Friday, July 12, 2013

Antonio de Cairu

Antonio de Cairu, a Portuguese writer and poet who died last year, was from Alverca,  a small town not far from Lisbon, where Dr. Antonio Lobo Antunes, Portugal's most outstanding living writer, one year older than de Cairu, also had lived.

In Lobo Antunes' great book of cronicas, The Fat Man and Infinity translated by Margaret Jull Costa, there is a touching short piece  ("Alverca 1970") of Antunes, just out of medical school, attending to his mother's dying and death in his parents' home in Alverca.

de Cairu, a performance artist whose first book was a book of poetry issued in 1965 titled Isa (his sister's name), owned a saloon bar/coffee shop in Alverca, and his posthumously published novel, The Breath of Olive Trees, opens with the fictionalized tale of why he left Portugal.

He receives a letter from "Maria Manuela":

"I have a father who no longer wants me, after having spent money on an education which produced no positive results; a father who spies on people in coffee bars and who reports their political ideals to the Government; a father who beats my mother as my mother beats my grandmother.  I have a little 'Byron' in my belly - in my dreams.  I await only my Poet to complete my fulfillment.  All I need is a night with you - if you will not accept this need, my father will confirm his report on your political views."

de Cairu continues:

"I am alone in a cell filled with silence and anger.  Silence brings the stability of one's thoughts - but in confinement, silence can also bring a clarity to the memory of past mistakes and the cruelty of mental torment over life's unresolved issues.  In a free space, such torments would magically vanish.  Life has a method of fading the past in order to make room for the future, but in a small cell such as this, torments will multiply and reduce a man's life to a humble and fragile existence."

de Cairu lived as an openly gay man during the time of the dictatorships in Portugal.  It is the fifth of October 1969, the day of his court case "a year after Marcelo Caetano succeeded the dictator Salazar as prime minister; when international criticism is breathing discontent among Portuguese mothers, forcing the government to abandon the Portuguese colonies; when in France the first shanty towns are beginning to appear, filled with Portuguese youngsters who have fled there to escape their military service, exchanging their original skills for slavery; when tinned sardines have started to appear in English shops as food for cats; when Mateus has started to embellish the tables of Europe owing to the ingenious design of the bottle and the label; when Portuguese footballer Eusebio has brought to the attention of Europe that a nation called Portugal is not a part of Spain and when I awaken on this fateful day, the fifth of October 1969, I am convinced that Portugal is a little garden planted along the shore of the Western part of Europe and that I am not a victim of a Fascist regime."

The Nobel laureate, the late Jose Saramago, wrote in his native Portuguese, and Lobo Antunes, writes in Portuguese, but de Cairu, who flees to England, (first to Bristol for a decade, then later in life to London) chooses to write his two novels, the first being The Man Who Loved Cherry Trees, in English, his second language.  Of his Portuguese modernist literary predecessors, it was only Pessoa, in his first two slim volumes of self-published poetry, who chose to write in English.  Pessoa is always insistent on the "specificity" of the Portuguese, the language, the people, the country, and de Cairu's English is a Portuguese English in the same way as there is an American English, East Indian English, West Indies English, and Antipodean English.

His first book in English prose, "The Man Who Loved Cherry Trees" was revised by Simon Stanley in the posthumous edition and he also writes a brief Introduction.  The use of idiomatic English and sentence structure is thus corrected. I don't see much loss at least of tone in the 2011 edition, published a decade after the first edition, although the flow of the unedited edition is not simply more "charming" but also more revealing of the writer's struggle with narrative.  Ian J. Breen does the quite lovely and appropriate cover illustrations for both books.

However, it is unlikely that de Cairu, writing in English, will receive any posthumous celebration in the immediate future, perhaps primarily because his two novels, The Man Who Loved Cherry Trees, and The Breath of Olive Trees are published by a subsidy press, Bright Pen Books, who took over the reissue of Cherry Trees in 2011 after the original subsidy press publisher, Minerva Books, went belly-up.  It's become (almost?) respectable now to publish with what used to be called "vanity press" in an "e" format, and some, like Bright Pen, produce handsome print editions as well, and distribute through Amazon, and the other usual suspects.

It is inaccurate in some way for me to call them novels, although "Olive Trees" is less surrealistic, more sombre in tone, and the flow of language is tightened  some so that it is properly appropriate when disclosing political issues in Portugal and their effects on the psyche of the people. Although de Cairu resettled in England, saudade (and the end of dictatorship) continually draws him back to his native land, which he had left after his protagonist-narrator's remission from prison, saying goodbye to his friends and returning home a last time to see his mother.

"I move towards the head of the bed and I sit on its edge and then I kiss my mother's sweltering forehead as if trying to alleviate the pain.  She used to do the same for me when I was younger.
'Mommy is going to kiss your head and the pain will go.'
She doesn't say anything.  There is nothing to say.
Our eyes, fixed upon each other, are more than words.
Mothers can read their sons' feelings only with their eyes and heart.
'I am sorry, Mother, I had to return,' I say.
'I know, my son, I know,' she replies with tears rolling down her face."

"Life" de Cairu writes, "might be acceptable if only we knew the meaning of it."  These books are memoirs with meta-narrative, and Pessoa's "The Book of Disquietude" is clearly an avatar, an analogue, as is perhaps the writing of Mario De Sa-Carneiro, friend and colleague of Pessoa, who killed himself in Paris at age 26.  However, it is the leitmotif of homo-eroticism in both de Cairu's books, often explicit in description of sexual acts, which makes me think of the Rupert Brooke - James Strachey correspondence, or of Denton Welch, or even of John Wieners's poetry, especially in Hotel Wentley.  de Cairu makes use of the epistolary style, and also includes poems as a part of the unfolding story.  In "Cherry Trees" he thinks of the book he is writing (which he leaves behind until his return to Bristol) as the anchor which will draw him away from Portugal despite passionate love trysts there and the nostalgia for the cafe life.  He returns to England, to Bristol and to Edward, the character in the book who loves cherry trees and who, in the best Pessoan tradition, writes a short "Foreward" to the book. With the strange English customs and language having been assimilated, de Cairu, in the second text, "Olive Trees" looks clearly at post-dictatorial Portugal and his own life in relation to it, and notes:

"As before, we try to extend the evening, and in this way annoying the cafe's owner, who is anxiously trying to close up for a well-deserved rest after a hard working day.

We have no sense of time with so much to say and so much to hold.

As in the old times, the night is ours; but for me, not for too much longer."

The Man Who Loved Cherry Trees and The Breath of Olive Trees are published in England by Bright Pen Books.

My weblog post on Fernando Pessoa is on the first "omoo" :   (November 26, 2005).