Beyond Borders: Jose Luis Peixoto reflects on literature, life, and Pakistan

ISLAMABAD  -  He still has six more months to reach the age of 50, and yet his accomplishments in the world of literature are magna cum laude. The contributions of Jose Luis Peixoto, the Portuguese literati with numerous prestigious awards, far surpass those of many others, making it very diffi­cult to describe him in just one word.

Born in the small village of Galveias in Portugal, his first book, “Morreste-me” (You Died of Me), was published when he was 25 years old. At 27, his first novel, “Nenhum Olhar” (Blank Gaze), earned him the title of the youngest novelist to receive the pres­tigious Jose Saramago Prize, named after the Portuguese Nobel laureate in literature, Jose Saramago. There was no looking back for this young cognoscenti. As his age increased, so did his publications—from novels to fictional narratives, poetry to travel literature, and children’s literature to short stories—Jose Luis Marques Peixoto has explored it all. His liter­ary crusade extended beyond litera­ture, as his motivation led him to con­nect literature with painting, music, and other forms of performing art.

Jose Luis Peixoto was in Pakistan to attend the Literature Festival in La­hore and managed to drive to Islam­abad for a couple of days.

Q: Your work is found everywhere in literature mediums. If one is look­ing for a Portuguese novelist, poet, short story writer, travelogue, or children’s literature, your name pops up. So which Jose Luis Peixoto should one look for?

A: That is a very good question because I am still searching for that answer myself. Having said that, I would say, “the novelist.” I believe a novel is defined by its complexi­ties because, in a certain way, you can incorporate all other genres in a novel. However, I surely cannot write one novel after another, so other experiments in writing have been very useful in developing my­self in my quest to reach new hori­zons in terms of writing. It keeps me feeling like I am going some­where rather than being static.

Q: Your books have been translated into more than 30 languages or so. Do you think these translations have done justice to your work?

A: Translations are always some­thing that you either accept or not; there is no in-between. So, one has to come to terms with the fact that after it’s translated, its approach becomes different too because the language gets further away from the original. The structure, sur­roundings, and vocabulary are all different in various languages. I am okay with these discrepancies be­cause I believe that literature itself is made of imperfection. There has always been a difference between what is written and what is being read, even in the same language.

Q: Was the success of your first book at the age of 25 the reason for your inspiration to write more and expand your horizons, trying your luck in other mediums?

A: From my teenage years, I start­ed writing poetry. In my village, a bookmobile van used to come once a month in the central square, and my friends and I used to get four books per head. After reading them, we ex­changed them amongst ourselves. I used to look up to writers and poets at that time, and it was my wildest dream to become one of them. How­ever, during your teens, one experi­ences a lot of changes, and lots of dis­coveries, and I believe poetry helped me organize myself in a certain way regarding those feelings and discov­eries. Poetry, to me, is like a diary where I reflect upon myself.

Q: Have you ever made a compar­ison between your readers? How is a reader from Brazil different from the one in Japan?

A: I feel even twin brothers cannot read the same book the same way. Everybody has personal references and a personal understanding of each word. So, if we could do inter­pretations from readings, I am very sure that we all would do it very dif­ferently. Someone suggesting some­thing and the other person giving a different form to it is what reading, to me, is all about. It is part of the richness of communication. I am not obsessed with the idea that every reader should understand something the same way as I have tried to write. To be honest, sometimes even myself, I am not truly aware of the very pre­cise thing that I want to say, and I feel it would be better to leave it open be­cause, after some time when I read it again, I too have a different interpre­tation of what I wrote myself.

Q: Your book “You Died on Me” is a story between a father and a son, your own story. How is your child­hood different from others?

A: I have not tried to narrate the dif­ferences between my childhood and others; rather, I have tried to point out the similarities in this book, and that depends on the reader. I think in today’s world of social media, people try to fit into what’s familiar to them in the things that they relate to, but that is not always necessary.

Q: Most of your books have a certain kind of “sadness” in common. Why?

A: I feel sometimes literature should be considered a form in which we chase consciences, and sometimes it’s important to remem­ber and tell people the sadistic sides of our lives to share experiences. I am not a negative person, but I feel that we should realize that bad things exist, and only then can we fully appreciate good things once we know the dark side as well.

Q: What do you think is the age of your reader?

A: I think the age of my reader has evolved with my age because I started to write young. My first book was pub­lished when I was 25. So, I still think I appeal to young readers by identifica­tion. Today, I write for all ages as they also get older like myself, which is natural. We identify with people who are closer to our references, but I also feel people should read books from authors of all ages as well, where their own experience would not reach.

Q: How is your experience being in Pakistan?

A: When you come to a new coun­try, you bring with you your personal views, and you see through that lim­ited lens. However, at the same time, if you are open to absorbing new ex­periences and ideas, it will be an eye-opener, which becomes part of your writing and is also present in the book.

Pakistan has indeed captivated me because this country is a com­pletely new world for me. It’s very intriguing as well as challenging. I am not aware of Pakistanis’ religious views, cultural habits, lifestyles, val­ues, etc., so it becomes challenging. When I started discussing my trip to Lahore for the Literature Festival, I also started reading about Pakistan, and my views changed as well. My random knowledge was limited to violence, and the sound of Pakistan was not positive—a blurred area in one part of the world where Afghan­istan/Pakistan sounds the same. Now, after coming here, I feel that there is a lot of prejudice about Paki­stan in Europe and misconceptions and misinterpretations, which, to me, is not right. My views have com­pletely changed after being here and in Lahore for two days.


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