In 1960, Jorge de Sena, having barely begun his self-imposed exile in Brazil, published a short-story collection titled Andanças do Demónio (The Devil’s Travels). Although nowadays remembered as one of Portugal’s greatest poets and literary scholars, he had left his country for fear the dictatorship caught up with his revolutionary activity. The year before he had participated in a botched uprising. Not waiting to find out if his involvement had reached the political police, he travelled to Brazil under the pretext of attending a literary conference, and settled there, calling his wife and children months later. In 1966, by then teaching in the United States, he published a second short-story collection, Novas Andanças do Diabo (The Devil’s New Travels). As the title implied, it had thematic similarities with the previous book, for which reason current editions sell both volumes together. Thanks to the initiative of Daphne Patai, Sena’s former student at the University of Wisconsin, eleven of those short-stories, dating from 1946 to 1964, have appeared in English in a slim volume called By The Rivers of Babylon. Sena has never found a major publisher to champion his cause in English, so it’s unsurprising that this book resulted from the concerted efforts of former students and Polygon, a small Edinburgh press. Weeks ago I wrote about The Prodigious Physician, a novella once belonging to the second volume, and which came out in a new translation by Margaret Jull Costa thanks to Dedalus Books. What would be of us without those small but brave publishers?
It’s a pity that this book is out of print, because reading it in conjunction with Sena’s fantastic novella improves one and the other. Both books suffer from the decision to excise Sena’s prefaces wherein the reader could learn a lot from them about Sean’s creative process and the tendencies of Portugal’s prose fiction at the time. The casual reader looking for an overview of 20th century Portuguese fiction doesn’t have many resources at his disposal. Translations come out willy-nilly, creating huge gaps: Eça de Queiroz’s almost entire oeuvre is available, but almost nothing prior to him; after him a void stretches until José Saramago and António Lobo Antunes. A few months ago I discovered a translation of Almeida Garrett’s Travels In My Homeland, and Raul Brandão has finally been translated. This hardly amounts to a clear picture. By reading Sena’s books without his prefaces, the reader misses out on his role in renewing Portuguese fiction.
Throughout the 1930s, an art for art’s sake aesthetics prevailed, closely aligned to European modernism and the primacy of artistic expression over socio-political considerations. Things changed around the time World War II started: a new generation had matured during the dictatorship, had seen the fall of the Spanish republic and worried about the rise of fascism. As writers embraced Marxism, their fiction turned to social realism and became instrumental in ushering the upcoming revolution. Nothing revolutionary came out of it, politically or aesthetically, just novels about peasants and exploited proletarians, petty bourgeois and children working in factories. Now, in those years social realism also steered the course of fiction in Europe and the USA, but I think the political situation in Portugal aggravated the matter: in a regime held together by propaganda for domestic and foreign consumption, it was imperative to tell the truth, demystify, arouse the reader, depict reality in all its sordid grimness. Fantasy had no place in fiction. Nobody yet knew that the Latin Americans were depicting dictatorships through elaborate fantasies, or that dissidents behind the Iron Curtain often resorted to surrealism and the absurd to tackle Soviet life. In Portugal, when writers did find out both alternatives, they treated them with hostility.
For historical reasons, this adherence to strict realism wasn’t surprising. Portugal has always been rather deficient in genre fiction, although things have improved in recent decades. For a long time our writers did not have an interest in horror, Gothic fiction, police novels, or science fiction. In fact, some of our earliest genre fiction came, not from serviceable hacks, but from our top writers: Eça de Queiroz wrote Portugal’s first detective novel, The Mystery of Sintra Road; Fernando Pessoa actually created a recurring sleuth, Quaresma, although these stories remained unpublished for decades; his buddy Mário de Sá-Carneiro explored science-fiction in the 1910s and wrote a weird novel with elements of the mystery genre called Lucio’s Confession. However, these attempts never found continuators and died isolated.
This social realist hegemony started fissuring in the early 1960s. Literary Marxism, during the previous decades, had infiltrated major key positions: editors, publishers, journalists, reviewers, translators, academic scholars, they all helped created a hegemonic aesthetic from which one dared not deviate. Then a new generation matured, suffocating under this narrow approach to fiction, and anxious to try out anything that smacked of different. A backlash against realism put new writers on the path of experimentation, gleefully tearing apart all assumptions about conventional fiction. Yes, most of it was an unreadable wankfest. This backlash, by the way, wasn’t exclusive to Portugal; throughout the Western world realism came under attack. A craving for novelty ignited a bit everywhere at the same. Several writers revitalized old genres, appropriated trashy genres, fused genres, rewrote folklore and fairy-tales, invested in historical fiction, and turned fiction self-aware. The denial of realism followed multiple strategies. Now there was the fun way, and there was the French way; the Portuguese, alas, chose the French way. Alain Robbe-Grillet’s nouveau roman became popular with our would-be cool kids who began plagiarizing him. From the 1960s to the 1980s Portugal was plagued by tedious, joyless, incomprehensible novels without plot or characters, blinded by their own abstruse language. Since Portugal got all its news from literary and otherwise, from France, it would of course follow Robbe-Grillet’s lead; the USA, literarily speaking, did not exist for the average Portuguese writer. I also have a personal theory that it was easier for our writers to emulate Robbe-Grillet because, as far as style went, the Frenchman’s verbal mendacity could intimidate even our most hopeless realists. The path of least resistance explains a lot about literary history, I’m afraid. Adapting to Oulipo’s exhilarating self-imposed rules, or indulging in the pyrotechnics of Vladimir Nabokov and Anthony Burgess, would have involved more work. Culturally speaking, we were already used to the bland language the nouveau romanciers specialized in.
However, Sena, an outsider with wider horizons, chose the fun way instead: keeping the stuff that worked in, adding new possibilities. Although he hadn’t probably read them yet, this was what Italo Calvino and John Barth were doing. After decades of fiction at the service of politics, it was time to tell stories again for the sheer pleasure of it. His stories entertain, have plot, the characters have goals, things happen to them. And unlike Robbe-Grillet, he actually made an effort to give the impression that his prose did not rush out of the dull brain of an overworked journalist supplying a tabloid vying for analphabets.
If realism had dominated Sena’s earliest stories, his second volume was such a radical departure he used the preface to defend himself. For him reality by itself mattered less than the critical attitude with which the writer analyzed it. He advocated distorting it if that got the author closer to the truth. He advised his peers to be objective with fantasy and subjective with reality. Even with Patai’s selection, the stories show a variety of registers and genres. In “The Corner Window,” a widow withers away slowly, becoming a banquet for lice, as she transforms the spot in front of a window into an observatory into the banal lives of passer-byes. A nobody’s attempt to honor the memory of a war hero turns “The Commemoration” into a comical triumph. Fantasy pops up in “The Story of the Duck-Fish,” about a fisherman’s friendship with a bizarre creature, half-duck half-fish, and in “Kama and the Genie,” the genie being an Indian tree genie who accidentally pisses off a god. A procession of historical figures runs through these stories. In “A Night of Nativity” a Roman official receives a visit from his old friend Saul, now converted to Christianity, asking for his help to save Christians from Nero. The Venerable Bede shows up in “Sea of Stones,” taming two bandits thanks to a miracle. Sena’s admiration for the poet Luís de Camões resulted in “By the Rivers of Babylon.” No higher purpose unifies these stories than the joy of narrating.
Sena justified this overreliance on historical fiction. “I don’t think realism, whatever it be, implies a contemporaneity of setting; and, sometimes, a pseudo-historical reenactment may portray our surrounding reality much better and more objectively, or make us feel its historicity, than the oh so esteemed two-bit aesthetics of traditional realism,” he wrote. He wasn’t telling the whole story, though. Historical fiction also allowed writers used to censorship to tackle certain themes obliquely. Sena was in consonance with other Portuguese writers who had discovered the usefulness of creating parables or setting stories in the past in order to get past the dictatorship’s surveillance. Now, it’s true that Sena wrote several of these stories already in exile, but once you get used to writing with censorship in mind, it’s hard to shake off the habit. José Saramago’s novels are a good example of this: in the ‘80s he sauntered from one time period to another, whereas in the ‘90s he evolved to parables set in nameless, abstract countries. After the regime fell in 1974, novelists had to relearn to write about the world in front of their eyes. It was Lobo Antunes, in the late seventies, who showed that writing directly about contemporary Portugal was possible, and funnier. He put Lisbon’s smells and street names, popular bands and brands, and last week’s newspaper back in a fiction that risked vanishing into vagueness.
Some stories worked for me, some not really. Although simple in its syntax and repetitive like a fable, “The Story of the Duck-Fish” is enigmatic. I didn’t like it, but the more I think about it the more I think it’s an allegory about creativity. This is what the narrator says about the Robinson Crusoe-like fisherman living in a very writerly chosen solitude. “But he was not sad, no. Nor did he even talk to himself. When he would talk, speech for him was generally a kind of forceful addition to the work of his hands, or an imaginary conversation with the animals he caught in order to eat, while he tried to catch them or, after having caught them, while he scaled, plucked or skinned them.” Is the fisherman the writer, the caught animals words, and the fantastic duck-fish, with its infrequent visits, inspiration?
Some protagonists are writers. Bede is “a soul who always wrote, always read, debated always, inquired always,” which is quite autobiographical. Also autobiographical is the story of Camões, a poet who spent 17 years abroad writing our literature’s greatest treasure, only to come back to general scorn, poverty and illness. Sena, one of the greatest scholars Camões ever had, would spend his last 20 years living abroad in a love-hate relationship with Portugal.
Herr Werner Stupnein, “former high official of the SS,” also reputes himself a writer. He’s that special thing: a bonafide Nazi intellectual. You just know that dark humor lies ahead. As he arrives at a recently conquered Ukrainian town, he’s distressed to discover that nobody shipped his library to him. In its place he finds crates containing “copies of Mein Kampf, editions of the Führer’s speeches, works by Rosenberg and other writers such as Jünger (whom I admired), all in German.” Any book lover who’s ever misplaced a book on the shelf can sympathize with him. “Why should I want all of that, instead of my beloved companions, my books? And what was I to do with that pile of book? Distribute them to the peasants, who were illiterate, or who, even if they weren’t, could only read Russian – itself a form of illiteracy?” However, suspecting that this may be a ploy by his political enemies, he ends up distributing the books to the troops and civilians.
Stupnein has written a pamphlet explaining and defending his very extreme notions of ethics, or rather, their non-existence:
Evidently there does not exist any natural morality, valid for all beings. And it is equally evident that morality is not, as the Marxists would have it, a class prejudice. Morality is the mass of practical rules elaborated through the experience of the species in its selective struggle for survival and domination. Within this order of ideas, scientifically demonstrable and demonstrated, it is reasonable to eliminate any elements contrary to German destiny, and it is a crime for a German to injure another pure German who, like himself, has an equal right to contribute to an participate in this progress.
This is just the prolegomenon. His reasoning gets weirder to the point of creating a system in which “rape, homosexualty, sadism, etc., are perfectly legitimate in these circumstances. To raise, for example, doubts about passive pederasty or masochism, does not follow, inasmuch as in none of these cases is the pleasure of the active agent in question, for he merely plays a role which is demanded of him or determined by an element that is biologically superior to him.” Even if the Third Reich finds this too much. “These ideas of mine, above all regarding sexuality, caused an enormous scandal among those personalities still leashed to the monstrous traditions of irrational moralism,” he complains. “Public discussion of my pamphlet – in which I carefully developed and extended my argumentation with the greatest scientific objectivity, relying on citations from the best biological, ethnological, and sociological sources – was actually forbidden.”
If you were in the SS, Herr Stupnein is the kind of official you’d like to serve under. I can just imagine the popularity of his nonchalant approach to misconduct. One of the problems he deals with involves finding women to keep the troops happy. His superiors recommend opening brothels, a solution he rejects since the local women in occupied areas are scarce; and he takes umbrage at using German women because “German morality quite rightly did not permit our young German women to constitute an auxiliary corps within the Army.” What to do then?
For some time I dedicated the best part of my attention to this problem, which even surfaced in several cases that I had to suppress with tolerance and understanding (precisely because they occurred in the person of beings devoid of human attributes or civilization), involving collective rapes of old women or of children of both sexes. As far as I was concerned, the problem did not exist, for I have always known how to discipline my imagination.
“Discipline my imagination.” If I wanted, I could probably find an allegory of creativity in this story too. Truth is, any creative story is an allegory about creativity.
“Defense and Justification of a Former War Criminal” quickly became my favorite story of the book. I love this kind of story, the creation of a voice as vile and captivating, perhaps because I have a penchant for writing it myself. I once wrote a short-story about the real-life chief-inquisitor who died during Lisbon’s 1755 earthquake: the Inquisition’s Palace was one of the many buildings destroyed; he was inside at the time and died crushed by a ceiling or a tumbling wall. When I discovered this, I immediately visualized his ghost hovering over Lisbon witnessing the destruction and discussing it with imaginary angels. I figured he’d beam at the destruction. First the earthquake razed most of the city, then the survivors fled to the riverside thinking themselves safe there from collapsing builds, except the tremors created a gigantic tsunami that drowned thousands and flooded the city. Finally, fires erupted everywhere creating a massive firestorm that lasted days. To an onlooker that would be a perfect picture of the apocalypse, so my inquisitor could only be ecstatic! He was finally going to enter Paradise. I originally started it in the third-person but soon shifted to the first when I understood the voice’s potential. With a singular voice, the words just come out by themselves, the voice wants to reveal itself, to make itself known. To widen the dissonance between the horrible destruction and what I hoped was a beautiful form, I wrote the whole story alliteratively. In this case I didn’t care too much about narrative, although it has a structure, but with getting one good sentence after another, until I had enough good sentences to call it quits. I was interested in how long I could keep up the voice burning before it ran out of allure to me. I think the secret is stopping before the voice turns too cozy, too familiar, at which point it’s no longer interesting.
Sena is far less overwrought than me, and that’s why he’s much better. He uses simple, economic language, but when you have a good voice it’s hard to write a boring sentence. I think these extreme characters, with their rambling rational madness, appeal to writers because they allow them to move away from stock sentences. Words combine themselves in a fresher way. I speak for myself, but then again I run away from “The sky was blue,” “Her face was red like pepper” and other inducers of emesis. I think a laissez-faire attitude towards literary language only benefits it: leave it alone and it takes care of itself. The fewer plans or intentions one brings to it, the better its chances of turning into something unique. I love Sena’s story so much because of its transparency; it’s just a voice eager to make itself heard, it doesn’t care about our judgment. Literary Marxism came in with ready-made personalities: the poor, bad; the rich, evil. Sure, the reader can judge Stupnein repugnant, but Sena is less interest in judging him than recording his voice. Literature does not have to be a spokesperson. When language abandons the borders of banality and lights out to horrifying callousness, prose comes alive, as this remarkable description of a fifteen-year-old girl being gang raped shows:
When my two companions took hold of her, she, struggling, urinated down her legs out of foolish fright. In the rural atmosphere, with the smell of the steppe entering through the door on a light breeze, the urine trickling down added to her sharp, wild-animal charm. I did not resist, it was the only time that I did not resist. She, however, resisted; and I preserve as the best recollection of those ineffable moments the respect toward me, the delicacy, the firm decision, without any hint of morbid curiosity or libidinous promiscuity, with which my driver and orderly held her for me. The least that was demanded of my by loyalty and camaraderie among individuals of a superior race, separated only by military hierarchy, was to wait afterwards, the door, which I did, as each of them user her while the other held her down. When the two of them reappeared (and in the tempered elegance of their manners could be seen the pure and guileless health of German youth), she, head down and tearful, with her tattered clothes reduced to almost nothing, moved between both of them, and they supported her on her feet. But in her eyes, lit by the golden, green, orange-hued sunset that was burning the steppe, there was a new gleam: such is the power of the revelation of sex, when undertaken by superior men devoid of sentimental scruples!
I’d have killed for this paragraph. A few years back, during an online readalong of a bloated novel called 2666, famous for describing countless rapes. I suggested to a friend that it’d have been cool if Roberto Bolaño had described each rape in a different style. My friend, shocked, told me he was happy he hadn’t. I don’t understand such reaction from someone who loves books. Why not go Raymond Queneau on rape? How can anyone prefer rape described 300 times in the same fleeting language of journalism to a writer showing off his versatility? I’m often puzzled about what exactly people take away from a novel.
Not that Sena is immune to leitmotifs. Although I disliked “The Corner Window,” at the same time I’m fascinated by the way he’s not afraid of using the same words over and over. The widow’s hair is covered with lice, and Sena keeps repeating the word “lice” throughout the story in different contexts, to show her growing alienation from reality and indifference to life. I was more interested in circling out that word whenever it came up than following the story per se. When I write I write with the whole dictionary; I’m terrified of repeating the same word in the same paragraph, or page, or story. Before I succumb to it I try to rewrite the sentence, and I feel despondent when I can’t find an alternative and do have to repeat myself. So at the same time I’m repulsed and fascinated by people who do it so naturally. I wish I could repeat words more often because as an effect it works well, sometimes, and my aversion to it is holding me back; but at the same time I can’t get myself to do it. This got me thinking that some writers are centripetal and others centrifugal. Centripetal writers like Sena write around the same vocabulary, which forms a center they can and do return to, pilling up metaphors, imagery, creating internal resonances. I find all of that remarkable. But when I write I tend to be centrifugal; I run away from a center; I actually impose constraints on myself in order to avoid a center and so I always try to build sentences from previously unused words, guiding the reader away from reference points. Of course some form of center always exists: I have to repeat character names and pronouns, for instance, but I do keep it to a minimum. I don’t think it’s the best way of writing, but that’s how I naturally write. However, I wish I were a bit more like Sena and didn’t worry so much about repetition in order to take advantage of its rhetorical possibilities.
I had been meaning to read “By the Rivers of Babylon” for years now, ever since the poet Sophia de Mello Breyner praised it in her correspondence with Sena. I don’t think it’s the book’s pinnacle, but I can understand why it’s become Sena’s signature story. It addresses the old question, "Why does anyone write?" Its title, although taken from Psalm 137, actually alludes to Luís de Camões’ long poem that riffs on it. Sena loved Camões: he considered him our greatest genius; he studied him, edited him, wrote poetry about him. One of the last times he visited Portugal, before his death in 1978, was to give a speech about Camões. Sena resembled Camões: both loved their country, both were forced to live abroad, both were poets. Tradition claims Camões died unrecognized, which isn’t completely true, and Sena, a megalomaniac according to many who knew him, believed that no one paid him the respect he was due, which wasn’t true either. Undoubtedly both have became greater figures since their death, distorted by legend too.
Like other stories in the book, this one is about artistic creativity. Sena even risks showing how Camões’ mind worked:
When she spoke to him, and above all when she persisted, he had to keep himself from being distracted by the words he was hearing: or soon, in the interrupted flow of ideas that continually wandered off like an agitated river, a tenebrous void would open, a dark vortex in which hovered shreds of verses and of things he had seen, and, further down, something like a very small illuminated door, or a glass laid over strange waters in which rare beings were swimming and that looked like an eye gazing at him, blinking or pulsating, he could not tell – perhaps, yes, not even an eye, but a watery transparency like the reflections of waves in the moonlight.
I guess poets and poetasters’ minds work the same way, because I can relate to his ADHD. I may not have one of the world’s greatest epic poems bubbling in my brain, but I struggle to anchor myself to what’s around me. Going through simple chitchat with a colleague at work can be torture for me because I’m not remotely interested in it 99% of the times, and I have to interrupt my obsessing over some mental picture, or word, or idea that I’d probably discard anyway, but that in that precise moment feels far more interesting than anything else. I suspect Sena was really describing himself here, but ended up tapping into something general about creative people. Personally, I just like to believe in anything that normalizes my intrinsic misanthropy.
Legend interests Sena less than the flesh behind it. His Camões is an ill quidam appareled in physical pain, his former love for life turned into longing for release from life. A meager royal pension, paid not for his sonnets but for services to the Crown in Asia, and paid intermittently, barely saves him from insolvency. His only consolation is daydreaming about the King calling him and hearing his courtly peers praise this pathetic pauper whose poetry overshadows theirs. But even his art begins to fail him. “His verses, now, had abandoned him. They had dissolved, like sugar, in the uninterrupted river of thought where in the past they used to bob up abruptly, like pieces of burning ice that one by one joined together to make a poem. And he did not long for them at all.” His imminent death is implied. He barely has a voice in the story, as if he were just an empty carcass, whereas his mother, who takes care of him, gives a long speech for several pages, interrupted a few times, where she chastises him for being a poet “because this business of poetry never brought anyone anything.” Not even his mother, who sacrifices herself for him, understands his gift. His isolated is total. And yet he wrote poems to communicate: “It had never been for himself that he had written them. For others, yes. So that they would hear him, so that they would marvel at him, so that they would understand him, so that they would see how everything in life had a precise meaning that only he was capable of discovering, an architecture that it would not have without him, a beauty that does not exist except as the idea first thought by whoever is worthy of it.” By asserting that the writer writes for himself and to create beauty, Sena was distancing himself from his peers.
Tellingly, Sena does not write Camões yearning for a happier past. Psalm 137 does allude to the Jews’ yearning for Jerusalem, but Camões doesn’t have a golden past to return to. His memories are of past poetry, not of past pleasures. He sees vividly the scenes of The Lusiads, but not the Asia he lived in for more than a decade. He remembers the love sonnets he wrote, but knows that the love in them was artifice. This is an important corrective to the cliché that writers feed on remembrance, that our memories are a panacea that sustains us in hard times. I don’t believe in that. I believe that what sustains a writer is his need to create art. Sena’s Camões has no solace; poetry does him no good; he expects no reward for it; no one praises him. But he is a poet and writing is his vocation. Sena finishes the story with him starting a new poem, a long plaint comparing the happy past with the bleak present, a happy past that incidentally included debts, prison, famine, losing an eye as a soldier of fortune, losing a book of poems, and being stranded in Africa until his friends paid his passage to Lisbon. So much for the heaven of remembrance. Ruin is our condition; all a poet can do is aestheticise that ruin. Literature does not redeem, but I think it can save in a very modest way. Imbue the creases in your life with qualities that make you proud; corral chaos, turn it into a tool like potter's clay, make it an instrument in your own concert; cull it by cuddling it. I wonder how many times a single syllable has saved a writer from suicide and insanity. Anyone who writes to keep depression at bay will understand the final words; and anyone who writes from vocation will nod at the familiarity of the scene:
Everything had failed, everything, and poetry itself had abandoned him, fearful of his penetrating soulful eyes that saw into the depth of things. The pool with its floating forms. But he was a great poet, he transformed into poetry whatever he touched, even misery, even bitterness, even poetry’s abandonment. All atremble but with a firm hand, he began to write… By the rivers that flow from Babylon to Zion I found myself seated… He scratched it out, desperate. And began again. By the rivers that run past Babylon I found myself and there sat weeping for memory of Zion and all that befell me…
And he wrote on into the night.