Tell me what it was like...

João Pinharanda.

We may evoke two poems of greatly differing origins, times and public destination, when looking at a bundle of love letters: the melodramatic lines of the popular song by the Portuguese singer Tony de Matos and the analytical complexity of the poem by Álvaro de Campos/Fernando Pessoa. If we are evoking them under the pretext of this work by Manuel Botelho, perhaps this better explains the psychological background and historical and social context surrounding the love dialogues that Botelho found in the Feira da Ladra flea market in Lisbon, bought, transcribed, photographed, had read and staged for a public that unexpectedly discovers that they may have written or already read a part of these long pages of “banal letters”: “Long letters, extensive, and the same / As [your] great suffering” (Tony de Matos).

Álvaro de Campos does not look for the cultural or even mythical justification of the great love stories. While maintaining a timeless perspective, as he refers to “All Love Letters”, he includes himself in the same universe (“In my time I have also written love letters”), he fuses all the past, present and future cases, and mercilessly disarms the sense of the exceptional that common discourse attributes to love in actually stating that “All love letters are/ Ridiculous” and that “They would not be love letters were they not/ Ridiculous”, confirming that his letters have also been ridiculous. Awareness of the ridiculous seems only possible after love (a real love or even the possibility of love itself) has ended. Indeed, the poet laments his lost past: “If only I could go back to when I wrote/ Without knowing it/ Love letters that were/ Ridiculous.”

This critical awareness is clearly not possessed by the real authors of the love letters we hear being read in Manuel Botelho’s installation. We may decode the sentimental value of these love letters, which is intense, and we may appreciate the modesty of their psychological density and literary and historical value, all fatally limited by the cultural and political frailty of both authors. But they are decisive documents, malgré eux, in the sense that letters written in the female are rare, and even rarer is this dual find (a letter and its reply).

Two intense years of “extensive”, “the same” and “ridiculous” love letters were written; sometimes the authors thought that their language was not good enough to express what they felt, sometimes they wished they were less insistent, less repetitive, but they never dismantled the mechanisms of the cultural surroundings that determined their thoughts.

Thus their tone is closer to that of a popular tune, chronologically coinciding with the historical period to which these letters refer. Step by step, albeit with neither rupture nor drama, what is spoken of in these letters is of longing and absence, of jealousy and of silence, of the dream of a near, different future. What we hear from both writers, although her letters are stereotypically more laden with sentiment and emotion, are really “Letters of love/ Pieces of pain/ Felt by someone”. Each of the members of the couple is an echo of the lines sung by Tony de Matos, one of the most famous popular songsters of the time: “In them I swore/ The true love I felt/ So many nights without sleeping/ Writing to you/ These banal letters/ Which were my reason for being/ [...]”.

It is this dimension of sincerity that moves us when we hear the excerpts from these love letters read out. Indeed it is interesting to note that even Campos insists on the presence of that feeling at a given moment in his poem when he states that “Love letters, if there is love/ Have to be / Ridiculous” and that “Only creatures who have never written/ Love letters/ Are indeed/ Ridiculous.”

In the installation presented here we have two scenes following on from each other in space – we should see them as simultaneous times, two sides of the same coin. But in fact we come in at the end, into the story that we have been revealing in this text. Along the walls of the first room, hanging like the great tapestry rugs of olden days, we see a collection of campaign tent cloths. The story we are told is not shown on them, but we know it by heart: it is a story of men, the abstract story of war and death.

In the next room a new stage device invents the possibility of a (closed) front of stage made of domestic curtains. We then learn everything through the text we hear, sounding like a radio soap opera during long afternoons of embroidery, light afternoon snacks, shared secrets and suspected female tensions.

The text locates us in time and in space, showing us the dimension of feelings: Portugal and Guinea, nineteen-sixties and Colonial War, love and death, jealousy and hope… All in small, very Portuguese doses, shrewdly hiding from both official censorship and family censorship, in a sexual candour and restraining of language unthinkable today.

On the walls in both rooms we have a small collection of images: which might fix and recover the letters themselves as an artistic image (which first and foremost are sociological documents) as well as the kitsch image of a postcard of boyfriend and girlfriend.

We may of course follow Álvaro de Campos’ cynicism or derision when, after the inevitability of love letters and their ridiculousness has been accepted, he concludes that after all/ current memories that he has “Of these love letters/ Are what is / Ridiculous”. But it is not only (or mainly) the exhibiting of this human frailty that moves Manuel Botelho in his research and re-creation. In this new century, he is one of the authors who have worked deeply and innovatively on the artistically unexplored continent which is the Colonial War and the Portuguese presence in Africa.

We have seen how these letters may be an ideological portrait of Portugal at that time. Here they are transformed into works of art; that is, they place us in a dimension of interpretation and metaphor: what do we feel in the face of the possibility of our death or that of the person we love? What do we feel when we are far from what we love and whom we love? How do we live through all this and relate it to our small everyday lives, with their little joys, sadness, defeats, successes and amazements? After all, if all this is ridiculous, it is also very banal. There are no heroes for these/ in these stories; and if there were, in the excessive dimension of their lives, would they also not turn out to be ridiculous?

João Pinharanda
Lisbon, 10th of May 2011