A Picaresque Hero

The Travels of Mendes Pinto

by Fernão Mendes Pinto, edited and translated by Rebecca D. Catz
University of Chicago Press, 663 pp., $49.95

Pinto’s Travels, written in Portugal between 1569 and 1578, is a crazed, dreamy, fascinating, elliptical book. Mendes Pinto lived and traveled extensively in Asia during the years 1537 to 1558, and the Travels is his attempt to come to grips with those experiences, and the fantasies and reflections that accompanied them. The huge, rambling manuscript was finally published in 1614, thirty-one years after Pinto’s death, and enjoyed an immediate success. A fussily emended Spanish edition appeared in 1620, a complete French translation in 1628, and an abbreviated English one in 1653. Pinto’s own title for his book was The Peregrinations, and that seems to say something different from Travels. “Travels” sounds either purposeful or at least touristic, whereas “Peregrinations” can begin and end anywhere, can change purpose and goal constantly, or indeed lack them altogether.

Pinto’s book baffled his editors and translators, who were always trying to tidy him up. The Spanish translator tried to give a proper baroque elaboration to the text, while the English translator compiled an elaborate historiographical essay in an attempt to prove Pinto’s accuracy. But English readers were not convinced. As Dorothy Osborne wrote to Sir William Temple just after the book’s English publication, Pinto’s “lyes are as pleasant harmlesse on’s as lyes can bee, and in noe great number considering the scope hee has for them.” By 1695, in Love for Love, the playwright William Congreve could have one of his characters reproach another with the words “Ferdinand Mendez Pinto was but a type of thee, thou liar of the first magnitude.”

Now, with Rebecca Catz, Pinto has at last found his perfect editor-translator, and the University of Chicago Press gives us their words in a beautifully produced book, embellished with a wealth of rare sixteenth-century illustrations. As Ms. Catz sensibly says, the protracted arguments over Pinto’s historicity and veracity have obscured the fact “that Pinto’s masterpiece belongs not to history, but to literature, specifically to the genre of satire.” Thus “the inconsistencies and improbabilities of the Travels are an integral part of its design, a deliberate puzzle.” The shades of the various scholars who tried to reconcile Pinto’s recorded adventures with the historical calendar should accordingly rest in peace, for Pinto’s chronology “is glaringly and daringly inaccurate. More than that, it is absurd.”

Freed by Ms. Catz’s common sense from the need to read Pinto as history, we can instead relax and read Pinto as a fiction that blends the elements of the satirical and the picaresque. Pinto’s central goal, Ms. Catz suggests, was to offer a deep and protracted criticism of the actions of the Portuguese in building their overseas empire, and of the Christian crusading ethos that lay behind them. Pinto’s critique was thus directed both at the men of war and the men of God involved in the enterprise. Descriptions of Asian beliefs and actions are used to highlight the absurdities and hypocrisy of the Portuguese, something that could hardly be expressed openly by a Portuguese living at home…

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