onsdag den 26. april 2017

The Lusiad - Luis Vaz de Camões (1572)

The Lusiad
According to the Book, The Lusiad can be challenging to get through. After the struggle of “Gargantua and Pantagruel” the reading of “The Lusiad” was the smoothest thing ever. Take that Rabelais!

“The Lusiad” is something a kin to a national epos of Portugal, centered around Vasco da Gama’s voyage to India. It is a celebration of that event, but also a lot more. It is a celebration of the heritage Portugal builds on, leading up to the sea journey, especially the Reconquista (kicking out the Moors from the Iberian peninsula) and the rivalry with Castille, but also the heritage following the journey as Vasco da Gama kicked off Portugal’s golden age.

The form of this epos is Homerian. That basically means that Camões, the author, makes as many connections as he possibly can to antiquity, starting with the format. “The Lusiad” is a poem composed of eight-line stanzas and divided into ten cantos. That elicited an involuntary groan when I realized that, but it turned out to be no problem at all. Probably thanks to the translator the text is very fluid and has hardly been abused to fit it into the format. In fact, it is easy to forget that this is a poem.

Secondly Camões presents da Gama as a heroic character in parallel to Ulysses. In Camões optic, the exploits of da Gama are no less than those of Ulysses, even down to mystical elements and divine interventions.  Da Gama would and should blush had he read it, but, alas, it was published long after his death.

Thirdly Camões invents elements to the story that involves antique Greek and Roman goods. Bacchus, Venus, Jupiter and Mars are featured about as much as da Gama and elevates the expedition into the sphere of old goods and heroes. The objective is obvious, to make that Homerian connection, but these are also the weakest and frankly annoying parts of the story.

What works however are everything that concerns the expedition itself. It is apparent that Camões was very familiar with the actual journey and had extensive experience from sea voyages himself as well as spent time in many of the same places. India is not mysterious, far off place, but somewhere he had seen himself and the vagaries on long boat trips he had felt on his own body. That lends an authenticity to his description that are both factual and realistic and completely at odds with all the antique stuff.

Of course there is a lot of white wash. Camões gives tricky situations a spin that places da Gama and the Portuguese in general in the right light. In such cases the excellent notes helps to clarify the reality behind. Portuguese who use the story to feel proud of their national achievements do not need to be told that the goods da Gama brought were completely uninteresting to the Indians. The story also use an inordinately long time on a story da Gama tells the Sultan of Malindi about the background of the Portuguese. If you think about it I doubt a Muslim Sultan would enjoy hearing about Portuguese killing droves of Muslim Moors and bring the word of God to distant shores. The function of that story is to educate us, the listener, on the heroic origin of Portugal.

Still, I enjoyed the book very much. It is not overly long, but full of fascinating details and written to be told an audience caught in rapt attention. It cannot overstay its welcome and it does not. If I was Portuguese I would be pretty damn proud of this epos, but maybe also a bit discomfited by the atrocities and intolerance being committed and expressed toward people of different faith.

Curiously I am actually in India right now writing this (in New Delhi for a trade fair) and it makes the story so much more relevant and alive. I may be five hundred years late, but I am following in the footsteps of Vasco da Gama.

søndag den 2. april 2017

Gargantua and Pantagruel - Francois Rabelais (1532-1564)

Gargantua and Pantagruel
Half a year. This is how long it took to get through “Gargantua and Pantagruel” by Francois Rabelais.

Part of the explanation for the exceedingly long reading time is that this is a massive book, just over 1000 pages. In fact, it consists of five books, but the List seems to consider all five part of the same work and who am I to question that.

The other and equally valid part of the explanation is that “Gargantua and Pantagruel” is a 500 year old comedy that is not funny. It is episodic, inconsistent and with little consideration for something as mundane as a plot. Combined with its status as a comedy means that the episodes it does tell have to be very interesting to keep my attention now that it is not funny and that is also, well, rather inconsistent.

Rabelais tells something (to call it a story is a stretch) about two giants (of variable size), Pantagruel and his father Gargantua. Book two was about the education of Gargantua and a mighty battle he was involved in. In Book three Pantagruel’s sidekick Panurge considers whether or not he should be married. He is convinced he will do just fine while his friends are convince the wife will cheat on him. In book four and five Pantagruel, Panurge and their extensive following go on a sea journey to find an oracle to answer the question in book three. Book one, well, I actually forgot what took place there.

This may sound quite exciting: battles, journeys, vital questions etc. but it is not. The progression of the story as it is is just not really happening. Instead the setting allows for a multitude of tableaux, discussions and descriptions. These have two functions of which one is to entertain.

It is very possible that in its day “Gargantua and Pantagruel” was hilariously funny, but comedy is notoriously entrenched in its own culture and translates poorly to other cultures, which, 500 years later, means us. The jokes are centered on farting and pooh jokes, with intercourse related wit mixed in. That ought to fit right into modern youth culture, but even that it fails. It is just crude and primitive. Other jokes make fun of sentiments and people relevant 500 years ago and yet other laughs (or attempts to) are of a scholarly colloquial kind, the sort that would mean nothing to you if you were not in the same line of business, meaning a monk dabbling in medicine, law and ancient Greek and Roman literature.

The second function is as a critique and ridicule of Rabelais’ opponents. Apparently, Rabelais belonged to the protestant side in the great religious schism dividing Europe in the sixteenth century and Rabelais got some royal protection to heap dung on the Catholic side in his books. Some, probably even most, of his criticism in intelligent, as far as I understand it, and it is this part that is interesting enough for me to actually finish this book.

It can be (certainly is to me) difficult to understand how practicing religion in two different ways can mean so much to people and throw Europe into a century of war, a conflict that still echoes today. This year it is the 500 year anniversary of Martin Luther, but the festivities seem muted, at least in Denmark. It is just not that relevant anymore. But clearly for Rabelais who was right there on the fault-line this was deadly serious and the viciousness of his attacks are hardly softened by the apparent comedy. This is certainly a window into an almost forgotten conflict that shaped Europe.

My advice to a reader considering to go into “Gargantua and Pantagruel” would be that this window to the past must be the primary motivation. Any other motivation is doomed to fall short. Read the first book and consider if this was rewarding enough. If it was not there is no point in continuing, it hardly gets better.  To read it just to be a completionist starts to feel stupid and ridiculous before the halfway point.