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.

Thursday, 12 January 2017

A really short non-history of the Portuguese novel from the Inquisition to Almeida Garrett

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.

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