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Under Our Skin

A Review of Under Our Skin, by Joaquim Arena, translated by Jethro Soutar (Unnamed Press, 2023)

I like to say that Joaquim Arena’s memoir/travel narrative Under Our Skin, translated by Jethro Soutar and published by Unnamed Press, arrived to me at the perfect time, because I had been learning about extraordinary historical figures from the African diaspora, such as the grammarian Juan Latino, Madame Priscilla, Postmaster Charles Graves, and Sister Mary Wilhemina, when I read about the illustrious João de Sá Panasco in the pages of this book. Depicted in a Lisbon street scene by an anonymous sixteenth-century Flemish painter in the portrait Chafariz d’El Rei, Panasco wears a cloak bearing the emblematic cross the Order of Saint James of the Sword and rides a horse.

Arena recounts the life of Panasco in brief. Descended from slaves and brought to Portugal from the Congo as a boy, Panasco ended up in the court of King João III and rose from the rank of jester to knight. We learn about his courageous rescue of a puppy across a battlefield and his fall to alcoholism at the end of his life, but one anecdote in particular caught my attention. Arena quickly recounts that one day Dom Francisco Coutinho described Panasco as a “fly in the milk” after seeing him bedridden and wrapped in white sheets. For Arena, this expression provides him the contrast necessary to tell of Panasco’s courageous deeds and elevate him out of this disparaging comparison. The anecdote, however, may have been generic and widely circulated throughout the Iberian Peninsula, given that the same story is told of Juan Latino. As scholar Henry Louis Gates, Jr. finds, accounts of the life of Juan Latino approach the status of fiction, depicting him as a “picaresque hero, a well-spoken rogue, and also [...] a jester or buffoon.” The degree to which fictionalization may creep into the other episodes told of Panasco’s life is unclear, but the painting and the other Black subjects depicted in it become a point of departure for Arena to examine the African diasporic presence in Portugal.

Arena’s dive into the lives of historical figures is intriguing, especially as it provides an opportunity for African diasporic and literary thinking. In one chapter, Panasco’s life prompts him to consider the life of another “dark-skinned general” of African descent. He has in mind the fascinating life of Thomas-Alexandre Davy de la Pailleterie, also known as Thomas-Alexandre Dumas. “The son of a white French aristocrat and a Black concubine,” Davy de la Pailleterie went from being a lavish “dandy” to an army private after having his allowance withdrawn. He served in Napoleon’s army and accompanied him on his Egyptian campaign and, as Arena points out, his story inspired the book The Count of Monte Cristo, written by his son Alexandre Dumas in 1846. Learning that the elder Dumas had joined Napoleon on his Egyptian campaign inspired great curiosity in me. It brought to mind the old legend about French soldiers shooting off part of the Sphinx’s face during target practice. What if Thomas-Alexandre, a mixed-race man, had been there to see such an act? While that legend has been debunked (the Sphinx lost its nose centuries beforehand), surely he must have witnessed his share of imperialist abuses. In the ensuing decades of the early nineteenth century, as scholar Mary Loeffelholz writes, the race represented in the Sphinx’s face was popularly debated and the subject of poetry. What did it feel like for a gentleman of African descent to live through such a period?

Arena’s occasional narrative excursions into the lives of historical figures are woven into a broader narrative of personal journey. Early on in the book, we learn that the news of the death of his father has brought him from his home in Cape Verde to his family home in Portugal. His return also serves as a moment for him to reckon with the past, an occasion to examine the history of institutionalized slavery in Portugal and its relics as he travels throughout the country to visit sites of personal and historical import, with the narration occasionally returning to life in Cape Verde.

In Lisbon, he befriends the erudite Leopoldina, a retired teacher, at an exhibition titled Blacks at the Heart of the Empire. Leopoldina, who has shifted her attention to researching the African presence in Portugal, becomes an important interlocutor for him as, with her aid, he recovers lost stories about the pursuit of freedom. Take, for example, the story of the former slave Samuel, which is said to have been found recorded among the papers of the abolitionist lawyer Thomé Ferreira de Andrade. Samuel, a slave who purchased his own freedom, journeys from Leça da Palmeira to Faro to free his son, Salvador, from a businessman who purchased him from his wife’s owner. When he arrives at the businessman’s estate, he’s asked on whose behalf he’s come, to which he responds, “On my own behalf.” These words present a challenge to the institution symbolized by the businessman, who receives Samuel with disdain, dismissing the document Samuel is carrying, written by a parish priest, attesting to his son’s free status under the Freedom of Wombs Law of 1773. Ultimately, Samuel recovers his son with the help of the lawyer Ferreira de Andrade, who threatens the businessman with a court action. Through this story, Arena presents key players in the fight for freedom, and against it, placing heavy weight on how a new, emerging social order was being navigated.

As a travel narrative, the book grounds readers in sparsely populated towns and ghostly ruins. From a distance, São Romão, Leopoldina’s hometown, looks like a hillside village resembling a “nativity scene,” but on arrival Arena is greeted by a lonely bus stop and “a futureless void with nothing on the horizon but death.” The reality of this bleak town, we learn, contrasts with Leopoldina’s memories of a lively community filled with the chatter of women looking over mischievous children, hardworking men cultivating the land, and rebellious youth.

In other passages, translator Soutar mediates Arena’s sense of place, which blends geography and natural life, in striking terms. The journey is punctuated by unexpected noises and sounds. There are distant barks, there are bird calls. Life continues by natural instinct rather than human motives. The rivers and riverbanks are more alive than the towns. Compare the following sentence, “The river itself chugs along, as docile as the cows grazing on its banks” with Arena’s descriptions of a fading culture and lexicon along a riverway (wrangled into place by the translator):

Back out in the corridor, Ananias reminds me that dark, swarthy people like Luísa Baião and her brothers and sisters even spoke a different language, using words like lingriça and vrido (lingriça for linguiça, meaning “sausage”; vrido for vidro, meaning “glass”).

[. . . ] The habits, colors, and sounds that propagated these riverways seem destined to fade, but perhaps the lexicon might be preserved, the slang and the slights of everyday life.

Sometimes a train comes alive and overwhelms the human senses: “The train makes a deafening noise when it finally comes to a halt, occupying the track from beyond the station buildings to around a bend in the approach, like some mythological beast.” Overall, these moments present a stark contrast between the life of the townspeople and natural or machine life.

For Arena, returning home means feeling a break with his environment. For example, in one scene he wanders at night through his empty childhood home and finds it filled with “silent furniture,” “orphaned plants,” and “pictures trying to escape from the walls.” This sense of dejection is reflected in his relationship with his aging mother: they speak to each other in Portuguese rather than in Crioulo, their conversations change direction often, and she suffers bouts of stomach sickness that leave her bedridden. In a moment of mutual but silent understanding Arena finds his mother in a fragile state as she exits the bathroom with a chamber pot in hand and understands from the look in her eyes that she is defiant in the face of old age. She returns to her bed and gets under the covers. He stands at the threshold of her bedroom door, pausing to think “mi sô,” “just me,” and thus doubling, possibly even tripling, his “aloneness.” There is a great divide here, but Arena seems to suggest that the mother tongue can provide solace.

Towards the end of the book, we get a closer examination of Arena’s stepfather and the life he led, being at sea for most of the year and coming home three months at a time in the winter. Arena paints a picture of a gallivanting man who wanted a family but not personal responsibility, a man who expressed affection only upon his departure to seafaring adventures, and who passed down knowledge to his stepchildren only on a few occasions. The stories Arena tells of his family are complex and moving, and they demonstrate that the aftermath of institutionalized slavery touched the lives of people in very personal ways. Not many slaves recorded their stories, Arena reminds us, but their “spirit of moral rectitude and nonconformity lives on . . . in the eyes of their descendants.”

ALEXANDER AGUAYO is a literary translator and independent scholar. His translations and interviews have appeared in Words Without Borders. His translation of Panamanian author Javier Stanziola’s play The Myth of Gravity was featured in the 2023 Out of the Wings Festival in London and will be published by Inti Press in July 2024, while his translation "On Miss Venezuela's Grand Night," from Stanziola's Hombres enlodados, is forthcoming in Latin American Literature Today. He holds a PhD in comparative literature from the University of Michigan and an AB in comparative literature with a certificate in Latin American studies from Princeton University. In fall 2024, he will be joining the Princeton Writing Program as faculty.


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