The Last True Gentleman. Recollecting Fernando Aires. 1928-2010
Once upon a time, Fernando Aires invited me to his house for lunch. I was living in São Miguel while working on the Azores volume in the World Bibliographical Series and was reviewing a number of works of Azorean literature, including Aires' Era Uma Vez o Tempo diaries and he agreed to talk to me about some of the works to help me with my reviews.
The lunch was not the first time we had met. During the years I lived in the Azores I was on occasion a social peer of Fernando Aires, even if as a dirty-kneed, descendant-of-migrants, luso-american, I was a bit of a curiosity to him. I had had drinks with him in and about town as a result of the many book launchings and public lectures that serve as the fulcrum of the social calendar for Micaelense writers and intellectuals and was fortunate to have had many conversations with him. As impenetrable as some of those conversations were given our diverse backgrounds, they were always entertaining. For me, Aires had the air of an antediluvian aristocrat, the wavy white hair swept high off of his big patio-sized forehead, that goofy lopsided grin, in which his upper lip always seemed to get stuck dry on one of his big front teeth when he got particularly excited holding forth on a topic; the heavy dark and bushy vertical eyebrows; and of course the ubiquitous silk cravat tucked down into the open collar of his crisply starched shirts. The lunch was classic Fernando Aires. At the established hour I rang the bell of his home at the outskirts of Ponta Delgada. From the outside, no one would even notice the place, but once crossing the threshold of the portico, it was like stepping back into the late 19th century, the sitting rooms and furnishings and appointments were only a part of it: Aires himself completed the image as he cut the figure of a member of the old school Micaelense aristocratic gentry. His wife served us aperitifs in an ante-room before arranging our lunch in the dining room. Afterwards, she brought us whiskeys in Aires’ book-lined study before he ushered her out, closing the big tall door behind so the men could discuss their serious business. The millennium celebrations were in Ponta Delgada at the time, and very much thinking of my lunch with Fernando Aires, I made the joke that it was nice to finally be in the 21st century as it might oblige some of these guys to join the 20th. Many of his ideas about the political world reflected a man who had not yet made that transition. He would talk about America, with its violence; with its politics of racial, ethnic and gender equality; with its lack of social hierarchy as a barbaric and savage place. Even as he worked in the 1940s through his activities founding the Circulo Cultural de Antero de Quental to introduce the Azores to modernity, I always had the feeling he was still puzzling to make sense of the modern world. Not for lack of comprehension of it, but because it seemed so alien to one with such fine sensibilities. The thing is, although those fitting this description are inevitably insufferable, this was just not the case with Fernando Aires. Despite his patrician and aristocratic mien, Aires, was a not-so-closet humanist, a man deeply moved by the beautiful and simple things of life. And he held a deep concern for the Azores, for Azoreans, for justice and for the human condition in general. A group of us were once having dinner at a fancy and expensive new restaurant in the penthouse of the apartment tower overlooking the Praia do Pópulo. This was before the introduction of the Eurozone and before the explosion of international companies descended on the islands chasing tourist money. Taking in the view from the steel and glass monument to modern industrialized architecture that housed the restaurant, Aires looked out at the ocean from the window and sighed, “little by little, we are slowly becoming Madeira.” The remark reflected a man who felt deeply about people and their well-being. Although efforts in some (certainly not all) areas have been made by the regional government to preserve the Azores from the pervasive selling-out of island resources that is the hallmark of the Madeirense tourist economy, Aires' prescient remarks acted for me as a warning bell for the eventual changes that continue to alter the Micaelense landscape. Fernando Aires also took great delight in exploring the new, even if he did so from the insular perspective of an islander. At one of the many tertúlias over whiskeys and wine held at Vamberto Freitas’ flat, I once made some real live Mexican soft tacos. I had a friend visiting from the states who brought me some authentic tortillas from a tortilleria owned by a Mexican migrant family in Providence. I grilled up tequila marinated steak and chicken, cooked up some homemade refritos, black beans, jalapeños, rice, the whole works, and laid them out, stuff-your-own-taco style. I would never have expected it, but Aires dug right in, filling up taco after taco with meat and beans as he sipped away at his margarita. I felt like some young Portuguese navegante from the 1600s, just returned from India introducing a nobleman from the house of Braganza to some rare fruit delicacy from Calicut. But there was Aires, knocking the tacos back, one after the other, the whole time that dry upper-lip glued to his big front tooth. Another thing I loved about Aires, was that he was a bit of a freak as well. I didn’t know him as a young man, when those who know better all say he was well-versed in “witches' secrets,” but I was once having drinks with him, Vamberto and João De Melo when the topic of conversation turned to beautiful women. Chinking the rocks in his whiskey glass, Aires confessed that he had a real thing for women with hair under their arms. He didn’t really elaborate as to why, and who was I to press him for an explanation. I don't know if this says more about him or me, but I framed his statement as a reflection of his class sensibilities worked out in a peasant fetish. All I know is he definitely meant it, the way he said the word “sovaco” with the penultimate syllable taking on the depth of that breathy low-chested bass-baritone rasp to which some of Aires’ more visceral utterances were prone. An open mouthed satisfied sigh after his confession, as he drifted, I imagined, to the memory of a particular affection. None of this of course has anything to do with Aires’ writing. Although, it just might have everything to do with it. I was familiar with Aires’ works from my reviews, but it was not until I developed that deeply intimate relationship one has with a writer that one is translating that I gained a true appreciation of the beauty of his prosemic craft. I mean whatever sins an angry young man like myself may have charged to someone who belonged to another time like Aires certainly did, all was forgiven upon reading his writing. Rich prose-poetry Portuguese, unfolding in staccato punctuation, images conveyed in series of phrases, one upon the next, until the sum leaves one long, far-beyond the distance covered by the individual ideas. It is beautiful and moving writing that reveals a beautiful and moving world. Reading Aires describe even the most quotidian aspects of Azorean life is like seeing things in color for the first time. There is a fertile profundity in the Azores revealed in Aires’ prose that one never quite saw in the islands before; and after reading Aires, one never sees the Azores quite the same again. The book I translated was a personally moving project to be a part of. Azorean photographer Lucia Vasconcelos, who was in the end stages of a terminal cancer diagnosis was consciously working on her last book, and she chose excerpts from Fernando Aires’ diaries to accompany her images. Taken together, the images and texts—which she selected with the knowledge of her impending mortality—serve as both an epitaph of death as much as a celebration of life, the things she wished to remember in her final days, and the things she wished to be remembered by once she was gone. My last conversation with Fernando Aires was about the book, when he called to thank me for my translation. It was somewhat surreal as Aires didn’t speak a word of English, so could have no way of evaluating if he liked what I did or not. He was nonetheless gracious, and offered me a complete collection of his Era Uma Vez o Tempo series as a gesture of gratitude which I was excited to receive and which genuinely touched me. I guess he forgot, however, as he never ended up mailing them. ***** I leave these recollections about Fernando Aires with a translation from his writing from the photography volume. Rest in peace caro Fernando Aires. You were one of the last true gentlemen. From where I stand, I look at the peace of the cove where the boats drop anchor and remain immobile. A voice sings. It is a man’s voice, rustic, a little twangy and coarse that rises up over the hedges and walls and spreads out across the fields. I don’t understand his words. I only listen to the trembling and crude melody, like a howl in the wind. That voice cannot belong to any but a man of the sea: rising up from the throat, coming from afar, filling up the space about the shoreline. I am as one who only wishes to look and listen. Abandoning myself in the fine morning air. And that rough voice, almost savage, in its primitive melody that the ocean has laid out over the island since the time when there were no men on the Earth.