Merlin or the Waste Land (Merlin oder Das wüste Land) by Tankred Dorst (in collaboration with Ursula Ehler)

DorstMerlinIf you, like myself, have suffered through Thomas Malory’s indigestible Le Morte Darthur, you would feel vindicated by the large-scale deconstruction of the Arthurian romances undertaken by Tankred Dorst and his collaborator Ursula Ehler in this epic play. The 1981 premiere of Merlin in Dusseldorf  was nine and a half hours long — surely, an overbearing experience not any spectator can sustain, although neither that one nor the subsequent stagings were complete, as the play performed in its entirety would run to the tune of 15 hours. Consequently, seeing Merlin on stage so far has meant the inevitable foregoing of some parts of the original text.  Anyone who would like to experience this unwieldy play in its complete form has to read it. This situation is not uncommon for German language dramatic works: think, for example, of such monumental plays as Goethe’s Faust or Karl Kraus’ The Last Days of Mankind. Since there has been an English language production of Merlin based on an abridged translation, the play is well-known in the theatrical milieu. However, the complete text as an autonomous work of literature has not reached the English-speaking reader  yet — hence my modest contribution to filling in this gap.

In general lines, Dorst’s and Ehler’s play faithfully follows Mallory’s account of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table from the promising beginnings of this idealistic society to its tragic dissolution and the demise of its leader. The only glaring omission is the story of Tristram and Isolde (the bulkiest part of Le Morte Darthur, as you know) which is just slightly sketched out in several letters exchanged between Queen Guinevere and Isolde. The course of the major events recounted by Mallory has been preserved, and we know in advance how everything is going to end. Nevertheless, Merlin is full of surprises, as its authors add a new and rather gloomy spin to the familiar legends both in terms of narrative techniques, of how the stories are presented, and in terms of the specific details of each episode. Another significant instance of licence taken by the German playwright and his collaborator is the introduction into their text of “outsider” characters who do not belong to the traditional Arthurian world. By making a new embroidery on the old canvas the authors present the audience with a modern interpretation of the traditional motifs, in which the story of the Round Table serves as a blueprint for the destruction of a civilisation.

Merlin is a dynamic, I would even say stroboscopic, work that consists of 97 scenes some of which are just several sentences long. Genre-wise it is a patchwork comprising drama, verse, narrative and songs. Quite often the poems and songs are recited in foreign languages: English, Italian, Old French, Celtic Breton. The play consists of a short prologue in which Christ, illuminated by a thousand light-bulbs, drives away pagan gods, and the following four parts: Merlin’s Birth, The Round Table, The Grail, Destruction. Merlin is the controversial, complex protagonist of the unfolding drama who has something of Faust and something of Peer Gynt. He frequently behaves like a traditional Trickster figure provoking, tempting, misleading and making fools out of the gullible Arthurian knights. Merlin’s magic is of diabolical nature as he is the child of ugly giantess Hanne and the Devil himself. The sole purpose of Merlin’s coming into existence seems to be the fulfillment of his dark progenitor’s intention as he is already born as a grown-up man, ready to work miracles and cause mischief among human beings.  In the course of dialogues between the wizard and his father we learn what kind of grand and wicked design the Devil had in mind when begetting Merlin: to unite the knights of the Christian oecumen and to send them on the path of evil that will eventually lead them to hell. Being far from an obedient son, Merlin appears to be revolting against his father’s wish: while he readily gets down to the business of establishing the new chivalric society, he refuses point-blank to instill in his wards inclination towards evil. Instead, he opts to leave them with the choice which path to take. This, at first glance unbiased position suits the Devil just right, for he knows well enough that letting humans choose between good and evil is the surest way of dooming them to eternal perdition. When King Arthur, under the tutelage of Merlin, founds the fellowship of the Round Table, he is perhaps one of the very few who naively think that a great chivalric Utopia is being inaugurated, that thanks to the new order all strife and iniquity will become obsolete. What we see unraveling before us, instead, is not so much a sequence of courageous and noble deeds, but a series of petty conflicts between utterly depraved and vicious characters bent on satisfying their sadistic urges or monomaniacal goals. Yes, they have come together, but there is nothing noble or altruistic about their unity. The Round Table allows for synergy of wickedness that will inevitably result in a full-blown apocalypse.

Since some of the German reviewers were pointing out the excessive violence of the play, I was half-expecting a Texas Chainsaw Massacre treatment of the material which had been far from bloodless already in its medieval form. This did not turn out to be the case, although there are several scenes that are clearly meant to shock with its Grand Guignol attention to gore. For example, Parzival who comes to the king’s court as a feral adolescent obtains his first armour by gouging out the eyes of its possessor with a sharp twig and then by scraping the murdered knight’s flesh out of the armour with a knife like “the meat of a lobster out of the half-opened shell”. Most of the violence, however, is of psychological character. It is latent in most of the dialogues, even if they seem quite innocent or even benevolent at first. The atmosphere of lurking menace never leaves the stage. The characters may be exchanging opinions or sharing secrets, or just bringing one another up to date — but this is just on the surface. The ulterior motifs of betraying the trust of the other, of pushing them towards some harmful decision, of using them to one’s own purpose and then discarding them to a horrible fate are all too obvious to ignore. They are tangible in almost every scene of the play, and that is exactly what the dark magic that got the Arthurian society running in the first place is about. In this fictional world, nobody can escape the pervasive violence, even those who are perfectly aware of its fictitiousness. At one point, a skeptical spectator climbs the stage to check if the Siege Perilous at the round table can do him any harm. As soon as the man takes a seat, he is engulfed by flames.


An Abrams tank exposing its Medieval roots. Art by Jody Harmon. Image Source.

Merlin is as self-reflexive as it gets. Lots of postmodern tricks are employed here, but they are not an end in itself. First and foremost, the play is a very dense, personal vision of the Arthurian romances, obviously refracted through the prism of avant-garde art and the cold war mentality and presented as a series of heterogeneous elements bearing the imprints of these preoccupations. The Theatre of the Absurd and the surrealists have definitely been a significant influence: there are echoes of Beckett and Ionesco as well as a couple of scenes that would make David Lynch proud. At the same time, without any direct reference, there is a subtle evocation of the menace characteristic of the period in which nuclear confrontation between the two superpowers and the subsequent obliteration of the life on earth were considered by many a possibility. Let us not forget that the fellowship of The Round Table is a society primarily based and totally dependent upon the use of lethal weapons. A knight covered in armour from head to toe loses humanity, his face is transformed into the soulless steel mask of war expediency. He represents the incessant drive to perfect the engines of destruction, thus himself becoming a symbol of future military innovations: tanks, submarines, strategic bombers. The Devil confers on Merlin the ability to look into the future, so that the mischievous magician can fully appreciate the coming reincarnations of the technocratic militarised societies similar to the Arthurian knights in appetites, morals, and ambitions, but greatly surpassing them in hardware and armament. For what it’s worth, the evanescent Sangreal sought after by the brave knights may be, in fact, enriched uranium whose significance they cannot yet grasp due to the limitation of their epoch. It is only Merlin who is allowed from time to time to talk anachronistically, and analyse the medieval goings-on around him from the point of view of a twentieth-century person.


A Heap of Broken Images. Bartholomew Beal. Image Source.

The alternative title of Merlin is The Waste Land. It is not only an homage to T. S. Eliot’s modernist classic, but also the recognition of the leitmotif accompanying this extensive and overpopulated play from start to finish. The German for “the waste land” is  das wüste Land in which the word wüste can be translated as either “desert” or “waste”. Indeed, in Merlin we often come across the disquieting imagery of sterile lands, be they natural deserts or man-made wastelands of mass destruction. The wasteland is  a constant latency for the fellowship, even when the landscape around them is nothing but a flourishing idyll. For Dorst and Ehler, the barren environment of sand and rock is a hidden dimension that under certain circumstances can penetrate reality, for example with the assistance of Merlin’s wizardry. We get the first significant glimpse of the wasteland in a chilling scene called Have I dreamt my Life? In it, the youthful Sir Beauface viciously taunts the elder knights because of their old age and is punished by Merlin who inveigles him into plunging his face into a bowl with bewitched water. When Beauface lifts his face after just several seconds, everybody sees a decrepit old man who has just returned from a long journey to some distant desert clime. This magic occurrence leads to the sudden opening of the portal to the extra dimension, as the inhabitants of the desert with whom Beauface spent most of his life, enter the world of the Round Table knights looking for the missing sojourner. Their arrival is entrancing and eerie. The gathered knights watch them come with growing anxiety, for the spooky strangers also act as the harbingers of the fate reserved for the fellowship: a wasteland with mounts of iron-clad corpses and the myriads of bluebottle flies swarming above them.

A high, buzzing, mysterious sound is in the air. The light changes, becomes pale. A procession of strange, very large shapes slowly comes in: a huge black man is carrying an old woman, she is sitting in a contraption with a tall backrest propped against his head, her legs are on his shoulders, her face turned in the opposite direction. As a headdress she is wearing a golden bird with its wings spread. — Then comes a richly-clothed old man, the brother of the woman. — Four servants are carrying in a raised askew litter the corpse of the dead father in white winding sheets. — A frail old man with an iron mask on his face is dragging an enormous chopped-off human hand that has completely withered. — A man with wide, fluttering sleeves. — A naked man whose skin is spotted with wounds and scabs like the ailing skin of the earth. Swarms of midges. He is carrying a big bundle on his head. — A dried-up tree with brown leaves. The procession enters slowly and silently. There is no noise of the footsteps; it seems as if they were walking through deep sands and had to withstand a strong wind. They climb up the tabletop. The bundle is unfolded: it is a large silk cloth embroidered with figures. The man with the wide sleeves raises his arms, and sand starts running out of his sleeves, infinite amounts of sand; it keeps running all the time while the strangers are standing there. Little by little, the round table turns into a sand desert.

This motif of the sterile sun-dried land becomes more prominent in the penultimate part of the play in which the Arthurian knights search for the Holy Grail. Once visiting the barren realm of the King Fisher and failing to heal the wounded grail keeper, Parzival is no longer able to leave the wasteland. He continues wandering in the desert even when he is physically present in a lush green meadow with singing birds. Sir Gawain, who meets his befuddled fellow roaming about in the invisible wasteland tries to bring him back to reality, but all is in vain. Parzival is doomed to remain there, perhaps until one of the knights finally achieves the Grail. This scene, called The Waste Land, is key to the whole play because it contains the metaphor of the wasteland we carry within. It is a question of time when it becomes a wasteland without. Dorst and Ehler take over the symbolism of the wasteland poetically examined by T. S. Eliot and develop it further keeping in mind the horrors and the anxieties of the second half of the twentieth century. The legend of the maimed king whose land has been turned into a desolate, sterile desert mimicking his own infertility resulting from a genital wound was utilised by Eliot with respect to the torpid, disoriented, weak society that has recently survived the senseless butchery of the Great War. In Merlin, the image of wasteland acquires additional aspects, for it is applied to the society that has experienced by far more destructive Second World War and is hypothetically facing nuclear annihilation.  The wasteland in Merlin comes to signify the destructive potential of any progressive urge of man, a metaphysical desert that man will never tire of materialising in real life with each new spiral of his technological development until the wasteland is large enough to swallow the whole planet. Here is what the Devil has to say on this count:

The idealists, the Grail seekers, the founders of Round Tables and ideal states, of new orders and systems, who promise salvation with their theories and want to bring great happiness to humankind […] I am not only speaking of Arthur, I also mean others who come after him in hundreds of years –, in the end they lead whole nations straight to hell! — To me!


How Mordred was Slain by Arthur, and How by Him Arthur was Hurt to the Death. Arthur Rackham.

In another crucial scene almost at the end of the play, when the armies of Mordred and King Arthur have obliterated each other, effectively putting an end to the Utopian fellowship, we are granted a peculiar glimpse of the future. The scene consists of a monologue that perhaps is being delivered by a scientist from some extraterrestrial civilisation. By that time the life on earth has been extinguished as the sun has run out its course.  The speaker does not know what kinds of cataclysms happened before that, but it doesn’t matter any more. The humans have disappeared forever, and, in the speaker’s words: “the few traces of their existence remain mysterious”. The drama of human progress is over, and, as has been foreseen, it has ended in wasteland. We do not know what those remaining artifacts are, but, perhaps, among them there is a chronicle of devastating intercontinental warfare that will be eventually deciphered and read by the aliens with the same interest as we now read about the bloody and cruel exploits of the Arthurian knights.


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Reading Zettel’s Traum Suspended

Medieval_sysiphus.jpegI started reading Arno Schmidt’s legendary magnum opus about a year ago.  I knew quite well that it was an enormous challenge not least because German is the weakest of my reading languages, although the “germanness” of Schmidt’s language in this book frequently emulates the “englishness” of Joyce’s in Finnegans Wake. By keeping my reading diary I’ve managed to stay on course until now. What is more, I’ve got somewhat accustomed to all the quirks and joyful transgressions of Schmidtian writing, and the scavenger hunts he has been constantly sending me on have been a lot of fun too, as all my favourite books such as The Recognitions, Terra Nostra, Los Sorias and Gravity’s Rainbow have stimulated my curiosity in a similar way. But, as with any cerebral pleasure, there is a serious downside to a thorough and attentive reading of Zettel’s Traum: the amount of time invested in the effort. While assiduously deciphering the Rosetta stone of Schmidt’s text, I was robbing myself, and consequently my readers, of other great books that had to be made known on my blog. I naively thought that I would manage to have it both ways until I realised that I was facing a serious dilemma: either abandon all my reading and dedicate myself solely for the reading and exegesis of Zettel’s Traum for at least a year (otherwise, at the present pace, it would take me four more years to finish the book) or to address all the backlog of the untranslated literature I’ve been meaning to review, some of it truly marvelous. I have decided in favour of the latter. This, however, does not mean that I have abandoned my project altogether: anything can happen, and I might resume my Sisyphean labour, especially when John E. Woods’ translation finally becomes available and, hopefully, throw some light on the numerous obscurities of the original. I know that there is a group of faithful readers who have been diligently following all my posts and  have encouraged me with their comments. Thank you all! Without your support I would probably have stopped much earlier. I know that there is at least one reading group of Bottom’s Dream already established on Goodreads under the auspices of Nathan “N.R.” Gaddis, who, for all I know, may be the present-day reincarnation of Borges. When you finally get your copies, you may want to join this or a similar cenacle, for I am sure you will get more out of the book by reading it along with others. As for my copy, to the shelf it goes (the lowest one, firmly resting on the floor, of course!) until better times as I am already reaching for the next untranslated book to be reviewed here.


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Reading Zettel’s Traum: Week 27, pp. 337-350

Wilma talks disapprovingly about Pagenstecher’s eremitical existence, calling it “TIMON=Dasein”, invoking the rich Athenian from Shakespeare’s play Timon of Athens who ends up living in a cave after squandering his fortune on the manipulative friends and various hangers-on. Daniel is bluntly reproached for being an eccentric who lives as if he were in a fairy tale. His reaction is, as usual, calm. He urges her to think for a moment that the ability to lock oneself in at the right time may be a formidable art form.

An interesting digression on the significance of cats. Pagenstecher tells his companions how, according to an old Baden flood legend, human race was saved by a cat. The obvious pun on the word Menschgeschlecht (mankind) is made in the jocular supposition that it might have been derived from schlecht (bad). The legend in question belongs to the rich tradition of sunken cities or kingdoms that can be traced back to the island of Atlantis and beyond. The mythological place mentioned by Daniel is called Sunkenthal or Suggenthal. Let me give you a short summary of the legend provided by Jacob Grimm in his seminal study Teutonic Mythology:

When the water had wrecked and swamped all the houses in Suggenthal, there remained alive only that old man and his son, and one small infant. This child, a boy, floated in his cradle all through the flood, and with him was a cat. Whenever the cradle tilted to one side, the cat jumped to the other, and restored the equilibrium; in this way the cradle safely arrived below Buchholz, and there stuck fast in the dold or crown of a tall oak. When the water had subsided, and the tree was accessible again, it was fetched down, and child and cat were found alive and unhurt. As nobody knew who the boy’s parents had been, they named him after the tree-top Dold, and the name is borne by his descendants to this day.

Actually you might have encountered a reference to this legend before in Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow that extensively uses Grimm’s treatise. Here is the relevant passage beautifully describing a Swiss city as seen by Tyron Slothrop, the protagonist of the novel, from a mountain top in the Alps:

The city below him, bathed now in a partial light, is a necropolis of church spires and weathercocks, white castle-keep towers, broad buildings with mansard roofs and windows glimmering by thousands. This forenoon the mountains are as translucent as ice. Later in the day they will be blue heaps of wrinkled satin. The lake is mirror-smooth but mountains and houses reflected down there remain strangely blurred, with edges fine and combed as rain: a dream of Atlantis, of the Suggenthal. Toy villages, desolate city of painted alabaster. . . .

Back to Zettel’s Traum. When Pagenstecher finishes retelling the legend, he points out that the surviving baby and the cat are the progenitors (die Ahnherrn) of, respectively, “the new human- and catkind” (Neuen Mensch= & Katzheit). Thus the Biblical myth of the Great Deluge and the legend of the submerged city are fused together. If you can read German, I recommend checking out this captivating post which looks in more detail at this particular episode in the book as well as at the treatment of cats in Zettel’s Traum in general.


The Deluge, Francis Danby

What made Poe volunteer for military service? Good question to ponder. Just like Marcel Proust’s year long stint in the French army. Wilma observes that Proust must have felt like in a harem what with all the men around him.

Pagenstecher discusses the origins and the meaning of the name Arnheim. The Dutch city of Arnheim was built in the place that the Romans had used to call Arnoldi Villa, and since the maiden name of Poe’s mother is Arnold, it is pretty obvious for Daniel why the writer chose this name for the fictional domain in his tale.

Provoked by Wilma’s wondering whether he has ever desired a foreigner or a Negro woman (Negerin), Pagenstecher comes out as an inveterate linguistic bigot. He confesses that he could not love even a local woman if she spoke only a dialect such as Plattdeutsch or Bayrisch and not standard German. His justification is the already mentioned fact of him being a brain-animal (Gehirn-tier) whose thinking is inextricably linked with language – dialects, therefore, irritate him. I guess this really shows to which extent Daniel has transformed himself into a purely bookish person. But shouldn’t alarm bells start ringing when any kind of “purity” is being pursued so vehemently?

The aphoristic marginal statement ” ‘zoophile’ is the Greek for ‘misanthrope'” emerges when the discussion touches on the often observable fact that hostility towards fellow humans goes hand in hand with love for animals. Surely, we can find numerous examples of this in life and literature: from  the farouche cat lady in your house to Gulliver’s last voyage.

Pagenstecher returns to Walter Scott. He focuses, in particular, on his novel Anne of Geierstein. In quite a bold statement based on an entry in Encyclopaedia Britannica he places this writer beside Shakespeare and Dickens, emphasising the tremendous influence Scott has had not only on his contemporaries but also on the following generations, including Poe. He quotes a landscape description from Scott’s novel which bears affinity to the domain described in Poe’s tale.

Ellison, the creator of the domain, is discussed at some length. Pagenstecher marvels at his enormous fortune and the way he dispenses with it. He also looks at the four “conditions of bliss” espoused by Ellison.

to be continued ?

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Forthcoming: Between Dog and Wolf by Sasha Sokolov

DogWolfI thought it would never happen. No, there was no way Sasha Sokolov’s most impenetrable novel would be translated. Reading  Between Dog and Wolf  back in the 1990s made me reconsider the presumptuous notion that I “knew” the Russian language. Even with the assistance of the four volumes of a facsimile edition of Vladimir Dal’s Explanatory Dictionary of the Living Great Russian Language I was not always able to make out what was going on in this maverick masterpiece. What I was positive about, however, was the fact that for the first time in my life I saw the Russian language perform impossible tricks right before my eyes. Sasha Sokolov wasn’t just a writer –  he was a magician, an alchemist creating his text by some secret crafts like a homunculus in a retort.

In my view, since the beginning of the twentieth century there have been four great Russian wordsmiths, and Sasha Sokolov is certainly one of them. The other three are Andrei Bely, Vladimir Nabokov and Alexander Goldstein. These writers have shown that they could do with the language whatever they pleased, creating works of breathtaking stylistic complexity and sheer brilliance at the sentence level. It is worth noting that Nabokov welcomed Sokolov’s debut novel  A School for Foolscalling it “an enchanting, tragic, and touching book”. We can regard Nabokov’s warm response as the symbolic gesture of an older grand stylist passing on the baton to a younger one. A School for Fools is an unconventional novel in many respects, but it doesn’t come even close to the runaway weirdness and verbal pyrotechnics of Between Dog and Wolf. Although this novel is obviously a parody of various styles and literary traditions, like all great works, it transcends the ludic element and breaks out into the sphere of the sublime.


Hunters in the Snow, Pieter Bruegel the Elder

The protagonist of the novel is an itinerant knife-grinder with the name as uncertain as the proverbial position of an elementary particle. It keeps changing all the time. He wanders about the fictitious lands partly based on the the Volga region, and partly on the landscape in Pieter Bruegel’s The Hunters in the Snow which, by the way, inspired Sokolov to write the novel in the first place. Eight years prior to the publication of Between Dog and Wolf it had also been used to a stunning effect by another Russian master: Andrei Tarkovsky in his film adaptation of Solaris. There is no shortage of Breugelian grotesques in the book, the main character Ilya being the most prominent and the most eloquent of them. The story of his love, miseries, and existential horror is related in an eclectic torrent of verbiage flaunting a wide range of mimicked styles and genres, obscure archaisms and hilarious wordplay. From time to time the main narrative is interrupted by sequences of poems from the collection A Hunter’s Sketches  (titled after Ivan Turgenev’s famous short-story collection) although “interrupt” might not be the most appropriate word here, for the poems are as carnivalesque and off-the-wall as the prose. Sokolov’s next novel Palisandria, which came out in English as Astrophobia, was a longer work with a more convoluted plot, more copious literary allusions and a bigger cast of characters, but it couldn’t rival Between Dog and Wolf in its linguistic intensity. In terms of language, this short novel still remains the nadir in Sokolov’s writing career.

Let me remind you that everything written above refers to the original Russian text. I have no conceivable idea how this philosopher’s stone may be re-transmuted in the English language. Alexander Boguslwaski, who has also translated A School for Fools, must be exceptionally brave to have undertaken this challenging task. Sasha Sokolov has created a new kind of Russian for his novel that makes a short shrift of the impatient reader and sends the patient one on an arduous journey of rediscovering his own mother tongue. In order to convey that in translation, a new kind of English has to be created. Whether the translator has succeeded in pulling off this feat we’ll see pretty soon.


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Reading Zettel’s Traum: Week 26, pp. 317-336

“The intricacy of the universe is drifting, it seems, towards a new maximum”. Thus begins the third part of Zettel’s Traum, which is called Dan’s Cottage (A Diorama). This statement could refer both to the expansion of the universe we know about from modern cosmology and to the growing complexity of the fictional world of Arno Schmidt’s novel.

Daniel and his guests have breakfast pursuing an idle chat peppered with  the usual obscene puns and references to Poe. For want of amontillado, they have to make do with Fanta. Wilma calls Pagenstecher’s garden “a little Eden”, and that’s enough of a pretext to explore the theme of the garden as paradise in Poe’s works and elsewhere. Since the host of the Jacobis prefers to pronounce “Eden” as Aidenn, he doesn’t have any trouble in arriving at the etyms he is most interested in. The Greek language dictionary fetched by Franziska comes in handy. Therein he points out the word Aidoion (private parts, pudenda) which Franziska can’t read as she doesn’t know the Greek letters. The Lenore of The Raven mentioned by Wilma fares no better than Eden: as Pagenstecher  indicates, lena is the Latin for “whore” (but, actually, a procuress or a brothel-keeper).

A digression on the importance of wit as a way of thinking produced by the unconscious (and which, as notes Daniel, writer and theologian Joseph Görres believed to be of demonic nature) leads Pagenstecher to yet another pronouncement in which he places Joyce above Poe. In his opinion, a writer who parodies himself is by far wiser than the one who takes himself seriously. Thus Joyce is a more honourable writer than Poe.

Unexpectedly, Franziska sings the mechanical doll’s aria  (Les oiseaux dans la charmille) from Jacques Offenbach’s opera The Tales of Hoffmann. The song is about a girl in love who finds the reflection of her feelings all around her: in the birds singing in the hedgerow and in the sun shining in the sky. Why exactly this song? Perhaps for Franziska it shares some garden/paradise motifs with the unfolding discussion. Wilma is surprised, as her daughter’s French has never been any good. 

Pagenstecher offers to his audience a brief insight into Islamic eschatology: the conceptions of the Judgement Day and the paradise (Jannah). He recommends to the Jacobis the vivid descriptions of the things to come found in Karl May’s Oriental adventure novel Am Jenseits (In the Hereafter) in which a blind seer, saved in the desert by the protagonists Kara Ben Nemsi and Haji Halef Omar on their way to Mecca, recounts his formidable visions of the end of time. Perhaps the exotic adventure novel of Karl May is not the best source for the Islamic views on the last days and the afterlife, but, as you probably know it, Karl May was one of Arno Schmidt’s (and, consequently, Pagenstecher’s) favourite writers.


Cul de Paris. Image Source

PARadISe for Poe, in terms of etyms, also stands for the city of Paris. Not only is it the setting for such stories as Rue Morgue and Purloined Letter, but also French was the foreign language that Poe knew best.  Pagenstecher comes up with various arguments as to why Paris is of paradisaical nature for Poe, most of them related to what Mikhail Bakhtin would call “material bodily lower stratum”. In The Thousand-and-Second Tale of Scheherazade, the legendary queen castigates the element of female dress which she describes as “the protuberance of the region which lies not very far below the small of the back”. As it turns out, the name of this fashionable item was cul de Paris, literally “the ass of Paris”. For Daniel, of course, it should be ambiguously perceived as cul de Par(ad)is, i. e. also as “the ass of paradise”. Via a dubious etymological interpretation of  Lutetia Parisiorum, the name of the ancient town established at the place of the present-day Paris, Pagenstecher arrives at the notion of Paris as the excremental paradise. Contrary to what he says, I couldn’t find anything scatological about the word luteus. Different places in the French capital are also subject to etym-analysis. A volume of the Brockhaus encyclopedia brought by Franziska reveals to Daniel’s guests that “the vicinity of Palais Royal” mentioned in Rue Morgue was a stomping ground of prostitutes.

Pagenstecher seems a bit confused by Wilma’s request to clarify the significance of the names that appear in a text from Poe’s Marginalia, a compendium of aphorisms and witty observations:

Here is a book of “amusing travels,” which is full enough of statistics to have been the joint composition of Messieurs Busching, Hassel, Cannabitch, Gaspari, Gutsmuth and company.

Eventually, Daniel says that he seriously doubts that Poe has read any of the authors on this list, and, what is more, he questions the very idea of Poe being well-read.  The only explanation Pagenstecher can produce is etym-based, no surprise here: bush, hussy, cunny & bitch etc.

to be continued


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Reading Zettel’s Traum: Week 25, pp. 301-314

Pagenstecher draws the Jacobis’ attention of  to the fact that Poe completely lacked planning when creating his works. What he did instead was “combinatorics” (not in the mathematical sense, of course). Also, one of Poe’s serious disadvantages was absence of any translation experience. Daniel relegates the American writer to the status of “sampler’ (Probierer), saying that he had never reached the level of “a genius tinkerer” the way James Joyce did.

After briefly talking about Poe’s favourite word “gorgeous” and his relationship with Roma people, Pagenstecher recounts to his audience how on one occasion dust from the Sahara desert ended up falling in his neighbourhood along with snow. A mixture of quartz and limestone particles had been carried all the way from Africa to Germany by the sirocco wind. Daniel points out that the earliest mention of the hot wind coming from the Sahara is to be found in Muslim geographer Muhammad al-Idrisi’s famous treatise Al Rojari or Tabula Rogeriana.

Daniel and Franziska again part ways with the spouses, as Pagenstecher wants to make a brief detour to pick up a white stone for his cottage land. The separation is marked by the division of the main text into two columns. At some point the man and the girl decide to take a rest. They sit down, and, at Franziska’s urging, Daniel returns to the subject of the hollow earth. As you might remember this concept has already been discussed previously in connection with Jules Verne’s Journey to the Centre of the Earth.


Mattia Preti, Saint Paul the Hermit

Pagenstecher is happy to oblige. In his own words, the hollow earth is a “literary Rundling“. He borrows this metaphor from the typical German circular villages characteristic of the early medieval period. He briefly mentions various literary and mythological sources exploring this idea, and even quotes from St. Jerome’s The Life of Paul, the First Hermit (his source is Joseph  Görres’ Die Christliche Mystik, a series of saints’ biographies). The quoted passage recounts how Paul of Thebes discovers a mountain cave that turns out to be a secret mint. Daniel also mentions the 18th century mining engineering professor Johann Gottfried Steinhäuser who came up with the quirky idea that in the hollow of the earth there was an orbiting planetoid which he intermittently called Minos, Minerva, or Apollo. In the course of his lecture, Daniel inevitably transitions from the hollows in the earth to the hollows in the human body, and from there to the Freudian hypotheses about infant sexuality and the wish to return to the mother’s uterus. An etym-based example of the latter is drawn from Poe’s The Thousand-and-Second Tale of Sheherazade in which there is a description of an immense cave footnoted by the author as “The Mammoth Cave of Kentucky”. Pagenstecher interprets this name in the following way: “>Mammas + cave + cunt + tuck=tack=(tictac)<“.

However, besides the openings in the earth, and the human body, adds Pagenstecher, there are also hollows in the human unconscious that hoard numerous images inherited from the previous generations. That’s already the Jungian archetypes he is talking about. According to Daniel, the Extended Mind Game (Längere Gedankenspiel) is inseparable from the notion of the Underworld or the Kingdom of the Dead. Their conversation is interrupted by the appearance of a fat hare that doesn’t seem to be scared of them. This triggers a longish quotation from  Acta Sanctorum,  a compendium of saints’ biographies, in which the story of the Blessed Oringa is recounted. Most pertinent to the situation is her encounter with a friendly hare that saved her life when she was wandering in a dark forest. Then they see a man with a walking stick dressed in a green jacket and brown trousers. It is none other than Arno Schmidt whom they have already met before. The man with the stick stops near the uncommonly frightless hare that doesn’t even move, and shaking his head says that the most humane way of dealing with the animal would be to smash its head with the stick. When the man is gone, Franziska flies into a rage at the cruel words of the stranger. Pagenstecher, however, defends the passerby’s opinion as the hare is doomed anyway: it must be suffering from highly contagious rabbit haemorrhagic disease, which is why it is so unabashed in the first place. Shortly afterwards, Daniel and Franziska are reunited with Wilma and Paul.

The ensuing conversation touches upon the enumeration of different animals in Julius Rodman, with the attendant etym-analysis. They also talk about the cavern/tavern in the same novel whose “dismal appearance” leads Pagenstecher to the etym “di=smell”, i.e. a smell that is produced twice. As they are approaching Daniel’s cottage, the conversation turns towards the topic of plants and their equal rights with humans. This eccentric notion owes its emergence to Daniel’s reading Kurd Lasswitz’s science fiction novel Sternentau: die Pflanze vom Neptunsmond (Star Dew: the Plant of Neptune’s Moon) which philosophically examines the relationship between human beings and plants through the story of an extraterrestrial plant on earth.

Our literary quartet finally reaches Pagenstecher’s house, and this concludes the third part of Zettel’s Traum.

to be continued

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Reading Zettel’s Traum: Week 24, pp. 281-300

First off, an important correction: I was gravely mistaken about the meaning of the word “gall” (Galle) discussed in the previous installment of my read. As it turns out, it is a botanical term denoting an abnormal, usually ball-like excrescence on a plant caused by various parasitic insects. Pagenstecher mentions the widespread phenomenon of “jumping galls” when the infested  spheres of plant tissue fall from the trees to the ground and start jumping as if having an uncanny life of their own. In reality, it is just baby insects, such as gall-forming wasps Neuroterus saltatoriusfrantically beating inside these balls. Daniel brands the relationship between the animal parasites and their host plants as Unzucht (an unnatural sexual act), the word which is usually used when referring to sodomy or bestiality.

The theme of  Poe’s plagiarism or literary borrowings, if we don’t want to be as harsh as Pagenstecher, is reintroduced and explored at some length. This time Daniel demonstrates to his audience how Poe used The Journals of Lewis and Clarke in Julius Rodman.  The said journals document the exploratory expedition through the uncharted north-western territories of the US commissioned by Thomas Jefferson after the Louisiana purchase. Besides that, Pagenstecher also points out Poe’s indebtedness to Washington Irving’s Astoria or Enterprise beyond the Rocky Mountains, an official history of the Astor Expedition whose goal was the establishment of a fur-trading post at the mouth of the Columbia River. In Daniel’s opinion, the text of Julius Rodman should be regarded as a cento on account of  its numerous borrowings.


Hieronymus Bosch, Saint Christopher Carrying the Christ Child

The ironic and self-conscious revisiting of the legend of Saint Christopher is triggered off when Franziska complains of being too tired to walk further and Pagenstecher goes on to carry the girl on his shoulders. The girl even wonders if she isn’t too heavy for Daniel. As she later confesses, her weight is at least “42 Cúlo” (a pun on “kilo” and the Spanish word  for “ass”).  While riding Pagenstecher, Franziska recalls a scene from The Fifth Voyage of Sinbad in which the Old Man of the Sea in a similar fashion climbs the sailor’s shoulders and by twisting his legs tightly around the poor man’s neck makes him his captive. Sinbad has to serve as the Old Man’s mount for several weeks until contriving to get his captor drunk on wine and killing him.

A lengthy quotation form William Rhind’s 19th century botanical treatise A History of the Vegetable Kingdom provides an account of insects “impregnating” plants — another example of Unzucht across the species.

Paul recounts two recent dreams, and Daniel gladly takes the part of the interpreter predictably resorting to Freudian concepts and etym-analysis. Wilma is outraged by the content of her husband’s dreams:  he makes as if to slap her, pushes her into the river and even lashes her with his trouser belt. Pagenstecher, however, maintains that these dreams are evidence of Paul’s unconditional love and passion towards his wife.

Pagenstecher teaches Franziska the word game Doublets invented by Lewis Carroll. The idea is to change the start word into the end word (often with an opposite meaning) by successively altering one letter of each word in the chain leading to the final transformation. For example this is how Carroll changes “poor” to “rich”:  POOR – BOOR – BOOK – ROOK – ROCK – RICK – RICH. In the right-hand margin, next to the dialogue between Franziska and Daniel, it is demonstrated how the word “head” is changed into “tail” in five steps. Is Arno Schmidt poking fun at the reader struggling to make head or tail of Zettel’s Traum?

Pagenstecher tells Wilma about the importance of drawing distinction between the action in the book (Handlung) and the Extended Mind Game (see Week 18 of my ZT read). In comparison to ordinary people, the EMG aspect of the artist is hypertrophied.  Thus it would be wrong to separate the author from his or her text. Poe himself expresses a similar idea in a series of critical articles named The Literati of New York City:

The supposition that the book of an author is a thing apart from the author’s self, is, I think, ill-founded. The soul is a cipher, in the sense of a cryptograph; and the shorter a cryptograph is, the more difficulty there is in its comprehension; at a certain point of brevity it would bid defiance to an army of Champollions.

The discussion around the psychoanalytical interpretation of the bodies of water in Poe’s tales as stand-ins for urination briefly touches upon the famous Seven Sisters waterfall in the Geiranger Fjord, Norway, and the possible significance of its name. According to Wilma, one would have to be utterly mad if the first image that came to his mind when observing this majestic waterfall was seven pissing giantesses.

to be continued

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Interview with Miguel. Part 2: On Blogging, Writing Fiction and the Future of the Novel

In case you have missed it, read the first part of the interview here.


The Untranslated: Your blog St. Orberose contains lots of long, detailed, information-rich essays on obscure writers English-speaking readers have never heard about. Being a blogger myself, I know that those types of posts, albeit requiring plenty of time and effort, are usually the least popular. Moreover, they are rarely read from start to finish (you can find it out by inserting a link closer to the end of the post and then checking how many clicks there have been). What you did seems to me a rather Quixotic enterprise. What windmills were you fighting against?

Miguel: Well, I’m far less idealistic than Don Quixote, so I never saw it as fighting windmills. I just wrote what I wanted, what gave me joy. That’s what kept me going for 3 years. My blog didn’t start with a precise identity or purpose. One day I came across Tom’s Wuthering Expectations, while he had this Portuguese Literature Challenge going; he had posted a text about Eça de Queiroz, my favorite novelist, and I felt an impetus to contribute with something. Provincial as this may sound, being from a small country with a systematically neglected literature, I feel gratitude and a sense of debt to a gesture as simple as writing about it in a blog. So I cobbled together a few tidbits about Eça and set up a blog, posted it and then sent the link to Tom. Poor Eça, it was such a clumsy and superficial article; later I tried to redeem myself with a better series of posts.

Writing about Portuguese writers wasn’t a mission for me, and I was quite happy blogging about others. Actually one of my favorite posts wasn’t even about fiction but a book by Salvador Dalí. But they were available, they were different, and I figured they could help my blog stand out from the others. Normally you don’t see non-English native speakers blogging in English; they quite sensibly blog in their mother tongues, but I’ve always liked the Anglo-American world; my first reads were American comics – first Donald Duck and Mickey Mouse, later superheroes; I have a graduate degree in English Literature; my discovery of prose coincides with discovering classics like Oscar Wilde, H. G. Wells, Edgar Allen Poe, Robert Louis Stevenson in my teens. As early as the 1870s Eça was complaining about the lack of a good literature for young readers in Portugal – tell me about it! Either I read brain-dead kids’ books or I read tedious stuff like Agustina Bessa-Luís and Vergílio Ferreira, novelists I never enjoyed that much and certainly not what I wanted at the age of 13. When so much of your childhood is dedicated to rereading the Avengers being nearly massacred by Korvac, you sort of expect fiction to be more interesting than ordinary people moping about aimlessly in the countryside about God, death and the meaning of life. I solved most of my existentialist problems at an early age. In fact I’ve been thinking about this for some time now: if there’s a reason I love big, maximalist novels full of erudition and obscure allusions and non-linear storytelling it’s because I’m trying to relieve the excitement I had in my early twenties reading Alan Moore and Grant Morrison. Coover, Theroux, Gaddis, Pynchon are the closest things I can find to the mind-bending thrills of complex comics like From Hell, Swamp Thing, Animal Man, Promethea, Doom Patrol and The Invisibles. These comics introduced me to beautiful loons like Robert Anton Wilson, who in an essay could combine quantum physics, Aleister Crowley, George Carlin, general semantics, monetary theory, conspiracy theories and make it all cohere. Maximalist fiction was inevitable, but that came later. Traditional Anglo-American fiction gave me the thrills I craved, so for many years I turned my back on Portuguese fiction, without regrets.  I didn’t actually finish reading The Maias until after I finished university. And I only returned to Eça because Borges loved The Mandarin; my Borges fever was at its anabasis so that was akin to a commandment to go read Eça. Then I discovered he was hilarious. I re-read him almost every year now. Many writers I now worship were late acquisitions. I know I already read and loved Saramago during university – I looked with amusement at the teachers who despised him; there were two who had been students of Vergílio Ferreira, who had had an open feud with Saramago about the number of translations. Ferreira had once said that only bad writers were translated (something I see myself agreeing with more and more); Saramago’s counterargument boiled down to, “You ever heard of Dostoevsky?” Ferreira was an intelligent man, but that was not his finest hour. I discovered Aquilino Ribeiro because Saramago praised him in The Notebook, and that too at the time was like an order from God to me.

But actually it was writing for my blog that forced me to know Portuguese literature better and deeper. I never presumed to be an expert, but I had access to the books so I read them and blogged about them. And showing new, fresh, unusual things was also a drive for me. Most blogs are so repetitive, so generic. The blogs that matter the most to me are the ones that think outside the box, that give me more than The New York Times’ best books of the year. Just the other day Scott from Seraillon e-mailed me about an Italian called Giorgio Manganelli; I’m dying to read him. There’s something I admire about Anglo-American blogs, a spirit of celebrating the unknown, the underdog. I see many fine bloggers with a militant approach to divulging obscure, poorly-talked writers; I wanted to be part of that. America translates a lot, in spite of its bad reputation, quite unfair to me; the real problem is the deep-rooted prejudice at reading them. I was always happy when someone told me he had picked up Saramago or Eça because of what I wrote – that was what I wanted, to let them know they existed. I’m not sure how many were honest or just being nice, but perhaps I did introduce them to a few readers who took a chance on them. I hope so. I then believed there was value (and valor) in blogging about the unknown, and although it was never very popular (I received a Liebster Award though!) it brought me closer to a remarkable bunch of bloggers who’ve enriched my reading life.

Although it is just a blog, I forced myself to put some effort into writing. I learned that writing for others is the best way of educating myself; because I was so afraid of getting things wrong – I blush at so many of the superficial, impressionistic things I wrote – I told myself I had to read more, understand more, spread out: poetry, essays, letters, novels, short-stories, biographies, history books, memoirs, essays, anything I could fatten my posts with to make them more informative, to give things a proper context, which is usually lacking in translations; you get a novel, you don’t get the history around it. Sure, you can read Detective Story, but what do you know about Hungarian literature in 1975? I wanted to understand things, put the pieces together. One writer leads you into another. You read Eça, then you want to read Brandão to understand the rupture he caused; then you want to go back to Camilo Castelo Branco (1825-1890), whom the poet José Régio (1901-1969) (I’ve been dipping into a collection of texts he wrote about Eça for several newspapers) considered superior. Miguel de Unamuno, who wrote insightful pages on Portuguese culture, loved Camilo too. Eça’s sect, a bunch of fanatics who believed Naturalism was the final stage in the evolution of Literature, were constantly attacking the old Romantic. Camilo, who was the first Portuguese novelist to live from his own writing, in turn was quite nice to Eça. So I read Camilo to see what he was like. By the way, there is a gorgeous movie based on his novel, Mysteries of Lisbon. I have that novel at home to read. I moved back and forth and crossways and started connecting the dots the best I could. I went to bookstores and thought to myself, “Hey, a book by Jorge de Sena about America; wouldn’t Americans like to know what Sena thought about them?” The correct answer is, No, they wouldn’t. But I bought it and blogged about it. I read Ricardo Reis because I had already blogged about Alberto Caeiro and Álvaro de Campos, and I wanted to have the three heteronyms in there. And it just escalated: one day I thought, let’s try Brazil now; next let’s try African literature. It was always in the interest of keeping the blog fresh. And that’s how I slowly learned about Portuguese Literature. However I have so many embarrassing lacunae.

I never presumed my blog would make a difference, and it certainly didn’t. But it thrills me that between the time I blogged and now some books have become available. I wrote about Eça’s The Mystery of the Sintra Road, and then it came out; I translated bits of Húmus, and now Raul Brandão is coming out. Around the time I dedicated a month to Saramago I learned that Raised from the Ground, my favorite novel by him, was finally coming out in English. Even Borges’ two-volume collection of conversations with Osvaldo Ferrari is out now. If you look at my posts you’ll notice I actually kept returning to the same writers: Pessoa, Eça, Saramago, later on Lobo Antunes, because they were in English; it wasn’t about telling people to translate, but to go read what was already translated. Once in a while of course I wrote about others unavailable because I didn’t want to make the blog too repetitive; when I write fiction I hate using the same word twice, for me it’s a sign of failure; I guess it’s the “Aquilino Theroux” in me (Kundera would have disapproved).

And I wasn’t obsessed with Portugal in my blog; it was just a circumstance: the books were available. I had as much fun writing about Gonzalo Torrente Ballester, an amazing novelist, Dario Fo, Edward Albee, the greatest living playwright, Philip Roth, Vladimir Nabokov, Mario Vargas Llosa, Tolstoy, Albert Cossery.

The Untranslated: Quite often, readers become writers when they cannot find the book they would like to read, and the only way to fulfil this desire is to write such a book themselves. Why did you start writing? What kind of book is missing in Portuguese literature?

Miguel: You make it sound as if I’ve published something. I’m nothing, Andrei, and there are good chances I’ll remain nothing forever. But since you want to read me talking about my writing, I’ll oblige you.

I didn’t intend to fill lacunae. Writing has interested me since I learned to write, but low self-esteem kept me from pursuing it for a long time. Around 2012 my life had hit rock bottom in terms of expectations and I began writing poetry to cope with my woe. Thankfully my poetic delusions didn’t last long, but they gave me confidence to take a stab at a novel, something I had entertained for a while. I had pretty low criteria for it; I settled with not making the world a dumber place because of it. I thought it was going to be quick, I even began working part time because I was sure it’d only take three months at most. I began in September 2013. But it consumed nearly 2 years. Technically it’s finished, but since no one wants it I still tweak it from to time.

I’m not sure there’s anything missing in Portuguese literature. We have many great books like The Maias, The Book of Disquiet, Fado Alexandrino, The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis. I’d like to see more encyclopaedic novels, but David Soares is taking care of that with aplomb. I wish I could say I attempted a maximalist novel because we have none, but in truth the concept didn’t mean anything to me at the start. I know my first draft was a tedious realistic thriller in plain prose. Disappointed with myself, in my second draft I began applying techniques from Saramago and Torrente Ballester, particularly his incredible Fragmentos de Apocalipsis. With them I found the voice I wanted to tell my book with. I used to think I was writing a Saramago novel, but now I actually think it’s a stew of Húmus and Viagens na Minha Terra. Around the same time I discovered guys like Barth, Coover, Gass, Theroux; they were especially useful in keeping my standards high in terms of style and research; I read them to keep myself so embarrassed of myself that I kept pushing myself harder and harder.

When I sent the novel to publishers, I had trouble making a synopsis because I didn’t know what to focus on. The story itself is unspectacular. It has two interpolated narratives, reflecting each other. The first one starts in 1937 with a Portuguese painter living in exile in Paris, a rich aristocrat in the middle of Bohemian lifestyle. But he hates Bohemia; he’s essentially an austere classicist, he could have been a tremendous painter in the 16th century but he was born too late, he detests the vanguards and has trouble fitting in. He prefers staying in his studio grinding pigments and building stretchers. I wanted to avoid the whole Bohemian cliché; a no-nonsense hermit, like Blake or Michelangelo, forced to live in an absurd world that doesn’t give a fuck about that sort of devotion to normative art anymore. And it continues with his leaving France because of the war, his years in New York bemoaning the rise of Abstract Expressionism, which he viscerally detests, his returning to Paris, his realizing he’ll never be the great painter he thinks he should be, and his wasting away his life working on a multi-volume critique of contemporary art, (think De Chirico’s “il ritorno al mestiere”), believing it’ll be such an authoritative attack it’ll put art back on the right track of technique, craft, the Old Masters – the poor deluded fool.

The second narrative starts in 2009, before our economic crisis, and follows his grandson, who inherits his talent, his love for painting, his atavistic ways and the legacy of the pointless book. It continues several years into the future with him failing at starting a career, working as an art restorer in Italy, going a bit crazy from working on the book, and finally accepting the only way a painter with his talent can thrive in an age of mediocrity is by making art forgeries, by being as good as the masters no one realizes they’re fakes. If you think you’re the greatest painter in the world, you won’t have fun forging Malevich’s monochromatic painting; obviously you want to copy the really intricate artists down to their minute details. And things escalate from that, with him being chased by the police, a right-wing French organization smuggling all French art back into France, and a terrorist organization that targets art objects (this was before the news about Daesh destroying ancient relics in Syria; I thought I was just being clever.)

I only wanted to write a crime thriller set in the art world. But somehow it derailed into something else. I was going through a bad phase in my life and I just wanted to fight loneliness and depression; I wrote mostly to entertain myself. My objective was to fill pages with things that I found interesting, one page at a time. After a few drafts I realised I was more interested in language and digressive flights of fancy than psychological realism or telling a story. But if I had to say there’s a theme in the novel, it’s about wasting your life devoting it to art to the point it dehumanizes you. I can also assure you you’ll never look at a painting the same way again after reading it.

My problem with the synopsis, though, is that what makes it so unusual, to my mind, is the way it’s told.

I once blogged about Torrente Ballester’s Fragmentos de Apocalipsis; the narrator-author just invents a singing dragon because he feels like it, and takes his girlfriend to meet him, and they just fly over there like Superman and Lois Lane. It’s a metafictional novel and he wants to show that the author is god, yada yada yada. But it’s sheer whimsy, it’s so cute. And I wanted to be that whimsical and unconstrained, to have total freedom to write whatever I wanted. My most repeated question was, “Why not try this?” I remember putting the Muses in a scene mocking a character because I thought it was funny; writing from a paranoid dog’s POV; I put 15th and 16th century real-life characters in hell discussing Portuguese politics, and to make it harder I did it in a pastiche of 15th century Portuguese vocabulary, spelling and syntax; I put a character reflecting about his life in a long sentence composed of mostly neo-realist book titles; I anthropomorphized a character’s cerebellum; I had my character ambling inside the Sistine Chapel describing its history in a 17,000-word sentence (interpolated with those sentences in Russian you so kindly translated for me). I filled a chapter in diary form with dates about things happening in painting in America during WWII.

Making lists was my favorite part: of techniques to forge art; of techniques to spot art forgeries; of methods to repair damaged paintings; of damaged or destroyed real-life art works; lists of colors and tools and ingredients. As an homage to Aquilino, I spent months making a glossary of regionalisms and then dumped them all into a section: when I didn’t have a scene for a word, I just invented a new scene.

I had a character invented just to kill him, a downtrodden painter committing suicide from poison because he considers himself a failure. But I felt bad about this: if I was only giving him this one scene I might as well send him off in the best prose I could; so a short scene became several pages of poetic, alliterative prose, describing as beautifully as I could many horrible feelings. Concinnity is not a priority for me. Somewhere I put a paragraph which, if you put the words together in verse, it becomes a decasyllabic sonnet. No particular reason.

You know that voice of good taste telling you not to do something because it’s in poor taste? If I have such a thing as a style, 80% of it is ignoring that voice. My life seemed to be at the end of it, and I wanted to project some freedom into the pages at least. Now I think it was all a waste of time, but I had fun while it lasted.

The novel is split in 6 “books” and when I put them together in a single .doc file for the final draft(s), I checked the word count. I don’t remember the number but I went looking for comparison to calculate its size; and I realized that it had more words than the English translation of Crime and Punishment. That freaked me out. I just thought to myself: “I didn’t write a 600-page novel!” Well, it was 600 then; it must be about 800 now. I rewrite like the hydra: I cut one thing and two new things are born in its place. That’s when I realized I was probably never going to have it published.

Next I tried a book of short-stories; I wanted to make something smaller, more accessible and commercial; something I could publish to build a reputation and then I’d have better chances of publishing the novel. It didn’t pan out. I can’t write a straightforward sentence without making it stranger or more ornate next. The Spaniard Eugénio D’Ors argued the Baroque was born in Portugal; it sure thrives in me. I decided each story should have a different style, and that probably made the book more complex than my novel. Because I wrote several drafts of it in rather clumsy prose, before the influence of guys like Lobo Antunes, Aquilino, Theroux, Gass overwhelmed me, no amount of rewrites managed to weed out all the plainness, so it fluctuates a bit in style. But from the beginning I wrote the short-story book with a mission to make language the main character so I got a much more balanced book.

You’ve seen that short-story I sent you: since it’s a spin-off of The Lusiads I thought it’d be funny if it had the length of the 9th Canto; so I was set to write it in 760 decasyllabic rhyming verses first and then turn them into prose. But around the same time I discovered an Arab genre called the maqama, fiction fully written in rhyming prose – that sounded like something fun to try; so I mixed both ideas and wrote that short-story told in inner rhyming sentences from start to finish. One that almost drove me crazy was a short-story where each paragraph is a sestina (22 in all): it has 4 different types of sestinas; somewhere I read it’s the hardest poetic form to write – that sounded like a good challenge. It’s about an aging poet who loses his speech to aphasia; it was the contrast that enthralled me – a tale about speech loss told in superbly rich speech.

I wrote a short-story (really a prose poem) using mainly portmanteau words. I wrote an alliterative short-story: I found out the 1755 Earthquake killed Lisbon’s chief inquisitor; so I imagined his spirit wandering above the ruined city’s sky launching into a hateful diatribe against mankind, but in the most sumptuous prose possible. I just love the contrast between beautiful prose and ugly thoughts. I’ve told you about how Mário de Carvalho wrote his novel using just Latin-derived words: I found that so impressive I tried something similar with Arab-derived words: first of all because the setting called for it; but also because we’re living in dangerous times in Europe – people omit large chunks of history, nationalism is on the rise; and I wanted to remind people, at least by making palpable our linguistic debt to the Arabs, that they were here before Portugal even existed and that they left this rich lexical treasure for us to use. But since I can’t write without complicating things I figured I could also take advantage of its 11th century setting to fill it with words nobody understands anymore. Really, how often do you have an excuse to throw in obscure medieval conjunctions and adverbs? So by the time I finished this book I realized I had another unpublishable book.

While writing my novel I never stopped reading, and out of serendipity I kept discovering things that made me understand my process better. For instance I read Eça’s biography and came across this critic who detested The Relic, my favourite novel by him, and dismissed it as “A picaresque joke, with neither a cultural responsibility nor psychological verisimilitude.” I thought to myself, “He just described my novel!” So I went and read stuff about the Spanish picaro and noticed some similarities. It was also during this time I got acquainted with concepts like “maximalist fiction” and Edward Mendelson’s “encyclopaedic novel,” and I found similarities too. Much more useful was discovering “Menippean satire” in Northrop Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism: it was funny because up to that point I had not actually read several of the authors said to belong in this genre like Rabelais and Petronius, but it was an incentive to do so. But it seems to me pretentious to include my bagatelle in their genre. I do think I wrote the way I wrote because I wanted to relive the excitement of reading Alan Moore, Grant Morrison and Robert Anton Wilson in my late teens; they were sort of latent in my memory but sprang back to life during the writing. But if I had to describe my writing philosophy I’d have to turn to Laurence Sterne, whom I’m not even that crazy about: “All I wish is, that it may be a lesson to the world, ‘to let people tell their stories their own way.’” That’s pretty much how I wrote; I didn’t think about results so long as I wrote it my way.

I sincerely believe I’ve written things no one’s attempted in 800 years of Portuguese literature. I don’t mean they’re aesthetically good, but my novel’s mixture of an unhinged voice, inventiveness, wordplay, erudition, plot and ambition just hasn’t been executed at this scale. I’d like to see it judged by others to see what I’m worth, but I’m slowly accepting I write solely for myself.

The Untranslated: Let’s indulge in a bit of tea leaf reading. The final question is about your vision of literature’s development in the decades to come. It looks like most of the important novels written in the new century have heavily relied on the older techniques and methods; nothing groundbreaking has been produced so far. Will there be any 21st century great literary breakthroughs? What will these works be about, and in what languages will they be written?

Miguel: I don’t see things that pessimistically.

Innovation obsesses some people too much. So many great 20th novels didn’t make any overwhelming formal breakthroughs. Wasn’t it Kundera who said geniuses innovate in small steps? What did Terra Nostra innovate? What did Thomas Pynchon bring that was that new? The silly names, the dirty songs, the low humour, the erudition, the wordplay, the big-hearted laughs, the paper-thin characters, the parody of ideas, that formula’s already in Gargantua and Pantagruel. The experts call him a post-modernist; I say he’s just a neo-Pantagruelist having fun writing novels like they were in the 16th century. Tom LeClair, in an excellent essay in The Art of Excess, showed how much Pynchon’s aesthetics derives from Bertolt Brecht’s epic theatre. Not even Ulysses was “absolutely modern,” to quote Rimbaud. So much innovation involves rediscovering and pretending old things are novel. Innovation and amnesia tend to walk in step too much for me to get too comfortable about it. After reading Steven Moore’s The Novel: An Alternative History (whose introduction is another text I re-read for my sanity), I gained a better appreciation of how innovations always have a precursor somewhere. Although I welcome novelty and tried to make something new (not very successfully), I confess I prefer something well written according to my aesthetic expectations than something “innovative.” Tom-the-future-of-the-novel-McCarthy’s Remainder is allegedly “innovative” (about what I’m still trying to figure out), but it’s also as verbally imposing as a Times article. I prefer a traditional novelist like Aquilino who in every line shows an absolute mastery over language to a guy whose syntax is no more ingenious than what you find in a 8th grade school composition. Don’t make it new, make it complex, make it beautiful. Laura Warholic doesn’t innovate anything at all; it’s just a long list of some of the most sublime lines ever written in the history of English prose. If there’s no room in the future of the novel for that (and judging by Mrs. Zadie Smith’s anti-lyricism there isn’t), I sincerely don’t give two spits about innovation.

You ever noticed how the “make it new” motto mimics the mentality of consumerism? In the rare moments when I watch TV ads I’m always fascinated by the semantically coherent vocabulary used in their mantras: “be bold,” “be original,” “be unique,” “be special,” “be yourself.” Apparently you become unique by consuming what million others consume. But that’s not my point – those are the adjectives critics use to praise so-called innovative fiction. I don’t know about you, but I think there’s a problem when the same values are used to praise a book and a pair of jeans or a new cell phone model. No one tries to sell you vodka or novels with words like “effort,” “hard work,” “complexity,” “technique,” “perfectionism;” and that’s fine for vodka, but for novels it’s dire. “Novelty can hide a lot of flaws,” said the innovative Robert Coover. The “make it new” motto also underlies the process of obsolescence: producing shabby, crude things not made to last long; instilling a constant urge to replace them; mass producing without judiciousness; micro-managing fads; playing with people’s tedium; destroying their ability to commit themselves to things in the long term. Leave that for Apple. Innovation has been co-opted by PR companies to sell you toothpaste: don’t trust it.

I’m not too worried about the future: literature will be what it’s always been: many people will publish execrable books; many so-so books will be considered exceptional for a while before going away; and a few believers doing great work in the margins will be ignored, die unknown and be Melvilled back to life decades later. Translation will continue to reveal the worst a country’s literature has to offer, but a few honourable exceptions will sneak in and we’ll continue to discover many fine writers across the world. That’s how far I’ll go into predictions. Finally, I can’t complain since I have no difficulty finding excellent living writers to keep me ecstatic and feeling blessed.


About Miguel

Miguel Rosa was born in Portugal in 1984. He used to blog but doesn’t care about that anymore. He thinks he’s a fiction writer, but no one cares about that. He tried to impress people by translating Alexander Theroux into Portuguese, but no one cares about him in Portugal.


Filed under Interviews

Interview with Miguel. Part 1: On Literature in Portuguese, Translated and Untranslated

The first thing I did when I started blogging back in 2013 was to look for a kindred spirit, i. e. a non-native English speaker blogging in the English language about world literature. Thus I found Miguel’s blog St. Orberose. I explored it and was stunned by what I had discovered there. If there had ever been a Rabelaisian litblogger, it was Miguel. His voluminous, convoluted book reviews were an embodiment of every possible excess that stood in stark contrast to mostly light and shallow lit-chat that inundated the litblog space. His posts read like crossbreeds between reviews, essays, pamphlets, lampoons, and baroque meandering meditations. What amazed me was the sheer amount and quality of the information found on his blog as well as the effort and intelligence applied to processing and synthesising it in order to produce seemingly effortless critical pieces that helped me discover the writers about whom there was nothing to be found in the English-speaking blogosphere. What he wrote wasn’t intended for a sound-bite consumer with an attention span of an ant. Just reading Miguel’s essays required serious work, as he did not make any concessions to the reader and refused to dumb his texts down to make them more accessible or more popular. Unfortunately, he suspended his blog at the end of the last year, and you can read yourselves about the reasons for that in his final post.

Besides being an avid reader, a tireless blogger and a promoter of great literature, Miguel has also tried his hand at writing fiction. Having conversed with him via comments on his and my blogs as well as by email, I was reinforced in my belief that he would be a perfect candidate for an interview about literary matters. When I contacted him with an interview request, he immediately agreed. I interviewed him by e-mail for the duration of a month, and the result of this conversation will now be published on The Untranslated. If you are interested in challenging literature, if you want to learn more about obscure writers in Portuguese, if you would like to know what it takes to attempt writing fiction on your own terms, then you are more than welcome to read this interview that will be coming out in two parts. It’s going to be very long, but also extremely interesting, informative and thought-provoking.


The Untranslated: When it comes to contemporary Portuguese literature, three names immediately spring to my mind: José Saramago, António Lobo Antunes, and Gonçalo M. Tavares. As you know, they are well represented in English translation. To which extent do these authors define modern Portuguese letters for you as an “insider”?

Miguel: Hello, Andrei, thanks for inviting me for this. Well, to answer your question, recently Babelia, the literary supplement of the Spanish newspaper El País, had an interview with Tavares titled “What’s easy is dangerous.” I fully agree with that; I agree so much with it that I stopped wasting my time on Tavares, a ticky-tacky penny-a-liner with a 500-word vocabulary, the choppy syntax of a journalist on a deadline, a severe case of tautological padding, who rushes 2 to 4 books a year, and who shows as much interest in figures of style as black and white leaflets strangers force into my hand at subway exits. After enduring 4 books by him and reaching the surprising realization that I never at any moment needed to activate my brain to understand them, only a voluntary lobotomy could keep me coming for more. Now the Portuguese may have invented the lobotomy procedure, but I’ve never been one to pick up bad habits just because they’re homespun.

How do I define “modern Portuguese letters”? Ostentatious pride in lexical ignorance, a just-the-facts approach to communication, the cult of what André Breton mockingly called the “purely informative style,” the fear of amphigories, aureate writing and that readers may have to read a sentence twice or open a dictionary to understand it, a pandering of facsimiles of literature to the semi-literate crowd of “literary fiction” that likes to feel sophisticated for “reading literature” without the bother of being challenged by what they read, and a mistrust of lexiphanicists. Our literary establishment, in imitation of the international one, praises mostly slop while shushing demanding writers. Book reviewers in Portugal tend to reuse the same adjectives for “good” books and prose: “easy,” “clear,” “limpid,” “linear,” “pleasant,” “accessible.” Those are the traits they seek and which they transform into qualities of the highest sacredness. Harold Bloom wrote in The Western Canon that, “The morality of scholarship, as currently practiced, is to encourage everyone to replace difficult pleasures by pleasures universally accessible precisely because they are easier.” This may have sounded like crazy alarmism back then, but for me it’s a daily living reality. It’s like William H. Gass wrote in Life Sentences, “When reviewers take the trouble to compliment a writer on her style, it is usually because she has made it easy for them to slide from one sentence to another like an otter down a slope.” Needless to say Gass has never been published in Portugal. James Wood, though, has. Twice. Take your illations from that.

So, in the sense that I equate “modern Portuguese letters” with mediocrity, yes, Tavares certainly represents it cum laude. Worse than him only somebody like João Tordo, the creative writing teacher who brags about whipping up novels in just three months, and whom English readers have been spared, so far, from meeting in all his journalistic prose glory.

But this isn’t something unique to Portugal. Just look at what gets translated: Michel Houellebecq, that peddler of bletcherous prose, is what “represents” modern French literature; apparently there’s nothing better in Norway than a guy writing, also in plain prose and occasionally attempting hilariously bad similes, one million words of his dull memories of an unremarkable life that is, in every painstaking detail, indistinguishable from the banal, cozy, welfare state life of any European citizen living in a EU member state. Why don’t these readers who consume those brimborions just look at themselves in the mirror and visualize their own drab, unmagical, insignificant lives unfolding before them? They’d get the best of the two only worlds they care about: they could get the same experience as reading a book, and they wouldn’t have to actually read it. And how does Italian literature decline from Calvino, Buzzati and Eco to a neo-ottocento realist like Ferrante? To say nothing of the Americans consumed in Portugal: mostly middlebrow names like Jonathan Franzen, Lydia Davis, Raymond Carver, Charles Bukowski. New translations of Pearl S. Buck still come out here. Fucking Pearl S. Buck! The great Tom LeClair had just torn Garth Risk Hallberg’s City on Fire to pieces when its 1000 tedious pages showed up here to immediate acclaim as a “masterpiece.”

There’s no such thing as modern Portuguese letters, the same way there is no such thing as modern French, Italian, American, whatever letters; there’s just a common, international modern literary language concocted for absolute simplicity and communication; Edmund White, thinking of that other French lightweight, Patrick Modiano, called it “le style blanc;” it’s a language without flourish, complicated syntax, unusual vocabulary, regionalisms, obscure historical and literary allusions, and word games because they translate badly. It’s not Portuguese, French, Spanish, Italian, English, it’s Translatese, it’s Without-Nuancese, it’s like Tim Parks once said in an interview: “More and more the writer is aware of an international community of readers for whom dense language use and frequent local references are a hindrance. This seems obvious. I don’t decry it or criticize it—it’s just a fact.” And he adds: “Any time one seeks to produce for a larger public one inevitably has to drop material that would only be understood by a particular group. If you want to appeal to people of different languages and cultures, you have to move toward tropes that are universally recognized. Games, references, subtleties that only work in your language are hardly useful.” This, like Bloom’s quote, is a palpable reality to me; I see it happening with Tavares and his coevals. There are critics here in Portugal who have noticed this too, this constraint on language, and they condone it; they think it’s awesome that young writers choose to sacrifice verbal virtuosity for “universalism,” for a globalized, easily translatable, samey literature, a fast literature that, like fast food, tastes the same anywhere. Paradoxically, the Portuguese are so desperate to have their literature known outside Portugal that they’re willing to pay the price of its shedding all the traits that make it unique.

Paul West, who last October passed away utterly ignored by the blogosphere – we gotta keep pumping those texts about Ferrante – suffered a stroke in 2003 that left him with global aphasia. He should never have spoken and written again. But thanks to sheer willpower he cured himself and got back to writing as beautifully as ever, as attested by the prose of The Shadow Factory. Personally, I think it’s strange and sad that a 70-year-old man with severe neurological damage could write with more verve, grace, and lyricism than healthy writers in their forties. It’s probably just me, though.

When Babelia’s interviewers had higher standards and interviewed prodigious writers, one of them got these lines from Lobo Antunes in 2001: “I get sent many manuscripts to give my opinion, and I’m astonished because these kids want to be read on Monday, published on Tuesday, have an amazing hit on Wednesday and be translated all over the world on Thursday. They’re not writers because they have an appetite for immediate success and that attitude stops them from growing literarily. If they want success so badly they should devote themselves to other things. I think nowadays too many books are published and with scarcely a literary ambition, they don’t even have pages, they’re too short. On the other hand, critics get frequently drunk very easily and the writer, since he was successful with a formula, uses it again like an automaton. He always repeats the same for fear of losing his success.” This was around the same time Tavares, Tordo, José Luís Peixoto and a new crop of writers born in the 1970s began publishing their first novels. It’s as accurate and honest a description of “modern Portuguese letters” as you’ll get. Two years ago Lobo Antunes pissed people off by making the unarguable statement that by the time he was 40, about the age the 2001 crowd is now, he had already published Fado Alexandrino, one of the greatest novels of the 20th century, and they had nothing of identical power to show for. It’s easier to prove 2 and 2 equals 5 than refuting that statement. They’re not even trying: instant success and hyperbolic adulation has curbed their development.

Saramago and Lobo Antunes in no way represent modern Portuguese literature, in the sense I’m defining it here. Instead they are the final examples of what Portuguese letters used to produce best: masterful prose stylists who gloried in the richness of their language. By the 1980s such writers began to be replaced by mere storytelling entertainers, and by the early 2000s the process was completed. Now Saramago is dead and Lobo Antunes’ sales are dwindling.

There are honorable exceptions amongst the younger writers: Paulo Moreiras, Valério Romão, and especially David Soares. But it’s telling that they don’t get awards, give the same number of interviews, have the same number of articles written about them, and show up on the covers of literary magazines as often as Tavares and his illiterate ilk. Curiously, both Moreiras and Soares have complained that foreign publishers reject them because their language is too hard to translate. Moreiras, the author of historical novels, hilarious picaros, puts vocabulary richness in the service of recreating an ancient verbal flavor. Soares, well, Soares’ favorite novel is Alexander Theroux’ Darconville’s Cat. You can imagine how his prose looks like with such unpopular tastes. I admire his writing very much; he’s the closest thing we have to an encyclopedic novelist in these parts.

These guys still try to keep alive the verbal breadth and ingeniousness of Aquilino Ribeiro, Raul Brandão, Tomaz de Figueiredo, Agustina Bessa-Luís, João Palma-Ferreira, Rui Nunes, Urbano Tavares Rodrigues, Maria Velho da Costa, Vergílio Ferreira, Mário Cláudio, Mário de Carvalho, Manuel Teixeira Gomes, Miguel Torga, Jorge de Sena, José Cardoso Pires, Ruben A, Hélia Correia. The fact that Tavares is the name that immediately springs to your mind says everything that’s wrong with the current philosophy of translation. Their names should have sprung to your mind immediately.

Anyway, that’s my view, not as an “insider” though, because more and more I’m anxious to get out of Portuguese literature. It’s too depressing a place to be at.

The Untranslated: You have come up with a whole list of the names that I see for the first time. This leads us to the next topic, that of Portugal’s best-kept literary secrets. Which works of Portuguese literature would you unreservedly recommend to UNESCO’s Clearing House for Literary Translation as the most deserving of international audience? How would you substantiate your choice?

Miguel: Well, since UNESCO, like the Swedish Royal Academy, strikes me as one of those all too common organizations that values literature on merits other than aesthetic, I wouldn’t recommend it anything. But for readers interested in figurative language, emotional depth, humour, a slanted worldview, sure, I have a few suggestions.

The 20th century Portuguese novel starts with Raul Brandão (1867-1930). He began writing in the late 1880s, during a Symbolist craze, but quickly moved on to a very personal, unclassifiable style.  In his masterpiece, Húmus (1917), he tore down the wall between diary and novel, fictional character and authorial projection. That was a big deal at a time when our novel, due to Eça’s spellbinding voice, was mainly naturalistic. Brandão once said that he didn’t know how to write except about himself. It has characters, although they’re rather “phantoms” of the mind, he doesn’t try to make you believe them. There’s not much of a plot, although there’s a fascinating apocalypse at the end. It’s oddly incoherent, it avoids neatness. It’s a highly digressive, philosophical novel, set in a small village, about a man overcome with and blocked by metaphysical reasoning. The only real thing in it is the spiritual anguish Brandão expresses and minutely analyses. Some consider him a proto-existentialist. He also makes me laugh out loud. I recently learned that Dalkey Press is publishing The Poor (1906), which inaugurated his move into this labyrinth of anguish, alienation, despair, madness and dream. Although it was more like entering, closing the door behind him and getting lost inside alone – no one ever wrote like him in Portugal again. He’s inspired many: the poet Herberto Hélder (1930-2015) remade Húmus into a long poem; Vergílio Ferreira addressed similar themes of alienation and the death of God; Rui Nunes’ fascination with the grotesque side of society comes from him; Maria Gabriela Llansol (1931-2008) also wrote strange fictions with disregard for genre boundaries, and life and fiction. And Lobo Antunes’ misanthropic, chatty, fucked up protagonists with their deranged florid language owe a lot to the voice Brandão invented.

His biographer, Guilherme de Castilho, described The Poor as “the necessity of finding an explanation for the existence of pain.” Brandão has one of the best characters in the Portuguese novel, Gabiru, his alter ego, a crazy philosopher who invents pessimistic aphorisms. He first shows up in The Poor, then transitions to Húmus, where he reaches heights of lyrical madness. He’ll appeal to fans of Emil Cioran. I’m really ecstatic to see him translated.

Moving on to an absolutely different register, Manuel Teixeira-Gomes (1860-1941), an aesthete with tinges of Decadent about him, wrote luminous prose. Someone once said that in Baroque literature you never find white, red, yellow; you find silver, rubric, golden. Teixeira-Gomes describes the world with that heightened language, transforming it. He loved Beauty, and he especially liked to make things beautiful through words. No matter how ordinary a thing was, he could redeem it through language. He wrote about traditional matters, love, the bourgeois, but always with this verbal sensibility, this talent to make the printed world so appealing, so sensuous, you forget to look at the real one.

Not just Baroque but Gongoric was Aquilino Ribeiro (1885-1963), Portugal’s greatest 20th century prose writer, the owner of an inexhaustible word-hoard, who, along his prolix, carefully shaped, hyperbaton-heavy sentences bursting with subordinate clauses, mixed at ease regional obscurities picked up from illiterate farmers with forgotten Latinisms from 17th century tomes no one read anymore save him. Of all living writers, only Alexander Theroux gives me the same pleasure in reading as Aquilino. He got stuck with a “regionalist writer” tag all his life because he set most of his novels in the Beira region, his birthplace, writing grim, harsh novels about society’s downtrodden and their absolute lack of scruples when it came to survival. I don’t think there’s another literary oeuvre in Portugal with such a high body count: his main theme was man’s inhumanity to man and how far people will go for money and security, and how spectacularly they’ll destroy themselves for the sake of a caprice. But it’s a horrible world written in gorgeous, dense language. More than a storyteller he was a descriptor; I suspect he liked stones and trees more than people, considering the way he lavishes delicate description after delicate description upon them. He studied at a seminar, and although he hated it and was an atheist, you can tell that the love for oratory stayed with him. His archaic language in fact brings to mind Portugal’s best prose writer ever, the Jesuit priest António Vieira (1608-1697), a master orator and author of sermons, who is to Portugal what Jeremy Taylor is to England.

While still on the subject of Baroque language, Tomaz de Figueiredo (1902-1970) wrote a bizarre masterpiece that doesn’t have any equals in Portugal; it’s a two-volume romance of chivalry called Dom Tanas Barbatanas (1962). As you can guess from the title’s inner rhyme, he’s no slouch with words. It’s a 600-page parody of classic chivalric fiction, which remained a popular genre in Portugal even after Don Quixote. Tomaz recovers, revitalizes and mocks that plentiful world of heroics, idealism, villains. But it’s the telling that makes it so amazing. With its daedalean syntax and vast vocabulary, it’s a cathedral of words. The first sentence of the first paragraph of the first chapter is 14 lines long. You start it and by the time you finish it you know you’re in the hands of a master and you just go along with his topsy-turvy world described to you in a mock-heroic tone full of bravado and irony. Tomaz called it a “Quixote of vileness.”

A book that really needs to be translated is Almeida Garret’s Viagens na Minha Terra (1846). Garret (1799-1854) helped introduce Romanticism in Portugal, but I prefer him for this sole foray into Tristram-Shandian territory. It’s another unclassifiable book: it’s a travel book full of digressions on many subjects (art, economy, politics, theology, geography, smoking, inns, monuments, translation), interpolated with a novella he narrates to his travelling companions. It’s not really a novel, it’s more Menippean satire: it’s more about ideas than characters, it shifts genres, it’s erudite and encyclopedic and mocks philosophy left and right. Whoever’s read Saramago’s Raised from the Ground will know the epigraph he took from it. That, by the way, was Saramago’s ingenious way of acknowledging his debt to Garrett; after Vieira, with his sinuous sentences, no other writer influenced Saramago’s digressive, chatty, metafictional style as much as Garrett. Brazilian novelist Machado de Assis, in The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cuba, also lists Garrett as one of his precursors. Viagens and Húmus are the two books urging immediate translation.

I can’t go into detail about every talented Portuguese novelist, there are so many. But let me just add that, in order to know many of Portugal’s best works, you need to break down the prejudice against non-fiction. For centuries Portugal was deficient in prose fiction; we didn’t have novels until the 19th century; before the 1840s we had more travelogues about the African sea coast than novels. One of our greatest classics is The Travels of Mendes Pinto. Around the time some anonymous dude was writing Lazarillo de Tormes, Portugal’s finest minds were somewhere in Africa or Asia, collecting unknown plants, discovering new rivers, improving old maps, questioning the Bible’s account of the Red Sea (one of our men of letters noticed that the bay wasn’t that long that the Pharaoh couldn’t just drive around it), creating the first dictionary of the Japanese language, stuff like that. The adventure of the Discoveries took our writers and thinkers away from made-up worlds into the real world of observation and facts; less fantasy and more on-the-field experience.

What makes our literature unique is precisely this interest in non-fiction. And these classics are quite readable and still sold as ordinarily as novels in bookstores. You want an inventory of Indian plants? Read Colóquios dos Simples e Drogas da Índia (1563). I feel awe at it; the sheer amount of new words Garcia da Orta added to our language with just this book, commonplace words still in use like caril, which became the English curry.

I love a book called Tragic History of the Sea, a collection of 16th century reports of shipwrecks. Ships coming from India, dangerously overstuffed with spices, tended to shipwreck off the coast of Africa; the few survivors made it to land and then started long marches hoping to be saved by some Arab caravan that traded slaves with the Portuguese. These reports, written by survivors or dictated to scribes once they arrived in Lisbon, weren’t trying to be literary, aren’t jewels of language; they have the force of reportage and describe extraordinary things in simple prose; these survivors had to eat bugs, went mad, fought off Africans, were captured, eaten; some were sheltered by tribes, but not for free; the Africans were savvy enough to know Portuguese merchants passing by would ransom them back. People who read this amazing human document will acquire a totally different idea of European-African relationships than the traditional one about oppressors and oppressed (that didn’t become true until the 19th century, with colonialism). The book only predates by 500 years the thesis of David Northrup’s Africa’s Discovery of Europe 1450-1850, namely that in Africa Africans called the shots, that they were not the passive, easily duped ingénues of popular culture. By the way, Charles R. Boxer, a great historian who translated Tragic History of the Sea, was quite ungenerous in leaving out the name of Bernardo Gomes de Brito from the cover; BGB didn’t write these reports but, as an 18th century bibliophile, he collected and edited them into the two-volume book we currently have, so he deserves credit for saving and divulging such important documents to the study of Europe and Africa.

Sadly Portuguese fictional literature suffered a blow that took a long time to recover from: the Inquisition appeared in 1536 and fiction just withered away. Unfortunately Portugal contributed quite a lot to the “science” of censorship. Our first list of banned books dates from 1547. Then in 1561 a Dominican friar called Francisco Foreiro organized the 3rd list. This list was so famous (the Portuguese were on the cutting edge of censorship techniques in Europe) that the Vatican hired Foreiro like a company enticing a promising graduate student. So Foreiro got a Vatican scholarship and travelled, all expenses paid, to Trent where he worked as team leader of a visionary project that laid down the rules to censor books henceforth. That was how the Council of Trent’s 1564 Index Librorum Prohibitorum, the most conservative index up to then, was promulgated and came to serve as the basis of future ones. Monty Python aside, the Portuguese Inquisition was famous throughout Europe for being the most oppressive and paranoid. There’s a reason why Voltaire has Candide visit Portugal and not Spain. Some of the books banned or cut included: The Decameron, The Bible in any vernacular language, Erasmus, Gil Vicente, Portugal’s greatest playwright, Dante, Dom Quixote, Rabelais, Lope de Vega, Francisco de Quevedo, Plato, Thomas More, Pico de Mirandola. Ironically, even Francisco Foreiro’s works ended up in the 1624 Index, which proves once and for all that poetic justice does exist! The Inquisition wasn’t officially abolished until 1821. So without a stimulus of imaginative works, the Portuguese never produced picaresque romances or novels, and our fiction hibernated, with a few exceptions, until the 19th century.

This long-winded history lesson is just to say that many of our best books are personal documents like letters, diaries and memoirs. Writers couldn’t express themselves, so they turned inwards. Although we had some gifted men of imagination like Eça and Saramago, self-analysis has always been our writers’ forte. Miguel Torga (1907-1995), a towering poet and short-story teller, put much of his best writing in his 16-volume diary that chronicles his life from 1960 to 1993. Besides novels and essay books, Ferreira left a 9-volume diary that is currently being reedited; it caused a sensation at the time because he wrote very candidly and nastily about himself and others, making lots of enemies. Raul Brandão left a 3-volume set of memoirs. Manuel de Laranjeira (1877-1912), much admired by Miguel de Unamuno, described in his diary his existential pessimism that ended in suicide. Ruben A (1920-1975), who was the cousin of the great poet Sophia de Mello Breyner (1919-2004), wrote mostly diaries and autobiographies. Although they’re not essential, even Saramago published 5 diaries. We even have a 1685 autobiography of a nun called Antónia Margarida de Castelo Branco. Although I favour fiction, of course, I wouldn’t disregard our diaries and memoirs, which contain lots of cool stuff too.

The Untranslated: As you are well aware, many of my readers are looking forward to the publication of Bottom’s Dream, the English translation of Arno Schmidt’s monstrous experimental novel that has garnered comparisons to James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake and has enjoyed the reputation of being untranslatable. Is there any book in Portuguese that appears totally untranslatable to you, that makes you go: “There is no way this could work in any other language!”?

Miguel: Maybe that short story of mine I sent you (laughs); I don’t see how anyone could keep hundreds of inner rhymes and the decasyllabic meter intact.

Actually that’s a good question. From what I know, Portugal doesn’t have such a book yet, although I pine for it! Aquilino Ribeiro and Tomaz de Figueiredo pose difficulties, sure, but no more than translating Alexander Theroux into Portuguese, which I’ve done. It’s easy really if you love searching for words; fortunately I do. (Now if only editors liked to publish challenging books…)

But in Portugal we don’t have anything like Finnegans Wake, or even William H. Gass’ The Tunnel, or John Lily, that literature that focuses on euphony, with a poet’s eye to composition. Such display of wordplay never penetrated our tradition, I’m afraid. There’s a novel, it’s in English too, called A God Strolling in the Cool of the Evening by Mário de Carvalho (b. 1944), set in Roman times, where he personally checked word by word to make sure he only used words derived from Latin roots. I find such devotion inspiring, but it’s not the same. I don’t have an answer for this lack of interest in formal aspects. Like I wrote before, Portuguese fiction has always shown a tendency for realism. Another thing the Inquisition impeded was a tradition of fantasy and horror fiction. So we tend to use literary language, lyricism aside, as a communicative instrument and not so much as a creator of aesthetic effects. Eça de Queiroz exerted a tremendous influence we haven’t cured ourselves from yet; many novelists still want to write like him. I absolutely adore Eça’s oeuvre and reread it all the time, but I don’t see the point of peddling second-rate copies of The Maias. We just never cherished the spirit of art for art’s sake, except during our Baroque period, which is maligned to the point of having fallen into oblivion. We’ve always favored linear, short, accessible, somewhat didactic novels that criticize society’s evils, offer solutions and believe in themselves as the agents of reform. That also comes from the indestructible Gospel that Eça has become to a tedious sect of idolaters. If only Almeida Garret’s iconoclastic Viagens na Minha Terra had found successors…

I don’t see any evidence in favor of our ever having enjoyed innovations; we’re a bit conservative about everything, art included. On top of 3 centuries of Inquisition, that shut the country off to all foreign authors and concepts, we still had a right-wing dictatorship between 1926 and 1974. Those who in the past introduced new ideas from abroad were seldom thanked for that; they were corrupting the purity and identity of Portuguese literature, detractors said. Fernando Pessoa once said that “Nobody appropriates novelties as readily as the Portuguese.” I think this is a good example of that truism that says that when writers generalize about writing they’re really talking about themselves. Sure, Pessoa did appropriate new ideas readily; but our writers tend to lag behind, to close themselves up to new things, to be incurious even. I see this in my residual attempts at making people aware of Gass, Theroux, Paul West, Sergio de la Pava, Guy Davenport, Robert Coover – nobody cares. Editors here peruse 5 or 6 New York newspapers, check out who won the Man Booker and the Pulitzer, that prize that celebrates mediocrity, as Gass once remarked, absorb a few middlebrow names, translate them quickly and sell them to the masses that eagerly read them and afterwards pat themselves on the back with the self-deluded contentment that they’re up to date on the best modern fiction America has to offer.

I don’t think Pessoa’s claim, terrific thinker that he was, is accurate at all. I agree a lot more with a statement by a writer who’ll certainly never be translated into English, a literary critic called Moniz Barreto (1863-1896), who wrote a series of seminal essays in Eça de Queiroz’ magazine in the 1890s. Somewhere Barreto claimed that the Portuguese writers, although not very good at generating innovations, had the talent to reuse innovations from others and improve on them. And although I’m suspect to say so, my personal experience confirms that. I also think our finest writers are the ones who knew how to walk in step with their epoch, who embraced it. I think Eça made better art with Naturalism than Zola; and The Maias is certainly a richer, more interesting study of love than A Sentimental Education. The Lusiads, although our national epic, owed more to Italian Renaissance poetry than Portugal’s poetic tradition. Miguel de Unamuno even joked at the oddness of our national book being so Italian. But it’s undoubtedly one of the poetic achievements of the Renaissance, global in its reach, a summula of its time’s science and art, and a terrific work of language, no matter how poorly Ezra Pound thought of it. Like Camões and Eça, Pessoa was also quick at adopting the vanguards of his time like Futurism, and in some cases he even predates Dada. Saramago, who changed Portuguese literature, began writing his Sternian, metafictional novels not long after they came into vogue (Gass coined the word in 1970), just in the heels of Barth, Gilbert Sorrentino, and Gonzalo Torrente Ballester in Spain. Even Lobo Antunes shows this talent to improve on external ideas: he was the first Portuguese novelist to incorporate, in the late 1970s, Faulkner and Céline in his writing. And he made stunning things with their influences. Lobo Antunes also gorged on a lot of Latin Americans while stationed in Africa, during the colonial war; his letters to his wife are filled with lists of things he read at HQ. Now you take Fado Alexandrino, his masterpiece. It’s pretty obviously Mario Vargas Llosa’s Conversation in the Cathedral: guys talking in a bar about a dictatorship years after it has fallen. But whereas MVL has two speakers talking at each other with interpolated flashbacks, ALA not only has four speakers but also includes the disruptive chattering of the hookers with them; whereas MVL shifts between two timelines at a time, ALA juggles up to four different temporal narratives in the same sentence! It’s a tour de phrase-making.

But apart from singular cases, our novelists tend to shy away from showing off; it’s a pity, we have such a gorgeous vocabulary worth showing off. And it’s getting harder all the time for new writers to be bold. We have many excellent novelists, with a variety of qualities, but don’t turn to them to sate your lust for experimentation.

That’s why I admire and envy Brazilian writers a bit. There’s something about them that makes them more open to experimentation. They like to try weird things, they don’t worry about alienating readers. For instance, consider the case of Machado de Assis. Before 1881, during his Romantic period, he wrote hackneyed, sentimental, syrupy novels that have fallen into partial oblivion.

Then in 1878, heralding the arrival of Naturalism in Brazil, two novels by Eça, Cousin Bazilio and The Crime of Father Amaro, fell on Machado’s career like a tombstone. The new style was all the rage, suddenly Romanticism was on its death throes, and Machado was on the way out. Naturalism at the time was the vanguard, the hottest thing in town. Machado hated it. He wrote a review savaging Eça’s novels; he accused them of being smut, of narrative and psychological incoherence, of ripping off Zola, of lacking soul. It was angry and vicious. But the novels held out, most critics praised them, and Cousin Bazilio even ran out and got a second print. Defamation didn’t work out so Machado changed tactics. In 1881 a new Machado showed up, with the sui generis The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cuba, marking a new aesthetic style for him. It was completely unlike anything being done at the time. Instead of adopting Naturalism he returned to Laurence Sterne and revitalized all these metafictional techniques nobody used anymore. Like John Barth wrote about him, he was a “proto-post-modernist.” It didn’t bear fruits at the time – Eça always sold better than him in Brazil – but in the long term it paid off. In 1996 the Brazilian critic Wilson Martins wrote aptly about Machado: “In Brazil in the 19th century Machado de Assis was an 18th century writer (Sterne, Fielding, Xavier de Maistre…); in Brazil in the 20th century he became a 19th century novelist; in the universal literature of the 20th century he begins already to be seen as a writer of the 21st century.” That’s true; think of his role in showing John Barth a direction away from realism and existentialism in the 1950s. I’ve compared Brás Cuba with Floating Opera and the similarities are staggering. Machado was a forerunner of the Latin American Boom’s influence on North American letters; that should be acknowledged more often.

Here’s another example for you: consider the ease and quickness the Brazilians adopted James Joyce. The Portuguese didn’t publish Ulysses until 1989. The translator was João Palma-Ferreira, a tremendous literary critic, diarist, novelist and translator of Francisco Quevedo, Borges, Hemingway, Steinbeck and others; his big passion, though, was Joyce. For many decades in Portugal it was an uphill battle to promote Joyce, Faulkner, Kafka, Beckett. And this wasn’t because of the right-wing dictatorship; it was because of the left-wing cultural dictatorship fighting the dictatorship from within; culture was overtaken by communist writers who decided that art should serve political change; they infiltrated publishers, newspapers, radios, literary awards, everything related to art and culture; they decided who should be published in the interest of the “revolution” and who was too bourgeois. Palma-Ferreira, Tomaz de Figueiredo, the great Jorge de Sena, in their letters and diaries, wrote about this silent state within the state carrying out its own censorship. So writers like Joyce and Kafka and Faulkner were marginalized because they weren’t revolutionary enough. If you dared to think outside the Communist Party you suffered ostracism. Needless to say the revolutionary literature they fostered was horse piss.

The Brazilians didn’t have this problem, lucky bastards! Although we only had Ulysses in 1989, by the 1950s the poet brothers, Haroldo and Augusto de Campos, the founders of Concretist Poetry, were already busy translating portions of Finnegans Wake! In fact if there’s ever a Portuguese-language translation of that novel it’ll be thanks to the decades-long effort of Brazilian translator Donaldo Schüler. In Portugal nobody could care less about it. And you can see Joyce’s influence in Haroldo’s Galáxias, partially translated into English here; and in Guimarães Rosa’s superb 1957 novel The Devil to Pay in the Backlands. Haroldo had a sort of pupil called Paulo Leminski who wrote a very Finnegans Wake-esque novel called Catatau (1975): it’s just 200 pages long but it’s written in a portmanteau-word hodgepodge that mixes several languages. It imagines Descartes in Brazil, having travelled there during the period the Dutch had conquered some colonies from the Portuguese; Descartes gets lost in the tropical jungle and goes crazy while waiting for a Polish guide to rescue him; it turns into a digressive narrative about everything and nothing in this crazy language that has everything from Japanese to Polish words. That’s the only Portuguese language novel I know that may be hostile to translation. But you know, if even Finnegans Wake and Bottom’s Dream can be translated, why not?

The Untranslated: You have mentioned The Devil to Pay in the Backlands, a book that received the highest accolades in the Portuguese-speaking world, but whose English translation proved to be a complete failure. As somebody who has read it in the original more than once (correct me if I’m wrong here) could you tell me what is the case with this book? What are its inherent challenges to the translator?

Miguel: Your question obliges me to address several matters. First of all, I’m not so sure about accolades in the “Portuguese-speaking world”. It earned tremendous renown in Brazil, and, curiously, in the Portuguese African colonies. Adolfo Casais Monteiro (1908-1972), an excellent poet and literary critic living in exile in Brazil because of political persecution, was one of its early champions. ACM, by the way, has the merit of having helped “discover” Fernando Pessoa, with whom he corresponded and whose poetry he organized in the 1940s. The equally extraordinary poet and critic Jorge de Sena (1919-1978), also in Brazil for having participated in a botched overthrow of the dictatorship, called the novel “an exceptional linguistic adventure.” It also had tremendous impact in the former colonies during the 1960s, when the Colonial War was raging on. José Luandino Vieira (b. 1935), who is considered the father of Portuguese-language African literature, read it and emulated JGR’s approach to language. It was a way of protest, of fighting back against the metropolis’ official literature. Vieira’s loose, heterodox syntax and grammar, full of African words, was a way of imbuing Angolan literature with its own national identity, in rejection of the empire (each colony was coming to terms with its own identity; Vieira was born in Portugal, but considered himself Angolan). And from Vieira’s seminal book, Luuanda (1963), JGR’s influence spread to many other African writers. For instance Mozambican Mia Couto’s (b. 1955) habit of inventing words owes something to his neologisms.

But I don’t think The Devil to Pay in the Backlands was that known or read (outside a few restricted intellectual circles) in Portugal for a long time. I told you before about the left-wing dictatorship of culture. Well, they decided that we needed to read Marxist Brazilian writers like Jorge Amado, or at least those writers closer to the spirit of the revolution: writings about the poor, class conflicts, abject misery, evil capitalist exploitation; so we got lots of Graciliano Ramos Érico Veríssimo, and José Lins do Rego, basically realists similar to the neo-realists in Portugal. I fear Guimarães Rosa was too metaphysical and aesthetic to interest them. It was the same reason Aquilino Ribeiro (they read each other with admiration) and the existentialist Vergílio Ferreira were somewhat shunned.

Up to this day, if the National Library’s online database is to trusted, there has been no edition of The Devil to Pay in the Backlands in Portugal. Sometimes, if you’re lucky, you can find copies of the Brazilian edition in bookstores. It’s one of the most expensive books I ever bought. English-language books circulate easily between America and the UK, not just original books but translations; George Szirtes’ translation of Satantango, I think, is read in the UK and EUA. The practice here, though, is that Portugal and Brazil produce their own respective translations. There are very complicated laws making it hard for books to circulate freely between Portuguese-language countries. I think it’s part protectionism (the Brazilian publishing industry is so big it’d flood us and our publishers would lose profits), and linguistic chauvinism on both sides; linguistically Brazil and Portugal are drifting apart and vocabulary and syntax are changing, and sometimes we don’t like to make an effort to understand them and vice-versa. Some Brazilians go so far to say there should be a Brazilian language. It’s all getting so ridiculous. Language right now is a delicate and polemical matter. So we don’t get Brazilian books here unless a Portuguese publisher actually publishes them; or else Brazilian publishers open branches here. Both solutions have improved in recent years and we’re finally getting more exposure to Brazilian literature. But unexpectedly they favour the commercial stuff, not the groundbreaking works; it’s the guys who win awards, the popular actress who writes a novel, the new kids. We live in an age that worships the New – if you’re old but a genius, or if you’re dead but influenced a generation, they’ll still prefer to publish the 20-year-old kid who published a crappy detective novel that got a movie deal. It’s the same mentality that allows a so-so novelist like Garth Risk Hallberg to get instantly translated: just the other day I was watching, on Portuguese TV, mind you, the by now no longer news about the 2 million dollar deal – that’s how it works across the world nowadays, it’s the spectacle that matters, not the actual quality.

Over a year ago I discovered a novel called Avalovara (1973) by Osman Lins (1924-1978) thanks to Paul West’s In Defence of Purple Prose, something I periodically reread to retain my sanity. I’ve checked it out, it seems interesting; I’d like to read it, but I can’t acquire it in Portugal. I’ve mentioned before Galáxias and Catatau; I only own copies of them because I took the initiative to order them from Brazil. It was expensive as hell, but it was worth it; it’s not something I can regularly do. Sadly that’s the only way of getting one’s hands on many promising Brazilian novels. It’s shocking how mutually ignorant we Portuguese and Brazilian are of each other. 20 years ago a critic I like, Fernando Venâncio (b. 1944), could still ask in an essay why Machado de Assis was so badly known in Portugal. Things are very slowly improving.

Now getting The Devil to Pay in the Backlands was easier; I visited a bookshop connected to the Brazilian Cultural Institute; they had no copies but they put me on a waiting list; apparently it’s very sought after. Months later they sent me an e-mail asking me to contact them; since I don’t like to make phone calls I decided to go there personally to see what they wanted. This was during a weekend. Next Monday I went there; I worked nearby at the time and could go there during my lunch break. And I was lucky because they had just got a copy and wanted to know if I was still interested; since I hadn’t phoned back they were on the verge of selling it to someone else. So it was a good thing I got there so fast.

I’ve read it twice now, indeed. The first time I strongly disliked it: I found it dull, static, verbally opaque, the characters lifeless, the story itself not very gripping. I smile at that now. Months later I got the silly notion of writing a novel; it’s not a very good novel, but it’s helped me gain a better appreciation for novelists who attempt complex, challenging, risky feats. While writing I realized that the reasons I had disliked his novel so much were the same reasons I was enjoying my novel writing so much: playing with weird syntax, filling it with obscure vocabulary, playing with sounds (JGR uses inner rhymes a lot in the tradition of Portuguese popular proverbs), digressing, interrupting the action, deforming spelling. Even though my novel isn’t very good, it did do strange things to my head. For instance I not only learned to like reading dictionaries, but making my own as well. I created an alliterative one, a lipogrammatic one, I have glossaries on countless themes, I had to create a rhyming dictionary just to write that short-story I sent you. I think most readers read in spite of language and not because of it, which is quite understandable; I used to be like that too. But since I wrote that novel I began leaning in the opposite direction; for me literature is a means to get to the language. And Guimarães Rosa has lots of it. So after I finished my bauble I decided to reread him. And then it became clear to me that it was one of the greatest novels of the 20th century.

Here, let me quote JGM for you. This is from a 1966 interview with Portuguese writer Arnaldo Saraiva: “When I write I don’t think about literature: I think about capturing living things. It was the necessity of capturing living things, together with my physical aversion to common-places (and common-places are never confused with simplicity), that led me to the other intimate necessity of enriching and embellishing the language, making it more plastic, more flexible, more alive. Thus I don’t have any process in relation to linguistic creation: I want to use everything that’s good in the Portuguese language, whether it be in Brazil, in Portugal, in Angola or Mozambique, and even from other languages: for the same reason I often make use of popular and erudite spheres, or city and farm.” And he adds: “There are many words I reject because they’re inexpressive, and that’s what leads me to seek or invent others. And I always do it with the utmost respect, and with soul. I respect language too much. Writing, for me, is like a religious act. I have lots of notebooks with word relations, with expressions. I’ve ridden with many cow herders, on horseback, and I always took a notebook and a pencil fastened to the shirt’s pocket, to note down everything good to the ear – even the bird singing. Perhaps my work is a bit arbitrary, but if it sticks, it stuck.”

When I re-read his novel I felt delight, awe, and euphoria. The novel is about a jagunço, a hired gun called Riobaldo, a man with a history of violence who thinks he may have sold his soul to the Devil. Riobaldo belonged to a group of marauders involved in political wars in the Brazilian backlands, or sertão, which is short for desertão, meaning “big desert.” Curiously, when Portuguese sailors shipwrecked off the coast of Africa and had to travel deep into the territory they also used the word “sertão” to designate the African hinterland. In that same interview JGR claims to have been inspired by Tragic History of the Sea. And they are similar: both are about people in the middle of nowhere desperately trying to survive against nature and armed enemies. Riobaldo, after many incidents, becomes the band’s leader in order to avenge a betrayal, but the hunt for the traitors drags on and on because they think one of them made a pact with the Devil to become invincible. So Riobaldo, in order to put an end to the war, goes to a crossroads and sells his soul to the Devil. Or at least that’s what he thinks. The story is narrated decades after these events; Riobaldo has married, settled down, forsaken his violent ways, embraced Christianity. But now he lives in anguish and fear that he’s lost his soul, that he’s going to hell. He spends 600 pages worrying and reasoning that he didn’t, that the deal was void, that the Devil doesn’t even exist; but no sooner does he reach a conclusion that his soul is safe than he starts doubting again. The word “Devil” must show up over a hundred times. I don’t believe in God, but JGR makes his fear so palpable, and Riobaldo is such a seductive and likeable narrator, that I truly believed in his fear of losing his soul, and I felt very moved by his anxiety about salvation. It’s an incredibly violent novel, but it’s deeply affecting. And Riobaldo is a great narrator, you enjoy his company, like Ishmael’s.

When I reread it what immediately struck me was how Homeric the whole thing was. It starts in medis res before moving to the start and becoming more or less linear; it’s full of lists like in The Iliad: all those Greek soldiers Homer enumerates; several times Riobaldo just makes lists of his brothers of arms. And rhetoric also plays a role: there’s a scene where an enemy band leader is being tried and he saves himself because he argues his case eloquently. That’s Homeric too: those mythical characters were admired not just for their physical prowess but also for their rhetorical skills. And Riobaldo’s narrative is in itself a rhetorical feat to rival anything by the Muse. Ultimately it’s about honor, revenge, courage, family, and even compassion. There’s something ancient, primitive about the book, something incredibly powerful about it.

I never read the English translation; I don’t know why it failed, but I don’t think it’s impossible to translate it properly. I just gave it a look and don’t see anything very impeding. Perhaps the translator just wasn’t the right person for the job. It’s a complex book, yes, down to the letters inside words. Take the romantic triangle between  Riobaldo/Diadorim/Otacília: names with just the vowels A, I and O, and consider the fact that “Devil” in Portuguese is “Diabo.” The vocabulary can be obscure, but a good translator can deal with that. He invents words sometimes, but that hasn’t stopped Mia Couto from being translated. Perhaps the main problem is the rhythm, the syntax; it’s choppy, synchises and anacoluthons abound; and JGR deforms spelling, brings it closer to the way people speak; he turns nouns into adverbs, and then adverbs into adverbial phrases! JGR captures the rhythm of an excited narrator talking without a plan: he stops, goes back, explains, explains differently. Riobaldo can read and write, but his speech shows his precarious education. There are many short sentences because he’s narrating out loud to a listener, an outsider travelling through the backlands, perhaps a stand-in for the author, so he talks in small bursts, hiccups of information. It’s a deceptive simplicity that reaches a poetic intensity filled with feeling. Perhaps it’s worse because they’re short sentences, because long ones impose proper grammar and correctness, whereas these short sentences get their effect from precise distortions, from putting a word in the wrong place, from an unexpected pairing of words, from a comma indicating a silence or a doubt. So you need someone who’s both good at breaking English grammar rules and has a poetic mind. I think that’s the main difficulty, you need someone talented enough to make gorgeous poetry out of horrible grammar. Maybe they should give the job to a poet. João Guimarães Rosa was evidently one.


Read the second part of the interview here.



Filed under Interviews

The Book of Illuminations (كتاب التجليات, Le Livre des illuminations) by Gamal al-Ghitani


A severed human head is floating in the sky above the holy city of Kufa. After a while it spots an iridescent green bird slowly approaching it. When the bird is close enough, it becomes apparent that the strange creature has a human face. The head recognises the features of Khalid Islambouli, an Egyptian officer who led the assassination of President Anwar Sadat during the Victory Parade in Cairo on October 6 , 1981, and was executed together with the other conspirators by a firing squad the following year. The bird inserts its beak into the flying head’s mouth and gives it three drops of a sweet drink that immediately alleviates its hunger, making it forget the taste of all the food ever consumed before. There is a bleeding wound in the body of the anthropomorphic bird. A drop of its blood flies into the outer space to become a star, the Star of Khalid. When the bird flies away, the head continues its solitary travel through the air until it sees somewhere in the desert a group of armed men. The troop of seventy is led by the second president of Egypt Gamal Abdel Nasser, and its mission is to take revenge on the murderers of Husayn ibn Ali, son of Prophet Muhammad’s cousin Ali ibn Abi Talib, who was killed and decapitated in the Battle of Karbala on October 10, 680. The participants of the punitive expedition eventually come toe to toe with an enemy force comprising thousands of fighters. The opposing coalition includes the army of the second Caliph of Umayyad Caliphate Yazid ibn Muawiya (it is they who slaughtered Husayn and his companions), Israeli troops, agents of Mossad in mufti, US quick reaction force servicemen, and mercenaries of all types. Amidst this motley rabble, cowardly keeping to the rear, is discernible Nasser’s notorious successor Anwar Sadat. The other well-known political figures supporting the assassins of Husayn are Jimmy Carter, John Foster Dulles, Ronald Reagan, Moshe Dayan, and Ariel Sharon. A ferocious battle ensues: the arrows are fired, the lances are thrust, and the swords are crossed. The supporters of Nasser (most of them were killed in the Arab-Israeli wars in another spacetime) put up a stiff resistance, but the strengths are unequal, and they fall one by one until there is only one man standing – their leader. The enemy fighters close in on the defenseless Nasser from all sides and pierce him with arrows. The treacherous Sadat delivers the coup de grâce by lopping Nasser’s head off with a sword. The horde of marauders then pounces on the headless body and rips its clothes off for souvenirs. The flying head contemplates the massacre with great bitterness, knowing all too well that it cannot interfere and change anything. It’s role is that of a passive observer. What makes the whole thing even more unbearable is the fact that amongst the fallen supporters of Nasser is its father. The head belongs to the acclaimed Egyptian writer Gamal al-Ghitani, and it was detached from his body some time before by the great master of Sufism Muhyiddin ibn Arabi aslo known as al-Shaykh al-Akbar.

A hasty disclaimer is in order. This wacky episode is in no way representative of al-Ghitani’s novel, and, if you approach it expecting something in the vein of Robert Coover’s The Public Burning with Oriental colour, you will be gravely disappointed. Despite its non-linear structure and a heavy slant towards the supernatural or, rather, the mystical, the book mostly deals with a very straightforward story based on the biographical facts of the author’s life as well as the life of his parents. It is a very personal book that can even be regarded as an exercise of self-therapy couched in the form of a novel. I ended up having love/hate relationship with it. It certainly did not turn out what I had expected it to be. At some points I found it hard going and even thought of abandoning it altogether. Nevertheless, I am glad to have experienced this peculiar novel, for I have learned a lot of new things and had an opportunity to look at the known political and historical events from a perspective different to the one I am used to. This book will not be to everyone’s taste, but there is little doubt that it is an important literary accomplishment that should not be ignored by a serious reader of world literature. As you probably know, last year Gamal al-Ghitani passed away. I have decided to read and review The Book of Illuminations as a tribute to one of the most important contemporary writers in Arabic. While working on this review I benefited a lot from Ziad Elmarsafy’s study Sufism in the Contemporary Arabic Novel that has a whole chapter dedicated to al-Ghitani’s book. Where the credit is due, I will say so. The numerous annotations by Khaled Osman, the translator of the book into French, have also been of great help: without them a lot more would have passed over my head than it eventually did. I also apologise in advance for all the inconsistencies in the romanisation of Arabic terms here, but since different sources used different approaches to this task, I resigned myself to keeping the transliterations the way they had been presented in each of the texts I consulted.

KitabAlTajalliyatFirst things first. Some of you may ask: “Why did The Untranslated choose to review a book that has already been translated into English and is easily available to anyone interested?” Well, not so fast, folks. Let the fact that Gamal al-Ghitani’s novel can be found in English (published as The Book of Epiphanies  by The American University in Cairo Press) not mislead you: it is just a partial translation of the original work. It is enough to compare the page count: the French translation which I have read has 874 pages, and the Arabic original – 815 pages. Now compare that to the piddling 288 pages of the English version: to say the least, a lot has been left out. As I have already said elsewhere, it is my philosophy not to read a book at all rather than read its abridged translation, which is why I regard al-Ghitani’s novel as good as unavailable in English, and will continue to look forward to its complete translation.

The original title of the novel is Kitāb Al-Tajalliyāt, where the first word means “book” and the second one is the plural form of the word tajallī which, being an important concept in Sufi philosophy, is rich with connotations and, therefore, can be translated in various ways. Here is what Ziad Elmarsafy writes in this regard:

The signifier tajallī from which the title is taken covers a wide semantic field. In The Book of the Definitions of Sufism Ibn ʿArabī defines it as “The secret illuminations that are revealed to the hearts [of the believers]. Revelation of this sort is a privilege reserved for the initiated, making manifest the presence and behaviour of the divine in the cosmos. […] In Ibn ʿArabī ‘s Kitab Al-Tajalliyāt, the author relates a series of dialogues with all of his [dead] predecessors on the Sufi path, who appear to him through the process of  tajallī. Were we to attempt a synthesis of the semantic field of tajallī in Ibn ʿArabī’s idiom, we would say that the word refers to the apparition, revelation, disclosure or unveiling of a given thing, person or idea that would normally be hidden in the order of the unknown or unknowable.

Not only does the title of al-Ghitani’s novel contain this rather complex term, but, taken as a whole, it is an allusion to the name of a treatise by one of the most celebrated Sufi mystics of all time. Of course, such homage found in the title of a novel is not such a rare case. We can recall here, for example, William Gaddis’ masterpiece The Recognitions whose title has been borrowed from a third-century religious romance believed to have been written by Clement of Rome.  The French translator of al-Ghitani’s novel in his introduction states that although the literal translation of tajalliyāt is “theophanies”, he has chosen to render this word in French as illuminations (illuminations) to better reflect the way the Egyptian author utilises the term, for he applies it for a wide range of the narrator’s mystical experiences that are not limited to the manifestation of the sacred, but also include the apparition of the profane. Taking my cue from Khaled Osman, I am going to refer to the novel in English as The Book of Illuminations.

One of the cornerstones of Sufi philosophy is the notion of journey or voyage (safar), the category which is applied to the spiritual journey of the novice on the way to unity with God. Such a voyage will consist of different stations, and the traveller may experience a number of states. The station (maqaam) denotes a certain stage in Sufi’s development achieved through his own hard work and through the guidance of his mentors. Each maqaam is a merit earned by the Sufi’s conscious endeavors on the spiritual path. In contrast, the state (haal) is a transitory state of mind that is granted by God to the mystic, and, being a product of God’s grace, it cannot be attained by intentional effort. All these concepts are used by al-Ghitani as the titles for the three parts of the novel: 1. The Journeys, 2. The Stations, 3. The States. Thus, just by looking at the title and the table of contents, we get a hint that the novel is steeped in Sufi philosophy, and that the novelistic form has been used to disseminate among the readership some of the concepts developed by Sufis, most probably presenting them in a new light. One realises upon completing the novel that these assumptions are actually true. In an article, the author himself stresses the tremendous role played by the writings of ibn Arabi in the composition of the Book of Illuminations.

I have relied upon the language of Ibn ‘Arabi. I have made pains to penetrate into its secrets, into the essence of this essential writing which is rare in the entire corpus of Arabic prose, into that amazing imagination which runs free with its particular visions and its ability to manifest itself.

In this respect, the book Kitāb al-Tajalliyāt is thick with the presence of Ibn ‘Arabi. He is a leading personality, and, as such, has guided me and solved problems that I have faced. He has made me see the truths of being and the details of humanity. Just as he ventures the propagation of an epistle in his amazing general introduction to the Futūḥāt al-Makkiyya, I have ventured the propagation of my view. What I want is to announce it to my people and to the children of mankind. Six-and-a-half years were spent in the writing of the Kitāb al-Tajalliyāt. Time shaped its production since my dear mother passed away three years into the writing of this book. It seems that the Kitāb al-Tajalliyāt is externally an expression of pain brought about by loss and death. However, essentially, it is an expression of life and the rare struggle on the part of those who are simple for the sake of the continuation of the dearest thing the Creator has given us.

The main impetus for writing the novel comes from Gamal al-Ghitani’s personal tragedy: the death of his father Ahmad al-Ghitani. When it happened, the writer was abroad and could not be present at the funeral. The ensuing feelings of loss, remorse and irreversibility inspired the author to write a novel in which his alter ego is granted the mystical gift of being able to travel in time by means of illuminations, thereby regaining the lost time when his father was still alive as well as rediscovering and reassessing his own self. In the introductory part called The First Illuminations the grief-stricken Gamal tells us how a mystical entity called the Divan is manifested to him and how its custodians endow him with the supernatural ability to travel within illuminations. We never get the exact explanation what the Divan is. When Gamal sees it for the first time he admits that his terrestrial vocabulary is insufficient to describe it. The best he can do is to say that some of the elements of this enormous edifice bring to his mind huge cenotaphs to unknown soldiers, the delicate facades of Asian temples, and natural canyons cutting through mountain ranges.  It is some kind of mystical headquarters that oversees our world, rules over our destinies and determines the shape of things to come. Personally I was reminded of the Aleph from the famous short story by Borges. The Divan is governed by a triad of historical personages belonging to Ahl al-Bayt (literally “People of the House” a term used to denote the family of Prophet Muhammad). Its president is Sayyeda Zaynab, daughter of Ali and Fatimah, and her two assistants are her brothers Hasan ibn Ali and Husayn ibn Ali, revered as the second and the third Shia Imams respectively. Every Saturday evening of Earth time the governors of the Divan hold a session during which they decide on the major events for the coming week.

Gamal’s wish to overcome the limitations of time and space is granted by the Divan. His subsequent journeys consist of three major stages covered in each of the three parts of the novel, and for each stage he is appointed a guide assisting him in each series of illuminations. In the first part his guide is Husayn himself. In the second part this mission is taken over by ibn Arabi. As for the identity of the third guide, it is open for conjecture, as Gamal is forbidden to reveal it. In the course of the mystic voyages under the guidance of the three masters Gamal revisits and relives both the past of his family and that of his country. He witnesses the events before his own birth, travels to the ancient times at the dawn of the Islamic civilisation, and also re-experiences the major events in his own life taking a detached view of himself. Following Gamal’s time travel is not always an easy task for the Western reader, as the amount of the required cultural baggage to fully understand the text is rather formidable. Just to give you the idea: imagine that you have to read Moby Dick knowing next to nothing about all the Biblical allusions running through it. Of course, you will be able to accomplish your reading, but your lacunae will be tremendous. In case of The Book of Illuminations, the concentration of all the Islamic lore diffused in it is even stronger: al-Ghitani integrates into his text numerous references to a variety of Sufi treatises as well as direct quotations from the Qur’an. Not to be lost in this wealth of information, the reader also needs a guide, and, luckily enough, this role is brilliantly fulfilled by the translator of the novel who has compiled an impressive collection of more than 300 end-notes explicating most of the obscure allusions and clearly indicating the origin of each Qur’anic quotation.

By visiting different episodes in the past as well as talking to inanimate witnesses of his family history, such as a stone wall, a palm tree, and a plot of land, Gamal gradually puts together the puzzle of his father’s life story. On the whole, it is a rather plain story of Ahmad al-Ghitani’s struggle at achieving social mobility and giving a better future to his children. Ahmad leaves his native city of Guhayna in Upper Egypt and sets out to Cairo in a mortician’s wagon with a big dream of receiving education at the prestigious Al-Azhar University and subsequently gaining financial stability and a higher social status. Although his ambitions mostly remain unfulfilled, he does manage to settle in the capital, get a menial job at the Ministry of Agriculture and later bring over his family. By his self-abnegating labour, grim determination and self-sacrifice Ahmad succeeds in providing for his children decent education and making it possible for them to escape poverty and get on in life. Despite all the supernatural elements and the mysticism, The Book of Illuminations is mainly a factological exploration of  the destiny of a single Egyptian family being pushed towards a better life by the perseverance and stoicism of the father. The story of the al-Ghitanis is narrated with an overwhelming feeling of gratitude, for the abandoned dream of Ahmad al-Ghitani has been vicariously fulfilled in the accomplishments of his son.


Gamal Abdel Nasser (right) and Anwar Sadat in 1960. Image source

Besides narrating the story of his parents, Gamal al-Ghitani also tells us about the major military conflicts in the Middle East as well as about the host of political and social issues faced by Egypt during the presidencies of Abdel Nasser and his successor Anwar Sadat. At first glance, Gamal’s admiration for Nasser is liable to cause a certain bewilderment in anyone familiar with the author’s biography.  It is exactly during Nasser’s regime that al-Ghitani was arrested for political dissent, put in jail and subjected to torture. The writer’s imprisonment and tortures are recounted  in  unflinching detail in the third part of the novel. In spite of all that, Nasser is represented as one of the narrator’s spiritual mentors. In one of the illuminations he even speaks in the voice of Gamal’s father. Sadat, on the other hand, is shown as evil incarnate. Never called by his name, he is referred to in the original Arabic as الجلف الجافي (al-jilf al-jaafiy). This alliterative epithet is rendered in the French translation as butor brutal, and the corresponding English equivalent would be “brutish boor”. By depicting Sadat in a most derogatory manner and by pouring on him torrents of curses, al-Ghitani shares the hatred of many Egyptians who believe that Nasser’s successor betrayed his nation when he signed the Camp David Accords with Israel’s Prime Minister. For this deed, in the writer’s view, Sadat  has forever secured a prominent place among the arch-villains of the Arabic World. For Al-Ghitani the greatest virtue of Nasser is his care for the poor and the oppressed which found its expression in his socialist reforms. Nasser as the leader of common folk  is opposed to the supercilious and luxury-loving Sadat who has alienated himself from the majority of his nation. The personal suffering of the novelist cannot overbalance what he sees as the biggest humiliation in the history of the Arab Republic of Egypt perpetrated by Sadat when he sat at the table of negotiations with the Israeli leadership. The writer’s opposite attitudes towards the two presidents are vividly presented in the illumination summarised at the beginning of this review: Nasser is depicted as the valiant champion of just cause intent on avenging Martyr Husayn, whereas Sadat is shown as a cowardly and treacherous creep sided with Husayn’s assassins.

Qarawiyyin Mosque

The Al Qarawiyyin Mosque in Fez. Image source.

By mentioning the oneiric episode of the battle in the desert, I, most probably, will provoke a legitimate question: what is the meaning of al-Ghitani’s flying head that is observing this gory tableau? As I have already said, the head of the narrator was cut off by the Sufi philosopher ibn Arabi, and, in fact, it is just one of the several instances of the supernatural experience undergone by Gamal which Ziad Elmarsafy in his analysis of the novel identifies as “separation from the self”. When ibn Arabi’s sword falls on the neck of the novelist, this separation in the scholar’s words takes “brutal physical form”. The symbolism of decapitation in the novel is closely related with the martyrdom of Husayn ibn Ali. When al-Ghitani finds himself transported all alone to the city of Kufa in the distant past and is approached there by ibn Arabi, he desperately begs the philosopher to reunite him with Husayn, his guide appointed by the Divan at this stage of his journey . By subjecting the narrator to the same fate as befell Husayn in his earthly existence, Ibn Arabi both grants al-Ghitani’s wish and teaches him a lesson. As to what kind of lesson this symbolical execution exactly denotes, I guess there might be various interpretations, especially by those who are more familiar with Sufi philosophy than myself. As for the mystical separation of al-Ghitani’s self, one of its instances occurs when the writer is taking part in a literary colloquium in the Moroccan city of Fez. A mysterious stranger in a white bournous, who is invisible to everyone but al-Ghitani, beckons to the writer, and  the latter splits into two versions of himself one of which follows the summoner while the other stays in the conference room. The stranger takes the separated self of Gamal to the famous Al Qarawiyyin mosque where he witnesses all the major Sufi philosophers, mystics and hermits from all periods of history assemble for a prayer. After this grandiose spectacle, the double of  al-Ghitani  is catapulted by a rainbow into the outer space where he travels through the galaxies and nebulae at the speed of light. Elmarsafy identifies this incident as an instance of mi’raj or “spiritual ascension”. Although this term is primarily used with regard to Muhammad’s ascent to heaven, Sufis saw in mi’raj the culmination of the spiritual development and the acquisition of ultimate mystical knowledge.  Another noteworthy doubling of  the narrator takes place in an alternative past, in which the young Gamal lives with his family in Paris. In this version of the past his father works in an embassy; he is a poet and a political exile opposed to the regime of Anwar Sadat. Gamal meets a beautiful girl called Laura and immediately falls in love. They have a passionate affair whose outcome is a stunning revelation that Laura is none other than the female version of al-Ghitani. In general, the category of self is constantly challenged throughout the novel, being shown as unstable, unpredictable, and misleading. Not that one would expect something else form a book shaped to such an extent by the writings of Sufi masters.

For me The Book of Illuminations works best during its various miraculous and mystical moments, perhaps because they are unlike most of what I have encountered so far in Western literature. The weakest parts of the novel, in my opinion, are those in which al-Ghitani minutely narrates the everyday domestic problems of his family in Cairo. Although the hardships experienced by his parents and himself aroused my sympathy, I have to confess that all those recollections of childhood were a chore to read, and I tried to race through these episodes as fast as possible to reach the next instalment of fantastic journeys, transformations and revelations. It is a long and uneven novel that has as many flaws as merits, but despite my mixed feelings about it I consider my time with it well spent, and if I was given the supernatural ability to revisit the past like its protagonist, I would not  try to dissuade my earlier self from reading  and reviewing it.


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