Thursday, January 04, 2007

The Lusiads

A few years ago I found William C. Atkinson's 'A history of Spain and Portugal'. I wasn't sure about it but it was a Pelican (published 1960). Atkinson graduated from Queen's in Belfast and ended up teaching hispanic studies in Glasgow. Apart from anything else it is very well written and I was fascinated to read that he had produced a translation of the Portugese epic 'The Lusiads'. Ever since I have been searching for a copy, thinking I would find a copy in a secondhand shop. I have just decided to purchase a copy over Amazon and at last I have a copy and it is wonderful.

One thing that did make me very frustrated was that I noticed that Penguin Classics had re-published it briefly around 2003 and then removed it. Especially as it sounds so exciting:

"Camoens' poem, the national epic of Portugal, is the story of a people who in the space of a century and a quarter spread over the waters of the globe, carried their flag and their faith from Brazil to Japan, and established not merely an empire but a new conception of empire based on mastery of the ocean routes.
The lusiads is more, however, than the mere narrative of that achievement; it is also an interpretation of the underlying greatness of those who achieved it, and as such the best possible introduction to Portugal and the Portuguese. It is concieved in essentially poetic terms."

Add to this that this is a prose translation of what was originally in ottava rima, ie in 8 line verse. I can't understand why all previous translations have tried to imitate this, it must have been very constricting to keep this going for over a 1000 lines. This is an epic heroic tale of the first navigators. Add to that it also features the mythical 'love island'. Venus awards the heroes with an Island populated by Tethys and her nymphs. Many Camoens' scholars have spent time trying to locate this 'love island' in reality. Just imagine somewhere in the Indian Ocean, perhaps near Goa (governed by Portuguese) or somewhere like that.

As soon as I started to read the poem I realised why Penguin Classics had removed it (from the poems dedication to the Portuguese King Sebastiao):

"Let Africa and the seas beyond begin to feel the weight of your armies and their exploits, until the whole world tremble. The Moslem fixes his eye on you in terror, recognising the symbol of his destruction"

Obviously in the 16th century the Portuguese were only concerning with fighting against Africa and the middle east. Things have changed now, you would like to think and we shouldn't let this cloud our judgement over classics of literature.

You can imagine the big boss of Penguin reading this in horror and imagining something like what happened to the Pope happening to Penguin and the book was quietly removed from the publication list breathing a sigh of relief that hard line muslim fundamentalists don't read Penguin Classics.

Such a shame though that we can't put the conflicts of the 16th century behind us and be able to read what looks like such an incredible and awe-inspiring poem.

1 comment:

bullockonline said...

Hello -
I'm very happy to stumble across your blog. I was looking for any reviews/opinions of Atkinson's History of Spain & Portugal and am now going to buy it on your recommendation. I do love those Penguin classics - got a whole stack of them.
Best regards,
Robert Bullock