The True Actor
Translated from the Portuguese by Jaime Braz and Dean Thomas Ellis
1334 Woodbourne Street
Westland, MI 48186
2013, 154 pp., $14.95, ISBN 978.1.938103.56.8
The social and spiritual reasons for such a sense of loss of meaning are manifold and complex: the waning of religious faith that had started with the Enlightenment and led Nietzsche to speak of the ‘death of God’ by the eighteen-eighties; the breakdown of the liberal faith in inevitable social progress in the wake of the First World War; the disillusionment with the hopes of radical social revolution as predicted by Marx after Stalin had turned the Soviet Union into a totalitarian tyranny; the relapse into barbarism, mass murder, and genocide in the course of Hitler’s brief rule over Europe during the Second World War; and, in the aftermath of that war, the spread of spiritual emptiness in the outwardly prosperous and affluent societies of Western Europe and the United States.
When Jean-Paul Sartre moved to Berlin in 1933, he encountered a city that was emotionally and physically eviscerated by war and economic depression. The young philosopher saw in Berlin “a darkening world … a form of emptiness” that “produced in man a sense of ‘nausea,’ a new version of alienation.” Life in such a world, one slowly being annexed by materialism, industrialization, and an oppressive standardization that would prepare the climate for Hitler’s ascent to power, could no longer call upon reason as a stable foundation, and was termed by Sartre as “absurd.”
In 1942, a fellow Frenchman, Albert Camus, published a small philosophical tract called The Myth of Sisyphus with an underground press. In it he writes, “in a universe suddenly divested of illusions and lights, man feels an alien, a stranger … The divorce between man and his life, the actor and his setting, is properly the feeling of absurdity.” In January 1953, Irish playwright Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot premiered at the Théâtre de Babylone in Paris. When the theatre-going public—trained in the interpretation of emotional narratives and character arcs by George Benard Shaw and Heinrich Ibsen (both artists exemplar of “the well-made play”)—first encountered the strange, nonsensical bickering of Vladimir and Estragon, it was no wonder these audiences were flabbergasted. Similar reactions of disorientation occurred at the first exhibition of the Impressionist painters, at the display of Dadaist works by Marcel Duchamp, at the first performance of Igor Stravinsky’s Rites of Spring, at the uber-erotic portraiture of photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, at the strange and disquieting art of contemporary provocateurs Marina Abramović and Damien Hirst.
When the critic, translator, and playwright, Martin Esslin, coined the term “Theatre of the Absurd” in 1961, he introduced a much-needed critical discourse to the works of Beckett and Eugene Ionesco, whose performances had been met by a kind of “succèss de scandale.” In short, his essay made sense of these playwrights’ lack of sense by positioning their work within a pedigree of reactionary art, art that could very well be deemed antagonistic to its viewer but whose aesthetic comment, in light of Esslin’s analysis, reached far deeper into the social and political sphere than had initially been thought.
Art that seeks its way forward, that is truly unique, necessarily encounters a critical void, a vacuum of understanding between the artist’s intention and the viewer’s struggle to interpret it. In reading Jacinto Lucas Pires’s The True Actor, I found it necessary to reach back to these grand, reactionary shifts as a way to position what Pires is doing within a long history of combative art and its function as literary, political, and existential commentary. Pires’s background as a playwright and prolific prose writer (this, at age 40, is his ninth book) provides sure and agile footing for his relentless portrayal of quotidian, contemporary Europe. In an absurdist vein, with its roots firmly set in Beckett and Camus, The True Actor paints a chaotic, steel-and-rust-coloured portrait of a modern Portugal crippled by austerity, social incohesion and increasing cultural numbness, catalyzed by Americanization.
Sartre’s concept of the “nausea” induced by the alienating modern world is a good place to begin discussing the formal construction of The True Actor. Inhabiting a “dystopian Lisbon, one of purple skies, honeycombed houses, and families afraid to look at each other on the street,” Americo Abril, a middle-aged Portuguese actor, is given a script called Being Paul Giamatti by his agent:
As the title suggests, it’s the story of Paul Giamatti, the character actor who made that amusing film about wine in America. ‘Inspired,’ they write, in a note of introduction to the project, ‘by the success of such diverse films as Being John Malkovich (Spike Jonze, 1999), Synecdoche, New York (Charlie Kaufman, 2008), and Cold Souls (Sophie Barthes, 2009), we now launch an exciting project, Being Paul Giamatti (working title).
Mid-way through the novel, Americo receives a revised screenplay:
It’s still the story of an actor named Giamatti who, due to a glitch, a misunderstanding at a computer store, ends up trapped inside a video game called Being Alive that is exactly the same as his real life. The same, but with one tiny difference: the game does not end with his death. The game ends when he actually becomes Paul Giamatti. That is, when he becomes “himself.” […] In order to become more “himself” (and, presumably, in order to exit the game and return to the outside world), our protagonist Giamatti must solve the problems that surround him, thereby gaining awareness of his own capabilities and limitations.
Such a premise is not a gentle one, neither formally nor narratively, and must be laid out succinctly, repeatedly even, so aware of its own absurdity it must make sure the reader gets it, absolutely. Indeed, these signposts reveal their utility when you find yourself wondering—into which level of the video game have we glitched now? Americo’s existential quandary (both in his performance of Giamatti’s Giamatti and in his real life) keeps close proximity to films like Being John Malkovich, and Synechdoche, New York—films that also employ this Russian nesting doll approach to disorient and question our perspectives on reality.
This play-within-a-play concept—actors playing actors—harkens back to Hamlet, Shakespeare’s tragi-comic comment on life’s absurdity, and, more recently, the works of Bertolt Brecht. Pires draws from Brecht’s alchemical recipe, or as theatre-critic Lotte Lenya remarks of Brecht’s Three-Penny Opera, “to adapt, reinterpret, re-create, magnificently add modern social significance; or in his detractors’ eyes: to pirate, plagiarize, shamelessly appropriate … to borrow at will.”
It is an unsettling, but hardly arbitrary, move to draw so clearly from Hollywood. In doing so, Pires draws out the artifice of Americo’s experience—a world of TV-produced wars, cell phones wielded “like modern-day machetes,” “sick” and “dead” building façades, his shower with the “absurdist dribble of water that’s either too hot or too cold”—as a way to puncture the myriad self-made bubbles with which we inflate our existence.
In true absurdist fashion, strangeness of premise must be equaled by strangeness of language. Where traditional narrative elements are exposed as trivial, language too must be exposed as complicit in artifice. In The Bald Soprano, a paragon of absurdist drama, Ionesco deconstructs language as a way to point out the triviality of ‘meaning’:
MRS. SMITH: Mice have lice, lice haven’t mice.
MRS. MARTIN: Don’t ruche my brooch!
MR. MARTIN: Don’t smooch the brooch!
MR. SMITH: Groom the goose, don’t goose the groom.
While the effect of such dialogue is hardly soothing, Martin Esslin draws out the purpose of this linguistic nonsense:
the Theatre of the Absurd is to a very considerable extent concerned with a critique of language, an attack above all on fossilized forms of language which have become devoid of meaning. The conversation at the party which at one moment seemed to be an exchange of information about the weather, or new books, or the respective health of the participants, is suddenly revealed as an exchange of mere meaningless banalities.
Similarly, Pires indulges in his own linguistic absurdity:
In a foreign city a flock of chickens resolve to throw themselves off the roof of a skyscraper. They are ten, fifteen, twenty well-cared-for creatures, very fat and very white, left there by someone with a cruel streak. A comic little bunch, but this is not a moment for levity. One of the chickens stretches her neck upward, the others turn towards her, pick up the signal, divine its meaning. And off they go, waddling on their comedic feet like Chaplin towards the edge of the building and a certain death. Americo feels a kind of inchoate anguish over the fate of the doomed fowl; his afflicted heart strains.
By loosening his grip on the logical and the sensible, Pires extracts the artifice of Americo’s life, his acting work, his relationship with his chronically dissatisfied wife, Joana; as readers we are made grossly aware of the ubiquities of ‘construction’ within our own lives. As such, The True Actor takes aim, not just at the triviality of meaning through language, but at the triviality of the self, the multiple public and private characters of which the self is comprised, its reliance on social reciprocation, and the national identity-making apparatus as a whole.
These are hefty props to swing around in a novel, and they do not land lightly. Indeed, they are not intended to. Pires sets out to disorient, to scald and to pinch, to discomfort the reader with a cavalcade of banalities. Occasionally, Pires’s exuberance reaches a fevered pitch of discomfort. While we are swirling around inside his absurd, Cubist premise, Pires remains relentless, foisting into the textural chaos migraine-inducing tantrums from Americo’s son, Joachim, aptly nicknamed the “Death Child.” Americo is constantly “seized with an immense fatigue,” “morbid tedium,” and mudslides of “disillusion, sorrow, fear, paranoia, heartache, and guilt.” Compounded by a Lisbon cityscape “gorging with monstrous billboards, clothes hanging in windows, torn posters, walls mottled with graffiti,” there is little respite from Pires’s absurdist onslaught. As Americo seems to find no tranquil oasis from his mundane except in a fleeting affair with a prostitute named Carla Bruna, readers are required to endure this cacophony alongside Americo.
As with Pires’s use of the absurd, his depiction of cruelty is present for a specific reason. French theorist Antonin Artaud coined the term “Theatre of Cruelty” in his treatise, The Theatre and its Double: “Without an element of cruelty at the root of every spectacle, the theatre is not possible.” Artaud’s cruelty refers not to specific violence or malice but to the intentional cruelty required for an actor to show his audience a truth it does not wish to see, in peeling back the stage curtain to expose the actor’s dressing room, to pop the artistic illusion. Pires’s cruelty accomplishes a similar mandate. We are subjected to the belches and smells of a protagonist with an increasingly limp hold on his life. We are trotted through a Lisbon denuded of magnificence, graffitied by sleaze and commercial fluff. Americo’s marriage to Joana is rooted in casual yet guilt-ridden deceit. Indeed, it is difficult to picture Americo as anyone other than Paul Giamatti himself, or at least a chimera of the roster of loser-lunatics he has played. Americo’s world is bleak enough, absurd enough, pitiable enough to understand that whomever lives in such a world must necessarily be in the midst of a searing crisis.
Yet it must be noted that the absurd and the cruel are not natural locations in which to seek reading pleasure. As Martin Esslin says, “when the plays of Ionesco, Beckett, Genet, and Adamov first appeared on the stage they puzzled and outraged most critics as well as audiences.” The absurd and the cruel do not coddle or stroke their participants:
They are indeed chiefly concerned with expressing a sense of wonder, of incomprehension, and at times of despair, at the lack of cohesion and meaning that they find in the world. If they could believe in clearly defined motivations, acceptable solutions, settlements of conflict in tidily tied-up endings, these dramatists would certainly not eschew them. But, quite obviously, they have no faith in the existence of so rational and well-ordered a universe.
Pires deftly employs the tradition of the “absurd” as a way to make a political and existential comment; he is certainly not under any delusion of escapist or romantic reading. There is a grotesque beauty to Pires’s prose—a hostile, if not hypnotic, rhythm not dissimilar to that of Abramović’s whip striking the bare skin of her back or the eerie cadence as she rips a brush through her hair while chanting, “Artist must be beautiful …” Indeed, Pires has created what Americo calls “A Beckett taken to the limit, a Beckett beyond Beckett, so Beckettian that no one in this ultrapoetic country has ever imagined it.” Neither of these referents speaks anything close to a concept of aesthetic pleasure or enjoyment. Instead, the catharsis of The True Actor hinges upon the viewer’s understanding of its larger message. Upon finishing a performance of John Cage’s 4’33”, or Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, we applaud not so much the beauty of what we have witnessed but its attempt to locate something true.
The reader of The True Actor is certainly provided with a potent portrait of truth: “Zooming in gradually, it is the perspective of an invisible man fearfully approaching the blankness of his own image.” Pires locates Americo’s crisis of self within the accumulations of our own lives. We recognize him instantly as both human symbol and signifier. He is a synecdoche of his namesake America—wired, discontent, and fearful of aging unaccomplished. Americo, admittedly, has “neither the patience for ‘profundity’ nor the head for ‘invention,’ he just needs a few laughs.” And so one wonders why exactly we have agreed to plummet down the rabbit hole with Americo; we are certainly fearful that once we land, we might find ourselves facing the disappointment of having passed up a beautiful day by the lake for a rerun marathon of Seinfeld. There doesn’t need to be sense, both Pires and Beckett are saying, because the world is absurd.
It is okay to be slovenly because we live amongst grime; it is permissible to be inarticulate because our lives defy articulation. Americo’s is a world in which he puts no effort and so sees none reflected. Perhaps that is the motivation beneath his angst—a quivering sense of falsehood, of being an imposter, which overtakes the person unsure of his or her skill or purpose. He is an actor playing an actor playing himself—a kind of existential mise en abyme that Pires keeps masterful control over yet deflates somewhat dissatisfactorialy in the kind of tidy “happy ending” that hints at an attempt to locate a fey, obligatory hopefulness.
If there is any error it is that Pires has not guided his idea to its zenith. If it is not absurd to wish something more absurd, that is where The True Actor falters. The novel contemplates how to maneuver within its requirements instead of busting through them, subduing them, eradicating them as the true age-shifter wants to do. The premise is so ludicrous that the last third of the novel cannot help but sweat as it tries to placate a traditional readership, corralling them into a “finale that leaves no doubt as to when it’s time to applaud, an ending that is assuredly final.” Where true absurdism would dare to leave the reader in medias res, slamming the curtain down mid-scene, Pires betrays a shaky but not unfocused conviction. By tying the narrative bow so finally, my questions as a reader were answered but not without feeling overtly guided, obligated to participate in the tidy ending that hints at the true killer of Carla Bruna. Having loosened the grip of my expectations, I craved a stylistic sucker-punch (doubtless Pires and his imaginative swiftness could have delivered), but instead was provided the conclusiveness a true absurdist would omit: “Is this what the revolution has come to, people sitting quietly, applauding when they’re told to applaud, laughing when they are shown the sign that says laugh?” In its final pages, The True Actor applauds when it is supposed to. When it seems ready to howl “Dada!” it is instead content to babble it from a child’s mouth:
Joachim points at him from the stroller and says something that sounds like “Da” or “Dee.” … The actor smiles and points his cell phone at the kid. “Come on, Joachim, say it again. Say it one more time and this time, smile when you say it, okay? … Say it now, ‘Da-dee,’ ‘Da-dee…’ Oh, so now you won’t say it?”
Indeed, this ending scene recalls a well-known conversation between Henry Carr and Tristan Tzara in Tom Stoppard’s parodic play, Travesties.
CARR: It is the duty of the artist to beautify existence.
TZARA: (articulately): Dada dada dada dada dada dada dada dada dada dada dada dada dada dada dada dada dada dada dada dada dada dada dada dada dada dada dada dada dada dada dada.
CARR: (slight pause) Oh, what nonsense you talk!
TZARA: It may be nonsense, but at least it’s not clever nonsense. Cleverness has been exploded, along with so much else, by the war.
By riffing off this historic, Dadaist declaration, Pires forces us to locate the absurd in our daily lives. It is a similar marriage of the ordinary and the absurd American playwright Edward Albee mastered in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and The Zoo Story. Yet The True Actor doesn’t reach as far outside of the clever as it could have, as the absurdist setup seemed to foreshadow, as contemporary readers could tolerate. I only wonder to what depths (or heights) Pires could have pushed this novel had he resolved to take no account of the reader, as the Dada and absurdist playwrights took no account of their audience. However, this capitulation to narrative tidiness may be Pires’s point: Americo’s revolution is one fought through social media, folk songs, and dinner parties¾a quiet and somewhat deflated letdown to those expecting the violent explosions of true revolutionary protest. Americo himself is confused at the seeming lack of energy behind the protesters who gather in São Bento Square. He observes:
Everyone looks towards one another, waiting for who knows what, but as yet there is no collective declaration, no disavowal or demand, no rebuff or request. No one is protesting anything. It’s all quite odd. Nowhere, amidst this mass of diversity gathered all in one place, is there a What? to be heard. Only, perhaps, a reflective What now? Or, perhaps, from the forest primeval, an instinctive What if? All these people—young, old, men, women—so tightly pressed together, so thrilled to be here. So fucking weird.
In the strange disconnect between the crowd of Portuguese protestors and the cause they have come to support, Americo observes that the crowd seems more eager to perform protest than to use it as a vehicle to affect change: “Some stand, others sit; some drink red wine, others eat ice cream. A beach-like atmosphere pervades the stone staircase; it’s like a gigantic picnic.” In this lack of conviction, Pires locates this desire for a neatness of resolution, for protests that protest nothing, for revolutions that spill no blood. And while this desire for resolution undermines his absurdism, it nonetheless befits his depiction of Portugal’s growing pains and identity struggles. As a piece of Portuguese literature, this resolution pulls the novel out of the nihilist realm of Beckett and Sartre and posits the future of Portuguese identity squarely in the hands of the younger generation. It is a resounding message that comes at a prescient moment of choice for many European countries, such as Turkey, Russia and the Ukraine, which must decide whether to pivot outward and embrace a globalized identity, or inward to reside in the constructs of the past.
In this way, Americo represents Portugal in the crisis of trying to perform a multitude of modern characteristics while its own fall into neglect. Portugal nearly declared bankruptcy in 2011, with unemployment reaching 15 percent in 2012. Pires’s social comment is poignant, accurate in its disenfranchisement: “Sitting side by side, Joana and Americo soon grow tired of anonymous people sputtering out solutions to the country’s crisis.”
Their thick, overloaded style is what happens, though, when socialist realism decays into black comedy. This is the prose of heroic disappointment, faintly labored at moments but fitted to the task of shoveling up mountains of cultural debris. Hemingway’s clean sentences wouldn’t do here. A man needs commas, semicolons, adjectives. He requires linguistic heavy machinery.
Pires’s prose takes a similar approach by piling on extravagant adjectives, lists of household objects, strange and bizarre details that insert themselves into sentence after sentence with the schizo-frenetic rhythms of a Kaufman script or the choppy action of a Buster Keaton sketch. Due praise must be given here to the dual translatorship of Jaime Braz and Dean Thomas Ellis (who has also published poetry in this issue). Their English translation is coherent, pulsating, capturing the gutter-hued excess of Pires’s sentences and the anxious vibration of the work as a whole. They handle the writer’s “linguistic heavy machinery” with a steady hand and singularity of vision.
Interestingly, Shteyngart is the author who controversially claimed that Canadian writers “don’t take the same damn risks.” The True Actor is certainly the risk-fueled, passionate, exuberant, rude and rebellious teenager unashamed of his conniptions and pimples. Even if the absurdist premise puts off the seeker of the “well-made novel,” there is a newness here that should exhilarate; The True Actor is an attempt to transform the modern novel from the commercialist angst that has besotted the publishing houses’ accounting departments (re: the digital revolution) into writing that is refreshingly author-centric. This shift, which repositions the writer as ultimate artistic authority, is palpable in this work. Readers will feel exhaustion, disorientation, nostalgia for the old, riskless forms, but this is a highly necessary, if not critical, shift.
The fact that Pires so unabashedly trumpets the absurd, that he defies stylistic conventions, corralling the reader unapologetically into strangeness, is a major feat. The boldness of the book as a whole is a glorious middle finger to those who want to recline in comfort, to be moved, to fall in love. Pires’s view of the world, while not immune to these human fallacies, certainly deprioritizes them. Whatever feelings of exhaustion or confusion coat the reader upon finishing The True Actor, they are easily forgiven by the triumph of Pires’s newness, his explorer’s sense of discovery, his provocateur’s willingness to reclaim aesthetic authority over the reader’s ‘taste.’ In much the same way as Giamatti is the anti-actor, the antithesis of the Hollywood leading man, so Pires has written a book that defies categorization, a novel that should fly apart at the seams, dissolving into another nihilistic comment on modern society. Yet the truth in The True Actor is so precisely located, so keenly observed, so proficiently written, that Pires pulls off a powerful and timely gunshot right into the heart of mainstream literature.
The shifting stakes of globalization, widening economic disparity, and a growing rift between the purveyors of “traditional” values and the “progressives” that is now taking centre stage in Portugal and countries like India, the Ukraine, and Turkey, serve to heighten The True Actor’s impact. At a dinner party with a group of friends he’s known for fifteen years, a group that calls itself The Nothing, Americo reveals this prescient angst:
They believed they were going to create resounding revolutions, masterwork modes of living; they envisioned themselves eternally free of the conventions of their parents and grandparents, believe they would live together forever, constructing ‘a true, quotidian utopia of free love,’ much ‘truer’ and much more in line with the ‘thought-wish’ of each of them, etc. And now here they are, playing at couples and grown-ups and discounted baby clothes. Americo feels the tears welling in his eyes.
While the conventions of the absurd forsake the promise of utopia, Pires resists plummeting completely into nihilism. While Americo observes a frightening gap between his expectations of the world and its discordant reality, he is vividly aware of the possibility for more. Heroically, Americo is still able to locate an exit from the absurdity in the striving for “a good utopia full of colour,” no matter how far away it appears, however faintly on the horizon. This awareness of the paradisiacal signals an important shift in absurdist literature. Instead of pointing toward meaninglessness, Pires’s absurdity points toward an exit. Refreshingly, Americo is the un-doomed.
At the novel’s core is a terribly plausible tale, a cutting critique of modern complacency, discontent, compromise of convictions, guilt, and failure. Pires holds together something so absurdly conceived, keeping remarkable control over the myriad dissonant elements without letting them fly off into the absurdo-sphere. The risks Pires takes with The True Actor speak to a similar pedigree of provocative, revolutionary muscle not dissimilar to those achieved by the absurdist playwrights and existentialist filmmakers he names as his predecessors. With this book, Pires stakes his flag immovably, ardently, unapologetically, into the ruins of the “well-made” novel.
Matthew R. Loney is a graduate of U of T’s MA in English and Creative Writing (2009). Loney’s work was short-listed for Exile Quarterly’s Carter V Cooper Emerging Writer’s short story award (2013) and has appeared in Fernwood’s anthology of political short fiction, Everything is So Political (2013), Dragnet Magazine’s “Best of Print” Anthology 1, Best Gay Stories 2013 (2013) and Clark-Nova’s anthology Writing Without Direction: 10½ Short Stories by Canadian Authors under 30 (2010). His short story collection, That Savage Water, will be published by Exile Editions in 2014.