I just discovered, via Book Depository, that the University of Chicago Press is releasing a paperback edition of Fernão Mendes Pinto's 1614 book of voyages, one of the jewels of Portuguese literature.
Mendes Pinto (1510/14-1583) was a seaman, a diplomat, a pirate, a slaver, an explorer, an ambassador, a Jesuit novice and a celebrated writer. In 1537, in the height of the Discoveries, when the mysterious Orient had snared many of his countrymen’s minds with its wonders and riches, he boarded a ship heading to India. This was the beginning of a strenuous sojourn abroad that consumed more than 20 years of his life, and that took him to Malaysia, modern-day Myanmar, Siam, the Moluccas, China and Japan. In his travels he attacked ships, enslaved crews and was many times enslaved and sold himself, and was one of the first Europeans to make contact with many Asian nations. He took part in one of the earliest Portuguese expeditions to Japan, and he prided himself on having helped introduce firearms there.
What makes this such a great book? First of all, its realism; Mendes Pinto was not writing, like Marco Polo, from hearsay, or making stuff up like Mandeville: he was a truthful observer of everyday reality and his eyewitness accounts have historical value as richly detailed descriptions of that era. He was not working from former canons; like many of the great Portuguese explorers of that century, who were thankfully quite ignorant of Latin and the ancient authorities, and poor students of Humanism, he ignored all the nonsense from the Greeks and Romans and set about rewriting what was known about geography from personal experience. He was, and this is no understatement, one the earliest modern European traveller to apply what we now call the scientific method, free from preconceived notions, to travel writing.
He’s also important in anthropological and post-colonial studies. He was a generous, tolerant, unbiased observer of foreign customs; oh, he was a bloody, brutal man, a throat-cut pirate with slaves, but that had not so much to do with European superiority as with the fact that that was how things were in the ocean: one day you made a fortune, the next day you were someone else’s fortune. And for all his bad luck, he never lost his ability to look at others, or the Other, with humanity and respect, carefully detailing their rituals and dresses and foods and manners with a wondrous gaze. At the same it’s quite critical of the expansion of the Portuguese Empire, built on war and rapacity.
And it also reads like a great thriller, or adventure novel, or picaresque novel. There are pillaging of native villages, pirate pursuits, violent shipwrecks, and the protagonist wanders around in rags in China where he’s captured and treated with much curiosity.
Finally it’s a great autobiography; perhaps it’s even the first great autobiography of an anti-hero; Mendes Pinto doesn’t mince words about his taste for plunder, slaves, money and power, and is quite graphic on the means he achieved his goals. At the same time he’s quite critical of himself and the final pages sees himself seeking atonement in the Company of Jesus, after meeting its founder, St. Francis Xavier. It was a crazy life. After two decades in Asia he returned to Portugal, secluded himself in a farm and wrote his memoirs between 1569 and 1578, although they were only published in 1614, after receiving the Inquisition’s approval. When it came out, it was so fantastic people thought he had made it all up and for a long time he was considered a liar, at worst, or at best a great fabulist. But it was a bestseller and endures as a great work of literature.
You want more praise? Brazilian novelist Guimarães Rosa vouches for it. Speaking of his “passion for ancient Portuguese authors,” the wordsmith and polyglot once declared in an interview that he pinched archaic vocabulary from Mendes Pinto for his famous novel, The Devil to Pay in the Backlands.
The book is translated and edited by Rebecca D. Catz, an expert on Mendes Pinto. The book was translated as The Peregrination in the ‘90s, but that edition only has 450 pages; the new one has over 700 and is in the hands of a person who has been studying the author for decades now. Everyone should rush to buy it because it’s one of the literary events of 2014.