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Writing Europe

Ursula Keller

A Sort of Huge Portugal

Lídia Jorgel
Traduction de Stephanie d’Orey

Texte intégral

...aquilo que de mais importante a Literatura
portuguesa tem para oferecer é o recado que dá de si
na relação com o Outro, o diferente, enquanto metade
da voz de um inevitável diálogo, a que o futuro
clamorosamente obriga.


1There was a well-known anecdote in the early seventies about a Portuguese student, who, standing in front of the Café Flore in Paris, raised his arms and began to shout, “Europe! I’ve made it to Europe!” The next day he failed to turn up for a university outing, disappeared from his hotel room, and began to live clandestinely in France. Of course, the young student in question didn’t want to stay in France just because he recognized the role that Café Flore played in the mythology of a certain period of European thought nor because it was in Paris that European and world history had been engraved most powerfully in the collective memory. Like thousands of others during this period, the student didn’t intend to return to Lisbon; he was fleeing his country, a nation seriously deprived of the culture of freedom. He was fleeing from dictatorship, from university closures, from a cruel colonial war, from the prohibition on meetings, from travel restrictions, from scarce financial resources, from an archaic infrastructure and from a lack of freedom of expression. The café window next to which Sartre drank his coffee had become a potent symbol, gleaming like a beacon of light. Other Portuguese exiles did not become legends or shout in front of cafés, though they almost certainly harbored the same hope that their country, if only for geographic reasons, would one day belong to a free Europe, that then existed only in our imagination. This situation would not last long, however. Within three years, the Carnation Revolution would erupt. Within fifteen, Portugal would be integrated into the European Community. And from then on, words and expressions like adherence, integration, or the strength of convergence would become the key terms in the new political dictionary.


2But the heart together with memory or intuition about the future, doesn’t beat exactly in time with agreements or the signing of con-tracts. The special nature of Portugal’s past and its relationship to the old empire survived and endured beyond the historic moment of the official changeover, affirmed in 1985 at the Monastery of Geronimos by Mario Soares’ signature. Portugal’s isolation, which had progressively distanced us from Europe (democratic or other­wise), could not be eliminated overnight. The image of frightened people, arriving from Africa every day at Lisbon Airport —an exodus of Biblical proportions unleashed when their countries became independent—was too disturbing to be overcome by simply turning a page.

3No treaty joining us to the European community, however auspicious, could wipe away the memory of the extraordinary scenes of the mountains of boxes lining the river Tagus. It was as if a giant wave, more than five-hundred years old, had swept back, with both weapons and baggage, the Portuguese who had once sailed from there. The bemused delight of receiving subsidies to build bridges and carve out motorways became mixed up with the images of civil wars that had broken out in the meantime in the newly independent countries recently freed from Portuguese colonialism. The daily bloodbaths in Angola, Mozambique, Timor, and later Guinea aroused uncomfortable feelings of disorientation among all those who had predicted the creation of stable nations, eager to move towards progress and peace, in these newly independent states. It is true that Portuguese girls grew ten centimeters taller than their mothers did twenty years earlier and that young people could travel throughout the world without restrictions. But at the same time, they became conscious that Portuguese territory had shrunk to the size it was during the Middle Ages —the period when the concept of nationality first came into being. Throughout the nineties the idea persisted that an important part of the nation’s body had been amputated. The image of empire was like an imaginary limb, still felt long after it had been separated from the body.

4Nationalism, with its obsolete and rigid structures, was reviewed and re-examined, along with the other tattered components of citizenship. During the last quarter of the twentieth century Portugal was composed of this mass of contradictions that did violence to the soul. Ghosts of the past appeared, holding hands with the personalities of the present, and our dramatic arts took on a new, vigorous life.

5It could be said that Portugal lived through a unique emotional history in this regard, without parallel in any other European country. Our losses were so fundamental, the changes so radical —and they all happened simultaneously and out of their time. Within this context the Arts, particularly Literature, whose basic material is that of everyday speech, extended their area of influence, as often happens in such times. Everyone began to speak their mind, and a turbulent, fertile period turned Portuguese literature into a brutal, strange, and unique thing among European literatures.

6Thus, in the middle of the eighties, when Portuguese literature began to be translated and read abroad, there was an almost unconditional admiration for its poets. But when it came to fiction, that area of literature which shares so much with history, it was considered to be a “prisoner” of that immovable triangle — Old Empire, Colonial War, Carnation Revolution. It took some time for this thesis to become outdated; for what is usually called internationalism, global citizenship or stories from all parts of the world, didn’t seem to inspire Portuguese writers. Some talked of a redundant obsession with identity, or the strangeness of Portuguese narrative, which was tied to the African experience and fables from the past. In 1991, for example, at a conference such as this in Strasbourg, Pascale Casanova classified Portugal as an “island of paradox.” In reference to Portuguese literature, she said that intellectuals, and especially novelists, were perpetuating a single polemic —that of national identity. She concluded by explicitly proposing a theory of Portuguese separatism vis-à-vis European intellectual life. To quote her: “The references to history and Portuguese culture no longer belong, in any way, to the common and essential heritage of Europe ...” In this way she was trying to say that Portuguese writers had not managed to conform to current standards of literature, global culture, cinematographic writing that they had ignored the grand narrative theme assumed to be contemporary. This is certainly what is being implied in the Strasbourg Notebooks, The De-sire of Europe, which were dedicated to that conference in which Portuguese writing played a prominent role.

7Eleven years later, this analytical approach had become somewhat outdated. Over the past decade it has become commonly recognized that the theme of Portuguese identity was, in the end, not so exceptional in Europe. It became rapidly understood that questioning the relationship between a “marginal country” (ours) with the world was one of the various European forms of questioning itself. The Portuguese world, almost ridiculous in the way it hesitated between spaces in the globe, now bunched together, now scattered, became a respected example of how to conduct relations between Europe and other continents. A slightly tongue-in-cheek anecdote, often told in Portugal these days says, that Europe, so indecisive that it is paralyzed, seems to have been transformed into a huge Portugal. Leaving irony aside, it might not be too misleading to suggest that the most important thing that Portuguese literature has to offer is what it has to say about its relationship to the Other, those that are different, at least half of an essential dialogue that the future is urgently seeking.

8This is not because Portuguese literature has changed into something else; it is due to the fact that the world has been obliged to change course. First, in the nineties civil wars broke out all over the place, in former English, French, Belgian, Spanish, and Dutch colonies. Europe’s entire legacy to the world was being questioned. Second, because ethnic conflicts that had previously seemed to be confined to Africa and Asia now had parallels in terms of brutality and violence in the heart of Europe itself. Consequently, Europe began to suffer from an identity crisis at the beginning of the nineties, which left her astonished, paralyzed at a crossroads, unable to move forward. It was at this time that the Portuguese factor became acknowledged as a pertinent contemporary issue.


9In order to gain an understanding of one’s own identity it is necessary for someone else to identify us, because no one knows themselves unless they look into another face. The mirror into which we look in the morning is only an intermediary between us and the other. Portuguese writers, inspired by their particular reality, have written obsessively about this relationship with the other. A relationship that has passed through all the shades of interpretation; writing in which colonizers, the colonized, rivals, brothers, lovers, the vengeful and the repentant, friends, and enemies are intermingled.

10From this point of view of total involvement and endless association with the other, I would say that the original text in the decolonizing, post-colonial mental process came paradoxically from the creative force of a creator of empires, both metaphysically and otherwise. I am referring to a great poem full of magnificent, piratical deeds. The tradition of Portuguese, European, and global piracy that made the world go round, intermingled people, violated nations, wiped out the defeated, and raised flags. I quote from the long poem, “Ode Maritima,” written in 1915 by Fernando Pessoa under his pen name of Álvaro de Campos. These passages reflect a sentimental delirium in which the thrill of conquest and the excitement surrounding the pirate’s life is intertwined with an amalgam of humanity, as of a whole: You men who plundered peaceful African villages, / Scattering the natives with the roar of your cannon, / You who murdered, robbed, tortured, and grabbed the reward / Of the New Things promised to those who lowered their heads / To rush out against the mystery of the new seas! / He-he-he! / To all of you together, to all of you as though you were one, / To all of you mixed together and interlocking, / To all of you bloody, violent, hated, feared, revered, / I salute you, I salute you, I salute you! (translated from the Portuguese by Edwin Honig, New Directions, 1971)

11Written in the beginning of the twentieth century, at the time of the World War I, “The Song of the Great Pirate” thus opens a door on the objective inevitability of history, without remorse or sense of sin. The explosion of European culture was inevitable when, moving beyond its borders, it made itself the center of expansion and initiated the process of globalization. As a consequence, subjected to all the effects of today’s violent flux of change, we are contemporary. Recent Portuguese fiction regarding the question of identity, of the post-colonial and post-revolutionary period, alternatively democratic, melancholic, and introspective, began to review the balancing of accounts with the most strident part of this flow, and in this respect has something to say. For Europe, on the other hand, whose main concern is the drawing up of its internal frontiers, in conceiving it’s external frontiers, in determining its new center or various centers, the Portuguese experience doesn’t offer an important contribution. The problem of geographical frontiers doesn’t flow through its veins.

12What does flow there is a concern for the frontiers of the other, the possibility of dialogue with the other, the problem of sharing with a strange neighbor now that increased mobility has shrunk distances and made us simultaneously guests and hosts wherever we may be. How to receive the other in our home, how to go about being received in the other’s home; how to coexist in a mental space in which we can’t even imagine the previous prison orders, the sending in of police patrols or fighter planes. In this imprecise space all wars can be moderated, but none can be won. This is the unavoidable question whose epigraph is “The Song of the Great Pirate.” In the realm of fiction it has been more that twenty years since Portuguese narrative focused tenaciously and obsessively on this theme, as if this balancing of accounts, coming to terms with it in the process, was the inevitable point of it all. That’s where I see myself. That’s where I place the core of my books. And these, my books, I see as savage beings existing between the twists and turns of fortune. Chance put me among people dislodged by history, people who move from one place to another in search of rest. It is also true that I write mainly for another reason, one that exists outside history and without name. Another thing and another cause. The theme of brotherhood, personified, offers me a tangible face behind which I ask life about this mystery; that we are all people, to be alone on the earth and unable to understand each other except through conflict. Perhaps for this reason my current bedside reading is by a European bruised by war, written in segments between 1951 and 1952. It talks of a Europe just emerging from the last great conflict. Its author was Curzio Malaparte. It is called Mamma Marcia, Mae Apodrecida. That is the title. I don’t read it as someone who dips into a menacing Bible; but I open it regularly, to think about the way in which it is possible to descend from peace into ignominy and write about this. Against this.


Further Reading:
The Murmuring Coast. Translated by Natalia Costa.
University of Minnesota Press, 1995.
The Painter of Birds. Translated by Margaret Jull Costa.
Harcourt, 2001.

Table des illustrations

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Born in Boliqueime, Algarve in 1946, Lídia Jorge studied Romance languages and literature in Lisbon and spent several years in Angola and Mozambique during the colonial wars. After her return to Portugal, she taught at a grammar school, worked for the Portuguese Ministry of Education, and taught literature at the University of Lisbon. Her first novel O Dia dos Prodígios (The Day of Miracles) was published in 1980. It was followed in 1982 by O Cais das Merendas, for which she was awarded the Lisbon Prize, and in 1984 by Notícia da Cidade Silvestre (News from the Other Side of the Street), which was celebrated as a masterpiece of contemporary Portuguese literature. For her novel O Vento Assobiando nas Gruas (2002), she was awarded the 2003 Grand Prize for Fiction of the Portuguese Writers’ Association. Lídia Jorge lives in Lisbon.

Stephanie d’Orey (Traducteur)

© Central European University Press, 2003

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