The Lusíads

Luiz Vaz de Camões

Read April 2007

The Lusíads are Portugal's heroic epic. There are fantastical creatures, ocean journeys, moralistic sermons, and national foundations—in other words, the Gilgamesh, Iliad, Mahabharata and Aeneid all rolled into one. If you haven't heard of them, you can choose your poison to blame: some might attribute it to history (and fame) being written by victors (and the Portuguese are ultimately not amongst history's winners), while others might detect a rather strong derivative whiff that keeps this from being one of humanity's great epics. It is, nevertheless, hugely entertaining and a rollicking ride.

In keeping with the best epic tradition, their poet, Camões, was a slightly shifty minor character dating to the period of the country's greatest power. Indeed, it is inaccurate to describe him solely as a poet: he is really one of the first of the great chroniclers, having himself sailed most of the routes he describes rather than cobbling together tales like the Greek historians. Following the spice route, Camões sailed around Africa to India; his depictions of the African islands and of India therefore have the strength of authenticity.

By the time he undertook his trips, Portugal was the major seafaring power, so there was little remarkable about his voyage. What elevates this to an epic is his fictitious presentation of this as the historic voyage to India of Vasco da Gama, from Belém to the Malabar coast. Because he was not there, what results is a slightly mangled history that melds several, overlapping trips that take a trained eye to unravel. But the story is sufficiently dramatic, and told enjoyably enough, to make such a focus unnecessary and irrelevant.

The text's most distinctive, and controversial, device is its setting of action at three different levels: the human plane and two divine ones, one the Christianity that da Gama carried (and Camões believes to be the true faith) and the other, remarkably, Roman mythology. It would be one thing if the Roman forces were merely to cloak the work in a bit of the majesty of Virgil, but in fact the Roman gods are amongst the principal actors of this book. Their effectiveness is questionable, but Camões must have had a bit of a task getting this past the Inquisition, which was in force by the time of publication.

Two elements conspire to keep this story out of the historio-literary pantheon. First is the obvious Virgil rip-off, which furthermore combines cack-handedly with Camões's “true faith”. The second is the fact that Camões wasn't actually there with da Gama, depriving his story of some of the raw power of, say, Bernal Díaz's account of Cortés. (It is, of course, pointless to complain about Camões's bigotry, which is typical of his era.)

These complaints, however, do injustice to a work that sometimes soars, whether with the music of poetry or with a deep humanity, or even just with learning beyond his ilk.

The voyage to India could not have been all routine even by Camões's time given his shockingly aware description of what we now know to be scurvy; it is a touching reminder of the bravery of the men who made these voyages. Writing a mere few decades after da Gama, he is surprisingly knowledgeable about the geography of India, Burma and lands beyond (the Karen, who appear in unflattering light in canto 10, stanza 126, appear to have been forgotten by the world since, as they struggle for their existence under the junta). And even his bigotry is tempered: curiously, of the three Muslim tribes he encounters along the eastern coast of Africa, only two come in for savage description. The third, who offer his travelers shelter and comfort, are apparently perfectly reasonable humans despite their false beliefs.

There are lessons for today, too. He damns the very journey through the device of the old man of Belém (canto 4, stanzas 94-104), and with it, in curious self-reference, chroniclers in search of glory; this damnation hangs over the rest of the book and remains fresh to this day, a reminder in our age of celebrity that the observers create the very phenomena they mourn. This self-awareness returns in his recognition of the lack of Portuguese poetry (canto 5, stanzas 97-98), though this time less apologetically.

He manifests the poetic sensibility of a people grown by an ocean: befitting a sailing people, the distinction between brine and freshwater are central to his imagination (“River Ganges joins the domain of salt” (canto 10, stanza 120)). And the end, which is seemingly marred by a plunge into travelers' tall tales to describe lands he has never experienced, is really a plea to an ineffectual ruler to restore the rapidly diminishing glories of Portugal. It is touching when read in context.

The Oscar World's Classics translation, by Landeg White, was released in 1997 to coincide with the 500th anniversary of da Gama's voyage (a cynical marketing ploy that one imagines Camões would have heartily approved). I can't comment on the translation, but White's plain rhymes lack elevation, supposedly intentionally. The book is fortunate to have maps, even if they are somewhat weak and could have benefited from a little more artistic attention (the original text was, after all, written during one of the world's great eras of map-making!). The Introduction is useful, but—as always, with such texts—best read after you've finished the main volume, the better to read Camões himself rather than someone's reading of him. His immediacy, pacing, and exposition of a crucial moment in human history will more than hold your attention.