The wonderful Margaret Jull Costa on literature in and from Portugal.
The contemporary literary scene in Portugal
I asked some Portuguese writer friends about this, and their view was that the publishing industry in Portugal is thriving (independent bookshops less so), but that, possibly like everywhere else, there is an obsession with the new and with what will sell, with authors often treated as if they were merchandise, under pressure to keep publishing, not always to good effect. They also said that while Portuguese writers are widely published in Brazil, Brazilian writers tend to be very little known in Portugal. However, the excellent Brazilian publisher, Companhia das Letras, now has an office in Lisbon, so there is hope that this will change. One friend remarked that Portuguese writers only tend to be recognised at home once they have achieved fame abroad, hence the intense desire to be translated, particularly into English.
In the field of poetry, Pessoa (understandably) tends to dominate, and books of poetry, as everywhere, have low sales. Very few Portuguese poets have been translated into English, and recommended as-yet-untranslated poets were: Alexandre O’Neill, Herberto Helder, Ruy Belo and José Tolentino Mendonça. Among fiction writers, one name kept coming up: Agustina Bessa-Luís, who (shamefully, according to many) has never been translated into English. She is 94 now and her age may militate against her, with publishers in Portugal and elsewhere showing little interest in ‘old’ writers. Other recommended writers were: Hélia Correia, Maria Velho da Costa, Lídia Jorge, Teolinda Gersão, Rui Zink, Ana Teresa Pereira and Ana Margarida de Carvalho (the youngest of the writers named). Younger Portuguese writers, it was felt, were more interested in plot than in the language they used to describe that plot. There was considerable interest in historical subjects, and Maria Dulce Cardoso’s O Retorno –describing the fate of White Angolans ‘returning’ to Portugal after the end of the war of independence – was an unexpected best-seller.
Must-read classics from Portugal available in English
At the risk of appearing to be shamelessly promoting my own translations, I would give the following three as essental reading for anyone interested in Portuguese literature: The Maias by Eça de Queiroz (tr. Margaret Jull Costa, Dedalus, 2007); Blindness by José Saramago (tr. Giovanni Pontiero, Harvill, 1997); The Book of Disquiet by Fernando Pessoa (tr. Margaret Jull Costa, Serpent’s Tail, 1991; new complete edition forthcoming in 2017).
Best new books from Portugal available in English
Now and at the Hour of Our Death by Susana Moreira Marques (tr. Julia Sanches, And Other Stories, 2015); The Return by Dulce Maria Cardoso (tr. Angel Gurria-Quintana, Maclehose Press, 2016); The Prodigious Physician by Jorge de Sena (tr. Margaret Jull Costa, Dedalus, 2016).
Publishing houses that publish contemporary fiction
Literary magazines for contemporary fiction
There used to be a magazine called Ficções, but it no longer exists. Otherwise, there is only Granta.
And finally, new books or authors from Portugal that absolutely have to be translated into English
O verão selvagem dos teus olhos by Ana Teresa Pereira: A re-telling of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca from Rebecca’s point of view from beyond the grave. It moves between first- and third-person narrative and between Rebecca’s memories of her relationship with Max and her current jealousy and bemusement at the arrival in the house of a new young woman, the new Mrs De Winter. This is Rebecca’s turn to give her version of events.
Myra by Maria Velho da Costa: Myra is a teenager of Russian origin now living in Portugal. She finds a stray dog and calls him Rambo, and together, girl and dog travel across the country, meeting people along the way. But there is something about this girl, something she’s trying to keep hidden. Myra is a cold, dark tale of identity, belonging and flight.
Passagens by Teolinda Gersão: Almost more play than novel, the book centres around the death of Ana – mother and grandmother – and the various people, mostly family members, present at her funeral. It opens with Ana in her coffin, unable to speak now, but still aware of the conversations going on around her, just as we, the readers, can hear the thoughts going on in everyone’s head. The novel teems with stories and characters and provides a fascinating and very honest depiction of family life, family histories, family tensions and loyalties.
Prazer e glória by Agustina Bessa-Luís: Describes the life of a family in Oporto, told through the various generations who have all inherited characteristics from the previous generations, and who, like all human beings, pursue pleasure (of the physical kind) and glory (in the form of money and fame). The writer and critic, Inês Pedrosa, describes Bessa-Luís as ‘a cocktail of Marguerites (Yourcenar and Duras) in a Proustian glass, with two pinches of English salt, one grain of mischief and two of common sense, like Ruth Rendell’.
Margaret Jull Costa has been a literary translator for over thirty years and has translated works by novelists such as Eça de Queiroz, José Saramago, Javier Marías and Teolinda Gersão, as well as poets such as Sophia de Mello Breyner Andresen and Ana Luísa Amaral.