“It’s Borges, the other one, that things happen to,” wrote Borges. This is a statement that makes me think of my other self, the other Laughlin who lived in another world, another time, as another self in another country—as we’re always another when we live outside our native land.
Lusophones love to tout the uniqueness of their (our) language, and in even the most roundabout of metalinguistic conversations, all roads eventually lead to saudade. But aside from a vague quasi-mysticism about loss that surrounds the word, the meaning is straightforward—saudades tuas, I miss you. Saudades de Portugal. I miss Portugal. Loss, longing. We have tools in English that serve to get the point across quite easily.
The Alentejo is the landscape of heartbreak. Or at least it was to me. Even its trees are clearly loners, set apart from each other at distant intervals across miles of sere brown fields. The Alentejo is all about waiting, from its numbered cork trees, with their skinned underbellies between harvest years, to the fabled, and perhaps fictional, nun Mariana, writing from Beja to a lover who will never come back. The Letters of a Portuguese Nun have been awaiting an author, an answer, for three and a half centuries now. Once celebrated for sparking a revolution in the European epistolary novel, now considered out of fashion even in Portugal, they remain a literary enigma, the country’s Mona Lisa.
In 1969, my grandfather gave the keynote address to the Master Brewers Association of America. He was not a brewer himself, but he had worked thirty years as a consultant to the industry, and by this time he had provided advice to breweries in every state of America and seventy countries.
The title of his speech was “How to Make Beer That Sells—with What You’ve Got!” He focused first on the importance of quality and outlined the industry standards: 1) Beer must be “clean and pleasing in flavor” as well as 2) “pleasing in appearance”; and 3) “it should not vary in flavor or appearance from day to day.” While beer drinkers today, myself included, wouldn’t agree with his definition of “pleasing” as “a complete absence of distinctive flavor components,” I suppose he can be forgiven for being at the mercy of the era’s bland American palate. As an industrial engineer, his main focus was on cleanliness, efficiency, and reproducibility; he did not seek to be a tastemaker, nor did he encourage this in his clients.
The following chapter from Pessoa: A Biography, forthcoming from Norton/Liveright, tells the story of how Alberto Caeiro, Fernando Pessoa’s first major heteronym, came into existence. The other full-fledged heteronyms, Álvaro de Campos and Ricardo Reis, would emerge three months later. (The heteronyms, Pessoa claimed, were not mere pseudonyms, since they thought and felt and wrote differently from their creator.) Although he had published some critical essays and a passage from The Book of Disquiet, Pessoa was still virtually unknown as a poet. Literature, moreover, was not Pessoa’s only interest. Throughout his adult life,he wrote prolifically about philosophy, religion, psychology, and politics.
The story of Caeiro is preceded by a brief sketchof the political climatein Europe before World War I, especially in Portugal, where,less than four years earlier,a revolution had toppled a much–discredited monarchy, replacing it with a tumultuous republic.
For this publication in The Common,I have excluded most of the notes of the book version (bibliographical information, mainly) while adding other notes to clarify references to peopleand events mentioned in earlier chapters.
And then, as is its wont, death comes knocking at the door. This time from two thousand miles away.
I try to get the image I have of him in my head to focus. The man who tried to be my father for over thirty years. Officially, not biologically, and not anymore. A death that will nevertheless force me home, back to Lisbon, just when I thought I’d found my place on this dry and sleepy island.
These days, we tend our gardens, my sister and I, and we remember. Her yard is dotted with plants from our homeland – a pear tree, a plum tree, and couve, or collard greens, for making caldo verde, Portuguese kale soup. She’s planted blue hydrangeas around her property, instead of a fence. Just like back home.
In the living room of my parents’ home in Tripoli, Lebanon, an elaborate family tree is displayed in a golden frame. It is a constant reminder of a fatalistic vision of life’s ultimate purpose: reproduction. Males are depicted as branches; females as leaves. The thriving of the tree relies on branches like mine. A single man who bears no new branches or leaves could condemn an entire lineage to an end.
Every attempt to reach Osman al-Houri has failed. Some corroborative sources have informed me that the man has retreated to an isolated village, that he does not own a cell phone, and that there is no way to reach him. Even more than that, he has evidently given up—deserted, and renounced writing, or so I am told. It is May 2019, and at the moment there is a revolution in Sudan, and people, among them a great number of authors, have taken to the streets and squares, demanding the fall of a regime that has—like many of its “siblings”—weighed down on and repressed them for decades. The Sudanese regime—again like many of its siblings in such circumstances—has shut down the internet for nearly a month now, taken to shooting live bullets at protesters and setting loose its henchmen upon them. By so doing, the regime has further complicated the means of connection with a country whose connection with its Arab surroundings (perhaps excepting Egypt) is already complicated and semi-severed. In light of this, can one even speak of literary connection, especially in a field that in our times has become ever more “elitist”: that of the short story?
Connecting What Has Been Severed with Sudan: The Short Story as it Fills Voids with Imagining
We’d expected extremes of weather while we were on the Coast Path, British weather. Wind, rain, fog, occasional hail even, but not the heat, the burning, suffocating heat. By lunchtime we’d crawled out of the shade of Woody Bay into an intensely hot afternoon. We shared a cereal bar and banana, looking west across some of the highest cliffs in England. Near vertical faces rising as high as 800 feet and stretching away to the Great Hangman, at 1,043 feet, the highest point on the whole of the South West Coast Path. But between us and the Hangman was a series of savage rises and falls, which even Paddy admits are steep. From the cliff top to near sea level, from sea level to the cliff top. And repeat. This was why I’d wanted to start in Poole. Then it got hotter.