Saturday, 19 January 2013

Aquilino Ribeiro Revisited

Some writers I can’t get enough of, and some writers I can only read between long stretches of time. Some days ago I finished my annual Aquilino Ribeiro novel, and it left me more exhausted than if I had read three António Lobo Antunes novels in a row. Aquilino is a novelist I’m reluctant to say I don’t like because of all the hours and effort I’ve invested in him, but he’s complicated, he’s hard work. According to my archives I read my first Aquilino in 2008, and since then five more novels. For the reader’s edification I shall write a brief commentary on all of them: A Via Sinuosa (The Sinuous Path, 1918) was his first novel and it’s a coming-of-age story about a humble but intelligent boy whose education for priesthood is secured by a rich family, rather common at the time; unfortunately at the university he gets involved with the Republicans and other revolutionaries opposing the monarchy and he ends up expelled; destitute, without family or friends, he enters the world of adulthood alone and with many doubts. It’s a harsh, unsentimental novel, and it sets the tone of Aquilino’s oeuvre. I don’t remember a lot from Terras do Demo (The Devil’s Lands, 1919), save it’s a bizarre novel split in two narratives, and I vaguely think one of them is about a family obsessed with a fortune the ancient matriarch may or may not be hiding. Next came Andam Faunos pelos Bosques (There are Fauns in the Woods, 1926), possibly the strangest thing I’ve read by him, a borderline magical realist novel about a mysterious creature (maybe supernatural or not) going about the woods molesting women in the countryside; it was the first novel I read by him: I admired the vocabulary and the syntax, but like most Aquilino novels it left me bored. This was followed by O Homem que Matou o Diabo (The Man who Killed the Devil, 1930), the story of a poor but love-struck artisan who undertakes an epic journey, across the Iberian Peninsula, from his small village to Paris to find a French actress he met when she vacationed there. When The Wolves Howl (1958) was reviewed by me exactly one year ago and it’s an excellent novel about power and freedom. It was my second novel, perhaps the most lucid thing I've read by him so far.

That leaves us with A Batalha sem Fim (The Never-ending Battle, 1932), which I finished earlier this month. A Batalha Sem Fim is about a man, José Algodres, son of a dead fisherman, who believes there’s a hidden treasure in the dunes of a nearby beach. He wastes his money and life looking for it and even manages to persuade a few people to join him in his mad endeavour. And obviously the novel ends after he’s suffered considerable misery, none the richer or better off.

What is the never-ending battle? The toil of the fishermen working out at sea, facing the deadly waves for their keep? The poor people’s daily struggle against death? Or the delusion José believes in with quasi-religious faith? Most likely a combination of all three possibilities. Aquilino wrote about the wretched, more so than José Saramago. He understood their language, their thinking, their customs and behaviour, which he captures with the eye of an anthropologist. For clarification, when I mean the wretched I mean workers, farmers, fishermen, peasants and artisans outside the big urban centres of Lisbon and Porto; Aquilino usually set his novels in the countryside, around the region he was born in. The Portuguese have a long and rich tradition of writing about the countryside, mostly because the country was underdeveloped for many centuries and still is considerably rural. Lisbon in fact didn’t give birth to many great novelists: writers like Aquilino, Miguel Torga, Manuel da Fonseca, Raul Brandão, José Saramago, Vergílio Ferreira, Alves Redol, José Cardoso Pires were all men from villages and small towns, and their earliest rural experiences were visible in their writings. Aquilino, for instance, uses the fishermen from the Beira region as material for this novel and the narrative is prodigious with his understanding of the faina, that is, the work a ship’s crew does; I don’t think there’s a word for it in English. As a historical document detailing a bygone Portugal this novel is invaluable.

The novel opens with fishermen being told not to go to sea because the legendary Pedro Algodres has just died. Pedro was a remarkable man: fearless and adventurous, he also owned a fishing company. Admired and loved by all because of his courage and generosity, this is how one of his friends remembers him:

His bravery turned everyone brave. Be mistaken whoever finds the seaman audacious as a rule. More than land critters he has occasion to be courageous and necessarily is so. In the human species, however, there is no one more prone to the contagion of fear and order. A coward, if he’s given an anchor, converts a whole crew into a band of capons; a brave man takes it with him, heroic and fearless, into the bowels of hell. With Algodres aboard, one was at sea as pleasantly as on dry land.

His son, José, who inherits his company, has none of his mythical skills or his heroism. Furthermore he’s not a seaman and he hates the sea, has no interest in it and doesn’t want to spend his live being a poor master to fishermen. His father leaves debts and José doesn’t care about them or about working honourably to pay them. Besides brave, his father was a big spender and was always ready to loan money to his men, which made him die almost without a cent. José plans to get rich quickly. He sells the company in order to finance the excavation of a treasure that was allegedly hidden when Junot, one of Napoleon’s generals, invaded Portugal at the turn of the 19th century. According to a legend José reads in a history book, the treasure was hidden by three priests:

It is told that on the night the three servants of St. Bento were martyred by the barbaric enemy, one of them revealed himself in a dream to the prior and spoke to him: the treasure is hidden in the sands, in a huge forest, by the ocean. The Lord is sending us to keep it over under the form of three kites until the man comes with a pure heart, hands and feet cleaned in salt water, with neither father nor mother, nothing to call his own, to unbury it. And there it is and no one will reach it until God wills it.

An omen makes José believe the treasure is hidden in the Pinhal do Urso, a vast pine tree forest famous for having provided the wood to build the ships that sailed in the historic Discoveries of the 15th and 16th centuries. José spends every cent he has pursuing this chimera, and once he runs out of money he seduces gullible investors with promises of a partnership. In no time word of mouth attracts dozens of workers to the place to open up the dunes. Still months pass and the treasure remains elusive. José is so desperate that the prophecy be true that he burns down his father’s house, in order to truly be a man of no possessions, as the man who’ll find the treasure is fabled to be:

He came to find a corpse that seemed to still look affectionately at him by the two front windows, black like gouged pupils, and by the completely open door, off its hinges. It had been like a second breast for his flesh and it hurt him to see it dead and mutilated. But why did he let bitterness take over him when it was written and it was clear: neither father nor mother, nothing to call his own?

As a study of obsession and human stupidity this novel is extraordinary. What sets Aquilino apart from other Portuguese writers who wrote about the poor and exploited, is that he didn’t romanticise poverty. In the late ‘30s a group of writers started a trend, or movement, called Neorealism. It was ideological in principle and closely connected to the Portuguese Communist Party, a necessary reaction against the dictatorship. It was really proletarian fiction about class warfare, the rich and evil versus the miserable and saintly. It was no doubt important in the historical context of the time, when Portugal lived in a right-wing dictatorship, but its anti-literary and anti-aesthetic position never won me over. The neorealists valued message over style, content over talent. Their books to me are crude, raw and aesthetically ugly. It’s literature I have difficulty reading because it doesn’t feel like literature at all. With Aquilino, the difficulty is the opposite: he’s the epitome of style, of careful prose, of lexical richness. He's lyrical and coarse at the same time. He criticizes power and politics without ever losing sight of good writing. This is one of the few writers of the Portuguese language who could bend it in whatever shape he desired, no less than Eça, Saramago or Lobo Antunes could.

What can I say about Aquilino Ribeiro? That he’s the Cormac McCarthy of Portuguese letters in the vastness of the vocabulary and the bleakness of the worldview? Aquilino’s novels always have a harshness of feelings that I love, an instinctive conception of human nature as primitive, tawdry, and violent. He wasn’t insensitive to class warfare (no one who has ever read When the Wolves Howl could claim that), and A Batalha sem Fim has a very powerful scene that carefully demonstrates the gulf between the rich and poor. Right after someone shouts as a hoax that the treasure has been discovered, a crowd of workers runs in frenzy to the site. In their greed they start fighting amongst each other and a man ends up dead from a blow to the head. The culprits are taken to Lisbon to be tried. This excerpt is taken from the judge’s appraisal of the killer and it’s filled with understated irony:

Such immense and knife-life hands he had never seen. They caused fright. Predetermined for crime, for sure; still shaped to tame the waves like albatrosses’ feet. They matched the huskiness and the large-fronted and rounded head, between bull and rock. Poor beast, once in the claws of justice it had surrendered itself more submissively than a lamb going for shearing. Neither denials nor subterfuges. He struck against Vermoil as if against a tempestuous sea. There he showed himself impervious to remorse, impervious even in his nature to the gaol’s mephitic air, his skin stronger than arras, toughened by icicles and frosts. The crime had passed without leaving a mark on his consciousness, unfit to suffer the smallest filtering of moral and religion. A man from thousands of years ago, anterior to Christ. Dangerous, sovereignly dangerous, because he only had the rein of nature governing his instinct. Here they were, worked upon by the ambition of rescuing themselves from the law of misery, the future soldiers of Bolchevism, the ones who in dreams emptied his pipes and gnawed the meat of his piglets. A watchful eye over them!

It has everything: out-dated phrenology, the fear of a communist revolution, the lack of sympathy for the poor, who obviously are poor only because they want to be poor, and because of the laws of misery.

The difference between Aquilino and the Neorealists is that Aquilino understood evil is human, regardless of class. For him the poor were not the salt of the earth, they were not saints. They were humans first and foremost and thus vulnerable to pettiness, lust, greed, violence and barbarism. Whereas the Neorealists saw everything from the perspective of their ideology, Aquilino saw wider and deeper. His themes were less topical and more timeless, universal even, although he never stopped writing about his village. Thinking about it, I’d say that his main theme was the impossibility of happiness. Again and again, his protagonists go through harrowing ordeals for nothing. José loses his money chasing a dream. He loses the woman he loves because of his sickening obsession. In the end he becomes the local madman, a sympathetic fool turning to begging and living on the kindness of locals who take pity on him.

Aquilino Ribeiro is nowadays under-read, I fear. His vocabulary is arcane, his sentences are baroque, his characters are dry, the incidents aren’t exciting, his action is languid, still, and the narrative is elliptical. These are not attributes that will keep a writer popular. But it’s worth mentioning that one of the last posts José Saramago wrote in his blog was in praise of Aquilino Ribeiro, urging readers to rediscover his fictional worlds.  Saramago considered him a writer of immense talent. I have no reason to disagree.


  1. As usual you bring authors that I would not otherwise have heard of into my sites Miguel!

    I have to say that the plot descriptions of his novels sound very interesting. Of all the reasons that you cite for Ribeiro being under - read, only the dry characters would be a problem for me.

  2. Fascinating, well worth getting to know enough to dislike.

  3. Brian, the dryness is part of the world he depicts; there are brutish, reserved, brooding men, not prone to expansive emotions or liveliness. It is the way many Portuguese still are.

    Tom, no I don't think I dislike him; I have admiration for him, but he's not a writer I'd call a favourite.

  4. Great blog. Congratulations, I will be a regular reader!