Sunday, 3 November 2013

Camilo Castelo Branco




Here at St. Orberose we like, from time to time, to glut our posts with the names of unknown writers. Last post took the prize, though, so we thought our readers could do with further explanatory posts. Let us start with Camilo Castelo Branco (1825-1890).

But first a few words on the Portuguese novel! When Camilo – as he’s known – published his first novel in 1851, the Portuguese novel had been alive for less than a decade. When Alexandre Herculano (1810-1877), not satisfied with the titles of historian, poet, journalist, playwright and politician, wrote O Bobo in 1842, thus earning the right to also call himself the father of the Portuguese novel. But can a single post contain the greatness of Camilo and the man who introduced Romanticism in Portugal? No, it cannot. So we shall leave the story of the man who wrote the history of the Inquisition in Portugal for another day. What the reader needs to know is that, if Herculano wrote historical novels in the vein of Walter Scott and Victor Hugo, set in distant centuries, less than a decade later Camilo was taking a page from Eugène Sue’s The Mysteries of Paris, placing his stories in a contemporary setting and exploring the grubby urban underworld. For a reason his second novel was none other than Os Mistérios de Lisboa, which director Raul Ruiz adapted into a masterful movie years ago. I never read it, but judging from the movie it has those qualities that make popular novels a goldmine for cinema: likeable characters, overwrought emotions, a plot chockfull of incidents, suspenseful storytelling, lost of twists, etc. Camilo, it must be said, was the first Portuguese writer to make a living from his writing and remains one of its most popular novelists, rivalling Eça.

Between Camilo Castelo Branco and Eça de Queiroz there’s no novelist worthy of mention save, perhaps, for Júlio Dinis (1839-1871), whose short-lived career thrived in the period between the decline of Romanticism and the introduction of Realism, with the publication of Eça’s The Crime of Father Amaro in 1875. Camilo himself felt threatened by the new generation of writers, the so-called Generation of ’70, and was afraid of being left behind with an outdated aesthetic, which led him, in his old age, to take a stab at Naturalism, although I never read those novels, from what I’ve read the results turned into parody. Miguel de Unamuno linked Camilo to the Amadis de Gaula and the chivalric romance. Others have debated whether or not he was a Romantic. Still others see him as a cross between Romanticism and Realism. Camilo himself had his own views on the matter. In his most famous novel, Amor de Perdição (1862), he interrupts the action for one of his trademark digressions on the art of the novel:

   Truth is sometimes the reef of a novel.
   In real life, we receive it as it comes out from the lived cases or the implacable logic of things; but, in the novel, it pains us to accept that the author, if he invents, doesn’t invent better; and, if he copies, doesn’t lie for the love of art.
   A novel that cements its merits on the truth is cold, is impertinent, is something that doesn’t shake the nerves, nor takes people out, not even for a while, while it lasts, from this water wheel game, whose buckets we are, some going up, others down, moved by the handle of selfishness.
   The truth! If she’s ugly, why offer her in panels to the public?
   The truth of the human heart! If the human heart has filaments of iron holding it to the clay it came from, or think of it and submerge it in a marsh of primitive guilt, why bring it back up, do its portrait and put it up for sale?

Camilo produced a vast oeuvre at a breakneck pace – two hundred and sixty between 1851 and 1890, an average six per year – to support his family, and he had to sacrifice stylistic lustre over succession of episodes, strong sentiments, action, and to give his readership what it wanted, which amounted to two things: sometimes tragic love stories, sometimes happy endings. He was good at both. If that monk of aesthetics, Eça, chased the Flaubertian bon mot, Camilo was more of a Dickens or Poe, paid by the word and attuned to the wishes of his readers. His bibliography includes novels, theatres, poems, novellas, journalism and short-stories; indeed Portugal’s biggest short-story award is named after him. Another difference from Eça: his most famous novels take place in the North, whereas Eça set his novels in the cosmopolitan Lisbon; although he was born in Lisbon, Camilo, orphaned at an early age, went to live with an aunt in the Douro region, and the setting of many novels became the rural regions of Minho and Trás-os-Montes. Nevertheless, one of his funniest novels is exactly about a deputy from the North coming to take his seat in the parliament in Lisbon. To me, Camilo’s work is an unclassifiable mixture of Romantic situations, intense sentiments, psychological realism, critique of customs, and a generally benevolent outlook, especially in his even-handed treatment of characters. His digressions make for another one of his trademarks, especially when he uses them to attack clichés, for instance about love:

Poets tire our patience when they talk about the love of the woman of fifteen, as a dangerous love, unique and inflexible. Some prose writers of romances say the same. They’re both wrong. Love at fifteen is but play; it’s the last manifestation of love for dolls; it’s the little bird’s attempt as it essays its flight out of the next, always with its eyes fixed on the bird-mother, who is always atop the tree, calling nearby: the former knows as much about what it is to love a lot, as the latter knows what it is to fly far away.

Or about characters and money:

In novels all crises are explained save the ignoble crisis of lack of money. The novelists think the matter is low and plebeian. Style grudgingly takes up things close to the ground. Balzac talks a lot about money; but money by the millions. I don’t know, in the fifty books I have by him, a hero in the entr’acte of his tragedy worrying about the way of finding an amount to the tailor with, or who untangles himself from the net a usurer throws over him, from the justice of peace’s house to all street corners, from where he’s assaulted by capital and interest at eighty percent. This is what the masters of the novel always flee from. They know very well that the reader’s interest freezes at the same time the hero shrinks into the proportions of a little saloon hero, from whom the moneyed reader runs by instinct, and the other runs too because he has no use for him. The thing is vilely prosaic, I confess it with all my heart. It’s not pretty to let our hero debase himself to the point of worrying about the lack of money (…)”

As for Camilo’s life, it was as turbulent and surprising as one of his novels. As a young man he fought in Portugal’s Liberal Wars of the 1840s on the side of those who defended an absolutist monarchy. After showing some interest in Medicine and Law, he became a journalist, living a bohemian life. Twice married, he abandoned his first wife. His second wife became one of the most famous episodes of his life. In 1850 he falls in a love for a married woman, and suffers a religious crisis that makes him temporarily join a seminar. Instead of abstaining from the vices of the flesh, he seduced Ana Plácido and together they eloped. Not before long they were captured and sent to prison, charged with adultery, a case who romantic aspects fascinated the public opinion of the time. Using his experiences in prison he wrote Memórias do Cárcere (Memoirs of the Gaol). He was absolved of the crime of adultery by Judge Almeida Teixeira de Queiroz, none other than the father of Eça de Queiroz. Camilo and Ana Plácido started living together, and although her legitimate husband died in 1863, it wasn’t until 1888 that the two finally married. In 1885 he was made Viscount. In 1890, as his blindness worsened, Camilo Castelo Branco shot a bullet in one of his temples and died hours later. With a few minor changes, his life and the plot of Amor de Perdição are indeed very similar.

But before we get to that, we’ll start with another novel, A Queda dum Anjo (The Fall of an Angel, 1866). This one isn’t a tragic love; it’s more of a precursor of Eça, a scathing critique of politicians in the vein of O Conde de Abranhos. Like Eça’s novels, it has entered popular culture; the protagonist represents certain vices, ticks and mentalities that never disappeared, making him a sort of short-hand for modern politicians. The angel who falls is not a woman but a man, a nobleman from the North, an irascible patriarch with conservative morals and attitudes regarding church, nation, behaviour, and even dressing etiquette, and an expert on family trees. Due to his gravitas and eloquence, his peers elect him deputy to represent their interests in Lisbon. So Calisto Elói de Siles e Benevides de Barbuda, forty-nine-year-old landowner from Agra, travels from Minho to the capital, where he clashes with liberal values, progressivism, and moral decadence, from state-funded lewd entertainment to overt adultery. In this morally pestilential setting it doesn’t take long before he too becomes corrupted. The title promises as much. I think one of Camilo’s many talents lies in his quick broad strokes to create characters. True, I think he lacks the penetrating psychology of Eça, and his characters are feel less fully formed. I also think his humour, which makes his prose a breeze to read, doesn’t surpass Eça’s. But if there’s a novel where his two talents shine the brightest, it’s in his creation of Calisto:

   Regarding strange idioms, of the living ones he knew French very poorly; however he spoke Latin as if it were his own language, and fluently interpreted Greek.
   A sharp memory, and cultivated with patient and fastidious study, he couldn’t have been less than an erudite on ancient history, and a repository of minute news about facts and people of Portugal.
   The wise men of Trás-os-Montes consulted him like an unavoidable judge on the decipherment of family trees and inscriptions, on the recreation of epochs and events debated by contradictory authors.
   On castes and lineages, whatever he uncovered couldn’t be disputed in any way. He’d unearth a generation already buried seven hundred years ago, and prove that, in the era of 1201, D. Fuas Mendo had married the daughter of an artisan, and D. Dorzia had sullied herself by unhappily marrying with the footman of his brother D. Paio Ramires.

Calisto is a man obsessed with the past, with the strict observance of tradition. He “wanted the past, the ancient moral venerated like the ancient monument, the laws of João das Regras and Martim de Océm like the Monastery of Batalha, the Manuelian Ordinance like the Jerónimos Convent.”

The evil that from here arose against the human species, to speak the truth, was none. This good nobleman, if they took away from him the disagreeable habit of going through the shames in the generations of the patrician families, was a harmless creature. The cause of this fault was just a so-called Black Book, which he inherited from his great uncle Marcos de Barbuda Tenazes de Lacerda Falcão, fearful genealogist, who spent sixty of his eighty lived years, collating dishonours, journeys, dissolutions, adulteries, damned coituses, and incests of many families, in those satanic pages, named Black Book of the Lineages of Portugal.

The description of his lukewarm marriage to a cousin is just as good:

He married his cousin Teodora, a maiden of most stable virtues, but uglier than reason demands from an honest lady. The bride let herself go by her father’s hand to the husband’s house. She went neither happy nor sad. Marrying cousin Calisto or cousin Leonardo was the same to her. As soon as her father consented that she take to Caçarelhos some three dozen chickens and ducks, which she had raised, nothing was left in her birthplace worth being seriously missed.

Portugal then was a bit like Portugal now, a society with widening social inequality where a small ruling class gorged on the nation’s wealth whereas the majority lived in austerity. Calisto’s people appoint him their representative to put some order back in the chamber of deputies and stand up for traditional values and the rights of the little people (viz. noblemen who were being bled by the crown’s taxes). The most extraordinary thing for me is how 150 years later the country hasn’t changed, after the fall of the monarchy, the birth of a republic, the rise and fall of a dictatorship, and the birth of a second republic, this novel could be written today. Another thing is that the fall of the well-meaning Calisto, corrupted by money and politics, also resembles cases of modern Portuguese politicians. When Calisto arrives in Lisbon, he’s a noble man, impossibly righteous, with his love for tradition and antiques intact.

At the end of January Benevides de Barbuda arrived in Lisbon, and rented a house in the Neighbourhood of Alfama, for having been told that, in that portion of ancient Lisbon, on every corner there was a monument waiting for a competent archaeologist.

When he goes to the parliament he ends up befriending an abbot in the chamber of deputies, who’ll become his cicerone in Lisbon, often explaining to him many of the strange things Calisto sees in the capital. Calisto, like Camilo, was a legitimist, that is, one who defended the absolutist rights of King. D. Miguel and opposed the liberal party that had instated a constitutional government in Portugal. This causes some friction when he takes his oath:

The nobleman of Agra immediately showed annoyance during the taking of the oath, and said he didn’t swear without putting between brackets the words that obliged him to be inviolably loyal to the constitutional chart. The abbot wanted to smooth the rigidity of spirit, absolving him of perjury, since it wasn’t anything serious, because by itself the oath was risible and mere joke with no weight on the scale of divine justice.

For a few chapters we follow Calisto as he vociferates against several forms of moral decadence in Lisbon. No burst of indignation is as funny as when the abbot takes him to the opera, to watch a play about Lucretia Borgia. Needless to say, he thinks it’s preposterous for the government to subsidize perverse and immoral play, and makes a speech in parliament against it. Slowly he becomes famous for his speeches, but only because his listeners secretly laugh at pompousness and his strident indignation. With his prolix style of oration, his rhetorical flourishes, filled with Roman quotations and references to Antiquity, he sounds like a man from another age. Which of course brings us to his opinion on modern writers:

“No one should marry without considerable reading and without applauding those marriage precepts written by the highly eminent Plutarch.”
“I don’t know,” the lady said. “I read Le Mariage, by Balzac.”
“I don’t know who he is; he must be French.”
“But you haven’t read him?”
”I don’t read French. I don’t have enough time of my own to draw filthy water up from infectious wells. Plutarch is an oracle on this matter.”

By the time Calisto falls in love with a Brazilian lady and begins an adulterous affair, the reader is quite anxious to see him taken down a peg or two. No one could remain so annoyingly righteous forever. And yet the fall of a great, noble man, which would constitute a tragedy in a more classical-minded writer, in Camilo’s hands turns into more farce, and subtly subverts the expectations of 19th century fiction, so moralistic itself: Calisto not only does not get punished for his moral weakness, but finds happiness in his affair, and, to make it even more diabolical, his cuckolded wife, who in turn is cuckolding him with a cousin, also finds her own happiness. Sure, Camilo wrote for popular tastes, and was obliged to provide happy endings, but it’s with a wry smile that we laugh at these turns of events, which would have shocked the morality of an Englishman of the time. In an English novel of the time no punishment would have fairer for Calisto than death by tuberculosis, after dissipating his health in drinking and gambling away his fortune, or at the very least he’d have been shipped to Australia to atone for his sins with hard labour. Perhaps in no other century, since the novel has existed, put so much insistence in punishing wickedness and immorality. That not one but two adulterers get away with it is one of the strange surprises of this novel, where everything seems so much by the numbers. So it’s strangely amusing to see this novel, contemporary of greater ones like Madame Bovary and Anna Karenina, not only have a happy ending but condone the harmless wickedness at its heart. Because Camilo himself lived these events? Perhaps. Compared to him, even Eça was a strict moralist.

O Bem e o Mal (Good and Evil, 1863) is far less interesting than A Queda dum Anjo. What is there to say about it? It’s another novel about two happy couples: first Ladislau and Peregrina; then Cristina and Casimiro. Like in other Camilo novels, there’s a bit of bildungsroman as we follow the intellectual and emotional development of the protagonist, Ladislau, the son of rural noblemen. Ladislau falls in love with Peregrina, the sister of Father João, and they marry happily. When it seems their story is about to end Peregrina receives a letter from her friend, Cristina, who’s eloped with her beau, Casimiro, asking Father João to marry them. The priest agrees but only if he knows their parents give their blessing. Of course they do, but not before episodes involving dashing students, heartless cads, duels, prisons, murder, politics, social critique, family secrets and revelations. It’s an alright novel. What I most fondly remember from it, though, are the priests. The novel is full of priests, and they’re all hilarious. As was normal for the time, Ladislau’s education is entrusted to a priest:

Father Praxedes of Vila Cova knew Aristotle and Plato by heart. Philosophy, Physics, Natural History, Grammar, Logic, Metaphysics, Poetics, Meteorology, Politics, and one more hundred sciences he had learned solely from the two wise men of Stagira and Athens. In his opinion, man’s intelligence, after Plato and Aristotle, grew older, or pretended to rejuvenate with ornaments of tinsels and pinchbecks, without carat in the experienced hand of a wise man.

As you can imagine, young Ladislau has a very classic and useless education:

He started writing as it was calligraphically written two centuries ago: huge characters, vertical lines, long and ornamented with very ingenious squares, particularly the capital letters. It was the writing of Father Praxedes, just like the one his great uncle, deceased in 1707, transmitted to one Father Heliodoro, his son, and this to Ladislau’s grandfather, and the grandfather to the son, who came to be the paternal uncle of this Father Praxedes. So that, in that family, the form of transcribing in 1830 was faithfully copied from the one of 1630. In everything else as in the writing.

No, really, Father Praxedes is great:

On holy days, the family entrusted the herding dogs with guarding the house and went to the parish church to hear mass, a quarter of a mile away. Since time immemorial the parish was guided by a clergyman from the house of Vila de Cova. This clergyman who, in the speech of three centuries, always looked the same, always had with him a sister, who, in her clothes, in her words, and in her feeling was the same sister of the 15th century priest.

Ladislau’s childhood is inevitably sad:

The young boy lived amongst his uncles; he didn’t know boys his age with whom he could while way his free hours, or talk in matters of study. Quite naturally his spirit got hold of a sadness that neither the freshness nor the contentment of early years could exorcise. This didn’t bother the vicar and Miss Sebastiana. That dark melancholy was the common rule by which that family lived. A lot of quiet, tomb-like silence, moving about like ghosts, passing through each other with glacial taciturnity.

Here’s another priest, Father João, comparing the Gospel to the free press:

   “In your uncles’ house, were there a plate and a fork for each person?”
   Ladislau, who didn’t know the meaning of the word fork, replied:
   “We all ate from the same plate: and in my house in Vila Cova both my father and my uncles ate at the same table as the maids and workmen.”
   “Like three hundred years ago,” added the priest, “like the Edomite patriarchs with their servants and slaves. Mr. Ladislau hasn’t yet seen, in the light of civilization, the great distance between you and your servants. You live, for now, in the faith that master an servant are children of the same father, one favoured, the other disadvantaged by chance or birth… You don’t read gazettes?” the vicar abruptly asked.
   “I don’t, nor have I ever seen one,” the boy replied. “I heard my uncle say that a priest, nine miles away, when he chanced to meet him in the Pinhel fair, showed him gazettes.”
   “Well,” replied the priest, “gazettes are these papers written in round letters, made and supported to demonstrate that all men have equal rights. I’m very surprised that your uncles and you yourself practiced equality without having read gazettes! Probably in the house of the Militões of Vila Cova you read the Gospel of Jesus of Nazareth.”
   “Yes we did, sir.”
   “Only thus can one explain virtue without the doctrine of gazettes. They say they are the stronghold of freedom, liberty, equality, fraternity; and I defend that the sermon of the mountain, preached by the son of God one thousand and eight hundred years ago, and the sermon of nature, which is heard without ceasing, are enough to make man brother and friend of another man, for the love of God, who is the father of all.”

And this is Casimiro on freedom of the press:

“The freedom of press is an inquisition: instead of bonfires it has deep puddles of mud. From the flames of the auto-da-fé came out purified souls, in the view of some theologians; and from the mud of the indecorous press clean minds must come out, in the view of some legislators. Let us be of our time, compadre.”

This novel’s another winner for me.

Finally we arrived at Amor de Perdição (Doomed Love, 1862). What is this novel about? It’s rather like Romeo and Juliet set in the countryside. There are two families, the Botelhos and the Albuquerques, that hate each other, but their children, Simão and Teresa, love each other. Unlike the first novel, which is a fine piece of satire, and the second one, which has two love stories that end well, Amor de Perdição is a serious tragic love, regardless of Camilo’s brand of humour.

Like many novels from the 19th century, Amor de Perdição spends a couple of chapters chronicling the history of the protagonist’s family before getting to the protagonist proper. That’s not bad because his ancestors are well wroth writing about:

Domingos Botelho was extremely ugly. To make himself a convenient suitor for a second daughter, he lacked the gifts of fortune: his possessions did not exceed thirty thousand cruzados in properties in Douro. The gifts of the spirit did not recommend him either: he strove very hard for intelligence, and he acquired amongst his University colleagues the epithet of Brocas [drill], by which his descendants in Vila Real nowadays are still known. Rightly or wrongly derived, the epithet Brocas comes from broa [a form of cornbread]. The academics got in their minds that the rudeness of his colleague was owed to the cornbread that he had digested in his home town.

But Domingos is not a man without qualities. “Domingos Botelho had to have some vocation, and he did; he was an excellent flautist; he was the best flautist of his time; and he supported himself two years in Coimbra playing the flute, during which his parents suspended his allowances, because the household income were not enough to save their other son from a crime of death.” And if you think this last line is bizarre, the paragraph ends with an asterisk pointing to a footnote that explains how one of Domingos’ brother killed a man after a sword fight with a third brother. Domingos becomes a judge and marries D. Rita Preciosa and they move to Vila Real, where she thinks they’ve returned to the 12th century. One of her descendants was a general who died in a cauldron, fried in some “Moorish land.” Simão, like any normal person, finds such genealogy mock-worthy, earning his mother’s ill-will. Simão is a ne’er-do-well, who gets notoriety as a rapscallion at the University of Coimbra. Then one day he sees Teresa de Albuquerque, his fifteen-year-old neighbour, and falls in love with her. The only problem is that her father, Tadeu, hates Domingos Botelho because he decided some lawsuits against his interests. Tadeu reminds me a lot of Squire Western from Tom Jones, with his bipolar mood swings from his love for Teresa to his physically intimidating her to marry Baltasar, with his abrupt explosions of anger and his regrets for having to be so harsh.

Once the cast is properly introduced and motives and historical hatreds are explained, the novel becomes the story of the two unfortunate lovers trying to live together while their families conspire against them. The story of Amor de Perdição can be summed up in this exchange of words between Simão and Mariana, the woman who secretly loves him, spoken when he’s en route to India, as penalty for killing a man:

   “If I die, what do you intend to do, Mariana?”
   “I’ll die, Simão, sir.”
   “You’ll die?!... How I’ve made so many people miserable!...”

Indeed. Simão, Teresa, Mariana, her father, João da Cruz, Domingos Botelho, D. Rita, Tadeu da Albuquerque, Teresa’s scheming suitor, Baltasar… it’s not a novel that ends well for most characters. This is a novel that lives up to its tragic fame. It weaves a fascinating web of relationships, of helpers and antagonists and inexorably marches towards its bombastic finale. Along the way Simão is assisted by João da Cruz, a blacksmith his father saved from the gallows, and Mariana, who suffers her love for him in silence. Miguel de Unamuno has already extolled the virtues of this character; I can only add that I agree with him. Her devotion to him – and she tirelessly takes care of him after he’s imprisoned for killing a man – mirrors his own devotion to Teresa. It’s a moving situation when he discovers she loves him, due to its insoluble predicament: no words are passed, because she’d never stoop so low as to use her servitude to manipulate his feelings for her; at the same time he pieces together her true feelings for him, but dares not say anything because he can’t stop loving Teresa; meanwhile they’re torn apart because he’s sentenced to serve his time in India; three people in love, not one capable of consummating their love. It’s an extraordinary dramatic situation and Camilo pulls it off with mastery. A reader once complained to me that she had a problem with Eça’s female characters: to her they were little more than props, they lacked vitality, a reasonable criticism. I replied that Eça was more interested in power and institutions and that, since they were in the hands of men, he was more interesting in them; women interested him insofar as they’re victims of abuse by men in positions of power, he wrote about the fairer sex to expose the hypocrisy of a patriarchal society. I’d say that the remedy is reading Camilo’s novels: his women sin for excessive sentimentality and they’re all irrevocably in love (but so are the men); but they show agency, sense of humour and toughness. If Luísa from Cousin Bazilio is tormented about her husband finding out her fling with her cousin, the fierce Teresa proudly throws her rebellion at her father’s face. And her cousin Baltasar, who pretends to save her from the devilish Simão, doesn’t fare any better with her. One of my favourite scenes is when Baltasar fails to change her mind about Simão by enumerating several cases of Simão’s dissolute behaviour during his academic years:

   Teresa heard the sarcastic tone of those words, and got up responding with haughtiness:
   “Don’t you have anything else to tell me, cousin Baltasar?”
   “I do, cousin, do sit down some more moments. Don’t think you’re now talking to an unhappy lover: be convinced that you’re being talked to by your closest kin, your most sincere friend, and most determined guard of your dignity and fortune. I knew that my cousin, against the expressed will of her father, once and a while talked at the window with the son of judge. I didn’t mind the matter, and took it as mirth proper to your age. When I did my last year in Coimbra, two years ago, I got ample knowledge of Simão Botelho. When I returned, and I was told of your infatuation with the academic, I was startled by the my little cousin’s good will; then I realized your same innocence should be your guardian angel. Now, as your friend, I’m desolated to see you still fascinated by the perversity of your neighbour. Don’t you remember having seen Simão Botelho gallivanting with the infamous villains of this land? Didn’t you see your servants with their heads broken by that terror of the fairs? Haven’t you heard that he, in Coimbra, overflowing with wine, gadded about the streets armed like a highwayman, declaring to the canaille war on noblemen and the kings, and on the religion of our country? Does my cousin ignore all this peradventure?”
   “I ignored part of it and I’m not afflicted for knowing it. Ever since I met Simão I haven’t heard that he’s given the smallest grief to his family, nor do I hear anyone speak ill of him.”
   “And therefore you’re persuaded that Simão owes his reform of behaviour to your love?”
   “I don’t know, nor do I think of it,” replied Teresa with fastidiousness.
   “Don’t get cross, cousin. I’ll tell you my last words: I will, so long as I live, work to save you from the claws of Simão Botelho. If you lack your father, I remain. If the laws don’t defend you from the attacks of your demon, I’ll make that blowhard that victory over water sellers won’t save him from the grief of being kicked out of the house of my uncle Tadeu de Albuquerque.”
   “So my cousin wants to govern me!?” she cut in with overt irritation.
   “I want to guide you, while your reason requires help. Be reasonable and I’ll be indifferent to your destiny. I won’t bother you more, cousin Teresa.”

When Teresa refuses to marry Baltasar, for her own good, Tadeu has no alternative – since he can’t bring himself to spank her – but to lock her in a convent for nuns. And this is another high point of the novel. Priests in Portuguese literature of this time were used for comic relief. Inside the convent she discovers a very different life than she was led to expect; the nuns spends their time badmouthing each other. Let’s start after the prioress gives her a paradisiacal description of life inside the convent as a place free from intrigue, passions and envy, and where everyone loves each other:

   As soon as the prioress turned her back, the organ player told the chief of novices:
   “What an impostor!”
   “And so stupid!” the other added. “Don’t you trust this clod, miss, and see if your father gives you another companion while you’re here, for the prioress is the biggest schemer in the convent. After being sixty-years old she talks about the passions of the world as someone who knows them inside out. While she was young she was the nun who more scandals gave to this house; after she became old she was even more ridiculous because she still wanted to love and be loved; now that she’s decrepit she’s always in a fuss doing missions and curing indigestions.”

We’ll skip the part where the prioress talks behind their back when they leave and jump right to the part where she talks behind the back of the scrivener:

“This scrivener is not a bad girl. Her only fault is that she’s fond of the bottle; then no one can put up with her. She has a good allowance but spends it all on wine, and there are occasions when she joins the choir doing ss, a real disgrace. She has no other fault; she’s a clean soul and a friend of your friend. It’s true that, sometimes… (here the prioress got up to hear the dormitories around her, and closed the door from the inside) it’s true that, sometimes, when she’s groggy she turns mean and discovers the faults of her friends. She’s hurled insults at me once, saying that when I went out, I didn’t just go out but was out there doing what the others are doing. Disgusting lack of shame! If someone else said it, very well; but she, who always has these loutish boyfriends who drink wine with her, now that hurts me; but, alas, there’s no one perfect!... She’s a good girl, if it weren’t for that terrible vice…
   Since the choir was singing at that time, the venerable prioress drank a second chalice of stomach wine, and told Teresa to wait for her a quarter of an hour, that she was going to the choir and wouldn’t be long. She had just gone out when the scrivener entered right when Teresa, with her open hands over her face, said to herself: “A convent, my God! This is what a convent is?!...”
   “Are you alone?” said the scrivener.
   “Yes, ma’am, I am.”
   “So that rube goes away, and leaves a guest alone? You can just tell she’s the daughter of a cooper! She’s old enough to know about the world, since she’s been in it up to the hilt… I should go to the choir… But I wont, to keep you company, miss.”
   “Go, go, milady, I’ll be well alone,” Teresa said, with hopes that she could discharge her affliction through tears.

I think it’s now clear that Miguel de Unamuno and I disagree on Camilo. I don’t really reject his claims that Camilo was a writer of intense passions, but I think he tried to reduce him to just that, to fit his own tragic worldview, when I see Camilo as a writer of many facets, and his satire is not the least important of them.

If I had to recommend my readers a novel by Camilo Castelo Branco, it would be Amor de Perdição. As it is, the reader doesn’t really have a choice, it’s the only one available in English. Alice R. Clemente translated it in 2000, for Gávea-Brown, an imprint of Brown University, which means no one knows it exists. I fear it’s even out of print. I hope one day a more visible publisher, like New Directions or Dedalus, will translate some of his novels, so he could make a quiet splash like Eça did a few years ago.

4 comments:

  1. The quotes are enough for me to label Camilo the Portuguese Balzac. Some of these sound like Balzac, plenty are worthy of Balzac - "nothing was left in her birthplace worth being seriously missed."

    This is just style, not the insane productivity.

    Now, I just cheated, using Google. My idea is not exactly original.

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  2. Well, he himself admits he owns 50 books by Balzac; a bit of influence is to be expected :)

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  3. Belated thanks for this intro to Camilo, Miguel. Too bad so little by him is available in English translation. I enjoyed his digressions on the purpose of the novel and various lines & passages you cited as in the one character's not having time "to draw filthy water up from infectious wells." Some of this reminds me more of Machado de Assis than Balzac (I mean that in a good way even though I know you're not exactly a fan of the Brazilian). Obrigado!

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    1. Richard, thank you.

      Camilo and Machado de Assis were contemporaries, although I don't know much about the latter, now I'm interested to know if they had considerations about each other's work; I'm aware Machado de Assis reviewed Eça, unfavourably I should add.

      It is a pity about the translations, it must give anyone interested in studying Portuguese literature a very fragmentary idea of its history - nothing before Eça, then nothing until Saramago and Lobo Antunes, and since then I guess just Gonçalo M. Tavares. It's really our fault, we never had a policy of promoting our culture abroad. The Brazilians are much better in that regard.

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