Remembering Landeg White
By Vivek Menezes from the Times of India.
Heart-wrenching news reached Goa earlier this week. The superb Lisbon-based translator and poet Landeg White succumbed after a mercifully brief battle with cancer. Over the past five years, the septuagenarian found an adoring audience in the subcontinent, focused in Goa. This was for his superb oeuvre of original poetry, but most especially for his work on the iconic “bard of Portugal”, Luís Vaz de Camões. Here, White pulled off an extraordinary achievement by meticulously repositioning the 16th century genius from his exalted status as “national poet” to seminal transnational artist. Even in his last days, the fatally stricken author put finishing touches on an immensely important work that he alone could have written. Camões: Made In Goa reshapes our understanding of cultural and intellectual history.
Just after hearing the sad news from Lisbon, the lion of Singapore’s literary culture, poet Edwin Thumboo observed that White had been preparing for this epic work of scholarship his whole life. This was a marvellous journey that leaped from his native South Wales to Liverpool University and long professional stints at universities in the West Indies, Malawi, Sierra Leone, Zambia, and Portugal. The pivot on which both his personal and professional preoccupations shifted most dramatically was marriage to Maria Alice from Mozambique. The magnificent translations of Camoes were undertaken after the couple moved to Portugal in 1994. Here, the world-travelling veteran poet with a stake in cross-cultural understanding immediately made a dramatic impression.
Here it should be noted that Os Lusíadas (The Lusiads) by Camões is the single most important linchpin of the Portuguese cultural identity. When you walk into the most hallowed inner sanctum of Jerónimos Monastery in Lisbon, his tomb is the one that flanks Vasco da Gama. It is a role as central as Shakespeare plays in the English language, or Dante in Italian. But here is the twist which Landeg White zeroed in with unerring perspicacity — much of the best work in the epic was not written in Portugal, but in India. What is more, it is precisely the experience of being far distant from his motherland in the fantastically challenging new landscape of the East that catapulted a skilled, but perfectly unremarkable courtly poet of the European tradition into one of the all-time greats of world literature.
White writes, “Camões was the first great European poet to cross the equator, and The Lusiads is the first truly global poem. It is no accident that his vision of the significance Portugal’s pioneer voyages should have come to him in India [where he] ‘discovered’ two things. First, he learned what it was to be Portuguese, to come from a landscape whose towns and rivers he loved, whose plains and castles were haunted by the ghosts of warriors who had fought for this territory, whose provinces were part of Christendom and the Holy Roman Empire, but were emerging as a ‘state’, and whose people were learning loyalty to a concept of nation which transcended loyalty to kings. Secondly, he learned to celebrate what the Portuguese had given to the world with the pioneer voyages of the fifteenth century, culminating in the voyage to India, in revealing the planet’s true dimensions, its wealth, and its multitudes of peoples.”
Since the news of Landeg White’s own passing, it is bittersweet to re-read his wonderfully perceptive insight about Camões in Goa, “These were the best years of his adult life, during which he wrote most of his greatest poetry…it was the experience of being in India that changed him from a conventional court poet into one of the most original poets of the period.” In fact something quite similar happened all over again in the past few years, as the translator and poet wowed a brand new subcontinental audience with his work, most especially on two trips to Goa.
The eminent Lahore-based writer who met him here, Musharraf Farooqi posted on Twitter earlier this week, “#RIP Landeg White. One of the greatest poets and translators of this age. It was an honour to have met you.”
The man is gone, but his work endures. The last book on Camões in Goa is yet to be read and digested, but it is already certain this will transform our understanding of the subject matter forever. The poetry, too, will surely find its place as one of the fine, many-layered contributions of the 20th century. As White himself wrote,
The trick was never to adumbrate the exotic
but to be re-born,
writing as though such miracles were entirely natural
the scheme of things.