Dom Tanas de Barbatanas.

Isn’t that a great name? Dom Tanas de Barbatanas: say it loud and there’s music playing; say it soft and it’s almost like praying. It’s the title of a 1962 Portuguese novel that’s little read in Portugal and completely unknown elsewhere; Luís Miguel Rosa has a long and fascinating post on it and its author, Tomaz de Figueiredo, at the excellent blog The Untranslated (see this LH post). It starts with an account of the literary context and the author’s life (a monarchist who despised both the Salazar dictatorship and the left-wing authors who insisted on realist prose left over from the 19th century, he reminds me a bit of Alexei Remizov, who had a similarly florid style); I’ll excerpt the description of the novel itself:

Dom Tanas didn’t find an audience because it’s a novel that requires attention, patience and commitment from the reader. Its sesquipedalian syntax requires one reading just to identify its subject, and a second reading to get the gist of the information. His vocabulary was gigantic, so after looking up the six or seven words that stop the reading in its tracks, a third reading is in order to finally make sense of the sentence. The fourth reading, optional but essential, is to soak up the sheer gorgeousness of the language. José Saramago’s long sentences seem like school compositions compared to them. António Lobo Antunes’ Fado Alexandrino is its rightful successor, but even that one is rather tame and straightforward by comparison. Dom Tanas’ artistry is a baroque brocade of alliteration, rhymes, trains of subordinate clauses, thick paragraphs, Latin expressions, archaic words and spelling, and even regionalisms that no dictionary will explain. Tomaz had no sympathy for the people excepting the loyal servants of his childhood; there is no social concern for the people even though the people lived in abject poverty during the regime; he only loved in them their colorful language, which he recorded in notebooks when he went hunting with his remaining rich friends. Surrounded by peasants, hunters, house maids, woodsmen, shepherds, he listened to them and recorded their words, sometimes updating dictionaries by hand. Hell, he even published a dictionary. With this word-hoard he created a unique language that seems like a pastiche of how people spoke in 18th century Portugal, although it was his own invention. He knew that living people assume that people spoke in the past always with an excess of orotundity, so he made it orotund as hell. Trying to even translate a paragraph is folly; the ideal translator would need to have Paul West’s or Alexander Theroux’s domain of the English language.

The novel is kind of plotless. A nameless panegyrist pens the protracted praise of a dead aristocrat, Dom Tanas de Barbatanas, the world’s most fearless swordsman, the strongest puncher in a brawl, the smartest thinker ever to grace a University, the most gallant seducer and lover, the most lyrical poet, the most skilled counselor in political matters, a strategic genius, the most everything at everything. It’s so ridiculous, so exaggerated, it undermines the veracity of the portrayal, and Dom Tanas disappears submerged by the colossal style employed by the panegyrist, who becomes the real protagonist in an inimitable performance of linguistic virtuosity. […]

Its structure is so unusual that I don’t even know another novel that uses it. The novel is in fact an intersection of three classic genres: it plays up the outdated values of chivalric romances and some tropes like the healing potions (which in Dom Tanas’ seedy world is reduced to a hemorrhoid-healing unguent that he dutifully applies to the ass cheeks of the powerful he wants to ingratiate himself with); it has the down-to-earth comedy and social criticism of the picaro; and it uses the Greek panegyric to mock the language of power. […]

Dom Tanas is an island of extravaganza in Portuguese fiction. In it there’s pleasure in form and structure, in revitalizing old genres, and in questioning the nature of storytelling. Although Tomaz didn’t follow foreign literature, his fiction was always a bit more in synch with it, a bit ahead of what his countrymen were doing. In the 1940s he was one of the first novelists to develop techniques similar to Faulkner’s. Some of his novels from the late 1960s predate what we now call autofiction. Dom Tanas had less to do with the French novels being translated than the English-language novels not being translated, less to do with Tropisms and Jealousy than The Alexandria Quartet, The Public Burning, Ada or Ardor, The Sot-Weed Factor, those big comical, extravagant novels that were of course utterly ignored in Portugal in the 1960s. Perhaps, then, its oblivion was inevitable too.

However, it’s one of the few Portuguese novels I’d single out as worthy of translation. It’s a hilarious verbal tour de force, drawing its strength from the novel’s past but also fresh, unique, unlike anything written in the 20th century, and for those reasons deserving of more attention, of better readers.

Doesn’t that sound interesting? I hope it gets the translation it deserves.

Addendum. It turns out that Rosa has a bilingual blog, Homem-de-Livro, which is well worth your attention. The latest post begins “The insular nature of the British Isles has instilled in their writers a fear of insularity,” which brought to mind a recent Avva post quoting Alexander Genis:

Provincials are often distinguished by their desperate thirst for culture […]. Once when I was in New York I got a letter from a village in the Amur region which I was unable to locate in an atlas; it began: “You won’t believe it, of course, but not everyone here has read Borges yet.”

«Провинциалов часто отличает та отчаянная жадность к культуре […]. Однажды мне в Нью-Йорк пришло письмо из Приамурского посёлка, который я не сумел найти в атласе. Начиналось оно так.

— Вы, конечно, не поверите, — писал автор, — но у нас ещё не все прочли Борхеса».


  1. I also recommend Miguel’s excellent essay on Gongora and the Baroque on his bilngual blog. It’s well-researched and very informative.

    But his best post is, alas, in Portuguese. It is a praise of the long novel!

  2. Thanks, it’s a wonderful blog and I’m glad to know about it!

  3. Barbatana, GT informs me, is fin, flipper, baleen, or whalebone (I will spare you a few keystrokes by acknowledging that I was informed not to use GT as a dictionary, whatever). Barba is obviously a beard. Tana or tanas seems not to be words, which is surprising. The image of baleen as some sort of a beard is pretty funny…

  4. David Marjanović says

    That’s what it is, though. It’s basically fused hair growing between where the teeth used to be.

  5. Hello,

    “Tanas” is actually a very popular word. As a noun it means “liar” or “a worthless person, a nobody”. The expression “és o tanas” is part of everyday conversation:

    – Sou o gajo mais esperto do mundo/I’m the smartest guy in the world
    – És o tanas/Like hell you are

  6. Trond Engen says

    The Continental Scandinavian word for a baleen is bard(e), from the LG form of the “beard” word. Icelandic (I gather from Wikipedia) has skíði =”ski” and skíðishvalir “ski whale”. Disappointingly, I coulddn’t find a comic to link to.

  7. “Tanas” is actually a very popular word. As a noun it means “liar” or “a worthless person, a nobody”. The expression “és o tanas” is part of everyday conversation

    Thanks very much!

  8. I like “optional but essential”

  9. Yes, I pondered that phrase for a bit, trying to decide whether it made sense. I think it does.

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