Saturday, 21 November 2015

Tales of the Wandering Louse

Portuguese Literature can’t brag about a prominent place in the history of long narrative prose fiction; it always inclined to lyricism. Portugal is a nation of poets, or so its people like to think; but as the philosopher Eduardo Lourenço once wittily remarked, every nation considers itself a nation of poets. The empty self-back-patting mitigates the truth that, a few pastorals and chivalric romances, Portugal before the 19th century didn’t add anything worthwhile to long prose fiction. The dearth spread out in the 16th century, after the Inquisition started kindling fires in 1536, until 1843, when the first genuine Portuguese novel came out. There were a few works between those dates, obscure and inconsequential enough not to have trouble official literature: books aimed at the masses, pure entertainment, that never presumed to be art. One in particular that I recently read and greatly enjoyed is called O Piolho Viajante, or The Wandering Louse, by António Manuel Policarpo da Silva. It’s such a neglected work it hasn’t been reprinted since 1973. The gentleman who gave it a brief lease on life was a writer I like very admire, José Palma-Ferreira (1930-1989), novelist, diarist, translator (of Ulysses no less), book reviewer, literature teacher, literary historian and lover of popular fiction that had fallen by the wayside. He was a tireless discoverer, promoter, annotator and prefacer of oddities and curiosities. Read and acclaimed in his lifetime, Palma-Ferreira eventually joined his hosts of pariahs in the oblivion he tried to rescue them from. Most of his work is out of print, and nowadays you can only find his careful, elegant, expensive editions of classics in secondhand bookshops. That’s a pity because The Wandering Louse is remarkable book.

Not much is known about the author: Policarpo da Silva was a bookseller and publisher with a shop in the Terreiro do Paço square, by the Tejo River, that nowadays teems with tourists. In 1802 he began the anonymous serialization (doubts about his identity lingered for some time; Palma-Ferreira shrewdly solved the matter by simply checking the records of the Inquisition for that particular year, since the periodical required a license, which was granted) of the Louse’s adventures. There is no plot to speak of, just episodic good fun in the manner of the old Spanish picaros. Much like Lazarillo de Tormes who switches from  master to master bathing in the sordidness of 16th century Spain, the Louse jumps from host to host (all in all there are 72 extant tales), giving us a panoramic view of Portugal’s lumpenproletariat in all its amoral, petty, cheating splendor. It was published up to the 1920s (when Policarpo da Silva may have passed away) and reprinted many times throughout the 19th century. It remained a popular work with the masses, however it never received much attention from the academy until Palma-Ferreira. Policarpo da Silva wasn’t a skilled raconteur, but he had a vibrating satirical vein, a delirious imagination and a comical turn of phrase that elevated his whimsies from mere dreck into respectable, sometimes inspiringly good prose. It’s not a novel with character development, rather an assortment of situations focused on ridiculing societal types, and so it’s best read in the jolly spirit of loose books like Il Decameron, Gargantua and Pantagruel, and the first part of Don Quixote.

The book starts with an introduction by a man claiming to have acquired a manuscript from a Moor in Algiers written in “louse language.” Having an inclination for foreign languages, he claims the present book to be a translation and adaptation into Portuguese society. Fair enough; translation is a tricky business; sometimes you have to tweak stuff around to make them it clearer for readers. The actual narrator is the Louse. “I was born over there in Asia, from an intercourse between a She-louse and an Elephant, although some said that a male Tarantula was the person who gave me my day. But whether or not it was, that’s an insignificant thing; for since Lice don’t have estates to inherit, She-Lice don’t have many scruples about this or that being the Father of their children, albeit there are many scrupulous She-Lice and with many good feelings.” Palma-Ferreira, who was also an expert on picaresque fiction, explains that this beginning is meant to emulate the Spanish picaros that tend to begin with the narrators denigrating their parents. (Curiously, when Eça de Queiroz wrote his own special brand of picaro, The Relic, he did just the same; he was genre-savvy.)

Always adhering to the picaresque tradition, this book is about the lengths people of any social stratus will do to subsist. Although upper classes also get ridiculed, the Louse spends most of his time on poor people’s heads; but they’re not the downtrodden of social realist fiction; these are brutish, vicious, lying ogres that probably never had any intimation with lofty morals and ideals. This allows Policarpo da Silva to create a fine contrast between the Louse’s natural instinct to suck blood and man’s depravity. “For we don’t suck anybody’s blood in order to own carriages and support vices.” Not so with the men and women on whose grimy, filthy hairdos he hides and thrives.

The book is a window into many aspects of daily live that you wouldn’t find in literary fiction from this time; the most fascinating is the focus on poor hygiene conditions (the Louse frets over the pomades, tinctures, ointments, greases and medicines people put on their hair), including a lice-picking scene. “The husband begins, with his little finger, to pick his wife’s head. I take notice of that, and of the danger I was in, I move to the husband’s head. After a while the husband stops the picking and the wife gets to picking him. I return to the wife’s head, and thus they spent all night and me jumping from head to head. At dawn I rested somewhat but protesting that I’d jump bail as soon as I could, which I succeeded the next day,” he says, at which point he manages to jump to another host. He changes for many reasons: sometimes by accident, like when heads collide and tumbles into another hairdo; sometimes the host dies from illness; or else he’s in danger or being wiped away by cleaning products; other times he finds his hosts so dull (he’s a curious Louse) that he longs to meet a more exotic head. The picaro generally involves a journey; although the Louse stays in Lisbon, his head hopping constitutes in itself a journey.

He lives on barbers, dressmakers, doctors, philosophers, politicians, noblemen, bartenders, grocers, beggars, bandits, even a poet. Deception, greed, abjection and iniquity are running themes: incompetent doctors prescribe medicine that have no effect; grocers adulterate products with cheaper material and cheat on the weights; washerwomen steal clothes; bartenders make beverages last longer by adding water. (This was still common enough in Eça’s time.) Most people are grafters trying to make ends meet, and for them a good trick means survival pure and simple, and moral qualms don’t even come into it.  It’s a grim, voracious world, all the funnier because the Louse seldom judges but finds everything perfectly normal in accordance with basic human needs. A particularly grotesque host is a man the Louse calls Avaricious (there few have proper names): on finding a dead man in bed, the first thing he does is cut off his hair to sell it. “Once he threw out a daughter just because she broke a glass,” the Louse reveals. But he can be even more vile: “And there was another thing about him: on Sundays, he called his children and joined them in catching flies for eating and told them it was the same as lupin seeds [eaten in Portuguese bars like peanuts in America]. And they were so skilled at this that, in the end, they already caught them with their mouths.”

Here’s how a ruthless apothecary worked; medicine in Portugal in 1802 was pretty primitive, people could become doctors with almost no credentials, and medicine was still based on folklore, not science. The following flimflam is a stretch, but conveys the spirit of crude solution-thinking that passed for medicine at the time:

The apothecary also had a prescription for eyes which was a thing never seen before, and a neighbor who had this malady was cured by him in three days. I wish to relate the prescription because it’s a useful thing. He put him in dark house and then removed every furniture from his house and painted several figures with coal on the walls. He told the man he could come out, that he was fine. The patient, who saw no furniture at home, claimed he was worse than before because he saw nothing. But the apothecary insisted it was a lie and asked him: “Do you not see these paintings on the walls?” “Yes I do, sir,” replied the poor man. He asked him again: “And before I cured you, did you see them?” No, sir.” “Then why do you complain, if you’re seeing so well? You even see what you didn’t see before.

There’s also a tale about a mediocre poet; here’s his idea for a play: “He composed a Tragedy wherein the first death on stage was the Investor’s. Then began dying, in their order, all the Actors and Actresses so that an Extra, who turned on the lights, had to come to give notice that the Tragedy was over.” Policarpo da Silva should have written this play instead; he’d be famous nowadays as a forerunner of the Theater of the Absurd.

Another running theme, like in a good British Victorian novel, is the widespread abuse of drinking. “There were many who never lunched at home. It was easier for them, when they only a penny, to leave their whole family fasting, for with a penny’s worth of bread they’d hardly kill hunger, just to come to the gin joint to chat and take their coffee with a toast.”

A layer the Louse lives on perhaps conveys the book’s motto: “In this world everything is business. Today I sell, tomorrow I buy.” And there’s money to be made with everything; through cunningness, lack of scruples, boldness and some luck, anything becomes a commodity in the feral struggle for life. This book would be absolutely horrifying if it weren’t so hilarious. Policarpo da Silva had the genius to find a great metaphor for early 19th century vermin-riddled Portugal: in a world where everyone feeds on others, like lice do without our noticing, by ruse and schemes, everyone is a blood-sucking louse. It’s not that sophisticated, but what he does with it is very different enticing.

Trendy Americans like to make up lists of foreign untranslatable words; there are two Portuguese words that usually make the rounds: one is saudade, which is not very useful and we won’t waste our time with it; the other, far more vital, is the bedrock of Portuguese thought: desenrascanço, which means coming up with a crude, last minute solution for a problem because of lack of planning of foresight. It’s very much the Portuguese way of being. The Wandering Louse, it could be said without exaggeration – although The Voyages of Fernão Mendes Pinto may be a precursor – is perhaps Portugal’s first and yet best treatment of desenrascanço.

A few brief remarks on the languages. Although Policarpo da Silva was writing mass entertainment, his prose is surprisingly good. There are frequent word puns, inner rhymes, alliteration, and paronomasias. Not being a genius writer, Policarpo da Silva was quite the coiner of lively sentences wholly unexpected in their oddness. This book is so foreign to the general character of Portuguese fiction, I’m amazed it even exists, and ever so thankful for it. If only more mainstream, literary authors had read it and absorbed some of its insanity, instead of the Walter Scotts, Balzacs and lifeless Romantics that only led to dull copycats, the course of the Portugal novel would have improved astronomically.


  1. Good heavens, the things you manage to turn up, Miguel. This sounds nutty and full of strange delights - too bad it's unlikely to see an English translation any time soon. That play! Someone ought to flesh it out and stage it.

    1. Dear Scott, thanks for reading.

      Yes, this was a very good surprise; I wasn't convinced at first, but it quickly won me over.