Serious Purpose, Useful Lessons, and Enjoyable Reading – People’s World


Alvaro Cunhal in military service during his youth and as leader of the Communist Party later in life. | by PCP

The portrait on the cover of Eric A. Gordon’s recently published translation of Manuel Tiago’s collection of short stories The slackers and other stories is that of a young soldier of devastating beauty who turns out to be none other than the author himself as a young “lazy”. The life of Álvaro Cunhal, a civil servant and long-time Communist Party leader who wrote novels as Manuel Tiago, is a story of patience, trust and an unwavering belief that the workers of Portugal could liberate their homeland from yoke of the fascist dictatorship, something they managed to achieve in 1974.

Readers will find that Gordon’s faith and insight in translating Cunhal/Tiago’s considerable texts obra in an eight-volume set of tales of war, peace, political struggle, and prison in simple, digestible English is a boon for armchair travelers and big reads. These skillful translations, the first ever in English, shine a light on Western Europe’s least-known country at a time when many Americans are discovering it as one of the last peaceful places on earth.

Tiago wrote about the adventures and weaknesses, bravery and compassion of several generations of his compatriots with heart, understanding and optimism at a time when Portugal was struggling to loosen the knot of autocracy, breathe freely and celebrate its independence harshly. won.

The slackers, consisting of five separate short stories (one of which, in 40 short episodes, almost the length of a short story), presents small slices of historical fiction about the land the Romans called “Lusitania”. The cover story, arguably the best of them all, is a fictionalized autobiographical account of a time in late 1939 and early 1940 when the author was forced to serve in some sort of military unit. “Correctionary” with a purse of other characters who had also failed their mandatory military service – hence the term “slackers,” often used in a military context.

In a fascist society that emphasized conformity and state duty, these young men do not necessarily appear as heroic figures of militant opposition to an oppressive regime, but as mere schnooks, each with his own story, who simply wanted to live their lives lives without having to submit to military discipline. Some of them are sort of natural anarchists, others are just too psychologically disturbed to withstand the rigors of military training. Reinaldo, the “lazy” who draws the most inspiration from the author, is neither a schnook nor psychologically messed up, but an open communist. His commanding officer assigns him a makeshift library job intended to isolate him from the other men, but Reinaldo quickly understands the strategy and returns with his comrades. It is one of the most comical adventures of all those of Tiago obrawith a number of moments where I burst out laughing imagining the scene.

Most of Tiago’s writings focus on the Fascist period. His more or less consistent approach to “socialist realism” is frankly didactic. He obviously puts into accessible fictional form the lessons of struggle and victory over fascism that he wants his readers to absorb. But two of these five stories (maybe three) deal with the post-1974 period, when the Portuguese Communist Party was first allowed to operate openly under a democratic constitutional system. These sets, one in the capital Lisbon and the other in a fictional agricultural district, depict the lives and loves of Party members in their personal and political dimensions.

In “Hand in Hand”, we meet a young couple who seem made for each other. But a challenge to their relationship comes in the form of a month-long training course in a foreign country (probably the USSR) for Luís, and Célia feels used and abandoned. The constraints of the form of the story do not allow exploring these characters in depth, but the author tries to enter their hearts to find emotional resonances that go far beyond the slogans they chant during the marches. of protest.

In “Parallel Histories” we meet the regulars of what might be called a Communist Party club in a rural area where, contrary to the Party’s normal attention to the industrial proletariat, the aim here is to understand the less educated and more religious farm workers – not the usual Party demographic. It is a “parallel story”. But a second “parallel story” involves older Party ideologues who are stuck in their old ideological frameworks and are unable to adapt their thinking to the new era, where younger and newer comrades seek to create a welcoming home for themselves and the people they know. We grasp here both the limits and the contributions of the author. A reader can’t dive into this story and be constantly struck by Tiago’s literary prowess – it really is a thin porridge in a story like this. On the other hand, Tiago addresses issues and problems that comrades, in Portugal and probably elsewhere, have to deal with in their daily political life, and where else would readers find this topic? That’s pretty rare in fiction, and we have Tiago to thank for helping fill that particular gap. It remains to be seen whether a wider audience than the already politically “awakened” will find this fiction interesting.

The latest story in the collection is “Lives”, a telescoped family saga that spans approximately 70 years. One could say that it is not really about these people, but about the “idiocy of village life”, as Marx said, that is to say the continuity year after year of an indiscriminate rural life in a disproportionately highly privileged society. Despite some sharp personal portrayals of individual people in the story, especially the protagonist Dona Glória, who selfishly rules the rectory for generations, time has more or less stood still. The lives Tiago portrays here are the kind that, within a generation, are forgotten by history. There is a Chekhovian sense to these useless characters who wait, trample, aware of their own insignificance. All the while, in the background, productive life continues to run smoothly, providing a stable and reliable income for the otious lords and ladies of the earth.

Some of the comrades seated in a local office of the Portuguese Communist Party in 1975. | Public domain

It is possible, I believe, to write fiction that falls short of literary heights, while successfully conveying the ethos of a time and place through its characters and situations. Perhaps English readers won’t appreciate this to the same degree, but Tiago captured the spirit and experience of Portuguese people at all levels of society in the time he lived and almost had his own alone created a community of readers who wanted to see themselves and their problems dealt with in fiction. Any final assessment of Tiago as a writer must take this factor into account.

In the meantime, a book like this has its many pleasures and – something you don’t see very often in fiction books – there is a very provocative series of “Questions to Ponder and Discuss” à la end that can help readers reflect on what they have just read and wonder if they understood all of the author’s implications on first reading. It’s a book I’m glad I found.

Pick up The slackers and other storiesas well as other books in the Manuel Tiago series, from International Publishers.


Pierre Lownds

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