Although the novel in Spain, France, Germany and England began stirring in the 17th and 18th centuries, Portugal had barely explored the potential of prose fiction before Alexandre Herculano published Eurico, o Presbítero in 1844. Since the Portuguese love to consider themselves a poetical people (to which philosopher Eduardo Lourenço once quipped, “What people doesn’t?”), they tend to explain our novelistic paucity as the result of a national temperament that fulfils its vocation through quatrains and sextains. When José Saramago received the Nobel Prize in 1998, his detractors leveled three types of accusations at him: he was a godless commie in a Christian nation; he had a penis; and he didn’t win for poetry.
Now, whoever has read Steven Moore’s The Novel: An Alternative History – Beginnings to 1600, may have noticed two things: first of all, he overlooked Portuguese fiction; the lack of translations no doubt posed an obstacle, but in truth there was not a lot to write about. In 1554, the same year Lazarillo de Tormes came out, Bernardim Ribeiro published Portugal’s first pastoral romance, Maiden and Modest. (After Moore’s book, Tagus Press released a translation by Gregory Rabassa). By then João de Barros already had penned a chivalric romance in his youth, but then exchanged fiction for non-fiction and became the first chronicler of Portugal’s misadventures in Asia; two decades later Gonçalo Fernandes Trancoso published novelle in the Italian fashion. This pretty much covers the essential prose fiction from the 16th century to the 19th, save a few curiosities only persistent connoisseurs like me have the patience to exhume. Things seemed to be heading in the right direction, however, until a king decided to save his subjects from heresy.
And this gets me to the second thing readers may have noticed in Moore’s book: his truculent insistence that wherever religion prospers, the novel peters out. Now I’m very partial to this heavy-handed proposition because the non-history of the Portuguese novel tragically illustrates it. Although Monty Python expected the Spanish Inquisition, the craziest one was on the other side of the border. Demanded by King D. João III, and in spite of Pope Paul III’s reticence, the Inquisition arrived in 1536 (the same year Erasmus of Rotterdam died, incidentally), and within a few decades most fiction had disappeared. We can assess the level of paranoia, overzealousness and coerciveness at work in our branch of the holy institution using this simple comparison: in Spain, where the Inquisition had started its vigilance in 1478, heretical Erasmus had 116 editions throughout the 16th century; in Portugal, 0. By 1547 the general-inquisitor, under the auspice of the 1544 Sorbonne Index, had already organized an informal list of forbidden books. By 1550 books couldn’t leave customs without a license. But Portugal’s first honest to goodness Index Librorum Prohibitorum debuted in 1551: if the first list had copied foreign models, flaunting its carelessness (it still came out in manuscript form when print already optimized the distribution of fear and intimidation), the new one showed nurturing, sedulous, innovative minds at work. Besides compiling all the forbidden books from several foreign indexes, it began adding autochthonous literature to the mix. Regarding the repercussions of this list, a historian once wrote, “we can say that the Portuguese index of 1551 is the most voluminous, the most meticulous and the least liberal of the catalogues of forbidden books published up to then, in Catholic countries.” By 1559 Spain was using it as a model. 1559 was also the year Pope Paul IV promulgated what is known as the Pauline Index, an even more reactionary and coercive index (it included a list of printing presses throughout Europe infamous for publishing sacrilegious books, pretty much telling zealots where to go and burn down enemies of the faith). Portugal was the only country to reprint the Pauline Index. Our Inquisitors’ renown reached its apogee when the Vatican invited one Friar Francisco Foreiro (anglicized into Francis sometimes) to attend the Council of Trent and share his experience in banning dangerous books. An unsung hero of censorship (tourists can visit a Lisbon street named after him, though), Foreiro brought all his expertise to the brainstorming as one of masterminds of the 1564 Index Librorum Prohibitorum, which became the matrix for all future ones. Foreiro’s censoring tenets also informed the massive 1624 Index, which had a universal reach but reserved a special section devoted to Portuguese jurisdiction; this section, known as the Index Pro Regnis Lusitaniae, banned books other countries’ indexes tolerated. One of its victims was Don Quixote, which by the way wouldn't be translated, and then only anonymously, into Portuguese until 1794. This didn't bode well for us fiction lovers.
Forget novels: Portugal’s literature from the 16th to the 19th century may consist mostly of poetry, but it’s a miracle it produced even that. For our Inquisition, hagiographies and sermons sufficed. William Beckford, travelling through Portugal in the 1780s, was appalled at the aristocracy’s contempt for culture. “These people don’t read,” he wrote. According to him, the homes of counts and marquises did not have books, an exaggeration, but understandable for a man who came from a country where fiction-writing and fiction-reading thrived. England alone had produced some 600 novels between 1750 and 1770; Portugal had produced nothing, probably because the habit of reading prose fiction barely existed. The study of personal libraries evinces this. One 17th century library, for instance, contained only 5,2% of what a historian termed “literature (including religious poetry)”; the most popular genre was “hagiography/spirituality.” In another library, from the mid-18th century, only 16,4% accounted for “fine arts”, whereas “history” took up around 60%.
It is no surprise that religious and historical writings should have so much weight. Starting in the 1550s, the kings placed the kingdom’s education in the hands of Jesuits. Furthermore, Portugal was a rapidly declining empire that consoled itself with singing its epic 16th century of conquest and expansion. Besides, prose fiction had a bad rep; the fact that it figured so prominently in the Indexes didn’t endear it to a nation obsessed with spreading Catholicism. The Inquisition didn’t make zealots out of the Portuguese; it was their temperament that led them to import the Inquisition to protect the kingdom’s true faith. The Pope, as I wrote above, had opposed it.
Our kings personified this popular and profound devotion. D. Sebastião (1554-1578) is known to have burnt pages of forbidden books. He was, however, a fan of chivalric romances. A fanatic to the core, he was a D. Quixote avant la lettre in that he tried to enact the heroism of the erring knights by trying to conquer North Africa in a suicidal crusade against the Moors. Because I know few people bother to read chivalric romances nowadays, let me explain that that tends to be the plot in them, except that thanks to all-curing phials and magic potions, the knights lived long enough to reach Constantinople. D. Sebastião didn’t make it past Morocco.
Another king, D. João V (1689-1750), although he commissioned Lisbon’s Opera House, had no interest in opera and comedies, preferring religious plays. But it is rumored that his real favorite form of entertainment was the auto-da-fé. Unlike their European counterparts, Portuguese didn’t play a meaningful role as patrons of arts and academies. D. João V did finance the Royal Academy of History (1720), the first academy created by a Portuguese monarch, but quickly curtailed its freedom. Although meant to study and discuss history, it received directives on certain things it could not contest or revise because they were linked to a popular mythology from which the monarchy derived its power. In essence, he set it up for show, responding to the fashionable Enlightenment that swept through Europe. Not even our kings were immune to it, but the result was superficial and hollow.
The nobility, as a befuddled Beckford discovered, followed suit; even though a restricted number cultivated the arts, historians have also pointed out that aristocrats linked to the arts shrunk from century to century. In the 18th century we find aristocratic libraries containing the fiction of Samuel Richardson, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Goethe, and Charles Laclos, but such reading habits did not foster homegrown production. The irreverent, irreligious, bawdy mentality conducive to novel-writing was not to be found here. The Inquisition’s agents on the ground, the familiares, who exercised surveillance at a local level, were accosted by people bringing them books to know if they were allowed or forbidden. A people prey to such voluntary conformity would be comedy gold in a novel, but could never produce one.
Citizens feared writing. “Although you be careless in speaking, in writing be careful, for one may be forgotten, and be denied, but the other is believed, and always remains, for many will perish for what they had written, and others will be well albeit they had spoken badly.” This was an uncle’s advice to a nephew in 1750. People wrote, actually, but didn’t publish, for fear of persecution, and only in the freer 19th century did a stream of inedita surface.
A repressive police apparatus, on top of the Inquisition, made it hard for the culture of the Enlightenment to prosper in Portugal, and so the habit of salons, of coffee houses, of clubs, and of public intellectual discussion did not catch on here. In fact the word “salon” (salão) wasn’t even used in Portugal in the sense it gained during the 18th century. Whereas in other countries the salon slowly evolved into the private club and acted as a space to discuss politics, science and the arts, in Portugal they remained clandestine organizations that gave the authorities the impression of being dangerous gatherings of radicals.
Summing up, the Inquisition aborted the intellectual atmosphere conducive to the prosperity of the novel: curiosity, sacrilegiousness, the testing out of unpopular ideas, the ridicule of mores. With the limits of the permissible clearly demarcated, our fiction withered. Even imagination for its own sake halted: the fantasy and horror genres, for instance, unlike in other European countries, found no practitioners here because our church deemed magic, ghosts, vampires, and monsters satanic and contrary to doctrine. Fearful and withdrawn, our writers got used to singing their woes in harmless verses, giving origin to the myth of our poetic vocation. The 20th century novelist Raul Brandão would later gripe, not without reason, “Our classic literature is indigestible: it's the product, with rare exceptions, of slobbering friars and mystics who can't be read from cover to cover.” Harsh, but almost true. To get another idea of how Portugal inhabited a parallel dimension in relation to Europe, and of how deranged our Inquisition was compared to others, consider the following: when the 17th century Jesuit António Vieira, Portugal’s greatest prose stylist, appealed to the king to allow the return of expelled Jews and the construction of synagogues, he reminded the monarch that Rome, the seat of Christianity, already permitted Jews living there to freely worship in their own temples. He was ignored.
Sure, I'm painting this in broad strokes, but I fear a miniaturist's brush would only render nuanced exceptions to the rule.
Just 20 years after Portugal extinguished the Inquisition, however, the country witnessed not only the birth of its novel but a major literary renaissance like it hadn’t seen in three centuries of intellectual oppression. Herculano wrote our first novel in the vein of Walter Scott’s then popular historical novels, and even though it isn’t very good – it’s slow, overwritten, dull and populated with wooden characters – he can be forgiven since he helped create the freedom for much better works to show up. I mean he literally helped bring freedom to Portugal. Although several thinkers, priests and ministers appealed to kings throughout the centuries to get rid of the Inquisition, it wasn’t until 1821 that a liberal revolution overthrew the monarchy and suppressed the Inquisition. Enthusiasm was short-lived, though, because a counter-revolution in 1828 reinstated an absolutist king, D. Miguel, who wasn’t keen on ruling under the motto of liberalism. Those who had brought about the 1821 revolution knew better than to expect mercy and so fled to France and England, waiting for better times to come back. Eventually a civil war broke out that lasted until 1834 and culminated in the triumph of a constitutional monarchy. Fighting for the cause of liberalism, rifle in hand, was Alexandre Herculano. In my book that earns you the privilege to pen all the plumbeous novels you want. He’d turn into a much better historian and poet.
Around the time Herculano published the rather turgid Eurico, o Presbítero, his friend Almeida Garrett, poet, playwright and former comrade of arms in the civil war, was serializing in a magazine chapters of a new work. Begun in 1843, it finally came out in 1846 in book form. If Herculano wrote our first novel, Garrett wrote our first avant-garde novel: Travels in My Homeland. His models were Tristram Shandy and A Sentimental Journey. That he used Sterne instead of contemporaries like Balzac and Dickens was not so much a sign of backwardness as the result of readings he had picked up in England during his forced exile in the 1820s. Writing without preconceived notions of how a novel should behave, he mixed genres and in the process created a masterpiece as whimsical, eccentric and singular as those other 19th century oddities that don’t conform to the Balzac/Zola school of realism: The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas, The Relic, The Manuscript Found in Saragossa, The Confidence-Man, and Leg Over Leg. But although translated into English by John M. Parker in 1987, it’s virtually unknown, and has long been out of print. Next week I’m going to explain why this injustice needs to be urgently rectified.