By Selma Carvalho
Accustomed as I am to reading widely, I cannot readily bring to mind a contemporary Goan writer who can muster at their fingertips the sort of imagery which pours out of Victor Rangel-Ribeiro’s pen.
The short story, in Goa, has been in decline from its peak reached at the turn of the 19th century. Rather, the short story as a literary form has been in decline everywhere and only now been mildly resuscitated with the mushrooming of literary journals. Specifically, in Goa, the decline has had to do with the death of platforms which previously sustained it. Today, newspapers don’t easily lend ink to it, and journals such as the Boletim do Instituto Vasco da Gama and its successor Govapuri have met with their demise.
Rangel-Ribeiro, it can truthfully be said, is the chief patriarch of this form on the Goan literary horizon. His characters have a Dickensian quality to them, if Dickens had sat at his desk in Porvorim and decided to write about padres and other miscreants. In fact, so beautifully are his characters crafted, so relentless is the attention to detail, that they are easily recognisable to anyone who has ever breathed deeply of Goa’s brindled earth or the briny breath of its pickled mangoes.
Take for instance the character Pedro Saldanha from the story ‘Angel Wings’. Saldanha, ‘ a humble and deeply religious man, he was known for kneeling during long stretches of the Mass, his knees burning through the cool stone floor, his arms outstretched in a symbolic crucifixion until he felt them no longer, feeling only pain. That Sunday, following the sermon, he knelt down in prayer and remained kneeling, self-absorbed and self-crucified long after all others had gone their separate ways.’
Who among us, who has had the opportunity to join Sunday parishioners at a local village church has not met a Pedro Saldanha? Often you will find him in the guise of a Filomena weeping anguished tears on account of her seedless womb or a Caitan praying for a visa to the Gulf or perchance even a somnambulant Alberto asking for deliverance from the bottle. But find him you will on the cold marbled floor within close vicinity of the tabernacle, knees bent and arms outstretched, hands fumbling rosary beads and lips supplicating with benedictions. Rangel-Ribeiro’s precision and craftsmanship in drawing these characters is made all the more delightful when combined with a gluttonous sense of humour. Note the wit in the line ‘kneeling, self-absorbed and self-crucified.’ Humour such as this can go horribly wrong of course. It can be misconstrued as sneering at the provincial, as condescending of small lives and irreverent. But with Rangel-Ribeiro it comes across only as self-deprecating. Because Rangel-Ribeiro is one of us. He is at once Pedro Saldanha, and the man who lives outside of the experience of Pedro Saldanha, who can observe Pedro up close and understand him perfectly. And so, all of Rangel-Ribeiro’s writing has a sense of ‘us’ instead of ‘them’.
Rangel-Ribeiro’s short stories have recently been collected in The Miscreant: Selected Stories, 1949 – 2016 (Serving House; 2017). Although, some of the linked collection of stories became part of his acclaimed novel Tivolem (Milkweed; 1998), it is interesting to read his writing in its original literary form – the short story. There is something about the short story which cannot be replicated in a novel; it’s tautness, its poetic language, its sense of immediacy, and the pace of action. Over the years, since Rangel-Ribeiro’s stories first appeared in print in the 1940s, writers have experimented widely with this form; deconstructed its traditional architecture to produce non-linear narratives, ever more vivid imagery, dystopias, flash, micro, fantasy, epistolary, etc. It is being broken down persistently by younger writers who are pushing its limitless boundaries, making older writing seem staid. But the stylistic flair of writers like Rangel-Ribeiro, with his classic linear narrative arc of exposition, mounting tension and resolution, will endure for all time.
The banner picture is a partial view of Victor Rangel-Ribeiro's ancestral house in Goa. Much of his work is informed by twentieth century Goan villages.
Victor Rangel-Ribeiro is an internationally acclaimed writer and author of Tivolem (Milkweed; 1998), which earned him the Milkweed National Fiction Prize. The Miscreant: Selected Stories, 1949-2016 (Serving House; 2017) can be purchased here.