Essay translated by Magdalena Edwards and Paulo Lemos Horta.
AS MANOEL DE OLIVEIRA’S 1997 film Voyage to the Beginning of the World unfolds, the camera’s focus merges with the images in the car’s rearview mirror. This point of view will guide the viewer’s perception of the voyage from Lisbon to a distant town embedded in the mountains of northern Portugal. For the characters in transit, distance from the past and the future holds the same dramatic weight. Arrival at their destination will take even longer due to this rhetorical effect — the experience that awaits the characters in the future is an unknown that will unfurl without warning, as opposed to a David Lynch film in which the camera’s gaze follows the road being taken and a climate of suspense dominates. Here, as the car gains ground, the camera shows us the signage that has already been obeyed, the asphalt path already traveled, and the landscape already unveiled. The viewer enters into a time machine. By filling up the heart of the past twice consecutively, the present becomes a throughway to the future.
Four people travel along the modern Portuguese highway, not counting the unknown figure of the driver. Two by two. The old film director, Manoel, and the young actress in love with him. And two more actors — one Portuguese and the other French, the son of a Portuguese father who, at the age of 14, crossed the poor mountains of northern Portugal, fleeing on foot to Spain and then emigrating to France. This famous French actor Afonso, who has arrived in Lisbon to star in a big film production, plans a voyage to the beginning of the world. He wants to meet his rural relatives who still live in northern Portugal. The group is transnational in its ease with languages. Everyone is of Portuguese origin and bilingual, with the exception of Afonso who speaks only French.
Two stories are contrasted in Voyage to the Beginning of the World. The first concerns Manoel, the film director, and the second is driven by the French-Portuguese actor Afonso, who is the son of another Manoel. In the first, the director, played by Marcello Mastroianni, commandeers the voyage’s original impulse, namely, the curiosity and anxiety of the exiled French actor. The old director appropriates the urge to mend a familial past from the son of the alien (meteco or métèque). Unlike the actor, who eagerly anticipates his first meeting with the Portuguese family he lost due to his father’s emigration in the 1930s, the director only intends to revisit the aristocratic past of the Portuguese nation, which includes his ancestors’ achievements and, more recently, his own. In a predictable and tedious monologue, he commands the attention of his three fellow travelers as he reminisces. His privileged youth, Portugal’s history, and the nation-state become muddled in memory’s landscape. In an attempt to free his memory from the anguish of saudade, he makes the driver take a detour three times, imposing his particular past’s images on that route and privileging them over Afonso’s journey.
The car first stops in front of the renowned aristocratic Jesuit school where the director began his early studies. The camera abandons the vantage point of the rearview mirror in order to capture the car and the characters in profile, as if to say that it is now narrating a story at the margins of the voyage’s trajectory. The car stops a second time. While the director weaves additional reminiscences, the group wanders through the abandoned gardens of a former luxury hotel. Still catering to the director, the car stops for a third and final time, now in front of a house with a statue of Pedro Macau, representing the Portuguese who, after enriching themselves in the colonies, returned wealthy to their country of origin and brought to its shores “the white man’s burden,” in Rudyard Kipling’s phrase. Notice the beam Pedro carries on his back, immobilizing him; read the metaphor of Pedro’s adventures: the Portuguese present moment is torment, and the future arrives gnawed by remorse. A country of sailors, the Portuguese ended up exiling themselves in their own land, in maturity or in old age.
The film director’s story is no different from so many others depicted in modern national literatures since Marcel Proust. All the great artists and intellectuals of Western modernity, including the Marxists, went through the madeleine experience. There is a shared past — in most cases cosmopolitan, aristocratic, stately — that can be drawn from each one of the subsequent autobiographies of various authors. In the preface to Sérgio Buarque de Holanda’s Raízes do Brasil (Roots of Brazil, 1936), Antonio Candido wrote of the disappearance of the individual from socio-literary texts. The memory text transforms what seemed to be different and multiple into one and the same. He observes: “[O]ur particular witness accounts become a register for the experience of the many, for all whom, belonging to what dominates a generation, deem themselves different from one another in the beginning and become, little by little, so similar they end up disappearing as individuals.”
The attention of the passengers and the spectators is diverted three times from Afonso’s story. As much as the French actor tries to counterattack, he only manages to seize the narrative thread from the director late in the film. The film director does not have the right to impose the memories that fill the void of the aristocracy’s saudade on the other two Portuguese travelers and on the son of the meteco (alien), now a rastaqüera or rastaquouère (good-for-nothing). These terms, which have pejorative meanings in modern France, have been appropriated in Brazilian Portuguese. Consider this passage from the 1956 memoir of a trip to Europe by the diplomat Gilberto Amado: “I began, naturally, to be delighted by the masterworks of French cuisine. I raised my already reasonable aptitude for opining knowingly, and not approximately like a rastaqüera or meteco, on these matters of sauces and condiments.” In French lands, the diplomat, a member of the Brazilian elite, did not want to be confused with the immigrants, from whom he also distances himself back home.
When the actor seizes the spotlight from the director, his action signals a true epistemological cut. The words and the images of memory follow the experience of one day in the life of the French actor, son of another Manoel, the Portuguese émigré in Paris. The first name of the director and of any and all Portuguese émigrés is the same — Manoel. What differentiates and distances these men is their family name and the place each occupies in Portuguese society. On this day, the Portuguese past of all the other Manoeís will be unveiled, different in every way from the past of the Manoeís who were being referenced in the film director’s autobiographical and elitist speech. As Afonso says to his fellow traveler: “I liked to hear him, but what he says does not pertain to me.”
The actor’s interest in the voyage, as well as his anxiety and his memories are different — dictated by the life experience of that other Manoel, his father. He was a “very headstrong” boy, the son of poor farmers from northern Portugal. Without documents or money, he climbed the mountains of Felpera with only the clothes on his back. He made it to Spain during the Civil War. He was imprisoned. In jail, he learned the rudiments of mechanics. He went cold and hungry and often did not have a roof over his head. He crossed the Pyrenees, who knows how, made it to France, and settled in Toulouse, where he became an employee at an auto shop and later its owner. He married a French woman, had two children with her, and bedded many other women. In that other Manoel’s past, his son wants to discover the misery of life in the countryside as much as the taste of adventure in distant lands. From his father, the son inherited nostalgia, translated by the guitar he carried and the fado he sang. In the father’s future, in a most unexpected way, emerges a son who — through who knows what effort and tenacity — belongs to the elite of French cinema.
Accomplishments are not the only things that define the life of the good-for-nothing Manoéis (rastaqüeras). The cosmopolitanism of the poor Portuguese man produced losses for the son that only the voyage at hand — the opposite of the emigrant father’s voyage by foot — can reveal and recompense. The main loss is that of the mother tongue. In the give and take of cosmopolitan life, the actor ended up without control over the essential tool for communicating directly with his forefathers. Having a father who abandoned his original nationality, the son ended up suffering the violent process of becoming a citizen of France. When the film director speaks in the first part of the film, Portuguese is a language as exotic for the French actor as the autobiographical material it contains. The other two travelers take on the role of interpreters. The Portuguese spoken in the car has nothing to do with him, the son of the meteco in France.
In the film’s second narrative, when everyone sits around the table in the dining room of the house where Afonso’s father was born, the actor realizes that he has lost his relatives less in memory than in the linguistic hiatus that isolates them in the present. The lack of a shared language makes communication impossible and creates distrust, symbolized by the black color of the clothing. As he reverses his father’s voyage, the actor feels exiled in his father’s land for a different reason than the ones raised by the film director’s narrative. The closer he gets to his distant relatives, the further away he feels from those to whom he should be close. The reversal transforms the anxious and happy reunion scene among relatives into a game dominated by affliction, misalignment, and distrust. In the process of hybridization, typical of the lives of metecos who don’t reset their familial values to a blank slate, the actor commits an irreparable omission: the loss of continuity with the mother tongue.
We can shift the debate in vogue today by introducing the idea of the stable and anachronistic Portuguese village into the discussion about the unstable and postmodern global village constituted by movement within the economic circuits of the globalized world. Voyage to the Beginning of the World dramatizes two types of poverty that are minimized in analyses about the processes of the transnational economy.
The first type of poverty dramatized in Afonso’s story predates the Industrial Revolution and presents man in his condition as a worker of the land and herder of animals — a romantic and autochthonous representation. Faced with the powerful machines that till, plant, harvest, and satisfy the needs of the transnational economy of grain, faced with the extremely modern processes of breeding and raising livestock, faced with the mysteries of cloning animals, the emblematic figure of the Portuguese peasant is anachronistic — an individual lost in time and space in the 20th century, without ties to the present and, for this reason, destitute of any idea of the future. He can’t even relate to modern electronic gadgets like television, which are within reach thanks to the perverse tricks of consumer society.
The days that follow are confused with the return voyage to the “beginning of the world.” An image of the actor’s aunt is as mineral in quality as the stony landscape where those who remain to till the land and raise the animals struggle to survive. Her husband has the snout of an animal, which the director points out crudely by making faces to imitate him. Both associations are timely through the revanchist metaphors they embody: the aunt, a stone in the middle of economic globalization’s road; the uncle, a wolf on the lookout for failures in the computerized sheepfolds so he can pounce.
In the case of Brazil, the two revanchist metaphors find their political redemption in the Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra (the Landless Workers Movement). Its members fight for agrarian reform on the legislative level and for ownership of unproductive lands on the judicial level. They fight for the survival of farmers in a motorized and technocratic world that excludes them, reducing them to the condition of global society’s pariahs. These days, due to police persecution compounded by interminable judicial processes, many activists survive as the accused.
The other type of poverty dramatized by the second part of the film occurred after the Industrial Revolution. Thanks to the democratization of transportation methods, the farmer disinherited from the land and animal rearing had his horizons broadened. He was beckoned by the possibility of easy emigration to big urban centers that lacked cheap workers. The poor are anachronistic in another way now, in contrast to the grandiloquent postmodern spectacle that summoned them to its lands for manual labor and housed them in the miserable neighborhoods of the metropolis. This new ruse of transnational capital anchors the farmer in foreign lands, where his descendants will lose the weight and strength of their original traditions little by little. A few, like the actor in the film, a French national, will become active agents, but most experience a future that they do not participate in except through manual labor which has been rejected by the citizens of the country in question. A new and thus far unknown form of social inequality has been created, which cannot be understood in the legal landscape of a single nation-state, nor through the official ties between national governments, since the economic reason that brings the new poor to the postmodern metropolis is transnational and, in the majority of cases, is also clandestine. The precarious position of its new inhabitants is determined in large part by the need to recruit the world’s disadvantaged, who are willing to perform the so-called domestic and cleaning services and to transgress the national laws established by immigration services. Their lives are determined by necessity and by postmodern profit. As Appiah points out in his preface to Saskia Sassen’s Globalization and Its Discontents (1998): “[T]he highly qualified employees of the management sectors, like finance, see their salaries grow scandalously while the remuneration given to those who clean the offices or make photocopies stagnate or sink at once.”
Between the two poverties — the one prior to and the one following the Industrial Revolution — there exists a revealing and intriguing silence in Manoel de Oliveira’s film. In the universe of Voyage to the Beginning of the World there are neither factories nor workers. There is, if anything, the entertainment industry, represented by the director and the actor, which today is completely globalized. In truth this is the industry that is being questioned by the film’s multicultural strategy. For the miserable and stubborn farmer, just as for the unemployed workers in the urban world, social inequality at home encourages a leap into a very rich and transnational world, a leap that appears somewhat enigmatic but which is concrete in reality. That leap is propelled by the lack of options for economic and social betterment in the villages and small urban centers of their own countries, as is the case in the Governador Valadares region in Minas Gerais, Brasil. The world’s unemployed unite in Paris; London; Rome; New York; and São Paulo, Brasil.
Long gone is the time described in Graciliano Ramos’s Vidas secas (1938), a time dominated by the pau-de-arara transportation trucks. Long gone is the time of the retirantes (refugees, literally people who retire from the land) from the latifúndio’s monoculture and the Northeastern drought. Today Brazil’s retirantes, many of them natives of regions that are relatively rich, follow the flow of transnational capital like a sunflower. Still young and strong, they want to enter the postindustrial world’s metropolises. To obtain a passport, they form long lines at the doors of the consulates. Without getting a visa, they travel to countries like Mexico and Canada on the borders of the United States or to Portugal and Spain in the European Union, and there they come together with fellow migrants of all nationalities. The farmer today leaps over the Industrial Revolution and lands on his feet, midstream, by train, ship, or airplane, directly in the postmodern metropolis, often without the necessary mediation of a consular visa. Rejected by the powerful national states, avoided by the traditional bourgeoisie, incited by the unionized working class, and coveted by the transnational entrepreneurs, the migrant farmer is today the “very brave” clandestine passenger in the postmodern ship of crazies.
Fortunately, Voyage to the Beginning of the World is a film with a happy ending. The French-Portuguese actor requests an interpreter in order to speak with his relatives. The old aunt, his father’s sister, played admirably by Isabel de Castro, does not recognize her nephew in the French words he employs. She looks into his eyes while speaking to the interpreter: “For whom should I speak? He does not understand what I say.” As she continues to question the situation, she is harsh, intolerant, and agitated: “Why doesn’t he speak our language?” In response to the actor’s repeated requests for recognition, she repeats the same question to the point of exhaustion. The actor realizes too late that in the economy of family love, the work of linguistic interpreters has no value. Their goodwill does not compensate for the loss of the mother tongue.
In this confrontation between rustic ignorance and the good manners and savoir faire of the metropolitan, the actor arrives at the possibility of a common language that transcends words — the language of affection. The aunt enters into a wordless dialogue of gestures. She begins to recognize him through his gaze and likeness. The son looks like his father; they have the same eyes. Immediately the language of affection employs the vocabulary of skin-to-skin contact. The actor takes off his jacket, gets close to his aunt, rolls up his sleeves, and asks her, through the interpreter, to embrace him. Arms and hands cross, tightening family bonds. The actor says to her: “Language is not what matters, what matters is blood.” The dictionary of blood holds the etymology of the language of affection’s elements. The aunt finally recognizes him as her brother’s son. They embrace. The nephew asks her to go to the cemetery, to visit his grandparents’ tomb. The language of affection becomes complete at the moment when the aunt seals the meeting by giving the nephew a piece of peasant bread.
We cannot ask the poor and cosmopolitan Manoéis to abdicate their conquests in the global village, far from the native village, but, despite the lack of responsibility on the social and economic levels, each nation-state in the First World can provide them with the possibility of not losing touch with the social values that sustain them in the cultural isolation they must endure in the postmodern metropolis.
Silviano Santiago writes fiction, essays, and cultural criticism in Rio de Janeiro, Brasil.
Magdalena Edwards will publish her translation of Clarice Lispector’s The Chandelier with New Directions in 2018.
Paulo Lemos Horta is a scholar of world literature at New York University Abu Dhabi.