Wednesday, 2 April 2014

Aquilino Ribeiro once again

I lack the time to write about all the Portuguese writers who deserves a mention, to offer them a respite from the oblivion that envelopes them outside their country. It’s not easy to show that Portuguese literature is more than Eça de Queiroz, Fernando Pessoa, José Saramago, and António Lobo Antunes, I wouldn’t want to upset his four fans by forgetting him. I ask myself who deserves to be better known, and the names are too many to list. Aquilino Ribeiro deserves it. I haven’t written a lot about him, but he’s a great writer, a prolific writer of rigorous, precise prose and unlimited vocabulary, a polisher of sentences to their perfection. I’ve written about him before, but not yet the article he deserves. And this isn’t the time either.

Aquilino Ribeiro (1885-1963) is a writer hard to peg down in the history of Portuguese literature. Eça was an urban dilettante; Aquilino diligently captured the rural landscape that is not to be found in his novels. The modernist critics who coalesced around the Presença magazine, albeit recognizing his talent, wished he weren’t so old-fashioned; but Aquilino never hid his admiration for Anatole France, his master. After the 1930s prose started becoming very pedestrian, thanks to a class of Marxist writers who, in their frenzy to denounce all the evils of capitalism, considered lexical density and complex sentences obstacles to their pamphleting; Aquilino never let his gongorism and longueurs abate. He also disagreed with the neo-realists, as they were called, in that he didn’t glorify the poor. Living very close to his birthplace, Beira Alta, an interior region of endemic poverty, he depicted its reality in all its squalor, ugliness, pettiness and cruelty, a cruel literature full of harsh, insensitive people who care only about survival, capable of the most heinous crimes to get by. For the neo-realists, who divided the world between the saintly poor and the demonic rich, this was a blasphemy.

For all his life, and after his death, Portugal remained a deeply rural country, but to Lisbon, the only part of it that counted, the country was part of the modern world. Portugal, a backward country for historical reasons – 300 years of Inquisition, for starters, and 500 more of sluggishness-inducing imperialism, too, not to mention the mind-crushing effects the Jesuits had on the education – has always had troubles with being backward. It abhors the idea of not being modern. The fact that Portugal, a deeply centralized country, doesn’t seem to exist outside Lisbon, its greatest urban centre, helps maintain that illusion. So when Aquilino published his second novel, Terras do Demo (1919), showing exactly how the people in the countryside lived, it was a slap on the face. It was a novel about how poverty can turn people into monsters. It’s about a man who wants to steal a hidden fortune from his wife’s mother, with her complicity, provoking a small tragedy. It set the tune of his work. Aquilino’s portraits of misery always ring true in their brutal crudity and dehumanizing effects.

But he was not a political writer, even if as a citizen he intervened in the questions of his time. For most of his life his writing avoided being overtly political. The one exception that I know of was his final novel, which earned him a lawsuit for denigrating public institutions, although, judging by the effects of the lawsuit, which rallied international writers in support of him and put the dictatorship under the world’s attention, they had no problems doing that on their own, which in fact was the whole point of the novel. He did not write directly about the dictatorship in his prose, but his criticism, clothed in literature, using allegory and symbolism, was much better than neo-realist drivel. One such example is Aventura Maravilhosa (1936), his seventh novel. Its subject is none other than King. D. Sebastião, a figure I’ve written about several times because of his importance to Portuguese history.

To make a long story short, D. Sebastião (1554-1578) tried to conquer the North of Africa to expand Christendom. However he died on the Battle of Ksar El Kebir, in modern Morocco, having left the kingdom debilitated, bankrupt and exposed to Spanish interests. Without a natural heir, the throne naturally went to Spain because his father’s sister was married to King Felipe II, making him his uncle. This resulted in the 1580 annexation of Portugal into Spain, forming an Iberian union that lasted until 1640. Out of these circumstances, which the Portuguese detested because they meant the loss of sovereignty, a myth emerged that one day D. Sebastião would return to save the country from ruin. This myth, which we call Sebastianismo, results form the fact that rumours abounded at the time of the king’s death that he was in fact alive, since his body was never retrieved. And this created urban legends and fantasies: he was secretly living in a monastery; he had been captured and was prisoner in Africa, etc. People showed up claiming to be the long-lost monarch. Even centuries later his name continues to be evoked, and he’s been sung by countless writers like Father António Vieira, Teixeira de Pascoaes, Almeida Garrett and Fernando Pessoa, whose 1934 nationalist epic, Message, had been interpreted by the dictatorship as a valediction. To the ministry of propaganda, Salazar was D. Sebastião returned to finally rescue Portugal and lead it to the Fifth Empire.

Aquilino Ribeiro, however, wasn’t one to fall for that mythical nonsense. He understood the danger of myths and how they clouded men’s reasoning. As a vehement opponent of the regime, Aquilino would not jump into such ridiculous jingoism, he was a practical, terrestrial writer who did not indulge in metaphysical twaddle. Aventura Maravilhosa starts in 1578, with D. Sebastião at the head of his army against the Moors and ends many years later with him having a secret audience with Felipe II, King of Portugal. It really is a novel of adventures, inspired by the old Iberian chivalric romances and picaresque novels. It fabulates a grotesque alternative history wherein the king survives only to suffer countless unfortunate, humiliating travails in the Mediterranean, from Algiers to Mount Athos. He’s made slave, galley-rower, and mercenary, seeking penitence for his crimes against Portugal, waiting for a sign from God to tell him that his atonement has ended and that he may return to reclaim his kingdom. It couldn’t have been a stronger punch in the regime’s propaganda. To make it even clearer that he did not subscribe to abstruse hero worship, he dedicated the book to António Sérgio, a notorious essayist and enemy of the regime, and enemy of Sebastianismo, having called the young king “a piece of donkey” in one of his essays.

The novel builds on two themes: the young king’s understanding of his own cruelty and vainglory; and his attempt to expiate his sins. Throughout the novel, the king, talking to his faithful servant, Father Salvador da Torre, a priest who accompanies him in his journey of “moral reform” to Jerusalem, often discourses on what motivated him to wage war: pride, arrogance, thirst for glory, the thirst to be a hero like in the old cavalry romances.

He was absolute in his resolve, refusing truces or ploys to secure victory; his will ruled without listening to advisors and experienced men. All the advices and voices of prudence he repelled systematically: he shut up by force the mouths of practical people; he didn’t leave to the brave freedom to skirmish; in sum, he sought by all negative means, moved by pride, braggadocio, the most massive confidence in himself, to have luck be against him.

Although this scene shows his despotism and recklessness, it also makes a veiled critique of the dictatorship, the silencing of intellectuals, and the impossibility of opinion. If Salazar was Sebastião, it was only in the sense that both were little tyrants full of themselves. Sebastião’s cruelty is a theme Aquilino explores throughout the novel. During the African campaign, he has a Spanish soldier executed only because he killed an ox to feed himself, ignoring all pleas to spare his life. “The man was indeed a fine piece of animal, young, strong, handsome, he must have been joyful, the sort for whom women kill themselves. Perhaps for that same reason I didn’t forgive him. He died cursing me.” In Lisbon he had also relished watching autos-de-fé. The description of him watching a Jewish girl burning in the stake is masterful in the way it mixes fanaticism, sadism and eroticism:

It must have been the Devil playing with her, for she was pretty. It couldn’t have been anything else, because, right then a lackey, dark, tall and lanky like sin, appeared and fixed a large bundle of dry wood by her feet. He fixed it with  singular craft, like only shepherds and nomads have. The fire crepitated… and the girl’s flesh started crackling against the beam… So white and tender it resembled a swan on a spit! It made you want to eat from it!... A flame ran up her legs like a squirrel, went round her waist and, always climbing, clothed her in such a beautiful colour as I’ve never seen in brocades and crimson fabrics! Ah, what a tunic, Father Salvador, what a tunic… and the delicious smell of melting fat!... But the bitch was brave; she didn’t utter a moan; only very red, she became of a supernatural beauty that astonished. I realized that she had her eyes poised on mine, salient eyes, I don’t know if wishing me harm, if crying for me. When the fire started blackening and deforming the statue, I left… I’m still trying to know why I left…

His cruelty, however, starts receding after the traumatic events of the battle. His mind, deranged from too many cavalry romances, is brought to reality by the stark cruelty and brutality of the battle that shows him a side of war and fighting that he had no idea. “Without raising the flag or issuing orders, he advanced towards the river. The waters, thickened by the high tide, threw against the banks the corpses of those who in their blind fear had tried to cross it. He looked at that horrendous scum, and turned his face away. He couldn’t go any further, and in a frenzy he returned to the battlefield.” Although he fights valiantly, the Portuguese, outnumbered, take heavy losses and eventually he has to run for his life, to regroup with his forces. Along the way he meets a deserter. “A man rose from a blackberry bush, and D. Sebastião realized it was a Portuguese man and a deserter. He was going to hit him with the sword, reproaching him for his bad action, but discovered in him poor and humble mutt eyes; those eyes confessed the love he had for life and his simple cowardly reasons.” This act of mercy, when we consider his own expiation, shows the beginning of his change. In this same episode it begins to dawn on him that he sacrificed his people for a worthless objective. “The red earth, sand and swamp, burned under the evening sun; neither tree nor bird; its heinous baldness now made the covetousness of conquering it more disgusting to him. What did he want that dry stretch of cardoons?” He repeats this question many times.

Secretly returning to Portugal and shutting himself up in a monastery, his presence, and the rumours that he’s alive, begin to sit unwell with the new king, D. Henrique I, his great-uncle. Furthermore they know he’s only mourned by the people because he’s dead. Should he resurface, that love would turn into hatred for having led thousands of Portuguese to death. “The accursed prince had taken the best of the flower of the Portuguese to the butcher, and deep down nobody forgave him. If they don’t execrate him more, it’s only because he’s dead.” It’s clear he can no longer continue to be king, being politically toxic. Like Father Salvador tells him: “You’re an outlaw: you have no country; you have no house. You have no freedom, nor can you consider yourself master of yourself: you are a slave.” In another part he says: “Monarchs who by the work of their own will lost their throne have no right to ask it back. Thus decided the divine will which looms over everything.” The king tolerates this abusive monk because he needs to mortify and humiliate himself with hard truths. Together they leave for the Holy Land, partially for redemption but also because the new king wants him out of there. And it’s during the journey that his folly begins to dawn on him. “What did I need more bloodshed in the North of Africa for?” he asks, perhaps referring to the previous conquest of Ceuta (1415) and the failed conquest of Tangiers (1437) which cost the life of a royal prince. His soul never rests, always wrestling with guilt: “Remorse dilacerate him more than vultures do the corpses of Ksar. He lives, in his imagination, surrounded by the dead, full of wrath, and by the living who accuse him and demand revenge, and it’s a sad fate for a creature to continue to struggle against such an immensity of phantoms.” Although he seeks in himself the motives God has to hate him, some sin or vice in him, he has the acuity to realize that he brought about his own downfall.

Do you know what I wanted? What I wanted was adventure. Adventure for its own sake; to skirmish, to shine a sword that everybody celebrated as portentous in jousts and tournaments; to win glory like Alexander, Charlemagne, Afonso Henriques; vaguely, ultimately, to be declared emperor of Morocco and Tlemcen. Ah, Father Salvador, what thirst I had for showing myself with the helm of Charles V on my head, and the fine Toledo blade in my hand! I thought myself invulnerable, not knowing at all what fear was. It was my folly, not to fear.

And he continues. “I worried about what others would think of me… the Duke of Alba… Pope Gregory XIII… Henry III of France. What wouldn’t the chroniclers write about me when they learned of the retreat!? What idea would they have of me in the future!?” Vanity, he admits, was his main sin, too late to do him any good. “The problem is that it’s our nature to see the vanity of things only with age, like David, or after failures and at the bottom, like me.” But he also points a finger at those who let him have his way. “How was it possible that I was so mad and my vassals, in a general way, to servile?” Once again this may be Aquilino making a veiled comparison with his own time, excoriating his people for their general indolence, silently and patiently enduring the dictatorship.

After making this exposition of D. Sebastião’s character, however, I don’t want the reader to think the novel is all about talking heads, dialogues and long introspective soliloquies. Like the title says, this is an adventure book. The king’s adventure is far more physical than intellectual. The literary critic João Gaspar Simões (1903-1987), on writing a review when the novel came out, noted that Aquilino had found inspiration in the ancient picaresque novel and the chivalric romance in the tradition of Amadis de Gaula. The novel has tremendous sequences of action, starting with the first chapter, describing the Battle of Ksar El Kebir. The opening paragraph gives us all the bravery of the mad king hurling head on against the enemies:

D. Sebastião charged at the front of his barons. He wore bluish arms, the helm with which his uncle Charles V had entered in Tunes, and he mounted Pérsio, whose mother they said had been impregnated by the wind, such a light runner and so good in his trotting that he passed on the sand without leaving sign of horse-shoes. He was tailed by twelve page boys with as many pure breeds, the best that had been found in fairs and stables.

He courageous and tireless, Aquilino grants him those virtues. I strikes me, however, that D. Sebastião is like the dark side of Don Quixote, for they’re both men warped by books. When he explains why he refused a stratagem against the enemy and preferred to face them in spite of the numerical disadvantage, he can only invoke Arthurian myths. “An unworthy victory disgusted  him; he had been dreaming since long with it in the manner of the Round Table; the more the forces were disproportionate, one against ten or against one hundred, the greater the prestige of victory.” In the course of the battle, he mounts four different horses, exhausting without ever losing energies of resolve, zealous in his devotion to kill the enemies. And yet already in this chapter, where his finest traits are shown, already here do we learn of the toll of his selfish bravado as Aquilino starts listing, aided by the chronicles of the time, the names of the fallen dead who are killed in their attempts to protect a king who jumped into the fray without taking his own safety into account.

When D. Sebastião and Father Salvador travel to Jerusalem, their ship is attacked by Barbary pirates, who make them captives in order to sell them as slaves in Algiers. There they meet Lela Bianca, a Venetian Christian, niece of their enslaver, the pirate Morato Arrais, an Albanian. Although at first she plots with her uncle to unmask the identity of the king, who’s travelling under a false name, because they think he’s a nobleman and will yield a great ransom, she falls in love with him and aids them in their escape. Although the attempt fails, and they’re sent to the galleys, years later they shipwreck on Mount Athos, where they’re saved and live in penance until pirates attack the monastery, forcing him to reveal his identity and flee again. These are the most frantic parts of the novel, Algiers and Mount Athos. Aquilino, a gifted describer of scenes, smells and sounds, paints everything with precision: he takes us to Algiers’ busy markets, to the slave auctions, to public executions of Christians in all their terror. Mount Athos, by turn, is depicted as a paradisiacal, lush world of peace. One of the problems, however, is that Aquilino relies a lot on ellipsis, even if rather bold, and tells more than shows at times. The time between being captured in their attempt to run away and their shipwreck is recounted to a Greek monk by Father Salvador:

In order for him to realize his considerable travails, he mentioned that in that lapse of time they had participated in the take-over of thirty ships of every kind, from cargo ships to polaccas; attacked and razed more than twenty places, fortresses and outposts; imprisoned about two thousand souls from as many races as the planet had; all in all they had seized in goods worth more than three hundred thousand cruzados. He also spoke of how they planned their evasion with the connivance of the niece of general of the galleys, a Christian lady who hid under her elegant and mellow exterior a soul firm and clear like crystal.

After saving Mount Athos from pirates they continue their journey on to Jerusalem, and from there to the Danube, Flanders, Constantinople and Persia, fighting in wars, being enslaved anew, until the day he receives a divine sign to return to Portugal. But all these events are, again, narrated when D. Sebastião has a secrete audience with Felipe II. This is a novel that demanded to be twice its size, perhaps some good 500 pages, and not just the 230 of my edition.

There’s a final matter to discuss. In his review, Gaspar Simões remarked that D. Sebastião was a passive figure, always in the background, save for that amazing first chapter, as if Aquilino were afraid to put him centre stage. I think he’s right, but I believe that may just be the point. I think the novel is also about his slow suicide, or need for self-annulment. Obsessed with suffering for his crimes, we realize that he becomes less and less interested in the affairs around him, enduring them with patience and indifference to his life. Here’s how he’s described when he’s shown to prospective buyers, and an argument breaks out about whether or not he’s a nobleman in hiding:

The captive, focus of all this examination, was amidst that Bedouin crowd as absent as if he were in the middle of the sea. And, after such enlightened words, Gedeão Jekarim shut up exactly so the buyers could have their say, and none refrained from issuing an opinion, as it was logic to predict. Some abounded in the opinion of the seller, pointing out an old scar on the eyebrow; the right arm bigger than the left; the corresponding hand. Others disagreed, invoking that swagger and vanity of his; the star-sowed irises of his eyes, so sovereign, that saw nothing of what was going around.

To him, being there or not is the same. Convinced by Father Salvador that he needs to suffer for his penance, he endures all abjections. Father Salvador, who serves him but also manipulates him, goes as far as to initially reject Bianca’s help to escape:

“I can help you escape… Do you want to?”
“What for? Here, in Portugal, in Italy, the world is always a prison. Destines are written and can’t be argued.”
“Don’t you care about rowing in a galley? Holy Madonna, I never saw such a thing!...”
“We don’t care.”
“The whip on your sides all the time…”
“More did Our Lord Christ suffer…”
“You’re thirsty, and they won’t give you water.”
“Christ drank bile and vinegar.”
“You’re traded all the time, today a Moor from Algiers, tomorrow a Turk from Tunes, after tomorrow some devil from La Rochelle or the Sultan… Try choose the worst!”
“And wasn’t my Lord Jesus sold?”
“Tell me who you are and I swear on the Madonna, who touched me in the Vicenza baptismal basin, that I’ll free you from Algiers…”
“I’m a poor Saint Francis friar, Father Salvador da Terra, my companion the son and master of a great family which he ruined with his pride and foolish will, Desidério Augusto. But, my lady, we’ll only leave Algiers when Divine Providence wishes it so.”

I think D. Sebastião’s need to stop existing is the reason why he returns to Portugal to meet Felipe II. Thanks to the annexation of Portugal, Felipe II becomes the world’s greatest monarch, with the largest empire of the time. So he can’t just hand over the crown to his nephew. And D. Sebastião must know this, for he’s no longer an impressionable young king but an experienced middle-aged man. So his audience only makes sense as a suicide act. And his death is announced in the final lines: after the King offers him hospitality, he gives orders to a minion to make sure he never leave El Escorial. Like it had been said before, a king who lost his throne by his own actions could never become a king again. And if he commits suicide, what does that say about the people who expect him to come back to rescue them?

Tragic and burlesque, dramatic and episodic, Aventura Maravilhosa is a remarkable historical novel that illustrates Aquilino Ribeiro’s finest gifts as a writer. In the unlikely event that one day he’ll be discovered in English, this would be a perfect introduction.

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