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.