Tonight’s guest blog post is brought to you by historical novelist João Cerqueira.
Show instead of tell – the literary mantra
When I started looking for publishers, literary agents and magazines to publish The Tragedy of Fidel Castro I discovered that the main advice given to authors – by other authors, critics, agents and editors – was: “show instead of tell”. For example, instead of writing “Maria is angry” (tell), write “Maria clenched her teeth and her fists” (show).
All well and good, I agree, when it comes to describing the emotions of the characters. But what about their ideas? How do you reveal what a character is thinking; his / her psychological complexity? For example, that they do not believe in life after death, or in the democratic system, or that they do not trust another character? One way would be through dialogue. But if this dialogue lasts more than ten pages, surely it would be tiring for the reader. And after all, couldn’t you say that this show is a disguised form of tell?
How, then, can you present ideas, invite the reader to reflect, or reveal information about the past of a character without resorting to tell?
I believe that Remembrance of Things Past by Marcel Proust is a good example of how tell can be much more important than show. Throughout much of the oeuvre, Proust tells what happened, how the characters behaved and what he thought about them. There are several dialogues and we are also shown part of the character of figures such as the dubious Albertine, the pedantic Baron de Charlus and the reserved painter Elstir. But, essentially, tell prevails over show, especially when Proust rambles on about art, literature, music and theatre. The remembrance of the past and reflection need tell more than show. The show ends up lost in time.
In the case of the work of José Saramago, I think without resorting to tell it would not be possible to weave the complexity of his texts, in which the story, the characters’ thoughts and the reflections of an omniscient narrator constantly intersect. Reflecting on the human condition and the absurdity of existence, linking ideas together in long paragraphs that undermine the rules of punctuation, requires too much of literature that such a task be merely achieved with the use of show. There are limits to what the show can show – I’m telling you.
Thank you, João.
You can also find out more about João and his writing via the following links…
João Cerqueira, who has a PhD in History of Art from the University of Oporto, has published a number of books in his home country of Portugal.
These include scholarly works on history and art – Art and Literature in the Spanish Civil War (published in Portugal and Brazil), a biography of the Portuguese queen, Maria Pia of Savoy, and three satirical novels: A Culpa é Destes Liberdades (Blame it on to much Freedom, 2007); A Tragédia de Fidel Castro (Saída de Emergência Edições, 2008) and Reflexões do Diabo (Devil’s Observations, 2010).
The second of these, translated here as The Tragedy of Fidel Castro, was voted book of the month and book of the year in 2009 by the literary magazine Os Meus Livros and selected for the BOTYA 2012 Finalists in Translation. Excerpts were published in the magazines, Contemporary Literary Review India, Danse Macabre, The Liberator Magazine, All Right Magazine, Literary Lunes, South Asia Mail, Sunday at6 and Toad Suck Review #2.
Update (July 2013): The Tragedy of Fidel Castro was chosen the third best translation published in America by the magazine ForewordReviews.
João’s website is joaocerqueira.com.
Synopsis of The Tragedy of Fidel Castro
Meanwhile, JFK and his counselor are about to interrogate a captured Fidel Castro’s spy (Varadero). Following a testy Communism versus Capitalism debate, JFK set him free and Varadero returns to Cuba. However, his faith in Fidel Castro is shaken and the spy begins to suspect that he is supporting the wrong side.
In Cuba, Fidel Castro faces protests on the streets and realizes that he is about to be overthrown. Suspecting Varadero betrayed him, Fidel imprisons the spy as he previously did with the revolutionary hero Camilo Ochoa. Desperate, he decides to invade JFK’s country as a way to divert people’s attention from his own problems.
Fidel’s’ army invades part of JFK’s country but cannot conveniently convince the inhabitants of the advantages of Marxism. Whilst peasants refuse a land reform, whores prefer free enterprise. Castro is then forced to ask Varadero for advice. Varadero seizes the opportunity accusing him of having betrayed the revolution and responsible for Cuba’s misery. Disturbed and distressed, Fidel isolates himself in unknown territory and following a fall which leaves him amnesiac. He is found by monks who take him to a solitary convent where mad people are ministered by the Church. Once inside he see’s the fools are enslaved, Castro starts a revolution against the friars. The course of events reignites his memory.
By this time, Christ has arrived on Earth accompanied by Fatima, who is convinced she can create a miracle to avoid the ultimate battle between JFK and Fidel Castro.
Back with his army, Fidel Castro receives a visit from the Devil and makes a pact: he sells his soul in exchange for being remembered as a hero who fought for a better world. In the future, nobody will call him dictator.
Finally the two armies meet in battle, but JFK proposes to fight Fidel Castro in a duel to avoid wholesale carnage.
Fatima, Christ and Varadero watch the duel behind a bush. After a violent struggle, JFK overthrows Castro with a stone. Then he grabs a knife. But when everyone thought that he had killed him – much like David and Goliath….
 Combination of Camilo Cienfuegos and General Arnaldo Ochoa, sentenced to death in 1989.
The Tragedy of Fidel Castro is one of the BOTYA 2012 Finalists in Translations. The others are Don Quixote, by Cervantes; The plain in flames by Juan Rulfo; and The world Eve left us by Boston Teran.
BOYTA 2012 Finalist
Books can kill you!
Excerpts published in magazines
A segunda vinda de Cristo à Terra
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