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?