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o senhor dos navegantes

17 may 2009

The nether realms of the stacks in university libraries hold vast quantities of text, text that bulks like an iceberg beneath the tiny amount of visible text that circulates on-line or in print. I found one such morsel of text in my rambles through the PQs recently. It's a brittle paperback from the 1960s, strapped together with yellowed sellotape: Os Melhores contos portugueses, Terceira série. (Some other library must hold the Primeira série and the Segunda série.) Best stories or not, these tales have been mightily neglected by Texan readers: the volume has achieved the self-consuming feat of dissolving into flaky pulp while its pages remain uncut. I got out my paperknife and, with the trepidation of a paleontologist preparing a precious fragment of fossil, I began to read Melhores contos.

And so I encountered "O Senhor dos Navegantes," a short story by Portuguese writer José Maria Ferreira de Castro. Ferreira de Castro was still alive when the anthology was published, so only with the aid of Wikipedia did I discover that he'd died in 1974 at the age of 76. "O Senhor dos Navegantes" is from a 1954 collection called A Missão, which was translated by Ann Stevens in 1963. Her translation, The Mission, is long out of print, held by only 38 American libraries; a used copy will set you back more than $40 on amazon.

I had never heard of Ferreira de Castro, unsurprisingly. My knowledge of Portuguese-language writing was confined to a few Brazilian writers and to the Portuguese Nobelist José Saramago. In the four quarters of the globe, who reads a Portuguese book? And with English translation unaccessible, who across that globe is likely to read these books in the 21st century? The spread of the Internet and the literal crumbling of print culture do not make all knowledge immediately accessible to everyone. They winnow the great store of texts in our libraries, and as the Internet contributes to the Americanization of world language, it may spell the doom of untranslated texts in more obscure languages.

Of course, Portuguese literature is not exactly obscure, being in the mother tongue of one of the world's largest nations. Ferreira de Castro has an entire literary society devoted to him, with its own journal (Castriana). He even has a fan blog at ferreiradecastro.blogspot.com. As the Portuguese version of Wikipedia has it, Ferreira de Castro was "um dos maiores vultos de sempre da cultura portuguesa" ["one of the greatest figures of all time in Portuguese culture"].

My own ignorance of him is hardly the exigence for a short essay about one of his stories. If I wrote about everything that I'm ignorant of, I'd do nothing but post reviews here. Rather, I am intrigued by "O Senhor dos Navegantes" both for itself, and because it stands as a kind of metonym for a world literature that is endangered by the monoculture of the English language and the decay of material libraries.

"O Senhor dos Navegantes," then, in itself, is a wickedly funny slice of secular humanism. The narrator loves to read books in romantic settings. As the story opens, he has chosen the venue of the clifftop title church for his al fresco lection. He sees a man rushing madly out of the church, carrying an armful of ex-votos. The stranger dumps the ex-votos over the cliff, then rushes back into the church and repeats the process. "Não sou um ladrão," he tells the narrator; "isto pertence-me" [I'm not a thief: this stuff belongs to me] (113).

Not a thief; but maybe a madman? The stranger sits down on the wall that skirts the cliff and explains that he isn't mad, either. He is in fact God. But he is a God exasperated at his creation and himself. For one thing, as the six days went on, he lost his touch. He'd created a marvelous landscape and made a start on fabulously diverse flora and fauna. But when he got to birds, he started to phone it in. Quadrupeds were even worse. When he got to humans, he created the sorriest and least finished of all creatures, and condemned his last works to a distinctly dissatisfying existence.

Worst of all, these dull bipeds insist on praising him for the perfection of the Universe. They don't even try to improve the mess they've been handed: they simply try to pray their way out of their trouble. And when he tries to prod them to improve the world, they lock him up as a heretic, torturing him for his impiety towards his own creation.

It's a wonderful parable of a God who really does want people to help themselves. The story reaches its climax when God tells of entering a church where a woman is praying for the recovery of her sick son. God tells her to get up, get out of church, and go find a doctor. He underscores his exhortation by grabbing one of the gold necklaces that a supplicant has placed around the neck of a statue of Our Lady, and telling the woman to sell it for her son's medical expenses. God is promptly arrested as both thief and madman.

"O Senhor dos Navegantes" deserves a wider audience. But just as important, libraries deserve support in maintaining and conserving the physical collections in their stacks. The Internet taught me much about José Maria Ferreira de Castro, but it did not lead me to him in the first place. Only the slow pace and direct contact of shelf browsing did that. And yet, when I emerge from the library nowadays with my hands full of actual books, I feel like a a bit of a madman.

Ferreira de Castro, José Maria. "O Senhor dos Navegantes." From A Missão, 1954. In João Pedro de Andrade, ed., Os Melhores contos portugueses, terceira série. Lisboa: Portugalia, 1965. 111-123.