Something secret

The beginnings of a book "genetically destined to rarity" date back to 1980 with a meeting between two passionate men - a resolute editor and a master printer. "Flash", by Herberto Helder, was conceived in the shadows and distributed by the author in total obscurity. It has become one of the most legendary objects of contemporary Portuguese literature.

It was one afternoon back in 1973 that Vitor Silva Tavares, mastermind and soul of the Portuguese publishers Etc, went into number thirteen Calçada de São Francisco in down town Lisbon. "I could hardly believe it; there, before my very eyes was precisely what I was looking for. As I entered into that pokey room it was like going into the Gutenberg workshop", recalls the editor. A small, thin man was standing in the dimly lit printing workshop, surrounded by the ancient hand printing presses - the air heavy with the smell of ink. Wearing square glasses and the "inevitable blue overall" of his craft, he was already an old man and the little hair on his head was greasy and carefully combed. In a narrow "mezzanine" at the back of the workshop another man sat at his desk engulfed in the darkness - a tall, broad man, he was elderly too and he eyed the visitor curiously. The man Vitor Silva Tavares had just met in the workshop was José Apolinário Ramos - a master of his trade; the other, sitting at his desk, was the owner of Ideal typography - Benamor Palma -whose physical prowess prompted the Portuguese poet Luiz Pacheco to call him the great horse.
Today, recollecting "this enlightening encounter", the 70 year old Vitor Silva Tavares runs his hand through his beard and white hair, his thin face lights up with a smile, his eyes shining brightly: "The two old men couldn't believe what I was proposing to them".
For the two craftsmen who were the cream of Lisbon's last generation of the printers class, Vitor Silva Tavares' proposal was the devil's temptation. When he came across them in the workshop, Palma and Apolinário Ramos had been together for over 60 years. The two had both started out in the printing trade as lads in short trousers and in those days their thoughts were filled with no more than playing games in the street. Apolinário Ramos had gone into the trade with Imprensa Lucas in Bairro Alto, a traditional Lisbon neighbourhood. At the same time, Palma was an apprentice for his predecessor who was also a master of the "printing press" as they called it at that time. Shortly afterwards, Palma's father bought Ideal; its history as a distinguished printers went back many years and the Portuguese royal family had even used their services during the reign of king D.Luís in the second half of the 19th century. It was there in Calçada de S.Francisco, that Palma and Apolinário Ramos became masters of manual print-setting and they had nothing but disdain for the mechanical press which came to the fore in the 60s in Portugal. In the glorious 50s and 60s the famous Portuguese poets, Brito Camacho and Raul de Carvalho, were faithful clients and there were never less than "twenty books lined up to be printed", as Apolinário Ramos told an interviewer for "Diário de Lisboa" (DL) in 1981. But the Ideal of the 70s was as old, tired and disillusioned as its two craftsmen, printing nothing but visiting cards, envelopes and headed business paper.
Vitor Silva Tavares wanted to make books, known as "full composition" because the print "filled the whole page". The two masters were sceptical, disinterested, "it's so tiresome, senhor Vitor".
But the editor, for whom a hand made book was sacred, did not give up. "I had to pull out all the stops to convince them. But I finally managed to work up some enthusiasm about going back to printing books from the two old men".
Vitor Silva Tavares found himself spending day after day at that pokey workshop in rua S.Francisco and as he did so he became increasingly enchanted by the art that he was witnessing. They printed many of his authors there, along with poets like Gomes Leal from days of old. The slow and, in his eyes, wonderful process of printing by hand made him tell all his poet and writer friends about Apolinário Ramos' talent when they met up at their daily literary gatherings.
In Silva Tavares' opinion, this is what led Herberto Helder to bring up the subject one afternoon in early 1980 in one of their regular meetings in a Lisbon café. The poet had not only heard of Apolinário Ramos, but he had also been to him personally. His poem "The body, the luxury, the workmanship" had been printed at Ideal in 1978 in Etc's collection "Contraponto". Meanwhile, at the time of the conversation, Herberto Helder had already begun the book which made his name as a leading poet: "Photomatom & Vox" for the publishers Assírio&Alvim, who are still publishing the best Portuguese poetry today.
But personal reasons, Apolinário Ramos' fame, "not to mention the question of money", recalls Silva Tavares, led Herberto to ask the editor: "how much do you think it would cost me to do something special at Apolinário Ramos?" This was the start of "something secret" as Vitor Silva Tavares calls it.
In those first months of 1980, Herberto Helder was already "Herberto", a name always used with a mixture of boundless respect and strange reverence by those who read his work and who were accomplices to his life-style in the world of poetry - a life-style which combined the writing of exceptional poetry with complete silence and total segregation from everything other than family and friends.
The fact that his trajectory is classified as a "State secret" by those who know him, does not stop people telling some rather strange stories about him. Herberto Helder Luís Bernardes de Oliveira was born on 23rd November 1930 in Funchal, Madeira, a small Atlantic island which is part of Portuguese territory. When he finished what used to be known as the seventh year of High School in Lisbon he went on to Coimbra University, first to study Law in 1948, later changing to Romanic Philology in 1949. In Coimbra, he lived in the "republica", a students' residence, called "Palácio da Loucura"(Madness Palace), and got totally caught up in bohemian student life, writing poetry and even publishing some of his work.
He returned to Lisbon in 1951 to start his first of many jobs - this one in Caixa Geral de Depósitos, a state owned bank; but he continued to write and to publish, albeit sporadically.
By 1955 he very much belonged to the group of Lisbon intellectuals who would meet regularly either at café Gelo or Montecarlo; here they would pontificate over Mário Cesariny, Luiz Pacheco, Vitor Silva Tavares, Ernesto Sampaio and the likes, not to mention Carlos de Oliveira who was one of Herberto's great friends.
In 1958 he published his first book "O amor em visita"(Visiting Love), married for the first time and, thanks to the intellectual milieu in which he circulated, got involved in politics. Herberto was one of the Lisbon Cathedral conspirators who organised a revolution to bring down the dictator Salazar in March 1959. The Cathedral Revolt was organised by a diffuse group of Portuguese intellectuals and Catholics. The plan was to occupy the Government Palace and take the dictator, António Oliveira Salazar, prisoner. The plan fell apart when the political police, known as PIDE, arrested its leaders the very night it was to be put into action. Oliveira Salazar continued in power until April 1974 when a military coup d'état led to his downfall.
But hopes ran high among the conspirators on the night of 11th March 1959. Maria Eugénia Varela Gomes, wife of one of the leaders of those fighting against the regime at the time, João Varela Gomes, talks of this in her recently published memoirs "Contra ventos e marés". She recalls that the poet was not at the cathedral but at one of the houses where the conspirators had gathered ready to go onto the streets of Lisbon when the revolt broke out. On the night of the 11th when the coup d'état was supposed to take place, Maria Eugénia was one of the people at that house with Herberto. "...Everyone was so excited. I remember Sacuntala Miranda was singing revolutionary songs until Herberto Helder was heard to say in a wry voice from his corner (...):"Very nice. And tomorrow morning the street sweepers will come and sweep up all our bodies". Everyone just looked at him. You can't imagine how much I laughed" recollects the old freedom fighter.
With the end of the coup d'état and its leaders in prison, Herberto left for Europe. The following year he lived in France, Belgium, Holland and Denmark picking up any work he could get to pay his keep.
Back in Lisbon in 1960, he managed to get a job with the Gulbenkian Foundation's mobile library, travelling around the provinces of Ribatejo and Lower Alentejo. The Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation was set up by an Armenian petrol millionaire who had fallen in love with Portugal; one of its programmes was to "take culture to the masses" using mobile libraries set up in vans that went from village to village lending books.
Herberto had already become legendry as a poet and as a personage when he published "Os Passos em Volta" in 1963.
After 1964, Herberto had a number of jobs related to publishing and journalism and started writing more intensively and publishing with some regularity. He married for the second time in 1969 and his second son, Daniel, was born. He spent 1971 and 72 in Luanda, Angola working as a journalist for the magazine "Notícias". In an interview with the Jornal de Letras in 1994, Ventura Martins - his colleague from the editorial office - recollected that, just like the poet Fernando Pessoa, Herberto wrote at night when he could sit alone at his type writer. It was in Luanda that Herberto met Olga, the woman with whom he still lives today.
His work with "Notícias" continued in 1973 in the Lisbon Office where one of the articles he wrote was on a Benfica-Sporting football match which he entitled "a trip to the field".
One of his most important works, "Photomaton&Vox", was published in 1979 by Assírio&Alvim. He was now able to embark on a new phase in his life thanks to the relationship built with this editor and with the security of a monthly payment he was able to dedicate himself entirely to poetry.
Although producing much more, he continued to write regular letters to friends and to meet up with his literary friends almost daily - a favourite meeting point was a Lisbon café called "Águia de Ouro" on the Escadinhas do Duque. According to some of his less prudent friends, it was at these informal literary gatherings that Herberto showed his true self. Ernesto Sampaio wrote that he is "neurotic, pleasant, but his irony distances him". João César Monteiro tells how as they sat round the coffee table he would sometimes "come out with something that was the inspiration of our afternoons". And Baptista-Bastos, even less discretely, let slip that the poet likes to "do things on the sly" and exchange confidences about "obscure wines and sensual women who play hard to get".
Herberto Helder's poetry, which draws on unique references combined with even more esoteric language, is the subject of constant study by essayists and academics. The poet and essay writer Fernando Pinto do Amaral notes that his poetry has "a creative power which brings order to an unmistakable universe and overflows with verbal energy". Manuel Hermínio Monteiro, his friend and the editor of Assírio who died recently, used a particularly beautiful image in an interview to "JL": "there he goes and it's good to know that he is an alchemist turning our day-to-day into gold".
Strangely enough, it is Herberto himself who best charts his work. Surprisingly, in 2002 he interviewed himself for the magazine "Inimigo Rumor" in which he gives us a crystal clear picture of his place in the world and in poetry. He reveals that "a poem is written because there is the suspicion that while we are writing it something extraordinary is going to happen, something which changes us, that will change everything. Like in childhood when we are standing at the door of a dark and empty room". A few paragraphs later, Herberto reinforces this image "(...) there's just a suspicion that some kind of skill, special flair reluctantly awaits us. Contemplating a face, someone you love, an instantaneous something: or the face of a stranger, shielded. We think: it's a new life, a new and profound strength, it's a mysterious landscape, profound and new that is intimately linked to us: it's going to reveal itself".
And, further on he gives us an unquestionable definition of his domain when he defends that "we either work in the day-to-day where wonders have not yet been banished, or there are other places, a wonderful day-to-day, and so the poem is weighed down with magnificent, awesome powers; put in the right place, at the right moment, following the right rule, a disorder and order is promoted and they place the world at its extreme: the world ends and begins". Essentially, according to the poet, all his work is in pursuit of "the power to dismantle the words of the world and put them together again, that is: reality, although we don't know what it's about, that is: power and reality".
Vitor Silva Tavares is a man driven by such ambitious goals that he took on the assignment to do "something secret" that afternoon in late 1979. Today, nearly twenty five years after the publication of "Flash", Silva Tavares has no doubt about what brought it about.
In his words, Herberto was looking for an "intimate satisfaction", taking "a manuscript to Gutenberg's galaxy", that is, its printing, but with the "added allure" that the text was not for "bookshops or newspapers", but just for a few specially chosen readers, "thus defending himself from being exposed to the spotlight, because the most beautiful things are the ones that are safeguarded". Essentially, the editor added, it was a book that was "genetically destined to rarity", not to mention the fact that the author's edition was also "a luxury subject to the uncertainty of the pocket-book".
With manuscript in hand, Silva Tavares cheerfully returned to the dimly lit workshop in Calçada de S.Francisco because, yet again, he could make good use of José Apolinário Ramos' art.
At Ideal, there was a rigid and out-dated routine. The working day started at 8 with a break for lunch between 12.30 and 1o'clock and ended at 5 p.m..
Apolinário Ramos never gave an inch, quite the opposite. He was as strict in his trade as Herberto was with his writing. There was no room for manoeuvre in the complicated, esoteric and closed art of printing by hand, especially when it came to time. "We never gave time a thought. The time we had was fair, and it ran out, because time is essential to any art because art demands precision and patience", explained Silva Tavares.
A little after 8 o'clock one morning, Silva Tavares arrived at Ideal to start printing "Flash"; he went straight to the moulds to decide on the best letters to print the poem. As always, they were tidied away in their original order in a corner cupboard: they were arranged according to the kind of letter, capital letters at the top - hence the tall box - and small letters underneath in a short box. The first step was to choose the kind of letter, "the one which best fit the text being printed". For "Flash", he chose Elzevir, font size 12.
Apolinário Ramos, who did not like taking shortcuts, started by studying "the thing", that is the text which was before him. In the case of "Flash", he had a 16-page poem, another page for the dedication, and a final page with the publisher's notes. The rule for type setting which he followed was to fix the line of symmetry from the longest verse, thus eliminating "empty spaces" on the first and any of the subsequent pages. Then, he studyied the original to decided on the "measurements of the block of text", the space the text would fill on each of the pages; this was based on the length of the verses and passages from page to page, among other details.
Once this was done, the amazing process of manual composition was set in motion over the following days. Each character, or mould, was an almost invisible piece of metal set on a fine metal plate - finer than an old fashioned shaving blade. There were also pieces of type for the spaces, commas, full stops and other punctuation.
This means that each letter corresponded to a piece of type and they were put together to form the words in the poem, in a line, set out on the plate; this in turn was fixed to the machine and lined up by the so-called composing stick - a metal ruler at right angles.
It is not hard with some quick calculations to see that one line of the poem needed dozens of pieces, so setting out a full page involved hundreds of moulds. Once the metal pieces, the characters, were lined up, the next step was spacing; the so-called reglet made precise measurements of the space between letters and between lines which were called quadrats. It was also necessary to get a harmonious balance between the space of the common line and the Curandel - the place where the capital letter was introduced - and the capital letters at the beginning of a sentence.
"Flash" was particularly hard work because the manuscript was accompanied by a drawing by the Portuguese artist Cruzeiro Seixas using black and blue with red highlights. Apolinário Ramos used the very old technique of reproduction on zinc; there was a plate for each colour fixed on wood where the inks were made by hand so that they were as true as possible to the original, mixing small pinches of lithographic inks. Silva Tavares has no reservations about sharing how he felt at that time: "paper, metal, wood. It was alchemy. I was involved in an anachronous experience, but I was on tenterhooks every second as I watched a typography artist creating".
With all the calculations done, the hundreds of pieces of the front page of the future "Flash" were tied tightly with string, and placed on the plate where the whole composition was tightened by flaps.
All this was then put into the manual press and then, with the aid of brute strength, the compressor roll fixed the ink on the dampened page, producing the part of the poem which fitted on one page created by the sea of metallic characters. After a thorough check for any misprints the page was placed in the printing press, but because the tray was so small the poem was printed "in four", that is two pages on one side and two pages on the other.
The first four pages of the poem - just like all the others to follow - were printed on dairy paper - the most rudimentary paper there is and the kind that was used to wrap fat in the old days. The editor of Etc. used his contacts to get hold of reams of this paper and made a number of books with it. "Once again, not only was it cheap but it gave us the illusion of doing something special because the poem brought dignity to this scorned paper".
The work was so slow that it was only at the end of April that the 18 pages of the first copy of "Flash" were taking shape. When the printing of this first copy was finally complete, the pages were sewn together using a hand sewing machine they had at Ideal. Silva Tavares assures that it was he that tied the "last knot" of that first copy. And so it was that one sunny afternoon in May Victor Silva Tavares held a poem in his hand; its opening verse read: "There's no body like this, diver, crowned with pure volumes of water/ There's no search so deep, at that pressure, as a cold island weighs on the water, the roots of an island".
Between April and June 1980, using this very method so crudely described above, they printed 250 copies of "Flash" at the cost of no more than 100 euros.
Silva Tavares carried the "package" himself to Herberto who was waiting for him in the café Montecarlo -on Avenida Fontes Pereira de Melo in Lisbon where today you will find the dress shop "Zara". "Herberto said nothing, there was no need", assures the man from Etc.
"Flash" was one of the last books made at Ideal, a last farewell from "an aristocrat of the printing press" as Silva Tavares put it. Not many years later Palma died. Apolinário Ramos went on going to Ideal for a while and spending some of the night in the Voz do Operário library which he was in charge of. Four years later he too died leaving no-one to follow in his footsteps.
The manual printing press, the metal characters, the Ideal archives - the new owner of the typography assures us they were all thrown out.
Victor Silva Tavares is still "in the resistance" as he puts it, making books, but he has given up looking for manual workshops. Herberto Helder has become a living legend and goes on writing.
"Flash" did not disappear into obscurity - quite the contrary. The fact that for reasons known only to himself  Herberto gave away only a few of the 250 copies, means that it is one of the most sought after and longed for books by readers and book lovers all over the world. A real treasure that is rare to find.
Meanwhile, perhaps most important of all is that anyone who pages through a copy of "Flash" will find an inscription on the last page that is witness of a noble undertaking, now disappeared forever: "The pamphlet "Flash", author's edition, not on the market, a manual composition, in ELZEVIR font size 12, by the artist-typographer José Apolinário Ramos, and printed at Ideal Typography, Calçada de S.Francisco, number13, Lisbon, in June 1980. "Limited edition" by Cruzeiro Seixas. 250 copies made".