Thursday, 14 May 2015

Times change and the mobs become civilized: reading Hélia Correia

In a 2014 interview António Lobo Antunes explained why his novels revolutionized Portuguese fiction in the 1970s. “At the time the plots were distant things, countries from Antiquity, imaginary, pure fiction all of it.” Those acquainted with his animosity towards José Saramago (his rival’s death hasn’t abated his viciousness when the name comes up) cannot but see a jab at his writing. Indeed his early post-1974 fiction had an allegorical setting (O Ano de 1993) or took place in the past (Raised from the Ground, Baltasar and Blimunda) so much so that critics branded the future Nobel Laureate a historical novelist, much to his annoyance. Even so Lobo Antunes’ words speak the truth: at the time novelists like Dinis Machado, Lídia Jorge, João de Melo, Vergílio Ferreira, Fernando Assis Pacheco and Mário de Carvalho did write in a language over which the shadow of censorship loomed still, a language of vagueness, whispers, circumlocution, modesty, parables and allegories, a language that used the past to speak about the present, diluting frontal attacks with distance and hoping the astute reader would notice the parallels, a language descended from a policed poetry that used “dawn” for “freedom” and “vampire” for “fascist” or “capitalist” (as if the distinction existed). When Lobo Antunes emerged in 1979, his novels with all the “fucks” and “shits” in their proper places, overt sexual imagery, cynicism over traditional lyricism, and refusal to mediate the trauma of the colonial war via dippy symbolism, heralded a new era of Portuguese literature full of for-the-time taboo subjects like divorce, homosexuality, (male and child) prostitution, incest, teenage pregnancy, urban violence, abortion, rape, racism and mental illness. With his irate, blunt novels he not so much announced that the Modern Era had irrevocably arrived in Portugal, but that he had exclusive rights in chronicling the spread of its most gruesome aspects through society.

And so it seemed for some time. Although the dictatorship fell in 1974, by 1983 Portuguese novelists still had an aversion to dealing with the contemporary age in an open manner. Other factors besides deep-rooted habits involve the brief influence of the nouveau roman and the popularity of magical realism, which showed up around that time. So when Lobo Antunes published his exploitative masterpiece Fado Alexandrino, it shared bookstore’s shelf space with a bewitching novella called Montedemo, by Hélia Correia (b. 1949).

Last year, curious about the history of magical realism in Portuguese letters, my research took me to this writer.  Coeval with the authors who pioneered the genre here (Jorge, Melo, Saramago), her novella takes me to a nameless country, to a small village actually, time-stilled, backward, rural, isolated (a mini-Portugal in other words), honouring still its ancient traditions, going all the way back to paganism, but foretelling clashes with modernity.

Told by an omniscient narrator in an oral register, it relates certain supernatural facts in an ambiguous, distorted manner; it’s not so much chronologically fragmented as it simply refuses to assume any certainties and to assert. It’s full of expressions like “Some swear” and “Nowadays” and “Even now”. Verbs like “told” and “rumoured” abound. As a device, I liked it very much in how it gave the text that small town gossip feel.

Indeed the novella begins precisely by putting into question the memory of the villagers “Later a few remembered that it all began on that dry Sunday when the earth shook,” so goes the opening sentence. “A thing without importance, one moment felt the other moment quieted down.” Just a “light trembling in the loosening of the night, time for the moribund and the drunk, everybody thinking they were balancing in maternal, warm, protective liquids.” But bizarre phenomena, subtle at first, accompany this earthquake, even if the priest “confessed that he found it very strange that the bells tolled just on account of that small shake,” and that “the morning arose radiant and frozen, and the sea itself so weightless, so dancer-like and clean of sin, that the matter passed into oblivion.” Of course it does not get forgotten. Confounded, people “bloated with science and serenity” in search for rational, scientific explanations. But “tired of prodigies,” people ignore the signs and go back to their lives, more worried about the  St. George Day festivities.

Originally a pagan festival that a friar (whose name has been forgotten) rechristened after the dragon-slaying saint to direct the people to God’s way, it involves a trip to a hill called Montedemo (Monte Demo = Devil’s Hill), bearer of special properties. “Every sort of plant species thrived there, a seed coming by air, or in the fox’s fur, or in the snake’s back, a thicket thrown by a child, everything sent roots onto the ground to live and fruit and flowers into the sky, its way of loving. Heathers, honeysuckle, arbutus, germander, eucalyptuses, wild roses, orange trees and wild blackberries, jimson weed and so many more mixes of mountain flora and desert flora entwined, fighting against the rock, devouring that humus and into humus turning. In a frenzy of sap and senses, such was its hunger that every Spring one noticed the hill bloat and shrink, as if gasping, like a man crazed by desire.” Now a Christian ritual, on February’s second Sunday the villagers perform a procession to its base. “People call it Montedemo and nowadays it’s still told that couples about to marry went there, covered by night and hooded. Against church laws, against the rules of prudency they went. And they rested their mouths and bellies against the earth, asking pleasure and harmony for the bodies and for the blood healthy and male children.”

But something happens on this particular procession. “Over the sky thick, furled tides of clouds grew, as if made of oil. Suddenly it seemed as if the musical band played inside cascading water, amidst the dolphins’ ouches and the medusas’ laughter, and there it was the abyss: ‘Virgin Mary, what is this?’ Coral nervures, rock gleams. The green and the black, the saving nacre.” After deliberately flowery and imprecise descriptions, the text has a good reason to ask: “What delirium was that? No one knows.” The festivities come to an end: “The night is preparing itself, it leaves its burrow, silent and astute in its blackness, with its smooth puma jump leaping over the distance, guzzling Montedemo. And in front of it the partiers run towards a village in a nameless hurry, in dread.” So what happened? Thanks to bits here and there, we can surmise that a mass orgy occurred, something that brings shame to the villagers, that no one wants to talk about and everyone tries to forget.

The plot switches from the general to the particular when a semblance of a protagonist appears in the figure of Milena, a young woman who doesn’t come home after the festival. This elicits fear and suspicions from Dona Ercília Silveira, her aunt. “A decent girl: no fashions, no dates, no make-up. ‘Perhaps just a bit too decent,’ said a voice going through Dona Ercília’s brain who got up frightened by the bad direction of her own thoughts.” Dona Ercília is a pious, spiteful, rancorous woman in the grand tradition of Eça’s Auntie (The Relic). Devoted to Christ, living in seclusion for decades, without ever going out, she still remembers with contempt and disgust the one day in her youth when she succumbed to love and shared a kiss with a man, a lottery ticket seller:

   While she caressed her rosary beads, she wished the death of the lottery ticket seller, who in a devil-inspired craze she had hugged and kissed like a lost woman. Never but never would she suffer to meet him in a street corner. She made the sign of the cross and decided that she’d only go out into the street again after they brought news of his burial.
    Which until now hasn’t happened.

Shortly after Milena returns she starts showing a pregnant belly. “She was frightened and made the sign of the cross, thinking that the battles of God and the Devil took place so close to men that sometimes they appeared in clear sight,” says the narrator about Dona Ercília. Then the novella progresses in quick, short chapters heavy on imagery and supernatural-soaked lyricism. Milena takes up with Irene, the village’s fool. They share a hut with her animals. Months later the local pharmacist is called to deliver the child. “He sighted the hut when the sun rolled itself up in a heatless grey circle. From the waters came a frozen air, dotted with matterless glows that absorbed color and light. On drawing aside the entrance’s cloth he recognized the seasoned and bitted air of animal beds. And even before spotting Milena a great peace, like a spell, had ameliorated his vibrating nerves.” Of father unknown, a black boy is born, which in the Autumn months gives rise to nervous gossip and violent resolutions. “The birth of the black boy once again aroused hatreds, fears. The great convulsion caused by almost a whole year of strangeness burst the dams of consciousness and transformed men into scared beasts.” Later we read: “That the girl had dared to have a son without the priest’s or the notary’s blessing, that the village could forgive. Times change and the mobs become civilized. That she ran away to the fool, that’s a sign of nothing but madness and would only cause compassion. Now all that and having a mulatto child…”

So obviously a mob marches to kill Milena and the profane child; but supernatural events intervene and Milena disappears. Rumors have it she lives somewhere in Montedemo. Some claim to have spotted her amidst rocks and rivulets. A character suggests: If outsiders suspect they’ll get in there with dogs and gasses. Which is no way of deciphering an enigma. There are no limits for what’s human.”

And so this small, low-key novella ends without making a lot of sense. I think I can almost see a meaning to it. I see in it the birth of some pagan Christ. And perhaps also a symbol for rejuvenation of a country that had recently put behind a Catholic Church-backed dictatorship. I can see a critique of modernity’s unfulfilled hopes: “Times change and the mobs become civilized.” Do they? For all Lobo Antunes’ sensationalist reveling in filth, this unknown, isolated village is still quite real. Lobo Antunes of course is an urban (that is, Lisbon) writer; but Correia’s villagers with their mixture of wholesomeness, bigotry, gossip, and fear of the strange remain a fixture amongst a nation that still has strong rural roots. Her villagers who abandon Portugal to make a fortune abroad and then return to their village to build a mansion with their savings and spend the rest of their lives tending a garden, is still a reality in a country that never solved its massive unemployment problems. And in her oblique way she also chronicles the way the modern world has swept through these forgotten places. Although as I see it she’s more concerned with the way people lose roots with tradition and myth and replace them with empty rituals. “There was never St. George’s festival again. They’ve replaced it with barbecues on a deserted beach, higher up North. Of Montedemo little is said, little is known.”

Correia’s novella also has similarities with a 1923 novel by Aquilino Ribeiro, Andam Faunos Pelos Bosques (There Are Fauns In The Woods). Aquilino’s bewildering novel is about an entity, we never find out if human or supernatural, that goes about sexually assaulting women in the woods surrounding a small village. The consequence being that these women are ostracized, much in the way Milena absconds from human society.

I liked Correia’s novella. For one thing its imagery is superb; any book that describes a hill as a “man crazed by lov”e or the night as a leaping puma gets my respect. A sky made of “tides of clouds,” that’s always good in my book. She also reminds me of Aquilino in her beautiful descriptions of nature.

Like Montedemo, little is said, little is known about the book. Correia is not a prolific writer with a vast oeuvre, and although good reviews never failed her she’s not a writer whose name has imposed itself on readers. This book has been out of print for more than a decade and I had to buy a used copy. It was in fact the first time I read her. I’m quite glad I did; it’s not in Fado Alexandrino’s league, but few books are. Nevertheless it’s still a well-written, enchanting work of fiction. 


  1. Hi Miguel, I too have read this author, at least Lilias Fraser - did you know that Blimunda also stars in that one? But I'm not a fan, I've also got Adoecer but never got past page 100. Glad you enjoyed it - at least one book from one contemporary Portuguese author (:

    1. I heard Lilias Frasier is a good modern taken on the picaresque novel, a genre we never practiced but seem nostalgic about. The fact that Blimunda shows up gives me more reasons to buy it.