Prodigies

Patrick O’Brian

  • The Travels of Mendes Pinto by Fernao Mendes Pinto, translated by Rebecca Catz
    Chicago, 663 pp, £39.95, October 1989, ISBN 0 226 66951 3
  • The Grand Peregrination by Maurice Collis
    Carcanet, 313 pp, £12.95, February 1990, ISBN 0 85635 850 9

Anyone who has travelled even as far as Paris, threading with more or less success the Kafkaesque corridors of Heathrow or God preserve us Gatwick, will agree that a man’s soul has to be riveted to his body to survive it. What then are we to say to Fernao Mendes Pinto, who travelled with scarcely a pause except for being captured 13 times and 17 times sold into slavery, going from the Ethiopia of Prester John to the Japan of the Daimyos and St Francis Xavier?

Some say that he was a prodigy, as well as one of the great Portuguese classics, the prose equivalent of Camoens; others say that he was a liar. Rebecca Catz says that he was a satirist, that his whole immense book is a subtle, disguised indictment of the state of affairs in 16th-century Portugal and its possessions, a subversive, anti-imperialist satire that, in a time when the Holy Office was carrying out its inquisition with ardent zeal and the Portuguese were moving into the Far East with a courage and determination equalled only by their cruelty and greed, calls out for tolerance and decent conduct – a satire for the sake of which Mendes Pinto used his own experiences and those of others, heard, read or even invented, weaving himself, on occasion, a sadly tangled web.

Perhaps so. After all, Miss Catz knows this book very well: she has lived with it a long time – necessarily so, since it amounts to at least 365,000 words, every one of which she has translated, adding no less than 138 pages of notes historical, philological and geographical, and appendices. Yet it is also possible that she may have read too much into her text. She would certainly not be the first specialist to do so; Alice in Wonderland comes to mind, to say nothing of much graver works.

In any event, if The Travels of Mendes Pinto was a satire, it was a satire that escaped the attention of the Inquisition, whose imprimatur stated that the book contained ‘nothing contrary to the sacred faith and good morals’, and of the censor who, on passing the book for publication (which took place in 1614, 31 years after Pinto’s death) added: ‘It is a very good history, full of novelties and variety, which ought to please everyone.’ And any satirical intention in the author also escaped Philip II, who, as King of Portugal, enjoyed the aged Pinto’s conversation, and who would have pensioned him if Pinto had not died too soon. It also escaped the many, many readers who revelled in Pinto as they revelled in Camoens and Cervantes: and, in later times, the attention of the Abbé Prévost, a man who knew the Church and the world extremely well, and who was capable both of writing Manon Lescaut and of compiling an Histoire Générale des Voyages in 16 quarto volumes, which would surely have enabled him to distinguish between books written to give a reasonably true and straightforward account of the author’s travels (though with a certain amount of criticism, to be sure) and those written for quite a different end. Prévost says:

In Portugal Fernand Mendez Pinto, whose book I shall only summarise, is looked upon as the most admirable and meticulous of all travellers. Although his reputation has often been attacked, it has always been very well defended, and with such zeal that a prodigious number of writers have been cited to prove his good faith by showing that even his strangest accounts are not the fruit of his imagination, since they are also to be found in other books – an argument all the stronger in that a man who had passed his life in the Indies could not be suspected of having read so many authors, so that this agreement on matters that are beyond the reach of guesswork becomes as it were a proof in his favour... Lastly, those who have read about the first conquest of the Portuguese and the Spaniards must necessarily be used to wonders, to extraordinary events. One has but to recall the state of affairs in the Indies when the first Europeans appeared and how the differences in laws, customs, clothes, weapons – in principles and way of life, to put it briefly – might give rise to strange and unheard-of adventures. Pinto’s only became suspect long after the publication of his book, that is to say when the people of the Indies, hardened and seasoned by intercourse with us, had become very unlike those their conquerors first saw. However that may be, a traveller who has always been highly valued by his own people, one against whom no known untruth has been advanced, who in doubtful matters has been painstakingly vindicated by many good writers and who has been quoted with praise in a great number of excellent accounts, should not be left out of this collection merely because of a few vague accusations based only on the multiplicity of his adventures and the wonderful accuracy of his recollection.

There is no mention of any satirical aspect: and a very strong point against Catz’s notion of the book being a satire, largely in favour of tolerance, is the fact that Pinto was very closely associated with St Francis Xavier, whom he loved and venerated; and St Francis called for the setting-up of the Inquisition in Goa. In 1558, when Pinto was waiting for a ship to take him home, the first group of suspected heretics was sent to Lisbon in chains. Furthermore, Pinto was a member of the Society from 1554 to 1556 or 57, and although he was then dispensed from his vows he remained on good terms with the Jesuits, not then a body remarkable for tolerance. Nor is there any mention of anything more than incidental criticism in Maurice Collis, whose The Grand Peregrination, first written in 1949 and now republished, is a valuable abridgment of Pinto’s book (Peregrinçam in Portuguese), the first in English since 1891. Collis was a distinguished orientalist who spent many years in the East: he also read Pinto with much attention and, because of his experience, perhaps with a livelier understanding than Catz. He verified a great many of Pinto’s facts, he asserts that Pinto invented nothing, and that although the Travels cannot be used as an exact chronicle for any particular event, they present a wonderfully vivid and essentially true picture of the countries from India to Japan: and the theme he sees running through the book is that of a sinful man coming to enlightenment by expiation. His abridgment does of course give all the main points of Pinto’s oriental career as soldier, sailor, captive, something very like a pirate, trader, envoy, Jesuit novice, and finally as a well-to-do country gentleman living quietly over the water from Lisbon. What it cannot do is to give the vast swarming mass of detail, the sense of running along through time at a breakneck pace. For this the whole work is necessary, with its 226 chapters: Rebecca Catz provides them all, an immense task, carried out with great devotion. It would be pleasant to say that the book’s only faults – totally inadequate maps and no index at all – were due to her publishers: but it must be admitted that neither devotion nor a profound knowledge of Portuguese is enough to produce an excellent translation if a mastery of English is wanting. Many readers will feel that abbreviations such as ‘don’t’ and ‘we’ll’, and expressions such as ‘get-rich-schemes’ and ‘the rioting escalated’, are utterly incongruous and indeed offensive in the translation of a 16th-century text: but if they are to have the whole of Mendes Pinto they must put up with English of this kind, for it runs through the entire book. Yet on the other hand many may also feel that this is not too high a price to pay for what is, after all, the only complete translation the English-speaking world has ever seen.