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THE BOOK OF DISQUIET BY FERNANDO PESSOA

My life outside of work has become a kind of work, full of duties and responsibilities from which I long to escape. I’m always speaking banally to someone, with a contrived smile on my face; I’m always out in the evenings doing something, the purpose of which eludes me. During the week-days I sit at my work desk and dream, but not as I once did, not about walking out of the familiar door and down the familiar street and into the familiar building that I call home, when, finally, I can retreat into the familiar self. I now dream of unknown doors and streets and buildings and selves. These dreams, which for some would be meaningless without the nail of reality upon which they can hang, are superior to any of my external experiences, because they are at least mine; they are made from me, from my wild, painful yearnings.

Before I made a begrudging commitment to the social world, I spent many frustrated hours with The Book of Disquiet. Even though I had never been able to finish it, I was sure, whenever I picked it up, that it would connect with me at last. I tried various translations, with no success. I tried indulging it, reading only two or three pages a day, as one is usually advised, but the lack of momentum irritated me and my mind – which, unlike my body, was agile and hyperactive – became sluggish. So I put the book aside, permanently I believed, satisfied that I had given it every opportunity. Then, last week I returned to it, and on this occasion my experience was different, because I am different, or at least my day-to-day existence is. In it, I met my old self again, the version of me who had the luxury of contemplation; but perhaps more importantly than that, I found that its slow pulse complimented the hectic rhythm of my life.

“I suffer from life and from other people. I can’t look at reality face to face. Even the sun discourages and depresses me. Only at night and all alone, withdrawn, forgotten and lost, with no connection to anything real or useful — only then do I find myself and feel comforted.”

The Book of Disquiet was penned by Bernardo Soares, an assistant bookkeeper and unpublished poet and writer. He is described by Pessoa in his introduction, which is the one of the few concessions to literary conventions in the book, as ‘in his thirties, thin, fairly tall, very hunched when sitting though less so when standing, and dressed with a not entirely unselfconscious negligence.’ More tellingly, there is said to be ‘suffering apparent in his pale, unremarkable features.’ What follows this introduction is Soares’ journal [of sorts]; yet he doesn’t narrate the events of his life, rather, he scrutinises himself, his thoughts and feelings, with the intensity of a jealous lover. It is, he states, ‘better to think than to live.’ And what one can glean about Soares’ activities from his writing proves that this isn’t simply a smart epigram. He is, as noted, only an assistant bookkeeper and is therefore not exactly prospering in his career. Moreover, on the few occasions he does look outside of himself, when he takes a walk for example, he is never with company. He appears not to have any friends, or even acquaintances, of note. He is, we’re told, a man who wants to be ignored, and his wish has evidently been granted.

However, there is an unrelenting atmosphere of disappointment, of fatalism, hanging over the book that is at odds with Soares’ assertion that he ‘rejects life because it is a prison sentence,’ as though it is a choice he has made happily and entirely on his own terms. So while he claims to be ‘sickened by others,’ he also admits to feeling a tenderness for the people he crosses paths with, especially those who work in the same office. In another significant entry he describes the moment when the office photographs are revealed and he is, rather comically, told that his, which he thinks makes him look like a ‘dull Jesuit,’ is a perfect likeness. This feeling of embarrassment, or shame, indicates to me that it does matter to him what others think, that he isn’t revelling in being a nothing, for if you don’t want to be a social being you would not care about your appearance.  The Book of Disquiet is not, therefore, a celebration of isolation and the pleasure of one’s own company, as some would have it. Soares is a frightened, sensitive, unhappy, and self-loathing individual, who, in my opinion, hasn’t confidently rejected life; if anything, it has rejected him.

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One of the issues with the book is that there are occasions when the entries seem less like profound soul searching and more like adolescent whining. Soares writes, for example, of the boring futility of each identical day, of feeling suffocated, of being sick of himself, and the self pity is so tangible that it can test one’s patience. It would be tempting to excuse Pessoa his lapses in the same way that some critics do with Nabokov’s Pale Fire, which is to argue that the bad is intentionally bad, but it seems like a stretch to me. Soares is, remember, a poet and a writer, and it is said that Pessoa made him such in order to explain his ability to write so impressively [for the greater part of the book]. However, one should not overlook the fact that The Book of Disquiet was never completed to the author’s satisfaction. It was, so legend has it, put together out of various bits and pieces of prose found in a trunk after his death, and therefore some of them may not have made the cut had Pessoa been in charge of proceedings.

What prevents The Book of Disquiet from being itself too suffocating is the beauty, and sometimes positivity, one encounters in Soares’ writings about the power, richness and scope of his own imagination. It is there, inside himself, that he is free. In fact, the ‘splendour’ of his inner life is not only in direct contrast to the tedium of his external experiences, it is, he claims, actually a consequence of it. It is his being a ‘nonentity’ that allows him to dream so extravagantly, because these dreams are ‘a negation of and a flight from’ the monotony of his daily existence. Often when people use the words ‘dream’ or ‘imagination’ they are referring to mere memory, to mental recreations of existent places, people and things. However, the paucity of Soares’ experiences, his lack of meaningful memories upon which to draw, allows, or encourages, him to create, rather than reproduce. ‘I have passed through more cities than were ever built,’ he writes, ‘and the great rivers of impossible worlds have flowed, absolute, beneath my contemplative gaze.’

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LUCIO’S CONFESSION BY MARIO DE SA-CARNEIRO

About a week ago someone said to me that the reason I am not very nice to him [which is untrue actually; I’m merely apathetic, but that isn’t relevant] is because I am attracted to him. He was appealing to that old ‘pulling a girl’s pigtails in the school playground’ idea, which is fairly straightforward psychology I guess, that you act in an unpleasant manner towards someone in order to grab their attention, and because you feel incapable of appropriately articulating your real feelings. I’m not gay, or even bi-sexual, but this odd incident started me thinking about what it must be like if you are and you do like someone of the same sex who isn”t openly gay themselves. I actually spoke to a friend of mine about it, and she confirmed that it is difficult for her, because she always has to factor in the potential reaction; not everyone, she said, no matter how much you hope people are broadminded and tolerant these days, will take the news well, even if until that point they have been friendly towards you, or even flirtatious.

Of course, my friend isn’t representative of the entire gay community, and I’m not myself trying to speak for anyone or patronise anyone, but I thought it was interesting that, as a straight man, I hadn’t before realised that even when someone has come out, and that appears to have been accepted, the fear and uneasiness might not end there. To return to my friend, she said that she uses the internet for dating, primarily because she knows, as much as one can on the internet, that those online women are at least open to the idea of a lesbian relationship. This knowing, she said, removes some of her anxiety; moreover, there is a kind of safety in being behind a computer. I then asked her what she would do if she was attracted to a friend, someone at her work perhaps, who had not to her knowledge dated a women previously, and she replied: nothing.

It is one of those neat coincidences that a day or two after having had this discussion I picked up Lucio’s Confession by the ‘modernist’ Portuguese author and poet Mário de Sá-Carneiro, because for all the noise in reviews, and the blurbs on the back of my copy, about madness and obsession, which certainly do play a part in the text, those things were, for me, only engaging, or worthwhile, in so much as they related to issues such as sexual repression and identity. However, before getting to that, I want to focus on one of the novel’s other dominant concerns, namely that of criticising and evaluating artists and the artistic process..

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[“Unless there occurs a miracle, next Monday, March (or even the day before), your friend Mário de Sá-Carneiro will take a strong dose of strychnine and disappear from this world.” – wrote Mario de Sa-Carneiro – above – to his friend Fernando Pessoa. He committed suicide aged 26.]

As the title suggests the book is narrated by a man, a successful writer, called Lucio, not necessarily as a confession, but, he claims, in order to prove his innocence, having spent ten years in prison for a crime – a murder – that he did not commit. In his youth, Lucio was, like me, a bit of a ‘drifter,’ who could not settle into a career, and, like me, he moved to a major European city, to Paris, and was drawn into those so-called artistic circles about which I know a thing or two. Indeed, it occurred to me while reading that my longtime aversion to novels about artists, specifically the bohemian sort, has perhaps been motivated, at least to some extent, by my own experiences.

If you have been following my reviews closely [and why wouldn’t you?], you will already be aware that I once spent quite some time in London, that I moved there to be closer to my then girlfriend, who was a fashion model and former art student, and because it is where I thought a young writer ought to be. But what I found, when I moved in those so-called artistic circles, was that I felt hopelessly out of place. I couldn’t, for example, schmooze, and that was absolutely necessary; you had to exuberantly, relentlessly praise everyone to their face, no matter how turgid their work. In fact, the praise that was flying around was so exaggerated that I genuinely questioned the sanity of those involved. Ever more outlandish outfits were also a requirement, which culminated in me once being at a party with a South African girl who was wearing an apron.

I don’t want to give the impression that it was an entirely miserable existence, as I thoroughly enjoyed myself for periods, but ultimately I lost my mind, I became disillusioned…I couldn’t cope…with the backstabbing, the sycophancy, the overall fakery and gut-wrenching pretentiousness. And I simply didn’t have the stomach for the fight; indeed, I didn’t even realise I was in a fight until I had lost. Maybe I’m just too northern, or working class. I don’t know. What I do know is that had come across Lucio’s Confession at that time I would have flung it away from myself in disgust. I would have seen too much of my acquaintances in it, and a little of myself also.

In Paris Lucio met Vila-Nova, an attractive, eye-catching, but essentially superficial man. The two became friends, although Lucio is keen to point that they were not alike, in temperament or personality; and, it is worth noting, he does openly denounce Vila-Nova for his pretentiousness. He was what we would call these days a ‘hipster’ [a phrase I dislike, by the way], but whom you might also describe as a sensualist or aesthete, somewhat similar to Huysman’s Jean des Esseintes. Amusingly, he always wore black, claimed to feel tenderness towards prostitutes and pederasts, and heaped praise on new literary movements, regardless of whether he knew the works associated with them or not; he believed, moreover, that artistry was to be found in one’s person, not in one’s art, that to create, to produce, was not necessary.

In contrast to Vila-Nova there was Ricardo, another Portuguese in Paris whom Lucio met, befriended and, in this instance, genuinely admired and valued. This man, we’re led to believe, was a true artist, even a genius. If Sá-Carneiro was in earnest, and there’s no reason to think otherwise, then it appears that, for the author, to be a ‘true artist and genius’ principally involved rambling on, in a self-obsessed, self-pitying manner, about the state of your soul [Ricardo would have liked his to sleep, apparently, and yet it remained awake! The bastard!], and about how unhappy you are, and how everything bores and sickens you. In any case, it is clear that the intention was to draw a distinction between substantial men and the flamboyant and frivolous; and it is equally clear that Lucio, and by extension Sá-Carneiro [there are important parallels between the narrator and author], saw himself as one of the former. Not long before his arrest Lucio allowed a director to stage one of his plays, only to decide at the last minute that he wanted to completely change the final Act; the director refused, and so Lucio retook possession of the play, and burnt it, blaming the ‘commercial side of art’ for the rejection of what he saw as an improved ending.

“I was a mass of doubts now. I believed in nothing, not even in my own obsession. I walked through the ruins of life, even fearing, in my more lucid moments, that I might go mad.”

You may see in all this something of the aforementioned madness and obsession, but it will not, of course, be clear what the relationship is between that and repression and identity. Well, first of all, it is difficult to discuss this without serious spoilers. What I will say is that one interpretation of the novel is that it is the desire to be with someone of the same sex, or at least the desire to let oneself go sexually, that causes Lucio’s insanity. There are frequent hints at this throughout, long before we reach the denouement, or ‘revelation.’ For example, there is a quite preposterous scene in the early stages, a party, during which a ‘transgressive’ woman performs and strips naked, and the narrator has some sort of intense, epiphanic [although most things are epiphanic for him] experience. Here, the phrase ‘golden vulva’ makes more than one appearance, which is not something I usually come across – nor, in all honesty, want – in my reading. Furthermore, Ricardo twice says to Lucio, in transparent attempts to hit on him, that he cannot be anyone’s friend without wanting to possess them, or some other such nonsense, that he wants to kiss, etc. anyone for whom he feels tenderness.

I hope this review has made it clear that I don’t take the pain caused by gender confusion, doubts about sexual orientation, or the difficulty of revealing your feelings for someone of the same sex lightly. I am not mocking any of that, at all; it is in exploring these themes that Lucio’s Confession acquires what little depth it has. But one cannot review this book, or certainly I can’t, what with my hang-ups about pretentiousness, without acknowledging how ridiculous, how over-wrought and melodramatic it is on a sentence-to-sentence basis, and, how, in fact, this dilutes the impact of its more important concerns. To illustrate my point I took a picture of a page from my copy, one relating to the party previously mentioned:

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If that strikes you as fine writing, then this is very much a book for you. I, however, cannot read it without simultaneously rolling my eyes and giggling. So, while I enjoyed Lucio’s Confession, I do wonder how much of my enjoyment was based on how many belly laughs it drew from me, laughs that I don’t believe the author was looking, or trying, for. However, I will credit Sá-Carneiro for delivering a complete vision, by which I mean that the jewel-encrusted prose style perfectly mirrors the personalities and behaviour of his characters.

SILENCE BY SHUSAKU ENDO

I’m not a religious man, although I wish that I was. I’ve said before, elsewhere, that believing in God would, I think, relieve or put an end to a lot of my anxiety. Much of the time I feel awfully lost, and ashamed of my own weakness, my own humanity. Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t simply self-loathing; I’m ashamed of the rest of you too. I look around myself and everything seems so brutal and meaningless, and yet to live with even a smidgen of happiness you have to be able to imbue life with meaning. The idea that all this is a trial, something to endure for a while on the road to a greater reward, would be comforting for me. But unfortunately I cannot accept that.

Bearing my atheism in mind, it is easy to see why Shusako Endo’s Silence might alienate me, as it is concerned with the nature of faith, with spreading the word of God, and Christian martyrdom. I am interested in these things, of course, but I wasn’t entirely convinced that my interest was strong enough to make reading a novel such as this worthwhile. Yet while it is certainly the case that Silence will resonate most with someone for whom these things play a role in their everyday life, the novel, as evidenced by how highly-thought of it is, has a wide appeal, it transcends its specific subject and concerns. There are a number of reasons for this, but the most significant, in my opinion, certainly in terms of my own enjoyment, is that the author injected both pace and tension into his narrative by borrowing from the mystery-thriller genre.

“Sin, he reflected, is not what it is usually thought to be; it is not to steal and tell lies. Sin is for one man to walk brutally over the life of another and to be quite oblivious of the wounds he has left behind.”

The text invites you to mull over many theological and philosophical questions, but it a different kind of question that gives the novel momentum: what happened to Father Ferreira? Ferreira is a well-respected priest, a missionary, who sailed to Japan, where Christianity has been outlawed, in order to help and support oppressed Japanese Christians. Rumour has it, however, that he apostatised under torture. Due to a scarcity of reports, and dismissing those relating to apostasy, two young priests, former students of Ferreira’s, travel to Japan in order to find out the truth. So on the most basic level Silence is an investigation, a search for a missing person.

Moreover, the two men know that to be a Christian priest in Japan in the 1600’s is extremely dangerous, that they are, in effect, entering enemy territory. As you would expect, then, there is a lot of anxiety and paranoia; secret hiding places are created, people are eyed suspiciously, etc. One of these people is Kichijiro, a Japanese who helps the priests to enter the country and claims to be able to put them in contact with local Christians. When Kichijiro first appears in the novel he is drunk, and his personality and behaviour is consistently described in negative terms. He is, we’re told, an idler; he is cunning; he is a coward. There is, not surprisingly, a general uneasiness amongst the priests in relation to him, a feeling that he may one day sell them out, may denounce them to the Japanese authorities. Indeed, he is clearly set up to be a Judas figure.

However, these things are not, of course, the heart of the novel. This, as noted, involves a series of theological/philosophical issues and questions, the most important of which pertains to the title. The silence that Endo is referring to is God’s. One of the oldest, and most popular, criticisms of God is that if he exists, and if he is all powerful and all good, why does he not intervene to prevent or lessen suffering or at least reveal himself to those who are suffering? His silence, it is argued, suggests ambivalence, it gives the impression that he does not care. So, when the poor and wretched Japanese are being tortured for their beliefs, one of the priests, Sebastião Rodrigues, wonders how it can be that God does not want to show them some solidarity or empathy; he feels as though he has, in a sense, turned his back on them, and it makes him uncomfortable, to the extent that his own faith wavers somewhat.

“It is easy enough to die for the good and beautiful; the hard thing is to die for the miserable and corrupt.”

I must admit that I found all this slightly odd, especially considering that Endo was himself a Christian and ought, therefore, to understand the nature of faith [as would a priest!]. What I mean by this is that a vocal God would make faith itself meaningless. What is powerful about faith is that it exists without consistent and conclusive proof of God’s existence; the important thing is to retain a belief in him and his teachings in the face of his silence, because, let’s face it, anyone can do that if he drops in for regular chats; in order words, it’s hard to doubt the creator of the universe when he is in direct contact with you.

Faith also plays a part in one of the novel’s other major themes, which is apostasy. As previously mentioned, that father Ferreira is said to have apostatised under torture shocks his former students, who refuse to believe it. Therefore, apostasy, i.e. turning your back on your religion, is clearly seen as something shameful, even if one is driven to it by being subjected to intense pain. Faith is necessary in a situation like this, because our natural instinct is to avoid pain. One would need something to make enduring it possible or at least seem worthwhile, and that is a commitment to God, and a belief that negative experiences are a test, and that one’s reward for passing it will come later. Without a strong belief in God allowing oneself to be killed or tortured, rather than apostatise, would be madness.

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[The Christian martyrs of Nagasaki. 17th-century Japanese painting]

What is notable about Endo’s take on apostasy is that he acknowledges that faith alone is not enough to justify suffering. While one might take it upon oneself, one might accept one’s own fate, it is a different situation to be faced with the suffering of others. Rodrigues, who narrates part of the novel, and serves as the central character throughout, is given an ultimatum, which is ‘apostatise or others will be tortured and ultimately murdered.’ Initially, he is unsure how to approach this issue, how to deal with the responsibility or resolve his dilemma. In order to avoid spoilers, I won’t reveal his decision. However, I would myself argue that God is understanding, that he is not a tyrant, and therefore a sin such as apostasy would be forgiven in certain circumstances. One must bear in mind that most ordinary people would forgive someone who ‘does wrong’ while being tortured or does so in an effort to prevent the torture of others; and so if God is less understanding and sympathetic than man, one must ask oneself if he is actually worth following anyway.

There is, of course, more that can be written about all this, but a book review is not the place for an in-depth theological discussion. I do want, however, to touch upon one other thing before concluding, which is the role of the missionary. For me, the most fascinating, the most engaging and original, aspect of Endo’s novel is in relation to those who go to foreign countries in order to spread their religion. I’m no expert, but as far as I know, converting others is an important part of Christianity; and this makes sense because if you believe that your religion is the right one, then it is one’s duty, as a human being, to attempt to make others see the error of their ways. To not do so would be, in a sense, to condemn them. However, what if your religion is not good for them, or if it is incompatible with their culture? This is what the local authorities think, that Christianity simply cannot take root in Japan. Even Rodrigues and Ferreira are not convinced that the natives understand the religion, or the Christian God, in the way that they ought to, that they think of him as a man, a powerful human being. This is something that I had never considered before, that, with cultural and language barriers, bringing your religion to another nation is almost impossible. It is like a complex form of Chinese whispers, whereby one can recognise the original message when it reaches its destination, but something essential is missing. Is spreading the word not, therefore, pointless? Certainly, it seems horribly cruel to encourage the natives to suffer for this confused form of Christianity.

Much of what I have written so far has not given an indication as to how I feel about Endo’s novel. I must admit that I found it dreadfully disappointing. Thematically, if one has never engaged with these issues, Silence might strike you as profound. Yet having studied the philosophy of religion I was familiar with most of the book’s ideas, and therefore did not find it especially rewarding. More importantly, the writing is simply not very good; in fact at times it is woeful. On this, not only are Endo’s metaphors obvious and clichéd, but he keeps repeating them. For example, Kichijiro is described as being like a cowering dog multiple times. This could be a translation issue – and there are, in fact, Endo novels that are not as poorly written – but, alas, I cannot prove that. In any case, there are other problems that can only be laid at the feet of the author, including an overemphasis on the parallels between Rodrigues and Jesus. All of this meant that my overriding impression of the book was of one that is laboured and unsophisticated.

THE MAIAS BY JOSE MARIA DE ECA DE QUEIROS

There are certain experiences that grow in stature, that become more significant, after, or outside of, the event; for example, imagine that you manage to bag a date with a movie star. This movie star might be insufferably boring, and so the date itself may be a let down, but before and after the date your perception of the event might be that it is/was a momentous occasion; it may even become more enjoyable as you think about it, or talk about it with friends. The thing is, you are able to appreciate some things differently in retrospect, or in anticipation. Certain novels are like that too. The Makioka Sisters is one of them. Cards on the table, reading Tanizaki’s novel was something of a chore. It almost completely lacks drama and the prose is utterly prosaic. However, after reading it, at some remove from my reading, my opinion of it is that it is beautiful and moving. It is very strange, but it is true that thinking about The Makioka Sisters moves and interests me far more than the experience of reading it ever did. The Maias by Eca de Queiros is similar in the sense that I feel an affection for it, and a growing appreciation, now that I have finished it, and yet for long stretches, particularly in the middle section, it struggled to keep my attention.

To be fair to The Maias there were significant sections of the novel that did fully engage me, by which I mean in the moment, not solely in retrospect. In fact, it bursts out of the blocks, telling the story of Afonso’s marriage, his emigration to England, his return to Portugal, his wife’s death, his son’s marriage, the birth of his grandchildren and his son’s death. The first 60 pages boast more action, drama and excitement than the following 600; in fact, they boast more of those things than most full novels. It is almost as though the author wanted to clear the decks, to get all the, uh, conventional plotting and stuff out of the way so that the book could settle into a comfortable, rocking-chair atmosphere. In a way it is a shame as I would have loved some of that stuff to be developed, lingered over; yet it clearly did not interest Eca de Queiros enough. The abrupt drop in pace, the almost complete absence of tension and action until close to the end, was all necessary for him to make the kind of points he wanted to make about Portuguese society.

Although the title of the book gives the impression that The Maias will be a multi-generational family chronicle similar to Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks it is not at all. After those initial 60 pages the Maias, as a family, fade from view, and one man, Afonso’s grandson Carlos, comes to dominate the book. I do not think that Eca de Queiros was unaware that the title of his novel is misleading or gives a false impression; I think he knew exactly what he was doing, and that the name he chose is an ironic one, one that hints at an aspect of the book that provides its biggest shock. However, to explain what I mean by that, to discuss how one could understand the title differently, would involve serious spoilers.* In any case, once Carlos takes over the narrative The Maias essentially becomes a kind of buddy comedy, which in turn serves as a gentle satire of Portuguese life and culture.

Carlos is what we call idle rich; he is more than capable, but his tremendous wealth and, Eca de Queiros would argue, the laid-back Portuguese mindset, takes away all his drive and ambition. Initially he desires to be a doctor, but once he has lavishly furnished his practice he loses interest in it. Instead, he spends his time with his friends, laughing and joking and making plans that never come to fruition. The most notable of these friends is the Wildean and foppish Joao da Ega, a man who, like Carlos, has charm, ability and big ideas, but never actually achieves anything. Throughout the text he talks about founding an Arts publication and, most amusingly, actually reads passages from his forever unfinished novel, the ludicrously ambitious Memoirs of an Atom. I was also particularly fond of Alencar, an old poet who was also a friend of Carlos’ father. Alencar, a staunch romantic, spends almost of all his time reciting his own bad poetry and making wistful asides about his youthful conquests.

The point of all this is that Eca de Queiros wanted to show that [his] Portugal is populated by amiable but aimless, intelligent but indolent people. This, he seems to say, is what it means to be Portuguese. Indeed, the characters often criticise Portugal, and by extension themselves. The crux of the problem with the middle section of the novel is that following the non-adventures of a bunch of charming, but mostly lazy and disinterested young men who accomplish nothing, was never likely to result in a page-turner. This middle section, which spans 300-400 pages, is lovely and readable and occasionally very funny, but is, necessarily, terribly unexciting. In order to develop his themes, in order to show Portugal as a place where nothing of any note ever happens, Eca de Queiros had to suck all the drama out of his narrative. Ironically, one falls into the same kind of languid state as the characters, into a kind of happy but half-attentive frame of mind, as you read.

Furthermore, there is the suggestion that the real action, that real life in fact, is happening elsewhere and is being kept from you. The characters voice this idea in relation to their own lives, but the book itself reads that way. For example, Maria Eduarda’s story – which takes place in France mostly – would be very interesting, could [like the beginning of the novel] have been unfurled over 100’s of pages, and yet we only get it in truncated form during conversation; likewise Ega’s trips to Celorico, and Ega’s and Carlos’ trips abroad, Ega’s affair with Raquel Cohen and so on. There was so much scope for extending the range of the novel, for introducing more conventionally engaging plotlines, but, unfortunately, to do so would have diluted the impact of the author’s message. Even the action that does promise to take place during the narrative eventually comes to nothing, like, for example, the numerous duels that are called for and planned, and the various beatings that characters vow to administer to each other.

Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of The Maias, for a modern reader, or this modern reader anyway, is Eca de Queiros’ claim that Portuguese culture is stolen, or imported, from other countries. When a house is redecorated early in the novel it is done by an Englishman in a myriad of continental styles, a house in Olivais, which plays an important part in the later stages of the novel, features a kind of Japanese extension; throughout the book there are mentions of Japanese screens and vases; there are English horses; and in one of the most amusing scenes Ega turns up in sunny Portugal wearing a thick Russian coat. This importing or appropriating of culture from elsewhere doesn’t just involve art and décor and fashion, but also attitudes, behaviours and mannerisms. For example, Damaso, who is the closest the novel comes to having a villain, believes in the superiority of the French and attempts to live like a Frenchman. He is an entirely ridiculous figure [and therefore not particularly villainous], whose catchphrase is to label everything of which he approves ‘chic.’ My favourite Damaso moment is when he turns up at an important horse racing event [which itself is an import, the national sport being bullfighting] wearing a veil. When everyone wonders why on earth he is wearing such a thing Damaso lambasts the Portuguese for being philistines!

The reason that this stuff interests me so much is because I see it myself, in my time and in my country. I often lament the lack of genuine culture, not just English culture, which to my mind no longer exists, but world culture. I am not talking about immigration here, which I am in favour of, but, as Eca de Queiros does, the importing of ideas and behaviours etc from abroad, mostly from America. I dunno, maybe I need to lighten up, but it pains me to hear English people talking about going to Starbucks or eating bagels for breakfast or the horrific recent development of secondary school or college Proms. Don’t get me wrong, I think an understanding or appreciation of other cultures is a nice thing, but that is not the same thing as appropriating other cultures, or allowing them to dominate others so that what you end up with, what we have ended up with, is one homogenous culture. That I find depressing.

So far I have probably given the impression that The Maias is entirely about negation, but that is not strictly the case. In fact, the narrative pace picks up [relatively speaking, anyway] in the final 200 pages, when Eca de Queiros concentrates on the love affair between Carlos and Maria Eduarda. In a way, it was a strange decision on the author’s part, because it is the only time in the novel that he gives the reader full access to the dramatic events relative to a particular storyline. The Carlos and Maria affair feels, in this way, somewhat incongruous. If I had to guess as to why Eca de Queiros does give us full access to Carlos and Maria’s relationship I would argue that, as with the title of the work, it is an example of dramatic irony. Throughout the majority of the preceding 500 pages we are kept at arm’s length, and then suddenly, towards the end, we are let in; here, with Carlos and Maria’s intense love, is an example of the life that we have been repeatedly told only happens elsewhere. Yet the author cannot allow this lofty, beautiful love to flourish, to act as evidence against his themes; he, instead, brings it crashing down to earth with a sordid, shocking revelation. It is almost as though he set up Carlos and Maria purely to show just how ridiculous it is to expect anything genuinely noble to take place in Portugal. However, perhaps the joke is on Eca de Queiros, because the greatest irony is that for a novel so insistent on the cultural bankruptcy and idiocy of a particular country at a particular time, he makes it seem so thoroughly attractive.

*I think The Maias does not refer to Afonso, Carlos, Pedro etc, but to the two incestuous lovers, Carlos and Maria.

THE CRIME OF FATHER AMARO BY JOSE MARIA DE ECA DE QUEIROZ

Cards on the table: I’m a bit of a hipster. Yeah, I know that’s hardly news; my picture in my about me feature speaks volumes. But it doesn’t end with my appearance, because I’m one of those really annoying people who will tell you Mullholland Drive and not Blue Velvet is David Lynch’s best movie; I will not listen to Otis Redding records, but instead prefer Jerry Butler; I follow German football; I date DJ’s and artists. And so on. See, I like obscure things, things a little off the beaten track, and that attitude extends to my reading. I love [at least the idea of] so-called neglected or forgotten books. Want a tip? Go find a copy of How to Quiet a Vampire by Borislav Pekic or The Fortunes of Richard Mahony by Henry Handel Richardson. Both are excellent and not often enough given their due.

So, anyway, I was speaking to someone the other day about why certain novels never capture public attention. Why is it, I asked, that some books continue to resonate with readers hundreds of years after their publication, despite describing ways of living and attitudes that are no longer applicable to our own, and some do not? Why is it, for example, that Anna Karenina is hugely popular, and well-known, and something like the book under review here, The Crime of Father Amaro, isn’t? Both are critically acclaimed [I’ve never seen a negative review of either], both are, we’re told in those reviews, well written, and yet Father Amaro has never been anything more than a footnote.

Perhaps the most persuasive, or certainly the most appealing, answer would be that books like Anna Karenina deal with universal ideas and themes and the other books, the forgotten or neglected books, books like Father Amaro, do not. While it is the case that certain attitudes present in Anna Karenina ,and certain kinds of behaviour, etc, seem outdated to us now, there is still plenty in the book that relates to our experience of the world, such as marriage and adultery and the treatment of women. Father Amaro, on the other hand, is about Catholic priests, and corruption within the church; the scope of the novel seems so small as to potentially alienate non-religious believers or people from countries that are not still under the influence of the church.

However, it is my opinion that all books house universal ideas and themes, because they are, as far as I am aware, all written by human beings. Father Amaro’s subject might appear to have narrow appeal, but, putting aside priests and Catholicism for a moment, the themes at the heart of the novel are hypocrisy, and abuse of power, and failure of duty; and these are things that we all understand and can relate to. The priests preach tolerance, forgiveness, moderation, etc, and yet they are shown to be gluttonous, lascivious liars. Indeed, it is amazing to me that the novel was not at the time of publication [and even now] more controversial. I might be wrong, but I would think that anything showing priests in such a relentlessly bad light would really get some knickers in a twist; these priests sleep around, they conspire against each other and the town’s inhabitants, they blaspheme [one speaks about the confessional as only being useful so as to find stuff out or direct people for your own benefit] and so on.

Of course, we are an increasingly secular world, and so perhaps any mention of religion is likely to put people off. That would certainly be the case for many British readers, because the irreligious British, generally speaking, don’t like to engage with any religious sentiment or discussion at all. However, I would say that the religion in Father Amaro is far more palatable to a modern, secular, audience than that in Anna Karenina, where a religious conversion takes place. Father Amaro is a satire, it is poking fun at the clergy, while Tolstoy was absolutely in earnest about the power of Christianity.

So, if it isn’t the case that Anna Karenina has more universal appeal, could its popularity, its status, be put down to timing and exposure? Tolstoy was, of course, Russian, and Russian literature, even at the time of publication, was held in high regard. Russia was a vanguard country, in terms of literature. Being a fine Russian author, then, will mean greater exposure, more interest in your work. Eca de Queiroz, however, was Portuguese, which, to this day, has no great literary heritage. Indeed, Eca de Queiroz himself wrote about what he saw as an artless society [Portugal’s] in his book The Maias; in fact, he describes the country as one that has no culture of its own, as one that imports everything. You could say then that Tolstoy rode the zeitgeist, was fortunate to have been Russian and writing at a point when people were more likely to be interested in his work, but I don’t buy that, I’m afraid. Certainly, being Portuguese didn’t stop Jose Saramago winning the Nobel Prize.

As a true hipster it pains me to say that the real reason that The Crime of Father Amaro isn’t more popular and more widely read is because the book aint actually that good. This is not to say that it is poor, that it isn’t readable, or even worth reading; there are, in fact, some lovely touches; the first 100 pages, in particular, which deal with Amaro’s upbringing and arrival in Leira were very enjoyable. My favourite part of the book is when it is explained how the sensitive Amaro comes to train as a priest, or why he is in favour of doing so, which is not out of religious feeling but from a desire to be close to women; young Amaro is a sensualist, rather than a ladies man, or sleaze; he is shown to enjoy female company, to like their attention and being fussed over by them. I thought that was great stuff. The central love story is refreshingly lacking in melodrama too.

So, I am by no means saying that Father Amaro is bad, merely that it is average. His characters are fine, without ever being particularly memorable; the book lacks any real psychological or philosophical weight; the prose is steady but never outstanding, although it is occasionally funny; the story is engaging enough and yet at no point are you compelled to switch your phone off, tell your girlfriend you’re ill and can’t accept visitors, and hunker down for a few days to whip through the book at a mad pace.

THE YEAR OF THE DEATH OF RICARDO REIS BY JOSE SARAMAGO

We all have, to a certain extent, multiple characters existing within ourselves, strains of our personality that are almost distinct people in themselves. The poet Fernando Pessoa called these characters heteronyms and gave them names. Ricardo Reis is one of these heteronyms and he features in this stunning novel by Jose Saramago. Before I speak about novel itself I want to say a few things about Pessoa’s most renowned work The Book of Disquiet. Most bibliophiles know that it is a collection of short prose fragments written by the poet and which were discovered [so the legend has it] in a trunk after his death. His intention, apparently, had been to assemble, and work, these fragments into a conventional novel. He died though, unfortunately, before this task had been completed, which means that the book you can take out of your local library, or buy online or in a bookshop has been assembled by scholars.

A lot of people adore The Book of Disquiet, and I understand their reasons, but I find it a deeply flawed text. Firstly, because it is, for me, impossible to read cover-to-cover; there is no narrative arc, no momentum, no real connection between the fragments. Secondly, as with all unfinished work we do not know what the author would have kept and what he would have discarded. This often means that the published work is uneven in quality, and Disquiet is no different. How so? Well, and I do seem to be in a minority here, I believe that there is some pretty embarrassing writing in the book. Despite being capable of composing beautiful, moving, and memorable epigrams, Pessoa also had a tendency [was it ironic? Certainly no one treats it as such] to descend into schoolboy existentialism [things like: I am a door, that is always closed], the kind of rubbish that if, let’s face it, you were told it was a rock lyric you’d snigger at and dismiss. This brings me to Saramago and Ricardo Reis, because I believe that this book, which is written in a style reminiscent of Pessoa, corrects many of the faults with Pessoa’s own prose work. It reads like a finished version of The Book of Disquiet, and that, I hope, is enough to sell it to some of you.

The plot [for we must always talk about plot] is as thin as the hair on Jose’s head.

Image

[Jose’s head: Jose’s plot]

Ricardo Reis returns to Portugal, from Brazil, after 16 years and installs himself in a hotel. He beds one of the maids, becomes somewhat infatuated with a crippled girl who only has the use of one arm, and is sometimes visited by the ghost of Fernando Pessoa. That’s it, folks. There is, yes, some mention of the rising tide of Fascism, and a suggestion of imminent war [a war we all know will indeed come], but that isn’t what held my attention.

More interesting for me was Saramago’s portrayal of what I call a superfluous man. The Japanese writer Soseki wrote almost exclusively about these kind of men, and it was he [as well as the aforementioned poet] that this novel most reminded me of. Ricardo ambles through the year, doing nothing in particular, and feeling very little, other than an overriding ennui. And maybe some of you can’t relate to this, you emotive go-getters, but I could. It’s a book that gives you the same kind of feeling one might experience when standing alone on a beach in the evening looking out at the sea and realising that the waves contain a life-force more intense than your own; or when, after partying all night, you trudge home from the strange house you slept at, early, 6am in the morning, to avoid the harsh glare of those going to work, feeling tired and strangely dissatisfied. And you might stifle a cry, in these moments, even though you won’t know why. Yes, while reading The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis I stifled quite a few of those.