Finisterra: Landscape and Settlement (Finisterra: Paisagem e Povoamento) by Carlos de Oliveira

Carlos de Oliveira’s brief novel is a thing of exceptional, exquisite beauty. It’s one of the rare cases when the expression “to paint with words” is not just a glib figure of speech, but the only possible way to characterise the imagistic splendour of the Portuguese author’s writing. Finisterra is something to be seen, contemplated, gazed at, rather than simply read. And no, there are no typographical gimmicks or fanciful illustrations — just plain text, but the evocative power of the words used by this virtuoso is so great, that you will see things. I guarantee you that. Before I proceed,  let me quote the passage from the very beginning of the novel, taken from the extract translated by Kenneth Krabbenhoft (this sample translation used to be available on the site of the publisher And Other Stories, but, regrettably, it has been taken down):

The familiar garden (first stage of disrepair): brambles in shapeless mounds, untrimmed boxwood, nettles, wildflowers. Stunted palm trees, so swollen they look like aging, diseased dwarfs, their long hair and matted leaves bent to touch the ground.

Perched on a whale bone, more correctly the middle section of a whale’s backbone, fifty-five centimeters wide and thirty-three high: two vertebras spread open like the blades (arms) of a propeller, quite far apart, providing a resting place for the elbows. Balancing the sketchpad on his knees he is able to draw (pretty soon the summer rain will send him indoors). Whale bone, the texture of softwood, waterlogged and weatherbeaten but free of rot: when light strikes its muted grain it raises a gray powder, as if re-igniting. The stone hardness relents, and they both float (the child and the whale bone) above the bilious moss, the stalks of gisandra, the lichen — these lingering afflictions.

A clashing in the clouds catches him by surprise then fades away, but it is enough to open a crack (irreparable) in his memory, and he reproduces the landscape outside his window, from memory. He shapes primordial beings, mixes summer and winter, tones down the blinding (excessive) summer sunlight that strikes the sand, crushed mica, mortar-ground glass (whatever), swells the grains of sand to the size they seem to have at night when the wind throws fat fistfuls of pebbles at the windows. At this point the rain drives him from the garden. Not much time for floating.

If a novel begins like that, you get a hunch that your display of all-time favourite books might require additional shelf space.

Besides being beautifully written, this short but extremely dense novel is as enigmatic as a coded alchemical treatise. Even several close readings will not reveal all its mysteries. It’s one of those books that can be continuously re-read, each time yielding new revelations and insights. If upon the first reading I was sure that Finisterra was an extraordinary book, after reading it for the second time I knew that it was a timeless masterpiece and that I would re-read it again. There is nothing like it not only in Portuguese letters, but also in world literature as a whole.

The first impression of the novel is that of an incomprehensible and gorgeous pandemonium. It is hard to tell when the given scene is set and who is talking.  The dialogues are unattributed and even the circumstantial evidence hinting at the speakers is scarce. There are no clear time indications, which often misleads the reader into thinking that the current events happened a long time ago, and, conversely, that the occurrences from the distant past are the most recent developments. Yes, Carlos de Oliveira masterfully pulled this off long before Westworld. It takes patience, concentration and resourcefulness to make a semblance of the blueprint for the plot of this mysterious novel.

A man returns to his childhood home, now derelict and dilapidated, and tries to piece together the history of his family, the house, and the enthralling landscape around it. A folder with the family papers is of some help in his task, but the key element of his probe into the reasons that brought about the ruin of the house, eventually devoured by the forces of ruthless nature, is the prodigious theatre of his mind. It is his staged recollections and reveries which are mostly responsible for the befuddling effect of the text on the reader. As it becomes apparent, the man’s main conversation partner is his younger self from the past, the little boy who once drew a picture of the landscape as it appeared in the window of the house, revealing thus that he had inherited from his parents a very peculiar obsession.

We learn next to nothing about the backgrounds of the boy’s father and mother. Not even their names. What we do learn in spades is their approach to representing the landscape. The father believes in the objective representation by means of photography. He attaches an enlarged photograph of the landscape to the same wall as the window overlooking it: the original and the faithful copy side by side. The mother’s method is subjective and, therefore, more creative. She burns the picture of the landscape with a pyrography tool on a sheepskin cushion. It is their child who advances the farthest, of course. His drawing, executed from memory, represents the landscape as an environment subject to the transformative power of imagination. In contrast to his parents, the boy not only considerably distorts the original by making the lake tiny like a drop of water and the sand grains huge like rocks, but also populates his version of the landscape with pilgrims who are fleeing their native land stricken by apocalyptic calamities. The fugitives’  heads are black and wrapped in flames. The livestock and other domestic animals of the pilgrims are also depicted with deviation from the norm: the lambs are larger than the oxen, and the horses slither on the ground like snakes.

The efforts of the family members to capture the landscape via different media might be seen as the irrational attempt to save their house from the encroachment of nature embodied by thick fog and viscous corrosive mud whose main ingredient is the sap of the fungal plants gisandras, which are solely the author’s invention. The only external protection their dwelling appears to have is the “halo”, a mysterious shield of light surrounding the house, but there is little hope that it will keep staving off forever the intrusion of the elements. Another threat is of legal origin: the house was bought on a mortgage loan and the family are behind in payments. The boy’s uncle studies old alchemical writings, hoping to find the secret formula of some fabulous translucent porcelain and to save the house with the riches it will bring him. But it is obvious to everyone that he’s on a fool’s errand. The original sin lies with the first settlers, the pioneers, who more than a thousand years ago claimed the wilderness, which is now home to the family. The mortgage is just the latest stage in the long-term imposition of order and structure on the dunes, the lake, and the wild grasses that make up the landscape.

Yet another version of the landscape is added to the existing ones when the adult protagonist makes its three-dimensional  model on the top of a table, using sand, ashes and salt as his main materials. His most impressive creation, however, is the imaginary space in which the past and the present converge and which draws a lot on the fantastic world of his childhood drawing. This new dimension serves as the stage for an expiatory masque produced by the man in order to enact symbolical salvation of the doomed home. The performance is saturated with Christian motifs; there is even a sacrificial lamb bought from the pilgrims, which is to be decorated alive by the mother’s pyrography tool. Despite the higher degree of sophistication present in the theatre of the mind, nothing can be done to save the house from wrack and ruin. Nature will not accept another man-made system, no matter how creative, in exchange for its mercy. The place with the rotting house (known as the End of the Land or Finisterra in Latin), after all these centuries, is about to enter a new epoch which begins as soon as the oppressive human presence ends.

Carlos de Oliveira’s last and greatest novel is very short — just 140 pages, yet it fully deserves to be called his magnum opus. Beautiful, poetic, philosophical, and boldly experimental, the text of Finisterra showcases density and depth that very few present-day doorstoppers possess.

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4 Responses to Finisterra: Landscape and Settlement (Finisterra: Paisagem e Povoamento) by Carlos de Oliveira

  1. MarinaSofia says:

    I really don’t know why I read your blog – it whets my appetite for a certain book that I probably will never get to read! I’ll have to check and see if this has been translated perhaps into French or German or Romanian…

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