Review: Lengthening Shadows by Paul Melo e Castro

This review by Selma Carvalho first appeared on The Goan, 10 December, 2016.

In the mid-nineteenth century, Goan intellectuals of a desultory professional class, nonetheless birthed a literary movement of considerable note.

Influenced heavily by Eurocentric literature, and encouraged by liberal reforms in Portugal, the twisted tongue, the tortured thought of the Goan writerly mind unfurled at last, and flirting precariously between state censorship and state sponsorship, gave voice to the zeitgeist of their times. With the short story as their weapon, Goan writers delighted in exposing the affectations, privilege and biases of the society they lived in. Frequently using satire, they took aim at personalities and peccadillos with brutal honesty, which made for soiled reputations and public fracases, but also exquisite literature.

Of these, to play a foundational role was Julio Gonçalves, likened to Alexandre Herculano, the father of the historical novel in Portugal. Gonçalves, who trained as a lawyer, founded the Illustração Goana around 1864, which was the precursor to other literary magazines such as A Biblioteca de Goa, O Compilador, and O Gabinete Literario das Fontainhas.

All this we learn from Paul de Melo e Castro, whose post-doctorate research at Leeds University, UK, focusses on Goan literary writing in Portuguese. Castro was born in west London. His father, a ‘descendente’ of Portuguese extraction was born in Goa, but left as a young boy in 1961. Stories of Goa were familiar to Castro, recounted by family members. After doing his PhD at Cambridge, his curiosity about Goa peaked. Although research about Lusophone writers from Africa, and even Macau and Timor abounded, very little academic discussion had taken place about Goans writing in Portuguese. His research ultimately yielded two volumes of collected stories by Goans writing in Portuguese, spanning roughly from 1864 to 1987, entitled ‘Lengthening Shadows’ and published by Goa, 1556.

Castro does not have to contend with state censorship like our writers of yore, but he is vulnerable to the self-censorship many writers impose on themselves today, because of vague concepts such as ‘cultural appropriation’. Earlier this year, Lionel Shriver’s keynote speech at the Brisbane Writers’ festival tore into the oft propagated view that writing outside of one’s own cultural background is insensitive, unethical and lacking in authority. For this, she was vilified, and accused of encouraging the exploitation of other people’s cultural production (the creation of seminal works of art, literature or music emanating from a lived experience).

But what happens when we examine cultural production over a longer time-frame, in an entirely different context of say, cultures which have been heavily influenced by colonisation? How do we define cultural production then? And who can rightfully lay claim to it? In daring to shed light on Goan Portuguese writing, was Melo profiting from Goan cultural production? Can Goans lay claim to a cultural production influenced by nearly five centuries of Portuguese enculturation?

This puts a wrench in the idea that cultures can belong exclusively to a nation or race or ethnicity. They are the convergence of a myriad intersecting threads, buried deep in ancestral and historical memory. We cannot copyright cultures. They are constantly being borrowed, refined, embellished and set forth anew into the world.

Which brings us to the second point. Can Melo, who has not grown up in the Goan tradition, authoritatively write about things Goan? It’s become fashionable, among mealy-mouthed critics to dismiss anyone writing from an outsider’s perspective. Almost immediately, a position of hostility is assumed against such a writer, usually from the ramparts of insecurity and inadequacy. This has led to robust scholarship being dismissed for emotive and political reasons. There was Wendy Doniger’s The Hindus, An Alternative History, which Penguin was forced to withdraw from Indian bookstores in 2014. Accused of not understanding nuances in Hinduism, her work was derided and charged with deliberately hurting religious sentiments.

This sort of attitude, the slippery slope into full-scale censorship, can only lead to an impoverishment of intellectual thought. Indeed, Melo’s recounting of the Goan milieu dispels the myth that only those who grow up within a certain tradition can authoritatively comment on it. Melo’s scholarship on the fin de siècle period of Goan intellectual development is meticulous, diligent in unearthing nuance, sensitive and profoundly illuminating.  Had Melo not ventured into this subject, had we waited for the arrival of indigenous Goan scholarship to shed light on what Melo describes as ‘dead literature’ (as in defunct), we might have had a very long wait.

The stories in the anthology will delight audiences with their wit and social commentary. Of special interest should be the stories of Jose da Silva Coelho, which include ‘That Monserrate Chap’, and ‘The Tardy Development of Sebastianinho’s Ideas’. Castro tells us about Coelho’s writing as being a ‘succes de scandale in Goa, enormously popular amongst the reading public whilst provoking outrage amongst individuals who recognised themselves in the author’s characters’.

What makes the volume Lengthening Shadows a brilliant read, are Paul de Melo e Castro’s potted biographies about these Goan writers, and the picture he draws of First-Republic-era Goa.