What do they call death in Portuguese?

Published February 26, 2024
Jose Luis Peixoto reads his  poem in a session with Ilona Yusuf at the LLF. — Dawn
Jose Luis Peixoto reads his poem in a session with Ilona Yusuf at the LLF. — Dawn

LAHORE: Portuguese novelist and poet Jose Luis Peixoto said he wrote his book, You Died on Me, six months after his father’s death when he was dealing with the aftermath of his death.

“This is a book about mourning and loss. There is a taboo about this word, death, which is called morte in Portuguese, more meaningful for me than the English translation. People get scared of the loss and mourning but mourning is not without love because it’s love that gives value to loss. I would say that I have written a book about love,” he said in a session at the Lahore Literary Festival moderated by Pakistani English poet Ilona Yusuf at the Alhamra Art Centre on Sunday.

Peixoto said humans were not fully programmed to understand absolutely. “We are not made absolute, we can’t conceive absolute”. He said when someone passes away, you realise that you would never have that person with you again.

“You realise that time does not go back and that you will never meet or spend time with him or that person will never call you again. The confrontation with death gives voice to mourning, which, in a certain way, is coming to terms with this idea, which is unthinkable in our daily lives. Our first impulse is to find a solution to it. Then we realise that we don’t have a solution and mourning is like making sense of that. We find ways of making that loss a part of logic again.”

Jose Luis Peixoto on his novel about his father’s death, mourning and loss

Peixoto says his book, You Died on Me, is extremely connected with his childhood, spent in a village of 1,000 people. The death of his father was the end of his childhood and after that he moved out of his village. “We all have been children and the thing about childhood is that we live it and after that, we continue revisiting it whole life. We keep on carrying it with us. It’s something that gives structure to everything that follows.”

He drew an analogy of childhood and start of a book. “When you write a book, the first sentence is fundamental because after you write the first sentence, you start to define the book. The more you write, the more you define it. When you are born in a certain situation, your life is defined.”

Peixoto said though one’s life was defined by childhood, one could still have a lot of choices and places to go to but one couldn’t go to all the places, having limited choices. “By this, it does not mean that you can’t give a surprising ending to the book and your life.”

Peixoto informed the audience that Portugal had Cante Alentejano, a form of polyphonic singing traditionally involving a group of men singing simultaneously different melodies. He said Cante was an inspiration for himself because most of his novels were polyphonic with several narrators, coming from different dimensions. He said he had heard a qawwali and found a connection between Cante though they came from very different roots.

The Japanese translation of Peixoto’s novel, The Village, had had three editions, which he found incredible as the Japanese readers were finding similarities with the description of the village in his novel.

“That’s the magic of literature and it’s very interesting because mostly when we think of a cosmopolitan, we think about the cities like New York, Shanghai etc but there is this thing that people share even when they live in a small village in different societies. There is a life of a small community, which is very specific but at the same time very universal,” he added.

One of the translators of Peixoto’s novels is Richard Zenith, the translator of renowned Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa.

Peixoto read out his poem about his family in English as well as Portuguese.

Published in Dawn, February 26th, 2024

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