The  next post will be on or before Friday 12th April


Writing of her extraordinary 7th novel The Migrant Painter of Birds (1998, translated 2001), Nobel Prize winner Jose Saramago says of Lidia Jorge (born 1946):

‘A remarkable book…written by one of the most important voices in new Portuguese literature.’

Given that Saramago (1922-2010) is in my view one of the most talented writers in the whole of world literature, past or present, this is a testimonial more authoritative and enduring than most. Jorge has published to date 4 story collections and 11 novels, but sadly only 2 of her books including this one are available in English, translated by the doyenne of Portuguese specialists Margaret Jull Costa. Saramago’s chosen term ‘remarkable’ is especially apt, because both theme and prose style here are unnervingly original as Jorge starts to play with the perplexing  notion of a worrying dual identity experienced by a young child all the way through to her thirties. The setting is an obscure village called Sao Sebastiao in the Portuguese Algarve, beginning in the early 1950s and taking us as far as 1983 when the ‘girl’ is in her mid thirties and has just discovered the truth about her paternity and confronted her father. Prior to this, in a massive farmhouse called Valmares, Francisco Dias lords it over his large family, his sons and their wives (including the girl’s mother) who bow to the irritable patriarch on all matters and grind away as his impoverished labourers and domestic skivvies. In the 1950s the Algarve under a Fascist government was remarkably primitive with flickering oil lamps and horse drawn buggies, and Jorge’s narrator reflects that the sternness and harshness of people like Francisco is consonant with the petrifying hardness and austerity of the reactionary government. This spartan and frugal mentality of the struggling peasant, is echoed with extreme precision when the author describes something as seemingly innocuous as the patriarch’s footsteps.

‘…there were the heavy footsteps of Francisco Dias, which, thanks to the two gleaming lines of tacks on the soles of his boots, had a metallic ring to them that followed him everywhere as if he were wearing a crown on his feet.’

It is the unexpected crown on his feet image which takes this finely wrought prose into the realm of the exceptional, or shall we say a quiet genius. For of course Francisco is no monarch but a bitter and disappointed man who neither loves nor is loved by his biddable children. His inordinately large farmhouse is explained by his buying up the most wretched land imaginable at rock bottom prices then getting his team of filial slaves to use pick and hoe to turn it into something fertile. And besides, there is a major fly in the ointment in the form of one son Walter, a rebel who refuses to stay at Valmares, but after his army years goes wandering the globe, only giving a clue to his whereabouts by posting home beautiful drawings of birds he makes in the various exotic countries: parrots from Brazil, ducks from Panama, storks from Casablanca and humming birds from Caracas. These drawings predictably charm the little girl back in Valmares who believes Walter is her uncle, for indeed whenever he sees her he calls her his niece. But Walter is instead her father, an inveterate and shameless womaniser who impregnates a young farmer’s daughter Maria Ema and then immediately vanishes abroad. Worse still he has a strange totemic custom, in that whenever he makes love to a woman and wherever in the world, he spreads his old army blanket down for her to lie on, a sacrilege in military terms for a soldier’s blanket is symbolically tantamount to his national flag, and is to be treated with reverence, not as an adjunct to random fornication. Meanwhile Maria Ema’s life, once she was abandoned, is pure purgatory, as her shamed parents go about doing everything to humiliate and punish her publicly. Ironically it is Francisco saves the day when he realises he can retrieve the Dias grandchild by marrying another son off to Maria Ema. The other son is Custodio who happens to be lame and is the most obedient of his family. As Maria Ema very obviously continues to hanker after vagabond Walter, everyone refers to Custodio as The Cuckold, which it has only just struck me as I write this, is another avine image, as it is derived from the word cuckoo.

‘On that far-off winter night, the rain was falling over the sandy plain, and the noise of the rain on the roof tiles protected us from the world and from the others in the house like a drawn curtain that no human force could wrench open. Had it been otherwise, Walter would not have come up the stairs or entered the room’

Over and again throughout the novel, we have this haunting image of Walter in the 1950s in his bare feet, carrying his shoes, and  going up to the girl’s bedroom to inspect her by an upraised oil lamp. He is coming to look at his daughter, though he invariably assures her she is his niece. She is of course besotted with this wandering uncle who does beautiful drawings and at times she imagines she is summoning him there from distant parts in some magical manner, as if he were part of a film, for she can seemingly force him to visit as she wishes.

‘She would have liked to tell him that she was fifteen, but that she could watch Walter’s film whenever she wanted…and that the film was an intangible inheritance, invisible to the others, but real to her, a film in which no one came or left unless she chose’

These dreamlike fantasies parallel her dreamlike ignorance of not knowing who she is, nor the identity of her roving hero. There is indeed so much of this vertiginous uncertainty that at times we wonder whether Walter ever actually came to her bedside, or if it was all her imagination. But at least one of the visits was real, for Walter later admits to one of his brothers now living and prospering in Canada, that he did on a secret visit enter her bedroom holding aloft his shoes to take a look at her. Far from being touched by this confession, the brother is horrified and in a round robin to his father and all of his siblings (all but Custodio and Maria Ema having fled the nest) he suggests that Walter only went back to Valmares to have his way with still infatuated Maria Ema, and even possibly to have incestuous relations with his daughter. Prior to this crucial revelation and almost as shocking, the girl when very young (in 1951) manages to get hold of Walter’s army revolver, complete with its tantalising golden bullets. She hides it carefully under the pillow or sometimes between the mattress, though taking it out often to play with it, and even once when Walter is stood there in her room.

‘And she cocked and uncocked the gun again and again, so that he would understand that she was afraid of nothing and of no one, for this was the night she managed both to be born and to say farewell, like the mayfly described in her zoology book in the chapter on insects of the genus Ephemera. Then he himself lowered her arm.

‘“Good God, what have we done to you?” he said.’

Note that that word ephemera is hardly insignificant in this context, given how on the unsettled margins of a fantasy existence Walter’s daughter invariably has found herself.

Later the whole of the Dias clan is thoroughly shaken, when Walter announces a surprise visit after years of absence. Maria Ema for one is overwhelmed with excitement, and cannot hide it to the extent that she starts putting make up on, which normally she only does for going to church.

‘But Maria Ema’s make up consisted of just a touch of lipstick. That was all. The transformation lay in her mouth. Her white flesh grew paler next to the bright rose of her mouth. Maria’s mouth became a real rose, a brilliant pearly rose, that put a sparkle in her eyes, smoothed her hair, made her waist more slender, her foot slimmer, her ankle finer, her hands softer…’

However the prodigal son brings very little comfort. After bluffly informing the Diases that the days of subsistence farming are over and tourism is the future, Walter abruptly departs and Maria Ema is to upset she retreats to bed, stops eating, and shows every sign of going into terminal decline. Ironically she is only saved from dying of love, by the sight of her daughter suddenly behaving like her errant father. The teenage girl decides to walk in the direction of the house of the local doctor, a curious dissipated man of about 30 called Dalila, who is a whisky addict and who invites her inside to embrace her, but insists she is in no danger as he is ‘as harmless as a woman’. The girl sees him as a glorified and comical eunuch with glass in hand ‘looking at her, wanting her, undressing her’. The same eunuch is however wise enough to shout at the girl when she mentions Walter’s revolver that she still keeps under her pillow, and he commands her to go and get it, and then flings it triumphantly into the sea. He also takes a titanic laughing fit when she tells him that Walter uses his army blanket for lovemaking. Meanwhile her daughter’s brazenness shocks Maria Ema into action, and she shakes off her lethal torpor and tells her that she will spy on her from now on and clip her wings. However Dalila’s drinking is so bad that before long he is carted off in an ambulance, after which the girl now in her late teens acquires a Citroen Dyane and starts to roam at large to meet as many men as she likes, and Maria can do nothing but vainly threaten.

By now Francisco is very depressed and pitifully uncomprehending, as all his sons bar Custodio have deserted him and gone to America, Canada and South America. They all initially have terrible back-breaking jobs in things like logging or underground mining, where one of them claims he never sees daylight, but as the years roll by, they all become fairytale prosperous. One gets rich in Real Estate, another has a fleet of taxi cars, they all write insultingly brief letters to their father once in a blue moon, and promise they will heed his command and return to divide the estate, but of course they never do. One of them vengefully discloses that Walter borrowed a lot of money from him and promised to pay it back and never did, and it is this breaking of his promise and the parallel disclosure in the same letter that he is her father, not her uncle, that causes the girl’s terminal disenchantment with her lifelong hero. In her thirties now in 1983 she learns that Walter is running a bar called Los Pajaros, The Birds, in a town in Fascist Argentina, where currently certain people are sanctioned to kidnap and drug leftists and fling them out of helicopters into the ocean near unpeopled Tierra del Fuego. Her poetic vengeance is to sit down in Valmares and to pen 3 short stories, all about Walter who is not named but in one of them is called The Fornicator. She promptly gets herself to Los Pajaros, and after some delay finds Walter and gives him the 3 stories to examine on the spot. Obediently he starts reading, and at first she is stupefied as he shows no visible response, and concludes he doesn’t even realise they are all about him! When at last the penny drops, Walter flies into a hate-filled rage and kicks her out of his bar.

‘His hatred was an old one, similar to the hatred seen by his daughter in certain men in Valmares. It was a barbarous hatred, that sent tables and chairs flying, that flung out at her the names of different members of the family, each one accompanied by an insult…’

She returns when  her father has calmed down a little, and with an urgent question. She wants to know why over all those years he drew all those birds with so much detail and love,  as if somehow the answer to that will spell out some renewal of her love for him. But the sad fact is, and it applies to many a disappointed child (and adult for that matter) past and present and anywhere in the world, that our fancies are our personal fancies only, and not the reality of the one we believe uniquely understands  and thereby truly cherishes us.

Her father  says, ‘Look, I did it, because I enjoyed it that’s all.’

A short while after Walter dies penniless, and a long while after that (typically he had addressed it inadequately) the girl receives a parcel covered in foreign stamps and many readdressings by conscientious postmasters from all over the world. Inside is Walter’s army blanket, the one on which the girl was conceived and where all her father’s lovers had spread themselves thereafter. And even to the end her so called father is in a cruel if contented state of thoroughly amnesic denial

To my niece, as sole inheritance, I leave this soldier’s blanket

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