By Richard Simas, Contributor (*)
Contemporary Portuguese writer Jacinto Lucas Pires is a keen observer of the quotidian. Like a gifted photographer, he seizes fragments in the people, places, and objects surrounding us, asking how can this be? He follows the wandering thought and unlikely possibility, tracks curious trajectories, and probes them until they bloom into singular narratives.
He is the cameraman and scribe of intricate stories whose origins often remain mysterious, particularly in short fiction. In lucid prose he seduces readers into zones of extraordinary intrigue about subjects on the edge of the everyday. Assobiar em Público (Whistling in Public) his fine collection of short fiction, is ripe with examples. In a story titled Sombra e Luz (Shadows and Light), a woman notices the reflection of a man’s face in a train window. From a chance meeting on the commuter train a passionate but ill-fated adventure begins until the older, married man decides it must end. What he never learns is that the young woman will soon bring the ‘shadow’ of their meetings to light, a baby she will call Jesus because “he was conceived without sin.”
Every morning I think I have a hole in my head. That’s how I know it’s morning. A hole opens up in my head and sounds make themselves heard. Cars, trucks, people, birds. I can almost swear I hear the birds quietly flying through the air.
Jacinto Lucas Pires
(Of The Sun/Do Sol)
Pires insists that the impulses for his writing always originate from within not from out on the street. This capacity to combine public and intimate material makes his fiction singular and it is perhaps partly due to growing up in a family with a political background where discussions at home didn’t separate private and public subjects.
He is adept at provocation and comedy such as when he ironizes politicians, contemporary couples, media hounds, and crowds in his recent novel O Verdadeiro Ator (The True Actor). His tone is wry and clever in short stories and penetrating in Livro Usado (Used Book), his fascinating travel book on Japan. Since 1996, he has published more than fifteen works of short and long fiction, theatre, and film scenarios along with several translations of his plays. He studied at the New York Film Academy and won Italy’s Europa Prize. Recently, he collaborated on an art photography book called Vamos with photographer Tiago Cunha Ferreira. He performs and pens lyrics with his music group Os Quais.
Tall, thin, bearded, and attentive, he combines an amicable, carefree adolescent demeanour with the look of a studious monk from the middle ages. His laugh and comic barbs are close at hand whether discussing Portuguese identity, literature, or the country’s 1974 Carnation Revolution that occurred a few months before he was born. He is from Porto, the large city in the northern region that claims itself as Portugal’s birthplace and is reputed for its sober industriousness in contrast with Lisbon. Prominent on the current literary scene, his voice along with several others of his generation is part of a New Wave of Contemporary Portuguese writing. Most of his work is yet to be translated into English.
In terms of the historical context within which he writes, Pires weighs the past and present. He agrees that the Carnation Revolution had an enormous impact on Portuguese society, providing unprecedented access to information and modernisation that modified the country’s figurative and physical landscape. It also affected literary production. “Sadly, my generation is less public, less political in what we write.” Producing fiction with a political slant today is a more complex task than it was in the past, but Pires does it with subtlety.
With regards to the writer’s role, he talks about masks and degrees of visibility in describing distinctions between himself and those writing during the dictatorship: “The challenge is different for writers now. Bluffing and lying are easier. Now there is a game. In a vacuum the game is a masked ball. Now it’s easier to confront without a mask.” But what is to be confronted? “Portugal’s tectonic plates are shifting. (…) Money is the center of current conflict, leaving us with emptiness rather than passionate ideology.”
There was a time recently when masks were necessary for Portuguese writers. Prior to 1974, censorship and taboo were part of the repression that provoked a generation of writers that includes António Lobo Antunes and Nobel laureate José Saramago. ‘A people of gentle manners (Brandos Costumes),’ was how Portugal’s dictator had described his fellow Portuguese, and it was one of his justifications for more than forty years of conservative domination, challenging writers to prove otherwise. “There was a vacuum after the revolution with regards to literature,” Pires notes. “In the sense that there was no longer a visible enemy. (…) Now we are preoccupied with our personal problems. Now you find stories with questions for us, uncomfortable ones, prying into reality.”
Is it a luxury of liberty to ask such questions? What kind of opposition is required to provoke a writer and how much suffering does great literature require? Once the home of the world’s most adventurous explorers, Portugal is Europe’s Western edge and has survived cultural isolation and a chaotic end to its colonial empire. Ironically, this is very fertile territory for powerful contemporary writing, one of the margins that bounds Europe and provokes the current generation. Pires adds thoughtfully, “The ‘enemy’ now is liberty of expression.”
All of Jacinto Pires’books ask questions. His characters are caught in moments of consciousness in the most ordinary situations: a family dinner, during small talk between co-workers, while watching fellow travelers on the subway, when a father drops off his child for day care. Koan-like interrogations, arise at every turn: On the subway I ride standing up, trying to keep my balance without touching anyone, thinking about dancers (…) how the wind blew scraps of paper around as I was leaving my parents’ house this morning ( … ) Thinking what time it is. (Of The Sun/Do Sol)
Though fascinated by masks, Pires doesn’t wear one when he talks about writing, Portugal, or the uselessness of literature. “That’s exactly its purpose,” he says laughing. “Nothing.” His Livro Usado (Used Book) is an elegant and intriguing work billed as a travel book about Japan. It is that and much more, a book about seeing, perhaps about a country of masks. The project was the result of a national competition involving several Portuguese writers chosen to narrate their sojourn in a selected country. “It was one of the most challenging projects I have undertaken. (…) The sense of panic it caused made me grow, and I was transformed by both the travel and writing experience.” One of the difficulties was finding a form for the mass of impressions he had jotted down in the many notebooks during the trip. “It forced me to find a different zone of writing.”
Livro Usado is acutely sensitive travel writing that makes no pretence about observing objectively. It is radically different from most travel books, and in the minutiae of his obsessive descriptions of parks, trees, streets, pigeons, temples, rain, clothing, faces, and views from train windows, he wears away exotic surfaces by his intense observing until the reader sees Japan as if through the thinnest of rice paper. Separation is delicate but still definitive and that becomes a primary and engaging leitmotif in the book.
Distance and the desire to approach, create unexpected tension in Livro Usado, making the reader also search to interpret the innumerable signs found in each foreign moment. Embarking on his voyage means remaining patiently at the foreigner’s far edge of observation. It is the opposite of “going native.” One senses Pires on the margin of the travel page, avoiding the center as an observational strategy and in order to move as keenly and discreetly as possible on his voyage. In fact, indirectly but profoundly, the book offers a fine portrait of a transforming experience and the challenges of travel writing.
“All travels are narratives,” Jacinto Pires affirms, adding that Fernando Pessoa’s famous ‘Book of Disquiet’ “is the most immobile travel book ever written. When there is movement from one place to another there is a story.” Indeed, in Livro Usado Pires builds a powerful narrative about a traveler who struggles with words to capture something of what he sees in a foreign country. The book’s title makes a play on the notion of ‘used and useful.’ Ironically, it won’t help you find a hotel or order beer in Japan, but it’s an exquisite example of how to be attentive, a book as much about meditation as it is about Japan.
“I think you have to accept your ignorance when you travel. Often what’s important happens when you return home.” Pires had to write Livro Usado to complete his award obligations, and it remains a singular work in his career. With regards to non-fiction’s responsibility to veracity, he cites Roland Barthes’ commentary in ‘Camera Lucida’ about how photography is a wound/image of its subject. The same is true, Pires believes, with non-fiction and Livro Usado. “You can’t lie, but you have to find the ‘wound’ in order to make it interesting.”
His 2011 novel, O Verdadeiro Ator (The True Actor) is a comedy of hard knocks. It offers multiple possibilities for interpretation, beginning with the symbolic name of its hero, Américo Abril, combining America and the month in which Portugal’s 1974 Carnation revolution occurred. The split fantasies of the tragic-comic Abril can be read as Portugal personified, combining a ghost of the past (April revolution) with a Being John Malkovich twist on the American dream. Abril, an unemployed actor, babysits and fights with his baby son over feeding while his ambitious wife brings home the cash and stakes her place in the demanding business world. A sensitive man, Abril is also a hapless fantasizer until the phone rings with a Hollywood producer offering a dream film-role. He can barely believe his luck. The scenario gets complicated when Abril’s call-girl lover is murdered and he becomes a prime suspect. What follows is a comic and sometimes harrowing unscrambling of mysteries, confessions, lies, and harsh truths.
Amérigo’s fame grows more as a result of the publicised false accusations about his implication in the girl’s murder than his acting skills. Comically, he survives the dangerous grey zones between reality and fantasy despite himself. He is neither innocent nor guilty, but rather the amiable victim of surrounding circumstances. The same might be said critically of contemporary Portugal. Unlike the bold and wilful empire for which he is named, Américo Abril doesn’t act on the world with any great success, but he is alive, sensitive, and receptive, a somehow good natured heroic survivor on the margin. O Verdadeiro Ator (The True Actor) is an excellent and entertaining novel filled with Pires’ best work at revealing his fragile characters’ intimacies in a public context.
Simply because I need to pay attention to everything I do, to observe everything that happens to me without losing a minute or even a second of the time I am awake. So many things are going on in my heart and in my mind, I don’t know what to call them, things inside me that follow me around wherever I go… (Of The Sun/Do Sol)
“I see things from a European perspective,” Pires affirms, but he also feels close to Portuguese writers in Brazil and Africa. “Brazilians are more at ease with the language. They dance with it. It’s a lesson of joy, pure joy that we Europeans need to learn. It’s through expressing the sadness you get to joy. The act of doing it brings you back. You dance and cry with your whole body. Europeans cut their heads from their bodies.”
Much has been said about Portugal’s nostalgia, its famously sad Fado music and unique word for longing, ‘saudade.’ However, “In the end, joy is a choice,” Pires says. The reader enters zones of magic throughout his work, the images and fragments he writes from, to discover the many things it can possibly mean, not the only thing.
Editor’s Note: This post appeared previously in RTP/Comunidades
(*) Richard Simas is a free-lance writer with a background in literature and the performing arts. He contributes regularly to contemporary arts and literary review in Europe and in North America, including Canada’s Journey Prize anthology and a winner of a Fiddlehead Fiction Prize. He is a frequent collaborator for Musicworks magazine in Toronto.