Portuguese writer David Soares' recently-released book, O Evangelho do Enforcado (The Gospel of the Hanged would be its title in English) is perhaps his best work in a career that has spanned a decade now since the release of his first novel, A Conspiração dos Antepassados. It is, as have his other novels been, simultaneously a history of sorts of Portugal's past and a feverish fantasy that evokes images of the supernatural. But it is here in O Evangelho do Enforcado that I believe Soares manages to mix these two narrative elements together to create a seamless whole that grabs the reader's attention from start to finish.'O pintor é o homem mais solitário do mundo.' Apontou para os trabalhos em curso e acrescentou: 'Os seus filhos são nados-mortos, coisas para serem penduradas nas paredes - coisas para serem esquecidas. Tens a certeza que é esta que tu queres?' (p. 90)
"The painter is the loneliest man in the world." He points to the works in progress and adds: "His children are still-born, things to be hung up on walls - things to be forgotten. Are you certain this is what you want?"
The story here spans roughly sixty years, from 1390 to 1450, during the time that the Portuguese royal family, including Prince Henry the Navigator, began to expand Portugal's influence beyond the Iberian peninsula. It is a story that revolves in part around the mysterious os Painéis de São Vicente (the Panels of St. Vincent), which was made during this time and which may contain several mysteries references to the royal family of Aviz. Soares devotes a lot of narrative space toward making each main subplot believable and yet fresh and exciting as well.
The first section of the novel is set in the last years of the 14th century and the beginning of the 15th. In it, the children of the royal family (Henrique/Henry, Fernando) and the regent Dom Pedro are introduced, as well as the half-crazed painter Nuno Gonçalves, the presumed painter of os Painéis de São Vicente. In a nice juxtaposition of background and theme, Soares includes a very detailed morality play scene to set up the first extended scene with Nuno, where he is either conversing with himself or possibly with a nefarious entity which calls itself Geronte:
Tu pensas que eu sou um diabo..., disse a criatura atónita. Aquela atitude supersticiosa, de atiçar o galo, deixara-a boquiaberta. Cheirou a ave e sacudiu a cabeçorra para um lado e para o outro. Não tenho medo do canto do galo. Avançou na direcção do rapaz com passos pesados. Não tenho medo de nada.
'Meu Deus da minha alma!...' gritou Nuno, retrocedento.
Deus é uma ideia. Nada é tão ambíguo quanto uma ideia. (p. 59)
You think that I am a devil... said the creature tonelessly. That superstitious attitude, of provoking the rooster, leaving it open-mouthed. It smelled the bird and shook its huge head from side to side. I am not afraid of the rooster's song. He advanced in the direction of the boy with heavy steps. I am afraid of nothing.
"My God of my soul!..." cried Nuno, retreating.
God is an idea. Nothing is so ambiguous as an idea.
From here, Nuno's subplot goes through twisted paths, paths where he becomes a talented, admired painter, but also one where he is embittered about how his art is perceived, and he is still afflicted with those voices and conversations with the nefarious Geronte. Intertwined with this is a look at Portuguese court society and how the future rulers of Portugal during its rise to power. Henrique's failed crusade in 1437 against the Moorish city of Tangiers ends up being a disaster, with his younger brother Fernando being sent to the Moorish court as a hostage. The interactions between the royal brothers and the rest of the court is fascinating, in part because of how well Soares reveals the fault lines of such societies, but also for how adroitly he ties it in to the metaphysical elements he mentions in the opening scenes of the novel. The thoughts by one of the supporting characters, Maria, is indicative of some of the thoughts that loom large within O Evangelho do Enforcado:
E eu, o que é que eu tenho?, pensou Maria. Dizem que sou bonita, que todos os homens querem foder comigo...Mas o que é que isso vale na hora da morte? Não posso comer a beleza. Abanou a cabeça. Não há nenhuma boa morte. A morte dói. É cruel. Faz-nos esvair em merda.
Onde é que está a prometida ressurreição? Ressurgiremos noutro lado? Um lado mais luminoso que este? O Céu. Para quê, se a fome torna a luz insuportável.
Talvez sigamos todos para o Inferno.
Dizem que as putas vão para o Inferno.
Se ele existe, é a putaria, pensou. Mas como? Então, é possível ter fome no Inferno? É esse o castigo para o pecado da luxúria? Então qual é castigo para a gula? Fosse eu filósofo, capaz de grandes pensamentos, talvez encontrasse uma resposta para isso, mas não sou filósofo nenhum. Não sou capaz de pensar grandes pensamentos. Só quero é encontrar algo para comer. (pp. 235-236)
And I, what is it that I have?, thought Maria. They say that I am beautiful, that all the men want to fuck me...But what is that worth in the hour of death? It's not possible to eat beauty. She shook her head. There is no good death. Death hurts. It is cruel. It makes us pass away in shit.
Where is this promised resurrection? We will rise up on the other side? A side more luminous than this? Heaven. So that hunger is turned into an insupportable light.
Perhaps all of us go to Hell.
They say that the whores are going to Hell.
If it exists, it is a whorehouse, she thought. But how? Then, is it possible to have hunger in Hell? Is this the punishment for the sin of luxury? Then what is the punishment for gluttony? If I were a philosopher, capable of great thoughts, perhaps I would find an answer for this, but I am no philosopher. I am not capable of great thoughts. I only want to find something to eat.
Whether it is a focus on Nuno's increasingly capricious behavior that fuels his artistic genius or if it is a look into the complex relationships between the royal family, there is a sense throughout this novel that the Devil is lurking somewhere in the vicinity. He may not appear directly, but when, in the guise of Geronte, he does show up, the developments that have occurred take on an aspect that can be frightening at times, especially considering how well he develops his characters and setting. In many ways, O Evangelho do Forcado is a morality play writ large, using the Portuguese court and its most enigmatic genius, Nuno Gonçalves, as its actors and actresses. The result is a gripping story that has a broad appeal, whether it be to those who enjoyed the late medieval period pieces of say an Ildefonso Falcones or the historical-slash-metaphysical stories of a Carlos Ruiz Zafón. Soares is equally comfortable with both the historical and supernatural aspects of this tale and each element blends into the other, creating an exciting story that likely will be featured at the end of the year in my lists of best 2010 novels. Hopefully, there will be a publisher willing to take a chance and translate this into English, as it is the sort of story that I think can be marketed easily to Americans wanting great, dark historical fantasies.