Dom Tanas de Barbatanas is a weird novel even by the standards of the Portuguese fiction of its time. When it arrived in bookstores in 1962, Portugal was already awash in the literary experimentalism that electrified a big chunk of the world in the ‘60s and ‘70s. Looking back, this period nowadays seems to boil down to a simplistic war between proponents of the realistic novel and innovators. It all looks now a bit theoretical and too serious; why couldn’t each novelist do his own thing and let others do their own thing without getting so aggressive about their respective positions?
In Portugal there was nothing simplistic and theoretical about this; writers took this matter very, very seriously. Portugal by then had been a right-wing dictatorship for decades. The official press and official cultural institutions promoted an official literature of doubtful quality that fulfilled a role within the larger state propaganda machine. A parallel left-wing press existed in spite of several restrictions that pooled a network of publishers, newspaper editors, journalists, critics, translators, and writers united in political opposition against the regime. For this left-wing enclave, organized and animated to a considerable extent by the underground Communist Party, the 19th century realistic novel was the only permissible model of literary expression.
This resistance literature, born at the same time as Franco was emerging victorious in Spain and Hitler was about to conquer Europe, was called neo-realismo, new realism. Since the late 1930s narrative fiction had adhered to the naturalistic principles of studying society, registering its ills critically and exposing them on the page. Novels were populated with peasants (Portugal was still deeply rural) and proletarians. Hunger, misery, class struggle, capitalist exploitation were obligatory subjects. This left-wing press essentially set the course of literature and used its resources to stifle dissenting voices that, although not aligned with the regime, were not interested in writing Marxist novels. And so the novel in Portugal in the decades after 1940 remained predominantly realistic, old-fashioned, repetitive, dull.
However, by the early 1960s a younger generation of Portuguese writers started showing dissatisfaction with the neo-realist hegemony. It did not have to be the only way, they said. Neo-realism, which had enjoyed the allegiance of most poets, novelists and intellectuals for a long time and only from time to time had to deal with a contrarian, went on the defensive. The press was a battlefield throughout the decade on which each side launched invectives against the other. I get sometimes the impression that the experimentalist craze in Portugal was carried out more to piss off the ageing neo-realists than to spite the regime. Young writers craved freedom to create as they pleased and to express reality in their own way. For them, neo-realism wasn’t realistic enough to represent the modern world. Robbe-Grillet, Sarraute, and the nouveaux romanciers were immensely popular because they gave them a readymade model to use in rejection of their predecessors. Their rebellion had a mostly French accent.
Dom Tanas de Barbatanas didn’t fit anywhere. It wasn’t a realistic novel, but it wasn’t the nouveau roman either. The critics who bothered to write about it didn’t point out anything innovative about it; it was hastily read and hastily put away as if it had no place in this battle between old and new. It couldn’t be neo-realist because the author, Tomaz de Figueiredo, hated the neo-realists not just for aesthetic reasons but because he was a conservative monarchist; it couldn’t be nouveau roman because Tomaz saw it as a fad, another school like neo-realism, and he hated following fads and joining schools because that killed the writer’s individuality, the source of creativity, what made art eternal instead of circumscribed to a circumstance.
Tomaz was born in 1902 in a family of rural aristocrats that lost its status when the monarchy was overthrown by a republican coup in 1910. Although the republic itself fell in 1926 to a military coup which installed a military dictatorship still leaning somewhat on republican ideals, by 1933 it had evolved into a regime more in the likeness of the fascist regimes popping up in Europe, under the leadership of António Salazar. Contrary to what many monarchists like Tomaz hoped, Salazar did not restore the monarchy. Although Tomaz hated the republic, the new regime wasn’t agreeable to his values either. Politically and literarily, Tomaz fit nowhere: he repudiated the Left and had few friends in literary circles; but the Right in power wasn’t the right one.
Even so, life for a monarchist was relatively easier since the monarchist movement had been one of the lynchpins of the 1926 coup; they were trustworthy, especially after so many had been pacified by Salazar with major positions in government. Tomaz was also programmed by temperament not to care about politics; making art was his sole passion and he despised writers who wasted their time serving parties and Power. Tomaz led a peaceful, acquiescent life in the countryside, with occasional trips to Lisbon; he worked as a notary, complaining in letters and prefaces that in his double status as aristocrat and writer it was unworthy of him to have to earn a living. A real writer can’t produce in the coffe breaks between his responsibilities at the office! Because of this, he vociferated in letters, Portugal had lost countless masterpieces that he had never had the time to write. But he couldn’t earn a living from writing anyway because his novels were too dense and demanding for most readers. Tomaz’ novels have a vast vocabulary, mixing regionalisms with the most erudite terms; he wrote in long, sinuous sentences that seemed to be mocking the short telegraphic sentences employed by the neo-realists. His novels were also mostly autobiographical, which gave them a sensation of hermetism and of writing for himself, a sensation heightened by their plotlessness. He frequently used first-person narrators whose recollections amble to their own rhythm. He was also daring in other ways, like avoiding dialogue. When his first novel came out in 1947 (he was aged 45), he was compared to Proust and Faulkner, comparisons he rejected in behalf of his sacred individuality.
Tomaz lived between 1941 and 1960 in a small provincial town called Estarreja. He wrote his novels and his remarkable poetry at cafés and at his hotel room. He had little to do with the literary milieu in Lisbon; from time to time he published a short-story or article in a newspaper. He translated Colette’s The Vagabond. For years, before moving from Lisbon to Estarreja, he was an art critic. Politics didn’t interest him and it wasn’t a crime anyway to long for the king in exile. He lived in a world of his own, made up of his recollections of an idyllic Portugal prior to being “ruined” by the republicans, disdaining the vulgar, bourgeois present. And yet troubles went looking for him. His letters show a noticeable growth in his hatred of Salazar from the ‘50s onwards. Besides not having restored the monarchy, a more personal matter had put an end to his indifference to the regime: his oldest son, also Tomaz, had joined the Communist Party and was wanted by the political police, the PIDE, for revolutionary activities. When he was caught, Tomaz senior had to use all his connections and grovel as he hated to do in order to help him. But what drove him literally crazy was being accused of embezzling funds at the civil registry.
Tomaz, with his aristocratic contempt for a life in the civil service, joyfully shirked his responsibilities at the civil registry and absented himself whenever he could to write, leaving two subordinates in charge. Unsupervised, they used the opportunity to steal money. When the authorities got wind of this, Tomaz was charged with the crime. He defended himself, was cleared of the charges, got his job back, then retired soon after because of health issues. I’m simplifying here; this was a martyrdom that dragged on through 4 or 5 years, with occasional losses of faith in God (he was Catholic, obviously), and suicidal thoughts.
The accusation had been so severe an attack on his sense of honor that he was afflicted by depression. Honor was all that he had left in this sordid world of exiled kings, a plebeian rising to dictator, and writers prostituting themselves to Parties. The whole world was corrupt, vile, fascists no better than republicans; even the other monarchists had sold out by joining the regime out of interest, reneging their principles. He was purer than others; that’s what set him above others since nobility titles were meaningless now. And then he had that last consolation taken away from him. Tomaz’ depression led him to be committed to an institution; he was subjected to shock therapy. This was a golden period for his poetry because he wrote hundreds of poems just to cope with madness; he’s one of the few genuine cases I know of someone retaining his sanity through the power of poetry. His letters from this period are as bleak as the poems: they’re all about him saying farewell to his few friends one by one, thinking that he’d never write again, that the part of his brain had been amputated that contained his talent, that his ability to feel had been damaged, diminished.
Thus despondent, defeated, he got into a fight in 1960 with a local monarchist for reasons never fully understood. In Tomaz’ case, fights involved actual fists; he boasted that he had left his family’s coat of arms, in a ring he wore, impressed on his enemy’s flesh. He loved to brag about his physique. Dom Tanas de Barbatanas started as a short-story after this incident and was intended to parody his enemy. This event and his need to get even – getting even is the engine propelling many of his books – led to a big novel with 700 pages split in two volumes, making it still one of the longest Portuguese novels ever written. Part of its development is chronicled in his letters; his circle of close friends awaited it with glee, even if some later complained about its abstruseness and excesses. Tomaz also spoke of it with enthusiasm, and it’s clear that its humor helped him overcome his depression. However, the press in general overlooked it. Nowadays it’s a cliché to say that Tomaz has been shunned because of his politics, but that’s inaccurate; he’s ignored because he’s a challenging writer. Although his oeuvre was reprinted a few years ago, he’s still unknown to the public at large.
Dom Tanas didn’t find an audience because it’s a novel that requires attention, patience and commitment from the reader. Its sesquipedalian syntax requires one reading just to identify its subject, and a second reading to get the gist of the information. His vocabulary was gigantic, so after looking up the six or seven words that stop the reading in its tracks, a third reading is in order to finally make sense of the sentence. The fourth reading, optional but essential, is to soak up the sheer gorgeousness of the language. José Saramago’s long sentences seem like school compositions compared to them. António Lobo Antunes’ Fado Alexandrino is its rightful successor, but even that one is rather tame and straightforward by comparison. Dom Tanas’ artistry is a baroque brocade of alliteration, rhymes, trains of subordinate clauses, thick paragraphs, Latin expressions, archaic words and spelling, and even regionalisms that no dictionary will explain. Tomaz had no sympathy for the people excepting the loyal servants of his childhood; there is no social concern for the people even though the people lived in abject poverty during the regime; he only loved in them their colorful language, which he recorded in notebooks when he went hunting with his remaining rich friends. Surrounded by peasants, hunters, house maids, woodsmen, shepherds, he listened to them and recorded their words, sometimes updating dictionaries by hand. Hell, he even published a dictionary. With this word-hoard he created a unique language that seems like a pastiche of how people spoke in 18th century Portugal, although it was his own invention. He knew that living people assume that people spoke in the past always with an excess of orotundity, so he made it orotund as hell. Trying to even translate a paragraph is folly; the ideal translator would need to have Paul West’s or Alexander Theroux’s domain of the English language.
The novel is kind of plotless. A nameless panegyrist pens the protracted praise of a dead aristocrat, Dom Tanas de Barbatanas, the world’s most fearless swordsman, the strongest puncher in a brawl, the smartest thinker ever to grace a University, the most gallant seducer and lover, the most lyrical poet, the most skilled counselor in political matters, a strategic genius, the most everything at everything. It’s so ridiculous, so exaggerated, it undermines the veracity of the portrayal, and Dom Tanas disappears submerged by the colossal style employed by the panegyrist, who becomes the real protagonist in an inimitable performance of linguistic virtuosity.
When the first volume came out in 1962 (the second one is from 1964), the few critics who wrote about it incorrectly described it as a picaresque novel. Even the two scholars who’ve bothered to study it repeat this mantra. Tomaz himself called it a “Quixote of Vileness”, but even so comparisons should be used carefully. Classic picaros like Lazarillo de Tormes and The Swindler are about conmen who trick others out of their money; Don Quixote is about a madman who tricks himself (and other characters) about reality. Dom Tanas is about a servile narrator botching his duty to trick the reader. Don Quixote owes to picaresque novellas its colloquial language and its hero evokes the fading values of the questing knight. Don Tanas is a panegyric with the bombastic, florid language of the panegyric that is about a nobody who has no values although the panegyrist tries to imprint on him the values of a questing knight.
Its structure is so unusual that I don’t even know another novel that uses it. The novel is in fact an intersection of three classic genres: it plays up the outdated values of chivalric romances and some tropes like the healing potions (which in Dom Tanas’ seedy world is reduced to a hemorrhoid-healing unguent that he dutifully applies to the ass cheeks of the powerful he wants to ingratiate himself with); it has the down-to-earth comedy and social criticism of the picaro; and it uses the Greek panegyric to mock the language of power.
This novel, as I’ve said, came out at a time when Portugal was no less interested in the avant-garde novel than Europe, the USA, and Latin America. It was ignored also because it was not the right avant-garde. Younger novelists flirted only with the nouveau roman and were too busy dismantling the traditional novel to consider Dom Tanas anything but the kind of antique they were too good for. And yet the similarities are many: they rejected plot – Tomaz used the most linear plot available, the biography, to show how a life’s story is just a speech construction. They rejected character – Tomaz named a novel after a character, something rare at the time, and yet he showed how a ‘character’ is just a category created by language. They avoided grandiloquence – Tomaz reveled in its potential for ridicule. They were suspicious of omniscient narrators, so was Tomaz. Dom Tanas is a self-conscious novel about the danger of fiction to fool readers. Besides, the panegyric is an essentially deceptive genre since its goal is to embellish, to lie, to seduce, as was so much of the state propaganda around him.
It’s a comic masterpiece of exaggeration. Dom Tanas doesn’t just have a good lineage, his surname is older than the Portuguese kingdom. He wasn’t just born, omens announced his birth. He didn’t just graduate from the University of Bologna, he earned the title of ‘General Doctor’ in all arts and sciences. Although hints indicate here and there that the Tanas clan is poor, the panegyrist imagines a sumptuous dinner the size of a chapter that could have happened. The second volume ends with an epic epanodos of hyperbolic comparisons to major figures of history. The reader, by the way, will do well to keep a manual of rhetoric to check what words like ‘epanodos’ mean because Dom Tanas is first and foremost an exercise in rhetoric and how its techniques hide a pathetic, petty life.
A panegyric is not so much life without the boring bits, as life without life. Where the biographer puts facts, the panegyrist puts facundity, augmentation, maximalist rhetoric. In ancient Greece orators were expected to invent; a panegyric doesn’t deal with how one life was lived, but how life should ideally be lived by all. It’s fundamentally didactic, using a personal life to impart an ethics shared by the community. Even if the deceased being honored had no virtues, the panegyric had the duty of creating an example of civic decency to be followed. What’s funny about reading 18th century panegyrics is spotting occasional moments of self-awareness when the panegyrist admits that he’s just adding a virtue to his subject because that’s what the genre demands. Tomaz wasn’t inventing his novel’s self-consciousness, he was playing the genre’s rules for laughs. The novel’s humor is born from the tension between the panegyrist’s puissant deification of Dom Tanas and the truth about this man’s mediocrity, a situation all too common in Portugal. The apogee of the genre was in the 17th century, but it limped on until the 19th century when it was reinvented in the press. It’s also insinuated that he’s writing this on behalf of Dom Tanas’ son, Dom Badanas, his “friend”. In a regime where journalists would sell their services for money, such friends were common. Tomaz’ friend Agustina Bessa-Luís, one of the few novelists he deemed praiseworthy, thought that Dom Tanas was Salazar. Perhaps. But he’s a type. Portugal was and is a nation of bronze statues, of marble busts dotting public gardens, of formalities and lots of titles behind one’s name. The Portuguese use different verb modes depending on the situation and the level of intimacy they have with the person they’re addressing. The way language shapes behavior is something they’re daily aware of.
The novel starts in the 18th century, before the 1755 Lisbon Earthquake, and follows Dom Tanas’ education from childbirth until his meeting the major politician of his time, Sebastião de Carvalho, better known as the Marquis de Pombal, Lisbon’s rebuilder. The Marquis was a modernizer: he reformed education, opened the country to Europe, tried to reign in the Inquisition, and expelled the Jesuits from Portugal, whom he considered the source of all national evils. This move didn’t sit well with Tomaz, him being the nephew of a Jesuit priest, and brought up in a Jesuit school in Galicia during the Republic. If Tomaz didn’t like the Marquis de Pombal, Dom Tanas is worse because he seeks the Marquis’ favor to rise in society; in essence he’s an arriviste, like so many monarchists who bowed down to Salazar. Dom Tanas, however, is above all a container of the flaws the Portuguese perceive in other Portuguese: he’s a coward, a dunce, an ass-licker, a schemer; ultimately he’s the kind of aristocrat Tomaz hated because the aristocracy was his ideal of ethics.
Dom Tanas also partook in a movement towards awareness of Portugal as a historical enigma in need of answers; Portuguese writers couldn’t just register and report reality, as the neo-realists had done until then; it had to be investigated through its myths, symbols and history to explain how it had become what it was. Given the solemnity enforced by the regime, it was no wonder that this history is tirelessly mocked and shown as false, grotesque, ridiculous. The regime had manufactured a mantle of myths to cover it under. Tomaz’ novel mocks Portugal’s love for rhetoric, empty speeches, ceremonies, and the pedantry of its intellectual class. It was a savage attack on a Portugal made of scheming, incompetent arrivistes, and most of it rings true. Tomaz was a nationalist, a monarchist commonplace, but in the novel he relaxes, he writes against himself, he even laughs at his cherished world of aristocratic values and privileges.
When the first volume came out, Tomaz was 60. The younger novelists half his age who embraced the nouveau roman had a different relationship with language. They were very anti-rhetorical; there were reasons for that: rhetoric, eloquence, the political speech, Salazar’s voice invading the living room through the radio, pomp, public ceremonies, and Propaganda, were an oppression upon the quotidian. Language was a shield against reality. Since well-behaved language seemed to belong to the State, they heaped violence on it, they twisted linearity, smashed syntax, wreaked havoc in punctuation, delighted in nonsense, until literary language was reshaped into something no one would mistake for the clichés uttered at political rallies. Tomaz did the opposite: he embellished language to the point of unusability; he was so rhetorical, so artificial, he exposed language as nothing but a tool of power to be manipulated in the service of lies. He didn’t hide his debt to Francisco de la Isla’s 1758 novel Frey Gerundio de Campazas, a Spanish satire on baroque preachers in which overblown rhetoric is also the butt of endless jokes. Instead of abjuring tradition, he used it to mock tradition. The Baroque birthed Tomaz, he was his time’s most baroque novelist, but he turned its excesses into an indictment of a country that preferred ornamental words to ideas and ideals.
Dom Tanas de Barbatanas is unique in Portuguese fiction because it’s about bombast, and Portuguese novelists have always been wary of bombast. They like short novels, everyday words. Whereas the English and French novel adopted the journalistic style early in the 18th century, Portugal remained mired in baroque rhetoric into the 1800s. I’ve always been fascinated by the fact that the British and American literature had so many stylists in the 1960s. In Portugal, however, a long prejudice against this Baroque past always implied a policing of style. It was easier thus to follow the French novel, which employed deliberate anodyne prose, than making such a radical overturning of “good taste”. As such, Dom Tanas is an island of extravaganza in Portuguese fiction. In it there’s pleasure in form and structure, in revitalizing old genres, and in questioning the nature of storytelling. Although Tomaz didn’t follow foreign literature, his fiction was always a bit more in synch with it, a bit ahead of what his countrymen were doing. In the 1940s he was one of the first novelists to develop techniques similar to Faulkner’s. Some of his novels from the late 1960s predate what we now call autofiction. Dom Tanas had less to do with the French novels being translated than the English-language novels not being translated, less to do with Tropisms and Jealousy than The Alexandria Quartet, The Public Burning, Ada or Ardor, The Sot-Weed Factor, those big comical, extravagant novels that were of course utterly ignored in Portugal in the 1960s. Perhaps, then, its oblivion was inevitable too.
However, it’s one of the few Portuguese novels I’d single out as worthy of translation. It’s a hilarious verbal tour de force, drawing its strength from the novel’s past but also fresh, unique, unlike anything written in the 20th century, and for those reasons deserving of more attention, of better readers.
About the Author
Luís Miguel Rosa was born in Lisbon in 1984. He published his first book, Nova Arte de Conceitos, in 2017. He blogs regularly at his bilingual blog, Homem-de-Livro, where he writes about literature in Portuguese and English.
Here you can read Miguel’s interview with The Untranslated.