Thursday, 19 January 2017

Almeida Garrett: preposterous and unclassifiable

Portugal never had the tradition of the Grand Tour, but it was in its itinerary. For centuries Frenchmen, Dutchmen, Germans, and Englishmen, of whom William Beckford and Henry Fielding are the two most popular names, had visited Portugal and then written about it. The Portuguese, when they travelled abroad at all, did so to join the African or Brazilian colonial administration. Sometimes they moved to the Vatican to take holy vows. After a century proving that the world was bigger than anyone believed, the Inquisition made these navigators believe it needed be no bigger than a nave. Paradoxically, the Portuguese barely knew their own country. Lisbon, with the royal court, was the core of the kingdom, and the rest hardly counted. With good roads as scarce as Jews, it was easier to sail from Portugal to Brazil than to ride the 310 KM from Lisbon to Porto, the second largest city. At the same time distant Europe seduced the nobility like a delicacy: musicians, divas, tailors, engineers, coiffeurs, and painters came mostly from beyond the Pyrenees. We can go all the way back to Francisco de Holanda’s Dialogues With Michelangelo for plaints about Portugal not prizing its artists, and the situation had only worsened since then. So Portugal entered the 19th century like this: on the one hand, ignorant of the world at large, save for whatever fashion the aristocracy imitated to be au courant; on the other one, ignorant of itself and slavishly derivative.

When Almeida Garrett began serializing Travels In My Homeland, in 1843, it was the culmination of his critique of Portuguese copycat culture. In 1825, living abroad in exile, he had published a long poem called Camões and inaugurated Portuguese Romanticism. The title, after Luís de Camões, our national poet, signaled a defense of national identity. Following his time’s repudiation of classicism, he turned to Portugal’s history and popular culture. Goethe could write about Doctor Faust, but Garrett had his own Faustian legend to work with, the 13th century Friar Gil of Santarém. His most celebrated tragic play, Frei Luís de Sousa, was loosely based on a 16th century writer. The past and folklore energized his plays, novels and poetry. Garrett, however, was also a well-travelled and well-read cosmopolitan; furthermore, he was a natural born mocker, so his use of foreign forms veered between reverence and ridicule. His friend Alexandre Herculano had written serious historical novels; Garrett, who was a better novelist than him, parodied them instead.

Travels In My Homeland is an avant-garde novel like nothing ever made in Portugal before or after. In terms of “plot”, it follows Garrett’s muleback journey from Lisbon to Santarém. Under this shabby guise, however, lies a Shandian heteroclite mixture of travel writing, an interpolated novella, poetry, and the epistolary genre, producing what he calls in Chapter XXXII a “preposterous, unclassifiable book” where “the thread of the stories and observations does not so much as break as become intertwined, and in such a manner that, I am fully aware, much patience is needed to unravel and trace it in such an entangled skein.” The modern reader, soaked in postmodernism, may not find it that challenging anymore, but Garret’s coevals had never read anything like it. He didn’t set out to challenge the nascent realist novel; first he had to convince his readers that prose fiction in Portuguese was even acceptable. “I am afraid to start it because the ladies and the men of fashion in my country say that Portuguese is not suitable for it, that French has a certain je ne sais quoi...” Like Tolstoy’s aristocrats, but more pedantic, they thought and read in French. France was the blueprint after which Portugal patterned itself, and even most booksellers were Frenchmen. Undaunted, he “resigned as a poet and stooped to prose” determined to triumph.  “These interesting travels of mine shall be a masterpiece, erudite, sparkling with new ideas, something worthy of our century. I need to inform the reader of this, so that he may be forewarned and not think that they are just another batch of these fashionable scribblings entitled Travel Notes or something similar, which weary the printing presses of Europe without the slightest benefit for science or for the advancement of the species,”  he announces in Chapter II with justified braggadocio.

At the outset, Garrett explains that “I shall go to Santarém, no less, and I swear that everything I see and hear, everything I think and fell, shall be chronicled.” The travel genre, with its swift changes of setting and the constant flow of stimulus, provided the perfect pretext for Garrett to talk about everything at once without regard for order. It gave him leeway to share memories, muse about his surroundings, parody styles, and even do reportage. Learned allusions fill almost every page, usually wrapped in a tilted way of perceiving the world. These acrobatics, far from just showing off, also had the purpose of rebuilding the language for a new literary form. In Portugal the Baroque still thrived after it started dying throughout Europe. In the 18th century English and French got lighter and sprightlier; Defoe and Voltaire had nothing on Lyly and Rabelais. The anonymous author of Lazarillo de Tormes had already given Spanish a colloquial, unadorned, sloppy style which Cervantes later emulated so well in Dom Quixote. But Portugal hadn’t developed prose fiction; prose was still subordinate to oratory and classic rhetoric; its syntax was sluggish like Cicero’s. To make matters worse, the Inquisition’s policing had taught writers the art of writing a lot to say nothing, of ballooning baubles. So a priority for the 1830s writers was pruning the Portuguese language of baroque excesses and curbing its propensity for hollow verbiage. As such, Travels features a chattering mind reveling in the freedom to say whatever it wants, ebullient at the new-found, heard-earned right to unfettered thinking, putting on paper spontaneous impressions. Nothing was too small to escape his attention, like when he muses about Lord Byron.  “I don’t recall that Lord Byron ever celebrated the pleasure of smoking on board ship. It is remarkably forgetful of the most seafaring, sailorly poet there ever was, who even poetized seasickness, that most prosaic and nauseating of life’s miseries! But on a day like this, to feel on one’s cheek and in one’s hair the refreshing breeze skimming off the waves, while lazily inhaling the narcotic fumes of a good Havana cigar, is one of the few truly good things there are in this world.”

Garrett’s naturally comical mind tilted towards irreverence. It’s no surprise that several of his targets are thinkers and popular isms of his time. Somewhere he roasts Kant for using obfuscatory language. Jeremy Bentham’s contempt for the classics gets this rebut of the cult of the New: “Virtue is its own reward, according to an ancient philosopher, and I do not believe in Bentham’s famous quip that ancient wisdom is all sophistry. The latest thing is also the oldest, no doubt, but the thing of old that still persists has been confirmed by experience not available to novelties. Jeremy Bentham perpetrated his sophistry like the next man.” Like most Menippean satirists, Garrett was skeptical of progress and philosophers, and laughed at muddled thinking and intellectual posturing: “First of all my book is a symbol… a myth, a Greek word, and a Germanic fashion, that is put into everything nowadays and used to explain everything that… can’t be explained.” Even Hegel gets his due:

   Some years ago there was a deep, abstruse philosopher from over the Rhine who wrote a work on the march of civilization, of the intellect – what we might call, to be better understood, Progress. He discovered that there are two principles in the world: spiritualism, which marches on heedless of the material, earthy side of this life, eyes fixed on its great, abstract theories, a stiff, spare, hard, inflexible belief which can be suitably embodied, symbolized by the famous myth of the Knight of La Mancha, Don Quixote; and materialism, which, taking not the slightest heed of these theories, in which it does not believe and whose impossible applications it declares to be Utopias each and every one, can be properly represented by the rotund and well-fed person of our old friend Sancho Panza.
   But, as in witty Cervantes’s story, these two completely opposed and contradictory principles nevertheless are always together, the one some way behind, the other going on ahead, often getting in each other’s way, rarely helping one another, but always progressing.
   And this is what is possible for human progress.
   And here is the chronicle of the past, the history of the present, the programme for the future.
   Our present-day world is a vast Barataria governed by King Sancho.
   Don Quixote’s turn will be next.

Garrett deployed an array of techniques to foil linearity and stability: short chapters changing impulsively in tone and register; abrupt transitions (“Let us talk about something else.”); provocations to the reader (“I am assuredly about to disappoint the benevolent reader; my inescapable sincerity is about to lose me whatever good opinion I had earned in the first two chapters of this interesting journey.”); and even self-deprecating advices (“My honest and conscientious opinion is that the reader should skip these pages and go on to the next chapter, which is of another nature altogether.”). Much of the book’s charm comes from its illusion of harebrained construction; at times Garrett feigns forgetting or ignoring certain facts he’s narrating; then he digresses as if incapable of staying focused, a fault he’s aware of: “I am subject to these distractions, to this day-dreaming. What can I do about it? Walking, talking, writing, I dream and walk, I dream and talk, I dream and write.” Even he seems to grow impatient at his own excursions, and promises to end them: “Dear reader, forgive me one last reflection at the end of this boring chapter and I promise not to reflect any more.” And in keeping with the book-being-written-in-real-time effect, he constantly delights, not just in its artificiality, but in the actual physicality of the book as an object to be manipulated (“Let us turn the page indeed, it will be better.”), that follows organizational conventions like chapter breaks (“This chapter has no divagations, nor reflections, no considerations of any sort: it will go straight on with the story, without any distractions.”), and that can be interrupted (“Heavens! What witch is this at the door? What den of vice within?!... My pen falls from my hand.”).

But for all his proto-metafictional insouciance, Garrett has a more important point to make than parading technical virtuosity. His choice of the travel genre was not innocent; it was a genre associated with leisure, vacations, and ultimately fatuousness, a hobby for fact-gatherers rather than critical minds. Garrett makes his contempt for this genre clear when he writes:

I am very sorry, dear reader, if you expected something else of my Travels, if I unintentionally fail to keep promises you thought you see in the title, but which I certainly did not make. Perhaps you wished me to count the leagues of the highway milestone by milestone? The height and breadth of the buildings palm by palm? Their foundation dates number by number? To summarize the history of every stone, of every ruin?
   Go to Father Vasconcelos: there you shall find everything about Santarém, truth and fabrication, in massive folio and large print. I cannot write books of that sort, and even if I could, I have other things to do.

Even though travel writing put a premium in exoticism, in sauntering through strange lands and smirking at awkward customs, Garrett maintained that the travels which “have interested me most were still my travels in my homeland.” But these aren’t the words of a jingoist; his journey is actually a pretext to damn Portuguese history, politics and economy, decry its parasitic habit of aping foreign trends, and lament its loss of identity. In 220 pages he condenses everything that went wrong with Portugal in the first half of the 19th century.

Quick history lesson. In 1807 Napoleon’s army marched into Portugal, prompting King D. João VI and the royal court to relocate to colonial Brazil while leaving the army under British command, which assisted in fighting off the invader. After three unsuccessful invasions, France gave up in 1810; the royal family however stayed in Brazil (much to Brazil’s fortune, which for the first time in 300 years of colonialism finally received something in the way of cultural development like opera houses, botanical gardens, universities, libraries, newspapers, etc). Meanwhile Portugal remained an unofficial British protectorate under the control of General William Carr Beresford. Discontent over the foreign rule and damaging commercial treaties imposed by England to favor its own economy in detriment of Portugal’s bourgeois class, set the conditions for the 1820 Liberal Revolution, which interrupted Beresford’s government and forced King D. João VI to abandon the macaws to return to Portugal with restricted powers. One of the immediate benefits of this revolution, in which Garrett took part, was the extinction of the Inquisition, which inaugurated a new golden age of Portuguese literature.

Then things got complicated. D. João VI’s son, Pedro, had stayed in Brazil ruling it; in 1822 Brazilians declared independence from Portugal with the blessing of Pedro, who became the first Emperor of Brazil. Meanwhile, D. João VI’s younger son, Miguel, led in 1823 the Vila Franca Revolution (called “Vilafrancada” in Travels), which restored absolutism, tore up the young Constitution, and forced several liberals, Garrett included, to exile themselves abroad. D. João VI amnestied them a year later. His death in 1826, however, opened up a conflict of succession between Pedro and Miguel. In principle, Pedro was next in line for the crown, however he was an unpopular monarch because he had fought against Portugal. So he abdicated in favor of his daughter, who was only 6, which meant he effectively ruled Portugal while continuing to live in Brazil as its emperor. Miguel, with popular support, overthrew the little brat in 1828. Garrett once again crossed the border in a hurry when D. Miguel, backed by landowners and the Church, started hanging dissenters. Pedro, however, didn’t react until in 1832 when he abdicated the Brazilian crown and gathered a militia to overthrow his brother. More than a conflict between brothers, it was an ideological battle for the future of Portugal since Miguel wanted the ancien régime back and Pedro supported the liberal cause and the reform of Portugal’s political institutions. Garrett, in the company of Herculano, enlisted in Pedro’s army and took part in the civil war that culminated in 1834 with the liberals defeating Miguel.

The civil war lingers in the background of Travels thanks to an interpolated novella about a son and a father on opposite sides. Occupying a good chunk of the book, this novella treats the civil war with a melancholy sensibility absent from the other sections. It’s as if the events were too close to Garrett’s heart to warrant ribaldry. By the classic gravitas he bestows upon these chapters, Garrett seems to mean that, in an absurd, amoral world, only the guise of fiction can still embody a semblance of dignity and seriousness. Its chapters are powerful and heartbreaking, because written with the authority of one awash with the war’s blood. With poignant simplicity, they show a severed country that never healed back.

Garrett and Herculano, however, elected as MPs, quickly lost their enthusiasm for the regime they had helped create when they realized it was teeming with greed, arrivisme, corruption, and bribery. To Garrett’s mind the monk, the old regime’s pillar, had given way to what he called the “baron,” the unscrupulous backroom dealer who sacrifices all communal interests for money. “They are the disease of the century,” he storms in Travels. Herculano, disgusted, retreated into a legendary silence that made his rare public interventions all the more imposing. Garrett instead used his journey from Lisbon, the capital and seat of greed and indifference, to Santarém, redolent with national history, to compose a comical elegy to a doomed country in the hands of self-serving politicians. “A friend of mine, a secretary of state, used to say that for the streets of Lisbon to be improved on an equal footing, ministers ought to be obliged to change street and district every three months. When the law of ministerial responsibility is drawn up, at the Greek Calends, I shall propose that every minister be made to travel this Portugal of his once a year at least, to discharge his obligation.”

It’s important to notice that when Garrett rails against the “barons” he’s not your typical woolly leftist writer who moans about “markets,” “big capital,”  “Wall Street” and other vague entities whose complex inner workings he doesn’t understand; he was in fact talking about people who sat next to him in Parliament. John M. Parker, in the introduction to his excellent translation, mentions that Garrett helped Mouzinho da Silveira, then Minister of Finances, draw up the legal framework for the new society. Nowadays Mouzinho is revered in political circles as the fabled, no-nonsense, competent politician of yore the West likes to pretend it’s sorry for no longer having. He’s particularly remembered for a sobering speech where he remarked that the kingdom had “lived for more than three years off the work of slaves” and “having lost the slaves it was necessary to create a new way of existing, creating value through personal work.” Actually Mouzinho, like so many modern-day austerity-loving politicians who thrive on faking an image of moral rectitude, was involved in a ruinous scheme to sell national assets at low prices to private companies in which he owned stocks. The members of his cabinet practiced such rampart corruption that history books call them the Devoristas (Devourers) because of their shameless appetite for embezzlement. Garret could only choose between laughter and nausea.

And laugh he did. Although he borrowed his style from Lawrence Sterne, Garret is every bit a moralist as Petronius in his longing for a bygone past and in his hatred for a present ruled by coarse, ignorant nouveau riche.  His first-hand experience with venality makes him condemn the materialism of his age:

No – go to the Devil, you generation of steam and pottery; macadamize roads; make railways; build flying machines, like Icarus, to cover faster and faster the numbered hours of this material, coarse and humdrum life that you have made of the one God gave us, which was so different from the way we love today. Go on, money-grubbers, go on! Reduce everything to figures, reduce all the considerations of this world to equations of material interest: buy, sell, speculate. At the end of it all, what profit will there have been for the human species? A few dozen more rich men. I ask the political economist and the moralists if they have calculated the number of individuals who must be condemned to misery, to excessive labour, to depravity, to villainy, to wanton ignorance, to insurmountable wretchedness, to absolute poverty, in order to produce one rich man.

But even if he did not include himself amongst those “restless, contradictory spirits who are always sighing for the past and are never content with the present,” his haven is the past: a literary past, as seen in the most quoted writer in the book, Luís de Camões, author of our national epic The Lusiads and the quintessential poet let down by a country he castigated as much as he loved; but also a past alive in folklore. This is what identifies him as a romantic, no matter how much he mocks them in the book.

Both Herculano and Garrett heeded the call of their time to collect and publish popular ballads, romances, songs, and fables, which in Garrett’s case he saw as an alternative culture to the one dominated by the political elite. Although conversant with the knowledge of his century, he still preferred the taste of “ordinary people, whose taste is always better and purer than that of the pale scum that floats on the surface of every population and entitles itself in superior fashion society.” He considered this taste noble in the sense that Aristotle in the Rhetoric saw “the distinctive qualities of a particular people” noble. In ordinary people he discovered an authenticity he believed no longer existed in civilized Lisbon, and certainly not in the educated classes. “Otherwise, tell me: where are our universities, and what else does the one we do have do, other than award its third-rate degree of bachelor in law and medicine? What does it write, what does it debate, what are its principles, what doctrines does it profess, who knows anything about it or hears anything from it except the occasional timid, fearful echo of what is said and done elsewhere?” 40 years later, Eça de Queiroz would ridicule the Royal Academy of Science along similar lines. Although Garrett lived in “this prosaic age when the most beautiful creations of the human mind seem like foolish antics in the face of the real world, and the noble impulses of the heart just enthusiastic fancies,” Art was still his salvation. For that reason he quotes Camões, his eternal companion in the journey, like a prayer. For that reason he reproduces with gusto popular ballads he rescued from oblivion. And in the end Art is still the privileged place to show man in all its greatness, “for man is a great, sublime creature, whatever the philosophers say.”

In a way, Travels embodies Garrett’s Portugal: emulating foreign books while mocking its readers for fawning over foreign fashions, wearing its exoticism on its sleeves while excoriating its readers for having lost their sense of portugalidade. Its most valuable lesson, however, lies in showing how one can be local and cosmopolitan at the same time.

I suppose only our modern-day biased view of the 19th century as the birthplace of the Naturalist novel explains why Eça de Queiroz continues to bear alone the burden of representing Portugal’s multifarious 19th century literature abroad. That’s a pity because Garrett, although perhaps not as great, paved the way with Herculano for Eça and the Generation of ’70: Antero de Quental, Oliveira Martins, Fialho de Almeida, Ramalho Ortigão. Garrett invented Eça’s humour, handed him a comprehensive list of reasons to be pessimistic about his society, set up his targets, and to a certain extent molded the Portuguese language into the rapid, sharp rapier with which Eça punctured his enemies. Although Garrett died with a gigantic reputation, his techniques found few disciples; in fact they found more fertile ground on the other side of the pond. The Brazilian Machado de Assis, whose quirky novel The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas shares many similarities with Travels, had a profound love for Garrett and frequently alluded to him in his newspaper articles. As he wrote of his precursors in the prologue to Brás Cubas’ third edition: “All those people have travelled: Xavier de Maistre around his room, Garrett in his land, Sterne in other people's lands.” (I’m using Gregory Barbassa’s translation.)

Perhaps Garrett’s most tenacious legacy can be found in Portuguese novelists’ frequent disregard for the barrier between author and narrator. In 1894, Raul Brandão created a Travels-like novel composed of different genres, including a preface signed by one Raul Brandão who introduces the life and work of a friend, the fictional poet K. Maurício, who shot himself dead: the novel purports to be a collection of loose papers Brandão saves for posterity. Brandão would continue to break down the barriers between author and narrator, pushing himself more and more into the narrative, something already noticeable in The Poor, to the point that his final “novels” were just his own lyrically gorgeous plotless monologues. José Saramago never hid the fact that Garrett taught him to create his own trademark chattering, digressive narrator who comments on his own fiction (and whom Saramago insists is himself). He also shared Garrett’s indifference to genre boundaries and conceived the novel as a boundless territory where narrative, essay, poetry, and science could form together a heightened dimension of perception. And when António Lobo Antunes (who will never own up to anyone influencing him), a war veteran embittered by his country, wrote Knowledge of Hell, about a war veteran called António Lobo Antunes embittered by his country, who takes a plotless car drive from Algarve to Lisbon while freely rambling about his disappointment with post-revolutionary Portugal, he – well, benevolent reader, you get the idea. As Afonso Lopes Vieira wrote in 1903, Garrett “was the spiritual father of our iconoclasm.”

Travels in My Homeland is not just Portugal’s ur-novel, it’s also one of Western Literature’s comical masterpieces, a splendid example of Menippean satire. Reading Garrett is witnessing that rare and joyful thing, a writer drunk on the discovery and practice of new narrative possibilities. Being as it was a throwback to another era when it first appeared, nowadays it conserves a youthful freshness that hides its age. When I learned that it had been translated into English, I read it with anguished curiosity, like one approaching a train wreck, hoping to find survivors but deep down expecting only maimed body parts. But the two days I spent, in exhilarated elation, reacquainting myself with favorite passages that preserved the elegance and hilarity of the original, makes me believe that John M. Parker has achieved that improbable feat, a spotless translation. More than an update, it needs a rerelease. It’s disheartening, but hardly surprising, that no one noticed it 30 years ago; you can probably fit the market for hardback classic Portuguese novels in a satchel bag. Nowadays, though, with interest in translated fiction flowering, and more channels to promote it, a paperback edition of Almeida Garrett’s Travels could finally start marveling English-speaking readers as it’s been doing in Portuguese for two centuries now.

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