8 Lusophone Books
I recently wrote a recommended reading list of Francophone books that are better than travelling. Of course, the subtitle is deliberately flippant: in normal times it isn’t necessary to choose between the two. Indeed, they complement one another and together enrich our understanding of the world. But during these uncertain times when international travel is not possible, books remain the best way to experience a new culture.
In this new list we are travelling again, but this time it’s to Portuguese-speaking countries. 10 has become 8 after reading Timothy Key’s article made me feel self-conscious about choosing such a boring number!
After starting our voyage in the Iberian peninsula with some classic Portuguese texts, we will journey across Africa’s fascinating literary landscapes, before ending up in the South American giant of Brazil.
Portuguese is the official language of seven countries: Portugal, Cape Verde, Guinea-Bissau, Mozambique, Angola, São Tomé and Príncipe, and Brazil. It has co-official status in East Timor, Equatorial Guinea and Macau.
Each country has distinct cultural foundations and traditions, even if they share a common language. Since gaining independence from Portugal in the 1970s, African writers who continue to use the language of their coloniser have been wrangling with questions of identity. We will see how some writers have reconciled the Portuguese language with a distinct African identity.
Moreover, classifying the nationality of Lusophone authors can be a complicated business. For example, Dulce Maria Cardoso lived in Portugal for only six months before her family moved to Luanda, capital of Angola. She grew up there with only an abstract notion of “Portugal” as the motherland.
After Angola became independent in 1975, Cardoso’s family was forced to “return home” to a country she hardly knew. She is usually referred to as a Portuguese writer, but like millions of people who had similar experiences, she falls into a liminal space between two identities.
8 Lusophone Books (that are better than travelling)
- Fernando Pessoa, O livro do desassossego (The Book of Disquiet): It’s no exaggeration to say that Fernando Pessoa is one of the great writers of the twentieth century. Through his famous heteronyms — the four separate identities under which he wrote. These were not merely pen names; he “became” each author by changing his style and perspective — Pessoa demonstrates the torturous multiplicity of identity. O livro do desassossego is signed by Bernardo Soares and is the autobiography of this fictional writer. In this epic work, Pessoa combines prose poetry with diary entries, aphorisms and long, flowing descriptions of Lisbon. A captivating read.
- Eça de Queirós, Os Maias (The Maias): This is the most-acclaimed 19th-century Portuguese novel, an archetypal realist jaunt by the man who introduced the movement into Portugal. The plot centres around three generations of an upper-class Lisbon family, in particular Carlos Maia, the young heir to his family’s fortune. It is a big book and is not action packed in our modern sense of the term so be prepared for long descriptions — it's worth the effort!
- Dulce Maria Cardoso, O retorno (The Return): After the former African colonies gained independence in 1975, more than half a million people “returned” to Portugal. Many had never set foot in the country, as is the case of Dulce Maria Cardoso’s teenage narrator, Rui. Through the roaming voice of her young narrator, Cardoso contrasts the high expectations of the homecoming Portuguese family with the stark realisation that Portugal is not the wealthy metropolis they had dreamt it would be. This is a significant novel about a crucial period of Portuguese history, but it remains at all times highly readable and strikingly honest.
- Noémia de Sousa, Sangue Negro: Marked by the constant presence of its African roots, Noémia de Sousa’s poetry explores the relationship between people, as well as with Mother Earth, in the context of colonialism. The poet was at the forefront of the Moçambicanidade movement — revolutionary literature of the 1940s and 50s that focused on anti-colonialism, political activism and a national cultural awareness — and was one of the earliest female African poets to be read widely in literary circles. Noémia de Sousa’s poetry is authentic, engaged and, most of all, brilliant.
- Lídia Jorge, A Costa dos Murmúrios (The Murmuring Coast): Another novel that deals with the last throes of empire, Lídia Jorge draws on her own personal experience in Mozambique to produce this haunting work. Our narrator, Evita, flies to a new continent in order to marry Luís, a mathematician who is now a soldier posted in Mozambique. When she arrives, Evita suffers loneliness and complete disillusionment, as she watches her new husband transform from logical thinker into killing machine. A moving and saddening story that will stay with you for a long time.
- Germano Almeida, O testamento do Sr. Napumoceno da Silva Araújo (The Last Will and Testament of Senhor da Silva Araújo): This is a sporadic, unpredictable and enjoyable journey through Cape Verde. When respected businessman Mr Napumoceno passes away, he leaves behind a will of more than three hundred pages. In this way, the deceased man continues to control the narrative from beyond the grave. Along a meandering journey through the past, the novel’s many stories become deeply entwined: a plethora of voices compete to be heard, whilst contradictory accounts of episodes of the businessman’s life pose questions about authority and veracity. Stripping back the polyphonic cacophony, at the heart of this novel there is absence.
- Clarice Lispector, A Hora da Estrela (The Hour of the Star): Born in Western Ukraine, Clarice Lispector moved to Brazil when she was two years old. She is now one of her country’s most known and respected writers. Her last novel packs a lot into its 90 pages: narrated by Rodrigo S.M., we learn about Macabéa’s difficult life in the slums of Rio de Janeiro. The protagonist’s poor living conditions are at odds with her personal sense of freedom and, true to Lispector’s style, the novel leaves us with far more questions than answers.
- Machado de Assis, Memórias póstumas de Brás Cubas (The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas): Machado de Assis’ masterpiece is considered one of the finest works of Brazilian literature. The fictional memoir is “posthumous” not in the sense that it was published after the author’s death, rather because it was written from beyond the grave. The eponymous (and deceased) narrator casts a cynical eye over his life in short and sporadic prose. Unconventional, unique and unforgettable.