By Augusto Pinto


A Book Review of:

Abbe Faria: The Life of a Pioneer Indian Hypnotist and His
Impact on Hypnotism
Luis S. R. Vas,
Broadway Book Centre,
Panjim, 2007.
Rs. 295


Abbe Faria: The Master  Hypnotist Who Charmed Napoleon
Diogo Mesana Fernandes,
Ritana Books, New Delhi, 2006.
Rs. 495,

Jose Custodio Faria, more well known as Abbe Faria, easily the most memorable Goan of all time, is nowadays increasingly recognized as the first person to understand hypnotism scientifically.

His reputation, of course has been considerably enhanced by his dramatic statue, brilliantly crafted by Pandurang Kamat, which stands outside the Adilshah Palace in Panjim.

There, with long locks flowing elegantly behind him, the Abbe poses, with an enigmatic smile on his face. His eyes stare piercingly and his arms are outstretched downwards, as a big bosomed woman, whose hair is done up in an elaborate bun, is seen sinking to the floor with a doltish expression on her face, sent into a trance by him.

The Abbe had many anniversary offerings --  a commemorative stamp issued by the Government of Portugal; a documentary film made by Isabel Vas and Cecil Pinto; and a play written and directed by Isabel Vas for the Mustard Seed Company named "Cator Re Bhaji". That, of course, as readers would know, is the phrase that every schoolboy associates with Abbe Faria, uttered by his father when he became tongue-tied just before preaching a sermon to the Queen of Portugal.

The suggestion so galvanized him, he spoke brilliantly.

A book by Diogo Mesana Fernandes, a journalist now based in Macau, but born and brought up in Goa, was also released that year. Also this year, as a belated birthday treat, comes the biography by Luis S. R. Vas. These books should help in increasing interest in the Abbe's life and his work.

Though the life of Faria -- who was born in 1756 and who lived in turbulent times in Goa, India and           Europe -- is known well in the outline, the details  are often sketchy. While this is a headache for biographers and historians, it could be a gold-mine for novelists.

Even offhand I could suggest plot lines for at least three novels. One would have the father, Caetano Vitorino de Faria (who some regard as greater than the Abbe) as the protagonist. This would be set in around 1787 during the Conspiracy of the Pintos, where the elder Faria ensconced in Portugal, masterminded a plot by Goan clergymen to overthrow the Portuguese regime because they were angry at the discrimination they suffered at their hands.

Unfortunately the plot was foiled, the conspirators betrayed by --  who else -- some fellow Goans. Had this been successful it would have been only the second such successful modern anti-colonial uprising after the American "Boston tea party".

In the end, the military men who were involved in the conspiracy met with exceptionally brutal ends, and the effect of that was such as to put an almost unreasoning fear in the people that Bardez; so much so that since that time Bardez has been the most docile of the districts of Goa to rule.

A second, a Romantic novel, could be based on the life of Rosa Maria, the Abbe's mother, who after separating from Caetano Vitorino, joined the Santa Monica nunnery, where she rose to become the Mother Superior. Perhaps it could be written in the style of the short lyrical classic of John Cleland. Some action sequences could be set in the secret underground tunnel that was rumoured to have connected the nunnery with the St. Augustine monastery.

Yet another novel could feature the romantic Abbe Faria having numerous affairs in Lisbon and Paris where he had to flee after being implicated in the Pinto Conspiracy.  (Actually biographical accounts of Faria's love life are very meager -- but there is one reference to him coming to his stances in Paris with six young girls, whom he would proceed to hypnotize along with other members of the public who had paid to watch him.)

This career as a hypnotist performer came to an abrupt end when an actor jealous of his success, asked to be hypnotized, pretended to be in such a state, and then waking up in the middle of the performance claimed that Abbe Faria was a hoax. (The actor went on to make a successful play based on the incident, with him convincingly acting the part of Abbe Faria; I wonder if the script is still around somewhere.)

As for the Abbe, after this, his career as a performer was finished though Faria had enough spunk to hit back by writing a book entitled "De la Cause de Sommeil Lucide" (On the Cause of Lucid Sleep) on the scientific basis of modern hypnotism.

Many of the incidents I mention in passing above have been narrated in Luis S. R. Vas's book, the more genuine article among the two books in review.  It aims to be an up-to-date biography of Abbe Faria, as well as an assessment of his contribution to hypnotism. It succeeds; though one feels that Vas is too modest in his aims and that he holds back from making any informed speculations -- a pity because he is very well informed on the Abbe.

The book suffers from a few faults: the editing could be better, and the narrative is patchy. For instance, by page 69, Vas seems so overwhelmed by the material -- he's narrating the bloody, horrific goings-on during the French Revolution -- the paragraphs turn into sentences and then into points. Also, although the book is well researched, its value for the researcher is considerably diminished as Vas doesn't bother to cite his sources.

These however are pedantic objections. I think the traveler to Goa who's attracted to the Abbe statue will be happy to learn about him from Vas, as too can Goans themselves. And it would make a good present for a bookish Goan teenager, as it would make more meaningful the dry and drab stuff that they have to learn in their history lessons about Goa, India and Europe.

Now to the imposter. Coming to Diogo Mesana Fernandes's book after reading Vas, one finds too many discrepancies between the two accounts; for instance Fernandes says Faria is a Jesuit, and a Freemason; that the Abbe met, accompanied on his travels, and was the mentor of Napoleon Bonaparte; and that the Abbe had written a book called The Celestial Secrets. When one goes to look for independent sources, well there just aren't any to account for the differences, or they are to be found within Fernandes's book itself.

This he does in a variety of ways: firstly by fictionalizing the biographical Part 1 but mentioning several instances in the Abbe's life that did actually happen; secondly by 'reproducing ' in Part 2 The Contemporary World" seemingly real (but actually fictional) accounts by famous near contemporary figures like Dwight Eisenhour, Jiddu Krishnamurthy, Zhou Enlai, Tristao Braganza da Cunha and so on, who are in some way or the other connected to the Abbe (but they are not so famous that the common reader would be able to tell that it was a spoof); and thirdly in Part 3, by 'reproducing' some pseudo-spiritual claptrap allegedly written by the Abbe.

This isn't exactly a biography.

Then what is it? At first I thought it was a travesty --  no, this is not used as a term of abuse here -- a travesty is "a mockingly undignified or trivializing treatment of a dignified subject, usually as a kind of parody".

Still this was not quite right. For let alone mock or trivialize the Abbe, this book seeks to elevate the stature of the Abbe in the eyes of the reader. Was it perhaps hagiography? A hagiography is literally a life of a saint, an important genre in times past, but the term is nowadays used to describe a work which is uncritical, even reverential.

Even here there are problems.

If one comes to the book after having read about Faria elsewhere, one might quickly recoil from it. But let us say one is a tourist. Or even an otherwise intelligent reader but not one who has any special knowledge about Goa. Or even for that matter the common or garden variety of credulous Goan (and that's what most of us, aren't we), who comes across this book. What would the reaction be?

To get an idea, well, look at these excerpts from a rave review by Nandita Nair in The Hindu of Chennai, I quote: "Diogo Mesana Fernandes's book (published by Ritana) on Abbe Faria is a complete biography of a fascinating man... In India the only tribute to him is a statue in his home state of Goa... It is a tribute to the man credited with discovering a scientific explanation for hypnotism.... But as the author writes, 'All over Europe, Abbe Faria is being acknowledged as the 'Father of Hypnotism' but in the land of his birth, India, he remains virtually unknown...'" Unquote.

I didn't laugh too much at this because I realized that if I was in her place I'd probably have put my foot in it, in much the same way.  A hagiography in modern times is a word of abuse. It suggests the author is too reverential, and is too incompetent to hide the fact. The Nair review I quote above surely suggests that Fernandes is not entirely incompetent.

The whole con works like this: if the book had been offered as a work of fiction (which it largely is), it would have been thrown out in five minutes or so. But because the dust-jacket claims that the book is a biography, our expectations become radically different.

We don't mind that the events seem incredible. Real life is often like that. And we don't mind that the dialogue seems stilted. (What more can we expect of words that were originally spoken in some foreign language, recreated, and then translated into English?)

What's important to the reader in a biography is that the subject's character should be interesting; and that it be credible. Fernandes does this by editing out some unsavory episodes from Faria's life and then sprucing it up by making him take over aspects of other characters -- a Renaissance Jesuit intellectual Fr. Athanasius Kircher in particular.

What can one say about such a book? I don't know about the ethics of the issue, but I quite enjoyed the intellectual pastime that Fernandes provided. Right or wrong, I think that as far as his intentions regarding Faria go, they are entirely honourable and are somewhat akin to those of a historical novelist.

However now that I've spoiled the book for you, is there still any reason left to buy the book? Well, I guess collectors of Goa books will pick it up, and it would be interesting to a literary historian interested in genres like parody. Or maybe if you wanted to impress upon a "non-Goan" that Goa isn't only about sun, fun and bun, this would be a good book to recommend or gift.


Augusto Pinto is a lecturer in Panjim and is based at 40,
Novo Portugal, Moira, Bardez, Goa, India Email or Phone
0832-2470336 Mobile 9881126350

Courtesy:  Goanet

Back to Books