’s a matter of patience and searching.”

The play ends with Camões lacking the money to publish his book and basically offering his book for free to a publisher willing to print it. I don’t know if this truly happened. Camões had a horrible life, for sure, but not completely horrible. In 1572 the king did offer him a royal pension for services rendered in India; it was an amount that didn’t stop him from living in relative poverty until the end of his life, in 1580, when he died victim of the plague and thrown into a common grave. In the play at least he had the love of his mother, the love of his old flame, Francisca de Aragão, and the friendship of men like Diogo do Couto and Damião de Góis. The play isn’t just about the live of Camões, but, through his example, the lives of all Portuguese writers. A topic that was dear to Saramago was the difficulty of being a writer in Portugal, the material difficulty of selling and living as a writer, of making a career as a writer, of not having to extend the hand begging for alms and searching for patrons, in sum, the difficulty of being a truly independent writer in Portugal. In a speech given in 1982 he said, “I’ll begin by asking: is it possible and desirable to be a writer in Portugal? Is the society we are interested in the writers we have?” This isn’t a rhetorical question in a country that never esteemed the arts and culture very much and that actively despised intellectuals. José Saramago, who at the time of writing this play was far from being an international bestseller, was one of the few able to live comfortably from his work, but Camões was denied that in life and many good writers today continue to waste their time away from their true calling just to subsist and must continue to ‘cultivate the feeling of perpetual gratitude,’ to quote from the same speech, of having their books published and read by someone. Camões’ king didn’t have an ear for poetry, but things haven’t changed a lot. That too is a recurrent topic in Saramago: times passes, everything stays the same.

1) I use the translation by William Julius Mickle


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