5 of my favorite Portuguese novels translated to English (available online)

5 of my favorite Portuguese novels translated to English (available online)

This post began to shape itself in my mind for a couple of reasons. The first being that Lisbon’s book fair was one month away when I wrote it. The second being, I believe you’ll learn more about a country through its literature than through its History books.

This selection of five of my favorite Portuguese novels translated into English is intentionally short.

Some, I’ve studied hard and long through my years of majoring in Portuguese Studies, and, although I haven’t read them in years, all the notes and underlines and subtexts are clear in my mind. The others I read out of curiosity, as a teenager, and often to stir the waters of social convention and common sense.

All of them are a tiny window through which you can peek to get a better understanding of what lies beneath the Portuguese culture as you know it. 

This is only scratching the surface, and I hope you feel inspired to search for more Portuguese novels translated into English. Feel free to share your findings with me in the comments.

1. "Book of Disquiet", Bernardo Soares (Fernando Pessoa)

“Life is what we make of it. Travel is the traveler. What we see isn’t what we see but what we are.”

Fernando Pessoa might be the most internationally known Portuguese author. Yet, I dismissed most of his work as overrated for a good chunk of my adult life. I was (and am) a big fan of the first Portuguese Modernists, but I was pulled to Mário de Sá-Carneiro and Almada Negreiros instead.

I reconnected with Pessoa when I took a guided tour of his house (a must-see spot for all booklovers visiting Lisbon), a place that had been on my to-see list for years. 

I went back for a second time, immersing myself (again) in his life story, what shaped his creative mind, and browsing through translations of his work into dozens of different languages at the house’s free-access library, with the patient help of the in-house curator.

I felt like I was meeting a friend from whom I had been estranged for 20 years. And all the memories came back. His writing genius, his thirst for knowledge that allowed him to master different topics, his lonely existence (by choice, not by fate), his wish for a cultural revolution in Lisbon (he’d probably love the city as it is now, shaken off from the numbness of dictatorship, 43 years later).

Despite having lived in South Africa, with close contact with the British culture, there is something very Portuguese about Pessoa’s personality. And no matter how many different characters he created (as his co-authors and co-personalities), there’s always a touch of Portuguese melancholy in his writing.

Pessoa was a compulsive writer and creator, to whom perfection was never achieved. The “Book of Disquiet,” for sure one of his most famous books internationally, doesn’t read easily. It’s like entering a convulsive mind without a map or a lantern. We read on, and we’re exhausted, overwhelmed. I haven’t yet read the book from cover to cover for that reason. I can’t. It consumes me. So I take turns. Every now and then, I pick it up and read until I feel I can’t breathe; then I stop and put it back until the next time.

2. "The Gospel According to Jesus Christ", José Saramago

“…the church I mentioned will be established, but its foundation, in order to be truly solid, will be dug in flesh, its walls made from the cement of renunciation, tears, agony, anguish, every conceivable form of death.”

I was 16 when I first read this book, a forbidden book, in open defiance of my Catholic upbringing. I could care less about the literary value of Saramago’s mind-twisting prose.

I used it as my weapon of choice to discredit the religious institutions, their mockery of human faith in an invisible (and punishing) force, and prove that not all stories are told how they happened.

The book was offensive to the conservative Catholic minds but was nothing more than his style of telling stories. What if we heard the same episodes told in the gospels, but from Jesus’ point of view, a human?

In 1992, the Portuguese government ordered the book to be removed from the Aristeion Prize’s shortlist (a former European literary award), considering it to be religiously offensive. This unfortunate event would make Saramago leave Portugal for good, to live on the Spanish island of Lanzarote for the rest of his life.

In 1998, during my freshman year in Portuguese Studies, Saramago won the Nobel Prize for Literature. While half of the Portuguese applauded, the other half questioned his work’s value to earn such distinction.

For sure, a man who can’t write clear sentences shouldn’t be worthy of this award. For most, the way he subverted the rules of grammar (omitting punctuation marks was his trademark) was an outrage, a disrespect for the language of Camões.

The “Gospel According to Jesus Christ” went on to become one of his most famous books.

3. "The Maias", Eça de Queirós

“Finally, what did Portuguese diplomacy consist of? In another form of idleness, passed out, with the constant feeling of its own insignificance. Best to be at Chiado!”

From all the Portuguese novels we had to read in school, this is the one I didn’t mind reading more than once (which I have).

It’s not only because it’s considered the best Portuguese work of Realism in the 19th Century (which it is). This was the first book I read by a Portuguese author, still in school, that hooked my attention from the very first sentence. It might also have been around this time that I knew I wanted to write (if I acted on it immediately or not, that would be the second chapter to this story).

The book is packed with highly-detailed scene-setting descriptions in chunks of three to four paragraphs at a time (maybe more), as a work of 19th-century Realism demands. That alone is enough to take you on a journey in time, even if you aren’t familiar with how aristocratic families decorated their houses back in the day.

But it’s the way that Eça weaves in his constant mocking of the Portuguese self-entitled high society and the political class of his time that makes me love the book. Frighteningly, some of his passages resemble not-so-old current events regarding education and corruption in politics.

For the hopeless romantic, the tumultuous love story between the main characters, Carlos and Maria Eduarda, makes it an addictive page-turner.

4. "Lucio's Confession", Mário de Sá-Carneiro

“I was a mass of doubts now. I believed in nothing, not even in my own obsession. I walked through the ruins of life, even fearing, in my more lucid moments, that I might go mad.”

Together with his close friend Fernando Pessoa, Mário de Sá-Carneiro would kickstart the cultural revolution in Portugal that would forever shape literature.

Whereas Fernando contributed with his unquestionable talent, Mário contributed with the funding needed (via his father) for their projects. They weren’t welcomed by nor were they recognized as real authors by well-established writers at the time.

Sá-Carneiro, in particular, lived a bohemian existence, forever postponing finishing his education or the perspective of settling down with an office job. When his father ceased all allowances, he committed suicide in Paris at age 26, which left Pessoa forever broken.

Some say “Lucio’s Confession” is the author’s veiled confession of his homosexuality. I read it as the author’s agony in finding his true self. Read any of his poems, and his soul comes across as a tortured, dark, pained one. Had he lived today, and he’d probably be labeled as a Millennial hipster.

Yes, Lucio’s life is astonishingly similar to Mário’s. Still, I don’t find it reason enough for the book to be autobiographical.

Sá-Carneiro’s writing might not be the most impressive of all the Modernists, but stepping inside his twisted mind and his neverending pain of not being who he’s supposed to be, makes him seem less foreigner and his self-induced melancholy less Fado-inspired.

5. "Happy People in Tears", João de Melo

“The habit of being sad makes her feel guilty of being happy. Like us, she does not know how to be happy without tears, nor does she laugh without the remorse of joy, and this can be seen in her eyes.”

As an Azores-born author who left the islands to study in Lisbon (and later stay), João de Melo’s life story is similar to many other islanders.

His book, which so vividly describes the anguish of leaving (because you will fade if you stay), rings familiar to many of us, even if our lands of opportunity weren’t always located in the same place.

The setting of the three character’s lives is distressing – poverty, forced child labor, famine. Their story resembles, far too close, the one I’ve heard from the mouths of my parents, grandparents, older relatives. At least, two generations of people felt abandoned to their own fate, as if isolation had dictated their future.

In the 1960s, people who could leave (like Nuno Miguel, Luis Miguel, and Maria Amélia in the book) left, forever stuck between the excitement of adventure and the longing to return.

The book weighs on me, and it’s not one I wish to return to soon. However, the window it opens to the Azores islands’ reality and Portugal during the years of the dictatorship is worth every single line you’ll read.

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