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Late-Night Call From the 16th Century


THE TRAVELS OF MENDES PINTO by Fernao Mendes Pinto, Edited and translated by Rebecca D. Catz,

Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 663 pp., $49.95

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READING Mendes Pinto is like getting a midnight phone call from a lost friend. Make that a long-distance call, across four centuries and 10,000 miles. The candor, the urgency, the rhythm of the words, and, yes, the self-absorption are familiar, even comforting.

Rebecca Catz's attentive editing and engagingly modern translation render the adventures of this 16th-century Portuguese traveler in a brisk patter. Emulating Mendes Pinto's own breathless prose, Catz has produced a monologue that flows like one unbroken sentence. Indeed, ``The Travels of Mendes Pinto'' resonates in the mind's ear like a story heard, rather than a story read. The text is cleverly transparent and insistently vocal.

Here is Pinto musing: ``Whenever I look back at all the hardship and misfortune I suffered throughout most of my life, I can't help thinking I have good reason to complain of my bad luck, which started about the time I was born and continued throughout the best years of my life.'' We have all met people in this state of mind. What is unusual is that this outlook spans the centuries, giving an adventure story a surprising intimacy. Now consider that this is not the voice of the historical Fernao Mendes Pinto, but that of one of the three or four personas he assumes to move the story along.

What seems at first like a straightforward account of the author's travels is, on more careful inspection, a subtle species of fiction, in which a protagonist's voice opportunely alternates from that of hero to knave, making many stops in between.

Pinto's life was a loom upon which he wove a complex, satirical critique of Portuguese imperialism in the East. Summarizing his lengthy journeys is made especially difficult by the author's creative use of autobiography and his predilection for the fantastic. Fact and invention intertwine. Like the fudge in fudge ripple ice cream, there's no separating them.

Though we have this voluminous text, little is known of the historical Pinto. Records indicate that he was born about 1510 to a poor family that may have been distantly related to the wealthy Lisbon clan of the same name that secured his first job in the service of a noblewoman. The position was short-lived, for reasons Pinto refuses to mention. In his middle 20s he sailed to Asia, where he spent two decades, by turns a slave, a merchant, a pirate, an ambassador, a missionary, and a doctor. In his ``Travels'' he claims to have been shipwrecked, taken captive, and sold 16 or 17 times.

The fictional Pinto concocts a report in which the wonders of Asia punctuate his own roguish behavior. While awaiting sentence for a misdemeanor, he observes Peking, a city whose court buildings, pagodas, public squares, and abundant luxury goods impress him no less than its orderly government. Serving that sentence, he brawls with his companions and is forced into abject exile. After performing favors for a band of Tartar invaders, Pinto and his companions travel overland to what is present-day Vietnam. During the trip, they meet ``a heathen pope,'' whose piety and charity fail to impress Pinto, though his observation of unfamiliar customs in faraway places has made him quite the budding cultural relativist.

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Setting sail for the China coast, Pinto and company are put ashore on an island for their bad conduct. There they are picked up by pirates, robbed by other pirates on the high seas, and driven by storm winds to Tanegashima, south of the Japanese island of Kyushu. This string of improbable circumstances aside, the historical Pinto may have been part of the first group of Europeans to set foot in Japan. The Europeans leave their mark by making a gift of an arquebus, a heavy firearm which, Pinto explains, was quickly employed in the civil wars then rife in Japan.

After Pinto's second voyage in Japan, he meets Francis Xavier, ``Apostle of the Indies,'' as this Roman Catholic saint would later be known. For more than a dozen chapters, Pinto describes his activities. The section is a spiritual oasis, a respite from the dark side of human nature, which has held the stage for most of the text. For a little space of time, conciliation replaces discord. But with the priest's decline and death, the story takes up it's now predictable script.

Throughout the book, Pinto cannot set sail without encountering at least one monsoon and a few pirates. Further, there is no perfumed Xanadu, no Shangri-La to soothe the traveler. The wealth of China, which he probably exaggerates, and the civility of the Chinese intrigue him, but circumstances and his own flawed nature prevent him from becoming part of the culture.

The dimensions and locale of ``The Travels of Mendes Pinto'' will remind many readers of the great Portuguese epic poem, the ``The Lusiads,'' which was written after Pinto's work. Each text turns on the exploits of the Portuguese in Asia. But ``The Travels of Mendes Pinto'' is more slyly ironic. It holds a satiric mirror up to Portugal in a way that the ``The Lusiads'' does not.

Pinto's story is also reminiscent of Thomas More's ``Utopia'' (1516). In both books a mock-innocent traveler becomes the agent through which the culture of heathens is made to contrast and critique the manners and morals of Christian Europeans. But where utopias often become stuffy and preachy, ``The Travels of Mendes Pinto'' abjures trite conclusions. Greed, bloodshed, torture, and tyranny despoil the fabled Orient just as they taint the European landscape. Moreover, the many-masked historical Pinto has no intention of letting us directly know what he thinks.

In her opening remarks, Catz notes that several of her colleagues turned down the chance to read the book in manuscript. ``Who can blame them?'' she exclaims. ``Time is short and Pinto's book is long.'' Long it is, but seldom dull - just like a midnight phone call. But it's worth remembering that the rates are more attractive in the late evening, and that the opportunity to reach out and touch the intricate sensibilities of another place and time can be well worth it.

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