I'm back to myself. I'm back to Martim Muniz. I left the room I rented in Telheiras for a hostel in Rua do Forno do Tijolo. I've been missing a shower. Literally, I mean it. In the Portuguese middle class apartment like the one I've been living in Telheiras you hardly have the space of a half a meter to take shower. More like 40 cm, to be exact, but I don't want to be peevish. So I left the home of Dona Fernanda for a hostel in Martim Moniz, that is at least adapted to northern size.
Finally I feel at home. I took my shower and I ate a frango no churrasco in the very same place, at the exit of the Intendente metro station, where I used to dine when I was writing Empire and Nostalgia. When I was already half drunk with Santo Isidoro wine, an athan surprised me, it didn't exist before, and it's a long time indeed I didn't hear athan in any of my travels. They must have created a masalla here recently. But overall, the Indian and the Pakistanis, and the foreigners in general are much less numerous now. I suppose that's a sign of the country's economic decadence.
But Martim Muniz had always been decadent. This is why it has an exotic touch I've been missing in the middle-class Lisbon. One feels at ease here, like in the medinah of any Moroccan city. I came to the restaurant wearing the same clothes I intended to sleep with. I could have come with the plastic shoes I used under the shower, but somehow the prejudice of a "civilised" one stopped me. But I would be comfortable with them. With German shoes on my feet, nonetheless, I play the role of a northern tourist. They are surprised to hear me speaking this totally immersed, high-pitched Portuguese, and they treat me por "senhora" , while they treat the African fellows next table por "tu". In this place, where the retornados settled after 1975, the empire never ended, it merely took a different shape. And that's a luxury place where I payed 11 euro 25 cents, leaving lordly a gorjeta of 40 cents. I know a place nearby where I eat for one euro or two, and hallal.
The empires never end, they are immortal, with a history prone to repeat itself. Now my seat in the National Library of Portugal is not N14 any more, it's N16. There is a young black guy sitting there, from the Cap Vert, I presume. He arrives every morning even before me and we leave together at the hour they close. That's new, and I wish him the best. He is fully entitled to inherit this historical place where I used to sit since I was been writing my PhD dissertation in 1998. I wish he could inherit all my aspirations and, yes, all my worldliness. If there is still any excellence of a white scholar to be left behind as inheritance, I wish it to be upon him. It is a Draculean inheritance: the eternal thirst of the living blood that only some chosen ones can find in dry and sterile books. Anyway I've been reading African books, and they have been enlivening me these sterile days, that's blood that returns to blood.
There is a continuity of civilisation, a secret renovatio imperii they, the Portuguese, neither guess nor expect. There is this vital encounter and this circulation of the living blood. That's Apophrades, the return of the dead, and a long expected fulfilment of the living, the end of adventure that comes when no one expects any more to hear an athan over Martim Muniz that had once been al-Ushbuna, and had long ceased to be.
Certainly it's a much better place to be, rather than squeeze under the 40-cm-wide shower in the post-Salazarian, middle-class Lisbon I've just left behind. Perhaps it's not the end yet, after all. I'd repudiated this city and this country. But here I am, again, as Noor's itinerant scholar. And I can say, as he did in Zanzibar, or wherever it was: I love this country.
Yesterday I sent a new proposal to my editor, to make yet another book after this one, about African literature written in Portuguese. He answered me by a kind of conditional yes. I think I could do it.
I've been reading Mia Couto all day, a confissão da leoa. I never had excessive respect for the writer, before, but the book is hallucinatory, sticking to mind, like Chraibi, years ago, or more. It is a recent book, published in 2012, free from irritating habits of the constant passivum in Mia Couto's earlier books, that I've always judged to be just the cheapest way to make things sound African. Here he enters quite a different game, introducing the kind of soulless bombastic colonial Portuguese in some parts of the text: os caçadores deslocaram-se da capital, etc. porque começaram a ocorrer ataques de leões a pessoas. Many things are reused in a new configuration, such as the emergence of literacy, and a kind of native intellectual that keeps the memory of those who have been taken to São Tomé. I´ve written about it already, and I could write about it again. But I can have no doubt about the power of this narration, I feel it on me, with all the universal value of the fable on men and lions, or rather, the women and lionesses.
I wonder where does this power come from, is it the earth, or it resides on the frontiers of humanity, where nothing is left to run short of? This guy is as Portuguese as those here, just the same as Lobo Antunes, trying, after all, to speak about the very same problem of women. Oh, I was clever with Lobo Antunes, I gave him such a great excuse in my book... I wrote about his novel Da natureza dos deuses, that I literally couldn't read, that he returns to the problem of reading, just like Cortázar in La Rayuela: the confession of the Lady cannot be read, neither written nor spoken, nobody can get through it, and the phrase Diz que és a minha cabra and Diz que es a minha cadela must reappear several hundred times just to make the reader think how many times those things must have been pronounced over the 38 years the Lady was married, and this is and anti-psychoanalytical work, because the speech is demised of its curative powers, and after those 500 dismal pages nothing is said, nothing done, and... And this is the great advancement and great discovery, and in the 90ties people talked Lobo Antunes might have the Nobel that finally was given to Saramago.
Gosh, the hell be upon me.
And here is the confession of the lioness, and I could also write about this literature, a real literature, the living one, even if I don't have excessive respect for this writer in particular. But there is the voice of the earth, and the extremes of humanity, and this is the least I could do...
I've been watching Tribal Wives in the evenings, this BBC series in which English women feeling that "something is missing" are sent to spend a month among any kind of tribal people, in Gabon or elsewhere. And as they departed with a problem, after a month they return without it.
It's nearly a month I'm here.
Gammel is the Dutch, or Danish, or generally Germanic word that I've been using to name my problem. It could be substituted by the simple word "shabby" in English, but I find "gammel" more expressive, more adapted to the essence of my problem. I've made a test, by the way. It says I know around 37 000 English words, more than an average native speaker. It might be true, I presume. My problems with English are mostly bad habits, missing articles, hesitation in tenses, double negations... Curiously, I'm perfect in Portuguese now, as I came after a big break in using this language. My pronunciation irritates me by its total immersion. I speak with hysterical, high-pitched intonation of a real Portuguese freguesa.
Portugal irritates me, because everything is gammel. The seats in the metro are so dirty that I expressly look for a recently substituted ones to dare to sit down. I believe it's organic, it's a kind of microscopic black mildew growing everywhere, on the walls, in all the nooks and crannies. There is heat and sufficient humidity. I always bring old clothes to Portugal, the ones I don't use any more. They serve my total immersion here.
But I write about all these things, because I discover they belong to what Jung would call my Shadow. The gammel things around me irritate me, because they secretly correspond to the gammel inside me. And as the month passes by, as I go on doing all the hard work of a tribal wife, the gammel inside me goes cracking. Like an English woman in Gabon, I can see and experience how much gammel man can stand. And I grow up to a great liberation.
Perhaps when I come back, I will manage to get rid of my gammel things. Not only shabby clothes, they are falling down of me like autumn leaves at each of my travels (one thing is incredible: how on earth I still do possess such a vast assortment of shabby clothes at home?! sometimes I doubt they make sex and multiply when I'm not looking). But also shabby books, shabby ideas. I've many old Portuguese books at home, filling all nooks and crannies like black lichen. Old books that were old already in my time, the ones I used to buy for 100 escudos from a street book pedlar. I used to gather anything Portuguese, and I thought that what I was doing was specialising. All these gammel papers form a bulk that weights heavily upon my intellectual destiny. This is the hidden reason why I projected to make this history of the Portuguese literature, to have an excuse to dig through all this and hopefully, to get rid.
I wish I had a library at home, a collection, with nothing but valuable things, good books and good ideas. I wish I had this collection reflecting me, and I wish I got rid of the gammel in my intellectual world. I wish I could unlearn the gammel I ingested in all these years. And believe me, to get rid is more difficult than to accumulate. My art is like sculpture in marble, essentially it consists in getting rid.
I've been to my Portuguese bank this morning, to ask why I still didn't receive the debit card I'd requested. They told me the cards are late, because they run short of the plastic to make them.
Now I'm in the library, reading African books about man-eating lions, and I can't stop laughing. Among all gammel things man may run short of, the plastic to make banking cards is certainly the least essential.
I've been going daily to the the National Library for nearly two weeks now. I haven't written much yet, mostly I've read through the last decade's publications. It is a painful, draining experience, and the big question, perhaps the biggest question in making this book, is how to present it to people. I can't just come and say look guys the Portuguese have this great literature, because simply it's not true. The reason why this might be important is not simple and obvious like this. Much of the Lusophone African literature is incomparably better, more powerful. Sticking to the mind, while the metropolitan Portuguese one is a kind of basso continuo circling around the same topics, the same situations, the same unsolved traumas illustrated kaleidoscopically in further and further configurations.
There is nonetheless something humanly important that is to be read in those dim, repetitive books. Baço is the Portuguese term for it. Livros baços, literatura parda. Perhaps also something that is not given in any single book, something it is my work to bring forth: the whole situation of writing that takes form of a painful, desperate struggle against emptiness, mediocrity of mind, lack of greatness, lack of spark that might shine, be it for a single moment, against the dim background, a tela do fundo baça.
This is a situation of writing without talent, education, taste, illustrious tradition, without anything coming from behind. These are bitter words; I don't know how they might react to them, with hate or a masochistic love. But this is what I believe to be true, this is the conclusion of my research, the comprehension I've have reached over those twenty years of me in it.
One of the high points, I wouldn't say highlights is the work with the trauma of retorno de África. I've read extensively O Retorno by Dulce Maria Cardoso. It is a honest book, well done; I wouldn't say more. Except for one image, that of girls with cherries as earrings (the illusory image of the "metropolis", dissolved in the trauma of an actual return from Africa). But I read it through in one long sitting, and there was no such moment I felt an urge to make any specific note on it, to pinpoint a particular sentence, a quotation. The whole narration of a teenage boy is just one constant pyroclastic flow of mixed emotions: fear, anger, other things. Without highlights. Without sentences getting straight to the point. There are valuable things nonetheless, things worth pointing out. There is the figure of the father, a result of a long search for a positive masculinity that had started somewhere in the 60ties, even in the 50ties, with Abelaira and Cardoso Pires and so many others. A decent Portuguese guy that returns from Africa covered by scars, and returns against all the odds, making obviously think about a D. Sebastião às avessas (contrary to the national myth of the returning king that had actually never returned, and contrary to Garrett's Frei Luis de Sousa). He does return and as he returns it is about the future he thinks, about a cement factory, about building houses. This is a great novelty and a great achievement in the field of the Portuguese culture, it is a narration that brings the element that was missing for so long. For half a millennium, it could be. I know it, because I've studied it in depth, and also because I experienced the country and its limitations. But I doubt if a foreign reader might appreciate it greatly as it is. After all our own fathers had always returned, and there had never been nothing so special about building houses. This is a work in grisaille.
One of the dominant features of the Portuguese literature these days is its interest in psychological exploration, especially in terms of the relationships inside family. There is O Vale da Paixão by Lídia Jorge (the title seems taken directly from the 19th century; I congratulate myself about my idea of speaking about the contemporary Portuguese literature as something that must start with the Romanticism; otherwise it is impossible to pin down its internal logic). The father, solving the absence of the paternal figure is one of those topics that return kaleidoscopically in further and further configurations (the idea of an incest as a way of female individuation is such a far-flung conclusion; yet I see what she wants to say: the transgression as a unique exorcism to oppose to the ghostly presence of a father that never returns, of this late, very late Indian soldier - o soldado da Índia - that had departed for Goa covered by his emblematic manta). Against this dim background, the idea of exploring the relationship between a woman and her mother, as Maria Teresa Horta does in Meninas, is already an innovation. But again, these are works in grisaille: extensive, analytical, painstaking, unappealing, low-profile.
There are more books I've read. They have further idiosyncrasies: dubious taste, and I think an intrinsic failure in the very concept of literariness. Even in our post-post-modern times, perhaps especially in them, there are still rules of taste, boundaries that one should have a reason to cross, as well as rules of efficiency and impact, repetition and difference. For instance there is O últmo europeu 2284 by Miguel Real. I've read it as extensively as it seemed feasible to me; a full close reading might be literally impossible. The book is an obvious, yet superficial allusion to Orwell's 1984; there are several dates ending in 84 in it, as well as several empires; but beyond this, there is no reading of Orwell contained in it. Strangely, the work is written as if by someone who has little experience in writing (again, no getting straight to the point, and each sentence, steadily across more than 200 endless pages, is a paragraph a parte). As catastrophic declined with Utopian (the remnants of a destroyed civilisation going back to some kind of Enlightened ideal on what remains, once again, of the archipelago of Azores), the book is profoundly indebted to Saramgo's Jangada de pedra. At the same time, it seems to over-accentuate grotesquely some of its elements, such as the collective giving birth to a new humanity. But what was presented with discretion in Saramago, here occupies a full-sized Orwellian screen.
By the way, the importance of giving birth in the contemporary Portuguese literature is striking. Maria Teresa Horta elaborates it poetically in the first pages of her Meninas, yet in other places the subject is taken just as the Naturalism had left it. Or perhaps not. As the Portuguese Naturalism didn't manage to show it (I'm not sure how the act of giving birth in Eça's Crime do Padre Amaro appears as compared to Żeromski's Dzieje grzechu; yet my impression is that Żeromski exploited the topic more fully).
These are apparently universal things. But in fact such a book as O últmo europeu 2284 is, I'm afraid, indigestible for a foreign reader. Its taste, its ironies, its presuppositions are strictly local. Miguel Real builds up on prejudices and fears that are specifically Portuguese and may not be understood correctly elsewhere. The satire goes against the dislike of the Chinese (people who appeared in Lisbon in the aftermath of the global economic crisis to occupy with their commerce the abandoned spaces in the centre of the city), as well as against the latent racism of the Portuguese society (at the moment of the final destruction, the last European children are sold to some rich Americans; "at least they would be educated in white families" is presented as a consolation).
In the Portuguese literature, I notice the peculiar untimeliness of all cultural formations in the periphery. I've written about this falling out of time, analysing the Polish case. Now the problem of a peculiar Portuguese timing is even more clear to me. Of course the things occur perfectly in time, their time. But only sometimes they coincide with the global calendar; mostly they fall out of joint. Another thing that handicaps the Portuguese culture is the absolute lack of eroticism. There is much ado about those things in the books I've read. But the dominant task is still dealing with their dirty aspect, a sujidade toda. The bodily ways are no longer unspeakable; the literary (over)exploitation of partum is the sign of it. But the recuperation of eroticism is still a work to be done; still an interrupted lesson that remains unlearned since the 60ties, when Jorge de Sena tried to do something about it.
It makes me think about Morocco. They might hate the comparison, but it comes to me all the time as the patriarchal topic returns in its kaleidoscopic reformulations. And I think about Fatema Mernissi, how she gets over things, straight to the point, rebuilding intimacy from its post-colonial ashes. People follow this, even in our contorted times. But she had a heritage to recuperate, things coming from behind. Such a legacy is missing in the Portuguese case, or buried so deeply I don't even notice where it might be hidden. Is this the reason why the Moroccan literature is generally much better than the Portuguese one?
Alone num sítio sem poesia nenhuma. Gosh, that's a dismal place, in 40 degrees heat. But it's not the heat that hurts me most, it is a vague sensation of being poor, suddenly impoverished. The discomfort of this is surprising. Usually I enjoy being poor, living among simple people in the medinah of any Moroccan city, wearing clothes I intend to throw away at the end of my adventure. But here there is something else, it is an impoverishment that cuts down frozen into one's heart, in spite of the 40 degrees, not the fanciful poverty of an intellectual traveller. This poverty is of such a kind that no amount of money can solve it. It is possible, by the way, that poverty doesn't depend on money, at least not in such a linear way we usually presume. There are people and peoples in the world that possess very little in pecuniary value, and yet are not poor. And there are people and peoples and places doomed to lack and impoverishment and transitoriness.
On Sunday, I went to the Calouste Gulbenkian museum in hope of alleviating it somehow, but strangely, confronted with the privacy of this collection, I stayed with an obsessive thought in my head: this guy lived in a hotel in Lisbon. Kind of homeless, rhyming with my own homelessness.
Yes, he lived here in Ritz, that's what I believe, even if I need to discover more about the biography of my Armenian patron. With his Rembrandt and his Turner, I presume? Is it like this? One may possess a Rembrandt and a Turner and no wall to hang it on? Be as it may, Lisbon is a place of homelessness, of precarious existence, of quartos alugados. If it has any poetry, it is a poetry of a dire and dismal kind.
I don't know if this stay is a beginning of a new stage in my intellectual career, or a moment of touching the bottom, cutting down to the strictest necessity. Of realising what the strictest necessity is.
I miss Amsterdam, and I miss my home in Kraków much more than expected; I miss sedentariness, even the sedentariness of a Moroccan city. Perhaps this feeling marks the gate of the Desert.