The prudence of the dead endures in the blood of the living. The black sun in the opaque sky softens the moss of the sticky dawn. The spongy felt of dead leaves muffles the steps in the damp homeland labyrinth. The blood congeals in the heart of the numb, flammable city.
A river of images like this –sounding, opulent, muddy– fertilizes the novel “O Litoral das Sirtes”. Decades out of print, it has now been re-released with an excellent translation by Júlio Castañon Guimarães (Carambaia, 301 pp.).
Published in 1951 by Julien Gracq, a secondary school teacher, the novel caused a stir in France. He won the most prestigious literary prize, the Goncourt, which the writer refused to protest against the commodification of literature.
After more than 70 years, “O Litoral das Sirtes” has established itself as an unavoidable work. In form, it combines acrid realism and surreal nightmare; in substance, it is a fiction about stagnant republics, those where everything trembles and nothing changes.
Shape and background are fused in an iron anvil which, tied around the narrator’s neck, is thrown into an abandoned well. A sensation of brutal danger stiffens the back of his neck, arches his shoulders and blocks his chest until he falls into the dead end water, where he will struggle forever.
The narrator of the novel is Aldo, son of a venerable family from Orsenna, a city-state inspired by the old Venetian republic, the ports of the Balkans and the Muslim cities of the Levant and Mediterranean Africa.
Aldo goes to keep watch on the coast of Sirtes, where for three centuries Orsenna’s Lordship has been at war with Farghestan, a name that echoes Afghanistan, Azerbaijan and the like.
If the book’s geography is elusive, its politics are water down the drain. The reason for the war between Farghestan, whose soldiers disappeared, and Orsenna, where sailors became peasants on farms of potentates, is not known. A complicit armistice reigns, but nobody talks about it.
This musty world is driven by schemes. Power rests on hearsay. Vague intentions pass for real acts. As each null gesture of the powerful is scrutinized with a magnifying glass, it seems that one is reading a chronicle of Brazilian politics, whose flag is the sacrosanct union in favor of irrelevance.
With the difference that the language of “O Litoral das Sirtes” sprouts like lichen from decrepit ruins and lethargic centuries. His party is that of the inextinguishable voices of desire. Its strength is that of the scythe that swoops down on the wheat fields of rotten characters and cuts off their heads of straw.
The language collides with the figures of the novel, buried to the hilt in a necropolis of errant and funeral flames that crackle in squares stuffed with death.
Aldo is out of tune with this pestilent torpor. He challenges Captain Marino, blind devotee of the Admiralty’s stony liturgies. In the Map Room, the rich young man coming from the capital considers crossing the tenuous red line that separates Sirtes from Farghestan.
He bonds with Princess Vanessa, of the lordly family that one day betrayed Orsenna and allied with the infidels. He adopts the heraldic motto of the mistress’s clan: “I will surpass the limits”. On a foggy night, he pilots the ship O Intrépido to the enemy beach.
They fire cannon volleys at him. He returns to port and general amazement at having challenged the status quo. While Orsenna seethes with gossip, Aldo is called to account by the fearsome Council of Vigilance. A wizened old man assists him and, instead of punishing him, promotes him.
It is not clear what actually happened, because the dialogue between the two is full of ellipses and allusions, subterfuge and subtext. Perhaps Aldo was manipulated by the Landlord to provoke a real war – which, in the end, does not even start. Everything again comes back to nothing.
Only once does hope spark in the book, not by chance in a mass turmoil: “An entire people, abandoning its alleys and its cellars, instinctively jostled in the disorder towards the only day when it is worth giving ourselves to it : the big bright day”.
What time is this, of drowsiness and the glimpse of a revolution from below? In the afterword, Etienne Sauthier says that the novel speaks of the “drôle de guerre”, the nine months of 1939-40 in which French and German soldiers stood face to face, but inert. A communist, Gracq left the PCF shortly before, when Stalin signed the non-aggression pact with Hitler.
Antonio Candido, in an essay on “O Discurso ea Cidade”, concludes that the book leads to “a supreme negation, the destruction of the State, obscurely desired as a possibility of at least provoking a sign of life in a stopped society”.
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