Saturday, 29 March 2014

The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis: Genesis of a Novel



Richard, from Caravana de Recuerdos, is hosting a readalong for José Saramago’s The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis. So as the resident Portuguese blogger I’m obliged to write a few words about it. Rather than repeating my review of it – in a nutshell: it’s one of the best novels I’ve ever read in my life – I figured I could provide potential readers with a bit of historical contextualization, some insights into the process of its creation and to suggest one way of reading the novel, based on what I understand to be the primary difference between Pessoa and Saramago regarding their approach to writing. I’ve written before about all this, but the information is scattered here and there in my blog, so this is mostly an effort of synthesis.

1) José Saramago discovers Ricardo Reis

José Saramago discovered Ricardo Reis circa 1940. At the time he was a student in a technical school. Saramago’s parents were poor and they couldn’t afford to pay further education since, at the time, a working class child wasn’t expected to rise above a mere labourer. So they enrolled him in a school where he could learn a practical craft to earn a living. Even so, he was luckier than most children at the time since the majority didn’t even have the meagre chances he had. But like I said, he wasn’t supposed to become anything other than a locksmith or carpenter, or at best, if he knew a bit of book-keeping and writing, an office clerk. The technical school was named Afonso Domingues. It was in this school, the novelist once reminisced, that he began writing The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis. José Saramago in Cadernos de Lanzarote III describes his first meeting with the fictional poet. “One day, in one of my incursions to the school library (I was reaching the end of the course) I found a hardback that had inside, not a book as one expects a book to be, but a magazine. It was called Athena, and it was for me as if another sun had been born. Perhaps one day I’ll be capable of describing those moments. What I certainly won’t be able to explain is the reason I was so profoundly affected by the odes of Ricardo Reis (…).” We can surmise this was around 1940 from to the biography of João Marques Lopes, who’s researched the writer’s childhood and ascertained the years he spent in technical school. Fernando Pessoa had been dead for five years. José Saramago was only 18, and for some years now he had the habit, since he was too poor to buy books, to patronize Lisbon’s public libraries. Saramago continues: “At that moment (ignorant as I was) I really believed there was or had been a poet in Portugal called Ricardo Reis, author of those poems that fascinated and disturbed me at the same time.” For Saramago, however, Reis didn’t gain a magical statute until the “beginnings of the forties, when Adolfo Casais Monteiro published a Pessoa anthology” (he probably means the seminal Poesia de Fernando Pessoa, 1945), that he read some verses by him that “imposed themselves upon me like a banner, a point of honour, an imperative rule that would be my duty, forever, to uphold and abide by.” He meant this poem:

To be great, be whole: nothing
Yours exaggerate or exclude.

Be whole in each thing. Put your being
            In the least you do.

Thus in every lake the whole moon
            Shines for high she lives.

“It lasted a few years,” Saramago says. “I did what I could not to stay behind what it ordered me. Then I realized I did not have the strength for so much, that only a rare few could be capable of being everything in each thing. Pessoa himself, who was indeed great, even if another form of greatness, was never whole… So… I had no other choice than becoming human.” And here we have the genesis of the novel, or at least the beginning of Saramago’s infatuation with Pessoa and his heteronym.

2) José Saramago contra Ricardo Reis

Saramago’s biographer also gives us an idea of how he prepared himself to write the novel. “Saramago worked on the preparing and writing The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis between 1983 and the first half of 1984. Invoking his memories of Lisbon in the ‘30s, meticulously studying the collection of the O Século newspaper and other newspapers for the year 1936, reading Brazilian historian Edgar Carone or  pro-Salazar works, like the forgotten novella Conspiração, by Tomé Vieira, lodging himself in the actual Hotel Bragança and right in Room 201, going to Fernando Pessoa’s grave, then in the Cemitério dos Prazeres, and obviously reading Ricardo Reis and other texts of the Pessoan oeuvre, he went about constructing his novel.” Regarding the notebook, Saramago was keeping it to jot down events from 1936 to cover the novel with the presence of that annus horriblis fecund in heinous events.

The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis came out in 1984. The moment of inspiration, however, surged in Saramago’s mind in 1978. In a hotel room in Berlin, resting after a writers’ meeting, his drowsy mind suddenly conceived the sentence the year of the death of Ricardo Reis, which, “mixed with past rancour and permanent admiration, conspired me to confront Ricardo Reis with the spectacle of the world in the year of his death which, in my logic, had to be 1936, that is, the year the Spanish War started, the year the Fascist beast occupied Ethiopia, the year Nazism consolidated positions, the year when Fascist Youths and militias were created in Portugal… In a convoluted time when all that was good was crumbling, when it was being incubated, in front of everyone, the egg of the serpent that would devour so many million people, Ricardo Reis, the poet of the marvellous odes, sat before the world, as if it were a sunset, and seeing what was going on, he felt wise.”

Between 1940 and 1984 a lot had obviously changed in José Saramago’s life. He had reached political maturity, and since early on he intended to give voice to the downtrodden and oppressed. Hailing from a working class background, and the grandson of poor Ribatejo farmers, he had experienced cruelty and injustice in the flesh. In Portugal, for most of his youth and middle-age, there weren’t many options for a man who wanted to position himself against the dictatorship, so he joined the communist party (PCP) in 1969, which made him part of a network fighting the regime. Unsurprisingly, this set him at odds with the temperament of Fernando As I’ve written before, Pessoa, after the 1926 military coup that overthrew Portuguese democracy, at first supported the regime and even expressed confidence in Salazar; politically he was a liberal conservative who valued the individual over the State, wary of revolutions and social upheavals. He accepted the flow of events so long as they did not interfere with him. In practice he was an unpractical dreamer who transferred his exuberant imagination and will onto the plane of immateriality. Reading about his life is reading about his mania for creating lists and plans, his half-finished books, his incomplete translations, and his disjointed fragments. He was always thinking of things to do in the future – start a publishing house, write a book, etc. – while wallowing in inaction. This torpor transpired into all his heteronyms. Although Pessoa is praised for having created three distinct personalities, the truth is that, under scrutiny, they all share Pessoa’s known revulsion for the concrete world: Alberto Caeiro is a man who abjures metaphysics, who placidly contemplates Nature without thinking, content with direct, sensory reality, intellectually lazy; Álvaro de Campos is an opium fiend who oscillates between drug-addicted fantasies and a thirst for trying all things at once, thus incapable of feeling anything at all, a precursor of ADHD; and the classicist Ricardo Reis, a cold fatalist who intellectualized carpe diem into a pessimistic ideology that precluded him from actually enjoying life. Saramago’s beef with him concerns one verse he wrote: Wise is he who satisfies himself with the world’s spectacle.

Saramago’s intention is to hurl Reis head-on into the annus horriblis, when the dictatorship was enjoying its tenth anniversary, making him witness the start of the war in Spain, forcing him to put up with the hordes of refugees that invade his hotel, sending the secret police (PVDE at the time, later it became better known as PIDE) to harass him because he is an expat recently returned from Brazil, where a communist coup had been thwarted recently, having him attend political rallies with moronic speeches, and putting him in front of the Tejo river on the day of a failed rebellion, where his mistress’ brother dies. It’s as if Saramago is asking him, “So, my dear Reis, do you continue to be satisfied with the world’s spectacle?” Saramago in La estatua y la piedra goes as far as to call the novel a “settling of accounts with Ricardo Reis.”

3) Engagement once again

José Saramago and Fernando Pessoa occupy the furthermost extremes of literature. One was accused of treason more than once. The other was a nationalist. One was a novelist who claimed for his fiction the duty of illustrating his positions as an active citizen. The other was an aesthete who lived in the clouds, entertaining himself with esoteric games about identity and poetic personae. One had opinions on everything and always uttered them, energized by polemics. The other preferred not to meddle in politics and economics because he confessed knowing nothing about them, a very timorous approach considering many of the regime’s best opponents could argue the same. Pessoa’s passivity remains a thorn in Portugal’s noble history of anti-fascist struggle; arguably he’s the only genius the nation produced in the 20th century, so his lukewarm support for the dictatorship gets politely ignored. That’s why Saramago’s novel is already polemic in reopening that wound. But Saramago’s purpose goes further, through Reis he indicts an entire people.

José Saramago’s fame, and infamy amongst the Portuguese who hate him (and they aren’t few), stems from the mordant way he criticises his country’s history. The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis forms a triptych with Raised from the Ground (1980) and Baltasar and Blimunda (1982) in that they recreate periods of Portugal’s history that were rife with injustice, violence, oppression and cruelty: the first spans the 20th century as it dismantles the collusion between government, church, national guard and big capital to keep the labourers of the Alentejo region under their yoke; the second brings to life an 18th century Lisbon lit with the blazes of the autos-de-fé conducted by a stifling Inquisition; and the third shows us a rainy, melancholy Lisbon, living in denial of the darkness that has enveloped it. The reader would have to know our embellishment of our own history to appreciate why Saramago was so troublesome. More than one thinker has identified messianism as one of the defining traits of the Portuguese psyche: we’re not only a people who believe we’ve been touched by God and live under His protection, but that divine providence has singled us out to lead Mankind into a Golden Age, what we call the Fifth Empire. Pessoa, who was extremely nationalistic, believed in this so strongly he wrote Message as a result. When the regime incorporated this poem into their propaganda, well, they had good reasons to assume, even though they were wrong, that Pessoa was on their side. Saramago’s novel explores also this mentality.

The regime could not leave anyone indifferent who believed in democracy and freedom. In 1926, after sixteen years of a limping Republic, the army staged a coup and installed a military dictatorship to solve the nation’s problems of order and finances. They made a pig’s mess of it, of course, because you don’t entrust finances to generals and coronels, so they went to a Professor of Economy and former seminarian, António de Oliveira Salazar, whose ties to Acção Católica, a reactionary, right-wing Catholic organization where he began his political career, made him the ideal man to straighten out the country’s disorderly finances. In no time Salazar became the most important person in government and the country’s de facto leader, and as ruler he initiated the cult of his own personality. It was clear that the dictatorship was not going to be, as initially promised, a quick interregnum to “clean up” the country before a triumphant return to a revitalized democracy; not with Salazar in power, a man who, according to the aforementioned Casais Monteiro, once compared himself to Jesus Christ, and considered himself Portugal’s saviour. He wasn’t going to abandon Portugal to the wolves when he could do so much for it. One of the consequences of this grim prognostic was the radicalization of intellectuals. Men of letters, journalists, historians, teachers, scientists, writers, anyone who held human values high, had no alternative but publicly declaring themselves enemies of the regime if they wished to live in accordance to their consciousnesses. Amongst the opposition there was an extreme fringe of writers that declared its allegiance to communism, the natural alternative to Salazar. Let’s put aside the fact that if communism had triumphed in Portugal, it would have become a Soviet Republic that wouldn’t have hesitated sending those same writers to Gulags. The real problem was all the bad literature that came out of it. At the end of the 1930s Portugal created its most productive literary movement: Neo-realismo. The fact that I’ve never written about a single neo-realist book in my blog should give the reader an idea of what I make of these books, quality-wise. To me, they were slightly better than Soviet socialist realism. But these people exerted tremendous power in intellectual circles, to the chagrin of far more talented writers. Jorge de Sena couldn’t stand them, with their blind devotion to the USSR, their crude syntax and primary school vocabulary, their political ingenuity, their heartfelt indignation distracting the reader from their one-dimensional approach to society, class and politics.

Saramago, who joined the clandestine PCP, had all the traits to become a neo-realist novelist, but in fact his pen remained silent (relatively speaking; his fought through his journalism) throughout the heyday of Neo-realism. With the fall of the regime in 1974, the need for militant literature disappeared, and his fourth novel, Raised from the Ground (1980) was once described by a critic as the final nail on neo-realism’s coffin; in fact it set out to accomplish everything the neo-realists aspired to, to paint a heart-wrenching picture of misery and injustice through literature, while being aesthetically light-years ahead of their heavy-handed efforts. To help me better explain the difference, I’ve recently come across a handy passage by Casais Monteiro in O País do Absurdo (1974) where he reconsiders the meaning of Sartre’s engagement: “Not to complicate it, to sum the question up as much as possible, we can say this: Sartre used that word to indicate the intervention of the writer, but in no way his submission. He meant, on using it, not the dependence on a party, but interest, participation. The engagé writer will then be he for whom it’s indispensable to intervene in the problems of his time, who doesn’t consider himself an isolated being, exempt from responsibilities in what happens in the world arena, and who, on the contrary is more obliged than anybody else to take an active part in events. In sum, the engagé writer is the one who isn’t in the margin, or above what’s going on, but on the contrary is fully immersed in life, and is, as much as or more than anybody, responsible.” Ironically, Casais Monteiro, who helped discover Pessoa’s poetry, was one of the Salazar’s staunchest opponents.

Even so men like Casais Monteiro and the peddlers of neo-realist fiction, whatever sensibility separated them, formed a group that at least defined itself against the regime. Outside that group was the majority of the population. More than settling accounts with Reis, Saramago is pointing the finger at the Portuguese and asking, “How were you capable of allowing the regime to exist? The longest-surviving regime in Western Europe? Didn’t you realize what was going on?” Reis is but a pretext, a guide to take the reader through a somnolent Lisbon that lives oblivious to, or maybe just not very concerned about, its loss of freedom. It is like the tourist guide Pessoa wrote, but instead of guiding the reader through monuments that exalt the nation’s greatness, Saramago unfurls a long list of petty humiliations and cruelties. Nothing too serious happens in the novel: it’s basically about a bourgeois doctor who has a few affairs with women. It’s not a novel about tyranny in the classic sense, it’s no A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. It’s unnerving exactly because of its pusillanimity, its hyper-real tedious domesticity, because it’s a novel about mental amputees who can no longer dream or imagine, who live in a suffocating orderly regime that regulates life for them, ironing out surprises and desires, leaving them only with a vague, cowardly happiness for participating in a regime of perpetual order, thankful for being demanded only immobility, that will make the country great again. Reis is the Portuguese and the Portuguese are Reis. This is one of the many possible ways of reading the novel.

Thursday, 27 March 2014

Of course, I lack an island, and I also lack sight, don’t I? – Borges and Bertrand Russell




While I was browsing the book of dialogues between Osvaldo Ferrari and Jorge Luis Borges for my post on Gustave Flaubert, I noticed that there was one about Bertrand Russell. I didn’t remember what Borges had to say about one of my favourite philosophers, so I went and re-read it. One of the virtues of these short dialogues is that they make for stimulating occasional reading.

Another one is that they give us lots of incidental information about Borges. In this dialogue we get to know a bit more about his interest in mathematics, we find out which book he’d take to an island, he shows a political side, and he even jokes with his poor memory: there’s a fun moment when Ferrari utters a sentence, “Reality is always anachronistic,” that Borges likes very much before Ferrari informs him that he wrote it decades before in Other Inquisitions. “Ah, yes, there, in fact that book is full of surprises for me; I wrote it so long ago it seems new to me,” says Borges.

But on to Russell. I’ve read my share of Bertrand Russell: Sceptical Essays, The Problems of Philosophy, Why I Am Not A Christian and In Praise of Idleness. I’ve always liked him for his clarity, common sense, acuity and his wit. Borges has read many more than me. He tells Ferrari that he “read and re-read” Introduction to Mathematical Philosophy.

It’s a very simple book, a very enjoyable read, like everything Russell writes, and I remember I loaned it to [his friend Alfonso] Reyes. In it I read for the first time an explanation, well, for me the best, the most accessible, of set theory by German Mathematician Cantor. Reyes read the book and also became very interested in it. Sometimes I’ve been asked… I’m constantly being asked that question about which book I’d take for a deserted island; a journalistic cliché. Well, I started by answering that I’d take an encyclopaedia; but I’m not sure they’d let me take ten or twelve volumes, I think not. So, I opted for History of Western Philosophy, by Bertrand Russell, which perhaps is the book I’d take for the island… but, of course, I lack an island, and I also lack sight, don’t I? The book I already have but it’s not enough.

Ferrari suggests that perhaps he could take a reader with him. “In that case, yes, in that case everything changes; and, besides that, the memory of books… I’d like to ask in that book, well, what I read and what I forgot.” And this sends us into one of his digressions about memory and blindness:

Yes, the memory of the book I’d like to have. If it were perfect, I’d also have the book within my reach. I’m thinking there was a time… well, amongst the Muslims I think it’s very common the case of people who know the Koran by heart. There’s the word hafiz which means that: memorious, memorious of the Koran in particular. Nowadays I think there are educational systems that according to which the student – who may be a child – isn’t required knowledge of the book; he must learn it by heart. If I had benefited of that system it’d have been fortunate for me because I’d know many books by heart and I could understand and read them now, which would be even better. For instance, if I could have read History of Western Philosophy, by Russell, when I was a child, with that system, I would have understood very little, but now I could consult that book…

Ferrari says that his “memory could read” in that case. “Certainly, my memory could read,” agrees Borges. “So that that system, in the case of people who become blind, could have been an excellent system for me.” Borges, from what I understand, doesn’t just miss reading, he misses forming new memories from reading books. Just listening them being uttered by others isn’t enough for him, it seems. ”But sadly I wasn’t that fortunate; I was required to read and understand. Instead, if I had been demanded a simple memory exercise, well, I could be reading many books that now are very far away.” I love how to him remembering a whole book in his memory would be the same as reading it again.

He continues to discuss Russell and how he has problems understanding his philosophical system. “And then I read more books by him, in which he develops a personal philosophical system; that is, I understand every page as I read it, but afterwards, when I sought to organize everything in my mind, I failed, and failed in a singular way.” Ferrari, curious to know what idea Borges made of Russell’s philosophy, asks him to elaborate. “It’s a very rigorous system, it’s a logical system; but if I try to imagine it now in some way, failure.” I take it he means perhaps his mathematical philosophy or even his empiricism. For my part I know him mostly as an essayist on loose topics, so I never struggled with a particular system by Russell. In fact I always thought he was accused of being a light-weight thinker, which I think is ridiculous, because he lacked a system like Sartre; that’s why he’s so invaluable to me: he applied his intelligence to everything, instead of trying to fit everything into a single straightjacket. That’s why I prefer British philosophers in general: they analyse the hell out of things (Mary Midgley is another example) instead of building systems around them, like the abstruse Continentals.

Ferrari then asks Borges what he thinks of Russell’s writings about “contemporary politics and facts of society.” Borges praises him for his freedom. “Ah, yes, and besides that I think he’s a singularly free person; free from the common superstitions of our times, like for instance the superstition of nationality. I think he’s free from that. Then he has another book, Why I Am Not A Christian; but since I am not a Christian, I started reading the book and abandoned it because I felt it was superfluous: I didn’t need those arguments to not be a Christian.” In fact there’s only one essay in the book with that name, the rest is a collection of essays on varied religious topics.

Turning to Let The People Think, where Russell traces a genealogy of fascism (“where Fichte and Carlyle must be included, no?” says Borges), both men start talking about politicians who build their doctrines on other people’s older ideas.

Yes, I’d say politicians are the ultimate plagiarists, the ultimate disciples of writers. But, generally, a century too late, or even a bit more, yes, because what we call “news” is in fact… it’s a museum, equally archaic. Now, for instance, we’re all enchanted by democracy; well, all of that takes us to Paine, to Jefferson, to what may well have been a passion when Walt Whitman wrote his Leaves of Grass. In the year of 1855. All that is news; that’s why politicians would be late readers, no?, old-fashioned readers, readers of old libraries, well, like I also am in fact, nowadays.”

Their discussion of the Russell book Borges reviewed back in Other Inquisitions takes them to meditate on Russell’s belief that the modern world, in opposition to the 18th century, and regarding the rise of fascism and nazism, was anti-rational. “But regarding many things,” argues Borges. “regarding surrealism, regarding the cult of disorder; regarding the disappearance of, well, some verse forms, or even of prose; regarding the disappearance of the punctuation marks, which was an oh so very interesting innovation,” he concludes, sardonic. (He wasn’t into modernist innovations.) And although fascism fell, there was still communism to contend with, which he calls “the exacerbated form of fascism, of the State’s intervention.” Borges, it should be remembered, was a liberal anarchist who did not like the interference of any form of political system on an individual’s freedom.

Going back to Russell, they discuss his Science and Religion and the fact that, in Borges’ view, “in the long run it’s religion that gives way.” “Yes, religion, of course, becomes all the time more subtle; it interprets science, tries to harmonize science I don’t know if with the Holy Scriptures, but rather with theology, with the divers theologies. But in the end it’s science that triumphs and not religion.”

His final line shows him making a reference to the Iranian regime which caught me unawares. Don’t forget these dialogues took place during the mid-80s. “Anyway, in Iran they defend Islam, but in fact we feel that they have more faith in machine guns than in miracles; that is, they believe in a scientific war, and not in the scimitars and camels. And here we had a war, or a guerrilla; which was terrible, like all wars are – if they only last a few minutes; I’d like to remind people that, to my knowledge, there were two people who spoke against that war in the newspapers – which I hope is quickly forgotten: Silvina Bullrich [Argentine novelist] and me. I can’t recall anyone else; everybody else shut up or applauded also. Why, of course many people probably thought like us, but abstained from going public.” And a veiled reference to the Falkland Wars of 1982! It’s always a bit shocking to see apolitical Borges talking about current affairs, and yet for a man who is so often, and unfairly, accused of supporting a dictatorship, when always talks about them with moderation and dignity.

Wednesday, 26 March 2014

That’s why there are cacti in Salammbô: Borges on Flaubert



Gustave Flaubert. I read Madame Bovary a few years ago and never returned to him, not because I didn’t consider his novel masterful, but, hm, actually I don’t know why I didn’t return to him. Madame Bovary was funny, vicious, one of the best putdowns of romantic love I know of, and excellently written. Somewhere on my ambulatory book pile I have A Sentimental Education. It may take a while to reach it. But that doesn’t mean I haven’t been busy with Flaubert.

As you should all know by now, back in the 1980s Osvaldo Ferrari and Jorge Luis Borges used to meet in weekly radio programs to have informal chats. One day Ferrari, who usually picked the theme, got the master to talk about Flaubert. As always, it derailed into lots of extraneous but amusing stuff, from literary magazines he tried to found in his youth, to anecdotes about George Moore, to philological reflections about the words moon and sun (in English), but I’ll try to stick to Flaubert here.

Borges, I was under the impression, no doubt I thought I’d read it somewhere, didn’t like Flaubert very much. But Borges himself corrects me towards the end of the chat. I wasn’t wrong, however, about his not considering himself “a reader of novels.” However he opened an exception for the Frenchman. “But not having read Flaubert would be a mistake, I’d have impoverished myself if I hadn’t read him,” he explains. I agree so much with him. One thing I remembered correctly, his favourite Flaubert was Bouvard and Pecuchet.

And, well, I like Flaubert very much, and especially his Bouvard and Pecuchet; and I have a first edition, which cost me three hundred pesos, of The Temptation of Saint Anthony, one of the most extraordinary and least read books by Flaubert. I think I also have a first edition of Salammbô – a less fortunate work. Anyway, I have Flaubert’s entire work, and I especially think on the first chapter of Bouvard and Pecuchet: I don’t know, gentle, ironic, and so moving; because the initial topic is friendship… and that’s not very common, is it? That’s the theme, of course there are friendships in all literatures: friendship is especially an essentially Argentine theme, I’d say, for I think we feel friendship more intensely than other passions.

And yet off the top of my head I can’t remember a single short-story about friendship by Borges.

But to return to Flaubert, the matter is literature as a vocation. “Why, in Flaubert’s case, well, he was a writer and exercised it like priesthood, didn’t he?” says Borges, and he continues: “There’s a very beautiful sentence by him: Je refuse d’hatêr ma sentence; that is: I refuse to rush my sentence. That is, he laboured on a sentence and didn’t move on until it was perfect.” Borges’ explanation for his devotion to the mot juste is excellent and turns it upside down. “Why, he didn’t do it with vanity; he wrote that a genius could make grave mistakes with impunity, and I think he quoted Shakespeare, Cervantes and Hugo; but since he didn’t consider himself a genius he couldn’t afford to make grave mistakes and he had to be very careful with what he wrote.”

Next he takes us to the mot juste. “Besides, when Flaubert said the mot juste (the exact word) he didn’t necessarily, inevitably mean the amazing word; no: the exact word, which could many times be trivial or a cliché, but is the exact word.” This prompts Borges to consider the word perfectionism. “Well, there’s a word that’s often used and was coined, I think, by Flemish painters; it’s the word perfectionism. Now, perfectionism doesn’t necessarily mean vanity; we search perfection, well, because we can’t search anything else. Especially Flaubert, who had that somewhat phonetic concept of style; he wanted every sentence by him to be easy and pleasant to read. He went so far as to say that the exact word is always the most euphonic one.”

And this opens up one of Borges’ usual labyrinths about words, meaning and variations. “But that sounds strange… well, perhaps what is the mot juste in French isn’t the mot juste in Spanish or German, maybe not. We’d then have to think that, according to the variations of the tongue, the exact words are others because the sounds are different, since the sound is so important for it.” This in turn leads him to talk about cacophony and repetition of similar words on the page, saying that repetition is a problem only visually but that “orally has no importance.”

This also takes us to some of Borges’ ideas on aesthetics and the craft of writing. He’s not a believer in drafts. “The idea that one writes well on the strength of drafts seems a mistake to me.” To him finding the right word, writing the right sentence, is more than just writing for hours, it’s something more metaphysical. “A person finds the word or doesn’t. There’s always, well, like I’ve said many times, something of chance, there’s a gift that either you received or didn’t.” Then there’s his approach to the Muse, for which he borrows from T.S. Eliot: “Well, Eliot said that he wrote many texts that weren’t in fact poetry, but that were in verse. And he spoke also of the occasional visit of the muse, that is, inspiration.” However, Borges, continues, “that person had to practice the habit of writing to be worthy of that occasional or possible visit from the muse because if a person never writes, and feels inspired, he may be unworthy of his inspiration or not know what to do with it.”

Osvaldo Ferrari temporarily changes the subject to his readership, or rather for who Borges thinks he writes. And his is a remarkably honest answer:

…This morning I was asked if I wrote for the majority or the minority. And I replied, like I’ve replied many times, that if I were Robinson Crusoe on my deserted island, I’d continue to write all the same. That is, I don’t write for anybody, I write because I feel an intimate need to write. That doesn’t mean I approve what I write; it may not please me, but I have to write that, in that moment. Otherwise I feel… unjustified and unhappy, yes, wretched. On the other hand, if I write what I write may not be worth anything, but while I write I feel myself justified; I think: “I’m fulfilling my destiny as a writer, regardless of what my writing may be worth.” And if I were told that everything I wrote will be forgotten, I don’t believe I’d receive that news with satisfaction, but I’d continue to write. For whom? For nobody, for myself; it doesn’t matter, I fulfil that task.

Ferrari returns to Flaubert, for the funniest part of the conversation. He mentions Flaubert’s famous insistence in research, his surrounding himself with books in order to be accurate and faithful. And Borges slyly catches a factual mistake by him. “For instance, before writing Salammbô – to write Salammbô he went to Carthage – he met Carthage and saw cacti there. That’s why there are cacti in Salambo, but he didn’t know those cacti had been imported from Mexico. So the observation was fair, but the cacti were, well, futuristic, let’s put it that way.”

Flaubert’s devotion to the craft eventually takes Ferrari to ask for Borges thoughts on the concept of art for art’s sake, with which Flaubert was associated. Borges is very predictable here. “Very good that thing about art for art’s sake, it makes sense, doesn’t it?” For him it’s necessary for “art to be its own end and not a simple instrument of, say, ethics or politics; or, nowadays, sociology.” One should expect this position from him, especially in light of what he once wrote about Franz Kafka, the praise he heaped upon his writing for not dating itself with the ideas and concerns of its time.

But Borges also recognizes the dangers of such position, since it can lead to a “precieuse art, like the French say, a vain art, a decorative art. But that’s not the idea, the idea is that a poem, for instance, is something no less real than any other fact in the universe. Then why not search that beauty in a poem, or in a short-story, or in a canvas, or in a musical partiture; it’s the same thing, isn’t it?”

I think so. And I hope everybody enjoyed Borges discussing Gustave Flaubert.

Thursday, 20 March 2014

My Problems with Epic Fantasy


As everybody knows who follows my blog, I’m big, big fan of literary fiction. At the risk of sounding a bit snobbish, I try to avoid crime, fantasy and science-fiction books because, well, they’re not very good. Sure, I used to read them when I was younger, Agatha Christie here, Stephen King there, and I think they’re excellent fare for kids, but I grew out of them as I matured. But once in a while I still like to read epic fantasy just for old time’s sake; it’s one of my few guilty pleasures. Lately I’ve been reading lots of weighty literary fiction authors – Roberto Bolaño, Ivo Andric, Umberto Eco – and I figured I owed myself a treat. Besides there was a new series I was meaning to read because it reminded me of my childhood. But I seriously regret it. This book series epitomizes everything wrong with epic fantasy.

But first of all, some words on the author. I, like most people, before he became a New York bestselling author, had never heard of P.V. Maro. In fact his biography is a bit loopy. His earliest known published book is a series of poems, the Eclogues, rather pastoral in mood and setting, quite derivative of Edwardian poetry; think D. H. Lawrence and A.E. Housman, but even more insipid. He only wrote one book of lyric poetry, which should tell you something about how he perceived his own lack of lyrical gifts. Some time later he wrote a versified DIY manual titled Georgics, which explains how to plant, sow and harvest crops, what tools to use, the seasons of the year, etc. I don’t have the faintest idea who the publisher thought this book was for. Even in this specialised market of ours, full of microscopic interests, I think we can all agree that an agricultural manual in verse form is the niche of niches. Yes, it didn’t reach the readerships Maro intended, and I understand the publisher pulled the plug on a whole line of verse technical guides about several trades and crafts, and that’s a shame because I really wanted their forthcoming verse manual on clay pottery.

Jobless, but with rudimentary dexterity for the occasional good sentence and dialogue, Maro surveyed the market and realized the fantasy genre was booming with Harry Potter, Twilight, Game of Thrones and The Hunger Games. So he decided to reinvent himself. The Wikipedia details get murky here, and I guess we’ll have to wait for Walter Isaacson’s biography, but suffice to say he signed a major contract with a publishing house – rumours say he got an obscenely high upfront payment in the order of seven digits – to produce a 12-part book series called Aeneid. Even more remarkable, when details started to pour in, was that this series was going to be a sort of follow-up to the classic book series Odyssey, by Homerus.

Younger readers won’t probably recognize this name, but back when I was kid everybody devoured Homerus’ fantasy books. He was one of the most successful and prolific feuilleton writers of all times, author of two lengthy fantasy sagas: Illiad, a 24-part book series about Greek heroes trying to rescue a captive white woman from evil Asian white slavers (I admit the series, like Fu Manchu, hasn’t aged well); and its sequel, Odyssey, another 24 books, a high-octane survival thriller set in the high seas about a soldier journeying back home to save his wife from a band of rapacious cads. I remember the anxiety me and my classmates endured between finishing one book and waiting for the new one. Even as individual book series they’re amongst the longest ever written: longer than Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (5 volumes), Frank Herbert’s Dune (6), E. E. "Doc" Smith’s Lensman (6, not counting The Vortex Blaster), Isaac Asimov’s Foundation (7), Ponson du Terrail’s Rocambole (11), Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time (14), Maurice LeBlanc’s Arsène Lupin (22), and surpassed only by Marcel Allain and Pierre Souvstre, whose Fantômas series lasted a whopping 43 volumes! Those were the grand production days.

This of course was before I discovered literary fiction. Looking back, I realize how silly many of those books were: shallow characters, almost no psychology, crude structures, poor plotting, too many coincidences and implausible events moving the plot along. Nothing to compare with the better written, more realistic, more profound books I read nowadays. Still, allowing nostalgia to get the better of my judgement, I decided to buy the Aeneid Special Omni-Edition collecting all the 12 books Maro published before his untimely death. Usually I don’t like to read unfinished books, but reliving the adventures of the Fellowship of the Horse and the cunning Odysseus seemed like a good trade-off. If only I had listened to my instincts…

I think we can all agree that unofficial sequels and spin-offs are the nadir of the publishing world, yes? I mean, nobody really takes Dacre Stoker’s Dracula the Un-Dead seriously, do they? Or those embarrassing books Herbert’s son continued writing to milk Dune for all it was worth? So I didn’t expect a lot from Aeneid, but even so what a spectacular train-wreck!It exceeded all my fears!

The Aeneid is what we comic book geeks call a retcon, short for retroactive continuity, the practice of incorporating non-existing elements of a story into its past to pretend they’ve been there all along. Usually this tinkering with the original stories causes a lot of continuity problems in the future. But I won’t bother anyone with the consequences the Crisis on Infinite Earths cross-over had on the continuity of Superboy and the Legion of Super-Heroes, it’s so confusing in its dedalian effects it’s practically impenetrable and unsolvable and nearly destroyed the franchise. To Maro’s credit, he managed to avoid the usual pitfalls of retcons, making a smooth transition from Homerus' storyline to his own. He’s also to be commended for making a new reader-friendly saga that doesn’t rely too heavily on the two former series, and for filling in most of the background information. Of course nothing beats reading the actual series.

Basically Maro’s story retcons Aeneas and his chums into the story of Troy right when the noble Greeks have succeeded in liberating it from its tyrants. Aeneas is the leader of a small group of soldiers who desert, get inside a boat and sail out to found a new city in a far-away land called Latin-Earth. Yes, it's our typical fantasy book, with a quest and maps. Still, I did not expect the protagonist to be a Trojan, since the Trojans were the bad guys in the previous books. This was rather bold, not as black and white as I remember the other ones to be. The literary fiction fan in me, used to moral ambiguity, was slightly impressed. Alas everything’s in the execution and once the novelty wore off there wasn’t much to praise the book for.

Map of Latin-Earth contained inside my edition
There are tremendous problems with the way Maro tries to avoid legal entanglements with the Homerus Estate. It’s obvious that the publishers didn’t get permission to use many of the characters and so they had to cover them up a bit. But does anyone who remembers Poseidon, Zeus, Hera and Aphrodite think for a second that Neptune, Jupiter, Juno and Venus think are anything but second-rate copies? I haven’t seen such a shameless ploy to balk at paying royalties since Maurice LeBlanc pitted Herlock Sholmes (wink wink nudge nudge) against Arsène Lupin. Maro must have thought his readers were too brain dead not to notice the ruse! It’s a small matter, I agree, if you don’t care about things like author rights. But for me this is especially troubling because it proves that Maro’s imagination isn’t that good, which is worrying in a fantasy writer, instead he prefers to rely on familiarity, and in doing so the plot becomes too predictable and samey.

And this brings us to the matter of diminishing returns. Maro simply recycles many of the best scenes in Homerus’ stories, except they’re never as good as the first time they were told. There’s the bit when Maro retells the stratagem of the Trojan Horse; and then there’s an episode on the island of the Cyclops, and again they narrowly escape Polyphemus, because we haven't seen that before, have we? And once again the arch-enemy is Juno, or Hera or whatever you want to call her. In fact a big part of this series seems patterned after Odysseus’s (conveniently changed to Ulysses) sea journey, since the Trojans are also lost in the sea looking for home. I understand we old fans aren’t the only readers, obviously he’s writing for a new readership who never read Homerus so all this stuff may look fresh to them, but it’s a fact many of the old fans are going to read it, and obviously we're  not going to be satisfied.

Another problem with Maro’s storytelling deficiencies is that he breaks the golden rule of storytelling willy-nilly: show, don’t tell. Now Homerus was a great storyteller. The battle between Achilles and Hector, or Hector and Ajax’s cool duel, the awesome episode of the Trojan Horse, Odysseus blinding Polyphemus like a real badass, him kicking the ass of Penelope’s suitors: there were many epic set pieces in the series that filled my young heart with murderous joy. There’s nothing like that in Maro’s book, just lots of talking heads. Even when you think he’s going to spice a scene with a bit of action, he doesn’t relent from his monotonous verbosity. The most disappointing moment was in Book 6, when Aeneas travels to the underworld, and you think he’s going to fight orcs and goblins and balrogs, not to mention all his Greek enemies are there, Achilles, Patroclus and Ajax, right? It could have been a kick-ass sequence, but no, Aeneas spends all his time talking to his father, Anchises. And Books 1 through 5 were mainly him talking to Dido, a new female character.

Regarding female characters, it saddens me to say that the poor treatment of women by fantasy writers hasn’t changed since Homerus. I don’t have problems re-reading Homerus’ old books and making some allowances about the way he depicted women, because it was the way it was back then. But you expect a modern writer to be more gender sensitive. There’s the aforementioned Queen Dido – at least she’s not a princess – who is basically just a love interest for the protagonist. In fact she’s so madly in love with him (because women only care about romance) that she kills herself out of love, the only act of agency she demonstrates in the entire series. And don’t even get me started on Creusa, Aeneas’s wife: she barely shows up, in fact she spends more time in the story as a ghost than as a living person, and only to give her husband an absurd reason for him to make his journey alone, although I think the real reason is that Maro had difficulties writing male/female relationships. Still perhaps it was for the best, I don’t even want to imagine if Creusa had landed in Dido’s city. I can just imagine the series failing at the Bechdel Test by by having the two talk about men together.

Creusa is just a bizarre addition to the story, why didn’t Maro just keep her out? What good did her cameo do? Maybe he changed the series’ plans halfway through, maybe he just wanted to give the protagonist a personal tragedy (but then why also kill his father off? Not every hero needs to be Batman!) to make him sympathetic, more human. Or maybe he wanted to clear the path to allow Aeneas to court Lavinia without a fuss, to avoid writing about the grimier aspects of relationships – jealousy, lust, betrayal, etc. – that we literary fiction readers eat up, along with moral ambiguities. Lavinia is yet another female character mostly defined by her gender and is seen by Aeneas and the villain Turnus as an object to be possessed. Still no other female gets so mistreated like Juno, or NotHera!, who continues to harbour an insane, unexplainable hatred for the Trojans. Why? Homerus never gave us a reason, and it was one of those things as a kid you didn’t care about. Maro, it must be said, is slightly more sophisticated, almost literary, and he concocts a prophecy about Aeneas founding a city that will destroy Carthage, Juno’s favourite city, so giving her a reason to want to destroy him. I don’t know where this was going, it was one of the dangling plots left unsolved, since Maro died before finishing the series. At times, however, Juno just seems like a puppet whose strings the author pulls to give the characters’ conflicts and problems to overcome. She has as much personality as the Wicked Witch of the West.

Maro died shortly after Book 12th came out. He had planned to continue the series until volume 24, like Homerus did. As of his death the publisher hasn’t yet confirmed if they’ll hire a new writer to finish to series. In my opinion they should quit while they're ahead. If they decide to green light more sequels, though, I hope the rumours that Brandon Sanderson is in talks to take the reins are false. As for me, literary fiction reader that I am, each book I read is not only escapism, but also a growing experience, an opportunity to learn something new. And so I learned that you can never go back home, you can only be a kid once. I was better off with my pristine memories of Homerus’ stories, I realize that now, I did not need to have my childhood memories raped like this. And above all: nostalgia is good stalgia.

At least this series was so awful it’s unlikely it’ll ever be turned into a film franchise starring Brad Pitt.

Wednesday, 19 March 2014

Fearful kings who reduced their kingdoms to ashes, in holocaust of the chimerical purity of faith




So Oliveira Martins has positioned all the pieces on the chessboard - Carthaginians, Romans, Visigoths and Arabs – and explained their contributions to the history of the Iberian Peninsula, racially, socially, religiously and administratively. So it’s time for Portugal and Spain to emerge from this cultural hodgepodge, and for the author to prove his thesis that there’s a peculiar Iberian identity or spirit.

After the fall of the Visigoth Empire, and while the Arabs were busy running things, a group of freedom fighters reconvened in the Asturias, under the rule of Pelagius (685-737), who formed the Kingdom of Asturias, whose main capital, after many relocations, was definitely established in Oviedo by King Afonso II (791-842). Later the Asturias became the Kingdom of León when King Fruela II (875-925) moved the court to León. Although king is mostly a matter of speech, according to the author: “The army was a horde, and Pelagius a new heereskoenig, like the ones in the first waves of Vandals and Suevi. A new royalty is certainly being sketched, but in a spontaneous way, to the law of Nature. Only later, when the Asturians established a court in Oviedo, do monarchies and councils reappear.” And about Pelagius: “Pelagius’ personal worth and gifts elected him leader. He was not a king in the old way, because in the middle of that disorderly mob there weren’t proper institutions: men, abandoned by a fallen civilization and hating current civilization, found themselves alone with Nature.” And this was the man who started the Reconquista. As I write this, and as we enter the period when the modern Iberian states emerge, I’m reminded of what Eco wrote about every nation needing an enemy to reaffirm its identity against it: without Islam, Portugal and Spain may not have existed. Still, it was an arduous, long process.

The movement of the Reconquista, simultaneously initiated by North and East, gave place to the formation of the kingdoms of León and Navarra. The latter split into three states: Navarra, Castile, and Aragon, of which the second to last was the first to fuse with Leon. From Leon split Portugal; but with time Castile-Leon absorbed into itself all the remaining peninsular States, until, at the end of the 15th century and beginning of the 16th, with the return of Navarra by the Pyrenees, with the fusion of Aragon and the conquest of Granada, it came to call itself the Spanish monarchy.

Portugal, then, is the oldest-standing state in the region, since it declared its independence in the 12th century and stabilized its borders circa 1250, whereas the other kingdoms kept popping up and disappearing, expanding and shrinking, until they all turned into what we today call Spain. It’s also here that a Portuguese tongue starts flowering,  since all the other tongues disappeared until Castellan became the main one, although Martins makes an aside for Galician, which has survived into our days.

The importance of Galician in Spain in the 11th and 12th centuries is preponderant: it is the tongue of the court of Oviedo; and the occasional independence in which Galicia found itself for certain periods in relation to the monarchies of Leon and Castile had given the language a strong impulse of also independent constitution. Today, on observing the documents of those ages, one recognizes the possibility of Galician having been adopted by the monarchy of Leon-Castile, supplanting Castellan. If that had happened, we could now observe the differences which the political independence of the two peninsular nations would have exercised on one single popular language.

But we were talking about the Reconquista. The Christians hit hard, had a lot of victories, riding down from the North to Gibraltar, although it’s not as easy as it seems: it’s going to take centuries; started in the 8th century the Reconquista isn’t officially over until 1492, when Granada surrenders to Ferdinand II and Isabella I, the same who financed Columbus’ absurd theory that you could reach the Indies sailing East.

There’s lots of interesting stuff about the treatment of prisoners here:

It’s at the beginning of the 11th century that the Christian kings start to recognize the usefulness of the Moorish populations brought by the conquests to their empire. Until Afonso VI (1065-1109) prisoners of war, when they escaped the carnage of conquest, were reduced to the most ferocious captivity. The procedures of the Muslim emirs, whose eloquent consequences the Mozarab population showed, were not up until then imitated by the Christian sovereigns. Afonso VI, whose admiration for Arab culture is known, could better evaluate the nefarious consequences of an always sterile slavery, and compare them with the ones of a submission that would come to be fecund in wealth for the kingdom, in power for the Crown.

The captives of the conquest of Toledo, in 1085, are the first Moors who amongst Christians find an analogous regime to the one of the Spanish captives under Saracen dominion: they’re allowed the use of their own religion, they’re permitted to negotiate with the naturals, and even marriages between the two races are allowed. How could it be otherwise, when the king himself wedded an Islamic woman. Even for the ones who did not gain freedom – if the fortune of war imposed them captivity – conditions were now incomparably better than they had previously been, even if they reneged their faith to obtain moderation in the tortures with which they were persecuted. Toledo’s example is followed in Valencia and everywhere; the son-in-law of Afonso VI, D. Henrique, and his son, the first Portuguese king, follow the lessons of León, when they extend their dominion to Tejo and conquer Lisbon and Santarém, keys to Portuguese Extremadura (1147). Starting from the 11th century, the influence of the Muslim inhabitants in the progress of Spain’s population acquires a historic importance.

This tolerant goodwill is not going to last. Of the Reconquista there’s not a lot more to say. The Christian monarchs, backed by a powerful Church, are back in business. So let’s jump to Martins’ thesis of a peninsular nature or identity or personality. He tells us that “now we shall go seek in characters and biography.” He doesn’t have a lot to show for, he ignores lots of people who really have made the Iberian Peninsula a remarkable place. His main point, I think, is explaining why the Iberians, of all the nations, were responsible for the Discoveries, the apex of their history and the last time they left a mark in the world. So he ignores lots of people who had nothing to do with it, and instead focuses on religious figures because to him it was religion that created the mentality that led to sea-faring heroes like Columbus and Vasco da Gama. In case you forgot part one, Martins thinks the two defining traits of Iberian are hombridade, that is, nobility of character, worthy pride, and religiosity. He pretty much ignores the former. His list of greats is certainly not a list a sane person would conjure:

Each one of its members is a great man. It’s Jimenez, it’s Loyola, it’s Camões, it’s Columbus, it’s Cortez, it’s Gama, it’s Pizarro, it’s Albuquerque, it’s Calderon, it’s Saint Theresa, it’s Lope, it’s Cervantes, it’s Murillo, it’s Ribera, it’s Torquemada, the ferocious inquisitor, it’s the Duke of Alba, pious and unmerciful captain – it’s Felipe II and John III, fearful kings who reduced their kingdoms to ashes, in holocaust to the chimerical purity of faith.

So if we take out Cervantes, Calderon and Lope de Vega, and two painters, we’re left with two saints, a torturer, two sailors, four soldiers infamous for massacres, three monarchs, and Camões. Yes, the book is a bit tendentious. Anyway, let’s start with religious mysticism:

The spontaneous and non-erudite origin and the moral and non-metaphysical character of Spanish mysticism are the reason for the new look – and eminently distinct from Europe’s – that presents this mental phenomenon – the first no doubt in importance for the determination of collective physiognomy, and the indisputable source of the extraordinary national energy in the 16th century.

His analysis of how mysticism permeates everyday life, especially the arts, is especially notable:

Mystics are tragic or naïve, in the manner of the Spanish soul which is composed of a natural tenderness and violent explosions. Painting reproduces this violence in the works of Zurbarán, Herrera and Ribera. Trivial, rude, brutish, violent, mad: squalid monks, frightful visions, dilacerated Prometheuses, human monsters, tortured by forces and pain, stretched over darkened canvases, in dark backgrounds, at intervals sliced by obfuscating flashes. Tenderness is reproduced in the paintings by Murillo, flooded with light and blue, in the heart of which, amidst flowers and palm trees, play groups of blonde angels circling around the Virgin’s throne. Murillo’s paintings express with paints the canticles of Saint Theresa to her great beloved; in the same way Ribera’s paintings show the visions, the frightful terrors of Saint Ignatius before his trip to Italy.

And he continues.

But in painters and saints, Spanish mysticism has yet a singular character which evidently derives from the way it was formed: realism. Several times critics have noted the difference there is between Murillo’s Virgins and Rafael’s Madonnas. The Spaniard lacks the undefined feeling of a vague idealization which animates the Italian’s creations: Murillo’s Virgins are of this world – beauteous Andaluzian girls. Also Saint Theresa’s love is a true love, and not an idealist absorption. Mystics feel, see the beloved object. The feelings are real, translate emotions from the senses, and not states of speculative reason.

It’s a pity he didn’t do the same for Calderon and Lope’s theatre. Oliveira Martins, polymath that he was, also wrote literary criticism. But this religiosity wasn’t just the stuff of art, it also produced a palpable mentality with physical consequences:

Catholicism gave us heroes. Protestantism gave us wise, happy, rich societies, free in what concerns institutions and external economy, but none capable of grandiose actions, because religion starts by shattering in the heart of men that which makes them liable to boldness and noble sacrifices.

This mysticism also produced a new religious outlook in the wake of the Christian crisis during the Renaissance. As we all know, Protestantism was born from a need to reform the Church, emphasizing individuality and freedom. Much is said about Luther and Calvin, influencing the North of Europe. Spain, however, contributed with its own, inverse solution: absolute, blind obedience in the form, after much wandering and mental anguish seeking for an answer, of Saint Ignatius Loyola’s Company of Jesus, better known as the Jesuits.

The Jesuit conceived and fulfilled in another way the religious reform of Southern Europe: it attenuated the terrible doctrine of Grace, it avoided the rigid prescriptions from the Church Doctors, it invented the indulgent spiritual direction, the lax morality, the acquiescent casuistic, easy devotion and probabilism. It made an adequate and complacent religion and, to give it consistency, it gave to the methodical and mechanical direction of imagination the role which in Protestantism was assigned to the voice of consciousness and order in existence. With genial perspicacy, the Company discovered the educational principle of men: to form a sensual imaginative atmosphere inside which ideas would germinate, to conveniently prepare the middle to model and accommodate thoughts from its inside.

I don’t know what my readers think, but this is terrifying! This brand of religion also emboldened the Spanish monarchy, which Martins praises as being the first in Europe to centralize its power in an absolutist way. “Leaders of civil society, they were the patriarchs of religious life. All the forces of the nation – moral, social, material – were in their hands.” In this regard, his big hero is Charles V, “true heir to Charlemagne, defender of the Christian world, hovering above the Pope, and almost as monarchic in the spiritual as in the terrenal.” Martins also likes to remember us that it was the kings who imported the Inquisition to Iberia, against the wishes of the Vatican. That’s something worth thinking about, even the Pope though the Spanish Inquisition was too much. In some way all this fervour invigorated the Discoveries. Martins’ reasons for Columbus’ expeditions, if historically true, are deranged: “His ambition is to bring from the discovery money to equip an army of ten thousand horses and one hundred thousand infantrymen, with which it’ll go conquer Jerusalem.” I didn’t see this in the movie where Marlon Brando plays Torquemada!

The conquest of Jerusalem is for him the end of which the discovery will be the means: in the same way that for Saint Ignatius penitence was the road to reach the same enterprise. Mysticism is the beginning that incites and impels the two heroes: both find at the bottom of the soul the burning faith that exceeds human means. Ignatius left from Barcelona in rags and penniless, ignorant of the tongues, deprived of all the instruments of conquest. If the results of the adventures were diverse the mental state of both men was one and the same, although clothed in different purposes.

After religious mysticism which produced a new conception of Christianity, and which created the spirit which animated the audacious heroes of the Discoveries, the crowning glory of Iberia is Luís de Camões, who sang those same Discoveries in The Lusiads, the greatest epic poem of the Renaissance… according to Portuguese scholars. But the making of his poem also augurs the collapse of Iberian civilization. Indeed Camões’ death coincides with the temporary unification of the peninsula (1580-1640), when Portugal was annexed by Spain during the rule of Felipe II. Felipe II, as you may surmise, is another wacko, who gave orders to build the El Escorial, a magnificent, useless mausoleum (setting of Carlos Fuentes’ Terra Nostra), that helped bankrupt Spain, which had already spent fortunes arming an Invincible Armada for nothing.

The great irony, and Martins the economist is aware of this, is that the Discoveries, the greatest contribution of Iberia to the world, were also its undoing, since “in time it led both peninsular nations to abandon European interests, giving themselves body and soul to the task of exploiting their colonial possessions.” At the same time, “the discoveries, augmenting in a way until then unknown the sphere of commercial activity, giving exceptional importance to banking institutions and credit, did not invent – for such facts pre-existed – but gave prominence to two forms of mercantile activity, pregnant with grave social consequences: the bank and speculation.” So Portugal was also responsible for the 2008 Economic Crisis. This is why history is important, it lets you understand things, it takes you back to the origins. So to sum up the fall of modern Iberian civilization: “Jesuitism undermined it, intolerance destroyed it, New World gold filled it with rotten corruption. And yet even in its fall was Spain heroic; and the ferocious cruelty with which it applauds its suicide, full of mad rapture, demonstrates the extraordinary strength of these men who not even at the edge of the tomb were capable of exclaiming contritely: peccavvi!” The chapter on how Portugal and Spain did everything in their power to basically sabotage themselves is a real horror show.

If Oliveira Martins sounds like a crypt-fascist, well, maybe he is, since he advocated “democratic Caesarism,” which is a contradiction in terms. At the same time he was also one of the earliest promoters of Socialism in Portugal, so he was confused in several ways. I think, however, that his main problem is that he inhabits too deeply the characters, like an actor he gets under their skin to see things from their perspective. There’s a wild excitement in these pages as he narrates the exploits of absolutist kings, zealots and conquerors. He’s extremely sympathetic to his dramatis personae. I think this is a novel form of writing history, and it’s a way of trying not to pass judgements, since he realizes historical conditions did not allow these men to be anything other than what they were. Even so he doesn’t mellow the terrible consequences of their actions and decisions.

If he can be accused of something – and he has – is that he’s quite selective in his choice of figures to produce his thesis that there is such a thing as a unique spirit or mentality in Iberia. I don’t think he ends up proving it. And others are given the short shrift who certainly deserved a mention:  cosmographer Duarte Pacheco Pereira, cartographer João de Castro, humanist Damião de Góis, to say nothing of Cervantes, Goya, and El Greco. Martins’ infatuation with religion and a tragic way of envisioning life made him ignore all that is picaresque, burlesque but also rational about Portugal and Spain, and their great contributions to 15th and 16th century geography, mathematics, botany, zoology, nautical sciences and cartography, but none of that fits at all with his fin-de-siècle portrait of cultural decadence. But I forgive him because it wouldn’t have been such a delectable yarn otherwise.

Sunday, 16 March 2014

Carthaginians and Romans and Visigoths and Arabs! Oh My!



J.P. de Oliveira Martins (1845-1894). Until some six months ago I had no idea who he was. If my eyes had previously chanced upon his name in some passage in a book, the fleeting encounter was not enough for it to pique my interest. But then I read Miguel de Unamuno, and suddenly I started seeing his name pop up everywhere, evoked by some very important people. I’m not even talking about his friendship with poet Antero de Quental and novelist Eça de Queiroz. I can’t open a modern book of essays or history without finding at least a mention of him. People who are of no consequence to my readers but who constitute the crème de la crème of Portugal’s intelligentsia from the previous century, are still writing in agreement or reaction to his ideas – Eduardo Lourenço, António Sérgio, Jaime Cortesão, Vasco Pulido Valente, Joel Serrão. Not everybody liked him, some even thought he was a fool, a reactionary and an ingénue - one day I'll write a post just with quotes about him - but nobody can avoid him who wants to understand 19th century Portugal or how the Portuguese see themselves nowadays. Ever since my infatuation with him I’ve acquired seven books by him and perused many more. I’ve even bought his biography; to explain why this is remarkable, consider for a moment that I’ve never in my life bothered to buy a biography of Eça de Queiroz, and he’s my favourite novelist.

Last time we met Martins he was regaling us with episodes of Portugal’s nautical discoveries. Today we return once more to his role as historian. He showed many facets throughout his life, his least successful being the one of novelist, of which only a novel nobody reads anymore, Febo Moniz (1867), survives to tell the tale. After a brief stint as a literary critic, which produced a book on Luiz de Camões which I’m anxious to read one day, he moved to politics and economy, being one of the main promoters of Socialism in Portugal. But he really found his groove as pedagogue, envisioning a vast project to divulge popular science to people in a country that was still a bit backwards and lacking a good educational system. His “Library of the Social and Human Sciences” was going to be about history, of Rome, Greece, Christianity, it’d be about politics, philosophy, mythology, psychology, sociology and economy. Left unfinished, it nevertheless produced many startling works. The first volume, which brought him notoriety, was História da Civilização Ibérica, in 1879, the first of a loose triptych about Portuguese history, continued in História de Portugal (1879), going from the formation to the Discoveries, and culminating with Portugal Contemporâneo (1881), bringing us into 19th century Portugal. His História de Portugal is dedicated to Alexandre Herculano, our first modern historian who had written his own major history book decades earlier, paving the start of scientific historiography amongst his countrymen.

História da Civilização Ibérica, as you can tell from the title, is about the history of the Iberian Peninsula from the Carthaginian invasion onwards. The book also shows yet another facet of the author, that of an Iberista, that is, someone who defends the integration of Portugal and Spain into a single political entity, turning the whole peninsula into one state. For that reason he usually calls the peninsula Spain. So he’s also interested in proving the existence of a unique Iberian personality, a nature endemic to us. This was very much in line with the nationalism of Romanticism. I think his thesis is less interesting than the way he narrates historical events. His thesis, for me, are little more than the much known nonsense that languages express the personality of their race, you know: English is a good language for business; German is ideal for philosophy; French is perfect for diplomacy; Italian (but also French sometimes, depends on who you go to) is the language of love, and so on. We’ve all read this rubbish somewhere at some point in our lives, right? This was very much in vogue in the 19th century, as was isolating and defining what made a people unique. Unamuno was obsessed with the national identity of the Spaniards, I guess that’s why he was crazy about Martins.

Yes, the book is very much a product of its time. It even follows the methodology of the time, Hippolyte Taine’s historiography based on three factors: race, milieu, and moment. Portugal and Brazil were very taken with French theories. Martins’ first three chapters are titled “Territory,” “Race,” and “Character and History,” and begins with a geographical analysis of the peninsula. Euclides da Cunha’s The Backlands did the same, but hopefully Martins didn’t go overboard, taxing us with 100 pages of geology, flora, fauna, and climate changes. Still he doesn’t refrain from a geographical description like this:

This back spine of Spain is split from east to west in two diverse regions in their look, climate, culture, and we’d say even in race, if peradventure the distribution of successive invaders could have determined in historical times the formation of new ethnogenic phenomena. To the south of the mountain range, and transposing the Tejo basin, it is as if one starts breathing Africa’s climate. Everything reveals, to the north, a natural regime more similar to the one of Europe.

Coveted by many for its richness, its climate, its fertile beauty, Iberia was invaded by everybody:

Spain’s geographic situation was destined to be the battlefield that would receive the waves of people coming down from central Europe in search of new preys, and the waves which from Africa fell in love with this parayso de Dios that was right in front of them.

Whatever the clashes between nations had been, before the ones history gives us notice of, it’s a fact that in Spain Romans and Carthaginians met, come, the former from beyond the Pyrenees, the latter from Mauritania, to continue in the peninsula the Punic Wars. It’s also a fact that, later and in the same way, Visigoths and Arabs met. Twice Spain performed for Europe the role which in the Orient later befell Hungary: it was the advanced outpost and rather the stronghold of European society against Saracen invasions.

The first half of the book focuses on the settlement of each one of these four civilizations: Romans, Carthaginians, Visigoths and Arabs, in order to answer the question he poses at the beginning, “In what measure and way did they all contribute to create the peninsular race?” For him the two defining traits of this race are what he calls hombridade, that is, “nobility of character; dignity, manliness; laudable pride,” according to my dictionary; and religious fervour, that “religiousness that in the 16th century reached its expressive peak producing Calderon’s mystic theatre and the paintings of Murillo and Ribera, animating Saint Theresa and finally Loyola and Jesuitism,” and although he doesn’t list it here, he hasn’t forgotten the Holy Inquisition, which makes a splash in the second part.

The most interesting aspect of the book, and what will contribute to make Martins such an important figure amongst modern historians, is that he writes from the perspective of a man aware he’s performing an autopsy on a corpse. “We fell, we passed, because it is the nature of all living things – and a society is an organism – to be born, grow and die.” That’s him talking about Iberia. Somewhere I wrote that writing about Portugal is really writing elegies to Portuguese history, because as a nation it consciously or unconsciously denies the possibility of a future for itself.  Portugal’s glory as a nation reached its zenith in the 16th century, after enjoying about a century of relative, unbalanced and dubious prosperity, and since then it’s been a slow decline. In 1580 it lost its independence to Spain, and after the 1640 Restoration it was a broken, impoverished, backward, paranoid kingdom, having lost its empire in the Orient to British and Dutch expansionism and keeping the outside world at bay thanks to inquisitorial bonfires. The discovery of Brazilian gold mines in the 17th century helped mask the decline for another century, but after Brazil’s independence in 1822, and regardless of a handful of African colonies that nobody wanted to populate or had the money to invest in, it became obvious that Portugal would never know its previous magnificence. Martins, then, is the product of decades of pessimism about the role of Portugal in the world. Later, though, Martins, like his abovementioned friends, would take part in a messianic generation that would try to shape a new consciousness for his people in order to usher them into modernity, hence why his historical output will slowly give way to his interests in economy, finances, repopulation, systemic emigration, education and industry. And that’s a pity because I love the way he wrote history.

The book, for what it seeks to accomplish, is quite short, less than 300 pages, even so is densely packed with facts and interpretations, and it’s impossible to offer anything but a sketch. Each of the four civilizations that precede the creation of what he calls an Iberian civilization receives ample space, and he takes us through their contributions in the areas of administrative institutions and laws that have survived into modern times. The Romans and the Arabs, however, get the lion’s share of praise. Of Carthage not much has remained that could be used, in part because of the nature of the invaders:

Carthage defended its maritime and commercial dominion of the Mediterranean against Rome. Having lost Sicily and Sardinia in the First Punic Wars, the Barca family, then autocrats of the African city, thought that neighbouring Spain was a region fated, not only to compensate the Republic for its losses, but to solve that difficulty common to all small nations since their empire dilates over vast regions – lack of soldiers.

Using the peninsula as a strategic post, they recruited soldiers from its inhabitants and used the region to launch Hannibal’s famous march through the Pyrenees. Martins tells us that their conquest of Iberian did not meet considerable opposition, according to know documents, and surmises that the original inhabitants and the invaders already shared cultural and racial traits that facilitated the invasion. Carthage, however, did not leave important social institutions and laws. The task of bringing Spain to Europe to then-modern ways was left to Rome. After defeating Carthage in the Second Punic War (218-201 BCE), the Romans occupied Iberia and laid the foundations for the modern state. Unlike the previous conquerors, Rome met opposition in the region. Martins singles out two episodes: the guerrilla warfare waged by Viriatus (d. 138 BCE), a Lusitanian leader who defended the regions we’d now call Portugal and Galiza; and the siege of Numantia (134 BCE), crushed by Scipio, where the citizens preferred to burn down the town and kill themselves than live like slaves. Regardless of these histrionics, Rome left a more lasting presence:

What distinguishes Roman occupation from the start from the previous ones is the social and administrative character that informs its dominion. Whereas plundering and rapacity constitute the whole conquering art of barbarian people; whereas those extravagant civilizations the Phoenicians and or Carthaginians only moderate the furor of plundering with a wise commercial instinct: the Romans, even though they did not stop from plundering and commercially exploring in their own gain the subjected regions, implemented everywhere many other Romes, widening to all the peoples the network of a system of rights, duties and warranties, basis of true societies.

For Martins, the “Romanization of Spain was the capital fact of the history of the peninsular society. The edifice is built: it can go to ruin, but its traditions will remain, to stop the nation from ever reverting to the previous state of primitive barbarity.” The final institution legated by Rome, in its declining years, was the Christian Church, which, amidst the “general dissolution” of the empire, “would take over control of the administration abandoned by the civil authority annulled by disorder and military seditions.” In time the city of Toledo, the centre of religious power in the peninsula, would become the place of countless councils that would regulate theology and politics for centuries. Intolerant, authoritarian, Martins argues its rigid orthodoxy and interference in people’s lives would contribute to making the population receptive to welcome the Arabs as liberators.

But as Rome faded, the peninsula was subjected to successive waves of barbarian hordes. One of those created a twilight empire that shortly existed between the Romans and the Arabs: the Visigoths. “Effectively Visigoth monarchy was but an episode in the history of the dissolution of Roman Spain which the Arab domination came to complete,” Martins tells us.

After Rome, the only civilization to contribute anything valuable to Iberia was Islam. The occupied populations, as I wrote, did not mind the Arabs. Martins reaffirms what many others have stated: the Arabs were an otherwise benevolent occupation. “Indeed there were no revolts in the subjected nation because the invasion, being up to a point positive for the wretched classes, aided the development of the middle class; and at the same time Islamism showed itself more benign to its slaves than Toledan Catholicism had been, it gave Christians’ slaves the right to free themselves so long as, in running away, they made themselves Muslims.” Martins mentions an amusing fact: the Arab rulers disliked the conversion of Christians and Jews into Muslims, because converts were not obliged to pay taxes unlike the other religions, so they collected fewer taxes. Obviously many pretended to convert while secretly continuing to profess their beliefs, a tactic Hebrews would later attempt when the peninsula was Christian again, with poor results.

Defeated in the Battle of Guadalete (711 CE), the Visigoths retreated to the Northern regions, and eventually Pelagius, a Visigoth leader, founded the Kingdom of Asturias (718 CE) from where his descendants would launch the Reconquista that would create Portugal and Spain. But for a while Iberia lived in relative peace and prosperity, thanks to the tolerance of the Muslims:

The Arab fecund imagination, in that Orient that is a swampy nursery for religious lunacies, did not accept fanaticism; and it was the African personality in Morocco, and Spain later on, that gave Islam its character as an intolerant religion, keeping an orthodoxy. When in Medina the descendants of the founders of Islamism were expelled from the caliphate by the Umayyads (661-750), persecuted they went to shelter themselves in Africa, from where they left to Spain preaching the pure truth, in Arabia defeated by a pagan dynasty.

This tolerance, over time, however, degenerated into fanaticism, which would help the peninsula’s pendulum swing back to Christianity. While it lasted, though, it gave rise to a culture that Martins admired so much he devoted a whole chapter to it: the Mozarabs, Iberian Christians who lived under Arab rule, but practicing their religion with a degree of freedom, adopting nevertheless elements of Arabic language and culture, a cultural hybridism that Portuguese sailors would later take with them in their discoveries. These Mozarabs, who thrived “between the 9th and the 12th centuries,” were the “repository of Hellenic culture. The Arab intellectual movement until the end of the 12th century, considered in an absolute way and independently from any considerations, is superior to the one of the Christian nations, who received from the hands of these enemies the tradition of Greek sciences.” But according to Martins, though, this scholarly interest was not so much a way of being, like it was for the ancient Greeks, but a product of the rise of the Abbasid era (750-1258 CE), which propagated a “furor of education” until then unknown amongst the Arabs.

Bagdad caliphs had agents in Constantinople, Armenia, Syria, Egypt, charged with buying Greek books that were immediately translated into Arab. Al-Ma’mum (813-833) personally presided the assembly of wise men, and doctors’ libraries would require many camels to carry them. The one by the Fatimids in Cairo totalled, according to rumour, one hundred thousand volumes; and the Umayyads of Spain, it is said they amassed more than half a million. There were more than seventy libraries in Cordoba, Malaga, Almeria and Murcia.
Arabs were then masters, doctors and fortunate-tellers of barbarian Christian princes, in the same way Jews were their bankers and treasurers. The names of Mesua and Geber, Maimonides, Rasis, Avicenna, Averroes were connected to the early stages of anatomy, botanic and chemistry in the Middle Ages.

But this “love for Greek science was a whim” that did not “turn into a necessity.” It was a fluke that the Abbasid dynasty had showed an interest in the arts and sciences; everybody else just imitated this infatuation in order to fall in their good graces. The Arab was “more artistic than rational, more curious than investigative,” a people “for whom imagination is almost everything and the exercise of reason only elementary.”

The treatises of Aristotle indeed existed side by side with commentaries on the Koran on the shelves; but Greek science did not manage to transpose the barrier of theology, or inspire moral life, or its institutions. The Arab philosopher was just an amateur and a courtier, because the fashion of philosophy emanated from the throne. Dilettantism is always a weakness, and the Arab, the Persian, as dilettantes, were incapable of turning into positive moral conquests their intellectual exercises.

An interesting thesis. I’d need to learn more about the history of Islam, the Caliphate and the Arabs before agreeing or disagreeing. In any event, with the end of the Abbasid dynasty, the engineers of the Islamic Golden Age, what to Martins corresponds to Europe’s Renaissance, this scholarly output withered away too. Things were already taking a turn for the worse during the reign of Almanzor (938-1002 CE), who moved the peninsula away from a tolerant Island which had permitted the co-existence of Christians, Jews and Muslims, adopting a fanatical outlook. This in turn would benefit the Reconquista, which was well under way. And that’s the first part of the book, which culminates with the emergence of several Christian kingdoms in the Northern region of the peninsula and their transformation into two distinct states, and where he finally starts digging for those traits that define Iberia’s national personality. But I’ll leave that for another time. What is important to retain is that this book, absurd as it may sound at times, and there’s a lot of absurdity in it, is an elegant primer for anybody interested in the early history of the Iberian Peninsula.