Friday, August 7, 2009

Book Reviews: Portugal Dictatorship Draws Attention in its 35th Anni versary of Revolution

Ballad of Dogs Beach
José Cardoso Pires
JM Dent & Sons Ltd, Great Britain
1986; Translated by Mary Fitton, from:
Original in Portuguese @ José Cardoso Pires
1987 1st USA Edition, Beaufort Books Publishers, NYC
[Currently Out of Print; Available by Amazon, Used $10.00;
Or Original Book for about $90.00]

Night Train to Lisbon
Pascal Merceir; Translated from German by Barbara Harshan
Gove Press

Various books by Jose Saramago


by Eric Green

Well, Jose Saramago; Jose Cardoso Pires and Pascal Merceir each have a different way.

Here are three writers, the first two Portuguese members of the Portuguese Communist Party and the last a German contemporary novelist writer. Pires died in 1998 and Saramago is still alive and writing. But, they have one thing in common; they care deeply about the Portuguese people.

This is the 35th Anniversary of the revolution that freed Portugal from the dictatorship.

In Night Train to Lisbon, Merceir creates a university professor character that develops a deep interest in a writer by the name of, Amedea Inaciode de Almedia Prado. Through the life of Prado, the readers learn about the dictatorship that gripped Portugal for over 48 years and ended on April 25, 1974 with the "Carnation Revolution." Gregorius is the professor who admits that when the events of 1974 were taking place, he was a university teacher, but with far less interest than other on campus. But, in a chance meeting with a Portuguese woman in Bern, Germany, he becomes infatuated with Portugal and Prado.

He learns that Prado is a boy genius that has very intense relationships both personal and professional. He becomes a physician. Prado's life changes, during the heat of the dictatorship when he is asked to help a dying man, a man who he learns is known as the "butcher of Lisbon" Rui Luis Mendez. Prado's successful use of his medical skills on Mendes earns him the wrath of all resistance fighters, most of whom are his colleagues and friends.

His extreme guilt leads him to quietly join the resistance. How Merceir takes these events and put them together into a novel is quite impressive. The book is worth the awards it is receiving. The "resistence" in this book is a amorphous movement with no real understanding of the revolt talking place in the military and the role of the Portuguese Communist Party.

In the Pires book, we follow the life of a Lisbon detective, Elias Santana, nicknamed "Graveyard" by his precinct buddies. In this detective story novel, Pires, a life long member of the Portuguese Communist Party, used the death of Major Luis Danta Castro to display the relationship between the regular police department and the Salazar secret policy the PIDE.

In the Pires book the reader gets a graphic picture of the sex lives of all security and police forces as well as the brutality of the Salazar regime. There is Mena the key witness to the crimes and the architect, Renato Manuel Fontenove Sarmento. How all of these characters intertwine and relate to each other is magical ride delivered by Pires.

The writing style of Merceir is very direct and easy to follow. Events and interrelationships are very linear. On the other side, Pires's plot follows more of a Gabriel Garcia Marquez style. They both use the same number of characgters, but, as the reader can imagine, the Pires book is, sometimes, hard to follow, which is probably no mistake.

But, being a Communist writer, at least this writer, Pires is far more politically direct than Merceir, but Merceir's development of the Prado character gives readers some real insights into the dictatorship's impact on the middle strata of Lisbon.

In Pires's "Concluding Note" he gives the reason for this award-winning book:

" 1] It was during the autumn of 1961 that I received from L.V., then a political refuge in the Brazilian embassy, a 22-page document written by a young man sentenced some months before to penal servitude for complicity in a murder. It was an account, lucid and direct, of a crime which had profoundly disturbed public opinion; simple, I thought, and objective. One saw into the conscience, heard the voice, of a courageous man.

"Later re-reading of the two dossiers—of the Criminal Police and the PIDE—confirmed my belief in the accuracy and directness of his document; but when I came to know the writer after his release these qualities took on a new dimension. For here was someone sensitive, creative and imaginative; who, in examining this chapter of his life, had imposed upon himself—almost depersonalized himself by—the strictess obsession with truth and accuracy.

"He was, and is, aware of how much his crime is that of society as a whole; that a society founded on terror, and therefore embodying social crime, will seek its justification by castigating the crimes of the individual; and that for each and every individual crime it is itself responsible. But, though he knew this—who better?—he would not speak of it, much less plead on such grounds for sympathy or compassion. If people understand, he said, you cherish their understanding without making calls on it. The terrible thing has been, and is, the knowledge of his crime, because with that he is inescapably alone.

"2] Over twenty years after these events, his personal loneliness regarding them is, I think, the counterpart of the solitude he shared then. Alone, he looks the experience of terror in the fact, accepts it, and is reconciled to fear because, as he said, 'it is the acting-out of solitude.

"3] Fear, the acting-out, the limit of solitude: are the words his or those of my character, the architect Fontenova? Or even of someone else entirely? Or could I have invented them, to make him seen more real?

Some elements in some lives—in all lives, I would say—will raise he individual to general significance; something that will repay study, and transform him into the materials of history or fiction. And we probe this material because its probes us, each of us, to the depths—which is why I conceived this book as a novel. My 'architect Fontenova' is a literary creation. So is the major. Mena and the corporal are literary creations. They are imaginary: that is, they are distilled, imaginatively, from real people.

"Thus fact and fiction, at every step, divide and come together, independent when parallel, conflicting when they meet; and NO RESEMBLENCE BETWEEN TRUTH AND CONJECTURE IS PURELY COINCIDENTAL. [EG emphasis]

September, 1982"

In the Appendix of the Book, Pires gives more details on the book's characters. The book was completed just 8 years following the end of the dictatorship when the raw revolutionary events were sill very much alive. Pires died at the age of 73 in 1998. A school has been named from him in Lisbon: "Escola Secundaira Jose' Cardoso Pires."


I've reviewed many of Saramago's books for PA including his most recent success, "Blindness" which was made into a major motion picture.. They are all well written and understandable. But, if there is an analogy with another world renowned artist, Saramago is similar to the paintings and life of Picasso, with the exception of Guernica. That is, their artistic works were not directly political, yet both live[d] their full lives as members of the Communist Party of their respective countries.

All of Nobel Prize winning Saramago's books are available across the US and the world. Fully translated into many languages. While Pires's books are very hard to find, especially in English. This is probably no accident. This omission should be corrected by international writers organizations.

Adding the Pires book to your collection would be a revolutionary act.