Friday, 28 February 2014

The Part About Arcimboldi



The fifth and final part of Roberto Bolaño’s 2666, The Part About Arcimboldi, is as incongruent as the other parts. We’ve come a long way since the first part. The parts oscillated between bird’s eye view of action and subjective narratives. In the first part we had the stories of four literary critics, followed by the quiet descent into madness of Amalfitano. Next was the story of Oscar Fate, before a panoramic look at Mexican society. The novel concludes with the story of Benno von Arcimboldi, the object of the critics’ obsession.

This part has a bit of everything: World War II, Holocaust, Soviet Union, hidden manuscripts, thoughts about writing and what a writer is, literary parties, and even family reunions. We also find out more about Mrs Bubis, Klaus Haas and what his relationship to Arcimboldi is. However, we can say that first and foremost the last part is a künstlerroman, that is, a novel about the growth of an artist to maturity.

We discover that before being Benno von Arcimboldi, he was Hans Reiter:

In 1920 Hans Reiter was born. He seemed less like a child than like a strand of seaweed. Canetti, and Borges, too, I think – two very different men – said that just as the sea was the symbol mirror of the English, the forest was the metaphor the Germans inhabited. Hans Reiter defied this rule from the moment he was born. He didn’t like the earth, much less forests. He didn’t like the sea either, or what ordinary mortals call the sea, which is really only the surface of the sea, waves kicked up by the wind that have gradually become the metaphor for defeat and madness. What he liked was the seabed, that other earth, with its plains that weren’t plains and valleys that weren’t valleys and cliffs that weren’t cliffs.

Hans Reiter is an outsider from the start. His future change of name only heightens that, giving himself an Italian-sounding name in Germany. He doesn’t fit. His mother is a one-eyed maid at a rich estate, and his father an angry one-legged World War I veteran. In 1933 Hans leaves school because of ‘apathy and poor attendance’ and his family get him a job “in a fishing boat, which lasted three months, until the skipper let him go, because young Reiter was more interested in gazing at the bottom of the sea than helping to cast the nets,” the first of many jobs he’s fired from because of his idleness or lack of interest. At one point a character describes him as “a time bomb, no question about it: an untrained, powerful mind, irrational, illogical, capable of exploding at the moment least expected. Which was untrue.” Later his mother gets him a job at the estate where she works, but this doesn’t last long either and he travels to Berlin. With the coming of the war he’s drafted into the Wehrmacht and goes to the front, seeing action in Poland and Ukraine. There’s very little action, though, since Reiter spends most of his time walking around looking for shelter in abandoned ruins, and scavenging for survival. “Reiter acquired the habit of inspecting the dead like someone who inspects a lot for sale or a farm or a country house, and then going through the dead man’s pockets in case there was any food to be found.” Great life experience for a budding writer.

In one of his hideouts he discovers the autobiographical writings of a Russian writer called Boris Ansky. Ansky is a Soviet soldier-cum-writer, a revolutionary writer who believes in the socialist utopia, who nevertheless had a tense relationship with the Soviet authorities. In Ansky’s narrative we meet another writer, Ivanov, a science fiction writer who wrote about scientific utopias. His conception of what a real writer should is one of the highlights of the novel, I’m surprised it hasn’t overshadowed the more famous but less interesting ‘bookish pharmacist’ passage:

For Ivanov, a real writer, a real artist and creator, was basically a responsible person with a certain level of maturity. A real writer had to know when to listen and when to act. He had to be reasonably enterprising and reasonably learned. Excessive learning aroused jealously and resentment. Excessive enterprise aroused suspicion. A real writer had to be someone relatively cool-headed, a man with common sense. Someone who didn’t talk too loud or start polemics. He had to be reasonably pleasant and he had to know how not to make gratuitous enemies. Above all, he had to keep his voice down, unless everyone else was raising his. A real writer had to be aware that behind him he had the Writers Association, the Artists Syndicate, the Confederation of Literary Workers, Poets House. What’s the first thing a man does when he comes into a church? Efraim Ivanov asked himself. He takes off his hat. Maybe he doesn’t cross himself. All right, that’s allowed. We’re modern. But the least he can do is bare his head! Adolescent writers, meanwhile, come into a church and don’t take off their hats even when they’re beaten with sticks, which is, regrettably, what happens in the end. And not only do they not take off their hats: they laugh, yawn, play the fool, pass gas. Some even applaud.

But maybe I can just relate so much because this is a perfect description of most Portuguese writers. It should also not be forgotten that the novel is riddled with ideas of what writers are and aren’t, of how they should behave. There’s of course Amalfitano’s diatribe about South American writers being all subservient to the state. And Oscar Fate wrestles between his assignment to write a frivolous boxing article and his journalistic integrity to expose the Santa Teresa crimes. Reiter takes after Ansky, who also introduces him to painting and the painters Gustave Courbet and Giuseppe Arcimboldo. And so we return to that other great theme, besides writers, that informs the novel: painting. We need a quick recap.

We can begin with Marcel Duchamp to get him out of the way on a technicality. In fact Duchamp is not mentioned in the novel as a painter. Amalfitano finds comfort in building one of Duchamp’s readymade: a geometry book hanging from a clothesline. It’s only for a reason of tradition that we still call Duchamp a painter. “From Pablo Picasso and Marcel Duchamp to Kurt Schwitters and Robert Rauschenberg, we live in a century that declares that things rather than symbols are the stuff of art,” writes museum curator Ann Temkin. Duchamp was the great innovator, who took art from technique to concept, a good career move since technically he was a mediocre painter.

In the novel we do have a conceptual painter who paints with ‘things’ instead of symbols, the fictional Edwin Johns, introduced in the first part as the painter who cuts off his hand and puts it on his self-portrait. “A serious work of art cannot, by current definition, ‘illustrate’ death, but it can embody or imply it,” Temkin continues. Johns is also making a statement on the limits of painting to portray reality. This in turn will lead us to Gustave Courbet.

But first we have George Grosz, admired by Mrs. Bubis: she’s a frivolous, hedonistic rich woman, indifferent to the books her publisher publishes. To her Grosz’ main asset is that he’s funny, a view that puts her at odds with a friend who’s a Grosz expert, who sees the artist as embodying a grave sadness.

Finally we have Giuseppe Arcimboldo, an emotional support for Ansky. “When he was near despair, Ansky returned to Arcimboldo. He liked to remember Arcimboldo’s paintings, though he knew or pretended to know almost nothing about the painter’s life, which wasn’t in a state of constant turmoil like Coubert’s, true, but in Arcimboldo’s canvasses Ansky found something that for lack of a better term he called simplicity, a descriptive term that would not have been to the liking of many scholars and exegetes of the Arcimboldian oeuvre.” Gustave Courbet, father of the realist painting, is the other painter Ansky writes about. Courbet became famous for making a break with religious and historical themes and favouring everyday themes, even for introducing unsavoury subjects to painting, like poverty and the working class, and for pushing the envelope of sexual content. Reiter reacts more deeply to Courbet, whose destruction of painting The Return from the Conference, described by Ansky, fills “Reiter with tears in his eyes, tears that sting and rouse him.” So here we have art with the power to commove people. It’s worth pointing out Arcimboldo and Courbet are the only traditional painters mentioned in the novel. I still don’t know the point is, if any, of all these references to visual arts. It may just be to show how art means different things to people.

This part of the novel also focuses on the theme of violence and systematic murder, via the Holocaust. When Reiter is captured by the US army, he’s put together with other inmates. One of them is Zeller, although eventually he confides to Reiter that he’s using an alias. He’s real name is Leo Sammer. He’s hiding his identity because he’s afraid the Americans will find out that he was responsible for disposing of hundreds of Jewish prisoners. In a lengthy section, Zeller recounts the problems he had with killing Jewish workers that had been sent to him. After much hesitating, Zeller, an apparently meek and nice guy, decides he has no alternative but to kill them:

   I’ve been too kind to these people, I said to myself, it’s time I got tough. But it isn’t in my nature to be tough. There was a hollow that one of my secretaries knew about some ten miles from town. We went to look at it. It wasn’t bad. It was in a remote spot, lots of pine trees, dark soil. The bottom of the hollow was covered in masses of fleshy leaves. According to my secretary, people came here in the spring to hunt rabbits. The place wasn’t far from the road. When we got back to the city I had decided what had to be done.
   The next morning I went in person to fetch the police chief at his house. On the sidewalk in front of my office, eight policemen gathered, joined by four of my men (one of my secretaries, my drive, and two clerks) and two farmers, volunteers who were there simply because they wanted to participate. I told them to act with dispatch and to return to my offices to inform me of what happened. The sun wasn’t up yet when they left.
   At five in the afternoon the police chief and my secretary returned. They looked tired. They said everything had gone according to plan. They had stopped at the old tannery and left town with two brigades of sweepers. They had walked ten miles. They had turned off the road and headed with weary steps toward the hollow. And there the deed had been done. Was there chaos? Did chaos reign? Did chaos prevail? I asked. A little, they answered sulkily, and I chose not to press them.
   The next morning the same operation was repeated, with a few changes: rather than two volunteers we had five, and three policemen were replaced by three others who hadn’t taken part in the previous day’s labours.

It is curious that the volunteers increase in number, people were anxious to join in and kill helpless people. The simple, direct, journalistic description of this massacre echoes the prosaic register Bolaño uses to describes the femicide in Santa Teresa. But it also reminded me of Slavenka Drakulić’s description of the life of Dražen Erdemović, witness in a massacre of Muslims as part of the Srebrenica massacre. Dražen was a jobless locksmith caught in the Balkans War, trying to get out of the country with his wife and baby son to Switzerland, but he lacked documents to travel, and a friend told him the armed forces paid well, so he enlisted as a temporary solution. Eventually his unit was used to execute civilian prisoners. This is how Drakulić describes it in They Would Never Hurt A Fly:

The commander assembled his unit and told them the buses would be brought in carrying civilians from Srebrenica. He meant captured Muslim men who had surrendered to the units of Republika Srpska. They are to be executed by our unit, the commander told them. Dražen and his comrades-in-arms suddenly learned that their squad was to become a firing squad, and he didn’t like it at all. Never before had they been assigned such a task. But nobody said a word. Only one of them, Pero, seemed eager to begin, but Dražen noticed that he was drinking from a bottle of brandy. Dražen looked at the prisoners. They were standing with their backs to the soldiers. One man half turned his head towards them, as if he expected something. Was there something he wanted from them? Dražen felt a strong revulsion and he was afraid that he would vomit.

Then she continues with a thorough description of the murders, with buses full of people arriving throughout the day for the soldiers to kill. I do think Bolaño wants to paint a comprehensive canvas of the bloodiness of the 20th century. From Reiter’s father, wounded in World War I, to the mass murders in Mexico that end the century, we realize how war and violence, and their normalization, were the shaping forces of our era. Reiter gives his contribution by killing Zeller.

At the same time, if this part seems too bleak, I also think it has some of the happiest passages of the novel. After the war Reiter is reunited with Ingeborg, a weird girl he had met during the war. They marry and live together for a few years, before illness kills her, enjoying a small reprieve from the darkness they knew all their lives. Reiter was a soldier in the front, whereas Ingeborg survived the war on prostitution. In spite of that, their marriage has an idyllic nature to it even though it’s always impaired by the Ingeborg’s illness:

   Of course, they often laughed, though not always at the same things. Reiter, for example, was highly amused when their Brandenburger neighbour fell through the gap in the stairs. Ingeborg said the Brandenburger was a nice person, always with a kind word on his lips, and anyway she couldn’t forget the flowers he had given her. Reiter warned her that nice people weren’t to be trusted. Most of them, he said, were only criminals who deserved to be strung up in the main square, an image that gave Ingeborg the shivers. How could a person who bought a flower every day to wear in his buttonhole be a war criminal?
   Ingeborg, meanwhile, was amused by more abstract things and situations. Sometimes she laughed at the patterns traced by the damp on the garret walls. On the plaster or stucco she saw long lines of trucks emerging from a kind of tunnel, which for no reason she called the time tunnel. Other times she laughed at the cockroaches that occasionally ventured into the attic. Or at the birds that watched Cologne perched in the blackened coffers of the tallest building. Sometimes she even laughed at her own disease, a nameless disease (its namelessness gave her real amusement), which had been vaguely diagnosed by the two doctors she’d seen – one of them a patron of the bar where Reiter worked and the other an old man with white hair and a white beard and a booming, theatrical voice whom Reiter paid with bottles of whiskey, one per visit, and who was probably, according to Reiter, a war criminal – as something halfway between complaint and a pulmonary ailment.
   In any case, they spent many hours together, sometimes talking about the most random things, or sometimes with Reiter at the table writing his first novel in a notebook with a cane-coloured cover and Ingeborg lying in bed, reading. It was Reiter who usually did the housecleaning and shopping, and Ingeborg cooked, which was something she was quite good at. Their after-supper conversations were strange and on occasion turned into long monologues or soliloquies or confessions.

After her death in an Adriatic village, when Reiter is also a somewhat successful writer called Benno von Arcimboldi, he becomes a recluse, corresponding with his editor, Bubis, from a distance, while travelling. Bubis continues to manage his career even though Reiter never becomes a big name. “His books were cult objects, a caprice of university students.”

When it seems there’s nothing else left to tell, Bolaño throws the reader a curveball. He breaks off Reiter’s narrative to tell the story of Reiter’s sister, Lotte, married to Werner Haas and mother of Klaus Haus. It turns out the prime suspect of the Santa Teresa killings is in fact Arcimboldi’s nephew. Still it’s not that simple. Klaus is described very much like his uncle: as a child he’s anti-social, lonely, prefers appliances to people, and seems equally fated to being a human failure. As he grows up, Klaus gets into fights, fails at his studies, gets in trouble with the police, and even goes to a reformatory for attempted sexual assault. After he got out he continued to get into fights and practise vandalism. Finally he leaves for Berlin and then New York, where he stops replying to his family, much like Arcimboldi had lost contact with Lotte. In every sense Klaus is Arcimboldi’s doppelganger. So what makes them different? How did they end up different? Why is one a successful novelist and the other a possible serial killer? That’s the final unsolved mystery of the novel that could lead us to the old debate about nature versus culture. Or maybe it’s just the last of the many mirror-images that populate this novel. We finish the last 250 pages without advancing much since the end of part four.

I still don’t understand what this novel is supposed to be about. Writers? Art? Violence? Misogyny? Loneliness? Social misfits? Instead of a traditional narrative Roberto Bolaño gives us narrative clusters that orbit, unveil and cover each other, simultaneously giving the impression that a higher meaning is being revealed and changing that same meaning. Or perhaps it’s a novel that wants to play an active role in exposing the social injustices of our time, like bygone Marxist literature, but at the same time it’s conscious that engaged literature can no longer sacrifice its identity as literature without becoming crude reportage, hence all the excrescencies around the Santa Teresa murders to make it look more literary. Or is it a vortical book designed to invite idle speculation and pretentious associations, like a Rorschach test? Or maybe 2666 is the testimony of an adroit narrator who can haunt us with his skills at controlling several different strands. For me that’s quite enough.

Thursday, 27 February 2014

The Part About The Crimes



The fourth and longest part of Roberto Bolaño’s 2666, The Part About The Crimes, painstakingly describes the murders of dozens of young women and girls in Santa Teresa between 1993 and 1997. This is the event the preceding parts were leading up to. In the first part, the Arcimboldi critics travel to Mexico to look for their beloved writer, and remain indifferent to the signs of the femicide occurring around them. In the second part, we see evidence of the crimes interesting characters like Amalfitano and Marco Guerra. In the third part, Fate, an Afro-American journalist becomes entangled with the investigation when he meets a Mexican journalist who wants to interrogate the prime suspect. It takes many pages, however, before we meet this suspect, Klaus Haas, a German-born US citizen living in Santa Teresa. This part is not about advancing the plot, it is to analyse an entire society, its economy, its morals, its mentality, its institutions, its crime. We are made to witness the fraying of civilization in Santa Teresa, the destruction of its citizens from poverty, drug trafficking, corruption and familiar indifference.

I have to admit, however, this part was not one of my favourites. It was too repetitive, and Bolaño isn’t exactly a master of language who can describe anal and vaginal rape in one hundred different ways. In fact I think it’s valid to ask, is this part meant to be tedious? This is the part of the novel that gets everybody excited, and terrified. People talk about how horrible and violent it is. I did not feel horrified at all, no doubt because I’m one of those famous ‘90s children who grew up desensitized by television violence. Damn David Fincher for ruining my appropriate reaction to a novel I’d read fifteen years later! But then I thought, what if this is what Bolaño wanted? This novel made me think of a French movie called Irreversible, which is mostly famous for a lengthy, raw rape scene involving Monica Belluci. And it’s a scene that just drags on and on and on. And at first you’re sympathetic to her character, and you want it to end because she’s writhing and screaming and crying, and it’s horrible to watch. But minutes pass and you find yourself looking at the watch and thinking, couldn’t we just get on with the movie? And I think that’s what Gaspar Noe, the director, wanted, to test our empathy. Needless to say I get low marks. And I wonder if this was Bolaño’s intentions too, to see if the reader would eventually become like the citizens of Santa Teresa, indifferent to the mass murders happening right in their backyards. Of course that’s for each reader to decide.

But what else is this part about? I think it’s also about micro-stories, about telling the small dramas of many people caught up in the investigations. It is, for instance, about xenophobia in the sense that foreigners are immediately targeted as suspects:

A Salvadorean immigrant found the body behind the Francisco I School, on Madero, near Colonia Álamos. It was fully dressed, and the clothes, except for the shirt, which was missing several buttons, were intact. The Salvadorean was accused of the homicide and spent two weeks in the cells of the Police Precinct #3, at the end of which he was released. When he got out he was a broken man. A little later he crossed the border with a pollero. In Arizona he got lost in the desert and after walking for three days, he made it to Patagonia, badly dehydrated, where a rancher beat him up for vomiting on his land. He was picked up by the sheriff and spent a day in jail and then he was sent to a hospital, where the only thing left for him to do was die in peace, which he did.

This is also what I mean by micro-stories. Bolaño gives us a capsule description of the Salvadorean’s life after he’s released from prison, following him up to his death. Here’s another micro-story about innocent victims: two prostitutes, Rubí Campos and Nati Gordillo, are charged with murdering a a prostitute called Leticia Contreras Zamudio:

The two of them, it was established, had a very close relationship. And it was proved that Rubí had been verbally attacked by Leticia two days before Leticia was killed. Another girl had heard Rubí say that Leticia would pay. The suspect didn’t deny this, although she made it clear that she had planned to beat her up, not murder her. The two whores were transferred to Hermosillo and locked up at Paquita Avendaño, the women’s prison, where they remained until their case was handed over to another judge, who was quick to declare them innocent. In all, they spent two years in prison. When they got out they said they were going to try their luck in Mexico City, or maybe they went to the United States. The one thing certain is that they were never seen in the state of Sonora again.

At the same time, Bolãno begins exploding the impression that the crimes are being committed by a single individual, a super-Jack the Ripper. In fairness, he got the reader prepared to think that in the first part, when Morini, hearing about the news for the first time, comments that, “[i]n Italy there were serial killers, too, but they hardly ever killed more than ten people, whereas in Sonora the dead numbered well over one hundred.” In fact, although there’s a prime suspect, Klaus Haas, it’s obvious the mass murder of women is really a patchwork of crimes perpetrated by dozens of murders, for several reasons: drug trafficking, settling of accounts, madness, domestic abuse, etc. One such case involves the investigation of the Penitent, a madman who goes around desecrating holy places. At one point the police apprehend a suspect, one Luis Castillo Jiménez, charged with killing his mother, but he also turns out to be a dead end:

When he was asked what made him jam the piece of wood in his mother’s vagina, first he answered that he didn’t know, and then, after thinking about it more carefully, that he had done it to teach her. Teach her what? asked the policemen, among whom were Pedro Negrete, Epifanio Galindo, Ángel Fernández, Juan de Dios Martínez, and José Márquez. To take him seriously. Then he lapsed into incoherence and was transferred to the city hospital. (…) When he was released from the psychiatric hospital, Luis Castillo Jiménez was taken to the Santa Teresa prison, where he proved to be unusually talkative. He didn’t like to be alone and he was always requesting the presence of policemen or reporters. The police tried to pin other unsolved murders on him. The prisoner’s willing nature invited it. Juan de Dios Martínez was sure Castillo Jiménez wasn’t the Penitent. Probably the only person he had killed was his mother, and he couldn’t even be held responsible for that, because it was clear he was mentally unstable.

In this part we also meet Albert Kessler, alter ego of real-life crime investigator Robert K. Ressler, famous for having coined the term serial killer, who travels to Santa Teresa to offer his expertise, to no avail, perhaps because there’s no serial killer, perhaps because it’s all just a series of unconnected events that seem to form a unity because of their proximity to each other. The allure of having a super-serial killer in Santa Teresa, of course, also corresponds to our expectations. The serial killer is the modern bogeymen thanks to Hannibal Lecter (and there’s even a current TV show about him), a creature on whom we can pin all our fears, and through whom we can expiate our guilt over society’s failures, because his readymade justification for killing – good old-fashioned insanity – spares us the problem of thinking too much about why the modern world is still such a dangerous world for women.

But eventually the investigation narrows down to one suspect, a “very tall, very blond man” who is arrested on crummy evidence, like all the other suspects. But even after that the killings continue. The narrative prepares us to doubt his guilt, even after we discover some of the disturbing things he’s prepared to do to prove his innocence. In prison he’s visited by journalist Sergio González (based on a true Mexican reporter), with whom he has a conversation that may either be illuminating or pure gibberish:

Do you want me to tell you something? said Hans. Here in prison, the first few days I was afraid. I thought the other inmates, when they saw me, would come after me to avenge the death of all those girls. For me, being in prison was exactly like being dumped on a Saturday at noon in a neighbourhood like Colonia Kino, San Damián, Colonia Las Flores. A lynching. Being torn to pieces. Do you understand? The mob spitting on me and kicking me and tearing me to pieces. With no time for explanation. But I soon realized that in prison no one would ever tear me to pieces. At least not for what I was accused of. What does that mean? I asked myself. That these shitheads are impervious to murder? No. Here, to a greater or lesser degree, everyone is sensitive to what happens outside, to the heartbeat of the city, you might say. What was it, then? I asked an inmate. I asked him what he thought about the dead women, the dead girls. He looked at me and said they were whores. So in other words, they deserved to die? I asked. No, said the inmate. They deserved to be fucked as many times as anyone wanted to fuck them, but they didn’t deserve to die. Then I asked him if he thought I had killed them and the bastard said no, not you, gringo, as if I was a fucking gringo, which inside maybe I am, although I’m becoming less and less of one. What are you trying to say to me? asked Sergio González. That here in prison they know I’m innocent, said Haas. And how do they know it? asked Haas. That was a little harder for me to figure out. It’s like a noise you hear in a dream. The dream, like everything dreamed in enclosed spaces, is contagious. Suddenly someone dreams it and after a while half the prisoners dream it. But the noise you hear isn’t part of the dream, it’s real. First someone and then everyone hears a noise in a dream, but the noise is from real life, not the dream. The noise is real. Do you understand? Is that clear to you, Señor Reporter?

No, not clear to me at all. But what I think he means is that, on some subconscious level, they understand the murders can’t be explained by a single cause, but there’s something, an aura, enveloping Santa Teresa, a set of invisible causes that everyone feels nonetheless. And this takes us back to the recurring themes of the novel, sexism, male violence, normalized misogyny. Here’s a scene in a bar filled with cops relaxing, some of them investigators of the murders:

And the joke teller said: all right, friends, what is the definition of a woman? Silence. And the answer: pues a vagina surrounded by a more or less organized bunch of cells. And then someone laughed, an inspector, good one, González, a bunch of cells, yes, sir. And another joke, international this time: why is the Statue of Liberty a woman? Because they needed an empty head for the observation deck. And another: how many parts is a woman’s brain divided into? Pues that depends, valedores! Depends on what, González? Depends how hard you hit her. And on a roll now: why can’t women count to seventy? Because by the time they get to sixty-nine their mouths are full. And still going strong: what’s dumber than a dumb man? (An easy one.) Pues a smart woman. And full throttle: why don’t men lend their cars to women? Pues because there’s no road from the bedroom to the kitchen. And in the same vein: what does a woman do outside the kitchen? Pues wait for the floor to dry. And a variation: what do you call a neuron in a woman’s brain? Pues a tourist. And then the same inspector laughed again and said excellent, González, brilliant, neuron, yes, sir, tourist, brilliant. And González, tireless, went on: how do you pick the three dumbest women in the world? Pues at random. Get it. At random! It makes no difference! And how do you give a woman more freedom? Pues get her a bigger kitchen. And: how do you give a woman even more freedom? Pues plug the iron into an extension cord. And: how long does it take a woman to die who’s been shot in the head? Pues seven or eight hours, depending on how long it takes the bullet to find the brain. Brain, yes, sir, mused the inspector. And if someone complained to González about all the chauvinist jokes, González responded that God was the chauvinist, because he made men superior.

And the jokes go on for almost another page. It’s in the air, unseen, nobody notices it because everybody’s part of it.

We are left with a final mystery: is Klaus Haas Arcimboldi? They’re both German, tall, blonde and have blue eyes. We know Arcimboldi was in Mexico, that’s why the critics went looking for him there. If they’re not the same person, are they connected? Arcimboldi disappeared from the novel after the first part. The final one is dedicated to him. Some answers at last, perhaps.

Read for Caravana de Recuerdos' readalong.

Saturday, 22 February 2014

Jorge Luis Borges, Traveller



It’s been a long time since I wrote about Jorge Luis Borges, I’ll give people reason to think he’s not my favourite writer. But lately I’ve been re-reading bits and pieces of his conversations with poet Osvaldo Ferrari. As we all know, in 1984 both men started meeting every week to talk at Buenos Aires’ Radio Municipal, now that’s public service. Usually Ferrari chose a theme to get the conversation going, and then it was just a matter sitting back and listening to Borges talk. Ferrari was not an intrusive interlocutor, he kept Borges on track without overwhelming him, and he knew how to goad him, although Borges didn’t need much encouragement to start talking.

I like En Diálogo because when I’m hard-pressed by the need for a quick post, I can just whip up a few quotes, translate them, add a few framing commentaries, like this one, and pretend I’ve done something substantial.

In one conversation, Ferrari expresses curiosity about Borges’ love for travels. In the wake of a future trip to Japan, Italy and Greece, he asks him why he’s taken up to travelling in his old age. The obvious answer should be, Because I’m famous now and everyone invites me to go everywhere and people are only to happy to take care of a blind guy. But ever politeness personified, Borges replied:

One reason would be my blindness, the fact that I feel the countries although I can’t see them. And besides that, if I stay in Buenos Aires, well, my life is… poor, I have to be constantly fabulating, dictating. On the other hand, if I travel I’m receiving new impressions, and all that, in the long term, converts into literature – which I’m not sure if it’s an advantage; anyway, but I try to continue… accepting and thanking things. I think if I were really a poet – it’s obvious I’m not – I’d feel every instant of life as being poetic. That is, it’s a mistake to suppose that there are, for instance, poetic themes or poetic moments: all themes can be so. Walt Whitman has already demonstrated that and Gómez de la Serna in his own way also: the fact of seeing the quotidian as poetic. There’s a sentence that goes… yes: reality stranger than fiction [originally in English and Italics]: reality is stranger than fiction. And Chesterton comments on that wisely and fairly, I think; he says: “because fiction is made by us, in order to compensate reality is much weirder because it’s somebody else that makes it, the Other: God.” So that reality must be stranger. And now that I’ve said what somebody else said, I’m reminded that in the first part of The Divine Comedy… of course, the first part is Inferno, there the name of God is not allowed, and thus they call him the Other. “Like the Other willed,” says Ulysses, for instance, because the name of God can’t be uttered in Hell. And so Dante invented that beautiful synonym: the Other. Furthermore, it’s frightful, isn’t it? Because it means, well, that one is very far from the other, that we are not the Other. That’s why in The Divine Comedy the name of God shows up in, well, it could already happen in Purgatorio, because there they’re in the fire that… purifies them, and in Heaven, of course, but in Hell, no – they say the Other – and it’s usually printed with a capital O so there’s doubt about it.

This is Borges in a nutshell, the best of his qualities in one single quote: humble, self-deprecating (“I’m not a real poet”), trying to see the positive in the darkness (blindness allows him to feel rather than feel the countries he visits), funny and the tendency to lead all conversations back to books. His mind refuses staying in concrete reality for long. How the heck tourism end up in The Divine Comedy? It’s Borges!

Then Ferrari narrows it down to a trip to Sicily, where Borges will receive an honoris causa from the University of Palermo. Borges is excited for visiting Italy and Magna Graecia:

You can say that the West started thinking at Magna Graecia. That is, part Minor Asia and South of Italy. What a strange thing, philosophy having started shall we say in the outskirts of Greece, isn’t it? Well, there men started thinking, and we’ve tried continuing to think since then. Anyway, that fine custom started in Magna Graecia. And then, well, the South of Italy means other great names. It means Vico [et tu, Borges?] for instance, so quoted by Joyce due to his theory on the cycles of history. And, perhaps, who best wrote on aesthetics: Croce, from the South of Italy too. But I wanted to know the South of Italy, and I’ve been missing it so far, like so many things, for if a person considers, I’m not going to say the vastness of the universe, but the vastness of the planet, what a person can see is very little. I’ve thought sometimes, when people tell me that I’ve read a lot, that no. If a person thinks, well, in all the libraries of the world or one single library; let’s say… the National Library in Mexico Street. And what has a person read? A couple of pages. Of what’s written, a person has read but a few pages and nothing more, and of the world, one person has seen a couple of sights. But one may think that in those are the others, that is, that platonically a person has seen all things, and read all things. Even the books written in unknown languages. That’s why it’s said that all books are just one book. I’ve thought, so many times, that the themes of literature, well, are scarce, and that each generation searches for slight variants, each generation rewrites in the dialect of his epoch, what has been written. And that there are small differences, but those small differences are very, very important, naturally, at least for us.

Now this is more coherent, because it starts with philosophy in the outskirts of Greece and ends with Plato. Ferrari then remarks that the Italians are deeply interested in his work (which is true, take a gander at The Library of Babel, and Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, written four years before, made obvious allusions to him. I wonder if Borges ever read it).

And… yes, although that about their loving me very much may also indicate that they haven’t read my work, but I think that even though they’ve read me they like me, no? Which doesn’t cease to amaze me a little bit. Yes, Italy has been very generous to me. Well, the world has been very generous to me. I don’t think I have personal enemies, for instance, and besides that, maybe when a person reaches eighty-four years, he’s already, in a certain way, posthumous, and can be beloved without great further risks, right?

Ferrari then shifts the location Japan and informs him that Adolfo Bioy Casares told him of a book translated into Japanese, written by him and Borges in 1977 called Cuentos breves y extraordinarios.

   I didn’t know that, I didn’t have any news [they’re withholding royalties from Borges!]. Yes, we compiled that book more or less at that time, but my dates are very vague. The truth is I’m losing my memory, but I keep the best, which are, not my personal experiences, but rather the books I read. My memory is full of verses in many languages, I never tried to learn a poem by heart, but the ones that pleased me stayed and there they are. So that I could recite you verses in many languages, without excluding Old English; Anglo-Saxon, for instance.
   And I think many Latin verses too, but I’m not sure if I can scansion them well, perhaps I’ll get the number of syllables wrong, but anyway, I remember a lot more of what I read than what happened to me. But of course one of the most important things that can happen to a man, is having read this or that page that moved him, a very intense experience, no less intense than others. Even though Montaigne said that reading was a languid pleasure. But I think he was wrong, in my case reading is not languid, but intense. I suppose in his case also, for, if you read the essays of Montaigne, the pages are full of Latin citations, to which now has been necessary to add translations because Latin, unfortunately, is a dead language. On the other hand, in the past it was the common language of the whole educated Europe. A great-grandfather of mine, doctor Haslam, well, he couldn’t afford Oxford or Cambridge, so he went to the University of Heidelberg, in Germany. And he came back, at the end of five years, with the title of doctor of Philosophy and Letters, without a word of German. He had taken all his exams in Latin.

Ferrari then says that some writers don’t like travelling, because it breaks their concentration, like a “violent irruption in their lives and their writing.” Borges disagrees, arguing that he always returns enriched from his travels. Which takes us to one of his usual lessons on etymology.

You’re going to say I’m so chaotic I can’t disorder myself very well. I start with being a disorder, a chaos. What a thing, the word cosmetics has its origin in cosmos. Cosmos is the great order of the world and cosmetics the small order a person imposes on his face. It’s the same root, cosmos: order.

It’s so obvious now, and yet I had never thought about it. One is always learning with Borges and having a good time simultaneously.

Thursday, 20 February 2014

At what precise moment had Portugal fucked itself up?



In Mario Vargas Llosa’s Conversation in the Cathedral, a character asks, “At what precise moment had Peru fucked itself up?” The novel was published less than 150 years after Peru declared national independence from the Spanish Empire. It seems, to me anyway, a tremendous question to ask of a relatively young nation. But Vargas Llosa shirks his responsibilities to give an answer. An answer would, perforce, require him to rethink Peru since 1821, but in fact the novel’s action is set around the 1950s. Actually I suspect he never intended to meditate very deeply on that question, and no doubt posed it as provocation that he was sure would grab headlines, the mercenary.

How different the situation in Portugal, where national autognosis has been an obsession for many centuries! What do I mean by national autognosis? I mean that kind of critical, intellectual, even literary activity that occurs when a once prosperous nation has fallen from grace, when it suffers traumatizing economic or political turmoil that changes forever its self-perception, when it becomes painfully aware of its irrelevancy in the history of nations and of its lagging behind in the march of progress. Portugal, because it’s an ancient nation that enjoyed about a century and a half of economic prosperity, came relatively late to national autognosis. But the fuckingupness of the nation hasn’t, since circa the 16th century, ceased to preoccupy every thinking Portuguese.

Let us quickly review Portugal’s history to know where we are. This is a long post, by the way, so kindly bear with me. The country achieved its independence in 1139, seceding from the Kingdom of León. Its first king, D. Afonso Henriques, literally waged war against his mother, Dona Teresa, to secure the county that would later become th Kingdom of Portugal. Its borders, since they were fixed in 1297, haven’t changed much, making it, geopolitically speaking, one of the oldest and most stable nation-states in Europe, spared of the turmoil that reshaped the map of Europe countless times since the beginning of time. For its first centuries, Portugal’s kings promoted policies looking inward: ridding the peninsula of the Moors, mainly by conquering more territory southwards; fostering an internal economy based on its modest resources; and populating the land. Occasionally Portugal also had to defend itself from the rapacious Spaniards, who wanted to unite the entire peninsula under the new Kingdom of Spain. That meant that Portugal, in the westernmost corner of the continent, was virtually cut off from the rest of Europe, a state of affairs that would affect the reception of new ideas throughout its history.

The domestic policies continued well into the 15th century, around which point a turn took place. King D. João I died in 1433, being succeeded by his son D. Duarte I, who ruled until 1438, year of his death. His brother D. Pedro assumed the role of regent until Duarte’s son, D. Afonso V, was old enough to rule, which he did until 1481. Amidst these royal successions, though, one of D. João I’s other sons, the Infante Dom Henrique, remained busy with his passion for seafaring, cartography and astronomy. Although D. Afonso V maintained the policies of his forebears, the Infante, almost single-handedly, promoted the first modern nautical journeys into the Atlantic and along the African coast. In 1419 his sailors occupied the archipelago of Madeira, already known since the previous century, and in 1427 discovered the Azores. In 1434 Gil Eanes crossed the Cape Bojador, at the time the farthest known point of the African coast. Using a new type of ship, the caravel, the discoveries took them down to Senegal, Lagos, Cape Verde and Sierra Leone. The Infante was a curious man, a mixture of Renaissance scholar and fervent mystic, whose discoveries were also motivated by the search for the fabled Christian kingdom of Prester John, rumoured to be somewhere in Africa. He died in 1460 and D. Afonso V, more interested in conquering territory in Northern Africa, neglected further journeys. His son, D. João II, however, took them to new heights: during his reign, Diogo Cão discovered the Congo River and explored the coast of Namibia; Bartolomeu Dias crossed the Cape of Good Hope (previously known as Cape of Torments), becoming the first European to sail in the Indic river from the West; the settlement of São Tomé and Príncipe, discovered back in 1470, began; and in 1495, when he died, the King was busy outlining the first sea journey to India. His son, D. Manuel I, entrusted the mission to Vasco da Gama. During his reign, Vasco da Gama arrived in India through the sea (1498) and Pedro Álvares Cabral discovered Brazil (1500). Under his reign Portugal also decided to establish a military presence in the Orient, in order to protect the new commercial routes, with D. Afonso de Albuquerque conquering several main locations like Ormuz, Goa and Malacca, where they could produce the profitable spices. Portugal was finally an empire, and rich.

D. Manuel I was the first Portuguese king to make a splash in European courts. He also married Dona Maria of Aragon, which resulted in a climate of peace in the peninsula. His 1516 embassy to Rome, wonderfully described by Damião de Góis in Crónica do Felicíssimo D. Manuel, is legendary and contributed to creating a new imaginary for writers and painters across Europe, with the wondrous novelties brought from Asia, including an Indian rhino which Albrecht Dürer famously painted. The embassy (besides having the secret purpose of negotiating the implementation of the Inquisition in Portugal, o what rich irony!) was meant to show off Portugal’s riches. With it, D. Manuel I wanted to say that Portugal had arrived. The euphoria was short-lived, though. It was true that for a while, Portugal could see itself as an equal of Europe’s most advanced nations, and there was probably no other time in history when Portugal was so close to Europe than the 16th century: culturally speaking, it was a Golden Age, with poets like Luís de Camões and Sá de Miranda, and humanists and scholars like Damião de Góis and João de Barros breathing the spirit of the Renaissance.

But as much as it created an illusion of power and fortune, the Discoveries were also the unravelling of Portugal. One of the immediate consequences was the depopulation of Portugal: thousands of people abandoned the kingdom for the Indies with the ambition of becoming quickly rich with a shipment of spices; for that reason internal economic activity was abandoned, agriculture, one of the country’s main sources of wealth, decreased. Portugal went from being a nation of producers to one of merchants. Perhaps this could not have been catastrophic if actual money, from so much commercial activity, entered the country to improve it. Instead, the Discoveries also consolidated an indolent aristocratic class which used half their fortune to build churches and monasteries in order to buy their soul’s quick entrance into Heaven after spending the other half in every imaginable vice on Earth. The Portuguese empire, unlike the English one, wasn’t one of private initiative, it was mostly a royal project, and so financed by the King. Ships sailing to India were insured by the royal treasury, at great expense to the country, and the king himself had monopoly on some goods. In fact, although Portugal was allegedly rich from all the oriental trade, in 1560, just one century after the death of the Infante D. Henrique, the Kingdom declared bankruptcy, the first of many in its history. The causes were diverse, but especially that the fortunes of India were dissipated in Europe by a dissolute aristocracy, who left the country to rot. Oliveira Martins, in his genial book Portugal nos Mares, also shows how many of the ships were lost because of bad maintenance and excess of cargo, a recipe for disaster, while being insured by the Crown. Greed, in the form of cutting corners, was our doom. He was writing, however, at the end of the 19th century, this problem was imperceptible at the time. Another factor was the bad management of the empire itself, which was in the hands of corrupt, self-serving civil servants far away from the supervision of the King. The cupidity, deception and incompetence behind those who ran the empire in the orient, was the subject of one of the first works of national autognosis, Diogo do Couto’s O Diálogo do Soldado Prático, a mordant critique of Portugal’s administration in India.

For a while, though, criticism was more of moral than economical or political order. Although Luís de Camões wrote The Lusiads, that magnificent propaganda pamphlet, to justify his pension, his lyrical poetry tells a very different, more honesty story about what it was like in the Indies. As a soldier who travelled to India to become rich and who returned destitute, and only thanks to the intervention of friends who crowdfunded his passage home, he was resentful of everybody but himself making easy money off the Indies, and he channelled his indignation into his sonnets, lamenting the immoral, chaotic times he lived in, when the wicked thrived and the poor starved:

In base prisons I was for a time held,
Disgraceful punishment for my errors;
Even now crawling I bear my irons
Which Death, to my sorrow, already broke.

I sacrificed life under my own risk,
For Love wants neither lambs nor little sheep;
I saw grief, I saw pain, I saw exiles:
It seems it was ordained in this manner.

I took joy in paucity, knowing well
That it was a disgraceful form of joy,
Just from seeing what a happy life was.

But my star, which at last I understand,
The Blind Death and the doubtful Destiny,
Have made me feel afraid of appetites

Here’s another one:

Here in this Babylon, from where runs out
Matter produced by the world’s great evil;
Here where immaculate love has no worth,
Since our Mother, who wills most, all things soils.

Here, where evil is honed, and good reviled,
And tyranny has more force than honour;
Here, where mistaken and blind Monarchy
Thinks that a vain name will show it the truth;

Here, in this labyrinth, where noblemen
With effort and knowledge go begging at
The doors of covetousness and vileness;

Here, in this dark chaos of confusion,
I am fulfilling the course of nature.
See if I’ll ever forget you, Siam!

But I am being unfair to his epic poem. Although it is mostly a glorification of Portuguese history and a justification of empire, Camões inserted a prophetic condemnation of the Discoveries in the form of an old man who delivers a sombre speech when Vasco da Gama’s ships are sailing from Lisbon to India. This figure has become part of Portuguese culture: an Old Man of Restelo means someone who is always complaining and only says negative things. However Camões describes the figure as ‘venerable,’ meaning someone who is respected. This nuance is usually overlooked by those who use the term as an insult. Anyway, his speech begins thus:

O frantic thirst of honour and of fame,
The crowd's blind tribute, a fallacious name;
What stings, what plagues, what secret scourges curs'd,
Torment those bosoms where thy pride is nurs'd!
What dangers threaten, and what deaths destroy
The hapless youth, whom thy vain gleams decoy!
By thee, dire tyrant of the noble mind,
What dreadful woes are pour'd on human kind:
Kingdoms and empires in confusion hurl'd,
What streams of gore have drench'd the hapless world!
Thou dazzling meteor, vain as fleeting air,
What new-dread horror dost thou now prepare!
High sounds thy voice of India's pearly shore,
Of endless triumphs and of countless store:
Of other worlds so tower'd thy swelling boast,
Thy golden dreams when Paradise was lost,
When thy big promise steep'd the world in gore,
And simple innocence was known no more.
And say, has fame so dear, so dazzling charms?
Must brutal fierceness, and the trade of arms,
Conquest, and laurels dipp'd in blood, be priz'd,
While life is scorn'd, and all its joys despis'd?

(Translated by William Julius Mickle)

And then King D. Sebastião, to whom The Lusiads was dedicated, went and got himself killed in North Africa, and Portugal lost its sovereignty to Spain from 1680 to 1640. I’ve told the story of D. Sebastião several times in my blog, but I never tire of it because it’s so funny. To make a long story short, D. Sebastião was an almost-nubile, possibly homosexual (nothing wrong with that, but consequential for what’s coming) religious fanatic who wanted to convert the whole of North Africa to the Christian faith; so he and his army travelled to Morocco, where they were massacred in what history calls the Battle of El-Ksar el Kebir. And that wouldn’t necessarily have been a tragedy if he had left at least a royal baby, but according to rumours, either he didn’t fancy the weaker sex very much or he favoured chastity. Either way there was a crisis of heirs and the Spanish got the throne of Portugal. Ironically, even though D. Sebastião was one of Portugal’s worst kings – essayist António Sérgio called him an ass – he lives on in the popular myth that one day he’ll return to lead the Portuguese to a new golden era. This is known as Sebastianism. As it turned out the Portuguese Restoration, in 1640, was a lot less dramatic than that, and the Kingdom regained its sovereignty after a revolutionary coup d’état.

And this is when national autognosis went full mode. You see, between the spurious Golden Age of the 15th century and the grimy age of the 17th century, many changes had taken place. The Counter-Reformation, the Inquisition, and the mismanagement of the empire during the Spanish rule had widened the distance between Portugal and Europe. The nation was poor, practically medieval still, and cut off from the rest of the continent by a country that was no better, perhaps even more fanatic and obscurantist, if that was possible. Foreign travellers visiting Portugal called its people– O Fate, thy irony doth sting! – the Indians of Europe. And culturally speaking, this century was a desert: almost no thinkers, poets, or scientists of renown. Naturally, all thinking Portuguese, who had some contacts with the learned, modern outside world, wanted to understand what had happened to Portugal, where it all had gone wrong. You see, Jared Diamond hadn't yet written Collapse. The population on the whole was illiterate. The King still detained absolute power. Although a few humanists existed, the spirit itself did not. The Sephardic Jews, an enterprising, moneyed, cultured class, were expelled and relocated to the Netherlands, auguring the Dutch Golden Age. Portuguese people, the well-read anyway, who know a thing or two about culture, do love to point out that Baruch Spinoza was of Portuguese descent, never pausing to reflect on why he wasn’t an actual Portuguese.

After the Restoration progress was made, of course, to bridge the gulf between the country and the continent, to reform it in light of the ideals of the Enlightenment and the Scientific Revolution. But this is a story mostly of high expectations, failures and disappointments. The history of national autognosis is mostly a history of bemoaning, because things never seemed to get any better, no matter the good will of some rulers or the intellect of some reformers, and everybody who thought he had a brilliant new idea to lead Portugal out of the Dark Ages eventually came to no good. Perhaps the first noteworthy figure was Luís António Verney, author of O Verdadeiro Método de Estudar (The True Method for Study, 1746). Verney spent years in Italy where he savoured modernity, and he wrote a book telling the Portuguese all about it, but most of his proposed ideas were never implemented. Even so as the century ended, things seemed to be improving, with the creation of the Academy of Sciences, in 1799. 

But the 19th century started with the Napoleonic Invasions, which kept everyone busy until 1814, then continued with liberal revolutions and a civil war that would decided whether Portugal would have an absolutist king or a constitutional monarchy. The constitutionalists won. Amongst the liberals three men occupied themselves with understanding how Portugal had become what it was. One was Alexandre Herculano, Portugal’s first historian in the modern sense of the word, author of the seminal História de Portugal (1846-1853), a gigantic endeavour that appliedfor the first time the scientific, rational model of historiography. Herculano’s history of Portugal has some 1600 pages and tackles only about the first one hundred years of Portuguese history. The church reacted so viciously to the first volume that he changed his plans of covering the country’s history until the Restoration. The church’s main objection was that he did not give credence to the myth of divine intervention on the creation of Portugal. No, really. In 1139, D. Afonso Henriques allegedly won the Battle of Ourique against the Moors thanks to a vision of Jesus Christ, surrounded by angels, who told him he’d come out victorious, and after the battle, which he did win against a larger opponent, he proclaimed himself King of Portugal. But Herculano wasn’t having any of that nonsense. Perhaps to get even with the church he followed this book with História da Origem e Estabelecimento da Inquisição em Portugal (History of the Origin and Establishment of the Inquisition in Portugal, 1854-1859). This ignoble institution had only ceased to exist in Portugal since 1821. Herculano’s great friend, Almeida Garret, wrote Portugal na Balança da Europa (1830), a political book comparing Portugal to the other European nations, and it was a book that dealt with a very modern topic. You know how sometimes people ask if the Iraqi or the Afghans are ready for Democracy, since they lack historical experience of it? Well, Garrett was asking the same question of the Portuguese people in 1830. A fascinating book. A third man was Mouzinho da Silveira, who reformed the state, the laws and the courts and joined the fight for the Constitutional Charter of 1826. He was also a perceptive man who realized that Portugal, without Brazil, which had declared independence in 1822, would have to rethink itself, since it could not continue to live on its gold, obtained with slave trade. But easier said than done: the country simply remembered that it had some lingering African colonies, mainly Angola and Mozambique, which became the empire’s last bid for relevance in a world where it was becoming irrelevant.

In the second half of the 19th century we had the social and political satires of Eça de Queiroz and Antero de Quental’s Causas da Decadência dos Povos Peninsulares (Causes for the Decadence of the Peninsular Peoples, 1871), synthesising Herculano’s motives for Portugal and Spain’s backwardness since the 17th century: the Counter-Reformation, the Absolutist Monarchy which stifled private initiative; and the economic model of the Discoveries that left the country rotting. Perhaps, however, the best author of national autognosis of this era was Oliveira Martins, a historian who continued the work of Herculano, his mentor. In his history books he was rational and scientific, he was merciless and had no time for romanticism, and he seemed to enjoy digging up all the nasty, shameful things about Portuguese history that everyone prefers to forget. For that reason he’s been accused of being too negative and anti-nationalistic, and perhaps that explains why it’s virtually impossible to buy his books other than through second-hand shops. His indignation was a sign he cared, and his writings about the Discoveries, economy, emigration, depopulation, and politics were ahead of their time and very influential to those that matter. He may well be the cornerstone of modern national autognosis. His influence is visible on the work of rationalist essayist António Sérgio and philosopher Eduardo Lourenço. 

In the 20th century there were other writers fascinated with the deplorable state of the country. The most important was no doubt Fernando Pessoa, whose symbolic epic poem Message prophesies the rise of Portugal as a major new power that will renew the world. One of the poem's most famous verses is the claim that Portugal has yet to fulfil itself, that is, perform its Destiny. When it does, the world better watch out. But for now we’re waiting, for something. For D. Sebastião, perhaps. We can also add Jorge de Sena in his poetry, and José Saramago and António Lobo Antunes in their novels. Perhaps the most recent contribution to this literature was a book called Portugal, Hoje: O Medo de Existir (Portugal Today: The Fear of Existing, 2004 - a title that doesn't leave anything to the imagination), from philosopher José Gil. His book is not so much interested in knowing how we got here, but rather in describing what here means. It’s pure acid, but a faithful image of what Portugal is nowadays, with its neuroses, its taboos, its fears, and its anemia.

Perhaps all former empires wallow in this internal reading. Perhaps the Mongolians miss their old empire. Maybe Iranians look back with nostalgia on Darius I. In the book Istanbul, Orhan Pamuk discusses the Turkish word huzun, which is the collective melancholy or sadness Turks feel for living in the shadow of a former empire. Perhaps that sentiment is expressed in our language by saudade, the spiritual pain one feels for something that is absent, unreachable, a person or an idea or something vaster, like a sense of purpose or a lost past. Saudade shapes Portuguese mentality; some, like the poet Teixeira de Pascoaes, even saw it as the essence of the Portuguese spirit, its identity. I do think we Portuguese feel, sometimes consciously but mostly unconsciously, the pain of not being an empire anymore, of our reduced stature in the world. We refuse to resign ourselves to our irrelevance.

One of the best books on national autognosis is Eduardo Lourenço’s O Labirinto da Saudade, which I recently read. Eduardo Lourenço is a renowned thinker who’s lived most of his life in Vance, France. He’s taught at the University of Grenoble and the University of Nice. Born in 1923, he’s the author of an extensive bibliography on sociology, philosophy, literature and history. I have an ambivalent affair with Lourenço, whom I’ve read here and there, marvelled by his perspicacy in certain affairs but enervated by his boring, rambling style, close to the French philosophers he loves, sometimes full of vapid circumlocution. I think his attempt at understanding the fragmentary nature of modern society in Chaos and Splendour, for instance, smacks of the worst vices Jean Baudrillard indulged in in Simulacra and Simulation. His essays on Pessoa, however, can be insightful and informative, although I still think Sena was a better and clearer literary essayist. But O Labirinto da Saudade is something else. Subtitled “mythical psychoanalysis of Portuguese destiny,” this labyrinth of longing, pining, nostalgia, sadness, sorrow, or however you wish to translate it, is one of the most perceptive studies of how the Portuguese people see themselves.

The book was published in 1978, just four years after the Carnation Revolution that ended 48 years of dictatorship and 13 years of a pointless war with the rebellious African colonies. During the 20th century, the dictatorship held on to these colonies as the last redoubt of national greatness. Writing in the preface to the 2000 edition, Lourenço states that he published the book when

Portugal had just lost its old empire. And with it – I thought – a certain way of imagining its past through a mythology responsible for the end of our history as colonizing nation. It then seemed that the apparent fiasco of our imperial mythology offered a good occasion to “rethink Portugal,” to lay bare the roots of a collective behaviour that had taken us, not to the end of empire, which was inevitable, but to an absurd war, politically anachronistic and ethically contrary to the same mythology of our “exemplary” colonialism, with its famous Christian humanism being used as reference and insurance.

As you can tell from this tone, there was no rethinking Portugal for anybody. As he concedes, “It would be absurd if [the nation] had gotten rid of, as if by miracle, a past, a memory, an identity that was forged and exalted precisely with the Discoveries and of which the colonial adventure was the consequence.” Having for centuries believed ourselves to be the centre of the world, or at least of an empire, it’s hard for us to accept that we’re just like everybody else, even though perhaps we were not even that.

The book is about the images we create of ourselves, the images we create to see ourselves in the world. Lourenço sometimes writes passages that seem like utter gibberish, but to a Portuguese reader they ring so true in their painful and accurate diagnosis:

Our genesis as a State was of the traumatic type and from that traumatism we never fully rose to the full assumption of historical maturity promised by heavens and centuries to that shoot, incredibly fragile in its genesis  and mysteriously strong in how it dared to subsist. (Perhaps it’s not by chance that the historiographical myths connected to the birth of Portugal have such a Freudian profile with maternal sacrileges and broken words, Teresa and Egas Moniz…) The fascinating mixture of braggadocio and humility, of Moorish carelessness and Sebastianist confidence, of “happy unconsciousness” and black presage, which constitutes the Portuguese backbone, is connected to that act without history which is how the time of birth is for every thing born. Through diverse mythologies, of historians and poets, that act always showed up, and with reason, as something in the order of the unjustifiable, of the incredible, of the miraculous, or, in sum, of the providential. It’s more lucid and wiser than all the positivist explanations, that feeling that the Portuguese always had to believe themselves assured of their national being less for their simple ability and human cunning, than for another, higher power, something like the hand of God. This popular reading of our collective destiny expresses correctly the effective historical relationship that we maintain with ourselves as a national entity. In it is reflected the awareness of a congenital weakness and the magical conviction of an absolute protection that subtracts that fragility from the regrettable oscillations of any human project without the arrow of hope guiding it. This conjunction of an inferiority and superiority complex has never been defused as it should have along our historical life and, therefore, it mysteriously corrodes us as the root of the unrealistic relationship that we keep with ourselves. Depending on the contingencies of the international or global situation, one or the other complex rises to the surface, but more frequently both at the same time, one the inverse image of the other.

Portugal, as he puts it, and perhaps inspiring the title of José Gil’s book (which references this one), is a country that can’t deal well with its own existence, an inner conflict which does not allow us to accept who we are. Our existence was shaken when we lost our sovereignty to the Spaniards, but at the same time we never managed to cope or adjust to the role Europe saw us in during the first glorious years of the Discoveries, when we were so close to modern Europe.

Of the two original components of our historical existence – triumphant challenge and the difficulty of quietly accepting that triumph – we deepened then, and particularly, our “difficulty of being,” as Fontanelle could have said, the historical difficulty of subsisting with political plenitude. It thus became clear that national consciousness (in those who could have it), our reason of being, the root of all hope, was our having been. And from that ex-life The Lusiads are its trial by fire. The national living that was almost always a startled, restless life, but confident and trusting in its star, weaving its web from the strength of the present, guides itself in that epoch towards a future utopian beforehand because of the primordial, obsessive mediation of the past. Unhappy with the present, dead as immediate national existence, we started simultaneously dreaming the future and the past.

A backward country, we continued looking backwards, to our mythical past, whose glory crushes any present endeavour. We are just never good enough for the past we are judged against constantly. A country that is terrified of the world and isolates itself. A nation deprived of the “kingdom of freedom” when we embraced the Inquisition.

That national sycophantism at the service of God was enough to feed our vanity as defenders of faith, but it converted us into ecstatic worshippers in the best of cases and refined hypocrites in the worst, creating in us a sort of indifference to every truth that isn’t collectively lived, to genial inventors of “consensuses” and “average truths” that naturally could never have led us to Descartes, Pascal, Torricelli and especially Espinosa.

Lourenço describes us as a sad, humourless people – everything Manuel de Unamuno extolled about our spirit - sarcastic in a malignant way, always pretending, always acting, with dire results to the relationships Portuguese have in the quotidian, an unease that atrophies their mental and emotional development, leaving them amputees, unanchored in anything concrete. A nation once of colonizers, or at least emigrants who left to make fortune in the colonies, and now of emigrants who go work for other people, in France and the USA. A poor nation that always saw itself as rich and lived above its means. Although this is a cliché that the markets hurl against Portugal to justify the current austerity measures, it’s a cliché that has been repeated by ourselves too many times throughout history not to be a truth, although, as Lourenço says, “it’s so organic it’s become invisible, like everything that is normal.” Although Lourenço throws enough jabs to get anyone upset, I don’t think he’s ever off the mark; I think this is a rigorous view of what it means to be Portuguese. Of course this spirit and mythology is better expressed in literature, which is why he’s always commenting on Eça de Queiroz, Antero de Quental, Oliveira Martins, Fernando Pessoa, Almeida Garrett, Teixeira de Pascoaes, Ramalho Ortigão, and others. But I’d need a post twice this long to get into that. My purpose was mainly to bring attention to this salient aspect of Portuguese thought.

Anyway, yesterday, coincidentally as I was writing this, I saw on the news a beautiful example of this inability to stop pining for the old empire, and the pervasiveness of imperial imagery. We just can't forget the Discoveries. Yesterday a new map of Portugal was unveiled. The four people in this picture are, from left to right: Nuno Crato, Minister of Education, Assunção Cristas, Minister of Agriculture, Cavalo Silva, the President (aka as the prick responsible for José Saramago’s self-imposed exile in Lanzarote), and his wife. And that thing in the middle is the new map of Portugal, which, on the whole, is exactly like the old one save it shows the exclusive economic zone, all the sea area that Portugal owns:


But what’s creepy is the rhetoric behind the unveiling of the new map. According to the President, this map will allow students to understand that Portugal is “huge.” “It’s an initiative of great pedagogical value, in the sense that it’ll give our children and our youngsters the perception of the true dimension of Portugal, that Portugal is not just a narrow coastline stretch to the west of the Iberian Peninsula, it’s also a great exclusive economic zone.” Words from the man who tried to ban The Gospel According to Jesus Christ from a European literary prize. “Now in schools this immense Portugal can be studied in the most varied perspectives,” he added, because this map is to be distributed to all schools, where it’ll hang in a prominent spot for all the children to stare at, in rapture of the great country they live in.


This rhetoric is pathetic, it’s desperate. If a country needs to remember people of its EEZ in order to feel good about itself, then it’s because its amour-propre has hit rock bottom. Really, who cares that the EEZ is 15 times the size of Portugal? Unless we can live in the middle of the Atlantic, Portugal is still tiny. But what really worries me is how similar this rhetoric is to the one espoused by Salazar’s propaganda machine decades ago. During the dictatorship there was also a map that showed that Portugal was not a small country. Here it is:



In case you can’t see it well, that’s the map of Europe with Angola and Mozambique super-imposed on it. Territorially speaking, Portugal was indeed great, almost the size of Europe, if we indexed the colonies’ territories to it. "Portugal is not a small country," it proudly says. The colonies are gone, so now we have the EEZ. It’s sad, it’s embarrassing. Are we in such a need to affirm ourselves, to remember, to ourselves first of all, that we exist, that we’ve stooped to borrowing techniques from Salazar?

Eduardo Lourenço is right. It’s so organic it’s become invisible, like everything that is normal. So much for national autognosis. At least it produces good reading material from time to time.