Raul Brandão’s The Poor (1906) is hard to describe, I find, but luckily Miguel Rosa, once of the invaluable St. Orberose book blog, has written a substantial review of the book at The Millions, coming at it from every direction.
The novel in one way is a description of the rough lives of the inhabitants of a Lisbon tenement, including a group of women who work at a brothel. But it is as much a work of symbolism, the working through of an elaborate water metaphor that begins in the title of the first chapter (“The Deluge”) and courses through the rest of the book. I do not mean that it is like Zola, who digs into the real world and describes it using metaphor, but rather that the metaphor is much of the substance of the book. It is right on top of everything else, the characters and hints of a plot.
The book is as much a prose poem as a novel. Or something like August Stringberg’s Dream Play. I had to check the date a couple of times – knowing nothing else, I would have thought this was a French novel of the 1920s.
“Life,” concluded the Astronomer, “is only worthwhile spent dreaming, taking pleasure in a great work.”
“No, not dreaming!”
“I wanted to be a poet…” adds one.
“If I were a poet, this is what I’d want: not to write a book, but to create a cloud… And have it bound. Ah, the reader, the reader would be amazed. Imagine the colors and the dream…! A cloud, just think of it…” said Pita (p. 98, all ellipses in original)
Time is fluid. Narrators shift across and within chapters. A prostitute’s miserable childhood at a Catholic orphanage is set beside a philosopher’s aphorisms about a metaphysical system based on the single tree he can see form this attic window. Then the whole thing is constantly soaked in water.
The same rain falls tenaciously from the cloudy, nerve-racking sky. Beneath the downpour, the dead city is getting soaked in the mud. Underneath one of these rooftops, the same miseries and dreams are hidden. This stone shelters hatred, crimes, scorn… It’s dawn, and with the first light, the city looks unearthed, the houses resurge, emerged from darkness, leprous, askew, spent with hatred, with ambition, with rancor. (85-6, ellipses mine)
The key character is this fellow, Brandão, fighting against whatever the novel usually does to say whatever it is he is trying to say. “Brandão’s Modernism, however, was more instinctive than planned, an inner necessity rather than a deliberate intention to shack up with the zeitgeist,” Rosa writes. He points to Brandão’s affinity with certain works of Dostoevsky, even if the Portuguese writer “gradually divested himself of what he saw as artificial in literature in order to allow himself to communicate without rhetorical distortions.” Or as the philosopher in the novel thinks, “Old books reveal everything except life” (38).
Rosa gives the translator, Karen C. Sherwood Sotelino, the highest marks for her difficult task. I remember a St. Orberose blog post about Brandão’s longer and more difficult masterpiece Húmus (1917). I will bet that Sotelino is aiming at Húmus; I hope to read it someday.