Monday, 30 January 2012

Useful People

“The day when it’ll be possible to build on love hasn’t arrived yet…” claims the sceptical Abel, the new lodger living in Silvestre’s apartment. At the heart of Clarabóia lies a conflict between the idealistic Silvestre, an aging “philosopher shoemaker,” and Abel, a poor man’s flâneur, a pessimist who strolls through life accumulating experiences as if he were stockpiling canned food for a nuclear winter; a conflict which, in the course of several conversations, tries to answer whether or not a utopia of men is possible.

It’s not hard to trace the genealogy of Abel. An intellectual vagabond, he’s found in the novel reading a French translation of The Brothers Karamazov, which brings to mind the ‘superfluous men’ of 19th century literature: intelligent, sensitive men who, due to a weakness in their personalities, fail to actively participate in life and remain bystanders of the injustice, evil and ignorance around them. It also brings to mind Carlos da Maia, the protagonist of Eça de Queiroz’ The Maias (which is also mentioned in the novel), who was a Portuguese variation of the superfluous man. His grandfather, the stoic Afonso da Maia, brings him up with an “English education” so he won’t be a suicidal emotional wreck like his father. Carlos da Maia is rich, handsome, intelligent, and full of great projects and ideas to change and help society. And yet he dissipates all his energy in drinking, parties and women, daydreaming through all his failures. As the poet and literary critic Jorge de Sena once wrote of him, this education “did no good to nice Carlos, because his social environment had no application for it.” Abel diverges in one important point from Carlos and the superfluous men: he has no urge to help people; for him the search of experience is an end in itself. “I have a feeling life is behind a curtain, laughing out loud at our efforts to know it. I want to know it,” he declares.

Silvestre disagrees. “There’s so much to do on this side of the curtain, my friend… Even if you’d live a thousand years and have the experiences of all men, you couldn’t know life!” Silvestre believes experience is only useful when applied to something. He illustrates this when Abel watches him mending a pair of shoes:

   “I’m bothering you during your work,” Abel said.
   “You’re not. This is something I could already do with my eyes closed.”
   He put the shoe aside, grabbed three threads and began waxing them. He did it in wide and harmonious movements. Little by little, on each dip through the wax, the white thread took a brighter colour of yellow.
   “If I do it with my eyes open, it’s out of habit,” he continued. “And also because, if I closed them, the task would take longer.”
   “Not to mention it’d come out imperfect,” Abel added.
   “Of course. That proves that even when we can close our eyes, we should always keep them open…”
   “What you just said has all the looks of a charade.”
   “Not as much as you think. Isn’t it true that, with my work experience, I could do this with my eyes closed?”
   “Up to a point. You agreed that, in those conditions, the work wouldn’t be perfect.”
   “That’s why I open them. Isn’t it also true that, with my age, I could close my eyes?”
   “Die?”
   “Die?! What an idea? I’m in no hurry.”
   “Well?”
   “Closing the eyes just means not seeing.”
   “But, not seeing what?”
   The shoemaker made a wide gesture, as if he wanted to encompass everything that was on his mind:
   “This… Life… People…”

In his youth, Silvestre was a Republican by conviction. I should clarify that being a republican here means he opposed the monarchy. It means he joined anti-monarchist groups, got involved in fights with monarchists, and celebrated the instauration of democracy in 1910. But his joy was short-lived, since the republic was no better. “It seems to me that monarchy and republic are, at the end of the day, words.” Later he fought in World War I and came back even more disillusioned, not to mention wary of the changes in society that already foreshadowed a turn to totalitarianism. He only had his ideals to cling to and an unshakeable belief in men, which he tries to pass on to Abel.

Abel is less dogmatic. A good student, he left home and school at sixteen to taste the fruit of freedom. He’s held several jobs, slept in doss houses and been homeless. He has no convictions or human relationships to tie him down. “Life the way others understand it has no value to me. I don’t like being tied up and life is an octopus of many tentacles,” he says. “One alone is enough to grab a man. When I feel held down, I cut off the tentacle. Sometimes it hurts, but there’s no other way. Do you understand?”

Silvestre doesn’t understand. The shoemaker was born poor; if he starved, it was because he had no alternative. The bookish Abel is a vagrant out of intellectual curiosity. He quotes Álvaro de Campos to justify his life: “Did you want me married, futile and taxable?” [the verse comes from “Lisbon Revisited (1923)” and is actually: “Did you want me married, futile, quotidian and taxable?”]. Álvaro de Campos, one of Fernando Pessoa’s heteronyms, is a decadent poet, characterised by pessimism and lethargy, but also a scrutinizing self-awareness of the unstoppable waste of his own energy and life. He’s a poet who wants everything, but can’t achieve anything, and masochistically, obsessively records every instance of his failure to be something.

Three decades later, another heteronym would play a significant role in Saramago’s work: Ricardo Reis. In his Nobel Lecture, Saramago, writing about himself in the third person, explains the genesis of the novel The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis:

He learnt many of Ricardo Reis' poems by heart ("To be great, be one/Put yourself into the little things you do"); but in spite of being so young and ignorant, he could not accept that a superior mind could really have conceived, without remorse, the cruel line "Wise is he who is satisfied with the spectacle of the world". Later, much later, the apprentice, already with grey hairs and a little wiser in his own wisdom, dared to write a novel to show this poet of the Odes something about the spectacle of the world of 1936, where he had placed him to live out his last few days: the occupation of the Rhineland by the Nazi army, Franco's war against the Spanish Republic, the creation by Salazar of the Portuguese Fascist militias. It was his way of telling him: "Here is the spectacle of the world, my poet of serene bitterness and elegant scepticism. Enjoy, behold, since to be sitting is your wisdom ..."

Ricardo Reis’ philosophy has also been adopted by another one of my favorite writers, the Egyptian-born French novelist Albert Cossery, whose novels follow the lives of nihilistic skeptics who take delight in watching the world fall apart around them (if you haven't yet read A Splendid Conspiracy or The Jokers, you're missing out on one of the most corrosive voices in 20th century letters).  But Saramago has always promoted civism, the involvement of people in social life, the so-called direct democracy. Better than any other character, Silvestre symbolizes the belief in activism as a tool to improve life.

But before one can set out to improve life, one has to decide whether or not life makes sense at all. And Abel isn’t sure it does:

The occult meaning of life… “But the occult meaning of life is that life has no occult meaning.” Abel knew the poetry of Fernando Pessoa. He had turned his verses into another Bible.

And Pessoa’s poetry is one of inactivity, of tedium about life, to use one of Bernardo Soares’ most often repeated words. If one doesn't care too much about life, one can’t be involved in it, seems to be one of the possible inferences we can draw from the novel. Silvestre and Abel’s views are perhaps irreconcilable. Even so he leaves Silvestre’s apartment reflecting about whether or not his experience can ever be used for something useful:

“Perhaps my learning has to be slower, maybe I have to receive many more scars until I become a real man… For now I’m that person they call useless and who closed his mouth because he knew that to be true. But I won’t be that person forever…”

Or maybe not; maybe he just gives Silvestre hope, the aging socialist, that his words have had an effect on him in order to end their argument. Although driven by humanism, Saramago didn’t naïvely think, like some idealistic left-wing thinkers, that all people are just passive drones stumbling through life, with their eyes closed, until the truth is uploaded into their brains. Some people have their eyes wide open and, for better or for worse, just want to watch the spectacle of the world. Saramago often had to contend, in his work, with the possibility that Mankind, even when it can, will refuse to save itself.

José Saramago didn’t publish another novel until 1977. He explained his ‘silence’ of decades on the grounds that he had nothing to say. Like Abel he closed his mouth and accumulated experiences. He took several manual jobs; then worked for magazines and newspapers as a journalist, article writer, book reviewer and editor. Finally somewhere around 1980, his own voice finally sprang up fully formed. But that’s a story that continues in Raised From The Ground, a novel I hope everyone reads when the translation comes out this year.

Friday, 27 January 2012

Quick Rant on Stress Marks


You may have noticed that I keep writing Clarabóia with a stress mark on the o, even though the cover exhibits no such mark. I hope you’ve noticed it: as lovers of literature, you should pay attention to this; we’re all obsessed with clear, correct writing, aren’t we? The reason is very simple. In 1990, the Portuguese government decided to maim the Portuguese language by signing a spelling agreement with Brazil that seeks to standardize the spelling in both countries and in the Portuguese-speaking African countries. Spelling had evolved differently in Portugal and Brazil since the 1910s, when Portugal reformed its language after the instauration of the Republic. But apparently a couple of Ps and Cs and some stress marks made it difficult for Portugal’s Brazilian cousins to understand our writing, and vice-versa, so both government used all their political influence to force an agreement within Portuguese-speaking countries. The theory was that we couldn't understand each other, which is ridiculous; not to mention the biggest difficulties concern vocabulary and syntax, which can't be standardized. It’s really a business ploy because it will benefit Brazilian publishers - who were very active in the backstage - who wish to conquer new markets in African Portuguese-speaking countries, whose irregular spelling created an obstacle to their infiltration.

Although the agreement was signed over twenty years ago, resistance from writers, linguists, thinkers, et cetera, from all countries has delayed its application. It only began being used regularly, in newspapers and on television, in 2011. José Saramago was a writer who vehemently opposed the agreement. In spite of that, Clarabóia, which was written forty years before the signing of the agreement, was revised to comply with the new spelling. So Clarabóia becomes Claraboia.

I find this an odious betrayal of José Saramago. It’s not just a betrayal of his convictions, it’s also an indecent way for Caminho, his Portuguese publisher, to treat his posthumous novel, after all the money Saramago, a bestselling novelist in his own country, earned them over the years. I just think he deserved better.

The new spelling reform is a stupid idea. Defenders argue that a harmonized spelling will finally allow Portuguese to become a world language. (Brazil has inherited Portugal's delusional myth of the Fifth Empire, a belief that one day they'll rule the world.) Others say it’ll make translation easier. I have my doubts about that: if, say, Portuguese literature isn’t more widely translated, I don’t think it’s because of irregular spelling; that’s irrelevant in translation. I can’t imagine Margaret Jull Costa worrying whether or not acto or facto has a c, or whether or not Egipto and óptimo have a p. A translator only needs to worry about the language of destination. The real reason Portuguese translation doesn’t get translated is really because Portugal does a terrible job of promoting its own culture. “Portugal has many Nobel Prize-worthy writers,” Saramago once joked. “The problem is that no one ever heard of them.” How true.

And since we’re talking about world languages, it’s worth remembering that English, the world’s lingua franca, has an irregular spelling: Words like theatre, center, neighbour are written differently depending on whether the writer is in the UK or in the USA (alternately, he may be in Portugal writing in Word with the language set for English UK, like I am – Word tells me center is wrong; it should be centre). Can you imagine the United States telling the United Kingdom how to write English? It’d be ridiculous, wouldn’t it? And yet some of the architects of the spelling agreement insist that the English language rules supreme because it has no variant spellings. This is the intellectual level of so-called "Portuguese academics."

Unlike countries like Portugal, France or Spain, the English world doesn’t have an Academy micromanaging the development of its language. That’s one of the reasons I love English so much: it’s such a democratic language. It changes through everyday usage. If a language has to change – and all languages do – it must do so organically. Language, I was once told back at the university, was the last truly democratic thing people owned. But that’s not even true anymore; some languages don’t belong to the people who speak them: they belong to ministers and deputies and their academic lackeys – bureaucrats in suits and ties.  

Defenders of the agreement have also argued that Portuguese literature will sell better in Brazil, and vice versa. This of course ignores the fact that José Saramago, Gonçalo M. Tavares and Miguel Esteves Cardoso have been extremely popular in Brazil. It’s also a condescending argument because it makes readers look like simpletons. The idea that people aren’t reading books because of minute differences in spelling is simply insulting to one’s intelligence. That’s like saying US readers can’t understand Salman Rushdie. Speaking for myself, I never had problems reading Brazilian authors: Euclides da Cunha, Machado de Assis, Jorge Amado, Carlos Drummond, João Ubaldo Ribeiro. On the contrary, I revel in the different vocabulary, which is a matter that will not be solved by the agreement. Different countries have different words for things: in Portugal a bus is called autocarro; in Angola and Mozambique, machimbombo. I discovered this when I started reading Mia Couto and Pepetela, and I think it’s wonderful. Their books are just filled with African expressions. I don’t know how it is with English editions, but Portuguese editions tend to have glossaries with the meaning of these mysterious, beautiful foreign-sounding words. Mia Couto goes even further and often invents new words. I believe we book lovers are, by extension, lovers of language, so the richer the language, the more we love it. This hasn’t stopped these writers from being widely read in Portugal. Actually, I think it’s this richness of vocabulary that they brought to the Portuguese language that has made them so unique and popular.

Anyway, this rant was just to explain why I write Clarabóia with a stress mark on the o. I’ll be back next week to write about another aspect of the novel.

Thursday, 26 January 2012

José Saramago, Women and Sex


Long before I started reading Clarabóia, I had already noticed that José Saramago wrote excellent female characters. His first novel, Terra do Pecado, followed the doomed attempt of a landowner’s widow to find love again. Saramago would claim, decades later, that it was a topic he didn’t know anything about. Although the intimate life of a rich widow was something that the grandson of landless peasants wasn’t familiar with, he’s never shown any fear of filling his novels with female perspectives. The women in his novels not always dominate the plot, but some characters, like Blimunda (Baltasar and Blimunda), The Doctor’s Wife (Blindness and Seeing), and Death (Death With Interruptions), do have more importance than the men to the action. Even if they have a supporting role, their presence always leaves a significant impression, whether it be the unknown woman who fuels the obsession of Sr. José to discover her identity (All The Names), the biblical prostitute Mary Magdalene (The Gospel According to Jesus Christ), or Maria Sara, the editor who persuades Raimundo to write an alternative history of Portugal (The History of the Siege of Lisbon).

I don’t mean to say the author idolizes them, though. In these politically correct times, it’s easy to turn minorities into the personification of all virtues; it’s even easier and less criticisable to slip into misandry, something Saramago never does either. I just mean he writes women who possess complex personalities – with dreams, insecurities, values, and sexual drive; ballsy women with their own way of doing and thinking about things. They’re not easily definable because they exist in a constant flux, like Emma Bovary, one of the most fascinating women from literature, and who wasn’t a good person by most definitions. Simple tags like good or bad don’t apply to rich characters.

And it’s with this frame of mind that I’m reading Clarabóia, possibly Saramago’s most female-centric novel ever. I mentioned in a previous post that the plot loosely revolves around the people living in six apartments in a tenant building. Although most of those apartments have men – husband and fathers – living in them, the reader often enters their homes through the perspective of the women. It’s also inevitable, perhaps considering that the novel was written in 1953, at the height of Portugal's patriarchal values, that the men-women and women-women relationships are depicted in terms of power and sex.

In 1953, Portugal was, morally speaking, still living in the Victorian age. Although in the outside world the feminist movement was underway, Portugal had stopped in time regarding sex and what was considered morally decent. Women were considered second class citizens. The man was the chief of the family, and the breadwinner; the woman, often a housewife, would simply manage the domestic economy, do the house chores and serve her husband. Daughters should remain chaste until marriage, and parents controlled every aspect of their (non-existing) sexual life to make sure they walked towards the altar still intact; young men had to ask the father permission to date his daughter. It was all very traditional and in line with the state propaganda that promulgated a Christian, patriarchal view of the world.

Writers, however, tried to dismantle this illusion through their fiction by writing explicitly about sex, sexual relationships, extramarital affairs, and, worst of all, female sexual desire. It was then still unthinkable that women could actually enjoy sex. That is one of the topics that motivated criminal charges against the authors of The Three Marias, an erotic book collectively written by three women - Maria Teresa Horta, Maria Isabel Barreno e Maria Velho da Costa – and which was deemed indecent because it showed sexual desire from a woman’s point of view. This happened in 1972.

Twenty years before, Saramago was already writing about women fighting against this sexual repression, and the way this repression traumatised them. There are two sisters, Adriana and Isaura, who live in an apartment with their mother and aunt. Adriana keeps a diary where she confides her unrequited love for a co-worker: it’s a sad diary because it reveals her lack of self-esteem; she, for instance, calls herself ugly and doubts any man would ever love her; but it also shows the way she was brought up: she doesn’t think she should take the initiative; that would be considered too forward – it’s the man who must show interest. Women must inhibit their desires. As for her sister, literature constitutes her form of escape and also the only space where she can entertain sexual fantasies. There’s a curious passage in the novel that juxtaposes Adriana writing in her diary with Isaura reading Denis Diderot’s The Nun. This is an erotic novel involving lesbianism: the lengthy excerpt Saramago quotes from involves a mother superior getting in bed with a nun. Isaura is more reserved than her sister: she works at home, mending clothes. Whereas Adriana can project her feelings onto her co-workers, Isaura doesn’t have an outlet for her sexual experiences. This isolation leads to a scene where she slips into bed with her sister, who’s sleeping, and starts kissing her arm. Adriana wakes up and there are further complications. Although it’s an arousing passage, I think it has more to do with loneliness than sex. Isaura is motivated by the fact that she doesn’t have any form of expressing her libido. Her kissing her sister is a confused manifestation of all her pent-up emotions; she’s a victim of a society where sex isn’t free, where sex isn’t even private. When their aunt notices that something is wrong with the two, she hatches a carefully thought out plan to have access to Adriana’s diary, hoping it’ll yield explanations to their behaviour; she justifies these actions with the belief that she’s doing it to help them. The theme of intruding on other peoples’ lives is continued in the character of Anselmo, a father who starts following his daughter, Maria Cláudia, after he suspects she’s seeing a boyfriend. He too think he’s doing it for her own good, by ensuring she marries a man who can provide her with a good life.

Still, deep down Anselmo is a well-intentioned father and husband. There are worse men in the novel. Caetano is a cruel, whore-mongering brute who treats his wife, Justina, like a slave. He doesn’t hide the fact he blows all his money on prostitutes, he never shows any affection for her, he schemes to make her life miserable, he forces her to have sex with her just to spite her. He doesn’t hit her, not as a matter of principle like he fondly claims, but out of fear, because he fears pushing her too far. Caetano’s a bit heavy-handed, clichéd; he’s not one of Saramago’s most accomplished characters, who, even at their worst, have redeeming qualities. But this caricature of a man serves to show his time’s double standards regarding sex, which granted men more freedom and rights than woman.

Another instance of double standards concerns Lídia, a kept woman. A former prostitute, she now lives in an apartment where she frequently receives a lover, Paulino. Lídia isn’t the traditional whore with a heart of gold, but a woman in a vulnerable position, at the mercy of her aging body, who hates what she does. She gets along fine with most of the tenants, even if most judge her behind her back and if some envy her because she has more than them. Her mother, who visits her twice a month, once to collect a stipend, another to pretend she cares about her, condones her job because it financially suits her. During the novel, Maria Cláudia’s mother, Rosália, pleads with her to persuade Paulino to find her daughter a better-paying job in his company. She acquiesces but this backfires on her because Maria Cláudia becomes Paulino’s new object of desire. However he must first get rid of Lídia; an opportunity arises when he receives an anonymous letter accusing Lídia of cheating him with a new tenant. He uses this pretext to leave her, pretending to be the victim in the relationship. Rosália and Anselmo, who until then had been obsequious to Lídia, take Paulino’s side. It’s not just that he’s their daughter’s new boss; it’s that he’s a man, and so it’s expected, even natural, to have a mistress. Lídia is criticised for being disloyal. Men are encouraged to be polygamous; women, monogamous.

I’m curious to see how other people will read this novel. Have attitudes towards sex changed so much in the past sixty years that in this regard Clarabóia is interesting only as a historical document? I don't think; I fear this novel condemn a sexual hypocrisy that still exists today.

Wednesday, 25 January 2012

Dario Fo


Dario Fo is one of my favorite living playwrights.

To speak of Fo as a playwright, however, is reductive. He’s also stage director, art director, costume designer, composer and actor. Few playwrights probably have the near total control Fo has over the final result of his performances. He's a playwright I admire immensely, not just for his humor and talent, but also for the social and political content of his plays.

Fo was born in Italy, in 1926, and grew up amidst fishermen, artisans and travelling salesmen, listening to their tales and absorbing their dialects, which would later help him develop the grammelot he uses in his plays, a mixture of onomatopoeia, dialect, made-up words and mimicry. Grammelot is a sort of universal language developed in the 16th century by the Commedia dell’Arte theatre. Since at the time Italy had dozens of dialects, the wandering theatrical companies had to make themselves understandable wherever they went. This made-up language, aided by expressive gestures, managed to convey meaning to whoever watched their performances. Fo has revived this tradition from popular theatre for plays like Mistero Buffo and Elizabeth: Almost by Chance a Woman.

Fo reached adulthood during World War II and was conscripted to the Italian army, joining the paratroopers. Fo preferred not to desert lest he endangered his father, who was involved in antifascist activities.

After the war, Fo graduated from the Academy of Fine Arts of Brera in 1950, with a degree in architecture, which has come in handy in designing and building the sets of his plays. He then went on to work on TV and radio as an actor and author of satirical plays.

In 1954 Fo married the actress Franca Rame, who has been an important companion throughout his career: usually Fo writes his female roles for her and both have also co-written many plays and monologues for her dealing with the role of women in contemporary society. The book A Woman Alone collects several of these monologues.

As I pointed out already, Fo’s theatre is steeped in the tradition of the Commedia Dell’Arte. But he also draws from the tradition of the giullari, the Medieval wandering performers who disrespected, mocked and criticized church and state with their popular style of satirical humor. Fo is mainly a comedian, a specialist in satires and farces. He’s also a militant communist who uses his art as a weapon against social injustices. He writes according to Santeuil's dictum: castigat ridendo mores (comedy criticises customs through humor). Fo believes that laughter is a powerful tool to open the minds of people and make them receptive to ideas rejected by society. So even though he can be fiercely political, his plays seldom read like sermons.

According to Franca Rame, they were having trouble with the authorities as early as 1953, with Fo’s first play, Il dito nell'occhio. This was the time of Mario Scelba’s government, a period of “total censorship,” in the words of Rame. The church advised people not to see their plays, policemen watched them closely, businessmen refused to rent them buildings, and inspectors in the crowd paid attention to each word the actors uttered to make sure they didn’t deviate from the script that had been previously approved by censors. This was only ten years after the fall of Mussolini. Wherever they went, however, they always met with the support of students and workers. Their plays struck a chord with them since they reflected their concerns and aspirations.

Fo was successful in the fifties as an actor but he soon got tired of working for bourgeois middle-class theaters. Fo and Rame abandoned the mainstream circuit. They had realized that operating within the mainstream was limiting the reach of their artistic vision: the bourgeois didn’t mind their criticism because it operated within channels they controlled. Rame has likened this to the medieval king who allowed the jester to speak truths just to prove he was tolerant, but only so long as the jester remained within the limits of the tolerable. The couple realized they weren’t making a dent so they took their plays to where they’d have a greater impact.

In the sixties they were staging plays in alternative places like factories, circus tents, and parking lots, drawing huge crowds of working class people. They were also successful in the workers’ social clubs, an Italian institution created by the Italian Communist Party at the beginning of the 20th century (fans of Italian cinema will remember such a place in Bernardo Bertolucci’s Novecento). Initially the response was lukewarm: for the workers they were just another couple of intellectuals come to play at being revolutionaries. Rame claims that they managed to break the ice by building their own sets in front of the workers, proving they weren’t just intellectuals afraid of picking up tools and getting their hands dirty.

From 1964 to 1968 they had the highest earnings amongst the major companies in Italy, and they also charged the lowest prices. In their first year, they staged plays in over 80 workers' clubs, in factories and other unexpected places. They estimate they performed before over 200,000 workers. From them they drove inspiration for new ideas, situations, plots and even ways of expressing themselves.

In spite of his militancy, Fo has also had trouble with the Italian Communist Party. The ICP, according to Rame, didn’t like what they were doing: they were suspicious of the workers’ intelligence, she claims, and of their freedom to express themselves, which says a lot about the ICP: they wanted to be the voice of the workers, but the workers had to think what the party wanted them to think. And now these clowns had come along, asking them to share their ideas, to raise their voices, to express themselves, to speak up for themselves, outside the channels the ICP controlled. Fo also clashed with the conservative views the ICP had over topics like sexuality and social reforms; the ICP had no patience for a playwright who revelled in polemics. The history of the relationship between the couple and the ICP is a sad story about internal struggles for power and mistrust.

Fo’s first great success was Mistero Buffo, written in 1969, which attracted an audience of one million during the two and a half years he toured it around Italy. It's an unusual play, written just for one actor, who reproduces a long monologue, mixing lectures about history, religion and politics with one-man performances of medieval mystery plays. It’s Fo’s most innovative play, a way of expanding the possibilities of theater to encompass non-fiction. It’s been dubbed Theater of Narrative and has inspired other Italian playwrights and performance artists.

Accidental Death of an Anarchist followed in 1970, concerning the mystery surrounding the death of Giuseppe Pinelli, an anarchist wrongly accused of terrorism who fell from a police precinct window. Fo wrote it to help the Left-wing communist newspaper Lotta Continua, which had been charged with libel after accusing the police of murder. This work method would accompany Fo for most of his career: he’d start from something real, like a newspaper article, reshape it through his artistic imagination, and send it back into the world, as a searing indictment against power and public institutions.

Can’t Pay? Won’t Pay! Was written in 1974 in support of the autoriduzione movement: basically, faced with inflation, people decided to take things from the stores and supermarkets and pay only what they could afford (as a personal aside, I think this is an idea that should be tried out again in modern times).

His 1981 play Trumpets and Raspberries explores a theme dear to Fo because it’s a cornerstone of the Commedia Dell’Arte: mixed identities. Agnelli, the Fiat director, is confused with a terrorist whom they think has kidnapped Agnelli. The play was written in reaction to the 1978 assassination of prime-minister Aldo Moro, kidnapped by left-wing terrorists. Some believe the Italian government decided to sacrifice Moro instead of negotiating to save his life just to prove it was hard on terrorists. The irony of the play, of course, is that since Agnelli is a rich businessman the government uses all its resources to save him, proving where the real power in democracy lies. 

Abducting Diana, evidently translated into English in order to capitalise on Princess Diana's name (the protagonist is named Francesca in the original play), was written in 1987 and follows a pair of kidnappers who get more than they bargained for when they try to kidnap a media mogul.

The Pope and the Witch, written in 1989, tackles abortion and AIDS and has the Pope as the protagonist. Unfortunately it's hard to find his plays in English from the 1990s onwards; even though he received the Nobel Prize in 1997, there hasn't been a systematic translation and collection of his plays.

But from these examples, I hope you'll agree Fo is a writer always living in the moment, unafraid of becoming dated, perhaps because he has an inexhaustible imagination for new farcical situations. According to Rame, Fo can write up to three plays a year, in spite of all his tribulations. He writes on the fly, always up to date on current events. He's more interested in participating in the living world than writing a timeless, artistic play.

Fo’s theatre is built on situations, not characters. Hence his emphasis on improvisation and his belief that the plays are open works, free to be constantly changed with each new performance. For this reason it’s difficult to speak of a definitive edition of his texts. Fo himself encourages translators to change the political content of his plays to reflect the receiving countries’ hottest topics. This approach to open plays is another mark of the influence the Commedia Dell’Arte has had on Fo and is based on the lazzi, or comic routines or improvisation around which an actor can build many diverse performances from a basic idea or plotline.

Dario Fo received the Nobel Prize in 1997. He had been previously considered for it in 1975. This surprised and enraged many people who consider Fo a minor performer, a lightweight playwright of no importance in the history of Italian or world theatre. But consider this: in his lifetime Fo has been hounded by the government, the Catholic Church, the police, the Mafia, right-wing groups, and even the Communist Party. Fo was once arrested for making fun of an American president. Franca Rame was kidnapped and raped by a right-wing group in 1972. Their early career met censorship and obstructions at every turn. Today they fight the censorship of the Berlusconi-owned Italian mass media. Think about that for a moment: so much anger directed at a lightweight playwright? So much trouble to silence a writer who has nothing of value to say? The opposition Fo has met in the last fifty years is a grim testament to the importance of his work, of his voice as a denouncer of crimes and injustices, and of his ability to rouse consciousnesses. More importantly, it’s a dishonest struggle: after all the government and the church have billions in money, the mass media, the educational system, and the police at their disposal. They are ridiculously powerful. Dario Fo only has humor in his arsenal. But the disparity proves that humor, as the Medieval giullari taught Fo, is more than sufficient to upset and hurt the powerful.

Recommended Plays:

1958: The Virtuous Burglar
1969: Mistero Buffo
1970: Accidental Death of an Anarchist
1974: Can’t Pay? Won’t Pay!
1981: Trumpets and Raspberries
1983: The Open Couple
1984: Elizabeth: Almost by Chance a Woman
1985: One Was Nude and One Wore Tails
1986: An Ordinary Day
1987: Abducting Diana
1989: The Pope and the Witch

I’m greatly indebted to Stuart Hood and Franca Rame for their introductions to the two volumes of the Dario Fo Plays, published by Methuen. Many of the facts of this short biography came from them, as well as from my own readings of Dario Fo’s plays.

Tuesday, 24 January 2012

Why Write Books That Can't Be Published?


Why write a book that can’t be published? That’s the question I asked myself after reading one hundred pages of José Saramgo’s new novel, Clarabóia. Although it was published posthumously in 2011, it was in fact finished in 1953. Saramago sent it to a publisher, who never replied back; Saramago, meanwhile, lost interest or forgot or got busy with other things (he still had a day job at the time), and its fate remained unknown. Then in the 1980s Saramago, by then a famous writer, received a letter from the editor who possessed the manuscript, and he offered to publish it, if the author wanted. Saramago refused, claiming he didn’t want it published in his lifetime. But he didn’t oppose its publication after his death.

But I think it would have been difficult to publish the novel in 1953. Portuguese literature had been, since 1926, in the tight grip of state censorship. This censorship had the mission of restoring Portugal’s mental and moral health. Dictator Salazar believed the country needed to be saved from the doubts and negativism that assailed the century; it was time to stop questioning God, country, family, morals, duty, and authority. Democracy had destroyed society and alienated man from himself, from history, from his fatherland. It was time to restore faith in the great certainties of the previous century. Therefore the arts should serve Man by offering him healthy role models, both physical and mental.

The dictatorship supervised the creation of a reality to deceive public opinion at home and abroad, in our former colonies. It was creating a virtual country, or as writer Hipólito Raposo called it, in 1940, “The Republic of Illusitania,” a pun on Lusitania, an ancient name for Portugal (it’s where words like Lusiad and Lusophone come from). In order to create this virtual country, the State instated an official body that censored everything: newspapers, books, radio, television, cinema, shows, visual arts, music, education. That way it succeeded in pushing forth its political-ideological conditioning and shaping the minds of its citizens. Several words and expressions were not allowed to be printed: human rights; capitalism; exploitation; oppression; proletariat; peace; republic; and after the Portuguese-Angolan war started in 1961, even colonial (in the 60s a newspaper was fined for quoting a governmental document that contained this word; sure, censorship is bad, but at least it provides some absurdist humor).

But writers, being writers, weren’t going to be told what to write. They weren’t going to write that Portugal was a happy, rich, developed country when people were dying from starvation. A counter-reaction started when writers in the 1940s, known as the Neorealists, began writing about Portugal in all its misery. While the state was making it illegal to write about poverty, famine, sex, class struggle, unhappiness, suicide (in Portugal people were only murdered - and the killer was always caught or it wasn’t worth printing the news - or else died by accident), social injustice, civil liberties, and the divide between state and citizens, the pessimistic writers were wallowing in all those depraved, reactionary ideas that could only create social unrest.

José Saramago’s Clarabóia would have been a troublesome book under these circumstances. The action takes place in a tenant building inhabited mostly by working class people, but also by a well-off family that has fallen on hard times. It contains passages that would have attracted the censor’s blue pencil like shit attracts flies. The following excerpt is centred on four women who live together, two young sisters with their mother and aunt. It’s night time, the sisters are listening to music together while their aunt is going over the bills:

  They both laughed. Aunt Amélia was finishing the bills and asked a question:
   “Don’t they talk about raises over there?”
   Adriana shrugged her shoulders again. She didn’t like to be asked that question. It seemed to her others thought she earned little and it offended her. She replied, with bitterness:
   “They say business is slow…”
   “Always the same story. For some, a lot; for others, little; and for others, nothing! When are those people going to learn to pay what we need to live?”

The censor, always on the lookout for such subversive episodes, would have excised this passage. Not only did it question the myth that people were happy with their social condition, it gave voice to their discontent and, more importantly, dared to challenge dictator Salazar’s belief that poverty was a virtue. “I owe Providence,” he famously once said, “the grace of being poor.” Yeah, well, people disagreed. Other ideas, although subtler could have incensed the censor’s ire. The novel shows the poverty of the characters in indirect ways too: there’s Silvestre, an old shoemaker, who has a curtain dividing him room from the corner that serves as his workshop. Although he has a job, he can barely make ends meet so he has to take in a lodger. Until recent decades, most Portuguese could not afford their own houses and lived their entire lives in rented rooms.

But it wasn’t just Saramago’s Marxist tendencies to criticize social and economic ills that would have gotten the novel in trouble with censorship. Clarabóia is also rife with libidinous passages that would have offended moral values:

Maria Cláudia, alone, smiled. Before the mirror she unbuttoned her smock, opened her nightshirt and contemplated her breasts. She trembled. A light crimson tinged her face. She smiled again, a bit nervous, but happy. What she had done had given her a pleasant feeling, with a taste of sin. Then, she buttoned up her smock, looked in the mirror once more and left the room.

Maria Cláudia is nineteen. This scene is briefly preceded by one where her mother is embarrassed to see her lying semi-naked in bed. Later she goes to make a phone call at a neighbour’s apartment, a kept woman, and there’s a sexual tension between the two:

Perhaps the décor, maybe Lídia’s presence, something imponderable and vague, like a gas that passes through all filters and that corrodes and burns. In that bedroom’s atmosphere, she always lost control of herself. She got dizzy as if she had drunk champagne, with an irresistible urge to do something foolish.

If the lesbian undertones seem vague in this passage, there’s a more graphic one later on, involving two sisters, that would have left no doubt in the censor’s mind about its meaning. Also, Lídia, being a kept woman, and previously a prostitute, would have been too risky for the novel. In other apartments, couples despair over their loveless marriages, blemishing one of the fundamental institutions of the regime: the family.

There were two forms of censorship: beforehand and after publication. Censorship beforehand meant the writer, after finishing his novel, or play, or poems, submitted the manuscripts to the censorship office; one day he’d be contacted and told to stop by for a chat; then a paternalist censor (usually a retired army Major) would assure him that the State in now way objected to artistic creation, but there were a few things that had to be removed, or some passages that could be rewritten better (here the censor assumed the role of literary critic). If the writer agreed, he could then rewrite the book and submit it again, and go through the same process over and over until the censor was happy. If he didn’t, he couldn’t publish it (this wasn’t carved in stone; some books with offensive passages could be published, but would suffer a more subtle way of censorship: for instance, the book’s title and the writer’s name couldn’t be printed in the media, harming its sales and impact. This was a way of killing an author still in life.)

Censorship after publication entailed confiscating the book after it had hit bookstores. There were always police spies in bookstores, checking the books on the stands, and the contributions of informants and ordinary citizens who kowtowed to the regime’s line and saw it as their duty to keep Portugal uncorrupted from evil ideas. Now this is where censorship becomes grotesque: a book could be authorised by the censorship office, only to be seized by authorities after it had been published. Sometimes censors missed things: perhaps there was too much to read, or the font size was too small, or they were too tired, or they were too dumb; or sometimes there were different temperaments at work: some were more educated than others and tried to let some things slip through, as long as it didn’t hurt their career. What was neutral to one censor, was dangerous and subversive to another. Censoring was mostly done by instinct and based on a vague list of directives.

Had Clarabóia been published in 1953, it would have likely been seized by agents in bookstores. It’s fortunate José Saramago was spared such ignominy.

Monday, 23 January 2012

African Lusophone Literature Guide

I thought that in case someone else wanted to give Portuguese-speaking African literature a go during the African Reading Challenge, a quick list of what’s available in English would come in handy. The results are not very encouraging: it seems that outside Angola, Mozambique and Cape Verde, African countries where Portuguese is spoken have a hard time exporting their literature. Also, some of these books are out of print. And there’s no poetry or plays available. Here’s hoping one day someone will translate Ondjaki or Mia Couto’s poetry:

Angola


Óscar Ribas (1909-2004):
Echoes of my Homeland

José Luandino Vieira (b. 1935):
Luuanda: Short Stories of Angola
The Loves of João Vêncio

Pepetela (b. 1941):
The Water Spirit
Mayombe
Jaime Bunda, Secret Agent
Yaka
Ngunga’s Adventures

José Eduardo Agualusa (b. 1960):
Creole
My Father’s Wives
The Book of Chameleons
Rainy Season

Ondjaki (b. 1977):
The Whistler
Good Morning Comrades

Mozambique


Lília Momplé (b. 1935):
Neighbors: The Story of a Murder

Luís Bernardo Honwana (b. 1942):
We Killed Mangy-Dog

Mia Couto (b. 1955):
Sleepwalking Land
Under the Frangipani
A River Called Time
The Last Flight of the Flamingo
Every Man is a Race
Voices Made Night

Paulina Chiziane (b. 1955):
Niketche: A Story of Polygamy

Poets of Mozambique (ed. by Frederick G. Williams): A suggestion by Alex; this bilingual anthology gathers Mozambican poetry from the colonial period to modern times, and contains the work of writers like Mia Couto, Rui Knopfli and José Craveirinha. Sounds good to me.

Cape Verde


Germano Almeida (b. 1945):
The Last Will and Testament of Senhor da Silva Araújo

Portugal (Honorable Mention)


Teolinda Gersão (b. 1940:
The Word Tree

I included Portuguese novelist Teolinda Gersão’s novel because the rules of the ARC allow books not written by Africans to be included, provided they deal with Africa. I thought this would be an interesting choice of reading because its deals with the experiences of Portuguese settlers in Africa during the colonial period.

Even though the offer is scarce, I hope some readers will feel curious enough to give some of these writers a try.

Sunday, 22 January 2012

Clarabóia: José Saramago and Neorealism


I started reading José Saramago’s posthumous novel, Clarabóia, a few days ago. (1) Some readers may recall that he passed away in 2009. After that I began reading his books more slowly because I knew I’d never have another opportunity to enjoy a new novel from my favorite writer. Now let me share several posts about this new novel with you.

Clarabóia adds another piece to the jigsaw that composed Saramago’s sprawling oeuvre (six decades writing novels, poems, plays, diaries, crónicas, newspaper articles, a travel book, a memoir, children’s books, short-stories and a blog), and it helps  to understand the development of his work as a novelist. Finished in 1953, if I had to position it I'd say it's in the vein of our neorealist literature. Neorealism started coalescing in literature after the 1929 Crash and matured during World War II with the publication of two novels: Soeiro Pereira Gomes’ Esteiros (1941), and Alves Redol’s Gaibéus (1939). The first novel depicted child labour in Lisbon’s glassworks; the second, the arduous lives of workers from the Ribatejo area, the birthplace of Saramago, grandson of peasants.

Neorealism was perhaps the most important literary movement in Portuguese letters during the first half of the 20th century because it spoke more directly to the social circumstances of Portugal. In 1926, a military coup overthrew the short-lived republic and imposed a dictatorship in the vein of the fascist regimes sweeping Europe at the time. Known as Estado Novo (New State), it immediately instated censorship to clamp down on all arts and civil liberties. Portugal at the time was a poor, underdeveloped country; the regime, based on the pillars of the family and the Catholic Church, tried, however, to project a false image of it abroad, and therefore rejected any form of art that sowed discord between classes, offended the nation’s moral customs and attacked the regime’s policies. The movement saw literature as a tool in denouncing social injustice. Neorealist literature ignored style and aesthetics; it was socially committed art, with a Marxist inclination, that concerned itself with class struggle and capitalist exploitation; it was downbeat, focusing on poverty, famine, unemployment. Neorealism was disillusioned with life and captured it with all its wrinkles, body odour and toothless gums. It was the only type of literature that could dismantle the illusion the State’s propaganda department had so diligently created.

It was in these circumstances that José Saramago published his first novel, in 1947: Terra do Pecado (Land of Sin). It may seem unusual to associate his name with neorealism. Readers probably know him from his magical realist novels and parables like Baltazar and Blimunda, All The Names and espeically Blindness, an absurdist view of life, with impressionistic prose, and a satirical narrator who’s a far cry from the bleak and rigorous voice that informed neorealist novels.

But Saramago had his short-lived affair with neorealism. Terra do Pecado was about a rich, young widow trying to make her Ribatejo farm prosper after the death of her husband; the author claimed, in the preface of the modern edition, that he knew something about Rijatejo and farms, but nothing about rich widows.  It was also a bit glum, like a realistic Eça de Queiroz novel without its trademark sense of humour. In truth, writing about the well-off was never Saramago’s forte; he’s always shown a deeper love for the voices and lives of the downtrodden. His second published novel, Manual of Painting and Calligraphy (1977), was also a somewhat realist novel, with autobiographical undertones, about a painter who, being unable to capture the real world, turns to writing. In the protagonist’s dilemma we can already read a critique of the neorealist approach to fiction, which, in spite of its attempts, could never totally capture a world in constant flux.

Saramago’s third published novel, which some critics have called the final nail on Portuguese neorealism’s coffin, was the first one to present the style he’s today celebrated for. Raised from the Ground (1980; it will finally be published in English this year, translated by the ubiquitous Margaret Jull Costa), was, in Saramago’s words, an “epopee about Alentejo’s rural workers,” referring to one of the poorest areas in Portugal, an area that played a crucial role in the Portuguese labour movement. It’s arguably his most ferociously communist novel, but also where his humanism is at its clearest. Saramago explains that he finally found his famous style when he went to Alentejo to interview peasants and workers and that he simply reproduced their speech pattern, which was digressive and interweaved with proverbs and popular sayings. He had already written half the novel in a traditional style, but he went back and re-wrote everything again in his newfound voice. It is ironic that the style that made a radical departure with the writings of Alves Redol and other neorealists came exactly from the people they wrote about in their novels.

So Clarabóia is interesting to me because it fits between Terra do Pecado and Raised from the Ground. It still exhibits Saramago’s adherence to traditional prose, but the voice has already mellowed. It’s more reflective, funnier, wiser. The action revolves around the tenants of six apartments in a working class building: traditional families, a daughter living with her widowed mother, a kept woman who receives a gentleman at night, couples that hate each other, and couples deeply in love form the cast of this novel about the hardships men and women endured in the Estado Novo. Sixty pages into it so far, I notice a compassionate, non-judgmental tone that slowly, one by one, reveals the fears, disappointments, and ambitions of these people, some happy, some sad, others on the verge of change. It’s a novel about ordinary people, the artisans he admired so much (in his youth he had been a mechanic and compositor), just living, no more no less.

(1) Since then the novel has been translated into English under the title Skylight: 16/07/2016

Saturday, 21 January 2012

Africa Reading Challenge

I discovered, via ImageNations, that there's an Africa Reading Challenge coming up, hosted at Kinna's blog:

Region

The entire African continent, including its island-states, which are often overlooked. Please refer to this Wikipedia. Pre-colonial empires and regions are also included.



Reading Goal

5 books.  That’s it.  There will be no other levels.  Of course, participants are encouraged to read more than 5 books.  Eligible books include those which are written by African writers, or take place in Africa, or are concerned with Africans and with historical and contemporary African issues. Note that at least 3 books must be written by African writers.

Genres

  • Fiction – novels, short stories, poetry, drama, children’s books.  Note: You can choose to read a number of individual and uncollected short stories.  In this case, 12 such stories would constitute 1 book.  Individual poems do not count but books of poetry do.
  • Non-fiction – memoirs, autobiographies, history and current events

Reading Suggestions

  • Cover at least two regions, pick from North Africa, Southern Africa, East Africa, West Africa and Central Africa
  • Include translated fiction from Arabic, Francophone and Lusophone literature
  • You can mix classic and contemporary fiction
  • If you are intend to read mostly non-fiction, then please include at least one book (out of the five) of fiction
Read Kinna's blog for a more detailed post about it. This seems like a very good idea. Not that I need a challenge to force myself to read African literature: I'm already a fan of Pepetela, Mia Couto, Naguib Mahfouz, J.M. Coetzee, Wole Soyinka, Ondjaki, José Eduardo Agualusa, and Luís Bernardo Honwana. But if I can reconcile my reading with an ongoing project involving several readers, it'll certainly be more interesting and even productive, if we can get each other to discover new authors.

So here's my tentative book list:

1) Yaka, Pepetela (Angola)
2) O Planalto e a Estepe, Pepetela (Angola)
3) O Fio das Missangas, Mia Couto (Mozambique)
4) A Conjura, José Eduardo Agualusa (Angola)
5) The Island, Athol Fugard (South Africa)

Four of these are not available in English. Can you guess which ones? I'm sure this won't be a problem; in fact I hope to use this opportunity to make people aware of the excellent Portuguese-speaking African literature that, unfortunately, seldom transcends national borders. I throw in Fugard, a playwright, because I'm curious to read more African theater after a good experience with Soyinka's plays.

Now let's read some African books.

Friday, 20 January 2012

Sophia Maria Luiza Adília

Whenever someone thinks of Portuguese poetry – and who honestly does that? – my humble experience tells me that people think only of Fernando Pessoa. Perhaps brave souls will try our national epic, Luís de Camões' The Lusiads. But other poets, even translated into English, pass away in silence: Eugénio de Andrade, Jorge de Sena, Alexandre O'Neill. Well, if that's bad enough, when it comes to our poetesses, they're practically invisible. And that's a pity because we have (and had) many women writing excellent poetry too. So here are four good ones, most of whose poems are impossible to find in English, of course:

1) Sophia de Mello Breyner Andresen (1919-2004)

The most popular and admired in the 20th century was Sophia de Mello Breyner Andresen. Her poetic oeuvre was finally collected in a single volume two years ago: it’s a massive tome of some 800 pages. She started publishing in her twenties and her career spanned six decades. She mixed a strong humanist voice with an appreciation for ancient Greece, its mythology and arts. Her poetry is focused on nature, especially the oceans, as befits our national mythology as a country of seafarers. There’s a pitiful collection of her poems in English called Log Book; I think it’s out of print:

Fúrias

Escorraçadas do pecado e do sagrado
Habitam agora a mais íntima humildade
Do quotidiano. São
Torneira que se estraga atraso de autocarro
Sopa que transborda na panela
Caneta que se perde aspirador que não aspira
Táxi que não há recibo estraviado
Empurrão cotovelada espera
Burocrático desvario

Sem clamor sem olhar
Sem cabelos eriçados de serpentes
Com as meticulosas mãos do dia-a-dia
Elas nos desfiam

Elas são a peculiar maravilha do mundo moderno
Sem rosto e sem máscara
Sem nome e sem sopro
São as hidras de mil cabeças da eficácia que se avaria

Já não perseguem sacrílegos e parricidas
Preferem vítimas inocentes
Que de forma nenhuma as provocaram
Por elas o dia perde seus longos planos lisos
Seu sumo de fruta
Sua fragrância de flor
Seu marinho alvoroço
E o tempo é transformado
Em tarefa e pressa
A contratempo

Furies

Banished from sin and the sacred
Now they inhabit the humble intimacy
Of daily life. They are
The leaky faucet the late bus
The soup that boils over
The lost pen the vacuum that doesn’t vacuum
The taxi that doesn’t come the mislaid receipt
Shoving pushing waiting
Bureaucratic madness

Without shouting or staring
Without bristly serpent hair
With the meticulous hands of the day-to-day
They undo us

They’re the peculiar wonder of the modern world
Faceless and maskless
Nameless and breathless
The thousand-headed hydras of efficiency gone haywire

They no longer pursue desecrators and parricides
They prefer innocent victims
Who did nothing to provoke them
Thanks to them the day loses its smooth expanses
Its juice of ripe fruits
Its fragrance of flowers
Its high-sea passion
And time is transformed
Into toil and the rush
Against time

(trans. Richard Zenith)

Descobrimento

Um oceano de músculos verdes
Um ídolo de muitos braços como um polvo
Caos incorruptível que irrompe
E tumulto ordenado
Bailarino contorcido
Em redor dos navios esticados

Atravessamos fileiras de cavalos
Que sacudiam as crinas nos alísios

O mar tornou-se de repente muito novo e muito antigo
Para mostrar as praias
E um povo
De homens recém-criados ainda cor de barro
Ainda nus ainda deslumbrados

Discovery

Green-muscled ocean
Idol of many arms like an octopus
Convulsive incorruptible chaos
Ordered tumult
Contorted dancer
Surrounding the taut ships

We traversed row on row of horses
Shaking their manes in the trade winds

The sea turned suddenly very young and very old
Revealing beaches
And a people
Of just-created men still the colour of clay
Still naked still in awe

(Richard Zenith)

Da Transparência

Senhor libertai-nos do jogo perigoso da transparência
No fundo do mar da nossa alma não há corais nem búzios
Mas sufocado sonho
E não sabemos bem que coisa são os sonhos
Condutores silenciosos canto surdo
Que um dia subitamente emergem
No grande pátio liso dos desastres

Transparency

Lord free us from the dangerous game of transparency
There are no corals or shells on the sea floor of our soul
Just a smothered dream
And we don’t really know what dreams are
Silent conductors faint songs
Which one day suddenly appear
On the broad flat patio of disasters

(Richard Zenith)

2) Maria Teresa Horta (b. 1937)

Lots of women writers debuted in Portugal in the 1960s, ready to challenge many patriarchal assumptions, and Maria Teresa Horta was at the heart of what you could call our feminist movement. In 1972 she was involved in a lawsuit against one of her novels: Novas Cartas Portuguesas (New Portuguese Letters), co-written with Maria Isabel Barreno and Maria Velho da Costa. The title was a play on the French erotic classic Letters of a Portuguese Nun. The dictatorship in power at the time seized the book's copies and prosecuted the three authors in what became known as the case of “The Three Marias.” (That was used as the title of the English translation.) The authors were charged with pornography, indecency and offending the country’s Christian customs. Its real crime was denouncing society’s sexism and patriarchal values which turned women into second-class citizens, and also daring to portray women as sexual beings. Ironically the prosecution backfired on the dictatorship because it made the case internationally famous and even prompted the publication of the book into several languages:

Emily Dickinson

O seu olhar adiado
perde-se lá fora na luz
muito lento e arguto

Insustentável brancura
por demasiado tamanho
nos servir de reparo

Toma para si a poesia
tornando-a sua desmesura
de claridade e luzeiro raro

Doendo em si mesma
imortal
tamanho o desamparo

Emily Dickinson

Her suspended gaze
lost in the outdoor light
very slow, and sharp
       
Untenable whiteness
born of a vastness
that helps us to see
       
Takes over poetry
owns it immeasurably
through clarity, rare brightness
       
Thoroughly sorrowful
immortal
such its forsakenness

(Ann Hudson)

Português

Se a língua ganha
a dimensão da escrita
E a escrita toma
a dimensão do mundo
       
Descer é preciso até ao fundo
na busca das raízes da saliva
que na boca vão misturar tudo

Mas há ainda a pressa do papel
que no tacto navega a brusca seda
Se a sede se disfarça sob a pele
descendo pela escrita essa vereda

E já se inventa
Enlaça
Ou se insinua

Se entrelaça a roca e o bordado
que as palavras tecendo
lado a lado
querem do país a alma nua

Aí podes parar
e retornar à boca
Esse espaço de beijo e de cinzel

Onde a fala retoma a língua toda
trocando a ternura
por fel

Um lado após o outro
a dimensão está dita
O tempo a confundir qualquer abraço
entre o visto e o escrito

Espelho e aço
Nesta fundura boa
e mar profundo

Para depois subir a pulso
O mundo

Portuguese

If language gains
the dimension of writing
and writing takes on
the dimensions of the world
       
We must go deep
searching saliva’s roots
in the mouth where all is mixed
  
And there’s still the paper’s haste
its touch steering rough silk
Even if under the skin the disguised thirst
streams through the trail of words

And already it creates
Envelops
Insinuates

Interlaces the spindle with the stitch
as the words weave
along the line
wanting the country’s naked soul

There you can halt
and return to the mouth
That space for the kiss and the chisel

Where the voice reclaims the whole tongue
exchanging tenderness
for bile   

First one side then the other
the scale is settled
Time fusing the embrace
between what is seen and written

Mirror and steel
In this pleasing depth
the sea unfolds

Then with effort lifts up
The world

(Ann Hudson)

3) Luiza Neto Jorge (1939-1989)

She wrote most of her poetry in France, where she lived between 1962 and 1970. After returning to Portugal, she stopped writing poetry and devoted her time to translating French writers, including Paul Verlaine, Jean Genet, Boris Vian, Stendhal and Eugene Ionesco. Her small poetic oeuvre, however, continues to be read with much love:

A Dívida

Viva no instantâneo lábio do punhal
na hora diariamente imóvel

As dívidas crescem já são ásperas
magoam a pele já são pus

O dia começa pela sombra
como um povo começa pelo pó
Luz e morte coincidem hora a hora

A dívida alastra   abre as asas
leva-me sonhos débeis tudo a tenta

Atrás do meu gesto
a mão sozinha os dedos conspirando
assimétricos
salientes do corpo até à morte

Já hoje os doava se pudesse
Com que arma porém os separar de mim?

A dívida mais cresce
enquanto eu penso

The Debt

Alive in the dagger’s instantaneous lip
in the daily arrested hour

The debts grow they’re already rough
they hurt the skin they’re already pus

The day starts out from shadows
as a people starts from dust
Hour after hour light and death coincide

The debt spreads    it spreads its wings
it seizes my weak dreams everything tempts it

Behind the gesture I make
my hand is alone my fingers conspire
asymmetrically
sticking out from my body until death

I’d give them away today if I could
But what weapon can separate them from me?

While I’m thinking
the debt keeps growing

(Richard Zenith)

Acordar na Rua do Mundo

madrugada. passos soltos de gente que saiu
com destino certo e sem destino aos tombos
no meu quarto cai o som depois
a luz. ninguém sabe o que vai
por esse mundo. que dia é hoje?
soa o sino sólido as horas. os pombos
alisam as penas. no meu quarto cai o pó.

um cano rebentou junto ao passeio.
um pombo morto foi na enxurrada
junto com as folhas dum jornal já lido.
impera o declive
um carro foi-se abaixo
portas duplas fecham
no ovo do sono a nossa gema.

sirenes e buzinas. ainda ninguém via satélite
sabe ao certo o que aconteceu. estragou-se o alarme
da joalharia. os lençóis na corda
abanam os prédios. pombos debicam

o azul dos azulejos. assoma à janela
quem acordou. o alarme não pára o sangue
desavém-se. não veio via satélite a querida imagem o vídeo
não gravou

e duma varanda um pingo cai
de um vaso salpicando o fato do bancário

Waking Up On The Street Of The World

early morning. footsteps of people going out
with a definite destination or indefinitely stumbling
the sound falling in my room and then
the light. no one knows what goes on
in this world. what day is today?
the bell solidly tolls the hour. the pigeons
smooth their feathers. the dust falls in my room.

a pipe burst open next to the sidewalk
a dead pigeon was swept away in the torrent
along with the pages of an old newspaper.
the slope rules
a car went under
double doors close
our yolk in the egg of sleep.

horns and sirens. it’s still not clear
via satellite just what happened. the alarm
of the jewelry shop went haywire. hanging sheets
fan the buildings. pigeons peck

the glaze on the tiles. those who woke up have come
to the window. the alarm won’t quit. the blood
seethes. the precious image via satellite didn’t arrive the vcr
recorded nothing

and from a flower-pot on a balcony a drop of water
falls and lands on the bank teller’s suit

(Richard Zenith)

Mulheres de Henry Moore nos Jardins

O cheiro da chuva inquinou os jardins
mulheres de Henry Moore sorvem os ares.

E tu alvejas-me, filho, camuflado
na recôncava brandura desses seres.
“Morta! estás morta!” rejubilas.

Entre os mágicos projécteis à deriva,
já crisálidas, já arcas no dilúvio,
pedem paz elas num sossegado corpo
com a terra, seus regos, suas relvas.

Naves nossas de regresso ao solo?

Henry Moore’s Women In The Gardens

The smell of rain has infected the gardens
Henry Moore’s women inhale the air.

And you, son, take aim at me, camouflaged
in the cavernous whiteness of those beings.
“Dead!, you’re dead!” you exult.

Among the magic projectiles adrift
– now chrysalises now arks in the flood –
they ask in their calm bodies for peace
with the earth, its furrows, its grass.

Are these our ships returning to the soil?

(Richard Zenith)

4) Adília Lopes (b. 1960)

She self-published her first book of poems in 1985 and continued publishing through small publishers, attaining a sort of cult status. However, her popularity has increased to the point of her having become one of those rare poets simultaneously enjoyed by the public and admired by the critics. One of her poems was published in English in Wayne Miller’s New European Poets:

Um figo

Deixou cair a fotografia
um desconhecido correu atrás dela
para lha entregar
ela recusou-se a pegar na fotografia
mas a senhora deixou cair isto
eu não posso ter deixado cair isto
porque isto não é meu
não queria que ninguém
e sobretudo um desconhecido
suspeitasse que havia uma relação
entre ela e a fotografia
era como se tivesse deixado cair
um lenço cheio de sangue
porque era ela quem estava na fotografia
e nada nos pertence tanto como o sangue
por isso quando uma pessoa se pica num dedo
leva logo o dedo à boca para chupar o sangue
o desconhecido apercebeu-se disso
é um retrato da senhora
pode ser o retrato de alguém muito parecido comigo
mas não sou eu
o desconhecido por ser muito bondoso
não insistiu
e como sabia que os mendigos
não têm dinheiro para tirar fotografias
deu a fotografia a um mendigo
que lhe chamou um figo

Candy

She dropped the photograph
and when a stranger ran up from behind
to give it to her
she refused to touch it
but you dropped it miss
I couldn’t have dropped it
because it isn’t mine
she didn’t want anyone
and especially not a stranger
to suspect there was any relation
between her and the photograph
it was as if she’d dropped
a blood-soaked handkerchief
because she was the one in the photograph
and nothing belongs to us more than blood
which is why when someone pricks their finger
they stick it right in their mouth to suck the blood
the stranger understood
it’s a picture of you miss
it may be a picture of someone who looks just like me
but it isn’t me
the stranger was a kind person
he didn’t insist
and since he knew beggars
don’t have money for taking pictures
he gave the photograph to a beggar
who ate it up like candy

(Richard Zenith)

A Elisabeth foi-se embora
                                   (com algumas coisas de Anne Sexton)

Eu que já fui do pequeno-almoço à loucura
eu que já adoeci a estudar morse
e a beber café com leite
não posso passar sem a Elisabeth
porque é que a despediu senhora doutora?
que mal me fazia a Elisabeth?
eu só gosto que seja a Elisabeth
a lavar-me a cabeça
não suporto que a senhora doutora me toque na cabeça
eu só venho cá senhora doutora
para a Elisabeth me lavar a cabeça
só ela sabe as cores os cheiros a viscosidade
de que eu gosto nos shampoos
só ela sabe como eu gosto da água quase fria
a escorrer-me pela cabeça abaixo
eu não posso passar sem a Elisabeth
não me venha dizer que o tempo cura tudo
contava com ela para o resto da vida
a Elisabeth era a princesa das raposas
precisava das mãos dela na minha cabeça
ah não haver facas que lhe cortem o
pescoço senhora doutora eu não volto
ao seu anti-séptico túnel
já fui bela uma vez agora sou eu
não quero ser barulhenta e sozinha
outra vez no túnel o que fez à Elisabeth?
a Elisabeth foi-se embora
é só o que tem para me dizer senhora doutora
com uma frase dessas na cabeça
eu não quero voltar à minha vida

Elisabeth Doesn’t Work Here Anymore
                         (with a few things from Anne Sexton)

I’ve already walked from breakfast to madness
I’ve already gotten sick on studying morse code
and drinking coffee with milk
I can’t do without Elisabeth
why did you fire her madam doctor?
what harm was Elisabeth doing me?
I only like Elisabeth
to wash my hair
I can’t stand to have you touch my hair doctor
I only come here doctor
for Elisabeth to wash my hair
only she knows the colors and scents and thickness
I like in shampoos
only she knows how I like the water almost cold
running down the back of my head
I can’t do without Elisabeth
don’t try to tell me that time heals all wounds
I was counting on her for the rest of my life
Elisabeth was the princess of all the foxes
I needed her hands in my hair
ah if only there were knives for cutting your
throat madam doctor I’m not coming back
to your antiseptic tunnel
once I was beautiful now I’m myself
I don’t want to be a ranter and alone
again in the tunnel what did you do to Elisabeth?
Elisabeth was the princess of all the foxes
why did you take Elisabeth away from me?
Elisabeth doesn’t work here anymore
is that all you have to say to me doctor
with a sentence like that in my head
I don’t want to go back to my life

(Richard Zenith)

Não gosto tanto

Não gosto tanto
de livros
como Mallarmé
parece que gostava
eu não sou um livro
e quando me dizem
gosto muito dos seus livros
gostava de poder dizer
como o poeta Cesariny
olha
eu gostava
é que tu gostasses de mim
os livros não são feitos
de carne e osso
e quando tenho
vontade de chorar
abrir um livro
não me chega
preciso de um abraço
mas graças a Deus
o mundo não é um livro
e o acaso não existe
no entanto gosto muito
de livros
e acredito na Ressurreição
dos livros
e acredito que no Céu
haja bibliotecas
e se possa ler e escrever

I don’t like books

I don’t like books
as much
as Mallarmé seems
to have liked them
I’m not a book
and when people say
I really like your books
I wish I could say
like the poet Cesariny
listen
what I’d really like
is for you to like me
books aren’t made
of flesh and blood
and when I feel
like crying
it doesn’t help
to open a book
I need a hug
but thank God
the world isn’t a book
and chance doesn’t exist
still and all I really like
books
and believe in the Resurrection
of books
and believe that in Heaven
there are libraries
and reading and writing

(Richard Zenith)