Gregory Rabassa translated My World Is Not of This Kingdom by João de Melo because it was the most astonishing novel he had read since One Hundred Years of Solitude. He undertook this huge artistic task at his own insistence almost a decade before a publisher in America could be found.
In terms of stretched hopes, the book’s long voyage is not unlike the journey that my relatives once mustered from the Azores to America or bestirred your families from their own origins. Just when it seemed that arrival would never come, the shore appeared. And now My World Is Not of This Kingdom is home at last, brimming with sea air.
João de Melo is the prize-winning, best-selling author of Gente Feliz com Lágrimas (a splendidly dual meaning: People Happy with Tears, or Happy People—with Tears), in its nineteenth edition now in Portugal, in six foreign translations (not English); it’s been a theater piece, television mini-series, and internationally distributed film. But My World Is Not of This Kingdom is his masterpiece and garnered most of the literary awards immediately upon its release. The author himself felt it lodged him in the literature of his country.
This is a boiling, shocking story; it roars over the interstices of the sentences into a baroque impasto, rather like the volcanic creation of the Azores themselves. Language is applied with a palette knife, not a thin brush. I cannot name another novel in which a howl is more ferociously unleashed; you may never read a fiercer depiction of soul-crushing, body-mutating poverty.
Though it would be a mistake to classify the novel as merely Azorean, the geography of the archipelago roots the novel in isolation—and then the isolation delves farther into a bag of tricks. The fog-obscured nine islands shimmer like a wonderland: Whelk and limpet shells form village signs, and azaleas wheeze out perfume. I know of a gazebo where words whispered into a far end of the dome enter, the ear of someone on the opposite side. At night, children are wished “pink dreams.” The hydrangeas are a bracing purple, (girls wear them as shoulder puffs during parades), the fields are a primavera green, the water glows like heated sapphires, and sky-blue tiles accent white-washed walls, but upheaval and violence loom—rumble in—via storm, tidal wave, volcanic eruption.
And kept in a confined space, humans seethe entrenched, disappointment metastasizes, and beauty refuses to save us. (João de Melo, a longtime resident of Lisbon but a native of São Miguel, offers a soaring antidote to this at the novel’s end.) Azoreans to this day are reputed to be the best whalers and fishermen ever born, but in massive numbers they turned their backs to the ocean and became dairymen and farmers. Certainly the majority of those who settled in California, where I’m from, were of this island-cooked temperament. And California was their self-same dream made vast.
A crucial historical reason for much of the exodus is that back when sailing ships rounded the Cape of Good Hope loaded with treasure—and, more valuably, treasure-locating maps—the winds blew them to the Azores. After a stop for repairs or trade or rest, sailors would ride longitudinal gusts back to Europe. This made for a virtual turkey-shoot for pirates; the remnants of lookout posts still dot the beaches. My World therefore cites the intrusive prophecies of João-Lázaro as inciting a rebellion similar to one “…against the corsairs and invaders and plunderers who had threatened the parish in other times…” Then all hail the steamship, and no need for a stopping-over. There followed an advent of redoubled solitude, and death of industry, and emigration.
Though many Americans appreciate that Church and State are the twin lock and bolt of many cultures, it’s near impossible to convey the rusted-in-place vise they create. João de Melo lets fly his most torrential rage at priests, “that fraternity of owls,” especially the syphilitic Father Governo, “…(with) the ugliness of a skull squashed by the hoof of a buffalo that had wandered off from the herd.” Why not ignore the priests, seek other avenues? It’s said that Americans don’t solve their problems as much as flee from them—but what if there’s nowhere to run? What if, instead, you’re in a water-sealed colony where first the criminals got shipped in to till the land, and then priests arrived to yoke the louts (and carve the land into parishes), and then the government swept in to assume its share?
The book’s dramatic thread almost of necessity deals with land usurpation. João-Maria de Medeiros emerges as the remarkable hero of My World, along with his wife Sara and two sons, José-Maria and Jorge-Maria, because he quietly, simply, but definitely protests when Mayor Guilherme José Bento begins to demand land deeds as a tithe throughout the village of Rozário in the parish of Achadinha. João-Maria is aware that his protests will doom him to shape-shifting ruin.
It’s all I can do to curtail my impulse to go on at length about the utterly over-the-top, spellbinding imagery and the chain of events that lay out in print some of the most riveting, passionate evocations of a descent into penury and degradation and a thirst for revenge ever fit into the confines of words. But the book also suggests that we are constantly asked to enter horror stories and enact some resurrection of the dead. These tests can be brutally practical—Sara digs up a dead dog to feed her family—or defiantly graceful. When an American plane crashes in My World, creating a Bosch-like hell, it’s evidence of America’s force, but the accident is primarily a call for non-nationalistic tenderness: “Oh my God, my sweet God…an old couple had held hands and squeezed their fingers together to the point they were melded. Their names most certainly must have been Jim and Debbie, judging from the oval shape still showing on their lips….a (dead) girl was sitting on a log…a girl like that must have had a blue name like that of the angels…”
As for João de Melo, I first met him a dozen years ago at a conference on Lusophone literature in California. I already knew his reputation not only as a writer’s writer, but as someone of enormous popular appeal: He’s composed essays, poems, short stories, and travel books in addition to novels, joining his generation in forging a sensibility emergent from the Vietnam-like quagmire of the African wars and the collapse of Salazar’s fascism.
I soon discovered that he’s that rarity—a successful author of depth and affection; ours is an abiding friendship. I first included an excerpt from My World Is Not of This Kingdom several years ago in The Iowa Review, in a survey on contemporary Portuguese authors, but it’s taken Aliform Publishing, with its specialty in Latin American prose, to let sail home to us this trophy of global literature. I’m grateful that they’ve expanded its availability to an English-speaking audience, and to Gregory Rabassa for his artistry. Herein a “perfect moment” is coined as “a divine madness that’s never repeated.” Divinely, madly filled—heavenly, earthly—this by rights would have to be called a perfect book.
Fall 2003, Volume III, Number 1
Katherine Vaz is a new Briggs-Copeland Lecturer in Expository Writing at Harvard University. She is the author of Saudade (St. Martin’s Press, 1994), a contemporary novel about Portuguese-Americans, and Mariana. Her collection Fado & Other Stories won the 1997 Drue Heinz Literature Prize. Vaz is a recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship and is the first Portuguese-American to have her work recorded for the Library of Congress, housed in the Hispanic Division alongside recordings made by Pablo Neruda, Octavio Paz, Gabriela Mistral, and Gabriel García Márquez.
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