Monday, 19 July 2010

Fiction awaiting the arrival of history: Martin Edmond's Luca Antara.*

The cover of the 2009 British edition of Martin Edmond’s beguiling book, Luca Antara, features the outline of a face of indeterminate ethnicity upon an image of the Australian interior, and a sixteenth-century sailing ship with a large red cross on its billowing sail. We could be forgiven for assuming that the book is a literary re-enactment of the old debate surrounding the supposed ‘discovery’ of Australia by the Portuguese nearly two centuries before the arrival of James Cook, and indeed, if that was what we were looking for, we would not be disappointed. However, Edmond’s book is far more than a mere contribution to the theories put forward by Kenneth McIntyre and more recently Peter Trickett, based on their readings of the so-called Dieppe Map, and refuted by various Australian academics.

Luca Antara defies genre. It interweaves elements of autobiography, biography, bookish criticism, history and fiction. It includes a quest motif, and to cap it all, it was located by this reader in the ‘travel literature’ section of one of his favourite local bookshops. Edmond is the author of a number of books, and has lived in Sydney since 1981, when he left his native New Zealand. In Sydney, he has worked as a taxi driver, but the persona he reveals in that part of Luca Antara that might loosely be termed a memoir, is one that has an abiding interest in the remote history of travel in the Pacific, an obsession that is fed by a Borgesian fascination with the labyrinthine world of second-hand bookshops, from where his own personal library is re-stocked with a regular stream of bibliographical curiosities. It is this that leads him eventually to the figure of Manoel Godinho de Herédia, the Luso-Malay cosmographer and supposed sponsor of an expedition from Malacca at the beginning of the seventeenth century to discover the fabled southern continent. But Edmond, the bookish taxi driver, is a more general bibliophile who has his own favourite authors, one of whom is none other than Fernando Pessoa, Portugal’s greatest poet of the twentieth century and who, rather as Edmond inhabited the demimonde of migrants and the unsettled in inner-city Sydney, led an apparently anonymous life around the bars and cafés of central Lisbon in the 1920s and 30s, while inventing an alternative world through the creation of his heteronyms. Indeed, it is the relationship between the artist and his invention, the plausibility of the hoax that fascinates Edmond. Following this line of argument, for Edmond, Ern Malley, the literary creation who fooled the worthies of the Australian literary establishment in the 1950s, is as real as Pessoa’s fictitious personalities such as Alberto Caeiro, Bernardo Soares, and Álvaro de Campos. And when Pessoa’s other heteronym, Ricardo Reis, appropriated by José Saramago in his novel, The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis, declares his independence from his original inventor, the act merely underlines Edmond’s attachment to the importance of reader reception in determining the authenticity of character. What is important is not that people are deceived by the hoax, but rather the inner truths of what the hoax, or in the case of Pessoa, the heteronyms, might have to impart, and this consideration will become important in what goes on to constitute the central quest of the book.

As the narrative meanders along, Edmond develops an obsession with the figure of Herédia, after obtaining an English translation of his works from the Kuala Lumpur branch of the Royal Asiatic Society. His curiosity about Herédia’s supposed commissioning of a voyage of discovery to Luca Antara undertaken by his servant in 1610, leads him to wonder whether, to quote him, ‘it would be possible to fabricate an account of this voyage in such a way as to give it not just credence as a work of fiction but the unmistakable aura of truth’. In the end he decides against the attempt, but instead is put in touch with the enigmatic Henry Klang, in Malacca, who claims to have seen and copied the account of the voyage of Herédia’s servant, António da Nova, to Australia, while he was working in the national archive of Malaysia. It is his English rendition, or summary, of the supposed document that is fed to Edmond via e-mail, and then re-spun into the book, Luca Antara. So he has ended up doing what he had decided against doing, that is, he has fabricated a story based on supposed archival evidence, but which he later discovers has mysteriously disappeared. We are back to the author’s professed fascination with Pessoa, for we are unsure whether the oddball Klang is not merely Edmond’s heteronym – another obsessive misfit like himself, a Portuguese Catholic Eurasian, and therefore like Edmond in Australia, a kind of outsider within. But even if Klang exists, and we are led to believe that he does, for Edmond tracks him down on an investigative trip to Malacca, then we are still left in little doubt that António da Nova is, after all, Klang’s invention, a spiritual ancestor, as Klang himself terms him, a kind of heteronym from the deep history of Portuguese expansion in Southeast Asia. As for António da Nova, what does his story say about the supposed arrival of the Portuguese in North-western Australia at the beginning of the seventeenth century? Nothing beyond providing us with an enthralling, but plausible tale of romance. Stranger things happened in Portugal’s far-flung empire. António’s contracting of a sea-going ‘prahu’, or fishing boat, to take him further south than any European had ventured before, his abandonment on the coast of Luca Antara, his astonishing encounter with a Portuguese New Christian degradee, and his flight with Estrela, the degradee’s mixed-race daughter on another vessel carrying a cargo of the prized sea-slugs for the Chinese market, all come as no surprise to those who are familiar with historically verified incidents in Portuguese overseas history. Portuguese adventurers ranged far beyond the confines of their main commercial hubs of Goa, Malacca, Macassar, and Macau, cropping up around the coasts of the Bay of Bengal and throughout the so-called Spice Islands. The arrival of a lone Portuguese in Australia is an intriguing possibility that clearly appeals to Edmond’s romantic sensibilities.

In the final part of the book, which takes on the characteristics of a travel narrative, Edmond returns from Malacca to Australia, but attempts to follow the route of António da Nova through Java, Bali and on to the island of Flores, on a succession of ever more decrepit ferries, and in the company of various more or less picturesque travellers. His encounter with the myths of local pygmies on the island of Flores, the residue of some prehistoric population dating from the time when the islands were joined to Australia, before the seas flooded and destroyed the lands between these islands, lead Edmond to surmise that perhaps Herédia’s depiction of Luca Antara was no more than the lost continent of his sixteenth-century imagination. To put it another way, Herédia was his own heteronym, and Luca Antara a lost paradise waiting to be regained: Luca Antara was fiction awaiting the arrival of history.


* Published in the Macau Daily Times (Weekend Magazine), on 8 May 2010.

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