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Llansol, Poet of the Posthumous

Josef Koudelka/Magnum Photos
Portugal, 1976

Everyone in Maria Gabriela Llansol’s trilogy of novels, Geography of Rebels, is dead. Friedrich Nietzsche died a long time ago; and so did St. John of the Cross; and so did the radical Protestant Thomas Müntzer, decapitated in the sixteenth century. In biography or history—not to mention in our own common understanding—death circumscribes life. But in the plotless world of Geography of Rebels, such seemingly natural ideas dissolve, replaced by a sphere in which death hardly even impinges. Müntzer carries around his severed head while participating fully in whatever “action” can be said to unfold in this book; and John of the Cross remembers his own death as a floating departure, akin to the bodily levitation he has mastered with his spiritual exercises.

“It’s clear I’m not telling the story of your lives,” Llansol writes. “(‘You don’t know how to tell the story of our breath,’ you say)… No one who reads me will be able to imagine what your lives were.” She has abandoned the perspective that a narrative form like the biography—or the sonata, with its exposition, development, and recapitulation—demands. Instead, like the bodies she describes, Llansol’s sentences snap into fragments, and time loses the logic that seems, in her world, to be an artificial, irrelevant imposition.   

These books were composed over a five-year period, from 1974 to 1979. At the time, Llansol was living in a small Belgian town called Jodoigne. She had left Portugal in 1965, at the beginning of the last agonizing decade of António de Oliveira Salazar’s dictatorship. That regime, founded in 1926, predated her birth, in 1931, and proved to be one of the twentieth century’s most tenacious: it succumbed only in 1974, the year Llansol began Geography of Rebels.

Perhaps that was not a coincidence. By then, she was forty-three, but a writer who would become notably prolific had hardly published anything: there was a book of short stories in 1962, The Nails in the Grass, and its sequel, which appeared in 1973. Under the suffocating regime, her silence was typical. Poverty and oppression forced thousands of Portuguese into exile: whole villages of impoverished people left to become concierges in Paris or bakers in Rio. Political dissenters left because they had to; artists and intellectuals left for places where they could work in freedom.

Llansol was one such exile. Her husband, Augusto Joaquim, refused to participate in the cruel colonial wars that Portugal was waging in Africa, and the couple went to Belgium so that he could avoid military service. “I came with great daring,” she wrote, “and also with an enormous thirst for freedom, for novelty, for reaching the core of being. No one can possibly have even a pale image of the thickness of the air that we breathed down there, in the tiny closed cells of our lives. I was trying to escape in order to write.”     

Belgium gave her freedom. There, she discovered an institution peculiar to the Low Countries, the beguinage, medieval hostels that offered a refuge to spiritually inclined laypeople. These cells offered not captivity but freedom; and in the thirteenth-century beguinage of Bruges, Llansol suddenly understood that “several levels of reality were deepening their roots, coexisting without any intervention from time.”

As it happens, this is a good description of Geography of Rebels: of its structure, which abolishes time to merge life and death; and of its cast of mystic seekers, who inhabit the murky borders between apparently incompatible levels of reality. Characters’ names are no more attached to their bodies than those bodies’ parts are attached to each other. In this oneiric world, time loosens its bonds, and lets people who lived centuries apart chat like neighbors bumping into each other on the street. Here, heads split from necks, and hands from arms; sentences snap into fragments, breaking the painstakingly “logical” constructions that, at least in literature, we expect to lead us from one thought to the next.

Alongside this timeless spiritual world, the book also reflects Llansol’s, and Portugal’s, political situation. Under Salazar, Portugal’s ancient culture had been reduced to the “three f’s”—futebol, fado, e Fátima (sports, folk music, and repressive Catholicism). In the thick air of a country like this, an eccentric artist like Llansol could not possibly have had a career.

Yet this was a kind of blessing. Joseph Brodsky once observed that censorship is bad for artists but good for art. This is questionable, and more than a bit romantic. But to read Geography of Rebels is to wonder whether a work such as this, with its severed body parts and abruptly truncated sentences, could have ever been written for a country where it might have conceivably been published.

One can easily imagine the despair that a writer would feel at finding herself exiled and unpublishable in middle age. Literary history offers abundant examples of people in similar situations who gave up on art, and on life. Only a woman of uncommon strength could have made virtues of those necessities, and one is constantly amazed by the courage that it must have taken Llansol to write like this. To do so, she had to give up on writing as a career; to accept that a lifetime of work might be destined for the rubbish-heap—and go ahead anyway.

There is a sense in which the reader of Geography of Rebels apprehends that Llansol, too, is dead—that she had accepted that much of this work would be read only after her death, or not at all. Perhaps this is why her characters are constantly pondering this paradox: “As he became dust, Thomas Müntzer heard the trampling of the horses farther and farther away. He had never died before.”

Living through death while remaining fully alive: the theme appears on nearly every page of these books. To choose a living death is a choice that only a saint could make. The conscious embrace of oblivion is, after all, a spiritual resolution, not an artistic one. And from the spiritual perspective this embrace is not a restriction but—like the freely chosen monastic cell—an opening, a freedom. In the dark of what night, and at what personal cost, did Llansol accept that freedom?   

By the time she began writing these books, Portugal was taking its first steps toward rejoining the circle of democratic nations. Many of Llansol’s books would eventually be published in her homeland, but even today, her archive in Sintra is stuffed with thousands of pages of unpublished writings. A broader readership eluded her until after her death, and it is not hard to understand why. She was not young when she began writing in earnest. She was older still when, in 1985, she finally returned to Portugal. The pact with the posthumous had already been forged. (She actually died in 2008, aged seventy-six.)

Throughout her life, Llansol translated French, German, and English poets, including Hölderlin, Rimbaud, Éluard, and Rilke. One is hardly surprised to find the patroness of posthumous poets, Emily Dickinson, on the list, too. Dickinson, like Llansol, seems to have been writing only for herself—and, perhaps but not necessarily, for some future reader, yet unborn. This gave them the freedom to slash at the language they inherited: Dickinson with her dashes, Llansol with the strange pauses that break expected patterns and create a spooky and addictive rhythm. But unlike Dickinson’s poems, which often require close study to reveal their meanings, Llansol’s writings are musical; their rhythms emerge best when read aloud. Because they were written in exile, these books are full of meditations on displaced language, language in dreams, language from other epochs—a pulsating language beautifully recreated by the translator, Audrey Young, who allows us to follow its river-like flow:

I remember that an official was next to the vine, and the vast memory of these books was scrupulously investigated; I was sitting down studying in the proofreaders’ room, penetrated by the language I am using to write to you; they looked down at me and and I intimated that I came from another realm and that my origin was the origin of the earth. In that language, I asked them the following questions:—Who are you today? Where are you? Why and how did you end up stopping here where you feel like two strangers?

Another writer’s spirit hovers over these writings. This is the ghost of the great Brazilian Clarice Lispector, who was still alive when Llansol began, but who, in 1977, when Llansol was still working on these books, had taken up her place among the legendary dead. Clarice’s witch-like power over her readers is surely unlike that of any other modern writer, and her devotees are more like the votaries of a saint than the admirers of a famous artist.

For a critic to suggest a comparison to a writer who dominates her language as completely as Clarice Lispector dominates modern Portuguese is to diminish that writer, even when the intent is to praise. Yet if anyone could profitably be compared to Clarice, it might be Maria Gabriela Llansol—for the fundamentally mystical impulse that animates them both, their conception of writing as a sacred act, a prayer: their idea that it was through writing that a person can reach “the core of being.” When Llansol says that her writing “is a kind of luminous and generalized communication between all the intermediaries or figures, without any privilege for humans,” she approaches the Spinozistic pantheism that received its most fullest expression in Clarice Lispector’s Passion According to G.H., published in Brazil in 1964.

The authors also share favorite metaphors (the desert, the body, the writer), and a desire to surpass the structure of the traditional novel. This abolition, to which the authors of the nouveau roman also aspired, is one consequence of doing away with linear time—though the French writers mostly lacked the mystical impulse present in Clarice and Llansol.

Llansol’s writings, though, also illustrate the dangers of abolishing the structure of the traditional novel. In a novel, the reader—and she did always have at least some readers, especially after her return to Portugal—needs some way of knowing where he or she is, of knowing who is talking, of understanding why this story is being told, if any story is being told: if, that is, this is a novel at all. But the longer one inhabits Llansol’s world, the more one sees what it might mean to write against the novel, to create prose that could aspire to the status of a living being, one that moves and exists without having some artificial form imposed upon it.

“The new being was also not a book,” she writes in Geography of Rebels. “Ana de Peñalosa did not love books; she loved how they became a visible source of energy when she discovered images and images in a chain of descriptions and concepts.”

And so it is not for plot or character that we read Maria Gabriela Llansol. It is for the source of energy that her books contain. Open them to any page, like a volume of poetry; and listen to these dead people speaking.

This essay is adapted from the introduction to Geography of Rebels, by Maria Gabriela Llansol, translated by Audrey Young and published by Deep Vellum Publishing.