(Cover from the Portuguese Edition by D. Quixote Publishing House: “A Teoria Geral do Esquecimento”)
Published 2015 (English Edition), published 2012 (Portuguese Edition)
“If I had the space, the charcoal, and available walls, I could compose a great work about forgetting: a general theory of oblivion.”
I read this in the original Portuguese when it came out in 2012. And as soon as I got the English edition, I just had to re-read it, not because the book is a masterpiece (far from it), but because I was curious to know how Daniel Hahn had been able to render the Portuguese into English. And so on with the task of reading both editions in parallel. When I got to the 3rd chapter, something jarred my reading of the English edition. I'll transcribe the text from the Portuguese edition first:
“Monte regressou ao carro. Os soldados empurraram os portugueses até ao muro. Afastaram-se alguns metros. Um deles tirou uma pistola da cintura e, num gesto quase distraído, quase de enfado, apontou-a e disparou três vezes. Jeremias Carrasco ficou estendido de costas. Viu aves a voarem no céu alto. Reparou numa inscrição, a tinta vermelha, no muro manchado de sangue, picado de balas:
O luto continua.”
In Hahn’s translation this became:
“Monte walked over to the car. The soldiers pushed the Portuguese men up against the wall. They took a few steps back. One of them pulled a pistol from his belt, and in a movement that was almost absent-minded, almost annoyed, he pointed it and fired three times. Jeremias Carrasco was lying on his back. He saw the birds flying high in the sky. He noticed an inscription in red ink on the bloodstained, bullet-pocked wall:
“The struggle continues.”
In bold where the problem lies. “Luto” means “to mourn” not “to struggle”. I quite understand, Hahn wanting to extend the metaphor, but it shouldn’t be done at the expense of having a “proper” translation. There’s a world of difference between “to mourn” and “to struggle”. I’d have translated as “The mourning continues”, but maybe it’s just me being picky.
What about the book itself? Was the nomination for the shortlist of the Man Booker International 2015 deserved? I’m not sure. I’ve never been a huge fan of Agualusa’s fiction. After Saramago and Lobo Antunes, the literature in Portuguese has been on the path of too much lightness, with the exception of Gonçalo Tavares, who sometimes relies too much on Kafka. Mia Couto hovers above them both in my humble opinion.
I thought the way the main character’s isolation, while the war was taking place outside, was depicted quite interestingly, but this time round, as before, I think there was something missing. Perhaps more sincerity, engagement, and maturity in the narrative. Most of the literature in Portuguese being produced nowadays is more worried about the aesthetic and the form than to creating credible characters. In essence some of the most recent literature in Portuguese has become too Flaubertian, turning books into limited and self-aware cryptic narratives. After reading two or three I can discern a notorious absence of independence. They’ve all become “The New Authors of the Portuguese Language”, stamping them with “They are now the new kids on the block”. This kind of thing is never good. Compare the Portuguese Literature with the Cuban. Each Cuban author was able to maintain a proper voice, keeping all the flavour of each author’s idiosyncrasies. Compare Guilhermo Cabrero Infante, Pedro Juan Gutiérrez and Leonardo Padura. We cannot even say they came from the same literary mold. I call the kind of literature being written now in Portuguese as “Literature-Without-Balls”. Literature with nice turns of phrase is not enough. Gutsy authors is what we really need. Stringing nice sentences together lacking in colour and vitality is démodé and boring as hell.