Ave Canis: An Interview with Domício Coutinho

George Salis: You published a novel in 1998 titled Duke, the Dog Priest, which was translated from the Portuguese by Clifford E. Landers and brought out by Green Integer in 2009. Other than this masterwork, have you written any novels since then?

Domício Coutinho: Yes, in Portuguese. The title of which is: Incríveis Revelações de uma Minhoca. It was never translated and a good translation into English would be: “Revelations of a Water Bait [or Earthworm].” Published in Brazil in 2000 [Recife Ed. Bagação].

GS: What you can tell English readers about Incríveis Revelações de uma Minhoca? What are we missing out on?

DC: This novel is an allegorical one with what one may say are certain 18th-century, Voltaire-like aspects. Modesty prevents me from revealing more, except to say that I long for the day that it will be translated into English.

[Editor’s note: Coutinho’s son emailed me the following on August 2nd: “[My pater] told me that due to your splendid essay and interview he is in discussion with Clifford Landers about translating into English his second novel.”]

GS: Was Duke, the Dog Priest your first novel, or did you have earlier projects you worked on that were not published?

DC: It was my first novel.

GS: It seems Duke, the Dog Priest was written quite later in your life, perhaps in your 60s or 70s? Do you think writing a novel like this was easier with the experience and wisdom of that age range or do you wish you had started it sooner? 

DC: Yours is a difficult question to answer. Especially as I do not adhere to Said’s concept of the “late style” in art. Obviously, when one has accumulated x number of years of existence, that tends to be reflected in one’s artistic work. Enough said.

GS: How would you describe your awakening as a writer?

DC: The sudden illumination of/in your mind of a common, everyday event which sticks out in your mind, and it absorbs your entire attention and from which a work of fiction emerges. That seems to be a very common occurrence among writers of fiction, I believe.

GS: You earned a bachelor’s degree in Aristotelian Thomistic theology from the Gregorian University of Rome. What was that educational experience like and did it influence the theological themes in your novel?

DC: Well, the point of Thomistic theology is that it creates the basis for rational thinking, cause and effect, of natural philosophy. Cause and effect of all things. Due to the fact that nature is an open book for everyone to read and learn and to draw their own conclusions. So it adjusts your life accordingly.

GS: Among other things, Duke, the Dog Priest is delightfully irreverent when it comes to religion. What would you say to someone who would accuse you of blasphemy? Is no topic off-limits in the world of art?

DC: This is a blind reaction to someone who comes to express themselves irreverently. My novel is a satire against celibacy. It shows that celibacy is in contradiction to the Divine Maker’s original divine instruction: “to grow and multiply.” Catholic doctrine in this instance is contrary to God’s command in this instance. They are blaspheming, not I.

GS: In 2006, you founded The Brazilian Library of New York, which houses thousands of books. Perhaps this is an impossible question, but I’d like to know what 5 titles you would choose for a miniature version of The Brazilian Library?

DC: That is a very good question! I would say something from Machado de Assis (the most Europeans of Brazilian writers); José de AlencarLuís de Camões Castro Alves; Gonçalves Dias.

[In a brief and undated video interview about his unique library, Coutinho emphasized, “Libraries are the most visible and noble symbols of a people’s culture.”]

GS: What’s a novel you’ve read and think deserves more readers?

DC: José de Alencar’s Iracema. The mythos of ‘Brazilianism’ is reflected in this splendid work. The unification of the sophisticated European male with the ‘creature of nature,’ female, is shown to result in the mixture that is a Brazilian.

GS: João Guimarães Rosa’s Grande Sertão: Veredas (translated into English by James L. Taylor and Harriet de Onís under the title The Devil to Pay in the Backlands) is often hailed as the Brazilian Ulysses. Have you read it? What would you consider the Brazilian counterpoint of James Joyce’s Ulysses if not Rosa’s novel?

DC: Yes, I have read it, greatly enjoyed it, and consider it the Brazilian equivalent of Joyce’s modernist masterpiece. What more does one have to say? For me that is enough to label it superb.

GS: What are your fondest memories of growing up in Brazil?

DC: It is the tradition of the celebration of the Saint John the Baptist’s name day in late June of each year. Dancing and singing all night around a bonfire. A uniquely Brazilian event.

GS: What was your motivation for emigrating to New York in 1959? Was it difficult acclimating to this new environment? Was there any culture shock?

DC: My coming to New York was accidental: I met a beautiful Austrian girl in 1956, just as I was deciding to quit the seminary to become a priest. I became involved with her and we became engaged. But, I had to go back to Brazil and decided to go to law school to acquire knowledge sufficient for a legal career. At the same time, I took a degree in Anglo-German literature. We corresponded via mail. She was very romantic and sent me many pictures and poems. Even a lock of her hair. And to fulfill my promise to visit her, and on the way to Vienna, I stopped off in New York. There was at the time no direct flights from Brazil to Austria. I had to stay overnight in New York. However, that particular night, I went to mass as it was a Sunday and was anxious to take communion from Bishop Fulton Sheen, who I met in Roma. Which required that I confess and for sake of fluency, I confessed in Latin. And the priest hearing the confession was so impressed with my Latin, that he offered me a job as a sacristan on the spot. $45.00 a week. The minimum salary then. And that caused me to stay. No cultural shock. I was in love with New York and having lived for more than three years in Roma and having traveled all over Europe, acclimatizing was relatively easy.

[When Coutinho was honored by the Câmara do Recife in 2004, he said, “Only a Brazilian who is far from the country can appreciate the importance of his own nation. […] I carry Pernambuco with me in my heart, because I am from Paraíba by origin, but from Pernambuco by adoption. […] …every Brazilian, when he takes the first step outside the country, necessarily becomes a kind of ambassador, because he is representing his homeland.” (Translated from the Portuguese.)]

GS: Near the beginning of your novel, it is written that “Inside every dog dwells a silent man, and inside every man dwells a barking dog.” What is your dog barking about?

DC: My dog barks inside my head all the time: about natural philosophy, cause and effect. What is and what is not the beginning of the cause of other things. The nature & lessons of mother nature.

GS: What would you say if you were in the confessional with Duke, the dog priest?

DC: A personal sin that I might have committed recently.

GS: As someone who has championed the arts for many decades, do you have hope for the future of literature and art in general?

DC: Yes, absolutely, because the nature of the arts and literature is to describe the beauty of nature and most of all the beauty of human beings, the masterwork of nature.

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Born in João Pessoa, Brazil in 1931, Domício Coutinho emigrated to the United States in 1959, eventually earning a Master’s and Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from the City University of New York (CUNY) in addition to his bachelor’s degree in Aristotelian Thomistic theology from the Gregorian University of Rome. In 1986, Coutinho, with his wife and two sons, began a business in real estate appropriation and management of properties. In 1999, Coutinho founded The Brazilian Writers Association of New York (UBENY). In 2002, he was admitted as Commander into the Order of Rio Branco, a Brazilian Institution honoring those who have distinguished themselves in cultural and patriotic achievements. In 2004, Coutinho founded the Brazilian Endowment for the Arts (BEA), a non-profit organization dedicated to preserving and promoting the Brazilian Arts, Literature, and Cultural Traditions for the Brazilian/American and Latin American Communities. That same year, he created The Machado de Assis Medal of Merit to honor those who distinguish themselves in Brazilian Cultural Traditions. In 2006, Coutinho founded The Brazilian Library of New York, which houses 7,000 titles, with an auditorium for events, conferences, literary gatherings, films, and dramatic performances. The library has been visited by prominent representatives from government, diplomacy, and academia.

Aside from an untranslated poetry collection titled Salomônica (1975) and an untranslated novel titled Incríveis Revelações de uma Minhoca (2000), Coutinho published a novel in 1998 titled Duke, the Dog Priest, which was translated from the Portuguese by Clifford E. Landers and brought out by Green Integer in 2009.

George Salis is the author of Sea Above, Sun Below. His fiction is featured in The DarkBlack DandyZizzle Literary MagazineHouse of ZoloThree Crows Magazine, and elsewhere. His criticism has appeared in IsacousticAtticus Review, and The Tishman Review, and his science article on the mechanics of natural evil was featured in Skeptic. He is currently working on an encyclopedic novel titled Morphological Echoes. He has taught in Bulgaria, China, and Poland. Find him on FacebookGoodreadsInstagramTwitter, and at www.GeorgeSalis.com.

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