“You know the book I’m reading?” I asked.
“Yes,” John said.
“Guess what happens to the woman the clerk is looking for.”
“Something bad,” he sighs.
“Yes, but how? Think of the worst—”
“She commits suicide.”
“Yes! And does he manage to find her before she dies?”
“No, of course not. God, I didn’t think it would be that predictable.”
He fell into a reverie, gazing at the stormy Atlantic and iron-grey sky through the café window.
“What I really want to do,” he said in a low tone, as if to himself, “Is to paint a picture of seagulls with machine guns strapped to their wings.”
Last week I decided to find some Portuguese literature (in translation) because we are in Portimão and it seemed like the decent thing to do. Besides, I was curious. We are in Europe but that’s not saying much. Despite the common currency, there are inevitably differences between here and other European places. There are traditions, languages, national ideas, tasty dishes that make each region distinct.
It’s easy enough to find out about food and objects—you can walk along the street by the beach and buy little egg tarts, grilled sardines, cork handbags and ceramic tiles. But what about the marketplace of ideas? What about the Stories they Tell?
Tantalizing signs of a national literature are sprinkled about town. First of all there is this statue of João Braz (1912-1993) down by the Portimão marina:
Then there are these snatches of poetry painted on a footbridge on the way to the mall:
Then a school complex named after António Aleixa:
All this suggests some degree of national pride in local literary figures. Perhaps, I reasoned, reading Portuguese literature in translation would give me some insights into the collective identity without—and this is key—requiring me to learn any Portuguese. I feel very strongly that any Latinate language that calls a chicken a ‘frango’ is, and should always remain, a mystery.
So seeing a bookshop near a supermarket, I wandered in and found a small shelf of English books including a selection of Portuguese classics translated into English. The first book to loom into view was The Book of Disquiet by Fernando Pessoa. Seeing that this person is considered “the Modernist’s Modernist”, I quickly averted my eyes.
Next was All the Names by José Saramago, who apparently won the Nobel Prize for Literature. Ever since Bob ‘Tambourine Man’ Dylan won the same, it has been crystal clear what sort of people judge this prize. Even so it worked on me. ‘Oh, the Nobel Prize! It must be good, I’ll take two!’
Now I’ve finished it I’m not denying that it’s good. It ‘strings you along’ (chuckly reference to the Ariadne myth that keeps cropping up like a minor fungal infection in the book). BTW if you want to experience the thing for yourself without spoilers, stop reading this now.
Every time I picked the book up I felt like I was locking myself into a small cupboard smelling of decades-old dust and dessicated paper. But it wasn’t just me in the cupboard, there was also a retired English professor with halitosis who fancied himself a real card and insisted on telling a story that was neither plausible nor pleasant. ‘Get away!’ I want to shout, but I couldn’t because it would have hurt his feelings. So instead I laughed nervously, nodded and held my breath as he went on for hours with his nonsense.
This is not fair, I understand that. The story is genuinely intriguing, the dialogue is sometimes amusing (when it isn’t infuriating, e.g. artistic lack of speechmarks) and the stark conditions of the clerk’s life acquires cumulative power. It examines the universal themes of death, solitude and the meaning of Life with masterful clarity. The protagonist is human, all too human with his obsessions and internal arguments and pathetic little schemes. But, and I think this is a valid observation seeing that I spent money and time reading the thing, it’s also depressing and, frankly, creepy.
Even though I’m inside the clerk’s head for two hundred and forty-three pages and know that he is essentially a good person, I still don’t think it’s nice for him to enter a dead stranger’s apartment under false pretenses to sniff her skirts. It might be the prude in me, but I don’t actually find that very romantic. It’s the sort of thing that will get you arrested, and rightfully so.
“Well, you don’t have to like it, that’s the point,” someone might say.
“Yes, well I don’t though,” I would respond cleverly.
Anyway, the book for which Saramago is most famous is called Blindness and was made into a movie starring Julianne Moore.