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Maria Gabriela Llansol: Geografia de Rebeldes (Geography of Rebels trilogy)

Maria Gabriela Llansol is one of quite a few first-class Portuguese women writers who are virtually unknown in the English-speaking world, primarily because their works have not been translated into English. I have reviewed works by Teolinda Gersâo (two of her works published in English) and by Inês Pedrosa (none of her works published in English). I hope to get round to Agustina Bessa Luis, Fernanda Botelho, Hélia Correia, Luísa Costa Gomes, Maria Judite de Carvalho, Isabel Fraga (who, as well as writing her own works, has translated the Harry Potter books into Portuguese), Lídia Jorge, Júlia Nery, Clara Pinto Correia and Maria Velho da Costa (one of the famous Three Marias). Few of their works are available in English.

Maria Gabriela Llansol may well be something of a special case. Firstly, she spent a considerable time out of Portugal, away from the Salazar regime, living in Belgium. When she and her husband returned to Portugal, they lived in Sintra, far from the madding (literary) crowd. Though she published regularly, she was not aiming at the popular market.

This is the first of her books to be published in English, a trilogy of three short works, which can be best be called a novel. Her novels are not plot-driven. This novel starts off with Ana del Mercado y Peñalosa. She was very much a real person, associated with St John of the Cross (who is a key character in this book). There is not much about her in English but she is mentioned on this page. She is the widow of Don Juan de Guevara. I am hopelessly devoted to writing (and to disappearing in writing), she says, and this is key to this book and to the work of Llansol. Writing is very much something of a spiritual act.

The initial part of the book shows the interaction between Ana and St. John. They meet but the meeting is a spiritual one and not a physical one, presumably after he has died. His spirit drifts into her room (she is in a convent) and there is a spiritual connection between the two. The connection is enhanced by their connection to the natural world. While others seek relics of him, she is more interested in the plants associated with him. For him, there is the image and feeling of water – the rain and river.

But St John is not the only historical figure she interacts with. The other key figure is Thomas Müntzer. Müntzer was a radical preacher. Like Luther, he criticised the Catholic Church, particularly for the selling of indulgences. Unlike Luther, he supported the peasants against the rich and it cost him his life. He was captured during the German Peasants’ War in 1525, tortured and beheaded. During this book, he will wander around with his head under his arm. Other radical figures Ana meets include Friedrich Nietzsche, Copernicus, Bruno, Meister Eckhart, William of Ockham, Henry Suso (as a fish), Al-Hallaj, Lorenzo de Medici and Hadewijch, one of the few women historical figures she will meet in the first two books. Many of these are not, of course, contemporaries with one another or with Ana.

The meeting between Ana (as well as her colleague Ana de Jesús) and these people is spiritual but also (occasionally) sexual. She calls Müntzer my most intimate and most unhappy lover. However, though she clearly identifies them all, they often merge into one another. What is clear is their importance to (primarily) European thought, particularly for their radical and anti-establishment views. Religion or, rather, religious views, are important but a religion that is concerned with community, with writing, with the natural world, and with learning and feeling and definitely not a religion that is concerned with control, with ritual and with structure.

The third book of the trilogy takes something of a different tone. It is narrated by a woman called Marguerite but definitely not, as she tells us, Marguerite Porete, despite her being a beguine (member of a lay Christian order) like Porete and despite her interest in Catharism like Porete. Nor is she Marguerite Plantin, daughter of Christophe Plantin, the printer, though she knew both.

This Marguerite lives in a beguine community in Anwterp with other women, including Hadewijch, whom we have already met. They have connections with a community in Portugal and eventually move there. The issue of exile is key here. (Llansol herself, Portuguese, spent considerable time in Belgium to escape the Salazar regime.) She also relates to Thomas Müntzer ( I cannot sleep; lying in bed, I think I will become a corpse,like Müntzer, and I long for an encounter that will rid me of anguish; mud, cesspit, darkness surround me aimlessly) and has communications with Ana del Mercado y Peñalosa. She is concerned by the Inquisition (part of the reason for the move to Portugal.) Her third lover, as she describes him, is Luis M., a man from Portugal. Celibacy is clearly not a feature for this community. One of the other nuns gets pregnant and her baby is hushed up and there seems to be a mysterious man who lives on the premises.

One of the keys to this book is Marguerite’s comment everything was image and a thoughtful and verbal explanation of the image. While the third book is more akin to a conventional novel than the first two, in that it tells the story of the beguine community and their move in a more traditional manner, it is still much more images, writing and feeling than plot and story.

I must admit that when I started reading this book, I really did not get into it. Gradually, however, it very much grew on me, as I started to appreciate what Llansol was doing. Clearly you cannot approach it the way you would a conventional novel. It is about images and thoughts, about writing and nature, about the role of women in communities and about radical thinking, about how the spiritual, intellectual and religious history of medieval (and, in some cases, later) Europe is still very important to us today, even if these thinkers are often little known or unknown to most of us.

Llansol denied that her work was difficult but I think many readers would consider this book difficult. Nevertheless, it is well worth the effort as it is a very beautiful book, superbly well written and a book that addresses European intellectual history and thought in a way that is rarely found in modern literature. It is also one of those books – there are a lot, I know – where you feel that it would be wonderful to read in the original. However, we must be grateful to Deep Vellum and translator Audrey Young for making such a wonderful novel available to us in English.

Publishing history

O Livro das Comunidades (The Book of Communities)
First published 1977 by Afrontamento

A Restante Vida (Text for the Remaining Life )
First published 1982 by Afrontamento

Na Casa de Julho e Agosto (In the House of July and August)
First published 1984 by Afrontamento

First English publication (as a trilogy) in 2017 by Deep Vellum
Translated by Audrey Young