The Nonexistent Knight and The Cloven Viscount

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The Devils, Damsels, and Discipline of Jorge de Sena

Translated Portuguese literature lies mired in five names: postmodernist celebrities Fernando Pessoa and António Lobo Antunes; José Saramago, whose shiny Nobel Prize mesmerizes publishers crow-like; and the classic authors Eça de Queiroz and Luís de Camões. These are the ones that get translated and retranslated year in, year out, as if there weren’t room for more. For evidence you need look no further than the silence over Raul Brandão’s recent debut in English.

Fortunately Dedalus Press, the leading publisher of diverse Portuguese literature, insists in changing things, and that’s how we got Jorge de Sena’s The Prodigious Physician, translated by Margaret Jull Costa.

In principle, things should have worked out better for Jorge de Sena. After all, he made a wise career choice when he moved to the U.S. to teach first at the University of Wisconsin, then at UC Berkeley. His tenacious, if obscure, longevity in English sort of proves this: to date one novel, a short-story collection, and several volumes of his gorgeous poetry have come out. Alas, all have quickly faded in the face of general indifference.

Why does he keep getting new chances? Writers don’t become famous only because of their literary merit; it helps when influential agents notice them: George Steiner’s infatuation with Pessoa did a lot for him; Saramago (who in the past was Sena’s editor) probably wasn’t badly served by Harold Bloom judging him “the greatest living novelist.” Even Lobo Antunes has acknowledged that his breakthrough stemmed from American literary agent Thomas Colchie championing him, lending support to the opinion that to be known worldwide is to be known in English first and foremost. No such paladin ever defended Sena; instead his translations have been living off dividends from his college career. It’s telling that he’s been previously translated by former colleagues and students, whose prefaces betray that most Portuguese of feelings, saudade, the painful longing for an absent friend, in this case a man remembered at campus as an erudite, generous, fascinating  figure.

Born in 1919, Sena began publishing poems in the early 1940s in a magazine called Cadernos de Poesia, around which coalesced a band of young poets bent on revitalizing Portuguese poetry. By bringing to each verse an anger and brutality unusual in a country of mild-mannered lyricists, replacing Portuguese poetry’s propensity for sentimentality with philosophical reflection, and dialoging with Europe’s Modernism instead of burrowing in parochialism, he did just that. An engineer by education, he also pursued criticism and is rightfully considered one of Portugal’s greatest literary critics. In a country that turned to France alone for literary fashions, his knowledge of the English language and literature, so unusual at the time, allowed him to carve a niche for himself. He translated, among others, Thomas Love Peacock, Eugene O’Neill, Evelyn Waugh, Ernest Hemingway, Graham Greene, William Faulkner, Edgar Allan Poe, and Emily Dickinson, whom he adored. (English was such a mysterious entity to his peers that he had to endure accusations of plagiarizing foreign poets.) His anglophilia also allowed him to widen studies about Pessoa. He translated his English-language poems and studied the legacy of English culture on Pessoa, who had been raised in British South Africa. (Sena once had to confirm to a scholar that Aleister Crowley, whom Pessoa had personally met, was not a fabrication of the jesting poet.)

Sena’s lifelong interest in Pessoa made him a suitable candidate to bring order to what is nowadays known as The Book of Disquiet, and he was one of the first editors to take a swing at it. He worked at it for five years before giving up. At the time he was living in exile in Brazil, a predicament that posed logistic problems about getting copies of the original manuscripts. Sena had fled there in 1959 after participating in a botched coup to overthrow the dictatorship ruling since 1926. In a move worthy of Pessoa, all that remains of this endeavor is his 60-page introduction for a nonexistent edition of Disquiet. Tragically, Brazil fell under a right-wing regime in 1964, too, and the following year he took up a teaching job in the U.S., remaining there until his death in 1978.

Between his stay in Brazil and move to America, Sena published The Prodigious Physician, one of his most popular works. It originally belonged to a short story collection finished in 1964 and published two years later, Novas Andanças do Demónio (some stories were included in By the Rivers of Babylon). The novella didn’t ride solo until 1977; in the accompanying preface, Sena explained that at the time he didn’t have the conditions to publish it separately, so he let it “hitch a ride” with the other stories when an editor showed interest in them.

The Prodigious Physician sounds like something in the vein of Angela Carter’s mixture of erotica and myth. It chronicles the carefree wanderings of a beautiful young physician whose soul has been sold to the devil; who has a magical hat that grants any wish, from raising the dead to traveling in time; and whose blood has healing properties. These elements, plus the idea of an infatuated devil who lifts his beloved’s legs when the Inquisition tries to hang him for heresy, come from the fusion and rearrangement of two medieval tales. Sena was no different from other writers at the time who were looking backwards to move away from realist fiction: Italo Calvino reusing the chivalric romance in The Nonexistent Knight or John Barth with the picaresque The Sot-Weed Factor. In Spain, Gonzalo Torrente Ballester was doing something even stranger in Don Juan by unleashing the legendary lover on the 20th century. Even so, for Portuguese literature at the time, this was a pretty weird book.

Of the three types of writers co-existing within the regime we can dispense with two: the right-wing official author and the left-wing socialist realist, rechristened neo-realista (new realist) to avoid censorship. Often clumsy hacks prized mostly for extra-literary reasons, their value inflated insofar as they stuck to and flattered the pinched ideologies that respectively underpinned them. Sena, a life-long communist but too autonomous to follow party lines, belonged to the third type that just wanted to get on with the usual business of making great literature. As such, his fury over factions informed his own fiction. If readers keep this in mind, they’ll appreciate this deceptively straightforward novella a lot better.

The Prodigious Physician seems mathematically engineered to piss off fascists and neo-realists alike with democratic distribution. The collection it originally came in was particularly offensive because it was a rare incursion into a genre Portuguese authors seldom explored — fantasy. To make matters worse, the preface put forth a deliberate attack on “the second-rate aesthetics of the oh-so-esteemed traditional realism.” (I don’t understand why Dedalus didn’t add value to this slim volume by appending the original prefaces.) If Sena had filled a previous collection with quotidian observations and autobiographical tinges, this one basked in what he called “the fantastic realism or the imaginative historicism,” modes he judged better suited to depict his time than realism, which to him was almost “a spurious way of immobilizing reality, which, by its nature, is a continuous process.” Instead of parading masses of peasants in fields and proletarians in factories, Sena invoked mythical and historical figures; instead of Capital, he pillaged 14th-century tomes for ideas.

Even more perversely, Sena actually cared about style, even cared about difficulty. Jull Costa keeps intact his page-long paragraphs, interpolated with metrically rigorous poems, sometimes cascading down labyrinthine sentences with irregular punctuation. (If I had to quibble, I’d say she only missed the vocabulary’s archaic flavor.) All of this flew in the face of neo-realism’s doctrinal frugality; its motto was that books should be simple enough for the people to read them. Well, when you stop to think that around 1960 Portugal had a 30 percent illiteracy rate, you can estimate just how simple simple was.

Even Sena’s use of double columns encompassed a challenge to ideologies that professed to hold the Truth. What better way of questioning the regime’s and the neo-realists’ pretentions to infallibility than narrating the same event in simultaneous columns with contradictory facts? Reality, for him, wasn’t realistically rendered unless fragmented and subjective.

The Prodigious Physician also opposed the regime because it traduced conformity, sexual abstinence, and Catholic values. Few of his readers would expect a scene brimming with amoral homoeroticism between the protagonist and the devil:

He lay there in a pose of patient, indifferent abandon, his head resting on his arms, and allowed the Devil, who was invisible, to work himself up into a frenzy of desires. Long caresses ran lightly over his skin, whispered kisses nipped his body all over, hands lingered on his crotch, a hardness pressed against him, trying to penetrate him — it had been the same ever since he had reached manhood and whenever he took off his clothes and was alone. He put up with it as he might do with an unavoidable affliction, which neither excited him nor provoked feelings of horror or repugnance.

Sex follows the nameless protagonist around, and he’s long stopped seeing it as sacred. The physician was sold to the devil when his grandmother, “seeing him still prepubescent, but with the body of a grown man, had summoned the Devil, who had immediately enfolded him in a passionate embrace.” In exchange for his indifference, “he had received immense powers and, over time, had come to think that the Devil wasn’t really asking such a lot of him, contenting himself with a mere obliging availability, in which he, the young man, did not participate with so much as a gesture or a tremor.” As the novella opens, he stops by a riverbank to freshen up, and a trio of maidens invite him to frolic. After that, they take him to a castle, where a widow languishes from an unknown ailment; he uses his blood to cure her, and they fall in love. In this enchanted castle gender roles have been subverted, and women rule over men who “had quite forgotten their position in society, and were made equal in sharing the same pleasures and submitting to the same rules of obedience.” The novella’s a paean to sexual freedom, but if it looks like Sena was foreshadowing hippie communes, for a Portuguese reader it’s hard not to think of Camões’s epic poem The Lusiads, where Venus rewards harried sailors with a magical island filled with Cupid-intoxicated horny nymphs in a dazzling display of eroticism. Sena was not only one of Camões’s greatest scholars, he also shared his visionary hope in a paradisiacal society where women and men are equal and live bound by love.

If I have a criticism to make, it’s that this spiritual love too often feels exclusively earthly. Sena may write that the physician finds in the widow “the love of which [the Devil] knows nothing, the pleasure he cannot feel, and the furious joy that, even without love, does not exist in the lewd pleasures he can offer,” but their relationship is rather cold. The novella’s complex meditations on love appeal more to my intellect than my heart. It rejects the soul (the Devil even claims it doesn’t exist) in favor of the body as the erotic center. Descriptions of breasts, thighs, hair, skin abound. Everybody ogles one another. The castle-dwellers party more than Poe’s noblemen keeping the plague out. Perhaps this was Sena’s goal, to emphasize the physicality of sex at the time when the regime controlled the body. He evidently relished in indecency, as the dirty epigraph by Arthur Rimbaud shows. But though I can appreciate the importance of transgression, gratification without an emotional grounding feels rather empty.

Besides Rimbaud’s, there’s a second epigraph, belonging to 17th Jesuit priest Manuel Bernardes, author of a gigantic work of didactic moralizing. Readers won’t need to know that Sena considered the good priest a symbol of intellectual and moral backwardness and oppression to appreciate the joke of juxtaposing his earnestly pious sentences with Rimbaud’s scatology. He’s made of the same cloth as the novella’s castrating friars who prefer erecting scaffolds than their penises. In this part of the novella, Sena pushes too strongly in the direction of paper-thin parable when they unveil a “gigantic conspiracy by the Devil against the established order” that includes “sodomy, a whole range of crimes against nature, and a vast web of subversive propaganda.” And it’s hard not to see in Brother Anthony of Salzburg, “a famous expert and writer of treatises on matters infernal,” a caricature of dictator António Salazar. But Sena is not so much forcing a parable as stating that Portugal’s history had dead in its tracks. After three centuries under the Inquisition, followed by 100 years of relative freedom, a long dictatorship could only give the impression of static time: the present was the past, the past was the present. A few decades later, Lobo Antunes’s big Salazar novel, The Inquisitor’s Manual, would use the same metaphor. Instead of proclaiming a belief in progress, like neo-realist works, Sena’s novella hinges on subtle cycles of birth, death and rebirth. Reality may as well look back to see itself as if on a mirror.

Ribald and raunchy, The Prodigious Physician is nevertheless tinged with pessimism. Unlike the neo-realists, Sena was too realistic to know that utopias never work. Although their books have aged badly, this novella continues to resonate in our time in the way it celebrates equality between women and men, sexual freedom over prudery, reason over fanaticism, and the individual over the state.

Plus, Sena adds more context to translated Portuguese fiction, which often floats in an ahistorical vacuum, Sena’s blend of fantasy and realism predates José Saramago’s magical realism and allegories, and his rage at castrating tyrants brings to mind António Lobo Antunes. In The Prodigious Physician’s 100 pages we find all the main elements in the best contemporary Portuguese fiction. Jorge de Sena’s obscurity is a mystery, but the solution to that is simple and begins with reading this little masterpiece.

A Year in Reading: Lincoln Michel

My first book, Upright Beasts, came out this year. As I answered the standard interview questions about influences, I realized that many of my biggest influences are writers whom I actually haven’t read in many years. So I decided to dedicate much of my year in reading to revisiting two authors who are central in my own personal canon: Italo Calvino and Kōbō Abe.

My Calvino revisiting was actually prompted by an article I was assigned, a reader’s guide to the great Italian fabulist for the (now sadly defunct) Oyster Review. Calvino is an author I read extensively in high school and college. He was one of the first authors who taught me that fiction could be both artistic and just plain fun at the same time. There were a couple of his works I’d never gotten around to, and this year I read them. The best of these previously unread books were Marcovaldo and The Nonexistent Knight. The former is a collection of interlinked stories about a poor laborer in an industrial Italian city. It features everything I remember loving about Calvino. The book is at times truly hilarious and at other times philosophical. His style is honed, but doesn’t overwhelm the stories. And the book is conceptual — the chapters are organized by seasons — without being gimmicky. Most of all, it was just a joy to read.

The Nonexistent Knight is a short novel that is sometimes grouped with two other short novels, The Baron in the Trees (my personal favorite Calvino) and The Cloven Viscount, as a book called Our Ancestors. All three are historical fables that take a simple but absurd premise and run with it until it becomes something magical. The Nonexistent Knight, as its title implies, tells the tale of a knight who doesn’t really exist, but appears in reality as an empty suit of armor out of pure faith in the holy cause of Charlemagne. This premise could be a great four-page Donald Barthelme or Jorge Luis Borges short story, but Calvino’s wizardry somehow makes it work as a novel.

Kōbō Abe is an author who utterly floored me with his existential and absurdist novel The Woman in the Dunes. It immediately became one of my favorite novels, and I also devoured the bizarre science fiction nightmare novel Inter Ice Age 4. This year, I read three novels — each unique and fantastic — by the author commonly dubbed the Japanese Kafka: The Box Man, Secret Rendezvous, and The Ruined Map. Like Calvino, I felt he held up, with one caveat: the female characters in those first two books were too often overly sexualized and underdeveloped. That problem aside, Abe’s novels really do have the dark humor and nightmarish reality of the best of Franz Kafka’s work. I was also impressed by the genre range that Abe displays across these three books. The Box Man is a philosophical mystery about a man who lives inside of a giant cardboard box before his box is stolen. It has an inventive metafictional structure where the words you read are allegedly written — in different pens and pencils — by the narrator…or possibly multiple narrators. Secret Rendezvous is the most straightforwardly Kafkaesque of the three, with a character trying to find his wife in a labyrinthian hospital controlled by an absurd bureaucracy. It also has some bizarre body horror elements, such as a man who turns himself into a horse by stitching another man’s legs and penis onto his body. The Ruined Map is a hardboiled detective novel, albeit one still taking place in an off-kilter, absurd world.

Both of these authors remind me that you can truly do anything in fiction as long as you have the willingness to let your eye look at whatever it wants to gaze upon, no matter how bizarre.

For contemporary books, I started the year reading the novel that was perhaps the best literary novel of 2014: Nell Zink’s The Wallcreeper. Zink’s prose is totally fearless and alive. I loved every page.

More from A Year in Reading 2015

Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005

The good stuff: The Millions’ Notable articles

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Staying Sane: A Year in Reading (Part 4)

I could not stop. I became a Calvino junkie and read The Nonexistent Knight and The Cloven Viscount, two separate stories collected in one volume as suggested by the titles, and a book along the same lines as The Baron in the Trees. The stories are about an exemplar non-existent knight that the king’s army despises because he lacks human vice, and a generous and noble viscount who is split in half during battle, hence losing his good side and becoming evil. Both are great fairy tales with a grain of cynicism, a touch of distrust bred by 20th century politics (Calvino was also a linguist and deeply involved with leftist politics, which at times caused him discomfort), and the humanist wishes of an idealist.As with Kapuscinski, I had to take a break from Calvino, and picked up Arthur Nersesian’s Chinese Takeout. I picked Chinese Takeout because the picture on the book cover was of 7B, a one time favorite dive of mine that was four blocks away form our East Village apartment. It was one of those books that I kept seeing and telling myself that I would get it the next time I saw it, just because of its cover. As luck would have it, I really enjoyed the story of Orloff, the book’s protagonist. He walks through streets most familiar and beloved, sells books on West 4th street (in front of the NYU library and Stern School of Business), struggles to make it as a painter, lives in the back of his van, deals with junkies, and longs for the days when the lower east side was a cheap haven for artists. A romantic and nostalgic look at the areas currently being overridden by hipsters and $150 torn diesel jeans (my personal favorites). Or (short for Orloff) still exists in Manhattan, and walks those streets and probably does sleep in the back of his van or at the rent controlled apartment of his friend from time to time. Chinese Takeout is a good New York story that one should read on the beach during a vacation or in the subway.Previously: Part 1, 2, 3

Recommendations from Friends

My friend Edan writes in to remind me about the latest issue of McSweeney’s. Typically I find that McSweeney’s are fun to look at, a mishmosh of interesting design and writing that doesn’t stick to your bones, but I’m genuinely excited about this McSweeney’s in a way that I haven’t been excited about any previous issue. This one is their comics issue with a cover designed by Chris Ware and comics by R. Crumb, Art Spiegelman, Daniel Clowes, Lynda Barry, and others as well as essays by Michael Chabon, Ira Glass, John Updike, Chip Kidd, and others. These are all favorites of mine in the world of comics and books. I’m looking forward to reading it. Edan also told me to have a look at The Phaidon Atlas of Contemporary World Architecture, which she describes as “awesome and big.” I would have to agree. Go here and click on “look inside” to check it out.I also got a note from my friend Emre who really wants me, and everyone, to read Italo Calvino. He is a most trusted fellow reader so I feel confident when I pass along his Calvino recommendations: “pick up a copy of The Baron in the Trees and indulge in it. The Nonexistent Knight is pretty good too, Invisible Cities is ok, or maybe I couldn’t get into it because I read it on the subway.” Thanks Edan and Emre!

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