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. (Update: In 2017 Miguel started a new blog, called Homem-de-Livro, in which he writes both in Portuguese and English).

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.


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

  1. Caroline says:

    Thank you thank you both. So much to think about. The answer to the first question started me on a chant of ‘yes! yes! yes!’ and the other responses laid out years of reading, to the extent any of these are translated. A couple of years ago I managed to get a copy of ‘The Devil to Pay…’ through interlibrary loan and loved it. When I asked a famous translator about doing a new translation, at a book event, the person cited the backlands ‘dialect’ if I remember correctly, as one of the translation impediments. It’s interesting to hear a Portuguese speaker saying it shouldn’t be inordinately difficult.

    Portuguese books have been very rewarding for me over the past few years, including Camoes (Lusiads and other poetry), Pessoa, Saramago,The Maias, and The Man with Seven Names. I will have to go check your website to see if you have written about Redol.

    Also, Albert Vigoleis Thelen, in The Island of Second Sight, (a wonderful book) is very enthusiastic about the poet Teixeira de Pascoaes. I found an untranslated copy of one of Teixeira de Pascoaes’s books in Portuguese a couple of years ago but I haven’t tackled it with a dictionary yet. Thoughts?

    • Dear Caroline,


      I have not written about Alves Redol. I never cared for his novels, although I’m happy you’ve read him. In Portugal he was tremendously important during the dictatorship; his 1939 novel ‘Gaibéus’ inaugurated what we call neo-realism, a movement that used literature to oppose the regime’s propaganda by depicting a poverty and social and economic oppression that officially did not exist. He was a very courageous and idealistic man, and so has my admiration; but his putting politics over aesthetics produced novels that never appealed to my tastes.

      Teixeira de Pascoaes was a great poet and is still widely read and admired nowadays. It’s regrettable that he’s not available in English. I wrote twice about him in my blog and translated some poems. He was a very spiritual, very metaphysical man in the great line of visionary poets like Blake and Yeats.

      The Brazilian backlands, to my knowledge, do not have a “dialect.” There are regionalisms, sure, but a good translator gets around that and finds alternatives; any word can be translated one way or another. A translator’s job is to make the text sound good in the language of destination.

      I’m glad that you’ve enjoyed reading Portuguese literature and I hope you continue to do so. Do read Raul Brandão when he comes out; he was a friend of Pascoaes and co-wrote a play with him.

      • Caroline says:

        Thank you for the informative response. I will look up your piece on Teixeira de Pascoaes (and browse the site further) and keep an eye out for Raul Brandão. Good luck with the novels.

  2. Thanks for the comment! I am very happy about all the effort and the unbridled enthusiasm that Miguel invested in the interview. There is so much to be learned from him. If he is around, I’m sure he will be happy to answer your question.

  3. seraillon says:

    Frabjous day! Thanks Andrei for hosting this. And thanks Miguel for the wealth of interesting comments – it goes some way towards mitigating the chasm left by your decision to suspend St. Orberose “indefinitely” (I draw hope from the last word). From that invaluable resource, I’m familiar with some of the writers, works and anecdotes you mention above, but the format of the interview provides a concentration that makes it all seem new and displays the formidable scope and depth of your reading. I’ve scribbled down a lot of names and titles here to add to the ones you’ve already caused to land on my list. Far from being just a distillation of thoughts about Portuguese literature (if the Portuguese Ministry of Culture were smart, they’d be funding you for this incredible service), I find this to be about as good a summary of the state of literature today – of the issues readers should be raising and discussing – as I’ve run across anywhere. Though our opinions have occasionally diverged (I’m glad to see you come around on The Devil to Pay in the Backlands and do wonders with it!), I’m awed by your erudition, and I learn something every time I read your writing – and not just about the writers and works themselves, but about taking on more risky reading, about struggling harder with works that demand and reward the effort. I’m very much looking forward to part two.

  4. Thanks for appreciating our conversation. I got really lucky with my first interviewee. There is so much to discover in Miguel’s responses.

  5. What a surprise! What a treat! If this is what suspending blogging means, there should be more of it.

    I’m eager to see Part 2.

  6. I’m really happy to have offered Miguel a platform for sharing his ideas and opinions. Come again next week for the second part.

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