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Gonçalo M. Tavares

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Gonçalo M. Tavares is widely hailed as one of the leading lights of modern Portuguese literature. He was born in Luanda, Angola in 1970 where his parents were teaching at the time, but grew up in Portugal. His work has met with considerable critical acclaim since he began to publish in 2001 and has received numerous prizes and accolades from an international readership. As a result, his writing is currently being translated in over forty countries. A fearless and unrestricted approach to writing has enabled him to develop an extensive and extremely varied body of work, comprising novels, theatre, short stories, essays and poetry. José Saramago was a vocal champion of Tavares.

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Uma Viagem à Índia (A Journey to India)

Uma Viagem à Índia (A Journey to India) breaths life back into a somewhat neglected poetic form. It is an immensely readable and contemporary epic poem. The poem is inspired by The Lusiads (Os Lusíadas), the verse epic by Camões which is as central to Lusophone literature as Milton’s Paradise Lost is to English literature. However, readers can read and enjoy this poem without any knowledge of The Lusiads. Camões features briefly in an epigraph to open the poem. The rest of A Journey to India is arranged in short stanzas, or cantos, and recounts the tale of the hero, Bloom, on his journey.

It becomes clear early on that the trajectory of this poem is anything but direct, and as Bloom sets off from Lisbon and detours through London, Paris, Vienna, and Prague, as the narrative digressions multiply and overlap before he even approaches India. We are guided in and out of the protagonist’s thoughts, interspersed with philosophical commentary from the narrator, and around an array of obstacles which Bloom must contend with along the way. In the hands of a lesser writer this tangential approach could become overly convoluted, but the cadence and steady flow of Tavares’ prose anchor the story with disarming simplicity.

Bloom’s motives for embarking on his journey emerge as the poem unfolds. We are given pieces of the puzzle one by one, at each stage learning something new about our hero’s character, but Tavares withholds just enough to keep us asking questions. A Journey to India is a thought-provoking and highly original contribution to the Western epic poetry tradition  a work which challenges our ideas about genre.

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6 Comments

  1. Anon says:

    Translating this is bound to be very challenging, and it’s commendably brave to consider it … go for it! There seems to be a lot of support yet a relatively low profile for translated poetry, but this could make a major contribution. Epic poetry seems untouchable for modern writers, so it should attract curious readers.

    Reply
  2. It seems very artificial to fracture lines of narrative in this way, and without shifting over into any discernible poetic rhythm that might compensate: reading through the line-breaks doesn’t offer any greater beauty in the style.

    Anything that makes reading harder work than necessary comes between me and the story, obscuring my concentration.

    I also didn’t enjoy the lecturing tone that surfaces at times (see 47), and the artifice seems to lead the author into cryptic comments that further halt the reading: “[…] of his London hosts, men he had met by chance
    who had offered him bed and board, and not only in that order.”

    The text seems designed as a puzzle to solve rather than a reading to enjoy in the way I prefer. [I left the text at no./verse? 67.]

    Reply
    • Stefan Tobler says:

      Hi Jon,
      Thanks for reading – even if it wasn’t your cup of tea! Thank goodness there are enough books out there that we can each pick and choose our own favourites.

      Writing is always artifice / ‘artificial’, especially poetry. If I understand your comment right, I think you were looking for clearer artifice, less loose rhythms? I see what you’re saying about the rhythms being very close to prose sometimes. Of course, that blurring of the prose / poetry border is not something unique to Tavares’ poetry. I’d say it’s a quite common concern in contemporary poetics, although rarely linked to a classic verse epic form as it is here.

      I found the lines’ rhythms compelling. They slowed my reading down, giving me an experience different, (maybe more luxurious somehow?), to my experience reading prose. And cumulative of course. Nevertheless, I’ll pick out here a few lines in Laura Garmeson’s translation, just as examples …

      So we won’t describe a whole nation of men,
      that is too many and too much.

      [and..]
      The gifts included things meant to be beautiful,
      which were useful but ugly, and things meant to be useful
      which were beautiful but utterly useless.

      Reply
      • I pondered as long as I could over using the word artifice, Stefan, then the library was closing and I had to choose. Failed.

        Yes, it’s been very interesting reading these half-dozen excerpts in the last days, to get an idea of what’s about – and I’m entirely happy to read the wide range of opinions. I’ve my own preferences – as will be seen in the New Year translation I will publish – and am quite prepared to read equally diverse opinions over the choice (a more serious act than a suggestion, as these texts are).

        Keep up the good work.

        Reply
  3. Rich says:

    I found the passage thoroughly compelling and my only regret is that the rest of the poem is not yet translated.

    Reply
  4. Laura says:

    Always good to have a work which divides readers. One of the major challenges in translating this passage came in the form of the ambiguous statements which pepper the poem, because they often provide the dots which the readers must join themselves. There will always be authors who want their readers to work hard, and I wouldn’t say that’s a good enough reason to dismiss Uma Viagem. It’s an unusual, occasionally cryptic, piece, which affords us a different slant on a huge range of subjects.

    Also – any ideas about the choice of name for the protagonist? Seems to me that ‘Bloom’ must mean something, just not quite sure what…

    Reply

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