Thursday, 8 May 2014

José Eduardo Agualusa celebrates chauvinism

Angolan writer José Eduardo Agualusa published Um Estranho em Goa in 2000 after a scholarship enabled him to travel to the former Portuguese colony in India. The Portuguese first got wind of Goa in the 15th century, when Vasco da Gama arrived in India by ship; and in 1510 Afonso de Albuquerque, the “terrible,” as Camões calls him, conquered it from the Arabs. For centuries it was the capital of the Portuguese empire in Asia, and one of its oldest possessions in the region. Portuguese held to it until 1961. After India achieved independence from the British Empire, the Indian government asked Portugal to cede the territory to it. Portugal refused, of course, so they militarily occupied it with 40,000 soldiers, finding almost no resistance. Between 1510 and 1961 several Portuguese settlers moved to Goa, married native woman, had children and created dynasties, built churches and other buildings, and spread the Portuguese language and culture, so that there are still many people in Goa who have ties to the old country. Agualusa takes the reader through this society, a highly dysfunctional one, it seems, torn between nostalgia for the empire and pride in belonging to India at last. The novel, a rather inaccurate term for what this book is, is more of a fantastic travel book. It’s not easy to catalogue it, since it has the form of a travel book but at the same time it makes too many detours into fiction, not to mention it’s narrated by Agualusa who has written himself into an exotic thriller. 

I have many problems with this novel; the least important is the surplus of clichés. After reading four books by him, I’ve realized style and verbal intricacy is not what matters to Agualusa, a storyteller who’ll find the easiest route to tell his story. At least he’s quite honest about his intentions. “I start a story and then I have to keep writing because I need to know how it ends. That’s also why I made this journey. I came looking for a character. I want to know how his story ends.” But that also means that his writing tends to abound with stale images, exhausted metaphors and lots of commonplace situations. I said this novel looked like a thriller, and indeed the novel opens with what seems like something taken from a movie. “I jump out of bed and sit by the window’s parapet. If I smoked – I never smoked – now would be the right time to lit up a cigarette.” Because that’s what you do when you get up from bed and stare out windows, in movies. This is a scene that could have been plucked from countless movies. But since this is also a travel book, there must be references to travel books, to let us know he knows the genre; so Bruce Chatwin’s name shows up in the first pages, later on Sir Richard Francis Burton, the Victorian traveller, graces us with a few quotes. Then there’s more stuff from movies: someone tries to sell him a relic of Saint Francis Xavier, the Apostle of the Far East, famous for his missionary work in India. And of course Agualusa is aware of the improbable nature of the event. “If it hadn’t been for the empty beer bottle, on top of the freezer, I could have thought I had imagined everything.” Like you’d expect in a movie, the deal goes wrong and Agualusa’s friend, Jimmy Ferreira, the middleman, shows up dead after sending him an e-mail telling him he was in trouble. How ominous. The whole novel, by the way, reads visually like a screenplay, and one gets the impression Agualusa just cobbled together a handful of ideas from an aborted screenplay no one wanted to shell out money to produce.

A second movie he creates is his love affair with Lili, an unlikely Portuguese redhead who works in London restoring old books, searching for old prayer books in Goa. Of course Lili is a top-model-level gorgeous, liberated woman, because if you’re writing yourself into a romantic movie, you may as well pick Charlize Theron for the lead role. But not content with two movies, Agualusa shoves another one in the novel. The character Agualusa comes looking for is a man called Plácido Domingo, not that one, but an Angolan double agent who deserted during the colonial war. Agualusa is fascinated by his mystery, even though there’s none, and Domingo doesn’t seem to exist other than to agree with the author about his impressions of Goa. Yes, because, even though this is a novel about Goa, there are Goans in it, not just movie characters. Unfortunately Agualusa doesn’t like the Goans very much, because they’re not Goan enough for him.

Once we strip down the novel from its cinematic subplots, what we have is a pseudo-travel book about Goa. Unfortunately, Agualusa lacks that tolerance and open-mindedness that tourists should have, and behaves instead like French and British are fabled to behave in foreign countries, judging everything, insulting everyone, mocking culture and history left and right from a position of superiority.And so the novel turns into a very creepy, unpleasant celebration of intolerance and chauvinism.

From what I understand from this novel, Agualusa doesn’t like Portuguese people in particular and the West in general. I’ve always noticed an African-nationalist, anti-Western strain in him, in his novels and interviews, but always subdued. But this one takes the prize. Everywhere in Goa he only sees ignorant Catholics, fascist sympathizers (a taxi driver is named after dictator Salazar, whom he thinks is a great man), racist and foolish Portuguese descendants and Indians who need to learn to be Indian. I know this is a very thorny claim to make, so I’ll do my best to substantiate it.

Let’s start with this paragraph: “I’m staying at an old, decrepit mansion, whose walls, of a prodigious yellow, could be said to be perpetually illuminated by the twilight’s blaze. It’s called the Grande Hotel do Oriente. Only the name, engraved on a large wooden placard over the façade in ruins, retains still the glow of the irretrievable past. There are, in Goa, many people like this hotel. The last descendants of the old Catholic aristocracy own equally improbable names, so Portuguese they don’t even exist in Portugal anymore, and do it with the melancholy pride of somebody who had everything, and everything saw go to ruin and oblivion. The people, meanwhile, use them without understanding them, joyfully corrupt them, like a poor grocer who found in the street a rare edition of The Lusiads and used its pages.”

The final jab at The Lusiads just seems to come out of nowhere and bizarrely juxtaposes it with nostalgia for the lost empire the Goans allegedly still feel, as if both stemmed form the same sentiment. This gives me the impression Agualusa conceives Camões’ epic the way many left-wing Portuguese radicals did in the 1970s, like a mouthpiece for imperialist propaganda and not the zenith of Portuguese-language literature. The radicals grew up and shut up in embarrassment; one hopes Agualusa will have the maturity to do the same one day. But the problems run deeper: according to him, the Goans, who had a long tradition of Portuguese culture up until 1961, which obviously continues to exist in everyday life, should have just demolished all that past when they rejoined India, as if 400 years of history had been a blip. I have no idea if Agualusa is a communist, but this sounds like the old Marxist dream of rebuilding society from the ashes. These Goans, clinging to a foreign culture, are not doing a good job being India, in his opinion.

This condescension pops up everywhere: he berates Goans who are Catholic instead of Hindi, I presume because that is the natural religion of the land. Agualusa thinks history can just be reverted at the snap of fingers. And of course that’s why Saint Francis Xavier shows up in a ludicrous subplot, because of the devotion Goans still have for him. Obviously Agualusa, when he discusses other religions, has only the utmost respect for them. He enthuses about a man, Pedro Dionísio, who is too wise for this stuff about religion: “My friend doesn’t believe in Christ nor in Krishna but in something vaguer, vaster and more remote, very anterior to the Portuguese, anterior even to the Aryan invasion. He calls himself a pagan.” Anterior even to the Aryans? Well, you can’t get more natural than that! A funny word, pagan, since it’s a relative word that can be applied by any religion to another. Every non-believer is a pagan to a believer. I think he meant perhaps theistic or deistic, or even Gnostic. But vagueness is an attribute of Agualusa, a writer who isn’t a particular genius with words and deploys them without great consideration, indulging in lazy sentences and many overused phrases. If Martin Amis waged his war against Agualusa’s clichés, the result would be another D-Day. Of course Agualusa has the propriety not to overwhelm the novel with his voice, so he uses others to speak for him. Domingo also makes fun of Portuguese Catholics because they worship a God nailed to a cross; Agualusa probably thinks the morbid symbolism of the religion has never noticed before. This is what I mean, it’s just surface-deep, lazy satire. This is the kind of “clever” stuff a teenager would come up to sound edgy. How about telling me something original about the contradictions of Catholicism?

Then there’s the lack of sympathy for the Portuguese descendants who try to retain their culture in Goa, and his snide contempt for them. To a descendant he suggests that he should spend some time in Lisbon. “Perhaps in Lisbon you’ll find out you’re Indian.” What? What a cruel thing to say to anyone. His friend Domingo, who doesn’t have a very different personality than the narrator, agrees with him: “You know what a Jew is? He’s someone reminded by someone that he’s a Jew.” (I don’t even know what to say to this.) “Probably those individuals don’t feel Indian because everybody insists in telling them they’re Portuguese.” Agualusa is desperate to find a reason to explain why people born inside Portuguese culture would consider themselves Portuguese. That they may be individuals with agency and free-will, who wish to retain a culture they grew up in, is too simple for him. There has to be something else. For him, race and culture are inseparable, there’s a racial determinism governing culture, a man must be wedded to the culture of his skin, that is, his birthplace must dictate his culture, forget free will, forget people are free to reinvent themselves. It’s disappointing to read this in a book written by a man in whose country Angolans a few generations ago were being deprived of their culture in favour of a foreign one

But after a while he gets tired of ridiculing Portuguese-descent Goans and widens his criticism to encompass the entire West, although he chooses to condemn it in the form of two harmless Satanists, Sam and Lailah, living in Goa: “What I now saw in front of me was a young American girl, middle class, so terrorized with the prospect of being alone in the universe, that she was willing to believe anything – the devil, fairies, aliens, probably even Bill Clinton. A poor girl so anxious to find an identity, and then a group inside which she could exercise it, that she hadn’t hesitated to split her own tongue and in cutting off, with a razor, her dark hair.”

Sam and Lailah are two otherwise nice people who just enjoy worshiping an entity called Seth. Sure, it’s foolish, but they’re not bothering anyone. But Agualusa, channelling some inner Ayatollah, can’t help seem them as evidence of the utter decadence of the West. And his condemnation comes just pages after he’s described in reverential tones a Candomblé event he witnessed in Brazil. To him, American girls who worship Seth are more ludicrous than an African hodpodge of myths and rituals taken to Brazil by slaves, which was of course their own way of finding a place in the universe after being uprooted from their culture. Nor does he show equal derision for Asian rituals and myths. If it’s African or Asian, or even Brazilian, his adopted homeland, then it’s pure, it’s authentic; if it’s Catholic, European, American or generically Western, that umbrella wherein all the previous categories fit, then it’s absurd, pathetic, stupid, vile. These comparisons show up everywhere: Indian women are prettier than European women; Indian women dress better. The man seems to have a serious inferiority complex. There’s only so much patience for this nationalistic bullshit and for the man’s arrogance. It’s just clichés. Agualusa even befriends an Indian top model, K, who takes him dancing and promptly declares, “Nobody dances like us.” By us he means Indians, “from whose movements the music itself seemed to flow,” by opposition with them, the Europeans, whose dancing always “seems a bit melancholy, even embarrassing” to the author. Ah, the old sense of rhythm... All the clichés are here. But it’s alright, he’s clever enough to put them in the mouths of other characters, so it’s not really he who’s uttering them, he was just lucky enough to find them all in this wondrous Goa.

This book poses a considerable problem because it’s one of those post-modernist genre-bending mashes of fiction and fact. The concept has potential, but the execution opens up many difficulties of interpretation. If this is reportage, the fact that he mixes a story about double agent Plácido Domingo and Jimmy Ferreira’s relics undermines its veracity, defeating the purpose of reportage. But more crucially, is there really a Pedro Dionísio who considers himself a pagan? Is there a taxi driver who adores Salazar? Does dancing diva K really exist? Are Lailah and Sam real? Does this Goa really exist? Or is he just forging his own Goa to further his intolerant, nationalistic ideology? If it’s all fiction, then I don’t see the point of writing himself as an African chauvinist; what does he gain from that?  Why even put himself in the book under these circumstances? Usually novels about their novelists - I'm thinking of Philip Roth's Operation Shylock and António Lobo Antunes' Knowledge of Hell - are self-deprecating, but here Agualusa paints himself as a self-righteous moralist without a hint of irony about his wisdom, who fucks a redhead to boot. Talk about having your cake and eating it. As fiction this novel fails because it’s just threadbare phrases and stock situations culled from movies. As non-fiction is fails because all the characters seem to exist to prove the narrator’s thesis.

It has occurred to me that this book is not being written for Goa or Angolans, it’s being written for Portuguese and Brazilians, his actual readers. The costs of publishing books and the high rates of illiteracy make sure of that. Agualusa knows this is going to be read by the Portuguese, and he clearly enjoys upsetting them. And I don’t have anything against a few jeremiads against Portugal, my readers know I’ve written a few myself, and I was more than happy to post Amílcar Cabral’s brilliant demolition of Portugual. But his attacks stemmed from something genuine, the man was in the middle of a colonial war. Agualusa is just repellent. At one point asks Plácido Domingo if he still feels Angolan; no, he replies, he feels Goan. Agualusa then asks if he feels Portuguese, and Domingo replies with a gratuitous tirade: “The Portuguese, Europeans? They never were. They weren’t then and aren’t now. When they manage to finally turn Portugal into a European nation the country will cease to exist. Look: the Portuguese built their identity by opposition to Europe, to the Kingdom of Castile, and since they were trapped they launched themselves into the sea and came here, founded Brazil, colonized Africa. That is, they chose not to be Europeans.” Now this is the kind of diatribe I’d expect from another edgy teen trying to rebel against authority during the colonial era. But once again it’s a tired invective because the Portuguese covered this decades before him. This crossroads between the sea and Europe was neatly explained in a 1974 book by historian Joaquim Barradas de Carvalho called Rumo de Portugal. A Europa Ou o Atlântico?(Portugal’s Destination. Europe or the Atlantic?). Somewhere on Utah Beach a bunker has been overtaken. Agualusa can’t even be insulting in an original way, and perhaps that’s the novel’s greatest failure.

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