All day this past week, my mind returned to dwell upon this cryptic, intriguing 16th-century painting, rendered from life during the lowest ebb of its subject’s existence. This is Luís Vaz de Camões, whose Os Lusíadas (The Lusiads) is the iconic work of Portuguese literature, and here he’s incarcerated at Aguada, directly across the Mandovi river from my own writing desk near Miramar beach in Panjim.
The poet’s superb contemporary translator, Landeg White writes, “This seems to be an authentic contemporary image…at a desperate moment, all the more precious for its intimacy and warmth. [He is] raggedly dressed, sitting at a wooden table and holding out a dinner plate with perhaps a coin, perhaps a stone in his left hand. To his right is a manuscript, headed Canto 10, evidently the final canto of his epic poem The Lusiads. In the distance are the masts of two ships and, in the top left corner, an image of the prison as seen from outside, with a palm tree and three Indian guards.”
In one way, this is a portrait of disaster: Camões was a minor noble who obliterated his status at court with successive bad decisions, and only narrowly escaped prison in Lisbon by paying a huge fine, and pledging three years of military service in India. Now he found himself behind bars anyway (this time it was for rudely satirising colonial society, but he was imprisoned two more times on related charges).
But instead of breaking him, the confinements were the making of the young author (under infrared, this portrait shows the date 1556, when he was barely into his thirties). The literature he produced at this desk was like nothing that had ever existed before. It’s no exaggeration to say he wrote an entirely new national consciousness into existence, while polishing its language anew alongside.
Make no mistake: what Camões achieved under lockdown in Goa is extraordinarily important. It made him to Portugal and the Portuguese what Dante is to modern Italian, or Shakespeare is to both English and the English. But the terrific twist is what this particular immortal produced was profoundly influenced by his experiences in India. It’s impossible to assess his work properly without thinking of this scene, this cell under the coconut palms.
As White parses at length in his brilliant monograph Camões: Made in Goa (it was published posthumously in 2017), those experiences turned this callow court poet into one of the greatest and most important writers in literary history.
“Is Camões a poet for contemporary India?” he writes. “It’s up to you whether or not you want to claim him, but if India can take on Kipling, at least selectively, then Camões should pose no problems. It was the experience of being in India that changed him from being a conventional court poet into one of the most original poets of the period. This is not something the Portuguese will ever have told you. He is revered in Portugal as the national poet…This new Camões, in rags and in jail, is a figure they turn from in embarrassment. It is an image for India to embrace.”
Read Landeg White’s introduction to Camões: Made in Goa here.
Vivek Menezes is a columnist and co-curator of the Goa Arts and Literature Festival.
Read the other articles in The Art of Solitude series here.