Sunday, 1 January 2017

Adolfo Casais Monteiro's "Europe"

Fernando Dacosta's cover for Europa

Neutral during World War II, Portugal flirted with both sides like a cocotte. Business boomed thanks to sales of the much-needed wolfram for arms manufacturing, leading to rare surplus years in a country with a congenitally dysfunctional economy. The dictator António de Oliveira Salazar had come upon a fine scheme: ignoring Great Britain’s appeals to stop selling wolfram to Germany, he forced the British to buy it in larger quantities than necessary, increasing demand and making prices skyrocket. Suddenly everyone who had a plot of land became a prospector dreaming to find the coveted mineral that carried with it the promise of instantaneous fortune. As things tend to go in these situations, decency took a back seat to duplicity, and the morality rate decreased as the mortality rate increased. The great novelist Aquilino Ribeiro, always inclined to see the worse in humans, left us one of his usual blood baths in the form of Volfrâmio, a 1943 novel about a rural community destroying itself through greed, lies and murder.

Meanwhile, domestically Salazar also placated the Portuguese, still traumatized by the loss of thousands of lives in World War I, by keeping the nation out of the conflict. A masterful diplomat, a compliment no historian denies him, he could navigate between Scylla and Charybdis blindfolded. To appease the British he loaned the Azores archipelago in order to set up a base in the Atlantic; he also scored brownie points for keeping the borders open to refugees fleeing from Nazi-occupied territories. During this time the Allied Press portrayed him as a man with a big heart.

Actually Salazar had implemented laws restricting entry in Portugal, and he made sure some trains loaded with refugees were returned to their executioners; in the confusion of the war the Allied Press confused official policy with what had in effect been an act of disobedience by a consul called Aristides de Sousa Mendes. Stationed in Bordeaux, Sousa Mendes, compelled by his Christian conscience to ignore orders, granted visas to anyone who sought one, allowing tens of thousands of undesirables to enter Portugal.

By the time a Sousa Mendes’ superior exonerated him from his functions on grounds of temporary insanity, Lisbon was already teeming with foreigners waiting for airplanes and boats to take them to the Americas. This extraordinary situation had attracted the attention of humanitarian organizations and the foreign press, and suddenly all spotlights were on Portugal. Sensing the political advantage of conceding this to the Allies, Salazar relented and kept the borders open throughout the war. Congratulations rained on him while ruin visited Sousa Mendes, who was fired and finished his life in abject poverty, eating at soup lines with the same refugees he had saved.

The war went on. On May 2, 1945, upon hearing news of Adolf Hitler’s death, Salazar decreed 3 days of national mourning. He had reasons to fear that others would soon be mourning him. On May 8, the day Germany’s surrender was ratified in Berlin, public protestors gathered in front of foreign embassies in Lisbon demanding democracy. One of Portugal’s great fascist doctrinaires, Alfredo Pimenta, wrote to Salazar deploring these protests as “essentially idiotic”, the result of the invincible “stupidity of the masses.” But the masses could be forgiven for being stupid about this: throughout Europe fascist states had fallen like rotten fruit, so it was reasonable to hope that Salazar and his neighbor Franco also had their eviction orders ready. The police’s violent repression of the protestors didn’t immediately shatter the belief that the regime was on its death throes. But then, by one of those vicissitudes of history, the USA began counting the European countries going red and decided that, in the geopolitical context of the coming Cold War, a few right-wing regimes in Europe to stanch the advance of Communism wouldn’t be such a bad idea. So Salazar and Franco remained neighbors for the next 30 years.

I don’t know if Adolfo Casais Monteiro (1908-1972) marched with the protestors on May 8, but he shared their aspirations. In 1927 he had volunteered to fight in the first uprising against the regime, set up the previous year by a military coup. In a posthumous book, O País do Absurdo (1974), he wrote how he met the doctor, soldier historian and poet Jaime Cortesão, leader of the uprising, a mythical figure of resistance, who kindly declined the youngster’s help. Although that uprising failed, Casais Monteiro retained an overt political conscience throughout his life and became a known opponent of the regime. Fernando Pessoa, who corresponded with him, praised his “mental independence.”

For most of his life, though, he was a literary essayist. He began this activity in the late 1920s, around the time he joined presença (1927-1940), a landmark literary magazine in the history of Portuguese Modernism. From collaborator he rose to director with two other great literary critics: João Gaspar Simões and José Régio. This magazine’s importance in divulging modernist foreign writers in Portugal at the time when an isolationist, nationalistic fervor for “purity” and “authenticity” pervaded the nation’s institutions, cannot be overestimated. National culture, for the people behind presença, was a dynamic process in constant dialogue with the past and foreign cultures.

These three figures had all inherited Pessoa’s cosmopolitanism, and believed that Europe’s new aesthetic movements added value to Portuguese culture rather than subtract authenticity from it. It goes without saying, then, that presença had a seminal role in championing Pessoa’s poetry. Known mainly within a circle of admirers when he passed away in 1935, presença was the bridge between Pessoa and the public. In a sense, Casais Monteiro, together with his colleagues, helped invent him: Gaspar Simões wrote Pessoa’s first biography, and Régio had been the first person to defender a master thesis about him. In 1942 Casais Monteiro edited one of the earliest anthologies, if not the first, of his poetry, with an introduction that would shape Pessoa Studies for decades to come and begin Pessoa’s deification. (It was probably this anthology also that a young José Saramago read, decades later inspiring him to write The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis.)

But Casais Monteiro also left his mark as a creator. Apart from a novel in 1945, from 1929 onwards his creative output stayed in the genre of poetry. Alas, as it happens with too many great poets in Portugal, he’s practically forgotten nowadays, his poetry out of print, and I fear his importance confined above all to the history of Pessoa.

Casais Monteiro always maintained a dissonant attitude within presença. Although Gaspar Simões and Régio preached the autonomy of art, Casais Monteiro didn’t believe in separating art from politics. In 1940 he got into a public polemic with Gaspar Simões about politics that culminated with everyone parting ways and cancelling the magazine. In 1937, the regime had already banned him from teaching because of his political opinions. Like a mischievous child sent to the principle’s office, he paid the police frequent visits. By 1945 he was making ends meet thanks to editorial jobs in magazines and translations. From his work as translator we can see the width of his culture: Stendhal, Bergson, Diderot, Simenon, Flaubert, Henri Troyat, Sartre, Baudelaire, Balzac, Miguel de Unamuno, Ellery Queen, George Eliot, Charlotte Brontë, Hemingway, Erskine Caldwell, Tacitus, Plato, Tolstoy, Chekov, Kierkegaard. (I assume several were translated from French translations, common practice in Portugal at the time.) For many opponents, once the regime blacklisted them, translation was the last resort to making a living. Alongside Jorge de Sena and José Blanc de Portugal, he also rendered Pessoa’s English-language poems into Portuguese.

Now as I stated above, I don’t know if Casais Monteiro participated in the May 8 protests, but he expressed his hope for a better future in a rather unique way. Like so many countrymen then, he interpreted the fall of the Axis as Salazar’s deathblow; and he put that hope in a poem, or perhaps a magical chant, to see if it came true. It did not and he died in 1972, two years before Portugal regained democracy once more.

On May 23, 1945, the BBC studios in London broadcast Casais Monteiro’s poem “Europe” in Portuguese; its reader was António Pedro, who had collaborated with the author in Mundo Literário. Stage director, poet, painter, António Pedro had been living in England for some years now, mingling with the English surrealists – he had been one of the first Portuguese artists to get in touch with Surrealism. “Europe” was a mourning for the war’s victims, a condemnation of fascism, and a clear plea for freedom. Reviewing the poem in book form for Mundo Literário in its May 18, 1946, issue, Joel Serrão wrote, “Excepting Fernando Pessoa's poetry I don't know any other Portuguese poet or any other poem that better deserve the name of Europeans like the A. Casais Monteiro who sang this EUROPE.” More than through its content, the poem asserted its internationalism through its form, flaunting its ties with the modernist trends that were savaged by a fascist press that took a protectionist approach to the national letters.

When Pedro returned to Portugal, in 1946, the secret police, the PIDE, arrested him and he faced charges of treason, only to be amnestied. I don’t know if Casais Monteiro’s already dire situation deteriorated further because of this little act of rebellion. In any event he left in 1954 to Brazil, where he remained until his death, living in the community of self-exiled Portuguese intellectuals coalescing there: his hero Jaime Cortesão, the poet Jorge de Sena, the historian Barradas de Carvalho, the philosopher Agostinho da Silva, and many more. In Brazil he built a remarkable career as literary critic, both in the academy and in newspapers, where we wrote some of my favorite reflections on literature.

To my knowledge, no one has ever translated a collection of his poetry into English, which is a loss to Anglo-Americans readers. But an English-language version of “Europe” does exist! In 1991 a tetralingual special edition came out, coinciding with the Maastricht Treaty that created the European Union, and it included Richard Zenith’s translation of the full poem. It’s sad that such a meaningful event should be connected with something as tawdry as the European Union, but beggars can’t be choosers, can they? Actually, I think Casais Monteiro would have been enchanted with the EU. However, I, unlike him, have no faith in art as ancillary to politics, so my goal here is solely to help you discover the great poet that was Adolfo Casais Monteiro. Thus, without further ado, I leave you with “Europe”:


Europe, dream of the future!
Europe, the new tomorrow,
borders without watch-dogs,
nations frankly smiling,
open to all the world!

Europe without misery dragging its tatters,
will you ever arrive? will the day arrive
in which you are reborn, purified?

Will you one day be home to all who were born
on your devastated soil? Will you know,
Phoenix, how to be reborn from the ashes
in which at last should burn, false grandeur,
the glory your peoples dreamed was theirs,
- each people wanting you all for itself?

Europe, dream of the future,
if some day it comes to pass!
Europe that didn’t know how to listen
to the voices in the darkness
crying from out of the depths of time,
crying that your grandeur was not
to be merely clever with your mind
while being selfish with bread!
Your grandeur was made
by those who never asked
the nationality they served.
Your glory was born
by free hands that shaped
your body free of shackles
into a dream forever in the making!

Europe, O world to be created!

Europe, O dream just a dream
as long as the voices that shaped
your ideal figure
still do not descend to earth.
Europe, a dream uncreated,
until the day your spirit
descends over the waters!

Europe without misery dragging its tatters,
will you ever arrive? will the day arrive
in which you are reborn, purified?
Will you one day be home to all who were born
on your devastated soil?
Will you be reborn, Phoenix,
from the ashes of your divided body?

Europe, you will only arrive when among your nations
hatred will no longer have the last word,
the selfish hand will not lead to hatred,
no hand will be prompted by that hollow
tomb-like sound of coffers devouring the blood of the flock
- and from this dead flock, by the light of day,
may the man you dreamed of, Europe, be life!


O dead civilization!
Away with your putrid blood!
To the grave with your stiff and shriveled
cadaver, to the grave!

Let’s have your new song!
Your name, Europe,

The evil that you were, redeemed!
The good that you produced,
shared by all!

There goes the cadaver dressed up in speeches,
abloom with cankers, with pus, with vomit…
Cadaver dressed up in border wars,
fictions to serve the dream of violence,
masks of ideals to disguise old resentments…
Go, cadaver dressed up in crimes,
for no amount of land can sate
the relentless undertakers,
no amount of blood will content them!

Your undertakers dance
their dance on your cadaver.
Crows of bad omen
suck your shameful blood.
The more blood there is, the more they dance!
And you, deluded, dance
the steps of your funeral

Of blood you will be born, Europe
of the future, or not born at all!

            And the hand that holds you back
            at the brink of the abyss?
                        Of blood it will be born!

            And the arms that defend
            your new tomorrow?
                        Of blood they will be born!

Blood will teach you
- or a new and greater
slavery will bring mourning
to your fields sown
with gallows and despots.

            In blood you will bathe
            your tormented body and
            yes, Phoenix, you will live!


In the desolate glacial solitude of night
those who haven’t died keep watch.

In wave after wave of gunfire
death has cut down our brothers.
fear prowls,
hatred spies.
Everyone is alone.

Will morning still come?

One by one men fall in the fight without trenches,
and it seems the night will never know morning,
but each drop of blood is a seed of revolt,
of the revolt that will sweep from the face of the earth
the sinister priests of terror.
The revolt flowering with hope
of the arms and mouths that remain…

Treachery prowls,
death spies.

A flurry of flags in the wind…
Bugles of dawn in the distance…

Those who haven’t died keep watch.


I speak of houses and of men,
of the living and the dead:
of what passes and can never go back…
don’t tell me that it was mathematically predetermined,
don’t come to me with theories!
I see the desolation and hunger,
the unspeakable anguish,
the horrors engraved forever in the victims’ tragic faces.
And I know that I see, know that I imagine only a fraction,
an insignificant part of the tragedy.
If I saw, I wouldn’t believe.
If I saw, I’d go mad or become a prophet,
I’d become a gang leader, a highwayman,
-but I wouldn’t believe!

I look at men, houses and animals,
I look with infinite astonishment,
and I’m left speechless
with sorrow that it was men who caused all this:
this bloody pulp to which they’ve reduced the whole earth,
this sludge of blood and soul,
of matter and being,
and I wonder with anguish if any hope will remain,
if hatred itself can yet accomplish anything!

Let me weep – and weep with me!
The tears will at least wash the shame we feel for being alive,
for having sanctioned with our silence the institutionalized crime,
and as we weep perhaps we will imagine the drama to be ours,
for a moment we will feel a little of what others suffered,
for a second we will be the dead and the tortured,
the crippled for life, the insane and the imprisoned,
we will be the earth gone putrid from so many cadavers,
we will be the blood of the trees,
the grieved stomach of pillaged houses,
- yes, for a moment we will be the grief of all this…

I don’t know why I shed tears,
why I tremble and what shiver runs through me,
I who have neither family nor friends in the war,
I who am foreign to all this,
I who sit in my quiet house,
I who don’t have war at my door,
-why do I tremble and weep?

Who’s crying in me?, who’s crying in us?

Here everything keeps going like a river that’s bored of following its meanders:
the streets are streets with people and cars,
there are no sirens howling irrepressible horrors,
and the misery is the misery that there always was…
And if everything is just like in the old days,
in spite of Europe – agonizing martyrs! – all around us,
I wonder if we might not be dreaming that we’re people,
with neither brothers nor conscience, buried alive,
with nothing but tears that see too late, and a night that surrounds us,
a night in which the aurora of morning never comes…


The music was beautiful…
it came from the radio, gentle, soothing,
soft like a woman’s warm body…
it was tender, sweet and languid…

But in my ears I still heard,
like an outcry from millions of mouths:
“in the concentration camp occupied today by allied troops
the Germans burned thousands alive in a crematory oven…
In the huts the dead were mixed in with the dying…
The S.S. sergeant couldn’t remember how many had died…
The dead rot in piles, and the living rip off their clothes
for the bonfire by which they warm themselves…

And I suddenly remembered an old film
in which the criminal asked:
“De quoi est fait un homme, monsieur le commissaire?”
and in his eyes you could read the terror
of a man who has seen an abyss and cannot fathom its depth…
De quoi est fait un homme? What makes up the men
who burned other men alive? who caused hundreds of children
to die of hunger and terror, slaves like their parents?
Who killed or let men die by the millions,
who made them sink to the depths of degradation,
tortured, starved, all canker and bone?
It was these same men
who sneered at freedom,
who came to save the world from disorder,
who came to teach the planet ORDER!,
who brought peace, yes, with the bars of prisons
and order with torture-chambers…

And then comes the music, soft and slow,
as if it could wipe out the ignominy they’ve cast over all the earth!
As if we could forget the vileness of those who dreamed
of wiping from earth the free man’s insubmission!
No – neither prisons, nor banishments, nor reprisals, nor tortures
will ever do away with the insubmission of the free man,
of the free man in jail, singing while tortured,
for he sees before him his brothers who are fighting
and are bound to fail, even as others are bound to rise up,
crying in forever renewed voices
men of all parties and without any party,
who were born with revolt since for them life is worth nothing if they must live it as slaves,
men of all parties and without any party – all except those
who can only say ORDER! and call out for VIOLENCE!,
who demand blood because they are bloodthirsty, yes,
but also all those who never knew how to want anything,
who say “It’s not possible  that political prisoners are being tortured,”
who cannot believe
for they don’t want to be bothered by the scourge of the crimes committed for them
- for them to go on believing that ORDERS is not merely the muzzle
over free mouths that are bound to shout until the end of the world


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